One Writer’s Journey

June 6, 2019

Story Board: Use This Tool to Write Your Next Picture Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:42 am
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Yesterday my critique group ended up discussing story boards. A story board is an illustrators’ tool that allows you to plan out a picture book spread by spread.  Because you see all of the spreads at once, it is a great big picture tool.

How do you use it if you aren’t an illustrator?  Some writers make quick sketches.  I jot down a few words or a sentence on a Post-it note.

I like to use a story board to see if I have enough “story” for an entire picture book.   If I can’t come up with 14 2-page spreads, my idea may not work in picture book format.

If you want to print out  a story board worksheet, you can download one here.  I find this single page a little too tight.  I also hate writing on the page and then erasing things as I shift bits and pieces of the story.

Another way to do it is to use the template directly on your computer.  Since you can only fit about 6 spreads on most screens, this keeps me from seeing the whole thing at once.  Yeah, I know.  I’m picky.

So what I did was make my own story board (see above).  It came into the house as the piece of cardboard in a poster frame.  I enlarged the story board template and marked off the pages I need to keep open.   I write a few words on a Post-it note to represent each spread.  Once I begin placing them on the story board, I can easily rearrange and shift various parts of the story.

Once I have everything worked out on the board, I rough out the story. Because I’ve worked out many of the bugs on the story board, I can usually draft a picture book in an hour or two.  Do not fuss at me!  That’s a rough draft.  The language isn’t picture book language.  The characters still need work and everything else. That’s just a super messy rough draft. But it comes together as quick as it does because I’ve already taken a hard look at the big picture.

Try it out when you write your next picture book and see if it helps.


January 7, 2019

Picture Books: Sending a Message without Preaching

Every now and again I find a book, flip to the publishing information and see the date and think, “Where has this book been for so long? Why did I take so long to find it?”  That was my reaction to Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt.

If you haven’t read this book, my post is pretty much one great big spoiler.  So if you read on, no fussing.  Seriously.

Sofia discovers that Maddi’s mom can’t afford groceries but she has promised not to tell.  How do you write a picture book that deals with hunger without being preachy?  Here are five things that Brandt did that make this picture book work.

  1.  Make it about something else. On one level, this is in fact a book about hunger.  But it is primarily a book about friendship. Sofia can’t stand that her friend is hungry.  Because of this, she works to feed Maddi which leads us to #2.
  2. Have the young character struggle to solve the problem. Sofia tries.  She takes Maddi left over fish from her own family dinner.  Hint – fish does not travel well in a backpack.  Next she tries eggs.  Again, yuck.  But she is trying and that is #3.
  3. Show the struggle.  Again and again Sofia tries to solve the problem.  But she is also faced with a moral struggle.  She has promised not to tell and this again takes us to #4.
  4. Make it real.  Sofia wants to be a good friend.  That means she has to keep her word.  But would a good friend let someone go hungry?  Eventually she decides that the answer is “no, she would not”  and that takes us to #5.
  5. Weave it into a Story. Brandt does more than send the message – we need to do something about hunger.  She weaves the theme surrounding hunger into a story about two very likeable girls.  It is Maddi’s fridge.  It is Sofia and Maddi’s story.

Ultimately, that is what makes it work.



September 10, 2018

Writing Picture Books: How Much Dialogue Is Too Much?

When writing a picture book, limit your dialogue.”

This is a fairly common piece of advice given to picture book writers. The reasoning behind it is that talking heads make for boring illustrations.  Good illustrations contain action and emotion.  There are different characters and settings from spread to spread.

And that’s not bad advice.  But the problem with it is that Dev Petty has written four picture books entirely in dialogue.  You heard me.  Entirely in dialogue.  If you haven’t read her books which were illustrated by Mike Boldt yet, you should pick up:

I Don’t Want to Be a Frog

I Don’t Want to Be Big

There’s Nothing to Do! 

I Don’t Want to Go to Sleep

Part of the reason that these books work is that they have serious kid appeal.  I don’t want to.  You can’t make me.  No!   Every parent has heard these phrases time and time again.  These stories are relatable both for the young listener and the adult reader.  Been there.  Done that.  Ribbet!

But the text also does all of the things that good picture books are supposed to do.  There are plenty of characters in I Don’t Want to Be a Frog. In addition to Frog and his father, there’s a rabbit, a pig, an owl and even a wolf.

There are also a variety of emotions.  Dad is a bit condescending at times – something I’m sure none of us have ever demonstrated when interacting with a child.  Frog is curious, excited, apprehensive and worried.  Wolf?  He’s just plain old grossed-out.  Settings vary as the characters swim, play in the mud and sit through a lecture.

Petty has proven that a picture book can consist of nothing but dialogue but that means that the dialogue has to carry the weight that the rest of the writing usually carries.  After all, there is no narrative to introduce new settings or characters or changes in emotion.

So now I find myself noodling over how to write a dialogue based picture book.  Clearly, I would not want it to be a character and parent.  But I feel it would also be derivative to make it a character and a grandparent.  So I’m thinking two young characters.

This is definitely going to take some thought.


April 6, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Picture Book Writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:18 am
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On Saturday I’ll be attending the KS-MO SCBWI Agent’s Day in Wentzville, Missouri.  In addition to getting feedback on my own manuscript from an agent, I’ll be leading a picture book critique group.  With that in mind, I’ve got picture books on the brain.  Fortunately, this short form lends itself to a wide variety of 5 minute activities.

First things first, you need to familiarize yourself with picture books which means you have to read a lot.  Seriously.  Read at least 50.  No you can’t do that in 5 minutes but here are things you can do:

  • Read one picture book.  Most picture books are super short.  So read one and read it out loud.  Picture books are meant to be shared with pre-readers so they are meant to be read aloud.  Page attention to page turns and pacing.  It’s going to take a while to get 50 in at 5 minutes a day but that’s okay.  Slow education beats no education.
  • Type up the text for a picture book.  This way you can read it without the pictures and see which parts of the story are text only.
  • “Read” one picture book, but only look at the pictures.  You want to see what parts of the story are told by the illustrator.

Now that you’ve got a feel for picture books, its time to see if your manuscript fits the format.

  • Print a copy of your manuscript and mark the spreads.  Do you have at least 14?  A picture book is 32 pages long so you’ll need at least 14 spreads (28 pages).  If you have too few or too little, adjustments need to be made.
  • Each spread needs to be unique.  Take a look at one spread in your story.  Study the actions, characters, setting, emotion and tone.  I always make sure that there are at least two changes from the spread before and the spread after.
  • Pay attention to the details on your spread. Visual details can be left to the illustrator.  Sound, scent, taste and feel are all yours.
  • Is your text tight.  Every word needs to serve a purpose so start cutting.  I try to cut 30%.
  • Read your spread aloud.  Look for fun picture book language.

Fortunately it is fairly easy to work on a picture book in bite sized chunks.  Good luck!


March 21, 2018

Picture Book Writing: Workshop a Mentor Text

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:59 am
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Most of you probably already know that I tend gush about mentor texts.  In picture book writing, they are a great way to study pacing, giving the illustrator space to work and more.

But getting the most out of a mentor text can be tough.  Sitting there, flipping through the pages, I have a tendency to get distracted by the art, that really great page turn, and my favorite funny moments.  There is always something to distract me in a top-notch picture book.

One way to make a mentor text work for you is to “workshop” it.  What do I mean?  There are three steps.

Type out the text.

Once you’ve typed it out in standard manuscript format, here are a few things to study.

  • Just how long is it?  Compare it to your own manuscript.
  • How much of the story is in the text?  What does the author include?
  • What does the author leave out?
  • How did the illustrator expand on the text?

Create a story board.

You probably won’t want to use the actual text to do this.  Instead, describe each spread in just a few words. The story board will help you study pacing.  Take note of the following:

  • How many spreads introduce the main character?
  • On which spread do you learn the story problem?
  • How many attempts are made to solve it?
  • Is there a darkest moment?  On which spread?
  • How many spreads are spent on the anti-climax?

Dummy the picture book.

You can probably do this with a copy of what you typed out but you’ll need the book as published as well.  Once you’ve taped the text into your own dummy be sure to note:

  • How much text is in each spread.
  • How the author makes use of page turns.
  • How each spread differs from the one before and the one following. It might be different characters, action, setting, mood or emotion.
  • The difference between one page spreads and two page spreads.

Workshopping a mentor text will help you see how and why it works.  By comparing it to your own manuscript, you will also see how your work differs and what you still need to improve before sending your work to a potential editor or agent.

Don’t just love the mentor book. Make it work for you!


March 6, 2018

Picture Books: The Ending with a Twist

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:00 am
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Picture books may be short but that doesn’t mean they are easy to write.  In addition to leaving room for the illustrations, the author has to find a satisfying ending.  One way to do this is with a twist.  Some people call it the aha moment.  Just how you pull this off depends on the book.

In Laura Gehl’s Peep and Egg: I’m Not Using the Potty, the twist is one that will really appeal to the preschool reader. Throughout the book, Peep is trying to get Egg to use the potty.  Egg wants no part of it and only sits up there when she is about to pop and because she gets to hold the storytime book while Peep gets a second book.  The twist comes when Peep wants Egg to get down so that she can use the potty.  No thank you!  Egg has books to read.

This is the type of ending that young readers are going to really enjoy.  They are used to adults having all the power but here Egg has the power to make Peep wait and she’s doing exactly what Peep wanted.

Laura Gehl creates another twist in I Got a Chicken for My Birthday.  This one is a surprise because the reader thinks they see the twist coming.  Ana wanted to go to the amusement park but Abuela gave her a chicken. Throughout the book, we see Ana trying to do things for the chicken, but the chicken has a list.  She wants to eat cotton candy. She needs a bull dozer.  So yes, she builds an amusement park.  But the twist is Ana’s last line.  Next year she is asking Abuela for a trip to the moon.

This time young readers will love the twist because Ana has learned to play Abuela’s game.  Let’s see how abuela pulls this one off!

Another story with a twist is Dan Santat’s After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again.  Humpty Dumpty explains that after his fall, he just hasn’t had the courage to get on that wall even though he longs to once again sit among the birds.  One day he’s birdwatching from the ground when he sees a paper airplane fly past.  Soon he’s making a birdlike plane.  But, as luck would have it, the plane lands on top of the wall.  Humpty has to face his fears to recover his plane.  The twist?  Not that he finds the courage but as he stands on top of the wall his shell cracks again, revealing feathers.  Humpty is turning into a bird.

This is the one that I would call an aha moment because it is more than just a surprise.  It involves emotion and heart.

There isn’t one formula for a twist or aha ending.  How you pull it off will depend entirely on your story.  Study successful books to see what they do.  Then experiment with your own stories.  Like Humpty, it will likely take you multiple attempts to soar.


January 30, 2018

Draft by Draft: Working Towards a Solid Picture Book Manuscript

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:12 am
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A line of gold marks a repair. It isn’t invisible but it makes an intriguing change much like a rewrite does in your manuscript.

When I draft a picture book, I generally go through four drafts before I have a solid manuscript.  And by solid I mean ready to show people not ready to publish.

In draft 1, I get the story down.  This is just to lay out my concept and get the pacing down and achieve the right number of spreads.  Sometimes I show it to my critique group at this stage.  No, technically it isn’t ready to show people but if I’m experimenting with something they can tell me if my concept is flawed or I need to move things around.

In draft 2, I fix anything that my critique group found if the read draft 1. I make sure that I have everything I need on this spread.  Is there something for the illustrator to illustrate?  If it is nonfiction, are all of my facts in place.  My word count tends to expand a lot from draft 1 to draft 2.  But by the end of draft 2 things look pretty good.

Draft 3 is when I pull the word count back down.  I shift phrases and look for ways to make use stronger verbs and more concrete nouns.  My word generally drops between draft 2 and draft 3.  For some spreads this is my final draft but sometimes it takes one more to get it right.

Draft 4 is when I go through and make sure each and every spread sounds like a picture book.  Not everything is going to be playful and fun but a serious book should be poetic and/or lyrical.  Sometimes my word count goes up a bit in completing this final draft.

A solid manuscript isn’t achieved in a single draft.  Sometimes it helps to think of your rewrites as repairs – these tweaks and adjustments are often what glimmers in the end.


November 29, 2017

Picture Book Mash-Ups: Putting Two Things Together to Create Something New

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:44 am
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Yesterday, I was on the treadmill scanning the publishing blogs.  That’s when I spotted Little Red RuthieA Hanukkah Tale by Gloria Koster.

Koster is an elementary school librarian.  In the course of her job, she’s seen how popular folk tales are.  She’s also seen the demands for fall and winter holiday books.  So she combined the two.

Not surprisingly, this got me thinking about a variety of possibilities.

What would happen if Little Red Riding Hood set out to visit Grandma on the Day of the Dead?  Or Goldilocks dropped in on the Three Bears on Christmas Eve?  What if the Three Billy Goats Gruff were caroling when they traipsed over the trolls bridge?

Obviously, not every mash-up is going to work.  Having Little Red Riding Hood determined to make the trip on Grandparent’s Day might create some fun possibilities but how big would the market be?  I’d want to look at numbers before taking on this story idea.  Christmas would probably have more appeal.

It might also help to look for natural connections.  Thanksgiving is pretty food based so what about a Three Bears Thanksgiving Dinner.  Blessedly the porridge would have to go.  Maybe to be replaced by everyone’s various takes on stuffing/dressing or cranberries.

You would also have to take the time to see what is out there.  I’d be absolutely shocked if no one has done the Gingerbread Man as a Christmas cookie.  But I should check before I make assumptions.  Speaking of assumptions, before trying a new twist on for size, it would be a good idea to see how many Christmas Three Bear books are out there or how many Three Bear Books in general.

Wait . . . what about Thanksgiving Three Little Pigs.  Thanksgiving as we celebrate it has nothing to do with building, but we do tend to make pigs of ourselves . . .

Pardon me.  I need to go look into a few things before starting a new draft.



November 24, 2017

Leaving Room for the Illustrations: Picture Book Writing

One of the hardest aspects of picture book writing to grasp is leaving room for the illustrations.

In part, this means that you can leave visual details up to the illustrator. What color is Becca’s dress?  Not your problem.  What type of shoes does she wear?  Not your problem.  Back pack?  Not your (can you fill in the blank?).  Unless these details impact the story, they are up to the illustrator.

But it also means that you don’t need to turn every action or goal into a step by step process.  Instead of writing that your character climbed a tree, waded across a stream (instead of taking the bridge) and swung from wild grape vines all on the way to Grandma’s, you could say that she took a more-or-less direct route. Instead of detailing every step of her morning routine, say that getting ready for school went smoother than usual.  Leave it up to the illustrator to show her searching for her shoe under her bed and in the dog house only to discover that her little brother is using it for a doll’s bed.

When you leave room for the illustrator, you leave room for the picture book reader as well.


Don’t tell us that Krista got a red balloon for her birthday.  Tell us about how the sun glinted off the shiny surface.  Tell us how the string felt in her hand.  Tell us about the bump-bump-bump sound it made as she carried it down the hall to her room.

Tell us that the balloon was the best part of Krista’s birthday.  But don’t say that.  Tell us it was shaped like love.  Tell us she took it to school with her the next day.  Tell us she cried when the wind carried it away.

You’ve left room for the illustrator and the reader to picture the balloon with their eyes and in their hearts.



November 21, 2017

Mentor Texts: Guiding Yourself through Writing a Picture Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:11 am
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If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know I’m a fan of using mentor texts.  A mentor text is a book that you use as a guide in one particular aspect of your own writing.

You might use I am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness by Susan Verde as a mentor for writing about an abstract concept for young readers.


Patriotic but potentially controversial?  Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers.


Considering a quiet book?  I’d look at Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon. Your book may be very different but this is the quiet book that, in my experience, all others are compared to.

But sometimes you chose a mentor text and it just doen’t work.  That was the case when I looked at Home by Caron Ellis as an example of how to bring one of my picture book ending home.  Ellis makes her book on varied houses work by ending it at her own home.  Get it?  She brings it home.  I know.  It sounds corny but it really works.

I’d tried something similar with my prayer book.  But no one who read the new ending liked it.  It felt disjointed.  Compared to the rest of the book, it felt narrow.  And the really funny part?  After reading my manuscript, someone recommended that I read Home.  Been there.  Done that.  Have the draft to prove it.

Mentor texts are a great way of learning what can work in a story but sometimes they are just as valuable for teaching you  that what works for one manuscript may not work for another.  My advice, keep reading.  You never know when you will read the book that will bring everything together in your mind and on the page.


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