One Writer’s Journey

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.


November 9, 2017

Storyboard: One Way to Outline Your Picture Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:26 am
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When you write a picture book, you need to make certain you have enough story.  The problem is that there has to be enough to stretch over 32 pages.  And this has to be 32 pages with zing.  They can’t be scant.  They can’t be meaningless.  They have to matter.

I’ve been noodling over a new idea for just over a month now.  I know it is a story that matters.  How do I know?  People are arguing about it.  Everyone is certain that their answer is Right with a capital R.  But I have to make sure this story that matters can fit inside and fill the inside of a picture book.

One of the best ways to tell is to storyboard it.  For those of you who have never worked up a storyboard, it is a worksheet, or board, that allows you to mock-up a picture book so that you can see the entire thing on one page.  I don’t like working on something as small as a sheet of printer paper.  My storyboard is a piece of cardboard that was used to cover a mirror in shipment.

Why bother with a storyboard?  The great thing about using a story board is that I can see right away if I have enough scenes.  Will my idea fill a whole picture book?

So I start by writing a sentence or a phrase for each scene.  I do this on post it notes.  Once I have my post-it scenes in hand, I set about arranging them on the various spreads.

Some people prefer to do this on a worksheet.  I like this post-it note approach because I can re-arrange things as needed. To an extent, the order of my scenes are sequential.  This happened on X date.  This followed on Y date.  And this was on Z. But that just covers the historic spreads.  The modern ones are going to take some fiddling.  Post-its and my giant board let me move, cut apart, put on one two-page spread, and just generally fiddle.

When I’m done, I have an outline and I’m ready to write.  Not that the writing will necessarily be easy but at least I know when I’m done I’ll have a story that is long enough, and worth of, a picture book.


May 24, 2017

Picture Book Writing: It Started with a Title

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:59 am
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Yesterday I was piddling around doing something else, talking to my teen when a phrase popped into my head.  “Yeti yoga.”

“Sasquatch swimming, what’s your point?”

“I’m not sure.  What would yeti hope to get out of yoga?”

Fortunately he’s grown up with Writer Mom so this didn’t particularly phase him.  I wasn’t sure what if anything would happen with this but it seemed like a fun title so I jotted it down and got back to work on the outline and chapter one of Advertising Overload. I turned those in after dinner and did some yard work.  It wasn’t until I turned off my computer and got in the shower that ideas started popping into my head.

Main Character: Gigi.  Daughter of two explorers.  Home schooled, naturally.

Setting: Himalayas, also naturally.

I knew what specific yoga positions yeti would practice (triangle, downward dog and a high lunge) as well as why (the normal reason, relaxation, and reducing your profile during high winds).  Now to work it into a story.

By the time I got out of the shower I had my chorus, my story problem and several scenes worked out.  Of course I’d already shut the computer off so I quickly drafted the book on a pad of Post-It Notes.  The benefit of a Post-It draft is that it is easy to see how many scenes you have, judge balance and see what, if anything, needs to be shifted.  Normally I do this by putting the POst-Its on the story board but not this time.  It’s still in its hiding place on top of my filing cabinets.

By morning it was obvious that my ending didn’t quite work but I also knew how to fix it.  So I wrote up another post-it and added it to the pile.  It feels kind of odd to be rewriting without actually having a full typed draft of the manuscript, but I’ll take it!  Before I do take the time to type everything out, I’m going to check the balance and make sure the pacing works.

Last but not least, I need to decide if the title gives too much away.  I suspect that it does but it can also easily become a second, shorter, chorus within the text.  I’ve never done this many “drafts” on a picture book while it is still in the Post-It stage but I kind of like it and may very well try it again.


May 18, 2017

The Dot Test: Rising Tension

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:35 am
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I’ve been contempleting one of my new manuscripts, working on a rewrite.  This particular picture book has a fun concept and interesting characters.  I say “interesting” because one of them is more interesting than she is sympathetic although she does change and grow.

But in addition to this you also have to have a story arc and part of that arc is rising tension.  One of these easiest ways to test this in a picture book is with the dot test.  I first read bout this test in a post at Adventures in Agenting.

Here is how you test a picture book.

Draw a line across your page.  Make a dot at the left end of the line and label it 1.  That is the level of tension in your first spread – spread because it is a picture book.  Otherwise it would be chapter.

Anywho, read the first spread and then read spread #2.  Is the tension higher?  If so, make another dot to the right and slightly higher than the first.  If the tension is the same, the two dots will be parallel.  If the tension drops, Dot #2 will be lower than Dot #1.

Spread by spread, read through your manuscript and judge each spread compared to the one just before it.

Ideally, your spreads will plot out something like your traditional story arc.  You need to have a climb toward the climax with tension dropping off several times immediately following an attempt by the hero to solve his story problem. A story that continually climbs in tension but never drops off even slightly, may seem tiring and burn the reader out before they finish.  A story that plots out as a horizontal line isn’t climbing towards a climax.

How does my story test out.  It climbs and then holds steady and then climbs again.  Way too much time spent with no climb or drop.  At least I know where to focus my efforts!



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