One Writer’s Journey

July 19, 2019

Picture Books: A Variety of Formats Telling Simple Stories

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:23 am
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Which structure should your picture book take?

One of the things that I discuss with my students are various picture book structures.  The structure for a particular book will depend on the topic or story.

Character has a problem.  In many fiction picture books, the character has a problem to solve.  The first and second attempts to solve this problem fail.  Tension builds and the character tries one last time before Victory!  Think of this as a play in three acts.

A circular story.  Some stories are circular.  These stories often deal with cycles such as the water cycle, the seasons, or day leading into night which then leads into day.  A nonfiction book about migratory birds can be circular since they undertake the same journey again and again. The stories satisfy young readers who have learned that some things happen again and again, regular and reliable.

A sequential story.  Journeys and building stories can sometimes be written in one sequence and one sequence only.  Why?  Because the stops along the trail or the steps in building something can only occur in a very specific order.  A leads to B leads to C, etc.

Cumulative stories.  Cumulative stories are a lot like sequential stories.  You pile more and more on until something happens.  Examples of this kind of story are The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and The House that Jack Built.

Decreasing stories.  On the flip side are stories with a countdown.  Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed is a decreating story.  The key items is reduced little by little until something big happens.

A story with a mission.  Some stories by their nature challenge the reader to take action.  Save a species, plant trees, clean a beach.  Some of these stories literally challenge the reader to go out and apply what they have learned.  “Go out and …”  In other stories, the challenge is implied.  “Wow.  If this person could plant 50 trees, I can plant trees too.”

Which structure should you use for your picture book?  Even if it seems obvious, that your story should be sequential, a subtle shift in emphasis could make it a decreasing story or a story with a mission.  Try more than one structure and see which works best.


January 10, 2019

Picture Books: Opening with a Strong Hook

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:41 am
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The vast majority of picture books are 500 words or less. That means that a picture book author has 500 words to pack in character, story problem, setting, tone and a hook.  For those of you who don’t know the term, a hook is how you, literally, hood the reader.  What makes them want to read on?  The answer to this question varies from book to book.
The Little Red Fort by Brenda Maier opens with:
Ruby’s mind
was always
full of ideas.
This beginning gives the reader two things – character and story problem.  How so?  From 7 words we learn that Ruby is a thinker, an idea person.  Because this is what Maier begins the story with, we assume correctly that this will have something to do with the story problem.  Firming up this assumption is the fact that the illustration shows Ruby sitting on the toilet lid with an easel and tablet beside her as she plans a project of some kind.  This kid has personality and I want to read on.
I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty begins with:
I want to be a
cat.  (This is said by a young frog)
You can’t be a cat.  (This is said by an adult frog/Dad)
This opening text sets the tone, showing us that this one is obviously going to be humorous.  We learn that the character is not content being himself and that his parents aren’t sure how to handle it.  That’s both character and story problem.  Young characters setting their own boundaries? That’s going to hook young readers who love the idea as well as parents who are all too familiar with the situation.
Nonfiction books or fiction that covers an unfamiliar topic can be tricky.
In Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designers Elsa Schiaparelli by Kyo Maclear the first spread states:
Every story starts somewhere.
My story begins on September 10, 1890 in a beautiful
palazzo in the center of Rome. That’s in Italy.
Imagine a quiet room. Imagine a newborn baby looking up to see
her pappa frowning, her momma frowning.
When I read this book, I didn’t have clue #1 who Elsa Schiaparelli is.  Not one clue.  So the author begins with something that even clueless people like me can comprehend, babies are born.  Ta-da!  But even this simple event is going to prove problematic in this particular nonfiction story.  All this baby has done is come into the world and already mom and dad are unhappy.  Tone.  Story problem.  Setting.  And we went to read on to find out what is wrong.
With their tight word counts, picture books have to do everything a novel does but do it in less space.  Because of this, they have to start establishing story elements even as they hook the reader.

November 21, 2018

Picture Books: Rewriting a Problem Spread

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:41 am
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Recently, I had to polish up a picture book and get it out now.  This wasn’t something I was drafting.  These were fine changes.  Fiddling with word sound and rhythm.

I read my manuscript out loud. After all, a picture book is like a poem.  It has to work when read aloud. Most of my manuscript was fine but two spreads felt off.

I always suspect when I am doing this kind of rewrite that I change something, let it rest, and change it back again.  And then I do it again.  And again.  Maybe if I could keep track of my various versions there wouldn’t be so many.

Do not say “track changes.” NO.  I despise that Word feature.  I use it with my editors at RedLine.  Some areas of the manuscript will have very few marks.  Others have lots and lots of text struck out and added.  While it can be good to see what was removed, a section that has been worked over multiple times can be almost impossible to read in part because I’m mildly dyslexic.  It gets too busy and I can’t follow it.

When a single person uses track changes, it doesn’t always track all of the changes.  That means I can’t go back and see what the manuscript said before.

Fortunately, I found a trick that works for me. I opened up a clean Word document and copied the problem text, pasting it at the top of the page.  Then I pasted it in again and made changes to the second version.  Then I pasted it again and made changes to the third version.  There was no back and forth.  And I never had to rewrite a passage more than three times.

When I was done, I let it sit and then reread all three versions.  There was no guess-work.  No wondering if maybe the first version was better.  I had them all right there in front of me.

Try it and see if it works for you.


September 6, 2018

Rewriting: What to Do When You’re Making It Worse

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:35 am
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When a rewrite feels like digging yourself in deeper, try something new.

One month.  I have one month to rewrite this picture book and turn it in.  After that?  Opportunity missed.  Bye-bye.

I know, more or less, what I need to do.

  • Create lyrical text on each spread full of sensory details and word play.
  • Create an equally lyrical sidebar full of examples from around the world.

Easy peasy!  Not.

Instead of making progress, I find myself fiddling with one spread, going on to another spread, then going back to the first and fiddling with it again.  I suspect that 90% of the time I’m just changing it back and forth.  What I’m sure of is that I’m not making it any better.  It is so annoying!

What do you do when this happens?

Walk away.  You need to give yourself some distance and you aren’t going to get it if you’ve already annoyed yourself.

Start over.  Open a clean file.  Don’t rewrite the first spread.  Write it instead.  Can’t do this without something to look at?  Get out a post=it pad.  Create a single post it per spread.  What is this spread about?  What key detail do you have to include?  Do NOT write sentences.  Just phrases.

These post-it notes are now your outline.  Start with a clean page.  Write the main text for each spread.  Play around with it until the manuscript sings.

Then go through and write the text for each sidebar.  Do you have enough examples?  Mine have to come from all over the world so this is going to be a lot of fun.

Sometimes trying to rewrite something is just frustrating.  You’ve opened this file time and time again.  Why can’t you get it right?

Working on a fresh page feels like a clean start.  You and this page have no history.  It is beautiful and unsullied.

I fought starting with a clean file when my friend Kris Nitz first suggested it years ago. But by now I have learned how well this method words.

Why not give it a try the next time you are simply digging yourself in deeper instead of improving your work?



April 11, 2018

Revision: Taking Advice and Reworking Your Manuscript

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:41 am
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On Monday, I posted about Kansas Missouri SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators) Agents Day. As part of this event, you got a paid critique from an agent.  Mine was with Adria Goetz from Martin Literary.  She critiqued Drip by Drip, Cave Below, a nonfiction manuscript about a cave.

While she had positive things to say about my manuscript, she also had a big change that she wanted me to make.  Parts of the manuscript were very lyrical.  Yay, me!   But there was also a lot of science.  And I do mean a lot.  She wants me to separate the two so that I have lyrical text and science rich sidebars.

I like this idea a lot.  In fact, I like it so much that it is the way that I originally wrote People Pray.  That said, I took the sidebars out of that manuscript at the advice of an editor who then passed on it.

This is one of those moments when I have a big decision to make starting with Drip by Drip, Cave Below.  I can keep it as is – lyrical bits and science together. Or I can take Adria’s advice and keep the lyrical bits in the main text and separate the science into sidebars.  Or I can just reduce the science which is not going to happen although I am going to create separate sidebars.

But I am also going to take Adria’s advice and use it to rework People Pray.  Why?  Because I’ve been invited to send that one in and I want it to be lyrical and full of the kind of information that will make it a great social science text.

Rewriting based on what you learn at a writing event.  It’s never fast but if you take what you’ve learned and apply it?  You’ve got a much better chance of getting your foot in the door and finding an agent.



July 7, 2017

What’s My Story: Magazine vs Picture Book

What is it that makes a magazine piece different from a picture book? We ended up discussing this during a critique group meeting earlier this week.  There are two primary differences.

1 — Illustration possibilities. Due to the format, the typical picture book has 32 pages.  Some of these pages may become back matter.  There is going to be a title page.  But you usually need at least 14 spreads.  If you don’t have 14 distinct illustration possibilities than you probably aren’t writing a picture book manuscript.

Distinct illustration possibilities might mean a change in scenery, action or tone.  There may be a new character.  Or it might be the action that the characters are doing.

Magazine pieces are often heavily illustrated but picture books need a greater number of illustrations.

2 — Bang for the buck.  A hard bound picture book costs almost $20.00.  Is your story substantial enough to warrant this price tag? For the answer to be yes, you have to have written something that readers will want to experience again and again.  And that’s the adults as well as the children because picture books are generally read to, not by, young readers.

Many stories do a great job of depicting a typical childhood experience. This might include problems with a sibling, the first day of school, finding a missing item.  Many of these topics are ever green, meaning that they are suitable year after year because they are things that one group of young readers after another experiences.

Or you might have written a great piece for demonstrating all of the ways that two toy trucks can differ — color, size, model, and more. A good magazine piece is an amazing thing but a picture book has greater depth.  Readers want to keep experiencing the characters, the humor or that great Ahhhh feeling at the end. The point is that there has to be something to make the piece worth the $20.00 price tag.

A picture book isn’t necessarily better than a magazine piece, but they are two very different things.  Know what you’ve written and you’ll have a much better chance of finding an editor who want to take it on.



August 18, 2014

Picture Book or Magazine

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:34 am
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picture book magazineEvery once in a while, someone brings a manuscript to critique and says “I’m not sure if its a picture book or a magazine piece.”  Until you know, you can’t do much more than rough it out.  Here are some key differences between picture books and magazine stories.

Picture books:

  • Printed in approx. 14 spreads.
  • Each spread must present a new action, emotion, combination of characters, setting or mood.
  • Each spread must include something to illustrate.
  • A picture book is meant to be read aloud.
  • Keep visual discription to a minimum.  This is the illustrator’s territory.
  • The illustrations tell part of the story.

Magazine stories:

  • Much more variable in length.
  • Can take place in a single setting.
  • You can use more dialogue than in a picture book (illustrators don’t want to painting talking heads).
  • You can be more discriptive.
  • Text has to convey the entire story because the illustrations won’t do half the job.

Picture books and magazine stories can both be written for similar age groups (preschoolers). They can be about similar subjects (animals or holidays or shapes).  They can both by mysteries or they can make you laugh out loud.

How they do it is going to vary depending on your form.  You might be able to rough the story out before you make a decision but you cannot take it to final until you know where you are going.



April 21, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:36 am
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At the workshop on 4/17, somehow we got on the topic of pacing in picture books and using storyboards and dummies to test out your manuscript.  I promised to get more info to several participants but won’t get to it until after the retreat.  Hopefully the post today on storyboards and the one tomorrow on dummies will tide them over.

A storyboard is a way of viewing your entire picture book manuscript at a glance.  It was originally used by comic book artists and animators to plan out their work. Now picture book writers are using it too.   It is easier to show you a storyboard than it is to describe one, so here is my board.  As you can see it is a large piece of cardboard with the appropriate number of spreads pasted onto it.

When I am noodling over a new picture book,  I take a packet of post-it notes and write out one scene per note.   “Runs down road.”  “Leaps off cliff.”   “Cuddles crocodile.” Whatever is pertinent for this particular story.  Then I lay them out on the board.  Do I have enough scenes to fill the book?  Do I have too many?

With a few strokes of a highlighter, I can mark off how many spreads I use to introduce my character and story problem and the number of spreads devoted to each attempt to solve the problem.  There are three attempts, aren’t there?  And a denouement?

Is it really worth the time to play with all of this before I write a single word?

You bet!   When I storyboard a piece first, I can often rough it out in an hour or less.  It won’t be brilliant but I have something solid to work with until I can make it brilliant.  That’s where my dummy comes in.


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