One Writer’s Journey

May 19, 2020

How to End Your Picture Book

Last week, I read Dibs! by Laura Gehl.  In this story, Julian has to learn to deal with being a big brother. He tries to do this by calling dibs on various things.  Because we need a plot, obviously this does not work.  I’m not going to review the book here.  You can click through using the link above if you want to read my review.  But I am going to include plot spoilers here as I discuss the ending.

Writing a satisfying ending to your picture book can be tricky although there are several that work well.  These include:

Call to action. This is popular in nonfiction where you challenge the reader to go forth and . . . conserve, recycle, feed the hungry, etc.

Circular ending.  I really like well crafted circular endings.  This ending somehow connects to the beginning.

The surprise ending. In my mind, this is the trickiest type of picture book ending.  It surprises the reader while also flowing from what happened earlier in the story.

Dibs! does two of the three.  It has a circular ending that is also a surprise.

First we’ll discuss the surprise.  Early in the story, Julian deals with Clancy by callind dibs on all the things he is afraid Clancy will take from him – a special plate, cookies, and  an astronaut costume.  Clancy goes bigger and calls dibs on the bakery where the cookies are made, the White House and NASA.  When he travels to space, he and the rocket are grabbed by aliens and he has to be rescued by Julian.

Space, space and more space.  And brothers.  And family.  That’s what the reader has been experiencing through the last two-thirds of the story as they approach the last spread.  Another spread about space wouldn’t be especially surprising so how does Gehl shake it up?  Julian teaches Clancy a new word – jinx!

We’ve been so deep in the space theme, that returning to the theme of an all powerful word is a delightful surprise.  But it works because on the previous spread, the brothers both call dibs on a plate of star cookies.  Unlike earlier times, they are both laughing and we know they are going to share.  Dibs leads us right into jinx in a way that is believable, fun, and surprising.

And circular.  Because we are back to the idea of a key word.

I have to admit that endings are not my strength and when I come across one that works this well . . . wow!  It really wins me over.  Now I just have to develop the perfect ending for my own manuscript.



May 14, 2020

4 Things You Need to Know to Write Picture Books

This week, I’m revisiting a picture book manuscript.  Considering the fact that the last manuscript I finished was nonfiction for teens and tweens and this is a fictional picture book, that’s a big jump.  So I’ve been looking for ways to refresh my picture book savvy.  Thankfully I found a series of video lectures by author Julie Hedlund.  Here are a few things that I’m having to consider.

Character Growth.  Even though a picture book is simpler than a novel, your character has a goal.  Through meeting this goal, or failing, your character grows or changes in a believable way.  That’s not the case in this particular book, but fortunately Hedlund also has a video on …

Flat-arc Characters.  In a picture book with a flat character arc, instead of changing themselves, the character changes their world.  Think the Little Red Hen (everyone else learns a lesson) or Johnny Appleseed (Johnny changes the face of the farms he visits). Neither one of these describes what I’m working on but I suspect mine might be what Hedlund calls…

Subversive.  This is a picture book that goes against what is considered normal for this type of literature.  It isn’t sweet.  It isn’t cute.  Quite often it is funny.  I’m going to have to look into these types of picture books but I think this describes my story.

Word play.  One of the things I love adding to a picture book manuscript is word play.  A picture book is meant to be read aloud and that means it has to sound fun. Ann Whitford Paul discusses this in her book, Writing Picture Books.  Whether you write in rhyme, use alliteration, or employ onomatopoeia, you have to create something that is fun to read aloud.

I haven’t watched all of Hedlund’s videos and there is always something more to learn from Paul’s book.  What are your favorite learning tools when you are working on a picture book manuscript?


January 9, 2020

Picture Book Writing: Staying Motivated Year Round

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:01 am
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I always start the year with great intentions.  Surely I can rough 12 or 15 different manuscripts!   And, in reality, I could.  A rough is easy peasy.  Rewriting it and making it work?  That’s tough.

What is really hard for me is staying motivated. A work-for-hire project comes along and I don’t get those rough drafts done. The words start really flowing on my novel and that takes priority, pushing picture book rewrites aside.

Staying motivated is tough!

Fortunately, Writers’ Rumpus is here to help.  Each month, they post all of the picture book opportunities that they discover.  They just posted for January.

Some items are available at no cost.  For January, those include:

  • Color Collective: A color-based illustration challenge.
  • Ditty of the Month: A poetry writing challenge.
  • Illustration Friday:  Challenges illustrators with a theme for week.  I’ve used the prompt and also the illustrations to generate ideas.
  • Nonfiction Fest:  This is free but you have to register in January.
  • Storystorm: Tara Lazar’s idea generation challenge.

Other items involve a cost, including:

  • 12×12 Picture Book Challenge:  I’m not sure what this one costs but I’ve had friends due it and they have many positive things to say.
  • Rate Your Story: Subscription for manuscript critiques by industry professionals.
  • Storyteller Academy: Courses about writing and illustrating for children.

So far, I’ve signed up for both Storystorm and also Nonfiction Fest.  I suspect that each month I’ll take advantage of an item or two.  And, in all truth, if that leads to a new manuscript a month or even every other month that is a good thing.

Two other things that help me stay motivated?  My critique group and my accountability group.  My critique group meets monthly and we critique each others work in addition to discussing markets.  My accountability group is online.  In addition to goal setting and motivating each other, we also critique.  Knowing that there are people waiting to read my work keeps me moving forward.

Take a look at the listings on Writers’ Rumpus.  With a wide variety of programs listed, one of them is bound to be a good fit.


October 17, 2019

Picture Book Writing: Free Course

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:17 am
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One of my favorite picture books to read to my son. He never loved it as much as I did. Sniff.

The other day, a group of us were tweeting about how frustrating it is that so many people, even other writers, think that writing for children is going to be easy.  After all, the books, especially picture books, are so short!

But if you’ve ever drafted a picture book manuscript, you know how tricky they can be.  The word count is low.  The reader has limited knowledge of the world.  Adult gatekeepers have to be intrigued by the book or it will never reach the reader and . . . writing a picture book is hard, harder, hardest!

My earliest children’s writing endeavors were all picture books.  My manuscripts have improved over time, and will a lot of writing practice, but I have yet to make a picture book sale.

Laura Backes, publisher of Children’s Book Insider, has released a special free edition of their Picture Book Blueprint.  This is a free version of their picture book writing workshop.  Out of curiosity, I signed up.

This free edition consists of eight units ranging from the essential elements and creating a first draft to polishing your work.  Most units consist of multiple lectures and some also have bonus material such as information on illustrations and how to leave room for the illustrators work.

I’m looking forward to getting into this and seeing how it changes my work.  I’ve got two new picture book ideas, one that I haven’t written any of and another that I’ve drafted about 1/3 of the spreads.  I’ll be taking both of them through this method to see if and how it makes a difference.

If it sounds like something that you would be interested in, sign up here.  And, as always, happy writing!


October 10, 2019

Inanimate Objects Tell It Like It Is

How do you take a step back from an emotional topic and give young readers the space they need to read and learn about it?  Linda Skeers recommends using an “unnatural narrator.”  Think inanimate object.

One of the topics that Skeers discusses are riots, specifically the Stonewall Riots.  Rob Sanders rights about the riots in a way that is suitable for young readers by showing everything from the perspective of a wall that stood where the riots took place.  You can read Linda’s post here.

What would the cobblestones on the St. Louis riverfront have witnessed?  Families arriving to leave again by wagon train.  Lewis and Clark. Floods.  Parades.  Possibly even the Dred Scott trials.

What about a rivet on the space shuttle?  I’m assuming there are rivets.  If not a rivet, a tile.  The construction of the shuttle. The first time the crew sees it. Pre-flight checks.  Launch.  Space.  Reentry.

Then there are belongings of famous people.  Abe Lincoln’s top hat.  I almost said Maria Tallchief’s toe shoes but toe shoes get disgusting so I’ll give that one a miss.  An explorer’s spy glass.  A musician’s violin.  Oooo.  I like that idea.    An inventor’s soldering iron.  The fresnel lens in a light house.  The Mona Lisa.

I think I would avoid trying to write from the perspective of an animal.  This came to me as I was contemplating an explorer’s horse.  As much as I adore horses, I think it would be a lot of “good forage,”  “Oh, no!  What’s that?”

I’m going to read a couple of the books that Linda recommended but I’m thinking this is form I might want to play with . . . ooooo, a printing press.  A river boat.  No, a keel boat.

Yeah, this is definitely a form that intrigues me.


August 8, 2019

Illustration Notes and When Not to Make Notes

In her post, Tara shows how she used notes in Your First Day of Circus School.

Last night my critique group met.  We have two newish writers who are crafting their first picture books.  We also have a former writer for Sesame Street who is working on a picture book.  Her manuscript always has an illustration note or two so it is really hard for the newer writers to understand when to leave things to the illustrator.

A lot of fairly new writers want to use notes to tell the illustrator that the character is blonde.  She is wearing a red dress.  Her shoes are blue Converse high tops.  Chances are that none of that is essential to the story and not only could be left out but should be left out of both the text and also any possible illustration notes.  The illustrator needs room to play.

Fortunately, Tara Lazar wrote a blog post about just this topic.  To drive her point home, she explains that instead of calling them illustration notes, we should call them “action notes.”

Here is how an action note would work.  Your text reads:

Mom says, “Don’t forget to eat your Brussel sprouts.”

I say, “Sure thing.”

That makes it sound like your point-of-view character is complying.  It not, you need a note to show that this is not the case.  Then your text would read:

Mom says, “Don’t forget to eat your Brussel sprouts.”

I say, “Sure thing.”

[Rolls Brussel sprouts under refrigerator.]

Any time your character’s actions contradict the text, you can include a brief note.  But keep it brief.   You wouldn’t have to include above that the dog is trying to bury a sprout or that Dad is looking for someplace to stash his.  You still need to leave the illustrator space to operate.

When you read Tara’s post, you will also note that she includes non-action notes when the illustration needs to contradict the text or expand on it in a very specific way.  If you write about the character’s dog and the dog’s name is Chihuahua but it is a mastiff, include a note.

“After dinner, Chihuahua curls up on Dad’s lap.” [Chihuahua is a mastiff.]

It takes practice to learn when to include an illustration note.  My advice?  When it doubt, delete it.  If the story makes sense without it, leave it out.


June 18, 2019

Why Writing Is Like Beading

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:47 am
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Those of you who have read my blog for any time know that not only do a write, but I also craft.  Knitting, crochet, and beading help me recharge my creative energy.  Lately, I’ve been beading lariat-style necklaces.  These necklaces are a single four foot strand of beads.  There is no clasp, so you knot or loop the strand.  Or whatever.

The point is that they are really flexible just like the books we write. A picture book can be fact or fiction.  It can be written in rhyme or prose.  It can also come together relatively easily (relatively) or take multiple tries.  Just like beading a necklace.

Sometimes following the pattern works.  When I tell you how to storyboard a picture book, that’s like giving you a pattern.  Follow these steps to create a picture book.  Sometimes you follow the steps and it works.  Your writing style and my writing style are enough alike that you can use my method.  Ta-da!  When I made my first lariat necklace, I used different beads than the pattern called for but it came together easily.

Sometimes following the pattern doesn’t work.  You write nonfiction.  I write nonfiction.  But when you try to follow my story boarding steps, it doesn’t work.  The balance is just off and, although you notice this early on, you keep working hoping it will sort itself out.  But it doesn’t.  So you study my steps.  Then you study what you have.  You see where you can tweak things to make it work.  That’s what happened when I tried making a necklace for a friend, but with a few adjustments it came together.

Sometimes you think that something isn’t going to work but then it does.  Last week, I got a rewrite request from my editor.  I read one of the things that she wanted and . . . uh, no.  There is no way that will work.  So I made all of the smaller changes and saved this until dead last.  Fine, just fine!  I made the changes she suggested and . . . it worked.  When a friend asked me to make her a necklace in golden and deep red beads, I cringed.  These weren’t my kinds of colors and I just couldn’t see it.  But I started stringing and . . . wow.  It looked great.

Writing is a lot like beading.  Sometimes you follow the steps and it all comes together.  Sometimes you have to make a few adjustments.  Other times, you are certain you’ve been asked to do the impossible and it all falls into place.

Word by word.  Bead by bead.  The creative process is a funny thing.


January 9, 2019

Picture Books: Making It BIG and Personal

The other day, I heard someone comment that Where the Wild Things Are isn’t about the wild things or adventure. It’s about more than that. It’s about wanting to be loved.  In case you haven’t guessed, I read and listen to a lot when I’m on the treadmill.  I also have time to think as I’m step-step-stepping along.

Where the Wild Things Are is about both being wild/wild things and being loved.  One is the character’s outer journey (wild things).  One is the character’s inner journey (love).  One is the plot (wild things).  One is the theme (love).

But about some of the other picture books I’ve recently reviewed?

Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt is about a girl trying to figure out how to feed her friend’s family.  That’s the outer journey and plot.  But it’s also about friendship, the inner journey and theme.

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love is about a boy who loves mermaids (outer journey/plot).  But it is also about self-identity (inner journey/theme).

Life on Mars by Jon Agee is a humorous picture book about a boy who is searching for life on Mars (plot/outer journey).  It is also about finding something new (theme/inner journey).

Theme is going to help young readers connect with your book because the theme should be something they will identify with.  After all, what preschooler doesn’t want to be loved?  Be their own person?  Or find something new and fantastic?

The specific plot line is what makes each of these stories unique.  But it is also what you can’t duplicate when you write your own story.  Try to sell fictional picture book about looking for life on Mars to Dial and they’ll turn you down.  They’ve got Agee’s book.  But try to sell them an original, creative book about struggling to find something new and you may very well have a sale.

Inner journey vs outer journey.  Plot vs theme.  Your picture book needs both.


November 1, 2018

Picture Books: Three Act Structure

What are the best ways to structure a picture book?  In part, I’ve been wondering if you can apply the three act structure to picture books.  In short, it depends on the story but some do have this structure.  You can find it written up in Eve Hiedi Bine-Stock’s How to Write a Children’s Picture Book, Volume 1: Structure.

If you’re like me, this is easiest to see when paired with a favorite story so I’ll use Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It is one of the three-act picture books listed by Bine-Stock.

Act 1.  Beginning or Set Up.

This is about 20% of the story, 5-7 pages.  In Where the Wild Things Are, this is Max at home making mischief and getting in trouble.  There is a transition where the forest is growing – you can still see Max’s room until . . .

Plot Twist 1: Something happens that separates the beginning from the middle.

In Where the Wild Things Are, the forest grows and grows and then “the walls became the world all around.”

Act II: The Middle.

This is the core of the story, the main action.  About 60% of the story.  In Where the Wild Things Are, this is where Max has a wild rumpus as King of the Wild Things.


A before and after moment.  This can be hard to put your finger on or at least it is for me.  But I would define this as the moment the wild things fall asleep and leave Max time to ponder.  Before, Max was a wild thing.  After?  He is Max.

Plot Twist II: This one separates the Middle from the Ending.

In Where the Wild Things Are, Max smells delicious food and sails home.

Act III: The Ending.

Like the Beginning, this is about 20% of the story, 5-7 pages. This act is your resolution.

In Where the Wild Things Are, I would say this section is actually a bit shorter.  He sails home, much calmer, and finds dinner waiting for him and it is still hot.  He is at home.  He is where he is loved.

So there you have it.  A picture book in three acts.  Bine-Stock said that this structure can also be found in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Chicka-Chicka-Boom-Boom so why not get them out and see what you can see?


September 19, 2018

Picture Books: The Importance of the First Spread

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:51 am
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Do you regularly listen to podcasts?  I have to admit that I don’t.  Most of them are just too long to hold my attention, especially when they ramble on for 5+ minutes about things they want me to buy.  I have the attention span of my audience.

The exception to this podcast rule comes from SCBWI.  That’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for those of you who aren’t in the know.  Members can sign in and listen to a wide variety of interviews.  Non-members can sample a trailer.  Click here for the podcast page.

A while ago, I listened to an interview with editor Connie Hsu. She said something that really stuck with me.  If you want to write picture books, you have to be able to get voice, character and mood into one line.

Really?  That seems impossible.  But think about it.  A spread is roughly equivalent to a chapter.  And the first chapter of your novels needs to show voice, your character, and the mood/tone of the story.

I decided to look at some picture books to see how this works.

This is the first spread of I Don’t Want to be a Frog by Dev Petty, illustrated by Mike Boldt.

“I want to be a CAT.”
“You can’t be a Cat.”

The first speaker is Frog.  The second speaker is Dad.

What can you tell right away?  Frog wants what frog wants.  Does it make sense?  Nope.  But it is what Frog wants.  He reminded me very much of a typical preschooler.  We have the tone, the character and what he wants.  Not to be a frog.  And we got all of that in eleven words. Can you pull that off?  Me?  I’d love to say yes but the nonfiction examples below look more like my style.

This is the first spread of Rice from Heaven by Tina Cho, illustrated by Keum Jin Song.

Out in countryside, across a bridge, to an island blanketed with rice fields, Appa and I ride.
We reach a place where mountains become a wall. A wall so high, no one dares to climb.

What do we get from this?  We have a first person speaker who is off on some kind of mission or quest.  And things are a bit scary – the mountains form a wall that is so high no one has the nerve to climb it.  They are someplace beautiful but the situation they are dealing with?  Not beautiful.  And you get that from 35 words.

Picture book writing is tight.  You don’t have words to waste.  And your story?  You have to launch it on that first spread.  If this sound do-able to you, then picture book writing might be right for you.


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