Frequently Asked Questions about writing picture books

What inspires you to write children’s picture books?

There are many things that have inspired me to write picture books but I guess the main four would be:

- My experience as a teacher, special needs teacher and a teacher-librarian and recognising how important it is to excite, entertain and engage children in the love of reading and books at an early age

- My love of reading and literature and my special delight in reading the wonderful stories and admiring the amazing illustrations in picture books

- My own children. I started writing when I had my children. It was fun writing stories for them. For example, they loved having noodles for dinner so they inspired my picture book ‘Oodles of Noodles’ and gave me some very good suggestions for the story segments. When my children were a little older they featured in some of my early readers for a series about common childhood activities such as looking after pets, swimming and music lessons.

- The children who enjoy my books. I get inspired by the delight and enjoyment of the children when I visit schools and preschools and they often have very interesting ideas for stories I should write.

Where do your ideas come from?

Ideas can come from many different sources and I have listed some of the ways I get my ideas below/

- My childhood experiences and activities at home, playing and at school.

- My own children and the things they got up to

- My pets and other animals

- Funny things I’ve heard or read about

- Topics that interest me from the school curriculum

- Sometimes parents, teachers or children give me ideas to write about

- Sometimes I get an idea for a story when I am doing housework or out for a walk or I simply wake up with an idea. That’s why I keep a little paper notebook and pen with me all the time in case I don’t have my NotePad handy.

What are you influenced by?

I am influenced by many things including those mentioned previously such as my childhood, my family, my teaching and interest in education. I am also influenced by my interests:

Children: I like writing books that I think they will enjoy and help them to find out about themselves and the world around them

Important issues: although most of my picture books are written in a light-hearted and amusing way they deal with important issues like loneliness, friendship, family and belonging; caring for the environment

Animals and the environment: I love writing books about animals and many of my non-fiction books for younger children are about animals and the environment

What is the length of your average manuscript?

My picture book manuscripts vary from about 300 words to about 700 words. (Usually, with most picture books, the less words the better).

How many pages will you usually have in a book?

Most of my picture books have 32 pages although some picture books have 24 or 48 pages (early readers may only have 8 or 16 pages)

How much writing do you have per page of the book?

Some pages have as little 4 words or less while others may have as many as 54 or more.

Are there any particular writing techniques you include to appeal to children? e.g. rhyme, alliteration.

Yes I try to use rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, onomatopoeia etc where appropriate to enhance the reading and listening appeal of the story when read aloud.

How do you plan a story? Do you have certain steps you take?

After I get an idea and mull it around in my head for a while I usually create a story board.

You can do this simply by folding two A4 pages held landscape into half and half again and fold each strip into four. You will then have two pages with 16 squares each. Join them together to get a layout of a 32 page book.

Allowing for end pages and the title and Imprint pages there is usually about 28 working pages. (It is good to check out library books similar to the one you would like to write to see how it is laid out) Take note of the pages that will be double page spreads

Then you can divide your story into a Beginning, Middle and End or

Orientation – who, when, where, what (first few pages)

Complication - introduction of a chain of events which become a problem for the main character/s (usually introduced early)

Sequence of events – (with rising tension/difficulty to overcome)

Resolution - complication is resolved (last or last few pages)

I then write my ideas on sticky notes and stick them into the squares, changing them from place to place as often as I like. Once I have the general story mapped out I check for the ‘turn the page’ suspense and surprises.

The manuscript itself is usually typed double spaced down the page with a readable font, eg Calibri, size 12. Leaving space for page breaks is optional and not really necessary because usually the editor and layout artist designs how the text is distributed. I sometimes leave spaces, particularly if it is a ‘turn the page, surprise’ story.

How do you create an interesting climax?

This depends very much on the type of story that I am writing.

Often the climax is set up at the beginning – the thing the character really wants most of all. Will he/she get what they want?

Along the way there are many problems that prevent the character from achieving that goal.

The number of problems will be dictated by the number of pages you have available in your story board and how you structure your story.

Each problem gets more and more difficult to solve, or gets more and more dangerous, or in a funny story, more and more preposterous.

Finally, the problem is solved and the character achieves what they were trying to get (or perhaps, something better, or if not, they come to understand why and learn to adjust to the changes around them)

What methods do you use to create your characters?

My characters are usually created from feelings. The characters can be children, animals or objects. The story still revolves around feelings as well as wants/needs and how characters react to the problems that stand in their way.

How does this character feel? Eg she feels lonely.

Why does she feel like that? Eg Because her best friend moved away.

How can she solve that problem?

How does she do that?

She faces a number of problems until the story is resolved.

How closely do you work with the illustrator? How much input do you put into the illustrator’s work?

Some publishers give their authors the opportunity to work with the illustrator but most don’t. In my case, most of my publishers have chosen my illustrator, although in one case I suggested someone and that illustrator was commissioned to do the work.

Usually I am given samples of the illustrator work from their portfolio and asked my opinion but mainly it is the editor/publisher/designers that make committee decisions.

Sometimes the editor may pass on illustrative suggestions to the illustrators, but often they prefer the illustrator to creatively respond to the manuscript with no input.

How long does it take for you to create a book?

It varies a great deal from book to book.

Some books I have thought of the idea, written the first draft, and only made a few revisions before it was ready to send to a publisher. Others, while I may have written the first draft quite quickly, it might take weeks, months or years to finish the final version.

Here are some important tips after you have written your manuscript:

After finishing a story is important to put it away for a while before looking at it again.

Read your story aloud to yourself and others. When you do that you can hear and feel problems with the rhyme and rhythm and fluency and flow of your story. Ask fellow writers, friends and family for some honest but constructive criticism.

Also read your story to children. You will soon know if you have captured their interest, if they laugh at the funny parts, are moved by the sad parts or are surprised by the ending.

How do you differ from other children’s book writers?

I’m not sure how I am different from other writers but because my background is in teaching I am usually interested in some educational angle to my books. Sometimes they are designed to fit some part of the curriculum and my books are often used in schools.

What do you believe makes a successful children's book?

I think a successful children’s picture book should have the follow elements:

- It should be original

- It should have appealing characters and a compelling story with depth of layers and concepts

- It should be told simply yet use rich language and rhyme, rhythm and pacing that sparkles with fun (but not necessarily written in rhyme as it is extremely difficult to write well)

- It should connect with the children’s interests and humour

- It should have amazing visual elements, images, design, text shape, composition and colour that transport the text to another dimension.

Do you have any other advice?

Anyone can write a picture book. But if you want to get published you must be prepared to:

Visit your library to read lots of picture books especially the most popular and the award winners (which are not necessary the same books). Compare these with others on the library shelves.

Go to local bookshops and check out current publishing trends and new approaches and the titles similar to the kind or on the topic you are interested in writing about. You can also learn from these stories how they are structured and developed and how the illustrations complement the narrative. Then you can attempt to write you own story in an innovative and imaginative way.

Write, write and write and then re-write, re-write and re-write

Do courses on writing children’s picture books

Join your local writers centre, club, group

Join a critique group

Read your stories to everyone who will listen and ask for and listen to their constructive criticism

Read your stories to children

Check out what kind of books publishers are publishing; check their websites for submission details

When you think you have revised your manuscript to the absolute best that it ever could be, send it off to a publisher who publishes books similar to yours.

Good Luck!