5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing and Illustrating a Picture Book

As some of you may know, I’m currently focusing my creative attention on a picture book titled Cody’s Wild West Adventure, which I hope to publish sometime this coming summer. It’s long overdue. I wrote Cody for my high school senior project back in 2007-2008. I always intended to finish it someday but kept putting it off. See, my writing has always been intended for an older audience. I never really considered writing for small children. The only reason I decided to write a picture book in the first place was because of that senior project. There was a scholarship involved and I knew it was something I’d have to spend a lot of time on, so I wanted to do something that A) I would enjoy and B) I was good at. Basically, something involving writing, which was kind of terrifying. I was 17, painfully insecure, and scared that if people found out what I really liked to write, I’d be forever shunned and scorned by my peers. I almost never told people that I wrote and actively tried to hide it most of the time. However, one thing people did know about me was that I could draw. Writing and illustrating a picture book, then, was a “socially acceptable” project for me to undertake – one that people wouldn’t question too much. Also, because it wasn’t something I cared about as much as my other writing endeavors, it wouldn’t matter if it turned out to be a disaster and everyone laughed at me behind my back.

I realize how ridiculous all of that sounds now, but that was my thought process at the time. High school, teenagers – you know how it is. The point is that I never would have even seriously contemplated writing a children’s book if it weren’t for that project. I learned a lot about writing picture books then as part of the whole process, but some of it has only really sunk in now that I’m older, more experienced, and more involved with getting this thing ready for publication. I wanted to share some of the most important lessons I’ve learned through it all.

  1. The balance between words and pictures and the importance of illustrations
    This is probably the biggest thing that sets picture books apart from other kinds of stories. It seems a little obvious once you think about it, but it wasn’t something I had considered until I had to write the research paper for my senior project. A lot of people seem to think (including myself, before I started doing this) that the illustrations in a picture book simply mimic what the words say, which isn’t necessarily true – or at least, it shouldn’t be. A good picture book will rely on its illustrations to tell the story just as much as its words, and by taking away one piece or the other, the story will have lost an essential part of itself. It’s a balance, and both parts are equally important. We’ve all heard the saying that “a picture is worth 1000 words” and that’s certainly true here. The illustrations can carry just as much weight in a picture book as the words, if not more. That’s important when you’re working with such a limited word count. Which brings me to my next point…
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  2. Limited word count
    The general rule of thumb when writing a picture book is that the story should be no more than 1000 words, and 500-600 is generally considered more appropriate. That’s pretty restrictive, but there are a few good reasons for this. The target audience – young children – tend to have short attention spans and may not sit still to listen to a longer story. Also, picture books are often meant to be read aloud, so the words and sentences should all be relatively simple, clear, and concise so that the children listening will be able to understand. Finally, good illustrations will be able to convey a lot of the story on their own, so you don’t need to take up valuable words with detailed descriptions of character appearance and setting. A lot of times, you don’t even need to go into great detail about the action taking place as the illustrations can show that to some extent. When I first wrote Cody, it was about 1200 words. I managed to pare it down to 900 by the time I finished my senior project and I was sure that was as short as it could possibly get. I was wrong. Last week, I finalized the story at something like 730 words, and I can see how much better it is now than it was back then. I’ve allowed the illustrations to take over and show parts of the story that I thought needed to be told by the words themselves. The bottom line here is: Keep your audience in mind, and don’t underestimate the importance of good illustrations. Let’s be honest – the kids probably pay a lot more attention to the pictures anyway.
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  3. Realistic expectations
    A common assumption seems to be that writing books for children is easy and that anyone can do it. I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying or say that you can’t do it, but I do think it’s important to point out that the idea of picture books being simpler or easier to write than books for older audiences is misleading. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, writing a picture book is in some ways more challenging than writing other types of stories. You can’t go into it thinking that it’s going to be easy. It’s important to push yourself to think outside the box and find creative ways to express your ideas in a way that kids will understand and enjoy. If it’s not challenging you in one way or another, you’re probably going about it the wrong way.
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  4. Storyboards and dummy books
    This part really only becomes an issue if you are self-publishing and working with an illustrator or illustrating the book yourself, but it was an important lesson for me, so I’ll go over it briefly. Once you’ve finished the text (at least to a point where you won’t be making any major changes) and you’re ready to start working on the illustrations, it’s a good idea to create a storyboard and/or a dummy book. That way, you’ll be able to lay everything out and see how it all looks. A storyboard is basically just a miniature outline of how the story should look. I found this one when I was working on the updated version of Cody‘s storyboard. It’s 32 pages (standard for a picture book) and scales to the size I intend to print at. Then I just went through and filled it in. Here are a few sample pages so you can see what I did:storyboardsampleAs you can see, it’s all pretty basic, but it at least gives me an idea of what I’m planning on doing. You can easily make your own template if you can’t find one or need more pages or whatever – by hand if that’s easier. The other option is to make a dummy book, which is basically the same thing, but in a miniaturized book format so you can turn pages and everything. I made one for my senior project from paper and tape that I then sketched vague illustrations on to see how it might look. I highly recommend that you finalize this step before illustrations are started, particularly if you have someone else doing the artwork for you. It’s one thing to change your mind or make a mistake that just affects you, but imagine how obnoxious it would be to start working on illustrations and have the author then change their mind about the size or orientation or some other aspect of the book that completely derails your hard work.
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  5. Considerations for publishing a picture book
    (A disclaimer, before I launch into this: I haven’t looked into traditional publishing for picture books for a couple of years now, so this is all based on old information and what I can remember. A lot of it is just my opinion, and you should definitely do the research yourself if this is something you’re considering.)
    Once you’ve written a picture book, you may want to publish it, which then raises the question of whether to self-publish or traditionally publish. There are pros and cons to each, but let me just share a few of the things that led me to decide to self-publish Cody and any other picture books I may write in the future. My first instinct was to publish traditionally. That’s what I am trying to do with my short stories and intend to do with my novel, once it’s finished. It’s a good route to go. Traditional publishers pay you right up front and do some of the marketing for you. There’s the potential to reach a wider audience. Also, there may be a little more recognition and “prestige” if you go that route; some people argue that self-publishing isn’t  really quality-controlled since anyone can publish anything, regardless of how good or bad it is. That’s true enough, but there have been plenty of awful books put out by traditional publishers, so you’ll have to decide for yourself how much water that argument holds. Also, the whole “quality-control” thing means going through submissions to agents and then publishers and getting rejected (a lot), which I can tell you from experience isn’t exactly a walk in the park. It is worth it if that’s what you’re after, though. The other important thing to know about traditional publishing is that the editor will want to match you up with an illustrator of their own choosing unless you’re a professional illustrator yourself. There are a few other exceptions, I’m sure, but for the most part, they just want the story from you. They don’t want illustrations from your friend Susan-who’s-an-artist or even descriptions of illustrations. Just the words. Depending on you and your story, that can be a good thing or a bad thing. If you’re not an illustrator and don’t have the money to hire one, publishing traditionally and having the editor handle that for you might be fantastic. For me, it ended up being the deciding factor that pushed me towards self-publishing. I’m an artist, but I wouldn’t call myself a professional by any stretch of the imagination. I figured that if I did manage to sell my story to a traditional publisher, I likely wouldn’t be doing the illustrations myself. That was a deal-breaker for me. I’ve had a very clear picture in my head of how I wanted the illustrations to look from the moment I got the idea for the story, and to give up creative control over that aspect of the book was just not something I was willing to do. Hence my decision to self-publish. The benefit is that I keep all the rights and control over my work. The downside is that I have to do all the other work myself – formatting the book, marketing, finding readers, etc. All that stuff that isn’t writing. There are parts of it I’m definitely not looking forward to, but it’s also kind of exciting to have that freedom and control over everything. If you’ve written or are working on a picture book, I urge you to look into all your options extensively before you make a decision.

I hope this helps some of you who are thinking about or are in the process of writing a picture book. Feel free to ask questions or let me know what you think in the comments!

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