How to evoke emotion in your readers?

Karl Iglesias in Writing for Emotional Impact, states we can experience three different types of emotion when we read books or watch movies.

Voyeuristic emotions relate to our curiosity about new information, new worlds and the relationship between characters. In this mindset we are interested onlookers but perhaps not fully emotionally engaged.

Vicarious emotions are when we identify so closely with a character, we feel what they feel. Their struggle is our struggle.

Visceral emotion is an intense physical (stomach clenching) sense of curiosity, anticipation, tension, surprise, fear, excitement, laughter, and so on (a real page turner!)

Great books evoke all these emotions.

So first ask yourself, what’s the heart of my story?

And by heart I mean emotional truth. That little nugget of familiarity, which has your reader identifying with your character and his situation, that spark of recognition that makes your character feel believable and real.

For every hurdle your character faces, ask yourself, what would I feel and what would I do in that situation (at that age and that time)? Life experience is invaluable, but research can help fill the gaps: first person letters/autobiographies/live film footage.Failing that, a keen perception, a good imagination and a way with words!

These are the three ways I build a connection between readers and my characters. 

Recognition (understanding and empathy) To identify with a character we must feel (or have felt) the same as they do. If a character is well drawn (and the author understands human nature well) readers can empathise with and share the characters situation, feelings and motives, and then experience the story directly through the characters eyes.

Fascination (interest) We are attracted to what’s different and unusual. It’s human nature to be curious. A multidimensional villain, flawed hero or quirky sidekick are great hooks, as are the magical or dangerous worlds they inhabit.

Mystery (curiosity, anticipation and tension) Children’s books are full of characters with mysterious origins, super powers and secrets to be unlocked.

Think about Harry Potter.

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What character and story elements did J.K Rowling use to help us identify with and care about Harry?

He’s an orphan. He lives in the cupboard under the stairs. The horrendous Dursley’s. The scar on his forehead. The mystery of his parent’s death. Wizards on the front lawn. Magic… and that’s only in the first two chapters!

So how exactly do we show a character’s emotional reaction on the page.

After every event (action) there is a reaction.

As a writing exercise, note all the emotional highs and lows you have in a single day and your physical, verbal and emotional reactions to them.

Use all the usual writing techniques to show, don’t tell, and mix them up a little.

Internal monologue (voice)

Dialogue

Body language/behaviour

Action

This extract is from We Were Liars by E. Lockhart16143347 – 14-year-old Cadence describes how she felt when her father walked out on her and her mother.

My father put a last suitcase in the back of the Mercedes and started the engine. Then he pulled a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down onto a flowerbed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound then from my eyes, my ears, my mouth, it tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house…

This scene is three pages into the book and sets up Cadence’s state of mind. You can feel her pain.

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Even the fast moving, criminally cool, Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer), “felt a lump in his throat. Most uncharacteristic,” at the mention of his missing father and “blinked back a few rebellious tears,” at his mother’s mad ramblings. (Chapter 2)

 

 

Picture books

At Christmas, I watched 50 Best Children’s Books, presented by David Walliams and guests. Winnie the Pooh was in the top spot. Julia Walters read an extract and it struck me how emotive the writing is.

“We’ll be friends forever won’t we, Pooh?” Asked Piglet.th-7

“Even longer,” Pooh answered. “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

I’ve read a lot of picture books lately (drafts and published) that completely omit emotional content. There’s lots of colourful action but no point to it at all. Very young children cannot articulate moods and emotions but they certainly do feel and show them. Picture books are an important aid to learning and talking about feelings. They teach empathy.

Here is a great guide to structuring picture books because it makes space for the character to feel, react and learn.

Spread 1: Intro character/world

Spread 2: Establish problem (worry/dilemma/misunderstanding/first experience)

Spread 3-8: Action

Spread 9: Crisis moment (show immediate emotional reaction- Shock/laughter/confusion)

Spread 10: Examine feelings

Spread 11: Solve problem (new understanding put into practise)

Spread 12: Emotional resolution (answers the stories emotional problem)

Courtesy of Hodder/Hachette (with a little elaboration)

Character emotions vs. reader emotions

There is one final point I want to make about evoking emotion.

Authors don’t always want their readers emotional experience to mirror the characters. An unreliable narrator or an inexperienced, over confident or haphazard character can make the reader feel wonderfully superior and knowing. Humour also works this way. A clumsy character might trip over and fall into things with hilarious consequences. We will be laughing, but the character won’t be. It’s a very effective devise, if done well. It makes the reader feel clever, and flattery, as they say, gets you everywhere.

 

 

Ahoy! SCBWI conference low-down

 

My second conference with amazing SCBWI BI…

Started with some wise words from Natascha Biebow about evoking empathy not sympathy in our writing, and the importance of being in touch with our inner child.

(The amount of piratey costumes at the launch party suggests the inner child part isn’t a problem for most SCBWIs.)

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Me with the fearsome Sally Rowe

And continued amusingly, with Sarah Mcintyre and Philip Reeve dressed up, as I’m not sure what, to talk about creating their three illustrated books for young readers, which sold out on the book stand in 30 seconds  afterwards.

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The unforgettable Sarah Mcintyre and Philip Reeve

I did manage to nab an Oliver and the Seawigs. Thank you for adding the extra sea monkey, Sarah.

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Then on to a Picture Book/Illustrated Fiction Industry Panel with publishers Hodder, Faber and Faber, Otter Barry Books, and agent Felicity Trew (Carolyn Sheldon.) They all stressed how important it is for picture books to appeal to supermarkets (promo slots) as well as international markets, otherwise they don’t make money. A good title is important for Internet sales and a series concept is more likely to attract publishers (particularly for illustrated young readers).

After lunch, the amazing Jonny Duddle, Pirate Cruncher extraordinaire took to the stage and demonstrated that sometimes life takes you in unplanned and unusual directions. But it’s all rather useful material for future books. Though, he did seem to be destined to be a pirate from the very beginning.

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Jonny worked on a real pirate ship for a year  – yes, that one there.

BTW you can learn pirate talk from handy websites like this one: http://the-pirate-ship.com/piratedictionary.html

Jonny thinks up stories and rhymes while out running/cycling in the welsh hills. I wonder if the Chilterns have the same magic air.

It was lovely to meet the SCBWI’s who have launched their books this year at the Mass Book Launch Party. Thank you for all those signed copies! My children feel very spoiled.

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Go SCBWIs!

On Sunday morning, publisher David Fickling got us all up and dancing to Pulp Fiction, and then he shouted money money money. Yes please, David, that would be a nice change.

Agents Julia Churchill (A.M Heath) and Penny Holroyde (Holroyde Cartey) gave a great session on everything an agent does (which is a lot more than I appreciated). Penny also shared a page of her golden notebook – subjects/genres publishers are short of at the moment. Yes, gold dust indeed. My lips are sealed. Book SCBWI events to find out about these tips!

Somewhere in the middle of all that, I had a one to one with an editor from Frances Lincoln and a crit session on a picture book that won’t behave, but now might, thanks to my critiquers insightful comments.

Lots of contacts, lots to follow up on and writing enthusiasm at warp speed 10.

Thank you SCBWI-BI Team.

Writing Humorous Picture Books

I thought this an excellent addition to the notes on my blog about writing picture books. Thank you Rebecca and Laurie for sharing. Love that hat.

Laurie J. Edwards ~ Author, Artist, Dreamer...

Rebecca witch 1Today I have the great pleasure of hosting my friend Rebecca Colby, an awesome picture book writer, whose book, It’s Raining Bats & Frogs, released this month. She’s agreed to give share some secrets for writing funny picture books. And as a special bonus, if you read through the post, you’ll find a clue for her Scavenger Hunt. Be sure to collect all of the clues to be eligible for a prize.

And here’s Rebecca…

Show Them the Funny: Writing Humorous Picture Books

Everywhere I look on editor and agent submission wish lists these days, I read the following: WANTED: Funny, Quirky Picture Books. Why? Because everyone enjoys a laugh—kids and adults alike. Laughing makes people feel good, and as a result, funny sells.

But if you’re not the kind of person who automatically sees the funny side of life, you may find writing humorous picture books…

View original post 862 more words

Discovering inspirational story locations

Troyes and Avignon – a story maker’s delight

In another life, had I been brave and worldly enough in my twenties and a lot freer than I am now, I would have been a travel journalist and photographer. I love exploring extraordinary places steeped in culture and history, the colours, the smells, the faces and all the little details of a place that make it unique.

On our drive through France, heading to the sunny riviera, we rejected touristy Reims as a stop off with it’s champagne commercialism and stopped instead at Troyes and Avignon.

Troyes is a story makers delight. I marvelled at medieval street after medieval street of half timber framed houses, every house a different colour, some patterned with distinctive tiles, others with ornate turrets where magic must be at work because they simply defy gravity.

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As I turn a corner I half expect to stumble upon Dumas’ Musketeers duelling in the street or a young wizard stepping out of a timber fronted shop with his first wand.

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Troyes could be the backdrop to any Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. Is this Snow Whites castle?

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Or perhaps it could be Middle Earthhere’s a Hobbit’s house, the door child-sized.

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And then there’s the magnificent gothic St-Pierre and St-Paul Cathedral, its grand galleries fit for Kings; or perhaps the cathedrale is reminiscent of Tolkein’s dwarfish realm of Moira, the giant arches hewn from grey stone, taking four hundred years to complete.

Troyes Cathedrale

Onwards through France we travelled stopping next in Avignon.

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The 14th century Papal Palace

Avignon was the Papal seat in the 14th century. The Papal palace was constructed in just twenty years and was the biggest building site in Europe. Imagine a pilgrim seeing this view from the hostel across the Rhone river for the first time. Awe inspiring. It still is.

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The imposing French King’s castle in Villeneuve les Avignon. 

What places inspired you this summer?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Critiques, Contacts and Competitions – What a week!

So much has gone on this week there’s a danger it won’t fit on the page.

It all started last Tuesday and ended on Sunday with a lovely surprise.

TUESDAY: The SCBWI Industry Insiders: Picture Books & Early Readers talk in London.

On the panel were Sara Grant from Book Bound, Emma Layfield from publisher Hodder and Mark from Plumb Pudding Illustration Agency. They gave one of the best, most informative talks I have ever attended – and believe me I have attended a few.

There was none of that, ‘we’re not sure what we want but we know it when we see it’ vagueness. No indeed, we got straight to the point with marketing facts and figures and actionable advice such as, tops tips on how to write for each age group, lists of bestsellers, which supermarket promotional slots to target for picture books, the where and why of what sells in international markets, UK trends and opportunities and why there are so many picture books featuring the Queen’s Hat/Knickers/Baby…. and why there will be more still!

I’ve filled half a notebook with scrawled notes.

Here’s a couple of happy facts I’ll share with you.

  • The UK is a highly productive picture book market. There are 153,000 new picture books published every year.
  • We export 60% to the US (but not the toilet humour ones, they have a thing about those!)
  • Picture books have a maximum of 14 spreads and should be 400-500 words.
  • There should be a change of scene for each spread and the structure should look something like this:

Spread 1: Intro

Spread 2: Establish problem

Spread 3-8: Action

Spread 9: Crisis moment

Spread 10: Examine feelings

Spread 11: Solve problem

Spread 12: Emotional resolution

What is a young readers?

Sara Grant has helpfully dissipated my confusion over young readers.

These are the illustrated books for 5-8 year olds and should not be confused with reading scheme books, which are used by schools and parents to teach children to read. Writing for reading schemes is by invitation only.

Agents and publishers are actively looking for original stories for 5-8 year olds, it’ a growing segment. The SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition would also welcome more young readers entries. It opens for submissions in July.

The average length of a young reader is 5,000 words.

It was good to see some familiar faces and catch up with fellow SCBWI’s at this well attended event.

SCBWI Professionals Evening - Picture Books and Young Readers

SCBWI Industry Insiders Evening – Emma Layfield’s Picture Book Presentation (Hodder)

Thursday: Children’s Book Circle: 15 minute critique with a picture book publisher at Penguin HQ.

It’s a worthwhile experience to have a story critiqued by a professional even if it is only for 15 minutes. Sophie from Scholastic provided some very insightful advice. She explained why circular stories work so well, why characters should be very active on the page, and why I need to tone down my bossy mean uncle character.

But 15 minutes goes very quickly!

Saturday/Sunday: Winchester Literary Festival Writing Competitions.

I submitted three picture books and a reworked opening to my YA novel to this competition that also promised a mini critique for each entry.

To my surprise I was shortlisted for the First Three Pages of a Novel Prize and won. My prize is a meeting with publishers Little Brown.

Awesome.

What a week!

Now I must get back to editing my novel and that picture book!

Children’s picture book publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts

Big picture book publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited submissions but many of the smaller independent ones do. If you want to publish without getting an agent, see the list below.

Note – all these publishers have websites and it is a very good idea to look closely at their catalogue and read their books, as they often focus on one area of the market, e.g. board books, novelty books, colouring books, educational, series, younger children, etc… and there is often a very clear house style. Submission guidelines and word count vary a lot, so check out their guidelines or ask for them and tailor each submission accordingly.

Most of these publishers also publish young readers, middle grade, teen and non-fiction

Anderson Press

Maverick Books (currently they are overwhelmed and have closed their doors but will probably be open to submissions again at some point)

Nosy Crow (traditional publishing and digital)

Firefly Books

Templar books

Hinkler Books

Francis Lincoln books

Oxford Uni Press

Walker Books (if you look closely at their submissions page they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts for any other age group, but they do from picture book illustrators and writers, but don’t expect a reply unless an editor absolutely loves it! The slush pile mountain is legendary!)

Sweet Cherry Publishing (series reads only)

Newish publishers to look out for:

Fourth Wall Publishing

Flying Eye Books

Old Barn Books

Barefoot Books (not sure how open to new writers/illustrators they are but checkout their interactive studio in Oxford!)

Made in Me (digital books)

Ginger books

You can circumvent the ‘no unsolicited manuscripts rule’ with the big publishers by talking to them at writing conferences or any other author/publisher/agent events they might attend. Also look out for competitions, they are often sponsored/judged by an editor from a publishing house that would otherwise be closed to new writers. At the SCBWI conference, I handed a Little Tiger Press editor two stories after she facilitated a picture book writing session and she was kind enough to give me some very good feedback within two weeks! My stories would have been ignored otherwise.

If you get feedback, it is like gold dust, no matter what it says. Thank editors profusely for their time.

Good luck.

Is the London Book Fair a worthwhile visit for budding authors?

My morning at Olympia started at 9:45 at Authors HQ, listening to Rebecca Swift from the Literary Consultancy, chairing a discussion with agents, Juliet Mushens, The Agency Group, and Iain Millar, co-found of Canelo Digital Publishing, on how they find new talent.

Some of their advice I have heard before but it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of the high standards expected of manuscripts.

Juliet said: “Succinctly summarise what your novel is about in your covering letter. Tell us why your story is going to be attractive to publishers and readers. It’s amazing how many authors don’t do this.”

Iain said: “A lot of manuscripts are rejected because they start too early and don’t establish character, setting and conflict in the opening chapters skilfully.”

Juliet advised: “Send your first three chapters to 5-10 agents. If they ask for the full manuscript this does not mean they want to represent you and not all agents respond with comments, alas.” Though Juliet said she does send feedback if she reads a full manuscript.

Agents and publisher, Juliet Mushens and Iain Millar answering questions.

Agents and publisher, Juliet Mushens and Iain Millar, answering questions.

I then headed over to the Children’s Hub to listen to Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New children’s writing, and her publisher Samantha Selby-Smith and agent Louise Lamont from LBA. Laura’s novel, Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse, is to be released in October. I was lucky enough to be given a free proof copy.

I chuckled when Laura confessed she had only written the first five thousand words required to enter the first stage of the competition. When she was shortlisted, Scholastic asked if she had the full manuscript (which was expected!), she said yes, and then wrote her novel in three weeks. “It was the most stressful three weeks of my life. I wouldn’t recommend lying to your publisher,” she joked.

Laura Wood signing, Poppy Pym and the Pharaohs Curse

Laura Wood signing, Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse

I had time to look at all the publisher stands in the Children’s section before heading to the next talk. My objective was to: collect trade catalogues, handy for idea creation (and spotting what has already been done), publisher styles and market trends; and also to discover new or relatively new publishers, who are expanding their lists and accept unsolicited manuscripts. I found a few!

I located the Pen Literary Salon just in time to hear Anthony Browne talk about his long career illustrating and writing picture books. He was my favourite speaker of the day – articulate, wise and creative.

He takes ideas from his childhood, from familiar objects, other artwork, toys and games. He twists and changes them into something else and plays with point of view.

"Picture books are like works of art, they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited." Anthony Browne

“Picture books are like works of art, they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited.” Anthony Browne

“There should be different layers in picture books. The child doesn’t have to know what everything is or what everything means. Conversations between children and adults are generated by the story and illustrations. Parents sometimes move children on to quickly from picture books, thinking they are for young children and therefore babyish.”

Anthony believes the picture book is for any age. “We live in a visual world of moving images, there is only a few seconds to appreciate an image before it is gone. Picture books in contrast are like works of art; they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited.”

After lunch, I did a quick reccy of the larger publishers stands, which sprawl across the grand hall, collecting more trade catalogues. I also checked out the self-publishing stands. There’s a lot of info available and at least one talk a day.

Olympia's Grand Hall.

Olympia’s Grand Hall

Then I headed back to Author HQ to hear some very brave authors pitch their books live to a panel of agents and publishers. They had one minute to introduce themselves and two minutes to pitch their book before being critiqued. The panel had pre-read one chapter.

It was interesting to watch people’s style, hear about their background and watch mistakes. The biggest takeout from the panel was a warning about marketability. “Where does your book fit,” they kept asking, a couple of authors received the more depressing news, “I like the writing but I can’t sell it.”

This it at odds with the advice often given, “right what you love” – the caveat clearly is, as long as it is marketable.

There is definitely a lot more going on for authors this year at LBF. I’ve got a stack of information about the market and a few publishing leads.

Yes, indeed, it’s definitely worth the ticket.

(SCBWI members are eligible for a half price flexi ticket)

Notes from a SCBWI Masterclass with Eric Huang – Picture books for the digital age

I first heard Eric Huang speak at the SCBWI Winchester conference last October. I was inspired by the creativity of the apps, characters and stories Made in Me were developing for Me Books – but what particularly struck a chord, was Eric’s suggestion that authors and illustrators should start thinking about themselves as creators.

In the digital and marketing age, characters and the worlds we create for them, can live beyond the page, in fact they can jump about and talk or even make an appearance as a stuffed toy in Tesco.

Exciting and inspiring?  Yes, I think so. So when I saw a SCBWI masterclass scheduled with Eric, I jumped at the chance to learn more.

Eric Huang

Eric Huang

Made in Me doesn’t think about publishing in the way traditional publishers do.

Most publishers don’t market themselves; they market their books and their authors (and sometimes not even this). Penguin is one of the few publishers that do.

In contrast, games, TV, film and comic book creators (and just about any other consumer facing brand) consider branding very early on in the development process.

They build characters and a world for the characters to live in. They think about the UX (the user experience) and the user interactivity with the brand. This might include: apps, games, stationary, toys, clothing or food. Moshi Monsters is a good example.

Eric pointed out that a lot of entertainment brand profits come from rights, licensing and merchandise, and these big entertainment brands, more often than not, originate from books, e.g. How to Train Your Dragon, Paddington.

So when creating a picture book, think about it’s potential.

These are some of the questions Eric suggests creators ask themselves.

  • Can the characters and world live beyond a single story? If not, how can you make the concept stronger?
  • Do you want your name or the characters/book series to be the brand?
  • How do you want your creation to be treated? Eric suggests writing a brand bible. Creators should always think carefully before signing away creative rights.

Eric pointed out the benefits of writing story apps.

  • It’s a good test market. Concepts can be adjusted until they work.
  • Think big. Start small and brand build.
  • Interactivity doesn’t just mean audio or animation. Handheld devices feature microphones, video and cameras. These can be utilised interactively to enhance the UX and link the digital world with the physical world. The best digital experiences are those that tap into existing behaviours and patterns of play.
  • Creative partnerships (illustrator/writer/animator combos) are welcome to pitch.
  • THERE ARE NO RULES
Pitching a concept to Eric

Pitching a concept to Eric

Eric’s marketing tips.

  • Build a brand website.
  • Achieve search engine optimization.
  • Think when and how people are using digital stories.
  • Concepts that generate an emotion response work best, e.g. on the Moshi Monsters website, children can decorate their own room. Also look at name, a personalised digital book.

For inspiration Eric suggested the following:

Obviously www.madeinme.com where you can visit Stomp! and Trevor the Troll and www.mebooks.co which is the downloadable story app.

Also:

www.caribuapp.com  (Skype for book readers)

www.nosycrow.com/apps (more story apps )

www.teachyourmonstertoread.com (a learning to read interactive game)

Eric is accepting submissions. Email: eric@madeinme.com

Eric Huang is Development Director at Made in Me, an award winning digital publisher in London specialising in children’s entertainment. He looks after IP development and partnerships around creating and launching digital brands

Happy masterclass attendees

Happy masterclass attendees

Look up http://britishisles.scbwi.org to see SCBWI events and scheduled masterclasses and http://www.wordsandpics.org for the fabulous on-line magazine Words and Pictures, with, oh, so much, information for children’s authors.

Being creative with words. The picture book writers tool kit.

A picture book writer’s tool kit is awesome, it’s why I write picture books. Playing with these techniques is great fun.

Remember, picture books are meant to be read out loud. So go to town – bold and wacky is good.

But remember the audience. Keep the concept and structure simple. And short!

Rhyme

There is some negativity in the industry about rhyme because of the difficulties of translation. The bigger publishers are more accepting of rhyming stories but the story has to be original and the rhyme perfectly structured and metered.

An appreciation and understanding of the techniques of rhyming poetry is essential if you are going to attempt a whole story in rhyme. If you don’t know what I mean by meter, foot and stressed/unstressed syllables, don’t attempt rhyme. There are so many easier techniques to use that are just as effective.

One option is to write the story predominantly in prose but have a short chorus in rhyme. See, The Ginger Bread Man.

Assonance is a form of rhyme called ‘vowel rhyme.’ It is the repetition of similar vowel sounds in a sentence. E.g. Each Peach Pear Plum (also alliteration here, see below)

Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in quick succession. E.g. pitter-patter, Chicken Licken.

Rhythm

Every sentence we speak has syllables that are stressed and unstressed. Rhythm is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within a line of verse or prose. Rhythm and rhyme are natural partners but rhythm works fine on its own. The king of rhythm without rhyme is Michael Rosen. Check out, We are going on a Bear Hunt, and Little Rabbit Foo Foo. The Bear Hunt has a chanting feel to it. An ear for music/poetry really helps here.

We're going on a Bear hunt

Repetition

Often used alongside rhyme and rhythm (as a chorus or refrain) but also appears in narrative texts to give structure and emphasis. Breaking a repetitive pattern as the story climaxes, flags to the reader/listener something exciting is about to happen. Children learn through repetition. They find familiarity reassuring and comforting.

Onomatopoeia

Sound effects! Comics and cartoons use them to great effect and so can picture books. Children love to copy sounds. Many picture books and early readers have characters names that are onomatopoeic, e.g. Plop in The Owl Who was Afraid Of The Dark by Jill Tomlinson

For inspiration, check out this website www.writtensound.com

 Alliteration

This can be a lot of fun to write. But don’t over do it when naming characters or thinking up titles. Big Bad Bunny and Horton Hears a Who? are great examples but beware of Sammy Squirrel, Richard Rabbit, they have been done, done, done! Julia Donaldson wears the alliteration crown (as well as the rhyme, rhythm and repetition one!)

 Anthropomorphism or Personification

Is the attributing of human qualities to an animal or object. Okay there are lots of animals in picture books but not so many objects. A recent hit is, The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. Each crayon writes a letter to Duncan, each has a distinct voice.

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 Hyperbole

Exaggeration is everywhere in picture books – language, art and character. Roald Dahl’s characters are a perfect example. Also check out Levi Pinfold’s Black Dog. The illustration of the black dog literally spills off the page. He’s big!

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I love overblown concepts, for example, The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers. You want to read about him don’t you!

To name or not to name your character

Children love to name their pets and toys, even if that name is very simple. Hands up how many of you own a toy called Bear or Rabbit. It is not necessary to write it in the story The child can see perfectly well it’s a Bear from the picture. So whether you go with Boy, Mr. Tiger or something more imaginative such as The Almost Fearless Hamilton Squidlegger by Timothy Basil Ering (a frog), the most important thing is that your character has character and attitude, after all, most three year olds have plenty.

Remember if the name is unique, it’s memorable and ownable – alas this kind of light bulb moment doesn’t happen everyday.

Catchy titles

Titles encapsulating the story’s main character or the theme are great – but if standout is an issue, think about these alternative approaches.

Instructions: How to Wash a Woolley Mammoth by Michelle Robinson, How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers,

An invitation: You Choose by Pippa Goodhart, Guess How Much I love You by Sam McBratney

A question: Where’s Spot? By Eric Hill, Have you seen my dragon? By Steve Light

Orders: Calm Down, Boris! By Sam Lloyd, Oi! Get off our Train by John Burningham, Eat your Peas by Kes Grey

Opposite to expectations: Goldilocks and the three Dinosaurs by Mo Williams

Provocative statements: Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Dogs Don’t do Ballet by Anna Kemp, This is not my Hat by Jon Klassen

Unusual names and concepts: The Tin Forest by Helen Ward, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

Ridiculous and funny: This book just ate my dog! by Richard Byrne Shh! We have a Plan by Chris Haughton. Do not let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Williams

thisbookjustatemydog

Tense

There are no rules about tense, go with your instinct. Try them out and see how it changes the story.

Present tense feels immediate, faster paced, the story is happening now. I use this for action-packed or wacky stories.

Past tense is more traditional, we are being told a tale so it feels slower paced and cosy. Perfect for reassuring bedtime stories and traditional narratives.

Future tense. Huh? I hear you say. Actually it’s rather fun. Haven’t you ever said, what if…

Who’s telling the story anyway?

The 3rd person

The narrative voice is the traditional form of story telling. Most picture books are told this way and the narrator tends to stay in the main characters head.

To refresh an old fairytale considering changing the POV character e.g. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! By A Wolf. By John Scieszka

Omniscient 3rd Person

Head jumping can be confusing, especially for little ones. But if executed carefully with a simple concept, it could work. Knowing what someone else is thinking can be amusing, reassuring or surprising e.g. Big Pumpkin by Erica Silverman

The 1st person

I or we can be told in rhyme, narrative, letter or diary form. There’s lots of scope for originality in the first person and it’s all about voice. The Day the Crayons Quit is composed of seven letters written by the seven crayons. Each Peach Bear Plum, I spy Tom Thumb, is a rhyme in first person. The storyteller invites the listener to spy with them. We’re going on a Bear Hunt is an adventure told by a family.

A young child’s perspective on the world can be charming for adults and an instant hit with children. Hoorah. they think, a book that talks my language! E.g. Good morning toes, Good morning feet, tangled up between my sheets (Hello Toes, Hello Feet by Ann Whitford Paul.)

2nd Person

Using the You POV is a lot less common but why not consider it as an option, it involves the reader directly in the story and children love to participate. Lots of authors use this technique for titles e.g. How to Train Your Dragon, but the main story is written in 3rd person. I can only think of You Choose, as an example of a current second person rhyme. The simple rhyme repeats the invitation ‘you choose’ on every spread. I also remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure,” books from my childhood. In these books, the reader made decisions throughout the book about how the story should progress, so it was written with the reader as the viewpoint character.

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Time and place

Don’t just think about the here and now. There’s a whole world (or universe) out there to set your story in. Real or imagined. Past, present or future. Mix it up a little.

Phew. Have I missed anything out?

Oh, yes! Lots of sticky notes, coloured pens and pencils, a decent eraser, a plain sheet artist’s notebook and a dictaphone or someone else to read it back to you, even a child if you have one handy.

Ann Whitford Paul has written a very helpful book entitled, Writing Picture Books. Her explanation of meter and poetry techniques is particularly useful for the rhythmically challenged.

Next post: Evoking emotion in characters and readers (adult and children)

It’s darn tricky I can tell you.

How to develop a picture book idea – structure and layout

Part 1 – Structure and Layout

Before we get creative let’s talk about structure and layout.

Picture books are fairly formulaic.

Most picture books have 32 pages of which around 24 pages make up the story. In theory up to 30 of the pages could be used for the story.

There are also 24 page picture books with 16 pages for the story. These books have a simple premise and tend to be for 1-3 year-olds.

So as a starting point aim to create a 24-page story or to use the industry lingo, 12 double page spreads.

A standard structure

  • The main character should be introduced on the first spread. (If not, let it be for a very good reason!)
  • The problem should appear on the first or second spread.
  • The character’s problem escalates until…
  • Spread 8 or 9, when there should be a twist or pace change
  • The story climaxes on spread 10
  • Resolution follows on spread 11
  • End note or final twist on spread 12

When you get used to drafting a story to this outline, it does highlight plot holes or over complicated plots.

Picture books are simple. There tends to be one very clear theme. If you have more than one theme and many characters, the story naturally lengthens and the number of pages and words increase.

About word count…

I keep hearing from agents and publishers: “under 500 words.”

Why is this?

– Parents don’t want to read very long bedtime stories (sadly!)

– Books with fewer words are easier and cheaper to export and translate and publishers rely on co-editions to make a profit.

– Most importantly, picture books with minimal words empower children to interpret the story for themselves, use their imaginations and ask questions. Thus the story is more involving than if it were told to a child and the child is more likely to pick the story up and ‘read it’ again because they feel empowered to do so.

Picture book writers need to view themselves as story creator’s not just writers. It’s hard as writers to have the confidence to put zero words on some pages and let the pictures do the telling. But you know the saying… a picture speaks a thousand words… absolutely, it does.

Take a look at the spreads of a picture book best seller where a story climaxes or resolves. Often this is where there are the least words. The story creators know this gives the maximum impact. A spread with no words shouts, ‘STOP AND TAKE THIS IN, SOMETHING BIG IS HAPPENING.’

Dummy Book & Illustrations

The best way to structure a picture book is to create a dummy with 24 blank pages. You will probably have a few key scenes in your head, hopefully the problem and the climax of the story. Using the outline above as a guide, scribble where these should go in the dummy and build the story around them. Don’t worry about the exact words at this point. Worry about getting a good scene-by-scene flow to the story. Either, write illustration notes as you go or sketch how you imagine the illustrations might work with the text. Everyone can draw stick figures. This exercise will reveal where you need to adjust the plot and how the pictures could tell the story. Think about creating anticipation and revelation with a page turn.

Illustration notes should be brief and only include what is not obvious from the text. E.g. setting, basic character information, action and most importantly irony (where the picture tells a different story to the words.)

An illustrator determines the illustration style, creates the setting and develops the idiosyncrasies and detailed actions of the character. The writer is often not consulted and your illustration notes may be ignored. The publishing editor and layout designer have the final say.

It is really important to understand how illustrators think and work. YouTube has some great video clips posted by picture book illustrators. I recommend Lynne Chapman.

Next post:

Developing Picture Book Ideas Part Two

Getting creative – the picture book writer’s tool kit.