Six Reasons to Write a Story Map

Despite attending writing classes, which herald the benefits of properly planning a novel, I still dive straight in, ‘pantsing it,’ with only a broad three act overview and a couple of character portraits. Why? Because I’m enthused. I have the dramatic first few scenes in my head and I want to get them down on paper before they become diluted by doubt or distraction. There’s nothing like a good start – or so I think.

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So 15,000 words into my second novel, a middle grade children’s fantasy set in today’s contemporary world with a parallel fantasy world, I get writers block. And not just for a day or a week but many weeks. My word count shrivels to a pathetic few hundred a day. I write, rewrite, rejig, leave it, come back to it and repeat (there are more words on my cuttings page than in the manuscript). I still love my story, I know there’s something charming about the idea, but I’m fed up. I’ve lost my flow and doubt I can write chapters. Perhaps I should stick to picture books and short stories. Maybe novels aren’t for me.

Crit groups are rather good at providing perspective (and a timely kick up the rear). Fellow SCBWI’s pointed out: my action was great, my fantasy world had potential BUT (there’s always a BUT) my world lacked specifics and my heroine didn’t know who she was, both literally and metaphorically, so neither did the reader.

I had to admit what I already knew deep down; I could only ‘pants it’ so far – it was time to write a proper story plan.

The very first question I asked myself was:

1.What kind of story am I writing?

A fantasy adventure, I thought. Hmmm. Turns out there’s more than one kind. I flicked through Ronald Tobias’s, 20 Plots & How To Build Them (Readers Digest), and discovered that my story borrows elements from a Quest, Adventure, Pursuit and Discovery plot. And to make matters even more confusing my story is a potential trilogy, therefore, should there be an overriding plot and different individual book plots? Common sense suggests, yes. The first book, on closer inspection, is an adventure pursuit plot. My heroine is running away at the beginning of each act, headlong into even more trouble, and there is also an overarching goal of personal discovery – she’s trying to find out who she really is. Pursuit plots work best when there are lots of unexpected twists and turns, and the purser, or his/her emissaries, should always feel close behind, which keeps tension tight. This gave me a basic structure and style to work to.

2. Every scene is complex and every paragraph, sentence and word should moves the plot forward.

Spreadsheets aren’t my favourite piece of software due to many years looking at company budgets, but they do force orderliness and empty boxesimages-6 scream:

HERE’S A GAP IN YOUR THINKING!

There’s also the dining room wall and lots of sticky notes, but I’m worried about children tampering with it or a puff of wind scattering them, so spreadsheets it is. I am also told Scrivener is very good and this in on my Christmas list.

So how to build your story map:

List chapters/scenes in the vertical cells. Separate them into three acts.

Horizontally, across the top, list all the things a sensible writer needs to consider in every scene. Here are the headings I use for each column. Adapt to suit.

  • Chapters/Scene title
  • Word Count
  • Plot summary (Briefly)
  • Editor’s notes (detail changes/things to check in next draft)
  • Setting
  • Character (list)
  • Reveals – signposts/clues/info (pacing exposition is crucial for tension)
  • Chapter/scene arc – three acts (cause/action>>> effect/emotional fallout>>>decision)
  • Conflict/tension – (should include change of polarity within scene e.g happy opening>>> tense ending.)
  • Hero’s character arc (growth/change)
  • Secondary character(s) story arc or notes
  • Meaning and symbolism

Suffice to say, it’s a lot easier to draft and edit a manuscript if all the important elements are listed and of course the map evolves as you write and rewrite.

3. Do you really know your world?

  • What does it look like?
  • What are the beliefs/values of your world?
  • What’s its history and law?
  • Who are its leaders: – religious – political – scientific – economic?
  • Does it have a different language or original/quirky phraseimages-12s or sayings?

I cannot recommend storyboards, paper or digital (pinterest), enough. We cannot feasibly visit and know all our locations, especially if they are only loosely based on reality. There is some beautiful photography and fantasy art on the Internet – endless free inspiration! You can also build mood boards for key scenes.

4. Do you really know ALL your characters?

Categorise them into:

  • Protagonists/POV characters
  • Allies
  • Antagonists – primary and secondary
  • Mentor
  • Ambiguous (good turns bad or vice-versa)
  • Subordinate/minor characters (friend or foe) that inhabit the world and make it feel real.

After I finished my story map, I listed all my characters and summarised their plot purpose. I have 21 characters, 14 have more than one scene and are important to the plot. I have two POV characters, therefore, I need to consider their understanding and reaction to all the other characters they come into contact with in the context of each scene, as well as each other. In addition, I need to map secondary characters behaviour with each other. This is why I got stuck. I simply hadn’t appreciated the number and complexity of these relationships.

Start a second excel sheet and name it ‘characters.’ List their relationship and attitude, e.g. Captain of the Guards, subordinate to King, loyal, brave, blinkered, will use blunt force, but not a brute.

Casting and interviewing your characters, finding pictures of them and including clothing and personal props, really helps to bring them alive. And it’s good fun.

Another blog post about interviewing characters will shortly follow this one.

5. Have you considered your sequel, series or prequel?

If we spend a lot of time world and character building, it’s a shame not to put all that research and effort to good use again. Drop in unresolved sub plots, interesting secondary characters or other dimensions that can be later explored. Tolkien and J.K Rowling knew how their series was going to end and the broad theme of each book, before they finished writing the first instalment. Use the different sheets in Excel to build a story arc for each book.

6. Clarity of pitch and positioning

In a covering letter, an editor will want to know what kind of book they are about to read. Clarity of purpose leads to clary of pitch, and a story map will also help you write a tight synopsis.

Best wishes and happy mapping.

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How to write fantastic descriptive passages

Part 1. Places

We’ve had lots of conversations in my critique group lately about how to describe places and people.

So I thought I would check out how children’s greatest and best authors tackle it, starting with place…

Here’s an extract from…

His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman.

imagesDirectly ahead of the ship a mountain rose, green-flanked and snow-capped, and a little town and harbour lay below it: wooden houses with steep roofs, an oratory spire, cranes in the harbour, and clouds of gulls wheeling and crying. The smell was of fish, but mixed with it came the land-smell too: pine-resin and earth and something animal and musky, and something else that was cold and blank and wild: it might have been snow. It was the smell of the North.

Isn’t he a master at painting scenes with words!

The passage is packed with detail. He starts by describing what Lyra can see from the deck of the ship and then he explores the smell of the place, slowly, so we are standing right next to Lyra tasting the air with her, trying to identify that part new, part familiar smell. The description also conveys a sense of Lyra’s anticipation and excitement. She has finally arrived in the North.

Also check out the punctuation. He uses a mixture of colons, commas and the conjunction ‘and’ to structure the scene. This variation prevents the passage from feeling blocky. He has also achieved a rhythmical quality with lots of doubled-up descriptions e.g. “green-flanked and snow capped,” “wooden houses and steep roofs,” “pine-resin and earth.” It’s a lovely passage to read aloud.

The Way We Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

images-3This short passage is from an early scene when Daisy arrives at her aunt’s farm jetlagged and overwhelmed. It’s appropriately short, as Daisy literally can’t take everything in. Rosoff describes the farm and its inhabitants in one broad sweep to reflect her character’s mood.

There was a welcoming committee staring at me through the window and in it were four kids, and a goat and a couple of dogs…and in the background I saw some cats scooting around after a bunch of ducks that for some reason or other were hanging out on the lawn.

A few pages later, when Daisy’s had a chance to explore, Meg Rosoff lets her pen flow.

First let’s get it clear that the house is practically falling down, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to make any difference to how beautiful it is. It’s made of big chunks of yellowish stone, and has a steep roof, and is shaped like an L around a big courtyard with fat pebbles set in the ground. The short part of the L has a wide arched doorway and it used to be the stable, but now it’s the kitchen and it’s huge, with zigzag brick floors and big windows all across the front and a stable door that’s left open, Whenever it’s not actually snowing, says Edmond….

 Daisy has a wonderful voice and it’s a neat technique, having your main character give the reader a tour of the house and grounds. A benefit of first person POV.

The passage goes on for two pages, which tells us that Daisy is curious by nature and rather enjoying her change of scene.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K Rowling.

I have to include Harry Potter because it haHarry Potter landscapes such iconic imagery and fantasy settings are the product of the author’s imagination, so in theory tougher for the writer to convey. What’s particularly interesting about the The Philosopher’s Stone, and typical of J.K Rowling’s style as a whole, are the scattered short descriptive passages. Individually they’re not terribly clever. They don’t have the poetic quality of Philip Pullman or the voice of Meg Rosoff’s, Daisy; but J.K Rowling works another trick here. She weaves her description around the character’s action and dialogue so cleverly, the reader feels as if the story is unfolding in its entirety in front of their eyes. A cinematic quality, which perhaps is the reason the books are so popular with such a wide range of readers.

“Yeh’ll ger yers firs’ sight o’ Hogwarts in a sec,’ Hagrid called over his shoulder, ‘jus’ round this bend here. There was a loud ‘Oooooh!’ The narrow path had opened suddenly on to the edge of a black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its window sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and windows.  ‘No more’n four to a boat,’ Hagrid called, pointing to a fleet of little boats sitting in the water by the shore.

Checkout that structure! Dialogue/characterisation (with a touch of foreshadowing),then action, reaction, place description, dialogue and place description again.  Great storytelling!

So five things to remember:

  • Show’ a place from the character’s viewpoint (not the author’s). A character’s mood and ability to observe/feel their surroundings can change considerably from scene to scene.
  • Detail, detail detail! Pin sharp detail makes a place seem real. A great setting can influence the mood of your protagonist and set a mood for the whole book. Know your setting’s quirks like you know the quirks of your characters.
  • Utilise all the senses. Authors rely far too much on sight.
  • Think about the descriptive words you use and the structure of your sentences. Similes, metaphors, rhythm and repetition can massively enhance a descriptive passage, as can active verbs and well placed adjectives, and yes, even the odd helpful adverb.
  • Don’t write your descriptive passages in a great lump of prose unless you are very skilled at all the above techniques, in which case, you may be excused as “being literary.”

Next post: How to write fantastic description – Part 2. People

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

theblackdog

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.

Feeling well and truly post conference SCBWI’ed!

So it’s Monday morning after the conference and my head is spinning with the volume of information I have scribbled in my notebook and the new contacts I have made this weekend. I am particularly excited about all the contacts.

In the space of two days, I have found two fellow SCBWI members in my hometown who write exactly the genre I do. I have met commissioning editors from Oxford University Press, Little Tiger Press and Maverick Books. I have chatted to Kate Nash, from the Kate Nash Literary Agency, Amber Caraveo from Skylark Literacy Agency. I have attended workshops run by authors Nick Butterworth and Mike Brownlow (the result is a promising group story effort about a formidable pigeon!)

Nick Butterworth

Nick Butterworth

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I listened with interest to keynote speakers, Sally Gardner and Cathy Cassidy about their journey to success.

Cathy Cassidy

Cathy Cassidy

I have met most of the SCBWI organizing team (all published authors/illustrators themselves) and a large number of fellow aspiring authors and amazing illustrators.

Phew…

You’d think I’d need to put my feet up and relax after all that. No Way – I’m inspired!

I have picture books to send out, a Young Reader and a YA manuscript to finish.

At the launch party on Saturday evening an impressive number of SCBWI members stood on stage with their 2014 published books. I want to stand up there too, maybe not next year, but one day…. I’d better stop blogging and start writing, I’ve got a lot of work to do….

SCBWI Launch Party

SCBWI Launch Party

Book of Animal Stories Launch Party Highlights

What a lovely evening and it was great to put names to faces.

I meet the illustrator of The Elephant Carnival, Briony May Smith, my editor Daisy at Walker Books, thank you for your encouragement and offer to look at more or my stories. I met Justine Roberts, the CEO of Mumsnet, Denise Johnstone-Burt from Walker books and Anthony Browne, the head judge.

And not forgetting all the other authors and illustrators, who after a few glasses of wine started signing each others books and calling each other the Panda Lady,the Bat Lady and (me) the Elephant Lady! Every author and illustrator I spoke to said this was their first publication. So fingers crossed this is just the beginning for everyone.

And thank you to the CBC gang for meeting me before hand at The Society Club (bookshop with a bar!) to help ease my nerves.

Here are the pics from the evening.

With Briony (the illustrator)

With Briony (the illustrator)

With Justine CEO of Mumsnet

With Justine CEO of Mumsnet

With Denise from Walker Books

With Denise from Walker Books

Curtis Brown Creative Gang (Writing for Children Students 2013)

Curtis Brown Creative Gang
(Writing for Children Students 2013)

Briony's amazingly detailed and colourful carnival of elephants.

Briony’s amazingly detailed and colourful carnival of elephants.

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The hero's of the Elephant Carnival, Nandi and Bobo the Elephant.

The hero’s of the Elephant Carnival, Nandi and Bobo the Elephant.

Publication News – The Elephant Carnival in The Mumsnet Books of Animal Stories

Last February my story the Elephant Carnival was chosen along with nine other animal stories to feature in this year’s Mumsnet/Walker Books, Book of Animal Stories. And here it is – the front cover. It’s available in bookshops from the 1st October!

Idea Popping

A blog entry inspired by The Big Idea Competition

Most ideas pop into my head when I am zoned out, lost somewhere in a daydream. There’s a lot of inspiration up for grabs in the middle distance, I can tell you, so glaze over and see what pops into your head.

I have discovered the following triggers are excellent for inducing creative daydreaming.

  •  Watching repeats of husband’s favourite TV programmes. Top Gear and Grand Designs are particularly recommended for zzzzz.
  • Consuming several glasses of wine. Though can cause forgetfulness or overestimation of personal brilliance.
  • Sitting in a traffic jam with windscreen wipers on, raining or not.
  • Listening to husband snoring. I keep a UV pen handy in the bedside drawer and write on sheets if I forget my notepad.
  • Sugar highs. Who ate all the sweets, Mummy? Ummm.
  • Personal favourite. Lying on the trampoline watching the clouds float by. Though, risk of falling asleep and forgetting to pick the children up from school is a problem.

Recent Inspiration Credits:

Fact really is stranger than fiction. Thank you David Attenborough for the Pink Fairy Armadillo and the Blob Fish.

Thank you cool science magazine for a digital artists impression of the planned Mars Space Station and thank you Jack (son and heir) for a fab space plane drawing, which could definitely fly us all there.

Yes Jack, I have your picture. It’s on my desk.
No, you can’t have it back yet; your space plane is about to enter an asteroid belt.
Mars-flyer? Hmm, you’re right, that does sound better. Thanks Jack.

More seriously…

About reading…
Recent children’s fiction is of such a high standard it blows me away. I can’t remember the last time I shed a tear or snorted with laughter over an adult book, sadly. Children’s writers new and old are the best at evoking emotion in their readers and keeping reader attention from the very first line. I see the affect such writing has on my nine-year-old daughter. She devours the delights of Harry Potter and The Famous Five like chocolate and then asks for more. I dutifully conjure up the books. My price is her exacting and helpful review of the pros and cons of each book.

It’s interesting to watch her reading preferences mirror mine, we both love quest and adventure stories about far away lands, and stories about animals. Narnia, 101 Dalmatians and The Call of the Wild were some of my childhood favourites.

My son is another breed entirely. Aliens and spaceships float his boat, he giggles at quirky tales with subversive or gross humour. The pace must zip along at lightning speed.

About writing…
My problem is I have too many ideas. I have a collection of picture book texts and texts for short illustrated stories. They are under 1,000 words. I can finish them fairly quickly and move on to the next idea that pops into my head. One is excitingly on its way to publication.
But I also have ideas with deeper roots and a spread of characters. A story that has something more to say, that could be a middle grade novel or a series for emerging readers, a story that would take many weeks to write. I have to learn to kick the doubts out of the writing room door.

My entry for The Big Idea is one of them.

http://www.thebigideacompetition.co.uk