How to Write a Picture Book (From Someone Who Doesn't Know Much)

David_Close_Compressed.jpgI'm pretty sure every person who has ever seen more than one children's picture book has thought, “I could write something better than this garbage,” because a lot of picture books are awful.

And it might be true. But it's probably not as easy as you think.

Since I've sold some picture books, lots of people think I'm an expert. I'm really not, but I know a little bit. And today, I'll share almost all of it with you.

First, picture books are fairly easy to write. My first sold manuscript was less than 400 words. The next one was about 600. None of the agents or editors I've ever spoken to wanted anything over 1,000 words.

In terms of raw word count, this blog is going to take more effort than most picture books.

The plotting is really simple. You only have a few hundred words. There's not much to keep track of. There aren't many characters to flesh out. There aren't many plot threads to track.

The writing is also really simple. You're literally writing for people who read on a first-grade level. If you can handle that, you can probably write a picture book as bad as all the garbage that inspired you to write.

Second, picture books are kind of hard. All the stuff I just told you constrains your writing. You can't just throw more words at a story problem.

If you want to write a good picture book, every sentence has to earn its keep. Every paragraph has to do multiple jobs. You need to flesh out several characters enough to make them compelling. You need a plot deep enough to be interesting — more than just a string of funny scenes.

You need to make it accessible to a child. You'll get bonus points if you also make it interesting to adults.

Third (and this is something I'm still working on), you're not alone. You have an illustrator. Unless you're one of those disgustingly talented people who writes AND illustrates really well. But even you over-gifted people need to pay attention.

A lot of those picture books you thought were lame had the same problem — the illustrations just illustrated what the narration described. They were boring.

A good picture book has layers. The writing tells part of the story, and the pictures tell part. In the best books, they add up to more than the sum of their parts.

On the writer's side of the equation, that means learning what you need to say to move the story forward and what can leave to the illustrator. It's not just scene descriptions. A good illustrator will flesh out your story and paint in the fine details of character and plot that you don’t have time for in your paltry 1000 words.

But you have to make your writing evoke the rest of the story in the illustrator's mind.

I liken it a little bit to poetry, where the language also conjures up images and associations without explicitly naming them.

Fourth, I only barely understood any of this when I started, but I'd had the fortune of taking a class on Children's Literature since it filled an empty slot in my college schedule. My professor taught me the basics of what will appeal to kids. If you've got this down, you have a head start on everybody else.

  • Children like to read about characters their own age or a little older.
  • Young children like repetition because it gives them a sense of security and control. That's why if you have kids, they want to hear the same story over and over again.
  • The best writers don't talk down to kids or avoid difficult topics. They do the extra work to figure out how to talk about sad or scary stuff compassionately and accessibly.
  • Children (being normal humans) don't like it when you preach to them. Really good children's writing can carry moral lessons, but it isn't didactic.

So there you have it. Of course, there's still a lot more to learn, but that's about what I knew when I got started. The main thing is to love what you're doing. Write picture books because you want to tell stories to children.

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Reviewing Books

Tom_Bont_-_Author_Photo_300_dpi.pngWe authors are some of the most arrogant people in the world. We tell you what we’re thinking without being asked by scrawling our thoughts onto paper and publishing them. Then we sit back and wait on your approval. And if that approval doesn’t shine like the Egyptian Sun God’s golden disk during a summer solstice, we hide in a closet all weekend drawing pictures on the walls with our box of broken crayons

Then we do it all again.

Approvals of our work usually manifest as Book Reviews. Authors not only covet Book Reviews, we live for them. We all want Five-Star reviews but will grudgingly settle for Three-Stars. Anything lower than that, see my comment on crayons, above. Bad Reviews are important, too, though, just as long as they contain useful information. Simply writing, “My dog won’t even pee on this book,” is not helpful. You need to explain why your dog won’t pee on it, thankyouverymuch.

The only thing worse than bad reviews, though, is not getting reviews at all. It took me years to figure out why family members and friends wouldn’t review my books. “Tom, your book was awesome!” they’d say over dinner. “When’s the next one coming out?”

“Well,” I’d drawl, “as soon as you review the last one.”

Crickets.

For months.

Why? There are two main reasons people don’t write reviews:

  1. Readers are shy. The vast majority of people in the world keep their opinions to themselves. Remember, we’re the arrogant ones.
  2. Readers don’t know how to write reviews. Remember, we’re the writers.

It is my firm belief that if we can resolve Item 2, Item 1 will take of itself. In fact, I am going to fill your toolbox with a reviewing tool that is so simple, you are going to want to review everything you read from now on.

To start with, immediately jot down your ideas after reading a book. Strong emotions always accompany that last page and range anywhere from “Thank God this is over” to “My firstborn shall henceforth be known throughout the four lands as Tom Bont!” But a review should contain more than how you feel about it; it should also contain a logical description of your thoughts.

Once my opinions have percolated for a day or two, I use my jotted-down notes to compose the review. If there was a particular item I liked or disliked, I’ll talk about it. I might even include a short plot summary. Some authors don’t mind plot summaries. Some hate them. However, beggars can’t be choosers. If I do include a plot summary, I’m kind; I put Spoiler Warning at the top.

Next, I summarize the entire book into three categories:

  1. Writing: Spelling, ease of reading, plot creation; did you get lost when you read the book, and if so, how many times? Did the author take the time to hold your hand and lead you along your journey? Did the language make you wish that you talked that way or did it remind you of a bully from high school? Is the writing style formal, informal, or conversational?
  2. Background Information: This is more objective than subjective. Does the setting seem real? Do the secondary and tertiary characters react in a realistic manner. Is California still located on the left coast? The world must make sense! An example for me is a Peter F. Hamilton book. I tend to look up after an hour or so of reading and wonder where I am. I get lost in his world building.
  3. Character Development: Are the main characters real to you? Did you fall in love with one? Hate another? Note that some characters you are meant to hate.

I give each of these categories a Poor, Average, or Good rating. You may choose something more cinematic such as Sucky, Adequate, and Bloody Awesome if you wish.

Most authors would be tickled to get a review that covered these areas. If you want to put more into it, visit the following website: http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/asenjo.shtml

Here’s an example of an Amazon Review I did.

“Age of Heroes” by James Lovegrove

I’m not even sure where to begin with describing this book. The Greek demigods are alive and well and running around Earth? And now someone is killing them off? Hell, that’s a 5-star rating just on the idea.

And the book itself lived up to the hype.

Read this book.

Ratings: (poor, average, or good):

Writing was good.

Background information was good.

Character Development was good.

Five out of five stars.

Note the last sentence. Yes, you have to come up with a star rating.

At this point, the review is complete. But if you’re an over-achiever, you might write:

Craftsmanship was good. The book was of standard design, 6”x9”. I carried it around Scotland while on vacation, and I subjected it to rough carry-on bag usage. It held up great.

Eye Candy was good: The cover was exiting—a Greek god fighting a man with two machine guns. That’s what drew me to the book to start with.

Organization was average: There weren’t any indexes or dictionaries in the book. It would have been nice to have a listing of the pantheon of the gods in question.

Genre matching was average: I’m not sure what genre this book truly fits in. It spans from fantasy, to mystery, to science fiction. I would put this under Science-Fantasy. Amazon lists it as Military/Science Fiction.

Point of View was good: The points of view shifted from character to character, but the main protagonist, Theseus, is the main point of view. It was easy to follow what was happening.

Writing Style was good: The author’s writing style shifted from stilted conversation to informal description. In spite of that, I was able to follow along without any problems.

Wrap Up was good: This author closed all the threads. The book does beg for a sequel.

Thanks for reading this! I hope this article gives you the incentive to write those reviews. And remember, there is no perfect way to write a review. Use all of my suggestions, or just keep some of them. Either way, Write On!


Critiquing the Lion King... And Other Problems with Being a Writer

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Writing is my life. I don’t mean I sit at my computer all day and come up with blogs or bang out best-selling novels (don’t I wish). No. I mean, I live, breath, and think writing... and it’s all my husband’s fault.

I’m married to a professional writer. My husband, Alex, has eleven traditionally-published novels to his name, plus a handful of self-published books. You may have heard of him, the illustrious A. Lee Martinez.

Oh, you haven’t? Well, unfortunately, that’s what being a writer is all about. Writing is often a labor of love in obscurity. Ideally, for money.

As such, writers get really comfortable with talking about the craft of writing. I don’t mean to sound obnoxious using the word “craft.” But seven years being married to a writer has taught me that storytelling is so much more than putting words on a page.

Alex and I talk about writing. All. The. Time. We talk about storytelling the same way other families talk about politics. I must confess, before I decided to try my hand at writing a novel, it irritated me a little bit to have Alex pick apart movies I enjoyed. Nothing was sacred. He critiqued the Lion King.

Fast forward through nine years of the DFW Writers Workshop's weekly read-and-critiques. I’m telling Alex about a bizarre episode of a show I’m watching. This show is usually pretty good but this particular episode is so bad it's breaking my brain. As I’m describing the issues I have with the clearly first-draft nature of the story, Alex just pats me on the back and says, “Babe, it’s because you are a writer.”

I’ve had other moments where my new-found ability to analyze storytelling has led to some uncomfortable truths. I loved a certain superhero movie... while I was watching it. But on the drive home, my brain decided to dissect it, even without Alex in the car. "I gotta say, if you peel away the bright colors, rock anthems, and fan-favorite characters, it’s just an okay movie. Fun? Yes. Thoughtful? Not really."

Does every movie have to be thoughtful? I think so if they want to be remembered twenty years from now. But stories that stand the test of time don’t finance the next big blockbuster. Good enough is good enough, but that’s not good enough. (English is weird.)

We deserve good stories! And I’ve found them in the most innocuous of places. Take the movie "Happy Death Day." On the surface, it looked like a by-the-numbers Groundhog Day rip-off with a serial-killer twist. Except it wasn’t. Sure, the main character got murdered over and over again, often in creative and grizzly ways. But her arc as a human being was fascinating. She really used the opportunity to hold a mirror up to herself and to make some changes in her life. Plus, I didn’t see the ending coming. The movie is brilliant. It had its cake and ate it too! Serial killers AND self-actualization!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that living with a writer is dangerous. Good stories are no longer good. Bad stories are suddenly great. As it turns out, writing is contagious.


Reading Out Loud

Unlike most people who join a writer’s group to perfect their craft, connect with beta-readers, or simply commiserate about their latest rejection over pancakes and coffee, I was essentially voluntold (and yes that’s a made-up word) by my therapist to join the DFW Writer’s Workshop. As part of my exposure therapy for social anxiety, I had to join a group. Not only did I have to become a nametag wearing member of the DFWWW, I had to show up and participate in their activities. And if you’ve ever been to our weekly meeting, you know that there are two main activities — reading and critiquing. 

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The first time I read my work in front of my peers, my voice shook, my face turned fifty shades of red and sweat dribbled down the inside of my shirt as if I were soaking in a sauna. Even worse, I felt as if my rapidly beating heart was about to shoot up and out of my throat as I struggled towards my last sentence. I wanted nothing more than to slide under the plastic table and die. And that was while I was still reading. I hadn’t even gotten to the worst part, the critique, or the soul crushing evisceration of what I’d just read in front of real live human beings. That first read, I can’t even remember what people had to say about my pages. At the time, it didn’t matter. I was silently congratulating myself for surviving. I’d read my words aloud in front of people I didn’t know and I didn’t collapse and die, even though I felt like it was a very real possibility.

Each week it became easier. After each reading, I proved to myself that the fear I felt in my body wasn’t a real fight-or-flight situation. I could relax. More importantly, I could also listen and learn which has been the greatest gift of the workshop. I have learned more from hearing other people read their work and the resulting critiques on a weekly basis than I did in my MFA program. I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work and more importantly — why. Even when I think I’ve nailed a passage and I look forward to sharing it, the simple act of reading it out loud at the group magnifies the stilted dialogue, the awkward sentence, or the lengthy exposition. It’s a wonderful, insightful exercise that I would recommend to anyone who wants to become a better writer.

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Be a Better Beta Reader

So, your friend wants you to beta read his book. It’s a masterpiece, a baby carved right out of his soul. You tell him he’s smart not to send that baby out into the heartbreaking world of “Dear Agent X” without someone else taking a look at it first.

The manuscript arrives in your inbox, and you soon discover that your friend’s baby weighs 300 pounds. It’s not really that fun to play with and screams a lot. It vomits on you occasionally. And the diapers...ugh...you’re knee deep in them.    

So when you hand that 300-pound baby back to him two months later, the poor thing has a single comment on every chapter, right at the end. They read something like this:

“Great opening chapter!”

“Hmm...Something wrong with this scene, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Well...I’m not sure about this...I no longer like this character. Check motivations.”

“Meh.”

“Great chapter! You’re back!”

Most writers have to deal with critiques that are less than helpful, but a bad beta read is just depressing. The writer is left with a vague feeling of unease, because it’s obvious this baby needs some work. Vague unease does not lend itself to an enthusiastic and targeted revision.

So the next time you say “yes” to that desperate writer friend, think about the following tips:

1. Stay in your comfort zone: If you hate police procedurals, don’t beta read your friend’s cop mystery. If you’ve never read a romance novel, you’re absolutely the worst person to beta read your buddy’s Scottish highland erotic adventure. Pick your beta reads carefully, and learn to say no.

2. Stay on your toes when you’re reading: Your writer friend is most likely lost in his or her own revision. Take the time to mark specific locations in the manuscript. When the story made you laugh, make a note on the paragraph.  If you were moved to tears, mark it. When the narrative slows and drags, find the spot where that began and make a note. The comments don’t have to be long, but this approach to beta reading can help shave dozens of hours off of your friend’s revision.

3. Be specific:  Good critiques pinpoint dropped plot threads, weird character motivations, and ugly dialogue tags. Your comments should also suggest revision ideas, although it’s best that you include fleshed out examples in a comment bubble rather than inside the text of the manuscript (writer friends can be sensitive about their babies).  

4. Don’t forget to praise: It’s not all about telling your friend what’s wrong with the book. More than anything, your writer friend needs to know what’s right. A beta read that constantly focuses on the negative can hobble a writer during the revision process. Positive reinforcement encourages the writer to reproduce that excellence again.   

5. Tell the writer when to cut: So here’s the truth. It’s not a baby. That means that cutting a chapter is not like cutting off your kid’s arm. Help the author realize that and let go. Sometimes it’s better to ditch an entire chapter than spend six months revising something that will never, never work.

Beta reading is part of any thriving writing community, but it’s also part of being a good friend. Learn to do it right, and you’ll get the same treatment on your own 300-pound baby novel when you really need it. 



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