SCBWI's Blueboard - A Message & Chat Board

Writer's Room => Picture Books (PB) => Topic started by: Nicole Thomas on July 29, 2014, 10:34 AM

Title: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Nicole Thomas on July 29, 2014, 10:34 AM
I've been reading the boards a lot lately, mostly while lurking, but I'm still confused. I keep reading one thing, then another.

When it comes to writing picture books, I've learned:

1. 500 words is the 'sweet spot' - this is totally doable and easy to understand

2. Rhyme is often frowned upon (which I totally understand), but it's still a good idea to work on prose that involves stressed lines and meter. -- This really confuses me. I've taken to reading a lot of the new PBs for 2014, and many of them are more along the lines of a story format instead of prose that goes line by line. "Sally did this. She didn't want that..."

3. Show don't tell. -- For some reason, I'm having a hard time doing this, and I'm not sure as to why. If I say a character was scared, that's telling. However, at the same time, if we're following the main character in third person, the book would open up with some form of telling anyway, wouldn't it? I'm sorry. I've written a lot in the past, but for some reason, any opening line I write ends up telling instead of showing.

4. Preachy books aren't a good idea. -- I understand this, to a point. However, if you're dealing with an MC that's afraid of the dark and eventually finds a way to make a nite light, is the slight lesson at the end (in this case, sharing) still considered preachy?

It seems the more I read, the more confused I become. I see books that have an animal's POV, and then read that using an animal's POV is frowned upon. But if the story doesn't have any humans in it, how do you tell the story aside from just being the narrator?

I realize books that have the main character solving the conflict or problem is best. That said, it looks like common themes such as overcoming one's fears is also kind of up in the air on if it's acceptable or not.

I'm trying to read as many picture books as I can. As of right now, I can't see a general formula or rhythm. I'm coming from years of writing novels and novellas, so this may be why I'm having such a hard time.

I don't have an issue condensing a story into 500 words or less. I'm just frozen in place by all the 'rules.' I'm not sure which ones to follow.

Can someone shed some light for me?

I haven't joined SCBWI just yet as I don't have the funds. I want to, I just haven't been able to do so.

Thanks so much.

Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Artemesia on July 29, 2014, 11:07 AM
People new to writing PBs are often told so many "rules" that they can feel completely limited. Think of these more as guidelines. Reading what is currently being published is the best way to understand what works in picture books. There is a lot of conflicting information because for every "rule" someone can point to 10 exceptions.

Newbies are often told to avoid rhyming. Why? Rhyming PBs are still published. But new writers are often told to avoid rhyming because editors see a lot of bad rhymes by brand new writers. But rhyming done well can be magical. If you are confident of your rhyming skill and the story wants to be told in rhyme, then go for it!

People often flog the show don't tell rule so much that writers are afraid of any telling. But sometimes it's appropriate. I find a mix of the two can be really effective at times as well. Using your example of being scared: "Her heart pounded in her chest and her hands felt slippery. She'd never been so scared." The first sentence is showing (admittedly badly, lol) the second sentence is telling. Showing usually uses more words, but can really put your reader into the character's head.

Your example of being scared of the dark and that the story problem was resolved by sharing a nightlight doesn't sound preachy, but it's all in the execution. Sharing could be a theme. Stories that push a moral at the end are frowned upon. A good story that has a takeaway isn't preachy. Not sure if that makes sense?

As for animals, look at how many animal POV books there are in the library. Like anything else, it's all in the execution. I think children will always love books about animals.

It seems really confusing now, I know, but the more time spent here and the more books you read, the more sense it will make. Just keep writing and try not to get too bogged down by rules. Find a critique group or partner, or trade mss with other members here. Feedback is really helpful in growing your writing.

Good luck! I hope that helps!
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Nicole Thomas on July 29, 2014, 11:37 AM
Artemesia, thank you so much. Your feedback really does help.

Okay, so a lesson that's sort of taken away from the work is okay. That was one of my concerns. I'm actually trying to avoid rhyme. I've done it in poetry, but I feel I may be better off sticking to normal prose for the time being. That way I can learn the craft of PBs without getting sidetracked with rhyming words (even if when I first think of a line, it comes out in rhyming form).
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: corpirate on July 29, 2014, 11:51 AM
     I'm only a self-published author.  I got super stoked on a lullaby I wrote and had just enough skills to pull off putting together the whole thing myself, which I did because I'm a flighty artist and can't come back to the real world until I see end results.  I've never had an agent, as a matter of fact the one time I did try and submit to an agent I probably screwed the whole thing up because I got excited and didn't read the submission guidelines until after I pressed the send button.
I understand why everyone pays so much attention to market trends and what is selling.  Writing is a business and smart business people know their market.
So, since I'm not really the poster child for answering this in an intelligent writing business world voice, I'm going to use a different voice as a young reader:
Dear writers,
I remember when I sat on the floor of my room for the very first time and read "The Jolly Postman" with my mom.  When I opened the pages and saw that I could actually take the letters out of the envelopes I felt like I was living in a different world....a world where I get to sneak through the mail of people and not get in trouble!  And when it was Halloween, and my mom would play me the Jack Prelutsky read along tape for "It's Halloween", I felt really cool and brave because even though the poems were about scary things, I was never scared.  The first time I saw "Dinotopia" I thought my head was going to explode from the new possibilities I was witnessing unfold.  "Where The Wild Things Are" made me feel safe and the poems of Shel Silverstein made me feel silly.  Roald Dahl taught me to always be nice to the quiet girl in class and never ever let my guard down for witches.  "The Hatchet" would make me forever and always feel the need to have some form of pocketknife on me when I was away from the house.  The Berenstain Bears showed me how to clean my room and Dr. Suess taught my inner narrative to speak in rhyme when making major revelations.  None of these things have much in common, except for the fact that they were really, really, really fun for me to read and look at.  All of these things became stepping-stones for me to grow into a mature reader, writer and artist.  So please don't be so hard on yourself.  I know you have to worry about big people stuff like editors and agents, word count and editing.  But please don't spend so much time crafting your story in a shape that fits the current mold.  I don't really care about molds, I just like really fun things...and when all the fun things start looking and sounding the same, they aren't very fun anymore.  They kind of just look like big people stuff.
I can't wait to hear your next story!
Your future life long fan 

Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Franzilla on July 29, 2014, 11:58 AM
I just wanted to jump in to say that I understand not having the funds to invest in SCBWI, but if I were you, I'd try to dig into my pockets to pick up a copy of Ann Whitford Paul's Writing Picture Books book. It'll help clarify so much. If you just buy one book on PBs, that should be it, in my opinion.
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Nicole Thomas on July 29, 2014, 12:03 PM
Thanks for the suggested reading, Fran. I hadn't seen that one mentioned in the threads I've read just yet. I'll have to add it to my list.

Corpirate, I know how it feels to self-publish. I've done that with work in the past. This little venture into PBs right now is something I really want to give a good try at. I also need to hone my artistic skills a bit more anyway so, while I perfect my ability as an illustrator, I may as well try landing an editor or two.

To all of you, thank you so much. I've actually been trying to work on a draft, or a revision of a 10+ year old idea I had. Looking at it now, it's way too long, with too much fluff. I like the overall idea, but at least now I know how much of it needs cut.
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: erinobrien on July 29, 2014, 12:40 PM
I second Franzilla's recommendation of Ann Whitford Paul's book. I found it extremely helpful.
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: olmue on July 29, 2014, 12:43 PM
I think one difference between a book that's preachy and a book where a character learns something is that the "learned thing" is something that happens as a result of your main character's choices and actions. A preachy book is where that idea is expressed explicitly and by the author, without the characters having to do anything. I suppose you could make a book preachy by yanking strings and forcing a character to live out your preachy message, but I think it would feel fake. A real learning experience, by contrast, reads organically and naturally, without smashing the point over the reader's head. It's the difference between watching a friend rise heroically to a challenge, and your friend calling you up to tell you just what you should do in every instance of your life. One is kind of off-putting, you know? :)

I also agree with Artemesia about the show-don't-tell rule sometimes getting flogged too much. In general, show the important bits. Telling can be used effectively to summarize bits that aren't important as you're transitioning to the important bits. (I am a writer who er, has had to learn to tell a bit more...)

Cool that you're an illustrator, too. It makes things a lot trickier, of course, if you are trying to illustrate your own books (mostly it doesn't work that way--editors much prefer to hire an illustrator separately). But it seems that being a professional illustrator along with being a writer is a nice additional asset.
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Nicole Thomas on July 29, 2014, 01:11 PM
Oh, I'm far from being a professional illustrator. I do plan on only subbing as an author when I get to that point.

Well, I think I finished my first actual draft of a PB. The last line is a flop, I know that right now. I'll have to scrub and polish before I have my beta look at it. Then I'll likely leave it to sit a while and work on something else so I can look at it with fresh eyes later.

I'm going to get Ann Whitford Paul's book right now. Should be something good to read in the evening hours.

Thank you all again. You've made me feel a little less overwhelmed even if this draft would probably do better tucked in a trunk than sitting on my desk  :)

Oh, I do have one question, though. I wrote this in present tense, which i didn't set out to do. Past tense in third is preferred in picture books, right?
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Artemesia on July 29, 2014, 01:18 PM
I think past tense third person is maybe most common, but you can find many examples of others. Choose what works best for the story.
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Nicole Thomas on July 29, 2014, 01:19 PM
I just went through and changed it to past. Not sure how it started out in present tense. That isn't my norm. Maybe it's from all of the picture books I've been reading.
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Tammi on July 31, 2014, 03:55 PM
Another great resource is Linda Ashman's NUTS & BOLTS GUIDE TO WRITING PICTURE BOOKS. It's available through her website as an ebook and as a PDF.
It is soooooooooooooooooooo good. I wish I had it when I was first starting out. I love it so much I offered to write a blurb for Linda.
This is it:
“I’ve been writing picture books for over a decade, and I have never come across a more comprehensive and flat-out enjoyable guide. One of the exercises even led to a recent sale. I give this book five stars, two thumbs up and a standing ovation. Thank you, Linda Ashman!” (
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: aileenstewart on July 31, 2014, 05:34 PM
Beautifully explained Artemesisa :0)
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Nicole Thomas on July 31, 2014, 06:37 PM
Tammi, thank you so much for the resource. I can use all the help I can get.

I sent my 6th revision to my beta today (we keep throwing it back and fourth) and am now planning out the 7th as some things in the new version work while others don't.
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Artemesia on August 01, 2014, 10:22 AM
 :curtsy:  thanks, Aileen.
Title: Re: Some Confusion Regarding Picture Books
Post by: Artemesia on August 01, 2014, 10:51 AM
And I'm totally getting that book, Tammi! It looks fantastic!