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Mind set for picture book process?

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Hi all,


I am working on my first pb. At least I think I am. But it is a very different process than writing MG or YA. I think. I have in mind picture books for upper elementary students that have more complex content, theme, vocabulary, sentence structure, and are longer than those for beginning or younger readers.


The process in YA for example, seems to include 'tell your story events, keep them moving forward but flesh out your story so the reader can visualize it'.


But in picture books the process seems to be almost opposite of that in some ways. By that, I mean, it seems to include certainly telling the story events that move it forward, but telling them in as few words as possible - carefully selecting those spare words that will tell the story without including all the 'fleshing out' of YAs. Not to say that YA words aren't carefully chosen, they certainly are. But it seems to be an opposite process - YA adding detail and words to flesh out, PB taking away words and only leaving those that tell some, without telling all. Again, I'm talking about more complex PB. Saltypie by Tim Tingle and Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco come to mind.


Can anyone help me wrap my head around this? And does anyone have suggestions for how they winnow down the words to give just the hints, the feelings, the events for PB without adding a lot more (words, descriptions, events)?  What do you tell yourself to be able to do that? What is the mindset?


If you can't tell, I've started writing what I envisioned as one of the upper elementary picture books, but still in the first third of it and the words are already way over 'acceptable' limits. How do I reframe my mind??


Thanks!


Kara


#1 - May 06, 2014, 06:36 PM

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Hi Kara! =)

Have you heard of Pam Calvert’s Picture Book University?  It’s free by the way!  She did an awesome job putting together this course.  Here’s the link:

http://wwwpamcalvert.blogspot.com/p/picture-book-university.html

(The library assignments are so much fun.  I really enjoyed it!)


And here are two more wonderful resources:

http://picturebookmonth.com/

http://taralazar.com/piboidmo/

You may have already heard of them, but thought I’d run them by you just in case.  I’d go through the old posts and check out the many useful links.


One more note…

Poetry and picture books go together, so you might want to study a bit of that too.  Last year, I signed up for author Joyce Sweeney’s Picture Book Essentials which was great.  I highly recommend it:

http://www.sweeneywritingcoach.com/start-learning-now/

(Her novel course rocks too.)


I’m also planning to sign up for this course in the near future:

http://apathtopublishing.com/for-picture-book-writers/

Author/literary agent Jill Corcoran and the Plot Whisperer Martha Alderson lead these workshops.  I have friends who have participated and they had a super time.


Above all else—ENJOY the process! :thewave
#2 - May 07, 2014, 04:06 AM

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Wow! Thank you, Kimberly! What great resources. And no, I had not heard of them, so this is super helpful.

That is interesting what you say about poetry. I am a poetry fiend (both reading and writing), and have always thought of it as painting with words. And as I've been beginning my PB journey, the way I kept thinking about the differences between pb type of writing and YA writing kept coming back to pb writing being painting with words! But then, I thought that must be wrong since I've always mentally reserved that phrase for poetry . . .

Can't wait to dive into your resources!

 :thanks

Kara

Oh - and another more complex PB that comes to mind (although there are many) is Rose Blanche by Christophe Gallaz and Roberto Innocenti. Amazing stuff.
#3 - May 07, 2014, 04:50 AM

Wonderful list of resources!


 :thanks2

#4 - May 07, 2014, 06:18 AM

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Hi Kara! The PB examples you gave mostly seem to be somewhat older books. The date they were published makes a difference because average word count has trended downwards over time. That's just on average of course. There are certainly longer picture books out there, and you can go that route if that's the sort of thing you want to write. But you may have more of an uphill battle selling a manuscript that goes much over 600-800 words, and you might be more limited in the agents or publishers you can submit to. That's just the way the market is right now, from what I understand.
#5 - May 07, 2014, 07:39 AM

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Okay, thank you, Anthony. I'll have some thinking and figuring to do. Tim Tingle's Saltypie is new, but I don't know the dates of the other books I mentioned. I do know that they are the kind of books that are very much in demand in schools with the advent of the Common Core. I am a Literacy Coach and also purchased books for our book room (6 packs, leveled). We, like a great many schools, are constantly looking for picture books appropriate for upper elementary kids that are complex enough to meet Common Core ELA expectations through instruction of rigorous text discussion lessons. We used these even before Common Core, though, since our district (like many) uses Lucy Calkins for our reading & writing instruction - so we use a lot of these more complex picture books as mentor texts throughout the year. From what you are saying, though, if publishers are turning away from that, schools must be very small markets. Which kind of surprises me!


Thanks for your info & input!



Kara
#6 - May 07, 2014, 08:38 AM

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 :wow  Just when I think I've learned some things that will propel me along, I find that I've only really absorbed about 1%.  It's exciting to see so many fabulous resources.
 
Thanks so much for sharing all those links.  If only there were more hours in the day (or fewer working hours!).   :grin3
 
 
#7 - May 07, 2014, 09:29 AM

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What Anthony said. The picture book market these days is focused on the younger/shorter books. Under 500 words is the norm, and many books are much shorter than that. Look for books like yours, or the ones you mentioned, in the bookstore/library that have come out in the last 2 years, especially ones within the last 6-12 months. Picture books have a looooooooong lead time, so something coming out now may have been purchased 1-3 years ago (or more). The books you talked about are all fairly old, so it's harder to use them as examples, because it's not what publishers are currently buying. It doesn't mean you won't get a longer/older picture book published. It just might be an uphill climb.

Maybe you don't need to re-frame your mind to write this story. Maybe you need to think of it as a different type of book.

If you are writing for an older audience, have you considered writing your story as a chapter book? There are still illustrations, but unlike picture books, the art doesn't tell half (or more) of the story. It would give you more room for your story and target the same audience (chapter books are usually for 7-9 year-olds). Just a thought. If you have a chance to check out chapter books at the library/bookstore, focus on the recent ones, just like with picture books. The market has shifted a bit since the books you're using as examples. Maybe there are some books like the one you are writing in the chapter book section. Chapter books aren't an easy sell (neither are picture books), but if your story fits, it might be easier than trying to make it a picture book (hard to tell without reading it). If there's series possibilities, that's even better for chapter books.

That said, if you want to re-frame your mind to write a picture book, I'd suggest starting with these steps:
1. Read a ton of newly published picture books (pubbed in 2013/2014).
2. Think about whether the story you're telling fits within the age group, subject matter, and format of current picture books.
3. When you go back to your story, remember that the art will tell half (or more) of the story.
4. Don't forget that picture book text describes the action and emotion of the story, but not the visual details (leave those to the illustrator).
5. Try starting with a blank page after steps 1-4, and writing the book as an outline, or just the bones of your story.
6. Take each action in the outline and write that as a line in your book (don't add any more at this point).
7. Put it away for a day/week/however long you can handle it.
8. Read more current picture books, with special attention to how the words and pictures work together in the book. What words are left out to leave room for the art? What story does the art tell and how does it enhance or expand the story?
9. Pull your ms out and re-read, then revise while thinking about the text and how it will work with potential art.
10. Repeat steps 1-9 as needed.
11. When you are ready, think about getting a critique (critique exchange here on the board, a group you're already in, at a conference, etc.)
12. Revise and repeat as needed.

Good luck with your story!

Suddenly I feel like I should go blog about this ...
#8 - May 07, 2014, 10:16 AM
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I turned the advice into a blog post.

how to write a picture book in twelve easy steps

http://sruble.blogspot.com/2014/05/how-to-write-picture-book-in-twelve.html
#9 - May 07, 2014, 10:51 AM
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Fantastic resources and advice! Much appreciated as a newbie :)
 
Much thanks
#10 - May 07, 2014, 11:58 AM

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Wow! Phenomenal suggestions, Stephanie. I very much appreciate all the knowledge you have shared - it will definitely help me a lot. And I love that you turned it into a blog post.


Thanks so much,     :love4:


Kara




#11 - May 07, 2014, 12:07 PM

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how to write a picture book in twelve easy steps


Easy??!!!

Then why am I tearing my hair out...? ;-)
#12 - May 07, 2014, 12:30 PM

Aw, man. I replied to this in the morning and now my post isn't here. I must have closed the window by accident.

Some great advice here! Love your steps, Stephanie.

Switching from longer forms, I think it will be extra helpful for you to separate your text with page/spread numbers.  If you visualize the illo that will go on each page, that will help you think about how the pictures and text might interact (and help you avoid unnecessary info). Also, consider exciting page turns.

Doing a storyboard could also help you mentally switch gears.

Here is a useful post about pb layout: http://taralazar.com/2009/02/22/picture-book-construction-know-your-layout/

And as others said, read a million pb's to get a good sense of the pacing.
#13 - May 07, 2014, 12:34 PM
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Lynda, It's not easy. The headline is a bit tongue-in-cheek, with a note at the end of the post explaining that though the steps are easy, the execution is not. (Guessing you got that because of your smiley face, but just in case anyone else reading this thinks I meant it was actually easy.) ;)
#14 - May 07, 2014, 12:43 PM
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Thanks, Diana! I have read what feels like millions - I am full time in an elementary school as a lit coach and purchaser of books for instruction, so I read them constantly. I love them!


Maybe the difference is that I read what we, in schools, consider good, complex texts for students and instruction, for mentor texts. We don't need early readers for that, and novels aren't nearly as useful for that. Maybe that is entirely a different beast than the latest pbs that have been published and are on bookstore shelves. For so many reasons, not the least of which is our children's need to read complex text in pb form, it  makes me very sad that shorter and shorter books are the norm. I have read some longer pbs that are clearly too long, but I'm not talking about those.


Clearly, I have a trip to the bookstore to make, some reading to do, and some decisions to make. And Diana, thank you for your great suggestions and helpful link!


Thank you all,


Kara
#15 - May 07, 2014, 01:07 PM
« Last Edit: May 07, 2014, 01:10 PM by Kara S »

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Hey Kara, plenty of longer picture books still being published for the elementary crowd--mainly nonfiction and historical fiction with an emphasis on the school market, but some popular trade books too. I did a guest post on Cynsations about this a while back:

http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2012/04/guest-post-mara-rockliff-on-writing.html

This won't help you with your original question since it's about writing the longer picture book as compared to the shorter picture book, not YA...but at least it might cheer you up with a bunch of examples of more recent picture books of 1000+ words.

p.s. I've loved Lucy Calkins for years and I was sooooo excited when I heard she chose one of my books last summer as a mentor text!
#16 - May 07, 2014, 02:58 PM
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Oh, Mara! You HAVE made me feel so much better!  :yeah


Those are EXACTLY the kinds of books I am talking about! I even wrote a rigorous text discussion lesson for our district for Amelia and Eleanor and one to go with it for Eleanor (Barbara Cooney).


I was feeling quite discouraged and confused, but your blog post really helped. I do also realize the truth of what everyone else was saying and I may have a long uphill battle to get it published. But you give me hope for exactly the type of book I want this to be. And I can use and marry your thoughts with all the other wonderful suggestions to make this book the best I can make it.


And Lucy Calkins instruction is awesome. I feel like I know a rock star now because your book was chosen as one of her mentor texts.  ;)  Also because you have a post on Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog.  *starstruck*


Thank you! And have you read Saltypie by Tim Tingle? I know I keep mentioning it, but honestly, it's amazing. 1800 words plus author's note never felt so fast. Even brought me to tears.  --- And I'm going to see if our library has any of your books and check them out!


Kara
#17 - May 07, 2014, 03:43 PM
« Last Edit: May 07, 2014, 03:49 PM by Kara S »

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From my pov as a librarian who spends many hours a week working reference in the Children's Center, I echo what both Mara and Stephanie said. The longer picture books we see on our new shelf are either non-fiction, historical, or "cultural." I would definitely go to your local library or bookstore and see what books that came out in the past year echo what you are writing, and then go from there! Good luck! There is definitely a need for this type of book even if they are a harder sell to pubs.
#18 - May 07, 2014, 07:31 PM
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Thanks, everyone, for sharing such wonderful resources. A problem of plenty, a good problem to have.
#19 - May 07, 2014, 07:39 PM
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Aha! Given your initial question, I misunderstood where you were going with your picture book. Sorry about that. I still think more recent examples of the type of book you're writing are important, so it's great that Mara knew what you were talking about and had examples. It also sounds like you are quite familiar with the type of book and how to use it in the classroom, which should help you to craft your story.

I hope you can find recent picture books from both trade and school-library publishers that fit what you're looking for so that you know who is currently publishing this type of book, what the word counts are these days, and how the text and illustrations work together. It may still be a harder sell, but all books are hard to sell. The more you know about the market and the type of picture book and how yours fits in, the better off you'll be. And it sounds like you're well on your way already.

Don't know if you've seen LOCOMOTIVE by Brian Floca. It is longer, but I didn't mention it before, because I thought you were writing a different type of book. It has a 2013 pub date, got tons of great reviews last fall, and won the Caldecott medal. FYI: it was impossible to find in stores after it came out, and even after the awards (I was looking for it last year already and didn't see it anywhere). I did finally see it this week at a Barnes and Noble. I don't say that to be discouraging, but more to suggest that this book had a market/audience outside of the bookstores, where the 500 or fewer word picture books tend to reign.

Good luck with your book!

p.s. Just checked out your guest post, Mara. I remember when you first posted it. Thanks for writing it! Lots of great info there that doesn't get shared as much. My favorite part then and now is this:

"There's still a place for longer picture books. But that doesn't mean just any picture book works well with lots of words. Longer picture books are longer for a reason. They have their own subject matter, audience, and style."

So true and said perfectly!
#20 - May 07, 2014, 07:39 PM
« Last Edit: May 07, 2014, 07:41 PM by Stephanie Ruble »
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Great discussion. And thanks for all the helpful links. We have the gamut of the short, nearly wordless PBs to lengthy picture books (both F and NF) in our home. Still, shorter is more favored now and even my NF PB tend to run between 200-700 words. Ones for older kids are longer because they need to be longer for content and depth.

One thing I do after writing a draft is to cut back anything that I can picture -- descriptions, emotions, even some action. Sometimes it almost feels like I am outlining, but as poetically as possible.

Good luck.   
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#21 - May 08, 2014, 05:43 AM
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Sometimes it almost feels like I am outlining, but as poetically as possible.


GREAT way to put it!



#22 - May 08, 2014, 06:15 AM

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Vijaya - I love that, too - "outlining, but as poetically as possible"


And Stephanie - LOL! I went back and read my original question, and yes, we did get a little branched off from how you reframe your mind from YA to sparser words of pb, but still in the same river. 


Buuuut or should I say Aaaannnd - TONS of helpful resources, action steps and thinking points along the way. Maybe we just took the scenic route.   ::-)


and then Vijaya brought us back to it with "outlining, but as poetically as possible".  Perfect!


dinalapomy - great ideas. Thank you! And yes, mine could kind of fall in the "cultural" category. But it wouldn't have to. It's purposely an ordinary event - a girl afraid to go to camp for the first time, why and how she changes, what she discovers about herself. The difference is that the girl is from the same culture I am - American Indian. There are not many books out there showing us in ordinary ways doing ordinary things, so this book shows that. And then author's note about our tribe and tribes in NC. Most books about Indians are inaccurate, to say the least. And non-fiction (or both). There aren't many fiction books that just show us .... in life. Like everyone else has a life.  But then also has information about us and the other tribes in our state, although that is not at all central to the story. I also have other personal reasons for writing it, so it's an exciting project for me.


Thank you all so much. You all are a wealth of knowledge.


Kara















#23 - May 08, 2014, 06:16 PM

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Kara, it sounds like a really great book, whatever path you decide to take. Good luck!
#24 - May 08, 2014, 07:46 PM
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I’m happy that the links were helpful to several of you! =)

Kara,

Candlewick Press has published many of the longer picture books for older readers.  You might want to look up some of those.  I have several in my office.  Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Michael Morpurgo are two great examples:

http://www.candlewick.com/cat.asp?browse=Title&mode=book&isbn=0763644536&pix=n

http://www.candlewick.com/cat.asp?browse=Title&mode=book&isbn=0763648248&pix=n

I find that the majority of picture books geared for the upper elementary grades are often based on folktales or legends, etc.  I’m not saying that all of them are, though!  The age range listed in the descriptions say on average around 4 years old and up, but there’s no way I’d ever get my preschoolers or kindergarteners to sit still long enough for either one of these books.  LOL!  I think they are perfect for the age group you are referring to, though.  Anyway, hope you find something useful in my ramblings.  I just love discussions about my favorite genre.  Good luck in your journey, there's lots of great advice in this thread.

#25 - May 09, 2014, 06:44 AM

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I wonder if you aren't writing a book geared more toward the school and library market. If so, Evelyn Christensen has a listing of educational publishers on her website. I thought looking at some of their writer's guidelines might be helpful to you. The ed market is quite different from the trade market. http://www.evelynchristensen.com/markets.html
#26 - May 12, 2014, 08:37 PM
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So much good advice here. What helps me is trying to think in pictures instead of words. If your book had NO words in it, would the pictures be able to tell the story? Even if you can't draw, try sketching out the pictures (or at least write a description of what each picture would show). Ann Whitford Paul had some great advice about this in her book - each page/ picture needs to show something NEW that moves the story forward - e.g. a new action, new character, new emotion. If you have characters standing around talking, it's a problem. (Unless you are Mo Willems.)
#27 - May 14, 2014, 07:23 AM
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Wow! Thank you again, Kimberly! The Candlewick links are very helpful, as are your further thoughts. And Debbie, it really would help me to read those writer's guidelines. Thank you so much! CarrieF, you are right - TONS of great advice and suggestions here. Awesome suggestion to think in pictures and think about how the action will move forward on each page. I am so grateful to all of you.


Kara
#28 - May 14, 2014, 04:07 PM

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Lots of great info above.


In general, I've noticed picture book editors preferring fewer words (I know my editor at Simon & Schuster Children's strongly prefers fewer words, at least for fiction pb; see http://inkygirl.com/inkygirl-main/2013/7/9/mini-interview-simon-schuster-childrens-publisher-and-editor.html) but as also pointed out above, there are always exceptions.


Make sure to leave room for the illustrator. Some aspiring picture book writers (I'm not saying you're one of these, of course) assume that the role of the illustrator is to merely to draw what the writer puts into the text. As a result, these writers put too much into the text.


From an illustrator's point of view (I'm also starting to write picture books for S&S, but I mainly illustrate right now), I will generally pass on illustrating a picture book story if I don't think it's going to be fun to illustrate. What's fun: if I feel I can bring something extra to the story, feel like a creative partner. What's not fun: being given detailed instructions on exactly what to draw, either in art notes or in the text.


A good test: read through your picture book story. If it's complete without needing any pictures to tell the story, then it may be better suited as a short story.


There are always exceptions, as pointed out earlier, especially in different markets.


Good luck!


Debbie
#29 - May 17, 2014, 09:28 AM
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p.s. I should add that I began as a MG and YA writer. You're right in that writing PB is very, very different.

Also, you need to keep page turns in mind; that's something I hadn't realized when I first began to write PB. (I'm sharing some of what I'm learning here: http://inkygirl.com/inkygirl-main/tag/pbcreation) Like intriguing chapter endings that make readers want to keep reading, you should always try to have something intriguing at end of every page spread/page turn. That's why it's important, as someone pointed out above, to avoid the "talking heads" situation, where you just have two characters talking the whole way through.

Though now that I think of it, I'M BORED (my first book illustration project, written by Michael Ian Black), had two characters talking pretty much the whole way through. But there was a lot of opportunity for fun illustrations/action throughout, which was why the story worked. :-)

Hope some of this helps!

Debbie
#30 - May 17, 2014, 09:33 AM
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