Johnny ran down the road.
Johnny ran like a crazy weasel down the road.
Johnny sprinted like an insane hippopotamus down the road.
Do these opening lines all say the same thing? Yes.
Do they say it in the same way? No.
Which sentence would best suit a picture book?
The first sentence is dull. The words show no imagination at all. But it’s for a picture book, so does that matter? Won’t the pictures make it more interesting?
The second sentence conjures a more specific image in the reader’s head. An image that could be reinforced by the pictures. So far, so good. But what if Johnny IS a weasel? The words and pictures would be doing the same job. You don’t need to show he’s a weasel and say he’s a weasel at the same time.
The third sentence uses more exciting language. Perhaps too exciting? Would the audience understand the word ‘insane’ or would that be better shown via the pictures?
There is an element of alchemy to illustrated fiction which is difficult to judge. Much of it comes with practice, with ‘feeling’ your way. Certain things are worth remembering, though. Never write dull text and assume the pictures will carry you along. Don’t be overly complex either. Instead, when you are writing, focus on those elements which the pictures might not be so good at conveying. How is Johnny feeling? Excited? Scared? Excited AND scared? Complex emotions are often better conveyed in words than pictures. How fast is he moving? Short snappy sentences can often build speed and momentum more effectively than static pictures. Back stories, characterisation, relationships: these are all areas where the words can offer more than the pictures.
And of course, don’t forget that hook. Why IS Johnny running?
Learn more on my course GET STARTED IN WRITING AN ILLUSTRATED CHILDREN’S BOOK in Farnham, Surrey 20-21 March 2017. Early bird tickets only available until 28 February!
A mouse went to a shop. He bought some cheese. And he went home again.
This is a story, in so far as it has a beginning, a middle and an end. But that’s about all that you can say for it. Mouse groceries: big wow.
What is the mouse’s problem?
All stories need problems. A problem works like a hook. It feels your collar, it coaxes you onwards. A problem creates conflict, which creates drive, which takes you to the next page, and the page after that.
Introduce an interesting problem. The mouse can’t be late BECAUSE… He can’t buy the cheese BECAUSE… Don’t forget the crucial part the pictures can play. What if a cat is following him the whole way?
Tug, tug, tug. Can you feel the hook?
Learn more on my introductory writing course 20-21 March 2017, GET STARTED IN WRITING AN ILLUSTRATED CHILDREN’S BOOK. Tickets still available!
Here is a secret. One of the biggest. One of the most important if you want to write illustrated children’s books for the traditional publishing market. And I say ‘write’ here. If you are an illustrator, then this won’t be relevant. Or at least, it won’t be relevant until that person you know down the road asks you to illustrate their book. And then you’ll know.
I don’t know why this fundamental rule of traditional children’s publishing is such a secret. But it clearly is, or you would all know it already.
Are you listening, writers? I don’t want to say this twice.
FORGET ABOUT THE PICTURES.
Time and again, first-time writers worry about this. Who will draw the pictures? Who can I find who will bring my story to life? Perhaps the lady who did the posters for the school play can help me. Maybe I should run an advert on social media. I must fix this or no one will publish me.
NO NO NO.
Publishers don’t want illustrated stories. They just want stories. Good ones, sad ones, funny ones. No amount of illustration will disguise a piece of rubbish. If your story is good enough, publishers will spot it. And then they’ll find an illustrator for you. They have banks of illustrators they already want to use. What they don’t have are the texts.
Save yourself effort, money and time. Focus on crafting the perfect text that will ignite a publisher’s imagination purely through the power of your words.
Learn more on my course 20-21 March 2017, GET STARTED IN WRITING AN ILLUSTRATED CHILDREN’S BOOK. Early bird tickets available until 28 February.
My idea hasn’t been done before.
This feels different from ‘I have a great idea’. It implies that you’ve studied the market very hard and have found a space on the bookshelves which you intend to fill or die in the attempt. Your story is called Ernie the Line-Dancing Earthworm. Scissor kicks, invertebrates: this baby has it all! You haven’t thought about the writing or illustrating part yet, but you feel confident that these are secondary to the originality of your concept.
You’re on dangerous ground. There are only a finite number of plots, and they’ve all been done. Anything that remains, generally remains unwritten for a good reason.
Georges Polti states that there are thirty-six plots in his book, Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (1916). Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (2004) claims, unsurprisingly, only seven. Other theorists have declared that there are just two stories: going on a journey, and a stranger coming to town. Which you could argue is the same plot really, just seen from the opposite direction. Anne Fine, prize-winning author and Children’s Laureate 2001-2003, has said that “plots are overrated,” and she may have a point.
Great children’s books can be about nothing at all, and yet everything at the same time. The story that will succeed is not the madly original idea; it’s the brilliantly well-constructed one.
Get Started in Writing an Illustrated Children’s Book. Out now!