A Writer’s Guinea Pig

Picturebooks are simple, right? I mean, they’re short and they’re full of pictures. Couldn’t anybody just slap one together?


Well, not completely wrong. They are often short, and they’re filled with pictures, and anyone could attempt to write one, but creating a picturebook is not as easy as it seems. The process is actually quite complicated.

I’m currently earning a Master’s degree in Writing for Children, and last semester I had the opportunity to work on my  first picturebook – my guinea pig, you could say – with a well-known publisher in the Boston area. The point of the mentorship is to learn how to get a book as close to submission as possible.  The process was grueling, and I have some grey hairs to prove it, but it was well worth it. I thought I’d share my experience with all of you in hopes that it might give you a better understanding of the picturebooks I share on this blog.

So first of all, there are rules. The rules aren’t etched in stone, but they’re pretty universal in the world of publishing. Most beginners can’t get away with breaking them, but you will occasionally see well-known authors bending or breaking them. The first major rule is that the book needs to be 32 pages long, not one more or one less (including copyright and title pages). Truthfully, publishers just want the book to have a page count that is a multiple of eight because that’s how they bind the paper, but the standard length is 32 pages. Another rule is that you need to watch your word count. Publishers first and foremost want a good story, so if you think cutting words will devalue your story don’t cut them, but the trend in picturebooks is the fewer the words the better. Many of the books currently being published have 100 words or less. Books with no text at all are called wordless picturebooks and are also quite popualr. Those are the two main rules I’m going to throw at you now, but that’s not where they end.

Before you start writing you need a good idea. Good ideas are hard to come by and you need to be careful not to be cliché. For example, many beginning authors create stories with little animals as their protagonists because they think that’s what kids want. But your characters shouldn’t be animals unless there’s a reason why they are animals. If the character can be a human, try that. There are thousands of picturebooks with cute fuzzy creatures as characters, don’t bore us, try something new.

I’m not saying that my idea is necessarily good, but it’s the idea I thought was best to work with. The idea came to me while I was driving home from Boston one night. I was thinking about my old guinea pig, and how many of my students have guinea pigs. Kids love guinea pigs and there aren’t too many books out there about guinea pigs, so I thought why not (and I know I’m being hypocritical here, because guinea pigs are cute fuzzy creatures, I obviously have to work on this too)? But what about a guinea pig? What’s the story? Story is the key.

The first idea I had was to write a story from the guinea pig’s point of view. I stuck him with a kid who wasn’t too great of a pet-owner, and the guinea pig decided to fight his way back to the pet store. I thought I was brilliant, until my editor read it and said “but, why would a pet want to go back to a pet store?” My character seemed very confused, so my editor gave me this great activity to do that would help me figure out who my characters aer, what they want, and why it matters. The activity was just a list of questions that you answer for each character: what matters? What is the matter? Why does it matter? What are the stakes? What does the character do/want and what are the consequences? What are the moral lines of your character? What is “home” for your character, where does he/she feel safe? If you google “character sketch” you’ll find a whole bunch of activities that can help you too. If one doesn’t work, try another.

So after some character studies my editor told me to come up with a few different story ideas. She wanted me to play with a few ideas and then pick which one I thought was the best. I came up with about four different stories and finally decided on one that was completely different from the original story.

The next thing I did was write my whole idea out. I didn’t write it as the story would read later, I just wrote out what happened the way I envisioned it. I wrote out what the plot and the emotional arc were.

Next, I practiced writing the manuscript. There’s a lot to keep in mind when writing a manuscript for a picturebook. You need a great first line to hook your reader. You need to make sure the reader (usually the child) will connect with the character (usually children connect more with child and animal characters and not adults, but there are exceptions such as in last year’s Caldecott winner “A Sick Day for Amos McGee”), you need to make sure it reads well, that every word fits logically, thatyou’re constantly prompting the reader forward (this can be done with the  illustrations as well as the text) the in the story, and don’t forget that you have to reach that 32 page mark. I handed in my first manuscript only to have it handed back dripping with red ink. I revised it twelve times, and it’s still nowhere near perfect. The truth is, you can revise forever and it will never be perfect, eventually you just have to stop when you don’t think there’s anything else you can possibly do to make it better. When you’ve done your best then it’s time to submit it and let the editors and agents help you from there.

                                                                               From “A Sick Day for Amos McGee” by Philip and Erin Stead

Once you have the text as tight as possible, then you have to think about the illustrations. Are you going to be the one illustrating? If so, then you’re like me, and I’ll show you what some of the next steps are. If you are not going to be the illustrator then submit your text making sure to be as clear as possible that you are not going to do the art. Do not include any notes on how you imagine the illustrations. The art director and illustrator will take care of that, and the last thing they want is input from someone who doesn’t know anything about art. Also make sure you don’t have a friend whip up some sketches for you, editors hate that! If you’re going to have a friend do the illustrations, make sure they’re committed to the project. They should have as much input in the story as you do and they should work with you from the start.

So, I plan on being the illustrator for my project, so then next step was to do some character sketches. You need to think about design, texture, medium, etc. See my post “Caldecott in the Classroom” and its comments for information and suggested reading to help you think about picturebook art.

When you think you know what your characters are going to look like begin some thumbnail sketches. I make my own thumbnail sheets by dividing a standard sheet of paper into 33 1/2″ x 1″ rectangles. Leave the first two spaces for the title page and the copyright pages (you can always start the illustrations on these pages) and then space out your story. Make sure you’re thinking about what text will be on each page and where you are going to place it. I have about seven revisions of my thumbnails, and still plan on doing more.

Once you’re satisfied with your thumbnails, it’s time to make the dummy. This is my favorite part because it’s when all your hard work finally begins to resemble a book. A finished dummy will give you a real sense of accomplishment. Here are some pages from the dummy of my book “Felix & Gadget: A Mixed Up Story of Friendship”:

The dummy is most likely what you will send to an editor or an agent, along with a copy of just the text. Although, obviously you should always check submissions guidelines which can be found on most publishing houses and agent websites.

When you’re pleased with your dummy you should do some finished art work. You’ll send a copy of your finished art work in your submission package (make sure it’s a good copy, spend the extra cash and go to Staples). Here’s a piece of my artwork (of which I’m not exactly satisfied, I plan on revising this whole story when I’m done with my second mentorship).

I still have a long way to go before I’m ready to submit this. The process of creating a book takes years, no matter how long or how short they are, but don’t give up. The key is to keep plugging away. Keep those characters alive. You breathe a little more breath into their two-dimensional lungs each time you give your project another try, so keep going. Pick up your pencils, papers, and pens, your laptops, your tablets, your crayons and paint, and get writing!