Tales of Picture Book Writing


I’ve been sitting here writing a new Christmas picture book ready to post for my Scbwi critique group. I know, July probably isn’t the best month to do that!

Despite the hot weather,  I’ve tried to recreate that Christmassy feeling. To get in the zone I’ve created a Christmas carol playlist and found a nice video of a roaring log fire. I’ve had a browse through my large collection of Christmas stories, and completed a Mark Crilley tutorial on drawing Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas. Bloomin’ Christmas!


But in the end I did crack on and write the story. It’s still very first draft-ish, but I’ve got the story and a structure and characters, and a theme. It will no doubt undergo many transformations before it’s anywhere near submission standard, but it’s a start.

But the bit I always put off until I’ve done a lot of editing is the word count. Mo matter what I do, I always seem to end up around the 65o mark, and know I’ll be agonising over what to chop, and how much to chop to the point that I’ll probably put it on the back burner in favour of trying something new.

Why does the word count create such anxiety for me?

It’s because it’s one of those things that lots of picture book writers say:”Ooh, picture books have to be under 500 words”. I’ve heard published authors say they’ve been advised to use even fewer words. I have managed this with a couple of rhyming books, but then that brings me to another Picture Book Law: “absolutely no half rhymes”. Oops, yes I am guilty of half rhyme crimes too, do forgive me.

And so these words of wisdom go around the writing community, meaning I spend infinite amounts of time wondering if I should change this or that, when I should probably be thinking more about the structure or characterisation!

A few months ago I went to a Golden Egg Academy workshop led by Tessa Strickland, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Barefoot Books. And what struck me the most was that Tessa presented a different view. She is open to longer stories. During the workshop she explained that to her mind sometimes you need more words-especially if you are building emotional resonance.


Tessa Strickland

During the workshop, Tessa shared one of her favourite picture books, Sylvester and The Magic Pebble by William Steig, and we thought about the narrative of the pictures as well as the text. Tessa made the point that young children need time to take in everything on the page, and that if the page is turned to quickly they might miss things.

I was also interested to see how  Barefoot have 14 spreads in their books as their endpapers are printed separately. So for all those times I’ve agonised over squeezing everything into 12 spreads, maybe I should have just focussed on the story and how it makes the reader feel and reflect.

Tessa advised us about what we should consider when thinking of overseas markets, especially with regard to new opportunities in emerging markets. And it was a relief to hear that it’s not worth getting too hung up on whether the story is told in the first or 3rd person (or even second!): there’s room for all!

Having written a couple of rhyming stories, I was so pleased when guest author Brenda Williams argued that children need to see half rhymes in order to learn about them. As she read aloud one of her poems, the emotion conveyed was so powerful that it reminded me that the emotional connection with the reader is probably the most important factor.

Since the workshop I’m trying to concentrate on the stories I want to tell, and making them really vibrant and original. I’m hoping that if an agent or publisher likes the concept or my style, she’ll be willing to work on it with me to suit the house style (ever the optimist!)

I’m trying to keep the advice of an experienced publisher in my head, and not go too picture book myth doolally!

Pippa Wilson





One comment

  1. Thanks for wise words about word count maths myths – couldn’t resist going overboard on some alliteration tehe

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