The Picture Book Light Bulb Moment

I am always seeking new ways to grow my writing skills, and this year has been no different. One of the challenges/goals that I’ve set for myself is to write picture books for the younger set. I think I may have blogged about this last summer after I attended my first SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference as I was so in awe on the amazing work being done in this genre.

The fact is I had no idea how truly difficult it is to write a picture book. (I am going to go out on a limb here and say I am not alone in this.) Here’s what I knew I HAD to do:

Keep your story under 550 words. Okay, easy enough.

Have a story that will resonate with both the child and the reader, meaning the adult who will be hopefully reading your story a million times in one day.

Sounds easy enough right? WRONG! I had no idea of the reality of balancing these elements and more.

Here’s what I’ve learned since I started a picture book challenge group in January and have taken numerous online (and sometimes free) workshops:

A picture book is not merely a 550-word story. Okay, this was the BIGGIE for me. I had written a sweet, quiet story that takes place primarily in one location with two characters, and the feedback I got on the story was overwhelmingly positive save for one thing: IT WAS NOT A PICTURE BOOK. Huh? I truly didn’t understand the criticism at first. Add more movement to the story? AH NO, then it wouldn’t be the same story. There wasn’t supposed to be movement.

And that my friends is why it IS NOT a picture book story.

Picture books must have enough scenes and page turns to fill 32-pages of illustrations. No one wants to see the same picture over all those pages. In pictures books, the images and the words are intertwined. They must fit with each other and share the narrative equally. If you don’t have enough movement in your story, the illustrator will have nothing to create and your story will fail.

You have NO IDEA how long it took me to finally wrap my head around this difference. I mean I understood that there were pictures and that they go hand in hand, but I didn’t truly grasp what that means in terms of how the words must flow.

What made the difference, you ask?

I read lots of recently-published picture books since I’ve started my year of picture book writing. I’ve read them and reread and analyzed them.

I participated in online workshops and learned from published authors.

I kept writing and reviewing my own work.

It turns out what I had written is a lovely, quiet, sweet story best suited for children’s magazines. I’m going to revise the story now with an eye toward the magazine market. Some of the other manuscripts I’ve written since the start of the year do met the criteria for a picture book and will be revised with an eye toward submission in that genre.

I’m going to keep learning and growing. Will I be disappointed if after all this I don’t have the skills to write for the junior set? Nope. I have gained so much from just the work I’m putting into it, I feel it has made me a stronger writer in other areas.

Fellow writers, is there something you’ve learned in your writing journey? Maybe a misconception that you had when you started out that you now know isn’t true? Leave your comments below, so we can all learn from your experiences.

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