So like me, you’ve decided that you want to write picture books! Hooray! Perhaps you’ve already made a start, and have several texts that you’re pleased with? Or maybe you’ve been writing picture books for years, but you’re not getting anywhere fast?
Let’s assume that we all have the same end point in mind when writing those picture book texts– that ultimate goal for wannabee authors everywhere– publication and (possibly) a literary agent… You get the idea.
So how can we move from writing our stories to getting them published? As a hard-working, but as yet unpublished, author, I have one piece of advice: enrol on a picture book course. In fact, enrol on as many as you have time and money for! There are plenty to choose from, and you don’t even need to travel anywhere, as many are done entirely online, using Skype and other ways to connect participants.
In January, 2016, I decided that I was going to become a picture book writer. I felt this medium suited my silly sense of humour and my love of words and wordplay. I also had a lifetime of writing in verse, which I felt could be a great medium for expressing fun stories for children. But I didn’t really know where to start, apart from just reading lots of picture books with a slightly analytical eye. I hoped I had some raw material to work with (I had ideas! I loved silliness! I’d worked as a journalist!) but I had no idea how to conform to picture book rules. I didn’t even know there were any rules!
So I enrolled on the Writers’ Workshop Picture Book Course (Febrary 2016), which was conducted entirely online. This suited me perfectly! I didn’t even have to go anywhere! We didn’t meet in “real time” as such, but received online course notes and tasks, which we had to complete that week. My course tutor was the Pippa Goodhart, whom you will no doubt be familiar with for her many best-selling picture books and Young Readers– of which the high-concept book, “You Choose” (illustrated by Nick Sharratt), is still a best seller.
Taking this course meant that I was required– for the first time ever — to show some of my stories to people who were not (sharp intake of breath) family members! I had to post work online each week, where it was appraised and critiqued by others on the course. It also meant that for the first time, I was asked to look critically at someone else’s work, and to offer feedback on what I felt worked and what didn’t.
This exposure was a bit like having to whip your towel off and run naked into an icy plunge pool, with no cover for your bits and pieces at all! There was nowhere to hide! But do you know something? It was actually quite liberating! Once I had whipped off my towel and posted my first piece of work, I felt that this was not the fig-leaf-deficient event I had feared it might be.
As well as working on a story, we also learned all sorts of “technical” stuff. We learned about spreads, and the relationship between text and pictures. We learned about story arc and about writing in child-accessible language. We learned how important a good plot is, and how characters must shine off the page. Crucially, we learned about the importance of a satisfying ending. If ever we had thought that writing for young children was going to be easy – we now knew for sure that it wasn’t! By the end of the course, we all realised that writing a “big” story in so few words (no more than 800 and preferably far fewer) was actually, really, really hard to do. We knew that we had much work ahead!
I remember writing what I hoped was going to be “the next big thing”, quickly to discover from Pippa’s kind, encouraging, yet pertinent, comments, that my story was full of holes and flaws and broke several key picture book rules!
I then started work on another story, a refugee story, and this fared better– people were moved by it, and I really enjoyed revising and polishing it with the group.
The whole experience of my Writers’ Workshop course was extremely positive. Firstly, I learned that I had a whole lot of stuff to learn! Secondly, I felt that, with practice and hard work, I would be able to learn and assimilate all those necessary skills to make a success of my picture book writing!
Almost two years on, I believe that my writing is now much stronger than when I first started out– after all, I’ve been writing constantly since then! I’ve learnt the importance of getting– and listening to– feedback, of getting professional advice whenever possible, and of revising texts over and over– and then some more! Oh– and in 2017 I completed another course plus some private coaching, this time with Natascha Biebow of Blue Elephant Storyshaping… In fact, you could say that 2017 has been my “Year of Trying” . . .but I’ll save that for another post!
Here’s a link to the Writers’ Workshop Picture Books Course
Here’s a link to Blue Elephant Storyshaping