7 tips on how to write a successful picture book (that might surprise you)

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So you’ve got a fantastic idea for a picture book – but you’ve never done it before, and you’re a bit lost on where to start? You’ve come to the right place. Here are seven surprising tips from successful Australian Writers’ Centre graduates and teachers on how to make your picture books the best they can be. 

1. Remember there will be pictures

Though it might sound like an obvious thing to consider, writers forgetting about the illustrated component of the picture book they’re working on is surprisingly common. Done properly, illustrations can add a whole lot of plot development and humour that you’d otherwise have to use precious words to write in: make sure you take full advantage of the opportunity.

Catherine Pelosi, author of Quark’s Academy and Something for Fleur, says this is feedback which comes up often at critique groups: that the writer has not left enough space for the illustrator.

“I don't know if a lot of writers do think about that: they’re sort of thinking about the story and the concept, but not actually crafting the words to make space for the illustration,” she says. “It's not just about the words reflecting the illustrations. Often, in illustrations, there’s a whole other character development going on, sometimes a whole other plot that's unfolding just through the pictures.”

2. Trust your gut

While the advice and feedback you’ll get from other writers can be helpful, you don’t want your picture book to end up designed by committee. Take on board the opinions of others, but don’t feel you have to change everything, Catherine advises.

“You get so many different opinions and the story can start to change and move really far away from what you initially intended to the point that it can sort of die, which I've seen happen with people – like a manuscript will just fall over because it's been overworked,” she says. “So really learn to understand what you want to say and what you want your story to be, and then stick to that.”

3. Read it out loud – and recruit a friend

While you might endlessly reread your words in your head as you edit, never forget that picture books are designed to be read aloud, writer and illustrator Judith Rossell says. 

Judith teaches Writing Picture Books and How to Write for Children and Young Adults at the Australian Writers’ Centre, and has been writing and illustrating children’s books for nearly 20 years. She recommends reading your manuscript aloud to yourself, and listening to how it flows, or you could go one further and ask a friend to record themselves reading it. That way, you can hear if there are any areas where the reader might trip up, and check, if you have used rhymes, that they work for another reader. 

4. Keep it simple

Simplifying your central story ideas can be the key to success, Judith says.

“One simple, great idea is all you need, you don't need to try and do too much,” she says. “It's really common for people to end up with a story that could actually be two separate stories, trying to do two things or three things, when you really need to try and do one thing – really well, of course.

“Picture books are deceptively simple. They need to look like they're really simple, but underneath there's a whole lot of thought going on.”

 5. Sleep with your story

Getting a good night’s sleep, and allowing your subconscious to mull your story over, can help you take it to the next level. Shelly Unwin, author of There’s a Baddie Running Through This Book, Blast Off and the You’re series, advises reading over your manuscript right before you go to sleep. 

“Make sure you have a pen by your bed ready to write down any thoughts you have in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning,” she says. 

6. Throw a spanner in the works 

One common piece of feedback picture book writers get from publishers is that the story is great, but it needs to be taken up a notch. Once you’re happy with your story, but before sending it off, try to go through that process yourself: read through it and see if there’s some way you can lift the stakes even higher.

“A new plot twist, make the drama more dramatic or make the funny funnier: what can you do to really push its limits?” Shelly says. “It’s that little bit that takes it from being a nice but quiet story to one that’s a bit more edgy, and might catch the editor’s eye a bit more.”

Cathie Tasker is one of Australia’s most experienced children’s book editors. She is the creator of the popular course Writing Picture Books at the Australian Writers' Centre. Cathie says: “Picture books seem simple but they still need a strong story with strong themes. You need rising tension and conflict if you want to engage readers and make sure they turn the page. But stories with rising tension and conflict don't mean you need to write about dark topics or world annihilation. A good story could be about Johnny being lost in the supermarket but finding mum by the end of the book.”

7. Think of it like a chapter book

Finally, Victoria Mackinlay, whose debut book Ribbit Rabbit Robot was published in April 2020, says a trick she learned is to think of every spread within your picture book as a chapter.

“You need to check with each of your spreads: is there enough intrigue, humour, action, suspense on that page to make the reader turn over? You almost need a cliffhanger on each page to make sure that your reader is going to turn the page,” she says.

Keen to craft your own picture books? Our comprehensive Writing Picture Books course takes you through the process step by step so you can approach the writing and publishing process with confidence.

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