Updated: Aug 19, 2021
Self-publishing The Train Rolls On has taught me many things about writing, publishing, and marketing picture books. Today, I want to share a bit of that knowledge with you by reflecting on five of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about writing picture books.
Where I Started
When I began writing picture book manuscripts in 2019, I was very naïve. In fact, I didn’t know the first thing about writing a picture book. (Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, but I guess that’s what the learning process is all about…figuring out everything that I mistakenly thought I knew in the first place. 😊) Sure, I had read a lot of picture books with Avery, and I had formed my own opinions as to which ones were spectacularly well-written and which ones...well, weren't. Based on that, I was confident that I could, at the very least, write a story that was better than some of the books currently on the market.
So, without doing any research whatsoever, I turned to some of our favorite picture books for inspiration, put on my creative thinking cap, and…wrote some stories. (Pretty naïve, right?) Since then, I have learned that there is a lot more to writing picture books than initially meets the eye.
5 Things I’ve Learned
1. Research the market BEFORE writing the book!
By the end of 2019, I had written roughly ten picture book manuscripts, but I hadn’t yet begun researching the publishing process. (Deep down, I knew the research phase was going to take a lot of time and effort, so I was content to procrastinate on that front, instead spending my free time brainstorming book ideas and exercising my creative writing skills…you know, the fun part.)
It wasn’t until January of 2020 that I finally decided to dive into the book publishing research. Once I did, I learned that one of the critical steps in the picture book writing process happens BEFORE the writing even begins and consists of researching the existing picture book market, validating a book’s concept, and determining its target audience. (Hmm…that would have been nice to know before I had written ten books!) I have since returned to those “completed” manuscripts and made several changes (both major and minor) as well as modified my writing process to include this research step. Lesson learned!
2. Keep it concise!
Standard picture books are just 32 pages long, and that often includes the title page, dedication page, copyright information, and any other front or back matter that might be present. This means that authors are typically left with only 24-30 pages (or 12-15 spreads) to tell their story. That’s not very many! To help you visualize this, I've included two diagrams of sample picture book layouts below, both courtesy of Author Tara Lazar:
Not only is the number of pages limited, but the publishing industry has certain expectations regarding the word count of picture book manuscripts. It is generally accepted that such manuscripts must have less than 1,000 words; however, many agents, editors, and readers prefer picture books with 500 words or less. (So, that 900-word story that I wrote in 2019 needs some heavy-duty editing!) In fact, the sweet spot for this genre seems to be 350-500 words. With such a limited space within which to tell a compelling story, each word must be chosen carefully and scrutinized as to whether or not it’s the best possible word for the intended job.
Luckily, all but one of the manuscripts that I’ve written have fewer than 500 words, but, again, these industry requirements and expectations would have been helpful to know BEFORE I started writing. Now that I am aware of them, it is much easier to outline a book’s plot and maintain the appropriate pacing for each scene.
3. Leave some of the storytelling to the illustrations!
A picture book’s text and illustrations should work together to complete the story, but this doesn’t mean that the illustrations should simply mirror the written text. Instead, the text should leave ample room for the illustrations to tell their own unique part of the story. By showing details that aren’t presented in the text (or even contradict the text), the illustrations can add interest and layers of complexity to a story that don’t exist in the text alone. Here are a few examples to "illustrate" (😉) this point:
From All By Myself by Mercer Mayer and published by Random House:
From What Do You Do With An Idea? written by Kobi Yamada, illustrated by Mae Besom, and published by Compendium Kids:
From The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach and published by Alfred A. Knopf:
Leaving room for the illustrations is much harder than it sounds, and I, admittedly, have plenty of room to improve in this area. As I write scenes, I tend to picture them very vividly in my mind, and I can’t help but want to include detailed descriptions of what I'm envisioning. (This doesn't leave room for the illustrator OR keep it concise!) It’s difficult to reign-in this impulse and to leave some of the story to be filled in by someone else…someone who has their own ideas and vision for the book. Then again, it is often these thoughtful details in the artwork that can make a book really stand out. So, leaving room for the illustrator’s ideas and artwork is a skill that I will be consciously working to develop and improve upon in my future books.
4. Consider the text’s final layout early on in the process!
Early in the writing/editing process, it is important to consider how text will ultimately be laid out in a book. Seeing the final layout at this early stage can really help direct writing and/or editing efforts. For one, it helps to visualize the amount of text that will end up on each page and determine whether or not the amount is appropriate for the book’s intended audience. It also helps to visualize the space available for each illustration, to plan the subject matter of each illustration, and to strategically position page breaks. For instance, are there pauses in the text that require page breaks or page turns to build anticipation, accentuate humor, etc? If so, laying out the text ensures that it fits within the book's available real estate but also ends up in an appropriate spot to accomplish these tasks. Here is an example of a page break used to build anticipation from The Train Rolls On (click the right arrow to advance to the next page):
In my experience, all of these details are worth considering before finalizing a book's text and before bringing an illustrator and/or book designer on board (although both illustrators and book designers can help make these decisions, if needed).
Personally, I like to wait until a manuscript has received several rounds of editing before considering the final layout of the text. Then I print out the text and use scissors to cut each stanza/line apart. I create a simple book dummy (like the one pictured below) and use paperclips to attach the different sections of text to each page. When I’m done, I read the book a few times and take photos of the layout.
Sample Book Dummy for The Train Rolls On (click the right arrow to advance to the next page):
Once created, I usually adjust the positioning of the text, testing 2-3 different layouts before settling on the one I like best. Sometimes, during this process, I notice areas of text that need to be re-worked. Other times, I don’t. Either way, laying out the text helps me to picture what the final product will look like and how the text will ultimately flow from one page to the next.
5. Hiring a professional editor makes a HUGE difference!
It’s always a good idea to receive feedback from others, and collaborating with a professional editor can really elevate a manuscript. Editors are very familiar with current trends in the children’s book market, so they know what works (and what doesn’t) and can ensure that a book’s tone, pace, and language are appropriate for the intended audience. Upon request, editors can assist with everything from developing the big-picture story arc to correcting minor errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation, ensuring that a book's text is as sound and professional as it can be prior to publication.
Sample Edits from The Train Rolls On:
Hiring a professional editor is especially worthwhile considering how affordable their services can be (for picture books, anyways). Based on my initial research, I expected to pay approximately $500 to have The Train Rolls On professionally edited; however, all of the quotes that I received were under $350. In the end, I paid less than $200 to collaborate with Sarah, and there is no doubt that it was money well-spent. The Train Rolls On would not be what it is today without her thoughtful input and expertise. (*Note: Sarah did not re-write the story or force me to make any changes whatsoever. Rather, she made several suggestions that directed my efforts to revise and refine the story’s text, and she provided helpful feedback on each round of revisions that I made.) After working with Sarah and seeing the benefits of professional editing first-hand, I highly recommend taking advantage of professional editing services.
I still have a long way to go and A LOT to learn about writing picture books, but the knowledge that I’ve gained thus far has given me a lot to think about (and work on) and has only deepened my interest in (and appreciation for) writing picture books. I can’t wait to see what I learn over the next year and a half...and beyond!
For additional lessons that I’ve learned over the course of my self-publishing journey, check out 5 Things I’ve Learned About Self-Publishing Picture Books. For more insight into the making of The Train Rolls On, read Behind The Scenes: The Evolution of The Train Rolls On. To learn about how I started writing picture books in the first place, check out My Road To Writing Children's Books.