No, I’m not referring to dummies who read picture books.  I’m talking about making a mock-up of what your picture book might look like on actual pages.  While it always made sense to me that authors who are also illustrators would create dummies, I only recently came around to the idea that it’s a great thing for authors who are not illustrators to do too.  Why?  Well, word count is one gauge of how well your book will fall into a standard 32-page picture book format, but depending on the style of your story, word count alone might deceive you into thinking your manuscript will work well translated onto the actual page when in fact it could use more tweaking.

At two different SCBWI conferences, editor extraordinaire Allyn Johnston, vice president and publisher of Beach Lane Books (imprint of Simon & Schuster), advocated putting manuscripts through this process before submitting to an editor or agent.  She walked us through the process by giving us blank dummies and reading aloud from some of her favorite picture books.  To say that I would love to have Allyn edit a book of mine is an understatement.  So I thought, “Okay Allyn.  I will build a picture book dummy!”

And so I did, and I must say it was well worth the time.  I thought my manuscript was the perfect length, but when I saw it terms of logical page turns, I realized I need to add to the ending.  This is good news because the ending is weak.  Now I know I have some room to maneuver, which will be critical to my writing process.  You quickly see where your manuscript is too long or short, and where you don’t have enough imagery, tension or suspense, or enough room for illustrations.  Finally, and this will be my last plug for the process, as an unpublished author it was surprisingly thrilling to see my words on actual pages that I could turn and read like a book.  Call me a geek, that’s fine.  But even cutting and pasting with a glue stick makes it that much more real.

I am not an artsy/craftsy person – at all.  When I tried the first time, I found it difficult to figure out where the first page of text actually fell in the 32 pages (Hey – I’m a writer, and I am NOT inclined toward mathematics or engineering!)  So, I took a few picture books and found a model that works for me, which I will now share with you.

First, gather your materials:

  1. A printed copy of your manuscript
  2. 8 sheets of white 8 1/2 x 11 printer paper (or A4 or equivalent)
  3. A stapler
  4. A Sharpie or other dark pen/marker
  5. Scissors
  6. A glue stick

Or, in case you’re a visual person, these are the tools you will need:

Next, take a look at some of your favorite picture books and choose one to emulate.  In the vast majority of picture books, the text will begin on Page 4 or 5.  I used Sleepy Boy by Polly Kanevsky as my model.  This is how Sleepy Boy breaks down.

First, remember that the endsheets don’t count in the 32 pages.  Here is what they look like.

The dark blue page in my hand is the endsheet

Page 1 is usually a half-title page like so…

Page 1 of 32

Pages 2 and 3 are usually dedication and full title page

Pages 2 & 3 = dedication and full title page

Page 4 might be an illustration, or more publisher & dedication info.  It varies.  Perhaps the text even begins on page 4.  In Sleepy Boy, the text begins on Page 5 and Page 4 is an illustration that bleeds into Page 5.  P.S. Those feet just kill me every time I see them.  A picture is worth 1000 words indeed…

The actual story begins on Page 5

The story continues until its conclusion on Page 32, the very last page before the endsheets.  It looks like this:

Last page of text is Page 32 and then final endsheets

Makes you wonder what happened in between to make him fall asleep, doesn’t it?  Well, buy the book.  I assure you it’s a good one!

So, how do we take this example and apply it to our own work?  Well, for purposes of elucidation, I will share my latest “dummy.”  Please forgive the bad handwriting, poor photography and crappy paste jobs.  As I mentioned before, craftsy I am not.

First, take your eight pages of printer paper, fold them in half, staple them at the fold and number them from 1-32 like so:

Next, put your title on Page 1, representing the half-title page

Page 1 = half title page (hint: put title on this page) 🙂

Turn the page of your dummy, and write “Dedication Page” and “Full Title Page” on pages 2 and 3 respectively.

Dummy dedication and full title pages

Next I titled Page 4, ever so eloquently, “Used for Something.”  You could use the word “Placeholder” or even begin the text of your story here.  In my example, I pasted the first couplet of text on Page 5, signifying the beginning of the actual story.

The story begins on Page 5

I wrote my story in quatrains, but for purposes of page turns, I sometimes separated them in order to create suspense or ease transitions, etc.  Remember that this is just an exercise.  We are not editors and will not have the final say in how the text is placed on the page.  However, creating a dummy will definitely give you a betters sense of how the text might get either broken up or clumped together to make the story flow.

I broke some of my verses into couplets for purposes of pacing

And this is how I came to the conclusion that I have room for more transition and ending.  As it stands, even accounting for the fact that I split about half of my quatrains into couplets, my story still ends on Page 25.  Even if I account for more verses to be split, I still need at least one or two more verses.  Very important information for me at this stage of the writing process.  P.S. It says “End Verse” on these pages because, you guessed it, I still need to write them.

I have more writing to do!

If you want even more information about the construction of picture books from someone much smarter than me, check out this post on the Editorial Anonymous blog.

That’s it!  So go forth and channel your inner preschooler.  Have fun with the cutting and pasting, but don’t forget to get back to the writing.  🙂

Categories: Children's Books, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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5 Comments

  1. This is a really useful exercise! It helps to find the pacing of your book!

  2. Wonderful idea, Julie

    Maybe I’ll do this with my children’s book, Too Much Stuff.

  3. Julie, wonderful advice. I trained in graphic design and my first job in that field was for a small book publishing company. I loved being involved in the pre-press production – there was something quite wonderful in the process.

    Dummies are a huge help. You can also make a ‘storyboard’ where you just draw out the pages on a sheet of paper and delegate the words and illustrations to your pages. Once that is worked out then making something you can hold does, indeed make it all feel so much more real…and can even cause you to tweak some more.

    Now, of course, there is software available to make it all the more easy (and heart stoppingly real). I use a digital scrapbooking program called Storybook Creator (Creative Memories). A very similar program is now available from Panstoria called Artisan. You can trial it for 30 days for free. From there you can print your pages on your home printer – and if you want a ‘real book’ you can send it off to various places to do that too.

    • That would be great except I can hardly draw a stick figure! Maybe I could ask my daughter to some illos for me though. She got the artistic genes from my husband’s side of the family – lol!

  4. This is a valuable post on the book dummy process. You do good to illustrate it here. What I do is take four sheets of paper, fold it in half and fold it in half again making 32 pages.
    It, too was a great way to see how my book “Annie’s Special Day” worked out.

    Just got an email from an author who has had terrible luck with my publisher. It mirrors my experience with them and I want to cancel the contract. Am getting advice from my writer’s group.

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