I had the very good fortune of not only meeting our July 12 x 12 featured author, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen at the NJ-SCBWI conference, but also receiving an amazing critique from her on my March draft. That is why I am so excited for the one lucky 12 x 12 participant who is going to win a critique from her this month. You are in for a treat!

Sudipta gave several presentations at the conference that were (almost) as packed with information as this post is. 🙂 She sold out of her books so quickly at the conference that I was only able to get my hands on Pirate Princess and Hampire, both of which my kids ADORE! I can say for certain that Sudipta knows her way around a picture book, and we’re lucky to be able to learn from her. Please welcome Sudipta!

Problems, Truths, and the Quotable Yoda

When Julie asked me to be the July author for 12×12, I was so flattered that I accepted on the spot. But I didn’t think it through. (This is a typical practice for me.) See, Julie said I could just write about the craft of picture book writing and that it should be easy-peasy, lemon-squeezey. But then…I started reading all the great posts by the authors who’ve already had their say, and I wondered what I could say about picture books that hasn’t been said already? This is a real problem. A panic-worthy problem. A potentially-professionally-and-personally-embarrassing kind of problem. Luckily, my college experience beat something into my brain that has served me well, even now when I do nothing at all with my college (or graduate) degree. It’s a simple rule of life, applicable to anything, apropos to everything.

All problems have solutions.

I remember taking final exams in physics classes where the jargon was so complex that I was never really sure it was English and not Swahili, realizing that I couldn’t solve any of the problems because they were unsolvable, going into full panic mode…and then realizing that it couldn’t be as bad as I was making it out to be. These were only problems, and all problems have solutions. You just have to find the right protocol, utilize a strong framework, and rely only on things that are true. Only when I realized this was I able to take a breath and take my exam. (And since I got a degree, I couldn’t have failed all of them.) You might be wondering why this is relevant now – after all, could there be two more disparate things than theoretical astrophysics and children’s picture books? (The answer there is ‘no.’) But it is relevant – because writing can be just as hard astrophysics. Knowing the right way to craft a story can be just as mysterious as the way electrons tunnel through barriers (or something. My recollection of college physics is fuzzy at best) – and it can be just as much of a problem. And what was that that we just learned?

All problems have solutions.

So, here’s what we are going to talk about today in this post:

  1. Finding the right protocol.
  2. Utilizing a strong framework.
  3. Relying only on things that are true.

Let’s begin. Finding the right protocol. Long ago, in another life, I was trained as a scientist, and as scientists, we dealt with proven techniques and tested procedures. When I became a writer, I quickly realized that I was most effective – and most efficient – when I used proven techniques and tested procedures. So I learned how to tell a story, what steps were required, what elements needed to be present, and I put that knowledge to use. Now, before I go any further, I just want to say that I am not trying to imply that writing a picture book is like following a recipe. The magic that happens when you write a story that is publishable is not something anyone can tell you about. (In fact, if I knew the secret to making that magic happen, I wouldn’t have a pile of unpublished manuscripts gathering dust.) What you can learn is how to write a technically correct narrative. The rest is fairy dust and rainbows. But back to the protocol. I can certainly tell you that secret. Here you go:

  • Limit yourself to 500 words. I’m finding in today’s market, even 500 is considered long (the last picture book I sold had 32 words in it).
  • Write stories with a beginning, middle, and end. Young children need to be grounded in the reality of the world of your story before they can understand or appreciate it. Therefore, avoid the common pitfall of jumping too quickly into the story. Remember, your story doesn’t take place on any old day – it happens on that day that the world became different. If you don’t tell the reader how things normally are (in that good story beginning), how will they understand the significance of the change? Similarly, young readers need to be satisfied at the conclusion of the story – the “happily ever after” moment, if you will – so you have to leave room for that.
  • Use no more than 10% of your word count for the beginning, 10% for the end, and 80% for the middle. As much as your readers need grounding and resolution, you don’t want to bog the story down with these things. Get to it, get it done, move on.
  • Make use of the rule of three. Remember the Three Little Pigs and The Three Billy Goats Gruff? Those are the classic examples but most literature utilizes the rule of three in determining “how much plot” is necessary to be satisfying. So put your main character through at least three hurdles (more often, three failures and then a final success) over the course of your story.

Obviously, there is much, much more we could discuss, but this is a good start. And I want to talk about some other things, too. So, moving on… Utilizing a strong framework. The number of places where the need for good structure is compared to architecture/construction/etc is many, so I will spare you of that here. But, to me, framing the story structurally is essential for creating a good narrative. Part of that is the beginning/middle/end structure we’ve discussed, but there are other tricks to use that can heighten and enhance the tension of your story. One of my favorite tricks is the refrain.

The refrain is a wonderful way to give your book narrative structure. It should be catchy and easy to remember/read/say, and, because of that, the reader should look forward to the next time he will run into it. But, structurally, the refrain serves a dual purpose. First, it marks every high point of the story. When the reader hears the refrain, he knows that the main character is feeling confident about his chances of solving the story problem. This enhances the anticipation for the reader, since he is rooting for the main character to win. But the second purpose of the refrain is the one that makes the story stronger from a narrative sense – it does not just emphasize the high point, it also foreshadows the low point to come. After all, since we are following the rule of three, the main character will fail several times before he solves his problem. The main character won’t know that, so he’ll launch into his refrain with gusto – and then will be met with disappointment. Tension rises, tension falls. You can use the refrain only in the “middle” of the picture book, or you can actually use it to structure the entire thing.

In my book CHICKS RUN WILD, we open with Mama seemingly putting her chicks to bed. She gives “one more kiss for each dear child, but when she leaves… those chicks run wild!” The first time we hear the refrain, it is launching us from the book beginning into how the world is changing that night. Throughout the story, then, Mama goes in and out of the bedroom, exhorting her chicks to go to sleep each time. And each time she leaves, “those chicks run wild!” Each time, then, the reader knows when he sees those words that there will be a funny scene followed immediately by the chicks getting into trouble again. Until, of course, we reach the book’s climax: Mama catches her chicks again, and asks why she had not been invited, and after consulting with each other, the chicks as Mama to join them and “they all run wild!” There’s the refrain again, but because this time it is signaling the climax and not just another stop of the journey, it gets a bit of a tweak – similar enough to feel the same but different enough to mark the change. By the way, the refrain in this case is used in the resolution of the story as well – again, with a tweak. After going wild as a family, the chicks are tired out and beg for sleep. So Mama puts them back in bed and gives “one last kiss for each dear child, she leaves the room, and Mama runs WILD!”

Relying only on things that are true. So far, we’ve covered some structural rules for writing picture books. Now I’d like to shift gears and talk about truth. The purpose of science is to expose the truth about the universe, to take something mysterious and make it less so. The purpose of literature is basically the same. So in all these scientific steps to writing that I take, my goal is to expose and convey a universal truth. I do this through character and through theme.

Truth in character is harder than you’d think. That’s because the picture book main character has to be true to the reader’s experience and to the author’s experience. Since it’s been a very long time since I’ve been in the age 3 to 8 demographic, I have to constantly remind myself to focus on both. The temptation when creating a main character is to focus on the charismatic, the character’s talents, skills, and gifts. But a trick to keeping your character true is to balance the flair by imbuing him with flaws. Remember who your reader is: a child who probably feels on the wrong side of right most of the time. That child wants to be able to identify with the main character – and it is the flaws that make that possible.

Truth in theme is often what separates a good, publishable picture book manuscript from a fun romp. A lot of writers – even experienced ones – focus so much on creating compelling characters and crafting a gripping plot that they forget that the primary role of literature is to expose universal truths. Now, the scope of a picture book is obviously not the same as WAR AND PEACE, but we still need to deal with universal themes. Is your book about friendship? Family? Is it about finding your place in the world? About learning patience and perseverance? Whatever it is, make sure there is something more to the story than a bunch of punch lines. Experiencing the theme, seeing the truth – that’s what makes a book re-readable.

Putting it all together Writing a good book can be a problem. But all problems have solutions. For me, the solution involves the steps I’ve outlined above. Except…I left off a step. And it’s kind of an important one. Yes, to craft a good picture book you should find the right protocol, utilize a strong framework, and rely only on things that are true. But you have to find a way to put all of these things together in a logical way. And that’s where some of the art of what we do as authors comes into play. There is so much wonderful information in this year’s 12×12 posts so far, and I’m sure there are many more wonderful posts to come before the end of the year. And as much as I am a believer in following tried and true protocols, each of us has to find the formula that works for our story – one that allows the character to go on meaningful quest in a way that makes sense. To make it even more complex, it will likely be a different set of steps for each story. In essence, we reinvent the wheel every time.

So what do I hope you take from this post, and from this blog? Please know I’m not saying that a story can’t work with four failures before the main character solves the problem, or can’t be published at 600 words or 700 words. Obviously, everything I’ve discussed here is optional – you find what works for you, just as I’ve found what works for me. While all problems have solutions, your solution to your story may be different from mine. But at least you know now that there is a solution. And that’s what I hope you take away. Every day you sit down to write, no matter how problematic it is, there is a solution. Which means it is not impossible. And if it’s possible, it can be doable.

And if it is doable, well – remember the immortal words of Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” I hope you all choose “do.”

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen never thought she’d grow up to be a writer. In fact, in 2001, Sudipta was well on her way to NOT being a writer. She had graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1998 with a BS in Biology, spent a year in Boston, and then had returned to Caltech as a PhD candidate in developmental biology. Even the birth of her first child, Isabella, didn’t change Sudipta’s plans — she thought she’d take a long maternity leave then return to graduate school. Then, her daughter Brooklyn came along.

With two small children, Sudipta found herself less interested in biology as she was in parenting. And for the first time, she found that she had stories to tell, stories she wanted to share with her daughters, and she decided to try to get published.

She loved picture books, so using a facility with word play and a love for animals (especially pigs), Sudipta worked on a number of manuscripts. Her first picture book, Tightrope Poppy, the High-Wire Pig, illustrated by Sarah Dillard, about a proud pig who perseveres was published in 2006. Since then, Sudipta has written many picture books including her latest, Pirate Princess. Other books by Sudipta include Hampire, Chicks Run WildHalf-Pint Pete the PirateThe Hog Prince and more.

Participants – to enter to win a critique from Sudipta, you must be an official challenger and leave a comment on this post (INCLUDING YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME) any time during the month of July for one point.  On May 31st, l’ll put a check-in post on the blog.  If you completed a picture book draft in May, you can let us know in the comments of that post for another point.  I will draw a winner using Random.org and announce on August 2nd.

Categories: 12 x 12 Featured Author, 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Children's Books, Giveaway, Goals, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Publishing, Rhyming, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



  1. Thanks for the advice Sudipta. Writing to me has always been like solving an algebra problem but a bit more fun.

  2. oh i would love to win this. brilliant article.
    Kelly McDonald

  3. Wow, Sudipta, this is great. Thanks for sharing it with us. CHICKS RUN WILD is very popular in my first grade classroom. 🙂

  4. Sudipta, thank you for your wonderful insight. The advice on the refrain was like a lightening bolt. I immediately began jotting notes related to a character I’ve been struggling with since January. Your remarks about universal truths had me nodding, involuntarily (is that even possible) as I read. I’ll be working on my theme’s truth__”to take something mysterious and make it less so”. Great class, teacher!

  5. Patricia Nozell

    Sudipta, Loved your workshops at NJ-SCBWI & so glad you are spreading your insights to the 12×12 community.

    Well done, Julie, for asking the multi-talented Sudipta to post this month.


  6. I was most interested to learn that the deeper reason for including a refrain was foreshadowing. Thank you for a truly fascinating essay, Sudipta!
    Karen Cheesman

  7. Sudipta,
    Thanks for sharing your pb wisdom, and I love how you organized it in a scientific way. I liked the 10-80-10 % for page set up and how you use the refrain “trick” and relying on universal truths. Excellent advice! I’d love to win a critique from you as well!
    ~Tina Cho

  8. This is wonderful advice thankyou Sudipta. I too loved the 10,80,10 style. Julie was right, you certainly packed a bevy of information in this post. Thankyou.
    Diane Tulloch

  9. Such great advice from Sudipta! Packing it into 500 words or less…daunting. Can’t wait to read the 32 word book and see how she’s done it! Concerns me once again that author-illustrators have a huge advantage in the PB realm.

    Please sign me up for the critique and I promise to uphold the protocol, framework and truth in my July draft!

    – Cathy Mealey

  10. This is so helpful! Thank you, Sudipta and Julie! Although science has not been my strong suit, somehow these three guidelines resonated with me and made sense to me. I look forward to putting them to use.

  11. And just to make sure I’m entered in the wonderful giveaway, here’s my name, first and last. I would include my middle name, but it’s far shorter than the recommended 80% for middles! 😉

    Beth Stilborn

  12. Hi Sudipta!

    I would be honored to win a critique from you as I know it would only help me to grow as a writer. If you weren’t so brilliant as a children’s book author, I would wish you could travel the country teaching classes on perfecting the art of picture book creation. Not every writer is able to attend your workshops but we can all benefit from your vast knowledge on the subject…;~)

    Thanks for all you do for the writing community!

    Donna L Martin

  13. Sudipta, your workshops at SCBWI are always my favorite – I love the scientific to the picture book! Thanks, as always, for wonderful advice and guidance.
    -Lisa Birenbaum

  14. Margaret Greanias

    Great post! There were so many tools that I will use going forward — especially the refrain and the 10-80-10 rule. Thank you!
    -Margaret Greanias

  15. What great advice! Thanks for sharing, and I would LOVE a critique 🙂 Katie Clark

  16. Thank you Sudipta. And thank you Julie. I loved every bit of this! From the very beginning you captivated my rational side by reminding me that all problems have solutions. I appreciate the different angles of looking at what makes picture books work…from the scientific to the fairy dust. Great way to kick off July!

  17. I really enjoyed the insights on the refrain as I have just incorporated one into a manuscript for the firs time. I confess to I think I have fallen foul to jumping straight into the problem, I appreciate the tips to set the scene for young readers! Thank you!

  18. Sudipta, I’m so glad you solved your problem of what to tell us. This info is tremendously helpful to me! Even without recently reading manuscripts I’ve written, flashes of them came vividly to mind as I learned from your post where and how to improve them. Thanks so much, and thank you, Julie, for inviting Sudipta to participate.
    Carol Munro

  19. AMAZING post. What useful information! Thanks so much for sharing Sudipta. You are a tremendous inspiration to us. Thanks Julie for supplying these great authors!

  20. As always Julie ….stunning. Thank you Sudipta! I also loved the clear outline with underlying flesh. I think I’ll need some mental floss now! Teehee.

    Melissa Mead

  21. Love how you’ve meshed your strong science background with the art of picture book writing, Sudipta. This is a great post for nailing basic structure in picture books, along with reasons why, and I’ll be sharing it! Thanks, Julie…
    Deb Lund

  22. Sudipta, your post has so much in it for us to think about and to use in practice. I never really thought about the structural purpose of the refrain before, and I’ll be studying my mss. with this in mind. Many thanks!
    Lisa Rogers

  23. Thank you, Sudipta and Julie, for a great post! Good words for us all!

  24. Thank you Sudipta! Your post is full of mind-tingling information. I let one of my ms simmer for a while…because it needed it, but I was inspired to go back to it with a renewed sense of hope.

  25. Sudipta, Thank you for your very helpful post! Love your picture books!
    – cynthia iannaccone

  26. Thirty-two words! Really, Sudipta?!
    I am going back to my ms with a renewed passion for the edit.

  27. Just when you think all the advice has already been shared…this is so helpful, Sudipta and Julie! (And, who am I kidding, I need all the advice I can get my brain on!!) Would love to win a critique this month!
    Carter Higgins

  28. GREAT stuff, as usual! I think that theme business is hardest to get right–sometimes I’ll get wrapped up in the craft and the words and the Rule of Three and then end up with the uh-oh moment. As in, “Uh-oh. Where the heck did I put that theme???” 😉

  29. Thanks, Sudipta! I love “Chicks Run Wild” – is that nonfiction? (well, except for the chickens…)
    Protocol, framework, and true things…. I can remember that. Great advice. I’d love to meet you someday,
    Sue Heavenrich

  30. Fantastic Post. I am inspired to get cracking on my July MS. I finished my June one early and have been dragging my heels a little. 500 words I can probably do, but 32!!

    Thanks for the opportunity to win a critique!

    Kim Mounsey

  31. I can’t wait to apply this to my June ms and maybe some older manuscripts I lost hope with. Thank you Sudipta for your clear-cut breakdown (a.k.a dissection) of writing a picture book.

    I’d love to be entered into the critique giveaway.

    Jennifer Young

  32. There is so much information in this post it is going to take me awhile to assimilate it. Thank you for sharing your insights, Sudipta.

    Lynn Davidson

  33. Thank you so much for this post. I found so many tidbits to apply to my writing. I feel that each guest author helps me focus to bring my writing to the next level. I do love your books, Sudipta!

    Julie, thanks for bringing another great guest our way.

    Penny Klostermann

  34. Thanks Sudipta (and Julie) for this wisdom. I feel like I’ve BEEN at a SCBWI workshop! This was one of the best yet! The advice is priceless…as I read it my last draft rolled through my mind with highlights and marks and edits that confirmed everything you were saying.
    We’re RICH fellow 12×12’ers! This is a year long writing course for free!
    Thanks, include me in the drawing please –
    Damon Dean, SevenAcreSky

  35. Thanks Sudipta and Julie. A light bulb went off about a problem I have in one of my manuscript. – Stacy S. Jensen

  36. Sudipta, read your post with interest. Your advice was sound and made me rethink some of my openings. Your 3 points/problems reminded me of my husband who is a pastor — he always said keep it to three or you’ll lose everyone.

  37. Great tips and a lot of food for thought. I like your tips on sticking with things that work 🙂

  38. Thanks Sudipta!
    I’ve taken Sudipta’s workshops at NE conference and all I have to say is if anyone gets a chance to get into one, do it. This girl tells all!!!!!
    Would love to win a critique.

  39. Erik Weibel, This Kid Reviews Books, says:
    Great post! I like the Yoda quote! 😀 I like your tips. They are important and good.

  40. Great advice Sudipta and I wouldn’t expect anything else from you. The books I’ve read so far are classic picture books and are so funny. What could be better than that? Best wishes!

  41. Kathy Cornell Berman

    Thanks! Your post is chock-full of interesting tips. I especially liked the 10-80-10% story structure idea. It has challenged me to write more effective, succinct beginnings and endings. I would love to win a critique from you.
    Kathy Cornell Berman

  42. Thank you for the wonderful and detailed advice, Sudipta, I also like the idea of looking at it as 10% beginning, 80% middle and 10% end, with the rule of threes for structure. (I have a story idea for this month that I was deciding on how many “conflicts” to put the main character through before she realizes her “truth,” so this helped immensely.)

    Rebecca Fyfe

  43. An excellent post. Thanks so much, Sudipta! Very helpful!!
    Dana Carey

  44. Great post Sudipta! I think in the ten minutes it took me to read it, you solved two of the problems in my June draft.
    Shai Stephenson

  45. Thank you for writing such an in depth post Sudipta!

  46. Another very solid article on how to write picture books. This is one I intend to print and carry around with my rough drafts. Thanks Sudipta and Julie.

    Sallie Wolf

  47. Excellent advice, Sudipta, thank you! I always appreciate advice on the technical, nitty gritty aspect of writing for children. The ideas flow freely, getting them wrangled onto the paper is challenging.

    Heather Newman

  48. Sudipta, you make it sound so easy! We loved “Chicks Run Wild” and will have to check out “Hampire.” Thanks for offering your helpful advice. Kirsten W. Larson

  49. This is fabulous advice…all through I am nodding, nodding, nodding…yes, I have some work to do…but that is the fun part! thank you

  50. Great advice and structure suggestions are super! Excuse me please I need to get my eraser and white out and scissors I have some, er, rearranging to do! 🙂 Thanks also for the chance to win a critique.

  51. Thank you so much, Sudipta! Brilliant, as always. Might actually need to print this one out. As for the winner receiving a free critique all I can say is (in the spirit of “A Chorus Line”) “Gee, I hope I get it! I hope I get it!”

    Marcie Colleen

  52. Sudipta is a master! So much great information here, and her books are so terrific. Thanks for a great post!

    Susanna Hill

  53. Wow, great post! Sudipta, you did it – you brought a fresh perspective. Love the math & science angle. Julie, thanks as always.

  54. I can’t believe I waited so long to read this post! So much information to absorb! Thanks for another great 12×12 learning opportunity.

    Jennifer Rumberger

  55. I read this at the beginning of the month and apparently never left a comment. Hmmnn…I must have been sidetracked (which is so easy to do these days). Thanks, Sudipta for specific advice that we can put to use right away. I’ve printed this one out for reference.

  56. What a great post! Love that Mama runs wild after they finally go to sleep. I may have gone something like that on an occasion or two. 🙂

  57. Thanks, Sudipta, for fantastic advice. I’ve taken loads away and I really like the 10-80-10 rule. ‘Relying on what’s true’ also gave me great food for thought. Thanks again!

  58. I can’t remember if I posted a comment here! Great tips 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing them.

  59. lots of good stuff here! Kelly McDonald (artist illustrator)

  60. Thanks for the tips, Sudipta! I’m realizing that my current favorite manuscript is missing that first 10% in the opening. My mc jumps into the challenge of the story without showing the reader why things need to change. Off to revise.

  61. Don’t know how I missed this! Fantastic advice! It’s always the opening for me that’s the most difficult to get going. Can’t wait to revise my latest! Thanks!

  62. Thank you, Sudipta for offering a fresh perspective on picture book structure and writing. It has sent a little more energy and some good sparks to that big light bulb over my head that I am hoping will someday shine clearly and brightly. The “Ah, I finally get it!” light bulb.

  63. Thanks for sharing your writer’s tips and protocol with us, Sudipta. I had never thought of using a refrain, or implementing the “rule of three”. I am bookmarking this to digest and share later!

    • Thanks for sharing your writer’s tips and protocol with us, Sudipta. I had never thought of using a refrain, or implementing the “rule of three”. I am bookmarking this to digest and share later.
      Sorry, my brain is not awake!….Jarm Del Boccio

  64. What an amazing post! I didn’t realize how effective a refrain can be. Thank you for all the amazing information packed in this post.

  65. Great post! I really liked the advice to strive for truth in character and theme.

    Erin Pearson

  66. Julie, thank you so much for reminding us about this EXCELLENT post. I missed it when it was first posted and I’m so glad I went back to re-read. And thank you Sudipta for sharing such great info.

  67. Julie…awesome guest post…as usual..you provide 12×12’ers with people who know what they are talking about. 🙂
    Sudipta, so nice to meet you and learn from you…I love to solve problems…that is my MO…maybe that’s why I love writing picture books…hope one day mine will sit next to yours on the bookshelf. 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing so much valuable info with us!
    And thank you, Julie, for the heads-up about the comment…how did I miss this post?
    Vivian Kirkfield

  68. Shannon Abercrombie

    Great post! Glad I reread it as I sat down to write today. What a great resource.

    Shannon Abercrombie

  69. I can’t believe I missed this post at the start of the month. Thank you Sudipta for your words of wisdom!

  70. Thank you Sudipta for this excellent post. It is very helpful! And thank you Julie for the reminder as I missed this the first time.
    Jennifer Kirkeby

  71. Brenda Harris. I wrote my draft for July. Since Dad’s in hospital I’m a day late, sorry.

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