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I never tire of hearing (or reading) people say how tough it is to write a picture book. But I was especially impressed by the admission from today’s Tuesday 12 x 12 author, Connie Dowell, that she waited to try writing picture books for years because she knew she needed strong writing skills. So often it’s the other way around! People think they are going to ‘cut their teeth’ on picture books and then graduate to longer-form fiction or non-fiction. Please welcome Connie and read on to learn more about the differences of writing picture books vs. middle grade/YA fiction in this fascinating post. 

Picture Books and Carry-over Skills

When I tell people I’m working on a picture book, I’m often surprised by how many people assume picture books are easier to write than other forms. I’m quick to correct them. Picture books are tough! In fact, I put off trying a picture book manuscript for years, worried I wasn’t a strong enough writer to do one justice.

I had been writing middle grade and young adult for a long time when I first fell in love with picture books as a library assistant during graduate school. I couldn’t resist flipping through the picture books in the library’s collection to see the beautiful images and read the sometimes lyrical, sometimes funny, always fascinating words. I wanted to write those words, but I already knew that, frequently, the shorter the piece the more difficult it is to compose.

This year, I finally took the 12 x 12 challenge, hoping the regular writing exercise and community environment would be just what I needed to get started in this intimidating (to me) new category. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Knowing I have to get 12 of these puppies at least in first-draft form before 2014, I’ve been furiously brainstorming and putting pen to paper and hands to keyboard, no matter how awful I feel like my drafts are when I write them. Not only have I a learned a great deal about picture books through this process, I’ve gained writing skills that carry over to fiction for other age groups as well. Furthermore, I’ve learned those skills as a direct result of some of the differences between picture book and novel writing, the length and the illustration component.

The shorter length of picture books intensifies the entire writing process. It forces me to think about every single word I put on the page. In just a few months of doing this challenge, I’m writing more concisely than I ever have before and editing more ruthlessly to eliminate redundancy and unnecessary words. In addition, the short length makes picture book characterization more difficult and more crucial. It’s too easy to have characters feel like fill-in-the-blanks, because as writers we don’t have much word count to work in those details that bring characters to life. It’s important to concentrate on what’s special about not just the protagonist but any secondary characters and bear all that in mind for every single action the character takes.

The illustration component of picture books presents an additional challenge. One of the first maxims you learn in picture books is to “leave room for the pictures,” and boy was that hard for me. I spent years refining my use of visual description, finding just the right balance between not enough and too much detail. When I started writing picture books, all that was gone, and I finally realized how much I used it as a crutch. Without visual description, I started thinking about smells, textures, etc. A book is not a movie screen; it can appeal to more than just the eyes and ears.

Thus far I have written and revised two picture book manuscripts, I’m working on a third, and I have a long list of ideas to fill the rest of the year. I’ve enjoyed exploring this fascinating form and improved as not only a picture book writer, but as a writer overall. I can’t wait to see how much I will have learned by the end of the year.

Connie B. Dowell is a university writing tutor and writing center assistant manager. Her freelance editing and proofreading business launches in May. Always passionate about children’s literature, in high school and college, she hid her books for younger readers lest anyone should discover that she read “little kid books.” Now she reads whatever she pleases right out in the open, daring anyone to judge. Connie lives in Virginia with her husband and an overly clingy cat. Find her online at www.bookechoes.com.

Categories: 12 x 12, Authors, Books, Children's Books, Creativity, Goals, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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19 Comments

  1. Hi Connie! I’m in Virginia too!!! Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Great advice and perspective. Writing picture books takes the skill of a poet — thanks for sharing your story and good luck on your manuscripts.

  3. This is awesome, Connie! You’ve written such truths. And I’m from Virginia, so YAY!

  4. Nice post, Connie. You sound like you’re well on your way to getting this done!

  5. Good for you Connie – that you read books for kids all these years. The post itself is so well written I look forward to seeing more. Best of luck on your journey – sounds like you’re enjoying it too!

  6. Congrats on this excellent post – it’s not only your story but a celebration of our beloved picture book form, as well! Good luck with all your work.

  7. This is very good. I find it a very big challenge to be concise in my writing of picture books. This post was definitely for me, and it will help me to challenge myself in the future. Thank you!

  8. Thanks, Connie. I really enjoyed this post. The best of luck on your continued writing journey!

  9. Time and time again I hear editors say that as picture book writer you have think about each word! Thanks Connie.

  10. You ARE very wise to realize how difficult pb writing is. I enjoyed learning about you and how you became entranced by picture books!

  11. Nice to “meet” you, Connie. Good luck on this writing journey!

  12. Thanks everybody! And thanks to Julie and Kelli for this great opportunity to share today!

  13. Melanie Ellsworth

    Connie, I like what you wrote about the characters and making every single action in your PB count towards building that character’s personality. It’s a great reminder, as is your point about cutting back on visual descriptions that the illustrations can provide. I too used to be a closet PB- and middle grade fiction- reader, and now I’m constantly carrying stacks of these books around without fear!

  14. Thanks, Connie. The illustration component really does present an extra challenge. I wanted to describe everything when I first started because I thought that was “good” writing. It’s a whole other way of looking at things.

  15. Well put, Connie. Thank You.

  16. I couldn’t agree with you more about how writing PBs “forces me to think about every single word I put on the page”! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and journey with us. Best of luck to you!

    Oh and BTW, I have never been ashamed of being seen reading kids’ books, not in my teens, 20s, 30s, and 40s. I think kids’ books are, in general, much better written than adult books! 🙂

  17. What a great story! You are SO right!

  18. Such an excellent post, Connie — it was a mini-lesson in writing picture books, as well as being inspiring and encouraging. Thank you so much for this!

  19. Wonderful post, Connie. I thoroughly enjoyed reading. And how could I disagree with anything you said? Thanks for it and good luck to us all! 🙂

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