There’s one thing you should know about me right upfront: I love making lists. There’s something that I find both focusing and freeing about having to crystallize my thoughts into this form; while I might not cover everything there is to say on the given subject, just the act of making the list helps me focus on the things I feel are most vital.
So, picture books. During these grand days of PiBoIdMo goodness, I’ve been giving a lot to the form. Certainly they are a big part of my life: I write them, I read them, I sell them (for my authors). But what pushes a text from a short story into a perfectly crafted masterpiece? Editors are not looking for something that’s just sweet, or nice, or passable. And I’m not either. Texts like these would very likely have sold five or ten years ago. But nowadays? The bar is a lot higher.
Which leads me very nicely to my list. What makes a picture book text stand out from the pack? What kinds of stories should you be crafting? What are my top tips and most targeted advice for perfecting the craft of writing picture books? Read on to find out!
1. Think outside the box.
The beauty of events like PiBoIdMo is that they focus the power of volume. “Quality not quantity,” the adage goes—but sometimes, it takes quantity to find that quality. It’s the old familiar brainstorming routine, whereby the free-flow of ideas stirs up the mind to the extent that the mundane gives way to the extraordinary.
So stir up those creative juices! Get crazy! Make lists and put unexpected elements together. A shark… and a train? A pigeon… and a bus? Like a phenomenal preschool-aged Glee mashup song in fully illustrated form, you too can strike gold with your big out-of-the-box idea.
2. Focus on a character.
If every era has a buzzword, the one for the contemporary picture book marketplace would be: character-driven. Everyone wants to see (or be) the next Fancy Nancy. But what does that mean to you, sitting as you are with brain to fingers to keyboard?
What editors don’t want: copycat stories. (Oh! I know: Stylish Suzie! Or maybe… Frilly Jilly!) No. The key to parsing out this riddle is to go deeper. Put your own spin on the demand, and focus on the core premise: Kids want someone they can connect with. They want to see a bit of themselves in the larger-than-life heroes who fill their pages. They want a dash of crazy; a spark of excitement; a quirky, interesting, fully-themselves hero or heroine who can take their imagination by storm.
Be original. Be flamboyant. Give specific character details. And give your readers a brand-new friend they can take home in their pocket.
3. Embrace the universal.
So far my tips have been all about the crazy, the creative, the new-and-oh-so-different. Now I’m going to take all that back a notch, add a great big qualifier on top. Your picture has to be fresh, new, original—yes. But!
It also has to be about the same ol’ thing.
What? After all that talk of originality, now this? Here’s the thing: It’s not enough to have a wild and wacky premise. There also has to be some deeper core to the story that connects with readers on its most basic level. I’ve heard them described as the “universal child emotions” that need to be represented in order for the story to fully hit its mark.
Now, please note that we’re not talking about morals or lessons or message here. What are talking about is theme, subtly underlaid, weaving throughout the text and supplementing the story.
The list of universals is endless: love, friendship, overcoming fears, trying new things, getting along with others, sibling rivalry, leaving someone or something you love, sickness, loss. It’s as long as life itself, and honestly? The simpler the better. (Which, come to think of it, could totally be point #4 on my list, but a list of 4 simply cannot compete with a list of 3.)
So there you have it—my three top tips. I hope they will help you as you take your ideas and craft them into stellar picture books that take the marketplace by storm. So… are you ready? Get set, WRITE!
Ammi-Joan Paquette writes picture books and young adult novels, plus she’s a literary agent with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Her latest book is Nowhere Girl, published in September 2011 by Walker/Bloomsbury. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughters. Visit her online at AmmiJoanPaquette.com.