Want to write a picture book, but don’t know where to start? As any experienced writer knows, 500 words can be just as difficult to write as 50,000. How do you build a story? How do you create a character? How do you create your world? And all of that with fewer words than a newspaper article!
In this week’s blog post, we speak to picture book writer Rachel Ip, author of The Last Garden and The Forgettery, about the writing process and how she creates the perfect picture book text. Keep an eye out for the link to a particularly handy page plan used by Rachel herself!
Putting pen to paper
As much as I’d love to say I write in a study surrounded by books and tranquillity, the reality is much more chaotic. Last week, my daughter was doing a zoom recorder lesson in the background with 25 classmates…
I don’t have a dedicated writing space: I write wherever and whenever I get the chance, at the kitchen table, in notebooks, on my phone.
Even a messy draft is a draft: writing it down is a pretty good place to start.
Ideas and first drafts
At the beginning of the year, I go through my notebooks from the previous year. I pull out any notes or picture book ideas that are worth keeping. It might be a title, or a theme, a few words, a rhyme, a question. Sometimes it’s a comment or suggestion from an editor or my agent, Clare Wallace. A lot of my ideas come from real-world events or experiences, so my notebooks also include news clippings or photos.
Having done this in January, it sparked a few ideas which had been lost or forgotten in the mix.
Short, sharp bursts of writing work well for me at the moment. I can find 20 minutes for a quick writing sprint, even in the craziness of everyone home-schooling/working from home.
I know some writers set daily word count targets (500+ a day) but that’s a whole picture book (!) and it doesn’t work for me, especially at the moment.
Nothing goes to Clare unless it has survived my monthly SCBWI writing group critique (and any subsequent rewrites). The Forgettery was actually the first story I ever shared with my critique group in January 2016. After many re-writes (rhyme, prose, first person, third person… and more), it was acquired by Farshore in September 2018 and published on March 18th, beautifully illustrated by Laura Hughes!
I write a pitch for the story before I share it with my critique group. What’s it about? What are the themes? What are the stakes? I write it like a twitter pitch – 1 or two sentences pitching the whole story. It soon shows me where the cracks are and if the pitch doesn’t shine, the story won’t either.
If I’m sending a new story to Clare, I send it with the pitch and the core themes. Every story has to stand out in her inbox and if I can’t pitch it well, why would Clare want to read on?
Stuck in the middle
I always find the middle of stories to be the hardest to write. I might have an idea for the beginning and end before I start writing, and writing the pitch often helps me to find the conflict or direction (or lack of it!) for the middle of the story.
Thinking in pictures
I’m writing picture books, so once I’ve got an initial draft, I put it into a page plan to see how the pacing and page turns are working. Is every page turn exciting or moving for the reader? Is there enough on each spread for the illustrator to illustrate, and for each spread to be sufficiently different visually?
Before I share a story with critique, or with Clare, I run it against The Checklist. This includes things I know to avoid or look out for in my own writing. Here are a few examples from my checklist:
o repeated words (picture books are so short, so any repetition – unless deliberate – is culled in this edit)
o illustration notes (unless essential)
o exclamation marks!*
- Is everything resolved at the end of the story? Unless you’re Jon Klassen (I love his books), most picture books resolve all the major story threads at the end.
- Does every sentence shine and move the story forward? If not, delete/rework.
*Also applies to my emails…
Write it down
If you have a story you really believe in, persevere and be persistent. There is a lot of revision, luck and timing at play. But first and foremost (note to myself): write it down.
In the words of Jeanette Winterson:
“… if it isn’t on the page it doesn’t exist. The connection between your mind and the reader’s mind is language. Reading is not telepathy.”
Rachel Ip is the author of two recently published picture books, The Last Garden and The Forgettery. Her books have been translated into a number of languages, including Chinese, French, Greek and Korean. The Forgettery, Rachel’s second picture book, published on the 18th of March 2021 and takes a sensitive look at dementia and memory loss.