Showing posts with label picture book writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label picture book writing. Show all posts

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Rhythm in language– it’s vital to humankind! Moira Butterfield

Forgive me for recycling today. I have adapted and updated a blog on rhythm, which first appeared a few years ago on Picture Book Den. This is because a) we have a new baby in our extended family this week and b) I have a new book out on Sept 17th, which brings rhythm and dance to first non-fiction (3 or 4+ age-group). It’s called Dance Like a Flamingo, illustrated by Claudia Boldt (published by Welbeck). Anyway I think it’s worth repeating what scientists have discovered - It turns out rhythm is probably vital to humankind!
Book cover - learn and move, too!  


Good rhyme helps to anchor a text beautifully and is a joy, of course, but this blog is about rhythm – a pattern of beats in a sentence that makes it easy, natural and fun to read. It does a lot more than that, it seems. I was going to relay the good news that rhythm, offered to small children in the form of songs, poetry and picture books, helps to develop the brain. Now, thanks to scientists, I’ve discovered that rhythm is even more important than that. It turns out it’s probably had a hand in making us who we are. 

A BBC TV programme (see link below) featured a toddler with a little hatful of brain sensors popped on her tiny head. Experiments proved that her brain was not merely responding to rhythm but predicting what would come next. She had the innate ability to follow sound patterns, which would in turn help her to develop language (and possibly maths, too). This, the scientists suggested, was what separated humans from the rest of animal kind and might have helped them to start communicating in a sophisticated language when everything else was still squeaking and growling. 

 In other words, it seems we’re hard-wired to pick up on rhythm and it helps us eventually to learn to speak. 

Scientists studying brain development confirm that rhythm helps small children to grow their neural pathways. Very young humans grow their brains at a phenomenal rate, sparking up these neural pathways all over the place – like a tree growing branches. These brain connections help us to do things. Babies start off not doing very much, and as they grow into toddlers and beyond they make more and more neural connections and so start engaging with the world. Rhythm helps to create the neural pathways and repetition helps to strengthen them. 

Perhaps all this is why adults instinctively sing nursery rhymes, ‘coo’ to babies and speak in what the scientists call ‘parentese’. It most definitely suggests that it’s a good idea to read and reread rhythmic text to all small growing children, even the tiny ones. It turns out that babies quickly start to look intently at lips to work out how to copy the shapes that talking makes. So repeated rhythmic sentences (rereading that seemingly simple but well-crafted picture book regularly) can only help. 

 Science is beginning to prove what we already innately sense. I like to think of parents in prehistory starting it off, perhaps imitating a rhythmic bird call for their babies, then trying it on a drum. 

 For my part, I think rhythm has an amazing power to help memory. Many’s the time I’ve marvelled at how my brain recalls great chunks of meaningless non-rhyming pop lyrics from long-forgotten songs that weren’t important to me. They just stuck in my head. I think they were glued in by the musical rhythm. So hey presto! Why not combine learning about animnals with rhythm?

Apart from having these learning superpowers, rhythm in a sentence is a great help to someone reading out loud, of course. It makes the reading smooth and natural. Bad rhythm snags the reader, like tripping over a stone. 

 So, to sum up, rhythmic sentences – those that have a good working beat pattern like the beats of a song line – are a powerful tool for helping children learn communication, and they are a great aid to the reader. You can bask in the knowledge that by writing rhythmic sentences you are not only making them easier to read but you are helping to develop children’s brains. 

 You probably knew that, but now scientists have said so! 

A link to the research: 

Two spreads from the new book are below. No rhyme, but plenty of rhythm.

Moira Butterfield 

Twitter @moiraworld 

Instagram @moirabutterfieldauthor

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Writing Picture Books – Heather Dyer

I'm a freelance developmental editor of children's books, so I see a lot of picture books written by beginners. They are (wisely) seeking feedback before they submit their work to editors and agents.

Here are things I most often suggest:
CUT! CUT! CUT! Editing is usually about taking words out. Often the first verse or first few lines can be cut as they’re preamble to the story ‘proper’. Don’t describe anything that can be illustrated. Don’t include too much dialogue or character reflection. Show things happening in short order, briefly, and keep the language simple. Any words that aren’t serving the storyline need to be removed – they’re padding, and they slow your story down. 

Rhyming verses can be nice, but they’re difficult to translate, and publishers often depend on foreign sales to cover the cost of producing these expensive picture books. Narrative prose is easier to sell abroad.

Unless you’re a professional illustrator, don’t attempt to draw illustrations or have an illustrator friend do them for you. 

A publisher will want to have a say in the style, content and layout of illustrations, and if they want to commission your story they will find an illustrator for you. You may be asked for your opinion – but the illustrator will be given the creative freedom to come up with their own designs.

However, if there’s something in your story that needs to be illustrated because it’s crucial to the storyline – but hasn’t been mentioned in the text – then you can write a short note to the illustrator, describing what needs to be shown.

Although the illustrations and layout won’t be up to you, as author, it is very useful to distribute the text of your story across the ‘imagined’ pages of a finished picture book. This can help show you where you have too much text relating to one page or scene. It can also show you how often the ‘scene’ needs changing, since each page should contain an illustration that’s sufficiently different to the pages before and after (except where you want a double-page spread). You'll see what I mean once you start paginating your text and imagining what might appear on the corresponding page.

How many pages in a picture book? Usually 24, 32 or 40. It's always a number that’s divisible by 8, for printing reasons. The first and last pages are usually front matter or end pages, so you could think about starting your story on page 4 or 5.

You don’t need to submit this plan, just put the imaginary page number above each section of text in your manuscript. This will help the editor or agent ‘visualize’ how the story will unfold across the pages of a finished book.

For a brilliant example of how concise a picture book can be, and how the text works in tandem with the illustrations, check out Jon Klassen’s wonderful This is Not My Hat. Here’s a book that’s beautiful in its simplicity and in which the text and illustrations rely upon each other, Despite it's simplicity, it contains an ambiguous message that makes even adults think twice.

Here, the little fish is speaking. The little fish has stolen the big fish's hat, and thinks s/he's got away with it. But s/he has been spotted by the crab.

Note the lovely contradiction here between the text and the illustrations! This example demonstrates how little needs to be said in the text - and how much the illustrations can add.

In a picture book, the text and the illustrations work in tandem to tell the story. So, although you don't have to be an illustrator to write a children's book, it does help to think about how the text might work alongside the illustrations.

An author might be consulted on the illustrations, but they won't be able to dictate to the illustrator. It can feel scary relinquishing control, but it can also be wonderful to see how much atmosphere, humour and characterisation an illustrator can add to your story. It's like seeing your story come to life.

Good luck!

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Whose book is this anyway? Lari Don

This month, I’ve been working with editorial notes on two different books – a novel and a picture book - and I’ve noticed slight differences in how I’m responding to those notes.

Obviously with any editorial notes, there’s the immediate emotional punch of ‘oh no, she doesn’t like it, it doesn’t work, she didn’t understand it, my story is RUINED!’ Then reality kicks in and I remember that the book always works in the end, and that editors are A Good Thing.

So I settle down and consider every single comment, suggestion and request, and work out how to respond, ie how much to change, how much to compromise, how much to defend the story as it stands.

And I’ve realised that, while equally open to every comment, I do seem to have a different attitude depending on whether we’re working on a novel or a picture book.

A novel feels like my vision, my story. So I will usually be happy to tweak, and often, if I agree, I will make major changes, but if I disagree, I will instead explain why I'd prefer not to change the direction of the story.

However, a picture book never feels like just my story, it feels like a team effort with the editor, illustrator and designer. So I’m much more likely to throw out a cherished sentence or scene in a picture book, much more likely to change direction entirely, in order to create the text that will support the best possible pictures.

I don’t want to give the impression (particularly not to my editors!) that I ignore editorial advice in novels or that I don’t feel passionate about the words in my picture books, just that I seem to approach them with a slightly different attitude. The novel is my story, and I’m happy to take advice about the best way to tell it, but the picture book is OUR story, and my words are only one part of that. So, my response to notes is based on that difference.

Whatever age group or genre I’m writing for, it’s always a bracing combination of illuminating, positive and painful to see my still soft and malleable draft story through someone else’s critical eyes. But it’s always worth doing!

I genuinely believe that books are BETTER when they have been worked on together by a talented editor and a confident writer.

However, I’ve realised this spring that even though I will weigh up each comment carefully, I clearly lean slightly more towards accepting the suggestions when redrafting a picture book, and slightly more towards proving my case for the original idea when redrafting a novel.

I wonder if any other writers feel that they respond differently to editorial notes depending on the story, the project, or even (!) the editor?

Right. Back to those notes and my responses...

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales, a teen thriller and novellas for reluctant readers. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

What's the story, how do you do it, what is a picture book? - Linda Strachan

It's a srange thing.
When you don't do something for a while it is easy to think that you have forgotten all that you knew, or that your knowledge is not as useful as it once was. It is almost as if it has filtered out of your head into the air.  But when someone asks a question about it, everything rushes back in.

 I spent a wonderful 10 years working beside the lovely and talented illustrator, Sally J. Collins, on the Hamish McHaggis books.

It was 2012 when the 10th and latest of the Hamish McHaggis series was published, but when I was asked last spring if I would write a short Hamish story for our local children, to put in the Gala Day programme, I slipped right into it as if I had never stopped. I wrote a story called  Hamish McHaggis and the Gala Day Mystery.

I am often asked questions about writing picture books, and the other day I was asked -

'Do you think 1200 words for a childrens' picture book (aged 3-8 years), is too long?'

 It is an interesting question on different levels. 

Picture books are wonderful in so many ways and often deceptively clever.  They can make you laugh or stop and think, and some may bring you to tears.  Their simple format, short text and gloriously colourful images are often less appreciated because they are destined to be read to small children and many adults consider anything for toddlers is simple and would of course be 'child's play' to write.

But when you break down the requirements for writing them it soon becomes obvious that they are anything but simple and to make it all the more complicated you can always find something that a successful author has written that breaks all the 'rules'.

The question above is not so easy to answer. or at least the answer is not as simple as it seems at first.

let's take the age range. (3-8 years)
Normally a picture book is aimed at 3-5 year olds but they are often enjoyed by children much younger than 3 years.  Many years later favourite picture books are often well loved and remembered
by parents. But by the time children are 8 years old, sadly they often feel they are too grown up for picture books. They want meatier stuff to exercise their newly acquired reading skills, perhaps scary adventures or funny books, stories that involve kids their own age or older.

One of the best pieces of advice for a new picture book writer is to spend time reading picture books
  • Looking at why they work (or don't work) as a story
  • Looking at structure of the story, the way it begins and ends
  • At the way it makes you feel
  • Looking for the lesson it slips in without seeming to teach
  • At the use of words
  • At the use of rhythm, occasional rhyme
  • Reading them out loud to see if the words trip you up.
  The general advice from publishers is to avoid rhyme, or at least not every line.  Yes, I know you cna point to  dozen or more bestselling picture books that rhyme, but if you look closely at the best of them you will notice that the rhyme is never pedestrian, the rhythm, text or storyline is never bent out of shape to make it fit the rhyme.

All rules can be broken, but only with skill and experience so best to try to stick to them, at least at the beginning.

 You need to be aware that it is not a merely story with some pictures, the pictures have to be part of the story. As you are considering each double page spread, you need to have an idea in your head of what the pictures will show, and let them tell part of the story.

 New writers often forget that and think the words tell the story and the pictures are just for something to look at. The best picture books are an integration of both words and pictures working together.

A picture book is normally 12-14 double page spreads (that is when the book is open - across those two pages is a double page spread)  You have to make sure that the story is long enough to last, and not too long so that it crams too much into the end.  Each spread has to be visualised because the illustrator has to have something new and interesting to illustrate over each spread.

   Sometimes there are things in the pictures that contradict the text, children love it when they spot that.

How long should it be?
 Some say 1000 words but many picture books are a lot less, and some are a fair bit more.When you think about word count it should be after you have been though it time and again, pruning, polishing and editing,  so that each and every word in the text has earned its place on the page - that every word is the right word. After that go back and do it again.

It does not have to be over elaborate language but don't think it has to be simple either. Even very young children understand a lot more complicated vocabulary than you would expect, when taken in the context of the story.

Then put it away and go back to it a week or two (even better a month or two) later and read it out loud, better still give it to someone who is not very good at reading out loud and see if they trip up on your words.

 A picture book is meant to be read aloud so if it is difficult to read without stumbling, it is not yet good enough.

It was a simple enough question but the answer is anything but simple.  Look closely at a picture book, you may be astounded when you realise the work that has gone into it.

Picture Book Den is a great blog all about writing picture books and well worth a visit.


Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook - Writing For Children.
Linda is currently Chair of the SOAiS - Society of Authors in Scotland 

Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me . 
She is Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh.

Her best selling series Hamish McHaggis is illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby.

blog:  Bookwords

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Kelpie Challenge - Lari Don

I like a challenge. I don’t see much point in being a writer, if I’m just going to write the same stories in the same ways over and over. So I challenge myself to write stories in ways that I find more difficult and more complex. But more difficult and more complex doesn’t necessarily mean longer books for older children. I’ve just written a picture book that was as much of a challenge, in entirely new ways, as any novel I’ve ever written.

The Secret Of The Kelpie is a picture book retelling of the story of the kelpie, the shape-shifting child-eating water-horse of Scottish lochs and rivers. Writing it presented me with new challenges, which was a good enough reason to write it. But there were several other excellent reasons.

One was the chance to work with Philip Longson again. Philip illustrated The Tale of Tam Linn a couple of years ago, and his pictures of magic and beauty and darkness were so perfect that I was keen to have my words illuminated by his enchanting pictures again.

Also, the kelpie is a very Scottish beast, and I’m passionate about sharing Scottish folklore with kids in Scotland and, honestly, with kids everywhere else too. Scottish stories, like every culture’s stories, deserve as wide an audience as European fairy tales or Viking myths...

But mainly, I was in it for the story-shaped challenges.

The first challenge was that there isn’t actually one kelpie story. I don’t mean there are various versions of one basic tale. There are dozens of different stories about underwater monsters changing into beautiful horses (or handsome people) to lure victims into the water to drown them and eat them. Most lochs in Scotland and lots of rivers have kelpie stories, and those stories differ widely.

So I had to gather as much kelpie lore as possible, then resist the temptation to squash all that information into one slim book. I wasn’t going to retell them all, I simply wanted to search for clues to the one new kelpie story I wanted to tell.
just a few of the books I found kelpies in

I discovered that some kelpies like to eat children, some prefer to carry off young women or married couples or fishermen. Some kelpies like home comforts (one kidnapped a stone mason to build him an underwater fireplace and chimney.) Some object to metal. Some have a problem with bridles. Some kelpies are hard workers - there are bridges and mills and churches apparently built by kelpies. And some kelpies can grow longer to fit entire families on their back before rushing towards the water.

I was surprised to discover that kelpie stories are not just from the Highlands and Islands, the Gaelic speaking parts of Scotland. There are lots of kelpie stories from the east coast too: Angus and Aberdeenshire and even my own childhood home in Speyside.

I found so many kelpie stories, from so many parts of Scotland, that my publishers have created an interactive map of the locations and snippets of the stories, so you can go kelpie hunting too.

So now I had too much research, and I needed to distil it down to one clear straight storyline.

But I had another challenge. You may have noticed it, as you’ve been reading down to here. The kelpie is a child-eating monster. None of the kelpies in the old tales ate porridge or bannocks or tattie scones. They ate people. And often, they chose to eat children.

I had chosen to write a picture book about kelpies. About a child-eating monster. So, how could I do that, without either ripping the heart out of the story, or terrifying the readers?

I wasn’t prepared to create a cute cuddly glittery friendly kelpie. And though my editor and I were clear this story was aimed at older picture book readers, we still wanted to respect our readers (and the potential sensitivity of those reading to them!)

Of course, many of our best loved fairy tales are terrifying, and many of them contain child-eating monsters. Red Riding Hood’s wolf? Hansel and Gretel’s witch? But we know these stories, we’ve known them all our lives, which blunts their darkness...

And, even in Scotland, not many children know about the kelpie from their early years. So, how could I introduce a NEW child-eating monster?

My answer to both those challenges tuned out to be the same. How to synthesise dozens of pieces of kelpie magic into one story? How to make a story about a child-eating monster child-friendly?

The answer was to start, not with the kelpie, not with the magic or the monster, but to start with the child. To start with the character.

Once I met Flora, and her big brothers and sisters, and had them play hide and seek by a loch, then find a beautiful white horse, the story started to tell itself. Flora discovered exactly the right bits of kelpie lore to keep herself safe, and to rescue her brothers and sisters. And though I admit that the story gets dark and scary in the middle, I was always aiming for a happy ending, and I was fairly confident that my heroine Flora could get us there.

So, as often happens in writing, any challenge can be overcome with just a little bit of magic, and the right heroine!

The Secret of the Kelpie is retold by Lari Don, illustrated by Philip Longson and published by Floris Books

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.
Lari’s website
Lari’s own blog
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Sunday, 10 August 2014

A Touch Of The Green Eyed Monster - Damian Harvey

It's confession time and today I'm admitting to the appearance of the Green Eyed Monster from time to time. They always say that people who can do something always wish they could do something else... Tennis Players wish they were Rock Stars, Chefs wish they were Footballers. I'd quite like to be a decent illustrator.

I read Malachy Doyle's post on the Picture Book Den Blog last Sunday with great interest. His post, entitled 'DON'T DO IT! - How NOT to write a picture book' was simple and well written, offering sound advice for all wood-be picture book authors and a good reminder for those that already write picture books.

Of all the points Malachy made the one that stood out to me most was simply "Don't think it's easy"...  Many people mistakenly think that because a book has very few words it must be easy to write, however, there's a definite craft to writing a picture book story (and I'm very much still a learner) which is often belied by their seeming simplicity.

I've written quite a few books where the number of words is often predetermined and I know how much I can agonise over these in a bid to get the story to sound right with so few words available. Picture books aimed at a mass market are a little different though as with a picture book the skill is to tell the story effectively, incorporating a rhythm to the text so that it can be read aloud and shared. The low word count comes from the author's ability to effectively use 'all the right words in all the right places' (to misquote Eric Morcambe). Again, Malachy put it perfectly "Rhythm, and a delightful ease in the telling, are key". Personally, I find myself agonising over a picture book text more than anything else I do, often spending a seemingly ridiculous amount of time playing with the words and often ending up with little to show for it... but in the end it can be all worth while.

I've lost count of the number of times that I've picked up a new picture book in a library or bookshop, read it and been left thinking, often unfairly, is that it? Yes, there are those occasions when I'm left wondering how on earth a some books could have been published and at these times I just grind my teeth and return home to carry on working. But there are also many occasions when I'm left knowing that the author has got it spot on. A perfect picture book... At these times I've also been known to grind my teeth and return home to carry on working.

In the picture book world there are authors and there are illustrators. Together, their combination of words and artwork marry together and create something that is somehow greater than the sum of the two parts. But there's another breed too... not content to do one thing or the other, some people insist on writing AND illustrating - and doing it well too.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that those with the ability to do both should be locked away for all eternity - far from it - I'm merely confessing to the little pang of envy that I occasionally feel after reading a book/text and feeling (perhaps wrongly) that had I submitted it to a publisher it would have barely been given a second glance. I had such a feeling a couple of weeks ago after reading Jon Klassen's excellent, and thoroughly deserving award winner, This is Not My Hat. The text and the illustrations all deceptively simple, yet spot on. A perfect picture book.

I love that the stories I write get illustrated by so many fantastic illustrators but I do find it frustrating to come up with ideas that I know won't the light of day because I'm not able to present them more effectively to a publisher. Solutions gratefully received.

Enough of the teeth grinding for now - back to work.

Damian Harvey
Twitter @damianjharvey

Thursday, 23 January 2014

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words - Lynne Garner

Recently a friend posted a cute animal photo on my Facebook page. As soon as I saw it I just knew I had to use it as a basis for a picture book story. So I grabbed a sheet of A4 paper and divided into 12 sections (I tend to write the traditional 12 double page spreads). I started to plot my story, which started well. However when I reached the last page I stalled. I had the image in my minds eye, I knew what action was taking place but I just couldn't put it into words. I decided to put the story to one side and allow my subconscious solve the issue for me. However a week or so went by and I was still stuck. Suddenly it hit me. The page didn't need words, the picture could show the reader what I wanted them to know.

I'm not the only author to let the picture tell the story. In the hands of the right illustrator the story can be told successfully without a single word on the page. For example in one of my favourite pictures books The Big Bad Mole's Coming! written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by John Bendall-Brunello there are two pages that contain no words (part of one page below). The action needs no words, I can tell exactly how the animals are feeling from their body language.

Another book that uses this device is Knight Time written by Jane Clarke and illustrated by Jane Massey. The page is a fold out page which opens to reveal a second page with text. Jane informs me the idea was that as the reader turned the page they would feel they were entering the forest where Little Knight and Little Dragon are lost. As you can see from the page below you don't need words to feel the tingle run up your spine and to start to worry about the main characters.

So to all those picture book writers out there. If you're working on a new picture book story and stall ask yourself "can a picture paint the words I need?" If the answer is yes then don't be afraid to allow the illustrations to tell the story for you. 

Lynne Garner

I also write for: 
Authors Electric - covers digital self-publishing 
The Picture Book Den - all things picture book related
The Hedgehog Shed - concerned with hedgehog rescue
Fuelled By Hot Chocolate - my own ramblings
The Craft Ark - craft how-to blog

My online classes with WOW starting March 2014: