08 October 2018

Seven Tips for Writing a Children’s Picture Book

David O'Connell, author and illustrator
by David O'Connell Writing Tips

David O’Connell is a writer and illustrator living in London, UK.  His first book was Monster & Chips, the first of a series of funny (and revolting) adventures of ‘hooman’ Joe Shoe whilst working at the Monster Diner of friendly monster Fuzzby Bixington. He then collaborated with  Sarah McIntyre on the picture book Jampires, inspired by a comic they improvised together. He has also collaborated with Sam Watkins, Francesca Gambatesa and Tom Nicoll. His latest series is The Dundoodle Mysteries, illustrated by Claire Powell.

We are thrilled to welcome David to CBC as the tutor of our Writing a Children’s Picture Book course. His friend and Jampires co-author Sarah McIntyre, is the tutor on the course Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book – and together they teach our combined Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book course. Here David gives some great tips to help you build your confidence, develop your ideas and get going with writing your very own children’s picture book:

Every writer has taken a different path to get into publishing, and there are no hard and fast rules about how to do it. People often assume that writing picture books must be an easy route, as they’re short and uncomplicated, with simple characters. This is WRONG: picture books are some of the hardest things to write, and are carefully crafted. Every word is meticulously selected and scrutinised. And this is only as it should be: how many of us still remember a favourite bedtime story from childhood? A picture book might be a young child’s first exposure to books and reading, a showcase for new ideas and experiences, with images that transport them around the world (and beyond). A picture book could make an impression that lasts a lifetime. Treat it with respect.

Here are my tips:

1. Finish the story. This might seem like a daft thing to put first, but it marks the difference between a writer and someone who wants to write. Get your story onto paper. Use whatever words you like, make it as long as you like. Forget about grammar. Just get the story written and finished, with a proper, satisfying ending. The crafting comes next. With experience, you’ll edit as you go along.

2. Make characters your readers will care about. It doesn’t matter if your main character is a child, a princess, an alien or a duck – you want them to be liked by your readers. The reader goes on a journey with the character – and the character will be confronted by, and will need to deal with, the world around him/her/it. You want your readers to be rooting for the child/princess/alien/duck the whole way so make sure the character is endearing but also, importantly, believable. It’s sometimes helpful to create a character profile that you can refer back to, detailing personality and quirks, to make sure your child/princess/alien/duck’s behaviour is consistent throughout the tale.

3. Remember there are pictures. Picture books are a partnership between a writer and illustrator. The illustrator has an equal role in telling the story, equal but complementary. The illustrations shouldn’t be a repetition of the words, they should enhance them. Don’t fence the illustrator in with too much detail and description. Your story should suggest images but not spell them out. Give your illustrator the freedom to be creative and have fun: when they’re having fun they’ll produce their best work.

4. Make the most of the format. A picture book can be filled with bright, bold images. Turning the page is an event. Take advantage of this in your writing too. You want the reader to be desperate to see what happens on the next page and continue the book to the end. Craft your story to set up page-turns for maximum impact – each one is a potential cliff-hanger! This doesn’t just work for the big, dramatic moments, but for the quiet, emotional ones too.

5. Read your story out loud. Better still, get someone else to read it out loud. It’s easier to hear mistakes or sentences that aren’t working. This goes double if you’re writing a rhyming story. If you find yourself tripping over your own words, then your readers are going to as well. Don’t forget that a young child is unlikely to be reading the book by themselves. A parent or other adult will be reading to them (probably repeatedly!). It’s a performance, one that the child can join in. Having a repeated refrain or chorus can make it a shared experience between reader and audience.

6. Add a bit of spice! With that performance idea in mind, are there places in your story where the text could be made more interesting, with sound texture or effects? For example, use ‘smashed’ instead of ‘broken’, ‘scurried’ instead of ‘ran’ – they’re more visually suggestive. ‘BOOM!’ is all you might need to describe an explosion. What if it was the only word on the entire page? Sometime less is more when it comes to visual impact.

7. Make beginnings enticing and endings surprising. Beginnings and endings of stories need special attention. The beginning needs to draw the reader in, give them a taste of the character, the world they inhabit, and a sense of what’s to come. That’s quite a tall order for a couple of lines of text! With the ending, tie up all the loose threads and make sure your character has resolved the story by themselves without any outside help. But it’s always fun to add a little twist to give the reader one last surprise or chuckle. It will set your story apart and bring the reader back to your book again and again.

Read Sarah McIntyre’s 7 tips for illustrating a children’s picture book…

And there are also so many tricks and methods that you can learn on David O’Connell and Sarah McIntyre’s courses …

Writing a Children’s Picture Book 

Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book

Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book 

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