Producing a good picture book text, with or without illustrations (or words for that matter) - for adults or children - is far more difficult than it often looks. Some tips I suggest for any new picture book writers and illustrators:
- The strength of a good picture book text often lies in its brevity, and a very economic use of language, what the writer Margaret Wild calls ‘essential storytelling’. Many of the manuscripts I’ve seen are unpublishable simply because that are way too long. Whittle everything down to bare bones, and see what you can do without.
- Show, don’t tell, or better yet, give room for the illustrations to show. For instance, you do not need to describe an emotional state in words if you can express it visually through a situation, a facial expression, gesture, or some other illustrative device.
- As a writer, do not necessarily anticipate what an illustrator is going to draw or paint. A good picture book is a collaboration between two ‘writers’, one using words, one using pictures. It’s more about creating free space for a visual ‘director’ within a good ‘script’. Also be mindful that a text can change as words and pictures co-evolve.
- Accordingly, a good picture book has two texts that work together symbiotically, they can reveal different sides to the same story, or different stories altogether, involving disparity, irony and even contradiction. The best illustrations do not simply illustrate.
- It can be useful to think about book format, page layout and design, as this can be an important element in illustrated books, more so than in other literary forms.
- All other rules of good fiction writing apply, so to be a good picture book writer, you need to be a good writer, ideally with interest and practise in all forms of writing, including longer prose and poetry.