I thought I’d start out 2007 in a different way and talk about picture books. I don’t write many picture books these days because I’m concentrating on novels, but I got started in picture books and they have a special place in my heart.
Most people think that the way to get started as a writer is to write a picture book. After all, you’d think it’d be easy–they’re short, they have pictures, and kids are easy to please, right? Wrong.
My experience was a fluke–more on that later. But you need to understand that picture books are among the most difficult books to write and sell because they’re so expensive to produce. The art is expensive, the printing is expensive, and most of them are done in nice hardcover editions, often even with a dust jacket, so you’re talking a pricey book. And unless you have a household name like Jamie Lee Curtis or Madonna, you’re going to have to have an absolutely STELLAR story in order to sell it.
If I had a nickle for every man or woman who has come up and said that they’ve written a few stories for their kids or grandkids, so would I please explain how to get them published . . .
Or a mom will come up with a story that she intends to use as a moral lesson, and because “kids really need this,” she’s convinced her story will sell . . .
Without even reading the first word, I can tell that they haven’t done their homework.
Don’t even try to write a picture book without getting a book on writing picture books and studying the blueprint. Most picture books are 32 pages long, less than 1200 words, and they don’t contain adjectives, etc. (or shouldn’t), because the ART carries half the work load. You don’t have to describe Mary’s blue dress if the picture shows it. Picture books are like poetry (and I don’t mean they have to rhyme), nor are they vocabulary-restricted. They are designed to be read by adults to children.
And children don’t like to be preached at any more than adults do. The story must entertain first and foremost. It must be delightful fun for the child . . . and the adult who has to read it.
Back to my story: After I’d been freelancing articles, brochures, and whatnot for FIVE YEARS, I saw an article about a contest for unpublished children’s picture book authors. Abingdon Press wanted to honor Lorna Balian, one of their authors, so they were going to publish the winning book.
Since I was unpublished in any book format, I ran to the library and got 1) books on how to write picture books and 2) every picture book I could find by Lorna Balian–not to copy her, but to see her style and tone. Because Abingdon was a Christian publishing house, I wanted to ascertain the level of Christian content.
My children were also wee ones at the time, so I had picture books galore in my house. I had a good feel for how they worked, the length, and the tone.
I discovered that Lorna Balian wrote books centered on Christian values, not a Christian message, which was fine with me. And so, after studying the blueprint, I sat down and wrote a story called If I had Long, Long Hair. Then, because the contest required three sketches and I can’t even draw stick people, I found an adventrous artist, we talked, she drew three sketches, and we sent in our package.
Fast forward about three months. Etta Wilson, who was the children’s editor at Abingdon at the time, called to tell me we’d won first place. Out of 531 entries, a panel narrowed it down to two books. They let a nine-year-old boy choose the winner . . . and it was us. (God bless that boy!)
Yes, I know this ranks right up there with the parting of the Red Sea–to me, anyway.
Suddenly I was a children’s book author. And that first night I could barely sleep because until then, I’d been doing what I thought of as “transient” writing–things people read and tossed. But books live forever, and they change lives. They’ve certainly changed mine. I begged the Lord for boatloads of wisdom, because I certainly didn’t want to mess up any kids . . .
And with fear and trembling, I set out to write another picture book.
Rest of the week: different picture books, including The Tale of Three Trees, A Gift for Grandpa, The True Princess, Calico Bear, Howie Hugemouth, The Singing Shepherd, and Pretzels by the Dozen. If you have any questions, just leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them the following day.