Guest post: Writing Picture Books by Fiona Veitch Smith

A very warm welcome back to Fiona Veitch Smith who today is talking on the subject of children’s picture books…

Writing Picture Books

Easy, you say, 30 pages with only a few words on each: I think I’ll write a picture book. However, picture books are far trickier to write than you would first think.

Firstly, you have to tell a complete story in fewer than 1000 words, complete with set-up, character development and plot resolution. There is no room for the open-ended or sting-in-the-tail story that changes everything in picture book writing.

I found this the most difficult to achieve with the Myro the Microlight series (written by me for series creator, Nick Rose). There is a lot of ‘plot’ in each of the Myro books which was difficult to contain within the word count.

In the planning phase a lot of potential plot had to be cut out or held over for another story. This worked to the benefit of the series as there are a lot of books (6 published so far but another 18 in the pipeline!) and Myro gets up to all sorts of adventures.

For my Young David series it was slightly easier as there were fewer characters to consider and the stories are loosely based on the life of the Biblical King David as a child, hence the narrative arcs were already established.

Tip: picture books work best with a single narrative arc.

Secondly, for the children’s market you also need to be educational and entertaining at the same time; without being overtly ‘moralising’. Although one of the series I was involved in had a biblical theme, it was not the only one that was in danger of becoming too ‘moralistic’. The Myro series aims partly to instil good values in children such a friendship, honesty and kindness. All worthy attributes but we had to be careful that the adventure remained fore-grounded and any lessons learnt had to be simple sub-text to the character development.

With the Young David books, the ‘message’ is that even the youngest members of the family have value. The first book in the series, David and the Hairy Beast, also helps children (and parents!) deal with fears. I was really touched when one mother told me that her 5-year-old was having trouble getting to sleep because of some or other fear and the little one said: ‘Can we read the Hairy Beast, mummy? That always makes me feel better.’

Tip: Foreground the story, background the message.

And thirdly, there’s the obvious issue of writing to pictures. This has pros and cons for a writer. One of the challenges of writing to pictures is to remember that when you are writing, there needs to be an action a page. So too many actions in a paragraph will be problematic for an illustrator as he / she will not know what to focus on; too few (in a dialogue-heavy section) will not give them enough to work with. So the writer needs to think ‘visually’ even though he or she will not actually be doing the pictures. That being said, the illustrator for the Myro series (the very talented Lucy Bourn) preferred me to give illustration ‘suggestions’ with the original text. The illustrator for the Young David series, the wonderful Amy Barnes, preferred to conceptualise all the illustrations herself. Both illustrators did a brilliant job, but I had to work differently with each of them.

Tip: sub-plots can be carried in the illustrations alone. See for instance the hysterical antics of the sheep in David and the Hairy Beast and David and the Kingmaker. The majority of these were thought up by the illustrator and not written into the original text.

Thank you, Fiona, that was great.

Fiona Veitch Smith writes fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. She also writes for stage and screen and has been working on adapting the Myro the Microlight books for an animated series. She hopes David and the Hairy Beast will also make it to the screen one day. Her website is http://fiona.veitchsmith.com.

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with novelist and autobiographer Leila Tavi – the three hundred and seventeenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords, Sony Reader Store, Barnes & Noble, iTunes Bookstore and Kobo. And I have a new forum at http://morgenbailey.freeforums.org.

Flash Fiction Friday 018: Theodore P. Druch’s ‘The Old Barn’

Welcome to Flash Fiction Friday and the eighteenth piece of flash fiction in this weekly series. Tonight Theodore P. Druch returns with a 411-worder entitled ‘The Old Barn’.

The old barn stood dying on the edge of the wheat field. It had been dying for a long time, almost as long as the wood of which it was made had been living. In a sense, it had lived two lives, and that’s more than most can hope for. But now it was coming to the end of its second, and there was no third to be had.

What boards of its sides were left unpillaged stood twisted, weathered, warped, and gnarled. Some had turned hard as rock, but bone thin in places. They would stand yet a long time, as the rest of the barn decayed apace.

Occasional patches of red paint could still be seen on sections that had remained, more or less, intact, but every windstorm tore off more and more of the crumbling flakes, and soon, it would be a featureless gray all over.

Its roof was mostly gone, only skeletal rafters poked through the many holes where the shingles had blown off. Several loose ones flapped in the wind.

Its old bones were getting rickety; the very hardness that had invaded them made them brittle and no longer able to bend as they had when young and green; they were in danger of breaking. Several had, as in one corner, where a falling hayloft had sent a sudden shock though a post and it had split neatly into two pieces, the one lying quietly below, waiting patiently for its widow, still dangling from the remains of the ruined loft, to join it in their final, silent journey into dust.

Dust that would blow away on the wind.

The old man stood dying on the edge of the wheat field.  He tried to remember what the barn had looked like when he’d been a boy and it had just been raised. He’d thought that it was beautiful then; and he thought that it was beautiful now, but with that awful sort of beauty that recognizes the inevitability of endings, no matter how perfect.

He had grown up and grown old with the barn, but the barn had never taken any notice of him.

The barn didn’t know that it was turning to dust.

Lucky barn. He thought, and moved on to contemplate the old oak, whose mostly leafless branches appealed in silent supplication to the uncaring sky.

The old man stood dying on the edge of the wheat field. Six months. He thought.

I asked Theodore what prompted this piece and he said…

I hold a weekly workshop for serious writers of the Puerto Vallarta Writer’s Group, and we usually begin with an impromptu writing exercise for five minutes. One of them was to describe a building. I wrote a description of an old barn. It was only later that the idea came to me to expand it into something more. It is interesting to note that some of the best writing was done on this kind of impromptu basis. An exercise like this doesn’t give one much time to think, so what flows from the pen is pretty much instinctual, and I think that the best writing always is. I have been consistently delighted at the high quality produced, often by people whose edited writing leaves something to be desired, The problem is to get writers to go with this instinct, and be very careful of wrecking it with excessive editing and second thoughts. People seem to have a basic distrust of their instincts, and that can ruin what might otherwise be a fine piece.

I totally agree. I run a workshop every other Monday night (usually three or four 10-15 minute exercises) and we come out with some corkers. Thank you Theodore. 🙂

Born in Milwaukee, educated at Brandeis and later at the Timothy Leary commune in Millbrook, NY, Theodore P. Druch, Ted to his friends, spent most of his life in trivial pursuits – like making a living. After chucking it all and traveling around the world for ten years like a dandelion seed on the wind, he settled in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He is an active member of the Puerto Vallarta Writer’s Group, and conducts a weekly workshop for serious authors. In the last two years, Ted has published four full-length non-fiction e-books, and is currently working on his first novel, a historical fantasy of 1492 called King David’s Harp. He fully expects it to be a blockbusting best-seller, filled as it is with pirates, adventurers, corrupt popes and priests, several heroes and heroines, and a search for clues to the hiding place of the harp of King David, the recovery of which might bring about the return of the Messiah.

Ted’s books are available at Amazon for the Kindle and at Smashwords for all other readers.

Footprints on a Small Planet is also available as a trade paperback through Amazon. Ted’s blog can be found at http://selfpublishedandbroke.wordpress.com and you can watch his African Odyssey trailer here.

If you’d like to submit your 1,000-word max. stories for consideration for Flash Fiction Friday take a look here.

The blog interviews will return as normal tomorrow with multi-genre author Terri Morgan, the two hundred and fifty-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers, agents, publishers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords.