It’s rare that we come up with a whole picture book text in one try. Usually what we have is an idea that interests or excites us, but we’re not sure where to take it next. Is it really that original? Is it even a story yet?
Mostly the answer to both of those questions is NO. But if you go about developing your idea and adding more things to it, you may well end up with something far, far better. One idea is OK, another idea that crashes into it and creates sparks is what you’re after. Often writers get so excited about their initial idea that they run with that and can’t understand why the final story is flat or uninspiring.
Like any kind of writing, your idea is only the first step. It’s what you do with it after that that counts. So here are the steps that will help you to a much better final draft.
- Write down your idea – everything you think you know about it so far. (Apart from anything else, that way you know you won’t lose your original impulse and thoughts.)
- Brainstorm all around your idea – use diagrams, word lists, word maps, pictures. Fill at least one whole page with whatever comes to mind. Don’t rush it. Come back to the page several times over a day or more. Add more pages if you want to.
- Use a highlighter marker and mark anything that connects to your initial idea in an exciting or different way. Keep a look out for anything that creates a little buzz in your brain.
- Now go back to your first idea and be open-minded about what you can add from your brainstorming. You should look first at the things that created the buzz. How do they connect to your idea? How will they add to your idea, make it more interesting, more original? Most importantly, how will they add depth to both your characters and plot?
- Think about structure. Yes, right at this point! You need a story that has a central “problem” or conflict. You need the conflict to increase, and you need the tension to increase throughout the story (to create page turns). It’s a good idea right now to also consider the Rule of Three – are there three possibilities to make the problem worse for the character? If not, look at your brainstorming. Are there ideas in there that can be used to increase conflict?
- Who is your main character? What is different about them? What about them will appeal to small children? How do their character traits help to both increase the problem and create the solution? These might sound like formulaic questions, but they are the basic structural elements that so many people ignore at their peril. The story you build on top will be yours alone, and original as you want it to be, but without the structure to hold it up, the story will falter and maybe fail.
- How many illustration possibilities are in your story? How can you add more? When you look over your idea and where it’s up to by now, can you automatically picture at least 10 illustrations in your head? If not, you need to look for more action possibilities. An illustrator can illustrate action, but they can’t illustrate thoughts (or dialogue, really, either).
- Where is the highest point of action in your story? Is this the climax? (It should be.) Is it going to come about ¾ of the way through the story, or near the end? If it’s in the middle, it needs to move.
- How does the story end? Does it bring the reader back to the beginning in some way (circular) or does it take the reader to a new place? What do you think the theme is – what the story is really about? Is it layered underneath? If you don’t think you have a theme, can you see where you might add a little more to suggest it?
- How will your story begin? Can you start with a great sentence or two that sets the scene, starts the action, will lead to the problem (or introduce it straight away, perhaps) and give the illustrator something tangible to illustrate? For some writers, once they have these opening sentences, the rest of the story will flow. For others, they will have to start with a “holding place” sentence or two and come back later to rework it. Whatever works for you to start your first draft.
If you have a picture book and you would like a professional critique, see my website at www.sherrylclarkwritingcoach.com/critiques/
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