First off, you'll notice that the title of this article is not a statement, but a question. What does make a winning picture book? Is it the story, the characters, illustrations - or something else?
The intention of this article is not to provide answers, but to provoke thoughts and ideas of your own.
To date I have four published childrens picture books under my belt. Two more are in the pipeline at the time of writing. I also have a couple of childrens novels underway, one of them featuring pirates (hence the image accompanying this article - and I put it there for no reason other than I like the picture and I have pirates on the brain at the moment!)
My point is this: I do not claim to be an expert in my field, but I AM in the field. I've been toiling steadily away, tilling the soil of infant entertainment as best I can for the past 4-5 years, and in that time I have picked up a few things worthy of passing on. For instance, I've learned that the industry standard length for a child's picture storybook is 28 or 32 pages, including end-papers. Some go a little smaller or larger, but not much more. In terms of wordcount, anywhere between 500-800 words is fairly normal, but above 800 and you might find your editor getting snippy.
In terms of content, the words and picture should complement each other.It's no good having a light, bouncy story with dark, gothic illustrations. Also, in my opinion, the illustrations need to tell a story of their own, but one which supports the written word, rather than tries to compete against it. If the book has a specific function or purpose, then the illustrations and indeed the layout ought to support that purpose.
Often authors have no say over which illustrator their publisher happens to pair them up with. But where they are able to have creative input, it is important that both the author and illustrator see eye-to-eye over the project and work collaboratively in a positive way in order to make the very best book they can.
Disagreements may happen. Probably will, in fact. When you're dealing with two creative force (which may well have opposing viewpoints) sparks tend to fly. That's good. It's all part of the learning process. You both need to understand your own (and one another's) needs, and prepare to be a little flexible. Authors: yes it is your story, but it is the Illustrator's job to bring your words to life, and that takes creative thinking and their interpretation of your "brief" may not always be what you imagined. Sometimes it's better.
Illustrators: expect there to be changes. Just as the author's story wasn't written in a single draft, or two, or three, so will your lovingly rendered creations become the object of examination and critique. Sometimes, "back to the drawing board" is a literal reality.
Back to the writing desk now. To rhyme or not to rhyme? Well...does it suit the story? Some stories benefit from a rhyming format while others don't. One reason that you rarely see published rhyming stories of over 1000 words, is because after a while the rhythm ceases to be a pleasure to the ear and instead becomes something akin to water-torture. Drip. Drip. Dripetty-drip. Drip-Drip-Drip. Rhyming should always play second fiddle to Story, and rhyming isn't always better or suitable.
If you find yourself having trouble writing a rhyming story (and if you can bear it) try rewriting your story in two flavours: rhyming and non-rhyming. You'll find non-rhyming less-restrictive. The same deal goes for non-rhyming stories - try a rhyming version to add a nice sense of rhythm and bounce, but always remember to remain true to the story and don't let the rhyme dictate where your story is heading.
A few further words about rhyming: it's not just about making sure that the end-words of every line or so rhyme; the rhyme has to flow. The meter (the rhythm) has to "sound out" nicely without jarring the ear or forcing the reader to cram in those few extra syllables in order to make it scan. Good meter is all about that inner metronome ticking along at every second, third or fourth syllable, whichever is the natural fit to your rhyme. Rhymes that scan well with good meter read comfortably when spoken aloud and are pleasing to the ear. Syllables should sound clean without unnatural emphasis being placed on them in order for them to scan right or to fit the meter. Rhyming words should rhyme as perfectly as possible. Some near-rhymes are forgiveable. Others are not. Your ear should be able to tell - as long as you are honest with yourself.
A rhyme should enhance a story, not dictate it. Oh no, we mustn't forget about Story. Story - above all else - is paramount. A winning picture book has colourful and memorable characters, strong mental imagery that is brought to life through illustration, messages and morales that are age-appropriate and easy for the children to identify with. A logical flow with a beginning, middle and end, and a clear conclusion. And fun, of course. They ought to be fun.
For me, a good picture book is a multi-layered beast; the illustration should support the text and tell a story of its own; if verse is used then the rhyme and meter should work perfectly or not be used at all; the story should be the hero and everything else fits in around it to make the book a cohesive whole.
So do we now have the formula for a winning picture book? No. A few well-grounded guidelines, maybe. The winning formula happen to be within you. Or not, as the case may be. I can't tell you what makes a winning picture book, but I can make some suggestions.
<p>Similarly, author Juliet Clare Bell can tell you how NOT to write a rhyming picture book in her excellent blog of the same title - link below.
Leyland Perree is the author of five picture books, two of them published by Ghostly Publishing; The Great Reef Race, and Which Witch is Which? (due out Sept 2013).
So I recently managed to blag an interview with "Big Book Little Book" - an online book review and author interview magazine. Fingers crossed they may get round to reviewing "The Great Reef Race" sometime in the near future.
To read the interview in full, click this link or paste it into your browser:
http://www.bigbooklittlebook.com/2013/04/self-published-sunday-interview-with-leyland-perree/e to edit.
Thoughts (or to be precise, how to present a character's thoughts in writing) are a much-debated subject on the good old internet, with equally valid arguments on all sides. Do you use quotes (double or single, your choice), italics or nothing at all, allowing the strength of writing to speak for itself? My lunchtime research has boiled the debate down to a three-sided stand-off. What you might call a "loathe triangle" of hate-filled Nazi grammar police. OK so it's not as bad as all that, but the subject does make for a worthy discussion all the same. That is, if, like me, you're sad enough like this sort of thing...
Argument A is presented by - well, let's call these people "Team Jennifer", just for fun.
So Team Jennifer believes vehemently that thought processes belong encased in quotes.
"She’s playing with you", I thought. "The loopy bitch is trying to get a rise out of you … of one kind or another."
Not a bad line if I do say so myself (and yes, it's one of my own). The quotes capture the thought nicely and neatly, and that clarifying "I thought" provides a comfortable breath-space mid-line, telling the reader that what they are reading comes from the character's mind and not from their mouth.
Let's move on to Team B - or Team Brad, as I like to think of them. These guys (or gals) believe that italics are the best way to present thoughts.
Gary had never been a people-person, but his recent sense of isolation was somehow worse. He knew there were other residents. Some of them made the strangest noises in the night.
But then, the nights are always full of strange noises, aren’t they, Gary?
Gary nodded. He looked down at the carpet.
Did you spot it? The character's thought? It's subtle, sure, but at the same time it’s immediately clear that what you are reading is neither narrative nor dialogue. There has been a temporal shift - you are no longer outside of the character looking in, but inside looking out - and you can clearly hear his thoughts.
OK, let’s move on to Team Angelina.
Skinny old Angelina prefers a bare bones approach, wouldn't you know? She doesn't believe in imprisoning thoughts in quotes, or bending them into nasty sharp italics. No, she likes them to stand proud and let them speak for themselves.
He considered tossing the carving into the bushes, and then after a moment’s hesitation he closed his fingers over it.
A keepsake, he thought. For luck.
Nice and clear, especially with that cheeky clarification jammed between them. But would it work without that? Possibly.
Of course, there are downsides to all three styles of presentation. Quoted thoughts can easily be misidentified as dialogue, especially if the thought preceding the attributing statement "he thought" is overly long or even if there is no attributing statement at all.
Italics fair no better or worse. It can be argued that the italic style is reserved for another primary use (to accentuate or lift a statement, as in the knew in the second example.) and to use it for another function has the effect of nulling its effectiveness in much the same way an exclamation mark loses its impact when over-used.
To use neither quotes nor italics might give a clean, unfussy look, but its effectiveness relies heavily on the skill of the writer to carry it off. If done well, the reader is left without a doubt that they are in fact reading the mind of a character in a book, in spite of there being no visible marks (besides any attribution) to distinguish it from the surrounding narrative. If done poorly, the reader will become confused, lost, directionless and may well wander off into fast-flowing traffic.
Arguably, there are additional modifiers to these three camps of thought. The addition of parentheses (brackets), for example, instead of quotes. Or italics within brackets. The use versus non-use of attributing statements. In conclusion though, all three arguments have their merits - and my research points consistently to this: not one of them is entirely correct or incorrect. It is - as with many arguments associated with writing - a stylistic thing. The most important thing, in my opinion, is that whichever way you choose - whichever team you support - you must be consistent.
Me? I'm a Brad man. Sometimes, when the mood takes me, I can be tempted to swing to Angelina. Never Jennifer though. That's not my style. And that's what it's really all about - style and consistency. Pick a style and stick with it, at least for the duration of the piece you are writing at the time.
Meanwhile, in the wonderful free-speech world of the internet, the debate on what is ultimately correct rages on...
So here it is: I've been told by Nasty Publisher Man that I need to blog more. Apparently my twice yearly efforts just don't cut the mustard - or should that be the custard? (more on that later :-p )
And he's probably right. After all, when it comes to social media I'm a total sloth. I've twice signed up to Twitter, and both times I've spent mere seconds flailing around like a complete hashtw@t before cancelling the account. My myspace account lives up to its name, being somwhat reminiscent of the void in which our blue planet spins. And when it comes to updating my blog, well I'm the first to admit that I'm a right lazy blogger.
I struggle enough as it is to find time to write, promote my work, spend time with my family and all the other day-to-day management of crap that life throws at us. For the blog, specifically, I think it's mostly a combnation of not finding the time, and having nothing noteworthy to blog about. Personally, I can find a better use for what little spare time I have than write about what I had for tea that night, what I saw on the telly, what hilarious thing the cat did today, or just whinge about work, which pretty much sums up other blogs I have read. Or maybe I've just been reading the wrong ones...
But I guess I do need to try. As it goes, I have a few irons in the fire and some upcoming events...er...coming up, so hopefully my next blog entry will contain something of worth. Whatever happens, my pledge to you is this: it certainly won't be about the cat.
Because I don't have one.
Admittedly it's been a while since my last blog, but at least I now have "shtuff" to report. After reading an article in the local press about a local publisher seeking local talent, I decided to chuck a couple of manuscripts his way. One of them was my prospective picture book, "The Great Reef Race", which I am proud to announce has been selected for publication nearer the end of 2012.
Besides giving "Reef Race" one final tune-up, I've also started work on a childrens adventure novel (my first, believe it or not), currently titled, "Captain Mandible and the Deadlings". As of now I'm a mere dozen pages in, but the ideas are stacking up in my favour.
Other news? Hmmm. I've finally graduated from the University of Stoopid Phone, and now own "Smart Phone".
Which hopefully will allow me greater freedom to write and capture ideas and moments of creativity whilst on the move.
At least, that's the plan once I drag my addiction-ridden carcass away from playing "Angry Birds"...
Having recently read an article about Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing programme, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. After some soul-searching and trepidation I have offered up three stories as downloadable E-books for the Kindle and any neat piece of kit which can run a Kindle App.
For a modest fee, the two novellas Adam Runs and Sisters Three, plus the short story Phobic, can now be downloaded from the Amazon website direct to your E-book device.
How jolly marvellous and futuristic of me!
Currently working on Salt!, a story I started some years back as a kind of serialised communal project to which other writers could contribute. It didn't take off - mainly because I had no forum through which to advertise its existence to the world - but my initial chapter received fair praise from the random few who read my post on a writing community website (ABC Tales, I think).
Anyhoo, I dug it out recently and started to pick my way through it dreading the worst. I was pleasantly surprised that it held up pretty well for a first draft. I have since rectified a few consistency issues and rewritten a few bits I thought were weak - but all in all it's pretty much the same. The main changes made were to reinforce the narrative surrounding the climbers using research I've done on mountaineering equipment and techniques. It's panning out pretty well so far considering I don't have any climbing experience at all.
I mean, I thought crampons were the thingies that fell out of ladies purses...
Finally finished the first draft of 'Phobic' - a short story I've been working on (or rather on-and-off) for several years, about a man who is convinced that his carpet wants to kill him.
Good news! I have now finished The Great Reef Race. It is available in three distinct flavours: full version, short version and very short version. The full version is well over a thousand words; far too long for most children's publishers, so I had to hack away at it like Jason Vorhees having at an unsuspecting teenage camper, in order to virtually halve the word count. It pains me to have to cut so much decent material in order to make it a 'saleable' size, and I'm not wholly convinced that the result is an improvement. Sure it's shorter - and therefore cheaper to produce, should it go to print - but is shorter better? I think on this occasion possibly not, as it now seems to lack both the sense of fun and the sense of adventure of the full version. Maybe with some clever polishing I can end up with a cut that I'm "OK" with.
Or maybe I just need to let it rest up a while, give those incisions time to heal...
Got home from work, made gingerbread men with 'the boy' before putting him to bed and reading Julia Donaldson's brilliant 'Tiddler'. Which reminds me: I need to crack on with writing 'The Great Reef Race'. Ock and Eel are a tentacle-tip away from the finish line.
Not right now though. Right now the story needs to build up a little more steam. So while it's perculating nicely up in that space between my ears, I'm entertaining myself setting up this new website, while my wife entertains herself with Masterchef Australia and Dancing with the Stars.
Don't worry though - Ock and Eel will finish the race soon enough. And when they do, I'll be punting it to agents and publishers. I may even post a small excerpt on this site - you never know your luck...