So, you’re writing a picture book – not illustrating (you’re not an artist) and you know that publishers prefer to select for illustrations whoever they think would suit the work best. If you’re lucky it will be a fairly well known artist, so that they have at least one name to sell the work on (as this is your first book…).
You’ve written your first draft, maybe even second or third, and it’s well within the 32 pages you know is the norm for Australian picture books – it’s even down below 500 words, which publishers also like. You feel immensely satisfied, as you should. Every word is correct and in its right place (like a poem really, with so few words to play with). You’ve even read it aloud, and also inveigled someone else, who hasn’t seen it before, into reading it aloud too (as picture books generally are, sight unseen). So you’ve spotted the words that are not quite right and cause a stumble.
What now? I suggest making a storyboard.
But storyboards are for illustrators, right? Well, not actually.
Storyboards are for all picture book creators, and after twenty years of guiding people through picture book writing, I find they make a real difference. They encourage the author to think of the text as a picture book, not just as a short short story. They entice you to leave room for the pictures to tell at least half of the tale, as happens with the best picture books. It might be your idea, your words, but the illustrator has at least as much input into it, they will probably spend more time on it, and you each get the same royalties, in the end.
Start with a big piece of paper – A3 is best. Fold it four times – not into quarters, but use four folds. Now open it out. Each of the folds is an opening – a double page spread, if you like. There are various ways of dividing up these 16 spaces, but I’ll give you the basic one. You can’t go wrong if you submit your typed-up manuscript to a publisher divided into these pages. They may change the pagination – the editor, the designer, not to mention the illustrator, may have different ideas, but at least you are demonstrating that you have had enough interest in the genre to investigate the standard way of setting it out.
Let me say here – and I’ll reiterate it later – that you don’t show this storyboard to the publisher (unless you are also the illustrator).
So, you have these 16 spaces. If you like, you can draw a line down the middle for the gutter of the book, and to remind yourself that they are two pages. Then you can number them. Not that a picture book has numbered pages (not usually anyway) but so that you keep track of where you are up to in the book. In the top left square, write 2 and 3 (we’ll come to page 1 in a minute). The odd number is always the right hand side of an opening. This is very important, and is the same as any book you pick up. Just pick up the nearest novel you’re currently reading. The odd numbers are the right hand pages, right?
So the second opening is 4/5 etc, 8/9 is the end of the top row. Then go down to the next on the left, which is 10/11. The second last opening is 30/31 and the final one we’re pretending is an opening but isn’t – it’s 32/1, clearly two separate pages.
Page 1 is what we librarians call the half title – usually just the name of the work and a picture. 2/3 is the title opening. Usually one picture running over both pages, with the title and the publisher and author as well. Page 4 is the verso of the title page, and has the full publication details on it. If you have a dedication, that can go there as well. Page 5 can begin your story, or sometimes you can put the publication details on page 32 and start with a full opening on pages 4/5. You then have up to 30/31 to tell your story, finishing off your story on page 32, or else just filling that with a picture.
Now, think about how your words are going to break up into the fourteen openings and one page, which is what you have. When you write the text in the spaces, you might find you have too much text, or not enough. Think about the incidents in your story rather than your actual words. Which incidents do you think would make the best pictures? Maybe you could leave a double opening for those ones and fewer words? (Remember Sendak’s three whole openings with no words in Where the Wild Things Are?)
Anyway, sketch in the picture for each opening – stick figures will do. You’ll be able to see how it will make a picture book. If you have a conversation which goes over three openings, it is too long. There are only so many ways the illustrator can draw talking heads. Usually in picture books, it’s action that makes the most arresting pictures.
Remember the story arc. A couple of openings to set out the question the story is to answer – the plot, then several tries at trying to answer it – three is traditional. Then the sudden answer to the question (hopefully come at by the protagonist unaided; a deus ex machina – usually a ‘helpful’ adult – rather spoils the story) and a satisfying conclusion.
You’ll need to make the storyboard four or five times until you are sure you’ve got the balance right – is there enough left for the illustrator to reveal?
Then you type it up with the text, and its suggested pages. You don’t need much in the way of illustrator notes. The artist will have better ideas for the pictures, anyway. And they really don’t like seeing your suggestions. They’ll have their own models, so you can’t dictate that your protagonist has to have red hair and freckles just because your grandchild does. Tell them only things that are vital to the story’s outcome, but which aren’t there in the words. It’s got to make sense to the person who reads it from the slush pile or treasure trove.
For twenty years Virginia Lowe has been teaching people to write and illustrate for children (from picture books to YA novels), through Create a Kids’ Book http://www.createakidsbook.com.au She offers workshops, e-courses (picture books including illustration, novel-writing), manuscript assessments and a free monthly e-bulletin. Her book Stories Pictures and Reality (Routledge 2007) is based on the record she kept of her two children’s responses to books from birth. She writes a regular column in Books for Keeps http://booksforkeeps.co.uk She has previously been a librarian, lecturer at several universities, and Victorian Judge for the CBCA Book of the Year Awards.