So if you don’t already know, I’m in the final stages of finishing my picture book Shems and the Magic Seabream which is inspired by Saudi folklore. Exciting! It’s been a fulfilling but exhausting process and I wanted to share with you all I’ve learned so far.
Spoiler: picture books done well are not easy. Be afraid, be very afraid.
Let’s start from the beginning. Every book begins with a story, which seems easy enough, right? Like how hard is it to write a one thousand word children’s story? Easy peasy.
You guys... picture books are deceptively tricky. This is because the story is understood not just by reading the text but also by looking at the illustrations. This is especially true with books created for very small children and babies. There are many children books that wouldn’t even make sense without the illustrations. So, as the writer, you need to figure out what information you want to convey through the text or through the illustrations. This involves a lot of fiddly coordinating.
For example: ‘That looks yummy,’ she thought. If I planned to add this line inside a cloud above the character’s head, I wouldn’t need to add ‘she thought.’ It’s already clear from the picture that the character is thinking this. Get it?
Of course, many children books for older kids don’t necessarily rely on the illustrations to relay meaning as the text itself makes sense on its own. These in my humble opinion are probably easier to write unless you’re a writer/illustrator.
Shems and the Magic Seabream is for older children between 5-8 years old, so I didn’t rely too much on the illustrations. That being said, there were many times I had to cut bits out of the text because they felt redundant with the illustrations.
Now let’s move on!
These are important and were way harder than I anticipated. There are 3 things you need to be aware of.
1- Your story has to be broken into chunks and spread over a specific number of pages. If you want to follow industry standards you would be usually looking at 32 pages. Of course, you have to respect the word counts for picture books for certain age categories, otherwise you won’ be able to fit the story into those pages. Like you can’t have a 6k word manuscripts squashed into a 32 page book with illustrations.
2- These chunks have to be even-ish. It doesn’t look very professional having one page with a crazy amount of text and then several empty ones. Now, there aren’t hard rules for this. Sometimes, writers will play around with text quantities for a certain effect. That being said, keep in mind that picture/illustrated books are visual and if I’m put off by a page with an unbroken, huge chunk of text, a child learning to read will probably feel the same way.
3- The way you break your story into chunks can be done in a way that’s meh or adds drama to the story.
For example: ‘And in the box was…a lion!’ If I added this line on one page, it would lose its dramatic effect whereas if I force the child to turn the page in order to read ‘a lion,’ you can see how much more gripping that would be.
Of course, you can get your illustrator/graphic designer to break the story up into scenes for you, but I personally did this myself to make sure my pages flow the way I want. But it was a lot of fiddly work.
Again, if you are clueless when it comes to art and working with a talented illustrator, you can just let them come up with their own ideas for the pictures and do their own thing. I’m not an illustrator, but painting and drawing was a huge hobby of mine growing up and I am interested in art. Plus, I had a very specific vision for my illustrations and so I was very involved in the creation of each picture (my amazing illustrator will probably tell you that’s an understatement). This is how I went about things:
1- Deciding on the number of illustrations and the illustrator. Illustrations cost money and the more you ask for the more you pay. I decided on 20 illustrations and my book is 32 pages-excluding 4 meta pages which I will discuss later. So, I had to find some way to get those 20 illustrations to cover 32 pages. I did this by commissioning many double page spreads. Some illustrators charge more for these but many others don’t. But keep this in mind. I thankfully, didn’t need to pay more for them.
2- Deciding the number of spreads and singles. I did this based on the importance of the scenes but also the arrangement of the book. I knew I wanted the book to start with a spread so that dictated things a bit. I had to play around with the arrangement of the scenes for a long time to get things right.
For example: Imagine yourself flicking through a book. If pages 1-2 are a spread and 3 is a single illustration, page four can’t be a double because pages 4 and 5 are not side by side.
3- Deciding on what scenes are depicted in each double/single illustration. These are some things I had to think about.
- Theme: I wanted my book to have a specific culturally-relevant colour scheme. Characters wear specific colours and I wanted the tones to be bright.
- Camera angles: I like a combination of zoomed in and distant drawings. I felt that was much more interesting on the eye. I also commissioned a couple of over the shoulder shots for my scenes. I love those.
- My book has a lot of cultural elements and conveying them to my illustrator was my biggest challenge. I had to do a lot of research and send her pictures of clothing, food, houses, etc so that my illustrator could draw everything accurately. Thankfully, my illustrator was up for the challenge and did things beautifully.
- Picking scenes: Naturally, it isn’t always possible to depict every detail and every scene and I had to pick what goes into the pictures and what doesn’t. In the climax of my story, many things were happening and there was no way I could get my illustrator to include everything.
- Making sure there’s enough room on each illustration for the text. My illustrator did this for me by pasting an older draft of my text and working around it.
- Figuring out the look of the front and back covers.
4- I actually sent reference files for each two illustrations describing the scene, page layout, colours, angles, photographs, character descriptions…yes it was a lot but worth it. It made the process much smoother, my illustrator knew exactly what to do and actually loved my geeky files.
META PAGES AND ADDING THE TEXT
1- The meta pages are those pages you get before the story starts and after it ends. Sometimes they’re just empty but usually they have the publishing information, note on author, etc. I added 3 pages in the beginning and one at the end. So my book is 36 pages in total, which was above the number I wanted but I really needed them for some technical reasons. There are picture books of that length but really, from what I’ve seen, you don’t want to go over that number.
2- Adding the text onto the illustrations isn’t as simple as copying and pasting. Like I said before, picture books are highly visual and so the font and formatting of the text are also important. I’m actually getting a graphic designer to do this step as well as the typography for the title. Yes, this is going to cost more money…but it will be worth it, hopefully.
Once everything is done, the plan is to convert the pages into a PDF file ready to upload onto Amazon Createspace. The publishing side of things is a whole other story but I’m planning on writing about this once I finish the process.
And that’s it for this post! Hope you all enjoyed it or found it useful. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to send them.