Pencil Tips #2: Pacing a picture book

I find the pacing of stories is kind of intuitive these days. Hang on. Is that really what I mean? I’m not sure – maybe it’s just that I do all the right things now without even thinking. It comes from reading (and re-reading) an awful lot of books, and writing (and re-writing) an awful lot of stories. Certainly when I started out I used to really struggle, and I don’t feel like I do anymore.

Here are some things that I now do, all the time, without even thinking about it. There is a very unsubtle theme that runs through all of these points. I cannot stress enough how much hard work is involved in writing picture books. If writing feels like hard work, that’s because it bloody well is. But that’s what makes getting it right so satisfying. Keep at it. You can do it.

Read, study and dissect picture books. Don’t think of this as too much effort; it will transform your writing if you do it and do it often. Copy the text out. Leave line breaks where page breaks occur. See how the text works as a word document with no illustrations. Chances are, that’s how the book was originally bought. What’s the word count and how does it break down per page? How is the main character and their big predicament introduced? What does this text do that your text doesn’t? What magic is there between the lines? What made it a no-brainer for an editor to sell in at an acquisitions meeting? Does your text resemble a real live published one yet? If not, you need to work harder.

Write in episodes. Write the numbers 1 – 13 (give yourself 15 if you must) down the left hand margin. Fit your text into that many ‘episodes’, aka parts of your plot, aka beats of the story. Make sure the big turning point happens at 9. Your reader’s heart should ALWAYS be in their mouth at 9. I don’t know why this is the case, but trust me: somehow, due to the magic of storytelling, 9 is where it’s at. If you’re a natural storyteller, you’ll find the ninth beat without any shoe-horning. If you don’t, you’ve either got too much happening or not enough. Rework it. Work harder.

Consider the page turns. Where are the breaks? Where are the dramatic pauses, reveals and climaxes? In picture books you have to tell a whole story with very few pages and very few words. Make a dummy from scrap paper – base it on any picture book you like. Don’t cheat and use endpapers as extra pages (all picture books have 32 pages; you usually only have 14 spreads and maybe a single page at either end to work with). If your text doesn’t fit the format, if you’ve bored yourself to sleep setting the scene on page one, if there are too many page turns or too few, if you end up reading too much text on any one page – you need to work harder.

Think visually. Make sure there’s scope for variety and don’t waste words describing what the illustrations will show. You don’t need to be able to draw, but you do need to be able to envisage what image will accompany your words. If you can’t picture anything, or you can only see pretty much the same picture over and over again for most of the episodes in your story, you need to work harder.

Tighten your writing. Make it tighter. Tighter still. Now tighten it a bit more. Be ruthless. Any word that absolutely doesn’t need to be there, shouldn’t be there. Get rid of it. And never use a multi-syllable word when a single syllable one will do the same job. If you’re fighting to justify its inclusion, it doesn’t belong there. Don’t kid yourself. Work harder.

Read aloud. Read your texts aloud, always. Read picture books aloud, always. This is what they’re intended for. They must work aloud. If you trip and stumble over your words, tidy them up. If you get bored waiting for the page turns, speed them up. If you’re supposed to feel an OOMPH and you’re just not feeling it, work harder.

That’s about all I can think of for now. There may be more. If there is, I’ll put it in another post. Hard work, this blogging lark.