I often get asked for advice by people who want to write picture books.
What I think you should know is what it feels like to produce a picture book story.
The questions I get asked most often are “how do you get the ideas” and “how long did it take you to find a publisher”. Sometimes they ask “isn’t it annoying when people try to edit you?”
I think many people expect it to work like this: get an idea, write it, then prepare to be bounced off by loads of publishers until you get lucky.
It’s not like that.
This is what it is like, from my experience and from talking to other authors.
Think of it as theatre. Picture books are a lot like theatre, 32 pages of performance to help parents entertain, educate, encourage an audience of one – over and over again. Thousands of copies, each one a paper theatre. You provide the script, the sets, the costume, the stage tricks.
What will your show be about?
You will travel back in time and meet your four-year-old self, and you will find something that you two agree on profoundly. Something important. Something exciting. Something true. Then you will write a story about it, with the skills of an adult and the enthusiasm of a child.
You will be your own perfect parent.
You will dress up as a pantomime horse together and go on stage. It will be so exciting.
And then no one will laugh.
You will feel like you’re four years old and stuck in a pantomime horse with your parent on a stage, and no one is laughing. This will happen. Even if your adult self wrote the story, the “you” that gets told by an editor that “it’s not quite there yet” is four years old. Unless your four-year-old self wasn’t involved in the first place. Then it’s even worse: like being on stage dressed as a horse’s back end by yourself because you forgot to bring the head.
What on earth were you thinking?
And this is the part I want you to know. This is not what happens when it goes wrong. This is just what happens most of the time.
So what do you do then? Do you decide the audience is stupid and go on a quest for people who understand your art? Do you just chuck it in straight away, heartbroken?
Maybe you decide to self-publish. Have a small run printed for friends and family, or see if you can raise the money somehow. Nothing wrong with that. Some books really are just too unusual to get the interest of a traditional publisher. Some are charming little things that shouldn’t be over-polished. A very few are indeed unrecognised genius.
But quite likely, especially if you are just starting out, is that the book just isn’t that good yet. Because making picture books is really quite a specialised skill that doesn’t magically happen when you become a parent, succeed as a teacher or have a happy memory about your cat. Writing picture books demands a lot of thought put into precision, clarity, pacing, structure, communication. It’s not effortless, however much it looks that way.
What I am saying is: don’t think the hard work is the idea, the first draft, the finding of a publisher. The hard work is making the show really, really good. The greatest thing about working with a publisher is that you will have the help of a creative team – experienced people who really care about picture books, and who are there to point out if your horse costume has no pants. They are also there for you to disagree with at times, someone to prove to that your idea actually works by making it clearer, better, more honest until they get it. They are on your side, and believe me you want someone on your side when you are stuck in a time-travelling pantomime horse. Even if what they say makes you hide away and cry at times.
Possibly you will find that you are making is something completely else and much more important than what you thought it would be. Maybe it is much smaller, bigger, wiser, funnier. Allow that to happen.
And yes, sometimes you will have to put your foot down and refuse to change something… but only if you are absolutely sure that you’re right, and not just stubbornly stomping your pantomime hooves.
If you get the hang of this, you will find that it is actually an enjoyable challenge. Learn to deal with criticism. Get over the fear. Get back up when you fall over your feet, and before you have time to get angry say: Hooray! I get to fix this! Because fixing important things is great, and your show – your story – your book – is important.
This way, you will make something that others understand, and love as much as you do – and hopefully you won’t come to hate it.
Unless it all goes wrong.
Then get off stage, strip off that seven-legged triple-jointed frayed purple horror of a horse costume you made. Give yourself a hug.
Then make a new one. Check the seams, get in there and get back on stage.
And if it all goes right…
Take a bow. Take the applause.
…then do the same thing. Again.
It’s a wonderful thing to do.