NOTE: I will be away camping this week, so I won’t be able to answer comments, until I get back (unless there is internet connection in the campground) 😉 . Have a nice week!
I wanted to share the article I wrote for the Upper Bucks Free Press (the newspaper I write for) for the July 2015 issue! The street and online version were just published. To see the online version of the newspaper, click HERE or you can read the whole story below! I am especially happy about this article because my special interviewee is SUSANNA LEONARD HILL!!!
I hope you like the article!
So You Want To Be A Picture Book Author?
by Erik Weibel
Have you ever seen something so wonderfully simple you thought to yourself, “I can do that!”? If you’ve ever read a 300+ paged novel, you probably have thought about how hard it must be to write one, right? All those words, plots, subplots, that would be impossible to tackle. And then you look at a 30-paged picture book and think, ‘boy, this book must be easy to write! It’s 30 pages, and mostly pictures!’
I was stunned to learn how incredibly difficult it is to write an effective picture book. To learn more about this grueling writing process, picture book author, and creator of Making Picture Book Magic, an online teaching course about writing picture books, Susanna Leonard Hill, has thankfully agreed to answer a few questions of mine!
Erik: What do you think is the most difficult part in writing a picture book as opposed to a novel?
SLH: I think the most difficult part of writing a picture book is the distillation. Novels are difficult in their own way – longer, more complicated, with multiple layers and subplots – but a novel writer has a little more leeway, a little more room to maneuver. In picture books literally every word counts because the word count is so limited. A picture book writer must tell an entertaining, compelling, emotionally rich story… in under 500 words. And that’s not easy!
Erik: No, it most definitely is not! In your opinion, what are some of the best picture books out there (well, besides yours, of course!)?
SLH: (Aw shucks, aren’t you nice?! 🙂 ) I like that you asked “in my opinion”, because writing is so subjective! “Best” for one person isn’t always best for another. But some of the recent books I love (as opposed to many older titles…!) are Z Is For Moose by Kelly Bingham, Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zeitlow Miller, Extraordinary Jane by Hannah E. Harrison, and I Am Cow Hear Me MOO by Jill Esbaum.
Erik: I LOVED Sophie’s Squash! You developed a course that teaches people how to write a picture book, called Making Picture Book Magic. Is there a certain writing formula you teach to your students or is it more of a process?
SLH: Writing is definitely a process. There is no formula that I know of. If there were a formula, chances are that anyone who followed it would produce a story that was… well… formulaic. 🙂 I try to teach my students about all the important elements of a story – character, conflict, emotion, etc. – and offer them different ways to think about how those elements might work together to make an enjoyable, satisfying story. There is a lot of writing and revising, going back and forth as ideas develop and the writer experiments with the best way to tell their particular story, work-in-progress until the story is finally told in a way that the writer is happy with.
Erik: That was really well put. In a word (or not!), how important is word choice in picture books?
SLH: In a word? Crucial! A picture book writer has so few words to work with. Every single one must carry its weight. Today’s marketplace supports picture books that are 500 words or fewer. Preferably fewer. (Although there are always exceptions.) Writing a picture book is a bit like managing a budget. A writer has only so much to work with, and once it’s spent, it’s gone. In addition, in picture books, the illustrations are meant to tell half the story, so the writer must choose the words that convey the story while simultaneously bringing to life the elements that the illustrator can’t show, such as sound, touch, taste, and smell.
Erik: I’ve never thought of the word count like a budget. That’s a great analogy. What is your best advice to someone who wants to write a picture book?
SLH: Read picture books – lots and lots of current picture books – so you get a feel for what makes a picture book work today. The picture books we read growing up had a different feel, longer word counts, and in many cases the illustrations supported the story but were less critical in terms of telling half the story. So it’s very important to familiarize yourself with what works currently.
Educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about the craft of writing picture books. Read books. Take classes online or in person.
Immerse yourself in the writing community. Picture book authors and illustrators are among the most genuine and generous people out there. They are always willing to lend a hand, share what they know, help others along the road to success.
Write some more.
There is no substitute for practice.
Thank you for being an interviewee, Ms. Hill!
Susanna Leonard Hill is the award winning author of nearly a dozen books for children, including Punxsutawney Phyllis (A Book List Children’s Pick and Amelia Bloomer Project choice),No Sword Fighting In The House (a Junior Library Guild selection), Can’t Sleep Without Sheep (a Children’s Book of The Month), and Not Yet, Rose (a Gold Mom’s Choice Award Winner.) Her books have been translated into French, Dutch, German, and Japanese, with one hopefully forthcoming in Korean. Her newest book, Alphabedtime!, is forthcoming from Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, in Summer 2016. She lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley with her husband, children, and two rescue dogs. Find her on the web at Susannahill.com