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Dalen Keys : Writing Children's Picture Books

14 Keys to Writing Children's Picture Books

By Dalen Keys

I eagerly absorb whatever knowledge I can gather from other writers. It seems logical to learn from other writers; especially the great ones. I'd like to capture their key aspects of writing so that I can jump to the bestseller list as quickly as possible. I am afraid that a simple list clearly articulating the key aspects of writing a bestseller does not exist. Guess what, I'm not going to provide that list either. But, I am going to provide fourteen things I have learned about writing a children's picture book (it would have been fifteen but I couldn't think of one more):

1. It's hard to write just 1000 words.

Before I entered this world of children's books, I had this image of slapping out book after book; after all, these things are short. Wrong! Maybe picture books do not require the years of researching that I hear about from some novelists, but it certainly wasn't the afternoon project I had imagined either. Picture books for children between 4 and 8 years old have somewhere between 500 and 1500 words. It is tough to introduce characters, develop a plot, create tension and draw the story to a conclusion with such a limited quantity of words. Each word in a children's picture book is a gem that is carefully planned.

2. Write 500–1000 words every day.

Since children's picture books are short and each word is carefully planned, practice that type of writing every chance you get. Journaling is a highly recommended practice — but I don't do it. Sorry! I'd rather write a letter, write a short article, write a draft of a book or write a few pages for a chapter — anything but journal. Whatever the purpose or form of the writing, the point is that you should practice every day. Then for some kicks, go back and edit your old writing; a month later or better yet six months later. You will definitely see that you are changing and improving.

3. Start an Idea Bank — collect and save your writing ideas.

Good ideas are like gold and good ideas almost always come to me at the very worst moments; such as, while I am driving in heavy traffic on I-95 through Philadelphia in pouring rain. It makes it real tough to write the idea down right at that moment. However, I record my ideas as soon as possible — sometimes I make a quick note and stick it in my pocket to jog my memory later. On a more permanent basis, I use two methods to archive my ideas — my Blackberry and a spreadsheet on my laptop. I revisit these idea banks routinely. Get into the practice now, even if you are only thinking about writing some day. Write your ideas down — you'll need them later.

4. Don't forget tension and surprise.

I think we have all read children's book that are just too sweet. You know the ones I am talking about; the books where everyone is happy, it's always sunny, everyone is friendly, blah, blah, blah. I'm going to make a wild guess that you can't remember the names of those books or, at the very least, those books are not on your fun-to-read list. Even in children's books, tension, stress and excitement add spice and real life to the story. We all want the hero to win — to overcome adversity.

5. Read your manuscript out loud.

It's a fact that 98% of children's picture books are read out loud — well, if it's not a fact, it should be. No matter the percentage, these books are made to be read out loud. So, as you are working on a book, read it out loud. Or, better yet, have someone read it out loud to you. You can catch things by doing this that you will not catch by reading it silently. You will catch sentences that just don't flow off the tongue well. You'll catch dialog that is rough.

Suggestion: have story time in your home and read the audience your manuscript.

6. Adults read these books too.

Often, a picture book is used at school, a library or at bedtime and ends up being read by an adult. So, as I write a picture book I try to add a twist or situation to make the adult reading the book stay interested too. Again, as mentioned above, the use of tension in the plot helps; but, don't forget humor. Trying to add the adult "hook" is challenging and you always have to remember the customer is a child — but the reader and purchaser is often an adult.

7. Use age-appropriate words.

Make sure you are using words for your target audience. Many picture books are specified for ages 4 to 8 years old. But, there is a huge difference in the word knowledge of a four-year-old versus that of an eight-year-old. It is very likely that your book is targeting a portion of the age range. I highly recommend that you get a book that helps you understand which words are appropriate for each age.

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