Posted by: Kathy Temean | December 12, 2009

Author Dianne Ochiltree


Some readers—especially members of NJ-SCBWI—may already know today’s guest.  Dianne has been a faculty member for chapter conferences several times, presenting writing workshops on a variety of topics related to children’s publishing as well as providing one-on-one critiques.  Her books have appeared on several recommended reading lists nationwide, including the Bank Street College Children’s Book Committee ‘year’s best’, and the Dollywood Foundation’s national childhood literacy program,  ‘imagination library’.  Because most of her published work has been for the toddler to preschooler set, we recently sat down for a talk about picture books. 

Q.  Okay, let’s start with the obvious question:  just how easy is it to write a picture book?  

A. Right, that’s certainly the number one question I get at a cocktail party or neighborhood barbeque. (Laughs.)  To answer briefly, it takes a lot longer than most people would imagine it takes.  To be successful, a picture book has to have all the narrative elements of a novel:  setting, characterization, story arc, theme, conflict, plot resolution.  It’s all there, but in a simpler, shorter form.  It’s a process of writing ‘big’ and distilling it down to the essentials.  If a picture book reads as if it took two minutes to write, I know it’s taken that writer a lot of ‘trial and error’ to find out precisely the right word to use in exactly the right spot. 

Q.  If writing picture books is so difficult, why did you choose to specialize in the genre?

A. It was the other way around:  picture books chose me.  In my prior life as an advertising copywriter, I learned how to use as few words as possible to describe big ideas about products and services.  I learned how to write to a pre-determined, limited word count when creating text to appear in print ad layouts.  When writing for television and radio, an additional consideration was how the words sounded when spoken aloud.  Whatever medium I wrote for, I had to consider the viewpoint of a specific market or readership. All the skills learned in advertising translated very well into writing for children of picture book age because the text needs to be punchy, evocative, and pleasing when read aloud. Writing picture books was a good match for the skill set I already had as a writer.  Plus, thinking visually is necessary to write picture book text, and this was a habit I’d developed in four years of art school.   

Q.  What, to your way of thinking, is the most important question to ask yourself when you’re writing a picture book manuscript?

A.  I like to ask myself first:  is this something that would appeal to the mind and heart of the picture book reader?  It has less to do with topic than it does with the viewpoint.  As an adult, it’s can be difficult to see the world through the eyes of a two-year-old going on a trip with mommy to the grocery store, or a preschooler who doesn’t want to share a toy or a kindergartener facing the first day of school.  But, it’s necessary in order to write a successful picture book manuscript. It has to ring true. You also have to think what it is about a certain topic that would intrigue and engage the youngest of readers.         

Q. Are there other questions you ask yourself?   

A. Besides the bottom-line question for all manuscripts…would someone pay $16.95 for this story?  (Laughs.) Seriously, several questions crop up in my marketing research when it comes time to decide if a story idea should become a manuscript.  If it’s a topic that seems to have been “over-published”, I ask, how can I put a unique spin on this?  Another important question is how passionate am I about this project?  I ask myself if I can spend a lot of time with the characters, and the story, because so much of writing is re-writing.  It can take many months of revisions to get a manuscript to a submission-ready point.  Of course, when I’m really frustrated in the writing process, the big question is why I thought I could do this in the first place?  (Smiles.)  That’s when it’s time to tuck the story in the desk drawer for a little vacation and move on to another piece of writing. 

Q.  You often critique the work of others in conjunction with workshop presentations at writers conferences.  What is the most common mistake you see in picture book manuscripts?

A.  Common pitfalls to watch out for include writing from an adult viewpoint, and allowing adult characters solve the main character’s problem instead of letting him or her solve it on their own.  There’s also the trap of not having a complete story structure, as we’ve talked about already.  And, many beginners start out writing rhyming picture books, which is not necessarily a mistake…but does require some extra time to get the rhythm, repetition and rhyme working well together.  Like any skill, it takes practice.       

Q.  Picture book manuscripts are among the most difficult to sell.  Why do you keep at it?

A.  I love the language, the imagery, the playfulness of writing for the PB crowd…not to mention the challenge of putting ten pounds of ‘story’ in a five-pound bag!  (Laughs.)  

Q.  Do you write other types of fiction for young readers?

A.  My creative writing projects span board books to YA novels.  My published work to date has been for the toddler to early elementary school reader, except for one YA short story published in an anthology for teen girls.  While it’s wonderful to see something published, the real joy is the actual writing itself.  If I’m in the middle of writing a story, I’m a happy camper!    

Q.  How can my readers find out more about your published work?

A.  For more information about my books, or to read my ‘how-to’ advice for those interested in writing for children, go to Thanks, Kathy, for taking time to introduce me to your many blog followers.  It’s been fun!


  1. Another interesting and helpful post. Thank you.


  2. Dianne is a wonderful person and author.


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