Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 5, 2012

Writing Picture Books

Writing Picture Books

Workshop given by Tamson Weston at New Jersey SCBWI June Conference.

Written by Tiffany Alexander

Wouldn’t it be great to attend a workshop given by a person with insider book publishing knowledge and extensive practice helping writers hone their craft? That person is Tamson Weston. At the NJ SCBWI June 2012 Conference, Tamson used her expertise as an editorial consultant and former editor to give us a solid grounding in picture books. She talked about the current market and picture book myths/truths, and she also gave us time to do a writing exercise to stir up our creativity. Her answers to our questions aimed to help us navigate the seemingly temperamental waters of writing and publishing.

Tamson gave us a balanced look at the state of the industry. Right now there is some nervousness in the field concerning electronic formats, a decreasing number of editors, and so on. These may be issues, but they are not the only side of the story. Although the industry has been “painted bleakly,” Tamson showed sales figures from early this year that indicate some growth is occurring. Hardcovers showed good growth, while other categories like paperbacks and e-books showed modest growth. While this is good news, she reminded us that it is still crucial to work your manuscript into the best shape possible before sending it out to agents and editors.

After the market brief, Tamson tackled some common myths about picture book writing. Those myths and her counterpoints are:

1.) Picture books are short, so they’re easy to write. (Not so. Actually, it means each word is so much more important, and each word choice counts so much more.)

2.) Picture books should rhyme. (Not necessarily. Rhyme is very powerful, and all of us remember rhymes from our childhood, but this is no reason to try to write like Dr. Seuss.)

3.) Picture books shouldn’t rhyme. (If you are very interested in rhyme, if that style really fascinates you, then try it. Just be aware that many agents/editors have received many manuscripts with rhyme that was not done well, and they’re tired of poor rhyme. If rhyme is for you, really try to get it “right.”)

4.) Nowadays, picture books need a character that can be written about repeatedly over several books. (Not necessarily. There is no rule that says every book has to have the potential to be turned into a series.)

To illustrate her comments about myths, Tamson pointed out that, among several recent best-selling books, one book rhymes, one has a prominent character and one doesn’t, one is by a first-time author (which also happens to rhyme), and there is even a non-fiction book on the list. She used the term “strategic publishing” to explain that sometimes editors are making choices about what to publish based on many different internal factors, not hard and fast rules. And of course there is some amount of subjectivity in any editor’s choices. So, she said pick what you can do and do it well. Get feedback and readjust based on those comments, but also trust yourself. Please don’t write about something just because it seems like a popular topic.

And about the number of words, well, there is no exact number. It depends on your story. Five hundred might be a good number to aim for, but the word count is not the most important thing to understand about picture book text. Tamson stressed that picture books must say a lot with very little. The text of a picture book is not necessarily half of the book (think of the fact that some picture books are wordless, so obviously a picture book doesn’t need half or even any percentage of it to be words).

Tamson gave us two great exercises to try.

Exercise #1: To practice telling a story in a minimal number of words, find a published wordless picture book and write a minimal text for it, just enough to enhance the illustrations and help tell the story.

Exercise #2: Write a cumulative text based on a model like “The House that Jack Built.” Start with one thing or phrase, and write “This is the _____” (using your word/phrase to fill in the blank). Then keep writing and building on it.

Please try these exercises. Both give a little structure and at the same time are open to creativity. We all need a boost sometimes. Tamson encouraged us by saying that, although the market certainly is tough, we can do it.

Thank you Tiffany for taking the time to share Tamson’s workshop with us.  Tamson’s website is:

Talk tomorrow,


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