by Lisa Amstutz
Does your picture book lack that spark that pulls the reader from page to page? Do people keep saying it feels like an article? If so, I have three words of advice: MAKE A DUMMY.
I critique hundreds of picture book manuscripts every year, and often advise making a dummy because IT WORKS!
1. It forces you to think visually. There’s an interplay of art and text in picture books that isn’t present in any other book format. As you create your dummy, make sure each spread is a separate scene, and that there is enough variety of scenes in the book to make it visually interesting.
2. It tightens your prose. Look at your text again, and take out anything that will be shown in the art. When you finish, read it aloud to yourself or a child. Does it read like a picture book? Make sure the language is sparse but strong.
3. It forces you to think through page turns. Add transitions or suspenseful language so the reader MUST find out what happens next. Study current picture books and note how the author entices you to turn the page. This doesn’t happen by accident!
4. It helps with your story’s pacing. Look at how many words are on each spread. Have you devoted at lot of text to one scene and very little to the next? Also keep in mind the age and reading level of your audience. How much text can they handle without getting overwhelmed?
A picture book dummy is easy to make. Simply fold eight sheets of blank paper in half and staple them in place. Leave the first and last spreads blank to leave room for the title page, author’s note, etc. That should leave you with 13 spreads. Cut out and paste your text onto the dummy or write it out by hand. Sketch out scenes to go along with it. Stick figures are fine.
If you don’t want to staple pages, use an online template. At the very least, paginate your manuscript.
Sure, it takes time. But it’s worth a try. It may just take your story from drab to dramatic!
Lisa Amstutz is a freelance editor and the author of 100+ children’s books. For more about her books and editorial services, see www.LisaAmstutz.com.
Whether you’re writing about bears or Booker T. Washington, the first page of your nonfiction picture book plays an important role. Note that this is not the first page of your manuscript. This is the text that will become the first page of the published book.
The best way I know to learn how to write a winning first page is to study the first page of current nonfiction picture books. Listen to the voice and see how it establishes the pattern for the rest of the book. Evaluate how the art works together with the text to establish a sense of time and place.
Three Key Categories
I’ve noticed the first page of most nonfiction picture books can be divided up into three categories:
Category 1: The first page introduces the MC or topic.
Category 2: The first page introduces the MC’s or topic’s problem.
Category 3: The first page introduces something significant that helps set up the problem.
Have you ever stopped to notice how the cover of a picture book works closely with the first page? The cover of many nonfiction picture books can also be divided into the same three categories. Take for example, the following titles.
This nonfiction picture book falls into the first category and introduces the MC on the cover:
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill
This following nonfiction picture book falls into the second category where the MC’s problem is introduced on the cover:
Dirty Rats? by Darrin Lunde
The following falls into the third category where something significant that helps to set up the problem is introduced on the cover:
The Camping Trip That Changed America by Barb Rosenstock
One of our goals when we work on our own nonfiction picture book is to create a winning first page. And since a picture book’s cover works so closely with the first page, we also want to create a winning title. By studying the first page of current picture books and incorporating their winning strategies into our own, we’ll be well on our way to success.
Writing nonfiction requires the skills of a ninja.
You must be great at tracking your quarry, skilled at telling a story, and able to slice and dice words at a moments notice.
Today I am going to equip you with one of the Nonfiction Ninja’s best secret weapons – Primary Sources.
Primary sources are documents or artifacts closest to the topic of investigation and were often created during the period you are writing about. Diaries, newspapers, government documents, letters, memoirs, and oral histories are all examples of primary sources.
These days the life of a Nonfiction Ninja is a little easier because there are some amazing websites that bring the primary sources right to your Ninja Lair. You can sift through facts and files with out ever breaking a Ninja sweat.
Here are some of the best websites for primary sources dealing with American History:
100 Milestone Documents
Includes documents that chronicle United States history from 1776 to 1965.
Eyewitness accounts of North American exploration, from Vikings in Canada in 1000 AD to the diaries of mountain men in the Rockies 800 years later.
Documents related to historical and current U.S. presidencies, such as speeches, official papers, and executive orders.
American Life Histories
Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940.
Full text of North American periodicals from 1740 through the 19th century.
Search and read historic newspapers published from 1690 to the present.
Scanned and redacted – images of FBI files of famous individuals and groups.
New York Public Library
30,000 images of New York City, costume, design, U.S. history, etc. from books, magazines and newspapers, as well as original photographs, prints and postcards, mostly created before 1923.
Advertisements, forms, programs, catalogs and time tables that capture the everyday activities of ordinary people.
Primary documents and personal narratives, 1960–1974
World Digital Library
Collection of print and visual resources
We are eleven authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
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