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Getting Started on Your Children’s Picture Book Manuscript

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” —Madeleine L’engle
Congratulations on your desire to write a manuscript for a children’s picture book! The picture book is a tried-and-true medium, and its ability to stand on its own merit without animation and sound won’t change. In other words, all the apps in the world cannot replace cuddling up with an “old-fashioned” book at bedtime. With the enormous popularity of The Book With No Pictures, it is clear that the written word—the message behind the pictures—still has great importance to young readers.
It’s not uncommon for creative writers to have many ideas for a children’s picture book—so many, in fact, that getting started on the first one may feel a bit daunting. If you have several ideas that you’d like to bring to life, begin with a 100-word description of each story idea. Do this for your top-5 ideas, and then choose your favorite among them—the one that really resonates with you and the one you think will introduce your story world and main character in the most vivid light.
Focus your first book on one main character through which your story world/setting and secondary characters are introduced as they interact with the main character. (Those secondary characters can be your main characters in future books, if you’d like.) You can also start with two main characters, but in general, you want your young reader to be able to relate to the one main character you choose to place in the spotlight.
When writing for children as well as adults, a plot that follows the conflict, climax, and resolution formula ensures that your story has a solid structure. When writing for children ages 4 to 8, a clear lesson/moral as the ultimate takeaway makes for a memorable read and has the potential to make a difference in the child’s life.
Once you have your description of your first story, it is time to flesh out your ideas. This is an excellent time for unloading everything you’ve got into the story. Describe the images in your mind to the reader as if he/she cannot see the pictures or hear the voices. Who is your main character? Where is your main character and why? Who are the secondary characters? What are their relationships to the main character? What challenge is your character facing? How does he/she perceive that challenge? What strengths/weaknesses does that character have? And so on.
Keep asking yourself questions and answer them through description and dialogue. Turn off your inner critic, and simply write whatever comes to mind, no holds barred! This process of pouring everything you’ve got into the story—all the description, narrative, and dialogue you can think of—is an excellent start.
Don’t worry about page breaks at this point. Also, don’t worry about word count (the more the better during this unloading phase). However, keep in mind that the average length of a children’s picture book is about 500–600 words. But there are no hard and fast rules in the world of publishing, so your finished book may be longer or shorter.
Once you’ve done this, put the manuscript aside for at least a day but no more than three or four days to keep moving forward. When you go back, read what you’ve written and begin the process of weeding out anything that doesn’t move the story forward, reducing wordiness, refining your writing, and strengthening the message. You’ll do this several times. After each session, put the manuscript aside for at least a day (again, don’t allow too much time to pass).
Continue this revision process until you are ready to share your story with others—a few select children and adults you know and trust. Ask those people to be completely honest with you. Tell them you want to know what they don’t like about the story, as well as what they do like. This honest assessment is crucial, but you don’t have to incorporate everything they suggest. Simply consider their feedback food for thought. Then, use any suggestions they offer that resonate with you to further improve your story. Continue the process of setting the manuscript aside between revisions
Once you are confident that you have a solid story, begin the process of separating your material into pages, keeping in mind that some pages may have as many as 40 words and others may not need any text at all. A 32-page picture book is one industry standard you may want to target. Keep in mind you will have a title page, copyright page, and perhaps a dedication page so you are looking at around 28 pages devoted to the story and illustrations. Describe the illustrations you would like to see with each page, which will be used by the illustrator when creating the storyboard.
This is an excellent time to submit the material to an editor, who can correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but more important, can make further developmental suggestions and offer feedback on your ideas for the illustrations.
Where you go from there is a topic for another day. In the meantime, get writing!

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