How to Write Picture Books: 5 Takeaways from Winchester Writers' Festival 2017

WHAT an experience! 

I squeezed into the full-day picture book masterclass at the last minute and despite the 5 hours of solid travelling it entailed, I am so very glad I did. The workshop was led by the lovely Tracey Corderoy, an absolute master of scansion and a wonderful storyteller. We also had a jam-packed and supremely juicy hour with Louise Bolongaro, Head of Picture Books at Nosy Crow. I don't think I've scribbled so hard and so fast since my political philosophy final. Made me wish I'd fixed that terrible crow-grip back in primary school.

We went through all the usual discussions around plot structure, pacing, page turns and showing vs. telling but here are 5 of my biggest takeaways:

(1) Character matters. A lot. 

This is one of those things that you hear all the time. You know it matters but you still find yourself obsessed with the plot and the spreads and baking in your character's motivation retrospectively, stuffing it in wherever you find space. Or maybe that's just me! Well, Tracey's exercise of starting with the character has opened my eyes. Thinking about who they are and what makes them tick. What would really challenge them? How would they react? How would they change as a result?  Cue lightbulb moment. So this is what "character-driven" really means. No wonder Tracey's characters - the likes of Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam - have carried so well across a series of picture books and over into young fiction. 

 (2) Plot matters too. 

You can have a beautiful piece of prose or rhyme but it needs what Louise Bolongaro calls "lovely, meaty narrative substance." It needs to pass her "Finnish Prose translation test". Does it lose all its value when you strip away the rhyme and this particular selection of words? Or is it still a pacy, punchy read with plenty of charm? And a top tip from Tracey Corderoy - don't lose sight of the core of your story, the heart of it, the thing that made you want to write it in the first place. A great story speaks "from the heart of human experience". It makes you feel something. 

(3) If you want to rhyme, do it well. 

3 mini-points here:

  1. It's more than just syllable counts. It's about mastering scansion - how it scans. The stressed and unstressed syllables. For a brilliant example of this, read Tracey Corderoy's Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam! Rhyme with brilliant scansion is effortless to read and compels you to perform. 
  2. It's also about good, strong, story-driven rhyme as opposed to lazy, predictable rhyming that takes the writer in all sorts of strange directions.
  3. No inversions, apparently. Not for Nosy Crow, anyway. Julia Donaldson may get away with it but she is the Queen of Picture Books. It's different. 

(4) Pull the listener into the story.

Not just by way of a hook but make sure that they are invested in it. Repetition is a special invitation for children to join in. It's empowering. So is leaving something of the story for children to wonder at, to fill in the blanks. They become so much more than passive listeners. It becomes their story. 

(5) Never give in 

I had to include this because I still can't get that "Never give in" Churchill quote out of my head but also because it's a big bad world out there. In the words of Tracey Corderoy, you need to "be tenacious, thick-skinned, never give up." Get over that scary blank page and start writing. Experiment, be flexible. Don't be afraid to be wrong. Persevere. It can take time to get published. Tracey found an agent in no time at all but took 3 years to get published. She now has 50+ books to her name. It takes courage to be a writer. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I'm new to the picture book writing journey but this workshop has made me feel so excited, so energised. Picture books are so important. Louise Bolongaro put it beautifully: they're a child's first encounter with reading, they help them find their place in the world. They have a dual consumer - the reader and the listener - so there's a unique challenge in that they need to appeal to both. They need characters we care about, perfect pacing and plenty of story. They'll also be read aloud over and over and over so they need a powerful visual and auditory magic that never feels old, never fails to delight.

No pressure :)