I love to write, but writing scares me. I never feel like I really know what I’m doing. I’m a big fraud.
Since breaking into the business in 2008, I’ve published eight picture books, all of which I illustrated. Three of them I wrote and illustrated. I’ve sold a lot of books. I’ve won some awards. I’ve gotten some good reviews. It’s been an exciting ride.
Luckily, they haven’t found me out yet, I guess.
During this time I’ve met a lot of other authors and illustrators. It’s been comforting to learn that most of us share the same insecurities. You’d be surprised how many of us think we’re one bad sentence, or one bad drawing away from being exposed as the frauds we really are. We’re an odd bunch.
I haven’t always been very good at plotting. In fact, I’ve wasted a lot of time on plotless messes. I’ve learned the hard way the importance plotting. I’ve also learned from getting to know so many authors and illustrators that we each have our different ways of doing things. One thing I’ve noticed most of the successful ones have in common is that they plot their stories with words or drawings and sometimes both.
Although I’m no authority on the subject, I have somehow managed to find an idiosyncratic technique of plotting a picture book that works for me. You might want to try it yourself. All you need is your imagination and access to Post-its.
Begin with a three or four sentence summary of your story. Imagine it’s the blurb on the jacket sleeve of your book.
Next write a quick first draft of this story. Try to visualize the scenes as you write. Listen for the voices of the characters. For visual variety try to place the story in different settings. Don’t describe with words what you can show with pictures. Make illustration notes as you write. (They’ll come in handy during the next phase) Most important is to get it all down in one fell swoop.
Next go through your manuscript and make notes about which images will appear on which page. This is the rough pagination. Most picture books are thirty-two pages. Some forty. (Leave blank about six pages for the endpapers, the copyright page and title pages.) As you’re deciding which image will go on which page, try to imagine the turning of the page. The page turn is crucial.
In the pagination stage it’ll become obvious right away if the story needs to be lengthened or shortened. Go back and lengthen or shorten the story and repeat the pagination process before proceeding to next stage. With each step, distil your story down to the bare essentials. Get rid of any words that aren’t necessary. Imagine reading it aloud to a kindergartener. Imagine the kindergartener trying to read it. Always remember your reader.
There is always a LOT of going back and forth in the process of plotting a picture book. It’s like putting together a puzzle. Try this piece here, if it doesn’t fit, try it another way…
Now we bring in the Post-its that I mentioned earlier. This is where the visual plotting begins in earnest. On a large drafting table — or on the wall—lay out your Post-its like this:
Similar to our quick approach when we began writing our story, we’ll quickly go through and place very rough stick figure drawings on each Post-it. Also jot down where the text will fit on each page. As the visual story begins to emerge more clearly you’ll find things that work and other things that don’t work. New ideas will be triggered by the drawings. Play! The beauty of the Post-it technique is that you can easily get rid of what doesn’t work without investing a great deal of time in each drawing. But save the drawings that don’t work. Tomorrow when you view it with a fresh eye you may change your mind!
Back and forth we go with our drawings through the story. Add a new drawing. Take away a drawing. Put back a drawing you took away the day before. When stuck, lie down, close your eyes and imagine you are a hummingbird flying around, looking at the scene from many different angles. Don’t get discouraged in the beginning of this stage. This is when the big creative storm is brewing, building energy.
Keep chugging along. You are approaching one of the most exciting peaks in this up and down process I often equate with being on a roller-coaster ride. Once rounding the peak, things will happen fast. It will be an exhilarating blur as your book picks up momentum. Get up early. Stay up late. Drink coffee. Light a candle. Listen to Norma. Lock the studio door. Get carried away with your work. Be temperamental when interrupted. Don’t listen to those little voices in your head telling you you are a fraud. You are NOT a fraud! You are a genius! You are now on the verge of creating the next great picture book!
When you emerge back into the real world with a bunch of little doodles that seem like they could be the blueprints for a book, scan them all, insert the text, and make a PDF file out of them. If you want, make a little mock book. If you are an author/illustrator a sample can help. Send your masterpiece to an editor or agent. Buckle up and prepare for the roller-coaster ride all over again.
Chances are you may receive rejections. This is normal. (Even after you’ve gotten your foot in the door) This is the low point of the ride. This is when most rational people get off, say thank you very much. I tried, but I think I’ll go back to being a claims adjuster now. There’s absolutely no shame in that.
If the spark continues to burn inside you, I recommend staying on. Not everyone makes it to the peaks, but I don’t think anyone with that burning spark has ever regretted shooting for their dreams. Stay the course, and with a lot of hard work and a little luck, the next thing you could be plotting is your successful picture book career.
Lee’s Books: Turkey Trick or Treat, by Wendi Silvano (August 11, 2015); Turkey Claus, by Wendi Silvano; Turkey Trouble, by Wendi Silvano; The Emperor’s Cool Clothes, by Lee Harper; Snow! Snow! Snow! By Lee Harper; Woolbur, by Leslie Helakoski; Coyote, by Lee Harper; Looking For The Easy Life by Walter Dean Myers. Find Lee online at LeeHarperart.com
Lee is giving away a signed advance copy of TURKEY TRICK OR TREAT written by Wendi Silvano and a copy of THE EMPEROR’S COOL CLOTHES that he wrote and illustrated himself. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!
If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Lee’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.