Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Making a Picture Book Dummy


Chapter 17 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul deals with making a picture book dummy. No, you don’t have to be an illustrator. Yes, you can draw stick figures. A good dummy doesn’t have to be a work of art and no one else ever has to see it. But as a writer, it can tell you so much about what works and doesn’t work in your story. I have found that the act of chopping up the text and deciding what will go on which page helps me to see:

  • where my story’s pacing needs to change (usually I need to move things along more quickly, occasionally I need to slow things down)
  • whether I am using page turns effectively
  • how much text I have on each page — fine to have different amounts but if I can’t fit the text on a page in my dummy, that’s a clue that I need to cut
  • on what pages the important moments of my story will happen, and whether this matches my picture book map
  • whether something “new” is happening on each page (which was discussed way back in chapter 1)
  • whether I’m using language consistently throughout the book (for example, if I use a bunch of sound words at the beginning, do I also use some in the middle and at the end)
  • other stuff I’m sure I am forgetting right now

While the discussion about making a dummy comes toward the end of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS, I usually make a dummy fairly early in the process, after I have a solid first draft with a beginning, middle, and end. Below are two different ways I make a picture book dummy.

A Notebook Dummy

This is simply 16 sheets of paper in a looseleaf notebook. This gives me enough room to draw my little stick figures and write the text. Theoretically, I could  easily adjust this dummy by replacing just one sheet of paper rather than having to redo the whole book to make a small change.


The notebook dummy is nice because it forces me to think about the pictures, and how the images on each spread will be different from one another. It’s not my favorite, though.

A Folded Dummy

I make these small folded dummies out of four sheets of paper cut in half vertically and then folded together. I then copy the text of my story into an empty word processing file. I increase the font size to about 18, and then I print the document with a layout of 2 pages per sheet. The resulting text is small, but still readable. I then use scissors to cut the text into spreads, and tape it onto the pages of my folded dummy.

dummy1         dummyopen

I don’t usually bother to draw the illustrations on these dummies because at this point I have a good idea of what I want to see on each page. This is more about working with the text.

The thing I love most about these little dummies is that I can carry them around in my bag or even my pocket. Sitting around at the dentist’s office, at baseball practice, at gymnastics class, becomes productive thinking and writing time.

Do you make dummies for your stories, and if so how do you make them?

Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Section 4 Check-in AND Chapter 16


I recently attended a session at the New England SCBWI conference during which the presenter, speaking about catching an editor’s or agent’s eye with your book, asked the audience to think of a book we love. Then she asked us to think of a book we love enough to read 15 times. That is (approximately) how many times an editor has to read a book on the road to publication.

She was speaking primarily about novels, but as picture book writers we have to remember that not only will an editor have to read our words many times over, but parents will probably have to read them many more times than that. Raise your hand if you can recite The Very Hungry Caterpillar by heart. (Me! Me! Me!)

Section 4 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul is entitled “Language of Your Story,” with good reason. Picture books are meant to be read aloud, and read repeatedly — both excellent reasons to make sure that our words are as poetic, beautiful, and easy-to-read as we can make them.

True confessions: I did not have time this past month to do all of the exercises she recommended in this section. But the next time I am revising I do plan to go back and work through some of them, especially the checklist of techniques for slashing word count in Chapter 15.

For now, I will plow ahead into the next section, which consists of only two chapters.

Chapter 16 is called “Grabbing the Reader with a Great Title.” Boy, do I need this chapter! My usual MO with titles is I think of some working title for my manuscript when I start it. That remains the title until someone in one of my critique groups gently suggests that the title really could be stronger and maybe no longer has anything to do with the story. At which point, I’m stuck because now I’m kind of attached to my old title.

In Chapter 16, Ann Whitford Paul outlines all the things a good title should accomplish. It must be:

  • brief
  • catchy
  • unique
  • straightforward
  • express the mood of the book
  • hint at what the book is about
  • not give away the ending
  • create surprise
  • give the illustrator an idea for the cover
  • child can easily say it out loud
  • include the mc’s name (but doesn’t have to)

That last one is an important point. I do find that I’m more drawn to titles that include a name. I’m not sure why. Maybe it helps me to start to feel a connection with the character before even opening the book.

Just out of curiousity, I looked up the list of picture book titles listed in Candlewick’s fall 2013 catalog (one of my favorite publishers). These have presumably been through some sort of vetting process and deemed “good.” It was interesting to look at the list and see how well these titles achieve the items on the checklist above.

Candlewick – Fall 2013 picture books

Dinosaur Kisses

Jazzy in the Jungle

Peck, Peck, Peck

My Blue Is Happy

Ike’s Incredible Ink


Digger, Dozer, Dumper


Maude: The Not-So-Noticeable Shrimpton

My Dream Playground

Faster! Faster!

Little Owl Lost

Animal Opposites

See What a Seal Can Do

Most of these are strong titles, but the ones with most appeal to me are Digger, Dozer, Dumper (I’m a sucker for alliteration) and Little Owl Lost (for the mystery factor). What about you? What are some of your favorite titles, and why?

Giveaway Winner & Sunshine Awards

ATCGW coverHow did we get to the middle of May? May has been full of promises (mine included) and seemingly lacking in time. So before any more time slips away from me, I want to take care of a few housekeeping details here on my blog.

FIRST – thank you so much to everyone who commented and shared your ideas for celebrating poetry month. In honor of the month, I am giving away a copy of the poetry anthology AND THE CROWD GOES WILD: A GLOBAL GATHERING OF SPORTS POEMS – signed by me and several others whose work appears in the anthology. And the winner (selected by is…


Damon is a fellow member of 12×12 and blogs at SevenAcreSky. Congratulations, Damon! Email me your address and I’ll send you the book.

sunshineawardSECOND – a while ago (OK, in January) not one but TWO kind people awarded my blog the Sunshine Award. Thank you so much to Tina Cho and Laura Sassi for highlighting my blog. Here are the award details:

This prize is given to “bloggers who positively and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere.”  As an award winner, here are some suggestions to follow for this Award.

1.  Thank the person who gave this award in the beginning part of a post about it.
2.  Answer the questions below about your favorite things.
3.  Pass the award on to fabulous bloggers who bring sunshine into your life, link their blogs, and let them know you have awarded them in your post

These are some of my favorite things:
Favorite Color – do I have to choose? I’m partial to plummy purples, rusty oranges, blue-greens.
Favorite Animal – recovering horse-lover, but with my cat sitting on my lap right now, I have to say ‘cats.’
Favorite Number – 17
Favorite Drink – limeade
Facebook or Twitter – Facebook; don’t have the mental bandwidth for Twitter although (factoid) the founder of Twitter went to my high school
Your Passions – writing, reading, cooking
Giving or getting presents – both
Favorite Day – Sundays – I love how they stretch on and on
Favorite Flowers – lilacs

I’m passing the award along to two bloggers whom I feel fortunate to have gotten to know over the last year. They are both quietly doing fascinating things on their blogs and I am drawn in every time they post.

Lightbulb Books by Hannah Holt. You have to check out her recent “Newton’s Laws of Cake” posts.

bildebok by Cathy Ballou Mealey. I started following her when she wrote a poem series based on sculptures at the Decordova museum, an outdoor sculpture park near my house. Every poem she posts is a little gem.


Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Word Count

writingpicturebookscoverI’m someone who writes “long.” Most of my stories start out about twice as long as they need to be. In some ways, that’s nice because it means I have a lot of material to work with. But it also means that I agonize over every cut. Am I gutting my story of personality? Am I making it so sketchy that it no longer makes sense? Usually, if I put things away for a while, time will help reveal which cuts I can make without sacrificing meaning or voice.

Chapter 15 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul has many excellent suggestions for cutting word count. Sixteen excellent suggestions, to be exact. This is important in today’s picture book market when we hear that many editors want books that are in the 300-500 word range. I won’t share the whole list here, but do take a look at Chapter 15 if you struggle with cutting.

My favorite (and the one I find most effective for me) is number 14 – Characters don’t pee in stories. I find I often go into a level of detail, backstory, and scene-setting that’s not necessary. Below are two drafts of a story I wrote for a contest on Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog. I find contests to be a great way to get motivated to write, and to restrict myself to a specific word count. In this case, the limit was 300 words. My first complete draft was 556 words. Gulp! And yet, by cutting out many of the unnecessary details, I was able to get the text down below 300 words. And  the story really isn’t any different. When I struggle with cutting, I sometimes go back to this story to remind myself that I’ve done it before — and can do it again.



The phone rang just as Kara was finishing dinner.

“Yes?” said Mom. “Now? OK. Yes, I’ll be there.”

Mom hung up.

“Grab your jacket,” she said, grinning.

“Where are we going?” asked Kara, wondering where she had put her jacket among all the unpacked moving boxes. They had lived in this town almost a week, but their boxes and furniture had arrived on the big truck just two days ago.

“To a birthday party,” said Mom.

A birthday party? But we don’t know anyone here, Kara thought.

“Whose birthday?” she asked.

“It’s a surprise,” said Mom.

“Where’s the party?” asked Kara as they hopped in the car.

“At the beach,” said Mom. “I told you it would be great to live near the beach,”

“But it’s almost dark!” said Kara.

Mom smiled.

“Will there be cake?” asked Kara.

“Nope, no cake at this party,” said Mom.

“A birthday party at the beach, in the dark, with no cake? What kind of party is this?” asked Kara. But Mom was tight-lipped. “You’ll see,” she said.

A few other cars dotted the parking lot at the beach, only 5 minutes away from their new house. Kara and Mom jumped out of the car and walked through the lot down onto the sand. In the distance, Kara could see a small crowd of people.

“That must be it,” said Mom.

When they got closer, Kara could see that the crowd was divided into two groups. Down the middle, a sort of path toward the water was marked by ropes tied to sticks poked in the sand, to keep people back. A woman sat in the middle of the path holding a clipboard. At the head of the path was a sunken patch of sand.

“Watch that patch of sand,” whispered Mom. For a birthday party, it sure was quiet, Kara thought.

Kara stared hard at the sand. Nothing happened. Then, she thought she saw the sand move. It was quite dark now, and hard to see. Then the sand moved again, and a quiet murmur rippled through the crowd. Slowly, the sand started to pulse and bubble. To Kara, it looked like a pot of water just beginning to boil. Then a black dot appeared – first one, then another, and another and suddenly the sand boiled over with tiny creatures struggling up through the sand.

“Turtles!” Kara whispered to Mom, and Mom squeezed her hand. As they watched together, the baby turtles scuttled along the path toward the water. The woman with the clipboard counted them. The crowd remained very quiet and still, but every once in a while someone would stoop down and gently guide a wandering baby turtle back to the path.

As Kara watched, the crowd of babies reached the ocean. The waves, though gentle, threw some of them back, but still they struggled forward. Kara thought about how brave the baby turtles were, crawling across the sand into the vast ocean, a place they had never been and could know nothing about. But somehow they trusted the future.

The last of the turtles had reached the water and the crowd started to break up, still careful not to walk on the pathway in case any late-hatching turtles came out.

“I think I’m going to like living near the beach,” said Kara.



Mom hung up the phone just as Kara finished dinner.

“Grab your jacket,” Mom said, grinning. “We’re going to a birthday party.”

“Whose birthday? We don’t know anyone here,” said Kara. She searched for her jacket among the moving boxes that had arrived, like they had, only three days ago.

“It’s a surprise,” said Mom.

“Where’s the party?” asked Kara, climbing into the car.

“At the beach,” said Mom. “I told you it would be great to live near the beach,”

“But it’s almost dark!”

Mom smiled.

“Will there be cake?”


A birthday party at the beach, in the dark, with no cake?

At the beach, a small crowd had gathered. Coming closer, Kara saw that the crowd surrounded a rope-marked path from the dunes toward the water. For a birthday party, it sure was quiet.

“Watch that patch of sand,” whispered Mom, pointing. Kara stared through the growing darkness. She thought she saw the sand shift. Then it shifted again, slowly, and then more rapidly. To Kara, it looked like a pot of water beginning to simmer. A small black head appeared, then another, then a flipper, and suddenly the sand boiled over with tiny creatures struggling toward the surface.

“Turtles!” Mom whispered, squeezing Kara’s hand. Dozens of baby sea turtles flip-flopped their way across the sand toward the waves. A woman with a clipboard counted them. The crowd remained still, but once in a while someone stooped to gently guide a wandering baby turtle back to the path.

They’re brave, Kara thought, watching the tiny creatures make their way into the vast ocean, a place they had never been and could know nothing about.

“Happy birthday,” Kara whispered, then smiled at Mom.

“I think I’m going to like living near the beach,” she said.