Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Final Check-in


I’ve owned WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul for about four years now. But it wasn’t until about four months ago that my copy saw any hard use. As I mentioned in my first post of this series, I read the book when I first got it, and kept it on my shelf to dip into from time to time. But I never did the exercises in the book, and couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have.

Now, my copy is literally dog-eared. I’ve carried it in my bag for months. I’ve read it at the playground, at gymnastics class, at soccer practice. And I’ve completely many (not all) of the exercises. Doing this has been not unlike taking a picture book writing class — but this one cost only $16.99. Based on her advice, I’ve made some changes to the way I think about story writing, and it has helped my writing improve.

The final section of the book has a great chapter called “Priming Your Idea Pump” with lots of techniques for coming up with story ideas. This, I find, is the major change between the writer I was two years ago, and the writer I am now. Two years ago, I had written a single picture book manuscript and I worked that thing to death. Countless revisions. Countless reviews by critique partners. More revisions. I sent it off for a conference critique and was thrilled that the editor liked it. However, when she asked, “What else are you working on?” I was stumped. I was writing some poetry for magazines, but had no other picture books in the works, or even a list of ideas. *slaps forehead*

At that same conference, Jane Yolen was a featured speaker, and she made reference to her own recent rejections. (Yes, even Jane Yolen gets rejected…on a regular basis, it seems.) I’m not sure if it was some phrase of hers, or my own imagination that created this image in my head of a writer’s body of work as a mountain — a mountain that grows bigger with each completed manuscript. The peak of the mountain represents the work that’s published, or publishable. Everything underneath is the stuff that’s been rejected, or just isn’t good enough or polished enough to see the light of day. As I thought about this, I realized how huge Jane Yolen’s mountain must be, and how puny mine was in comparison. But (and this is the great thing about conferences) I wasn’t discouraged. Instead, I was energized and determined to start building my own mountain.

So, I primed my idea pump and started a new story. I signed up for a class. I participated in PiBoIdMo and 12×12. My mountain is growing, and now, thanks to WRITING PICTURE BOOKS, it has grown a little bigger and (I hope) a little sturdier.

Tetons by Ansel Adams, 1942 (National Parks Service/NARA)

Tetons by Ansel Adams, 1942 (National Parks Service/NARA)

OK, it’s not that big yet, but it is growing! How’s your mountain coming?

Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Critique Groups


Critiquing is one of my favorite things to do. I love to dissect a story and figure out what makes it work — and what could work better. And what better way to procrastinate over my own writing than by picking apart someone else’s?

Chapter 18 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul has many great tips for finding and hosting a critique group (she’s published some of these on her blog), as well as a comprehensive list of questions to help guide the critique process.

I currently belong to two online critique groups. I also occasionally exchange manuscripts with 7 or 8 writers outside of these groups, whom I’ve met in classes, in conferences, and online. Here’s a list of places where I’ve found these writing partners:

  • Community education classes. My very first critique exchanges were with writers I met through a picture book writing class at my local arts-education center.
  • Verla Kay’s Blueboards includes a place where you can request a critique swap with other writers.
  • Online writing challenges like Picture Book Idea Month and the 12×12 picture book writing challenge are good places to make connections.
  • I’ve picked up a few writing partners from SCBWI conferences. These are great, too, because there’s a chance these people live near you and could meet in person.
  • WriteOnCon, a free children’s writing conference, is another way to make connections.

Why critique? In her book, Ann Whitford Paul compares writing a story to a triangle.

One side is you, the writer. Another side is your words. But it’s not a complete triangle until that bottom line, a reader, brings them together.

Unless you are scrawling away in a journal, eventually your words are going to be read by someone else — with luck, lots of someone elses. It’s important to find out how your words are being received by readers. Further, not every reader reacts the same way to every piece of writing. If we did, we’d all love the same books. Having a wide and varied group enables you to gather reactions from many different readers before making changes.

Focusing on other writers’ work and trying to analyze what you like and don’t like about it helps develop your own skill as a writer. And trust me, there’s no better way to procrastinate…

School is winding down, summer is here, and next week I will post my final check in for this read-along.