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Josh Funk's Guide to Writing Picture Books

If these 36 words:


As sweat dripped slowly down Luke’s face, he stood with his blue light saber in his right hand. The evil Darth Vader had to be stopped before he could do even more harm to the galaxy.


can be rewritten with a mere 11:


Luke stood ready to fight. Darth Vader had to be stopped!


what about the sweat on Luke’s face? The color of his light saber? How do we know which hand he fights with? Well, my friend, you must remember that …


The Illustrator Is Your Partner


If you’re writing a picture book manuscript, the only way it’s going to be published is if someone illustrates it. Yes, yes, this seems like an obvious statement. But many writers starting out struggle with this. The sweat on Luke’s face will be illustrated. The color of his light saber – illustrated. The hand with which he’s holding the weapon – you guessed it, that’ll be illustrated.

But how will the illustrator know to put sweat on Luke’s face, you wonder? Should I add a note to the illustrator? The answer is an emphatic no. We picture book writers need to let the illustrators do their job. Illustrating is something that I cannot do. To me, it’s immeasurably harder than writing. If an illustrator is drawing a scene with Luke and Darth Vader, they’ll be able to add visual tension to the scene, however they choose to do it. And let's be honest, they're the artist - they probably will have a better idea of how to illustrate than you will. It’s not a writer’s job to say how. Don’t sweat the little details.

Which leads me to my stance on illustrator notes. It’s pretty simple: Write a note to the illustrator if and only if a particular illustration is critical to the plot and can’t be discerned from the text. And only say what not how.

If it’s critical the missing toy is seen by the reader under the bed at the beginning of the journey for the eventual payoff when it's found, then put in an illustrator note. Say [illo: toy is under bed]. Do not say [illo: the toy is crammed under the bed behind a monster toy and a pink and purple chess set].

If you want the main character to have red curly hair, but it has no significance to the story, don’t say anything. Let the illustrator decide how to design the characters. If it’s that important to you, learn how to illustrate your own books. The illustrator’s not going to tell you how to write your story (although, I wonder if sometimes they want to? I’ll bet they do – I’ll have to ask them about this).

And more than just letting the illustrators do their job, try to make their job as fun as possible. If you can write a text that leaves options open for the illustrator to go nuts – all the better. Sometimes what you don’t say is as important as what you do. Give the illustrators a world to play in – and let them make your world even better.

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