Saturday, January 14, 2012

Not for Dummies

Yesterday in my Writing Children's Book winter term class, we had a workshop on making picture book dummies. This was a very smart thing for us to do.

I came to class with a stack of blank book dummies. For each one, I took sixteen pieces of copy machine/printer paper and stapled them together on the left-hand side to make a 32-page book. For readers who are not children's book authors: that is the length of a standard picture book. All books are manufactured in such a way that the number of pages is some multiple of eight. You might see a picture book of sixteen or twenty-four pages in the educational market, but not in the trade market. And as picture books grow to forty or forty-eight pages, production costs skyrocket. So: thirty-two pages it is.

Of that, four (most likely) go to front matter: title page, copyright, dedication, etc. So that leaves twenty-eight pages for text and art. A picture book story has to fit in that number of pages, with enough action - and variety of action - to give the illustrator something to draw - and enough moments of suspense to give the reader reason to turn to the next page.

I came to class with a huge bag of scissors, tape dispensers, colored pencils, crayons, and markers. And we got to work. Students sat busily cutting up their manuscripts into little strips of words to tape onto the pages; they sketched out what art they might imagine accompanying their words. And they learned a lot about what didn't work about their manuscripts.

Some students discovered they only had enough material to fill half a book: by page 16, they had petered out entirely. Some saw how text-heavy their story lay on the page. Long paragraphs needed to be broken up into smaller morsels. One particularly serious writer gave up her story halfway through and started another one: what she had was a lovely poem, but it wasn't a picture book.

I asked each student to identify the central problem faced by the main character. On what page was it introduced? The earlier, the better! A third of the way through the book: much too late. And on what page was it solved? Two-thirds of the way through the book: much too early.

So on a gray, snowy day, we sat cutting and coloring and truly becoming picture book writers.

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