Want to write a picture book, but don't know where to start? You're in luck! Follow these twelve easy steps* and you'll have a picture book at the end.
1. Read a ton of newly published picture books (published in the last 12-18 months).
Books that were published before that may not reflect what publishers are looking for now, and books that just came out were probably purchased 1-3 years ago, or even before that. Picture books have a looooooooong lead time.
2. Think about whether the story you're telling fits within the age group, subject matter, language, format, and word count (usually 500 or fewer words) of current picture books.
Many picture books these days are shorter and aimed at a younger audience than picture books in the past. That said, since they are meant to be read to a child, they don't have to use simple words for a child trying to read on their own for the first time.
3. When you go back to your story, remember that the art will tell half (or more) of the story.
One of the great things about picture books is that the child can read the story in the illustrations, even if they can't yet read the text. When writing a picture book, remember to leave room for the illustrator to tell the child their version of the story.
4. Don't forget that picture book text describes the action of the story, but not the visual details (leave those to the illustrator).
5. Start with a blank page after steps 1-4 (even if you already have a draft written), and write the book as an outline, or just the bones of your story.
When you write your first draft, don't be afraid to take as many words as you need to get your story down on the page. Picture books may end up short and concise, but they rarely, if ever, start there. Revision is where the story usually starts to shine.
6. Take each action in the outline and write that as a line in your book (don't add any more at this point).
7. Put it away for a day/week/however long you can stand not writing it.
Write something else while you're waiting, and complete step 8 too.
8. Read more current picture books, with special attention to how the words and pictures work together in the book. What words are left out to leave room for the art? What story does the art tell and how does it enhance or expand the story in the text?
Think about your story compared to the ones you just read. Have you left room for the art? Does your story fit into a picture book (subject, word count, language, format, age group)? If not, maybe you're writing a different type of story (easy reader, chapter book, etc.).
9. Pull your ms out and re-read, then revise while thinking about the text and how it will work with potential art. Read your story out loud. It will help you to hear where the words don't flow and help you weed out unnecessary or added words.
10. Repeat steps 1-9 as needed.
11. When you are ready, think about getting a critique!
If you don't already have a critique group/partner, here are some options: the SCBWI has critique exchange on their discussion board, you could take a picture book writing class, or attend a conference that offers critiques.
Notes on critiques: Critiques are great when they are helpful, but you don't have to make every change suggested. Revise the story when the comments reflect your vision (as opposed to the story the other person would write). When multiple people comment on the same thing, it's an issue you should consider changing, but you don't have to change it the way they suggested (or at all). It's your story! Maybe you have a more creative solution to change the problem and make the story better. One last thing: sometimes there are spots in a story that critiquers say aren't working, but the problem is in another part of the manuscript. If several people comment on an element that you think needs to stay in your story, look to see if you can make that moment necessary by laying the groundwork for it earlier. Or repeat step 7 and put it away for a while. When you come back to it, maybe you'll realize it needs to be cut, or your subconscious will have come up with a new solution that makes sense for your story and makes it better.
12. Revise and repeat as needed.**
Good luck writing your picture book!
* The steps are easy, but the execution of them is not. There is no magic bullet that will allow you to write a publishable picture book quickly***. It may take a many years of repeating these steps before you have a picture book manuscript that is polished and ready to send to publishers. In that time, you'll learn and grow as a picture book writer, and the market will also grow and change, which is why it's important to keep repeating these steps, especially #1 and #8 (read current picture books).
** As with any advice, use it if it works for you, if not, don't. Everyone has their own process. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary)
*** There's always news of someone quickly dashing off a book that ends up getting a publishing deal. This person is probably one of 3 types: A. a celebrity, B. lucky as all get out, or C. a writer who has been writing for a long time, and what sounds like an overnight success, was really hard work followed by being in the right place at the right time. Most will fall into category C, whether you know it, or not.
**** Note: I've updated to add a couple of things I forgot. Just like a picture book text, this post is better after multiple revisions!
Five other posts I've written that might be helpful if you're interested in becoming a picture book writer and/or illustrator:
The Path Illustrators Take To Get Their Work Noticed And Advance Their Careers
Three Ways To Make A Picture Book Dummy
Ten Tips For Choosing What To Draw For Your Portfolio, And Ten Ways To Find Inspiration
Five Tips For Illustrators
If You Just Want To Illustrate And Not Write