Do you have some terrific story inside your brain and heart that's just begging to be put onto paper? Something that taught you a never-forgotten lesson? Or something that was so hilarious and you can't get the pictures out of your head? Maybe it happened on vacation. Or your first day of school in fourth grade. Perhaps it was something that happened to somebody else. Or some principle that you've always valued and lived by.
That's how most stories and books start off ... some inspiring idea burning in a heart. Many times we don't do anything with those ideas and they never see the light of day. But sometimes an idea comes that just won't leave us alone and we have to do something with it. Like an itch that needs scratching, it won't stop until some action is taken!
If the goal for your burning/itching idea is a 500+ page novel, you're in the wrong place. The extent of my advice for that: don't get overwhelmed. Get on a schedule. Write a few pages everyday. You'll get done eventually!
However, if the goal is a picture book ... welcome to my world! Now we've got something to talk about!
Starting here in this first article, I'm going to walk you through the whole process, from writing the story, planning a layout with narrative and images, selecting typefaces, designing the cover, and doing final art with the printing process in mind.
A 24-32 page book would be too much for an article/demo, so we'll do an 12-pager:
• 2 pages will be our outside front and back covers.
• 2 pages will remain blank, our inside front and back covers. I'll explain this in detail when we talk about cover design.
• 2 pages will be a title page and a combo dedication/publishers info and copyright page
• The final 6 pages will be available to tell our story.
If you are a writer only and not an illustrator, don't think you have to go through all of these steps before submitting your manuscript to a traditional publisher for consideration. In fact, unless you are an illustrator, too, you should never submit layouts and sketches along with your manuscript. See my article Submitting to Publishers in the Helpful Info section for more about that. But knowing more about the whole process will make you a better storybook writer ... so let's begin ...
First, we need a story ...
Start With A Good Story
In the October 14, 2020 blog I tell about Ranger Pete at Stephen C. Foster State Park in the Okefenokee Swamp. Pete was full of fun stories about the swamp ... here's a blurb from that blog:
He told us about a boy named Gator Joe who lived on Billy's Island. Joe liked to swim in the swamp. He nailed boards to the side of a cypress tree out by the island dock and then tied a rope up high on one of the branches. He liked to climb up, swing out over the water and jump in. One day he jumped in right into the open jaws of a waiting alligator and got stuck up to his waist! The animal clamped down hard on Joe's torso! Joe managed to get away (no explanation for THAT!) and was left with the scars all around his waist ... thus his new name, Gator Joe.
The little blurb above is a good starting place for a story, but for a storybook, it's got to be way more detailed and interesting than that. One secret to being a good writer is that you are using words to not tell the story, but to show the story. Even with no illustrations, your readers should be seeing pictures in their heads. Based on the above blurb, let's look at what we have and what needs to be filled in ...
Here's the basic formula we want to follow:
• Introduce your main character.
• Conflict. The main character has a flaw or a problem that he needs to overcome.
• Obstacles blocking conflict resolution. The main character's flaw or problem is compounded by circumstnces or other characters.
• Struggle. The main character tries to overcome, usually unsuccessful at first. His problems shouldn't be resolved too easily.
• Climax. Joe gets his new name, "Gator Joe". And we know that he got it because he survived almost getting eaten by an alligator.
• Conclusion and end. This must be satisfying. All conflict resolved. Obstacles successfully overcome. Character arc of main character complete. That means he started out one way, flawed and with difficult problems, and, through the process of working through those flaws and problems, ended up in a better place with solved problems and stronger, more confident internally.
So using our formula, let's outline our story:
• Our main character is Joe. He's a very scrawny and shy little boy.
• Conflict. The other boys tease him because he's so skinny, embarrassing him in front of the girls, and making him even more shy.
• Obstacles blocking conflict resolution. Joe tries to fake being confident, but then one day the boys dare him to climb up the board ladder on the side of the cypress tree and swing out on the rope to jump into the water. But he's afraid of heights, and they tease him even more unmercifully.
• Struggle. That night Joe can't sleep. He wants so badly to overcome his fear and climb that ladder. He decides that tomorrow, no matter how afraid he is, he's going up that tree!
• Climax. The next day all the kids are out playing when they notice Joe going up the tree! They cheer him on, higher and higher! He finally makes it to the rope, swings out and lands right in the mouth of the gator! The gator snaps its jaws shut! The other boys rush over and fight the gator for him. Finally they win and pull Joe out of the gator's mouth!
• Conclusion and end. Joe's so happy! He had been so afraid to go up that tree, but he did it! He overcame his fear! Now he's won the respect of the other girls and boys who are amazed at how brave he was! And the gator teeth scars around his torso are so cool! Now they call him "Gator Joe"!
Because we only have 6 pages, the writing needs to be really tight ... no room for rambling on this one! Let's create a storyboard to plan this out.
The storyboard is a guide for writing the narrative. In the process of writing it, I made a few adjustments. In Planning Your Book – 2 we'll begin planning the illustrations.
Till then, here's the final version of our written story along with some notes: