Marsha Wilson Chall is the author of a chapter book and 11 picture books. She teaches in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program at Hamline University. Her newest picture book, THE SECRET LIFE OF FIGGY MUSTARDO, will be released in 2016 from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins. She lives on a farm in Minnesota with her husband, dog, barn cats, and books.
1. What are the key elements of a picture book?
- A verbal-visual narrative
2. What do picture book writers need to keep in mind when crafting a plot?
A three-act structure is the template whether the story is a traditional dramatic telling with an inciting incident, rising action, crisis, and resolution; or not so much that arc as what Uri Shulevitz calls an “unfolding,” like the experience of a boy and his grandfather watching the sun rise in his book Dawn.
Chop anything remotely extraneous to the plot or story objective. Begin the narrative as close to the real story time as possible, then cut to the alligators. Think of each event in the plot like a little scene connected by cause and effect. Remember to build interest through escalated action or struggle. The story should end in what I like to call sighs or surprise—and of course the injunction to “read it again!”
3. Can you explain what stage directions are and give examples? Why is it not a good idea to use them in a picture book?
In the script of a play, stage directions indicate the placement and movements of the actors because there are no visual aids in the text. Since illustrations show the characters in settings or imply their movements, picture books do not need instructions like “The teacher walked up to her.” Rather, the picture will show the teacher in proximity to the girl.
4. From your experience teaching in the Hamline MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program, what are some common mistakes or pitfalls that you see in picture book writers and what can they do to improve?
My advice here is that every writer of any level can learn from studying classic picture books. Read them, fall in love with them, type out the texts of favorites. Look for the common elements of picture book text: structure, poetic language, pattern, artful repetition. Discover in their pages a truth that children will feel even if not fully understand. Note that if a picture book implies a moral, it does so without moralizing. And though the story arc is simple, the meaning is not simplistic. Learn to love the world again with rekindled wonder through your senses as children do. You might then be ready to write a picture book!
5. What revision steps would you suggest before submitting a manuscript to an editor or agent?
- Say as much as you can with the least amount of words as possible. It’s not so much the word count as that every word counts. Cut “to-be” verbs, adverbs, and insignificant adjectives (the adjective “insignificant” is a significant adjective because not all adjectives are insignificant). Keep exposition to a minimum. Check for words (like modifiers and description) that will be redundant to the illustrations. In other words, don’t tell what can be shown and don’t show what can be illustrated. Words are gifts to illustrators, but not nooses. The artist doesn’t tell you what to say; give him/her the opportunity to create the visual story.
- Read your manuscript out loud—to humans, if possible, but a willing dog or recorder works, too. Reading without much inflection catches false notes. Ask someone who doesn’t love you or your work to read it to you. Listen for the clinkers. Picture books are to look at and to listen to. Make music with your words through elements of poetry like rhythm, assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia. Don’t forget the seven vocal qualities: volume (loud and soft), pitch (high and low), tempo (fast and slow) and p-a-u-s-e. Reading in voices is fun and kids love to mimic!
- Dummy/Storyboard your picture book manuscript. Check the working parts—beginning, middle, end, page turns, text-illustration balance (space per spread for text and illustration). Paginate your manuscript in spreads (start on 4-5). Do you have enough or too much text for approximately 14 spreads?