Picture Books – Plan, Polish, and Publish 

One Writer's Method


Dori Chaconas




While we're surrounded by story ideas, not every idea will develop into a saleable story.  The idea is the seed that will take time and effort to nourish, and some ideas just aren't promising enough to warrant all that effort.  First, I need to research the market and know what's already been published.  Why put weeks of work into a story that has little chance of making it because the market is already flooded with books on that subject?  In addition to that, if the idea doesn't excite me or stir my emotions in some way, I put it away in my files for now.  Maybe the timing isn't right for that particular idea.  But if the idea gets my adrenalin going, and makes me want to put everything else on hold so I can write it, then I have a story worth telling.  With enthusiasm pushing from behind, the words to the story will come easier, the emotions will ring truer, and editors will recognize that this story came from the heart.




For me, after inspiration has struck, the actual creation process is about 85% planning time and 15% writing and revision time.  Once I'm set on the story idea, it's time to think it through.  How will the plot unfold?  Who are the characters?  Whose voice will best tell the story?  How will the story begin and end?  How will the main character solve his problem?  How can I add a good surprise twist?   I think over every aspect of the story.  I imagine the scenes.  I hear the voice and snatches of dialogue in my head.  I begin to form the lines I will actually write.  I need to ask myself if this story has already been done?  If so, how can I make my story different and better? 

I do a lot of physical, non-mental tasks during the story planning process—walking, weeding the garden, ironing…  My body needs to move while freeing my mind to create.  Then after days, or even weeks—the light turns green!  The story components are worked out in my head, and I'm ready to write the first draft.




My main goal in writing the first draft is to quickly get the story down on paper.  I've been hearing the story in my head, so I write it down from beginning to end and don't worry about detail at this point.  The details are still working themselves out somewhere in my brain.  Some will appear like magic as I write, and others will be worked out later in the polishing.

If the story is to be written in rhyme, I need to extend the thought processing time. Each line and each verse has to be worked out one step at a time.  The rhythm and rhyme must be as perfect as I can make it.  Every line and stanza has to move the story forward.  Every word must have significance.  More walking, more gardening, more thinking, then back to my computer to type in the new line. 

Whether the story is written in prose or in rhyme, once the first draft is finished, I can take a deep breath and begin to work on the details and make my story come alive.



Now that the bones of the story are on paper, it's time to fine-tune it with revisions. Can I enhance mediocre lines with more lively and colorful language?   Can I bring something fresh and new to the story by adding onomatopoeia or by adding a bit of catchy rhyme to prose?  Can I replace weak verbs with action verbs?  Can I enliven mental images by using specific detail?

 As an example, here's the first draft of the opening lines from my book Goodnight, Dewberry Bear. (Abingdon Press, 2003)

On the side of the mountain, near a cottage-like cave, little Dewberry Bear sat next to a puddle, dropping stones into the water.   

"Dewberry," Mother Bear called.  "The sun is disappearing behind the mountain.  It's time to clean your room and go to bed.  Night will soon be here."  

"Yes, Momma," Dewberry said with a very loud sigh.  He dropped one more      stone into the puddle, then dragged his feet to his room.  

The evening shadows stretched through the open window.  Dewberry stopped.  His eyes opened wider and wider.  He ran back to his mother and attached himself to her middle.  

"I don’t want to clean my room," he said. "There’s a hungry gorilla in my closet!"  

It's a nice enough opening, but it's too wordy and it's very much like hundreds of stories about a small character who doesn't want to go to bed.  What steps can I take to get this story into its best possible form?

I tend to use a lot of adverbs in first drafts.  But I don't worry about wordiness at this point.  Right now I need all those words to keep me in the mood of the story and to keep the momentum going.  Deleting extra words is one of the last things I do.  What I do look at are the individual words and the mental images they suggest.  How can I make these words bring the story more to life? 

In the opening line I have a good opportunity to use onomatopoeia with Dewberry dropping stones into the puddle.  What sound does a stone make as it hits the water?  The obvious ones are splash or kerplunk.  But I want my words to be original and fresh, so I search for a more original sound.  I used Pleek!  Pluck!  Plock-plock-plock!" And while I worked at punching up that line, I also wanted something more specific than simply puddle or stones.  Rain water puddle and stone marbles added more specific detail to the story.




The word specific should be taped to the top of your computer.  Specific details make a story more image-provoking and individual.

In the last paragraph, Dewberry thinks he sees a gorilla in his closet.  There's not a real gorilla in his closet, but rather something in his imagination.  So I want to push his imagination further.  The gorilla was changed to a gorilla-fump, and later in the story, the alligator became a rattle-gator, and the elephant became a jelly-phant. 

Some changes for specificity can involve more than changing a word or a line.  In the second paragraph, Mother Bear wants Dewberry to clean his room and go to bed.  This whole theme changed when I decided to submit the story to Abingdon Press, a Christian market.  I rewrote, introducing the concept of a young character learning to pray, to more specifically meet the needs of that market.  This change gave me an opportunity to insert a few lines of rhyme and to build on humor.  Dewberry is supposed to learn, "God in heaven, hear my prayer.  Help protect this little bear." Instead, his prayers take a different twist, "God in heaven, always here.  Don't let gorilla-fump bite my ear."

In the fourth paragraph, there's an opportunity to add something fresh in more specifically describing the evening shadows.  What is it about the shadow that makes Dewberry think of a gorilla and feel afraid?  I have mental images of the scenes in my story.  I want to transfer those images into the head of an editor, or an illustrator, and I have to do it with words.  A more specific description of the evening shadows changed that line to read:

 In Dewberry's room, the evening shadows stretched like long, dark monkey fingers. 




It's fun and challenging to play with language and words.  Words are amazing things.  As a writer, I have millions to choose from.  And while individual words may have exact meanings, the sequence in which I choose to arrange them is infinitely versatile.  With the right choice of words and their arrangement on the page, my goal is to transfer the images in my mind to the minds of my readers. If there's not a word yet created to satisfy me, I might make one up.  In the story One Little Mouse (Viking 2002), when Mouse is invited to stay with the moles, I decided to use the word 'wormish' – But their diet was wormish, and that made Mouse squirmish. It was a bit of a stretch, but it worked.

In writing a story about prayer, things could easily get heavy-handed and didactic. So even if the message in the story is a serious one, the words that tell the story can be enjoyable and kid-friendly. Ideally, the story you create will have a child asking for the book to be read over and over again.  If the child doesn't get pleasure in hearing the story, and won't ask for repeated readings, the message in that story will most likely be lost to him.  A writer needs to keep her primary audience in mind as she writes.

While it's fun to be creative, as writers, we have to be careful not to lose the clarity of the story.  We can't be so creative and so imaginative that our meaning becomes unclear—that the reader can't figure out what we're talking about with all those flowery words.  If the story isn't clear to the audience, there's no point in submitting it.  An editor won't buy it.




As I continue to enhance the story, the word count keeps climbing.  One of the last steps I do is tightly pack the story into shape by getting rid of cluttering words and lines.  I'm guilty of using a lot of adverbs and unnecessary stage directions in first drafts.  In the third paragraph of Dewberry, I cut the words, "with a very loud sigh" and "dragged his feet to his room."  These are stage directions.  They aren't absolutely necessary to tell the story. 

In the first paragraph, I also deleted "near a cottage-like cave."  I really liked that description, but needed to crunch the story down to a more compact form, and this was something I could leave up to the illustrator to handle as she envisioned it.

The new, revised opening reads:  


On the side of the mountain, Dewberry Bear dropped stone marbles into a rain water puddle.  Pleek!  Pluck!  Plock-plock-PLOCK!

 "Dewberry," Mother Bear called.  "It's time to get ready for bed.  Wash your face, put on your pajamas and say your prayers.  Night will soon be here."

 "Yes, Momma," Dewberry said.  He dropped one last stone, plock !

In Dewberry's room, the evening shadows stretched like long, dark monkey fingers.  Dewberry ran back to his mother.

 "I don’t want to get ready for bed," he said. "There’s a big and hungry gorilla-fump hiding in my closet!"




By the time I reach this point in the revision process, I've read the story so many times that I've lost the ability to read it with a fresh mind.  The words are so familiar that they've lost their meanings.  Ideally, I should set it aside for two weeks, but in my eagerness to finish, I'll come back to it sooner.  I've found if I bring up the story on my computer screen and change the font and size throughout the text, I can fool my brain into thinking I'm reading something new.  I generally work in the Courier font, with a 12-point size.  I might change it to a 14-point Comic Sans.  Or I might set the whole thing in bold type. I've also experimented with printing the story out on colored paper.  It's all in an effort to trick my mind into thinking I'm reading something I haven't already read to death.  

As the story is worked into shape, I read it out loud to myself often. Words take on another dimension when spoken than when they are viewed on a printed page. I also have someone read the story to me.  My ears pick up flaws that my eyes missed.   I read the story out loud to a child.  If I find myself changing words to help the child better understand the story, I go back and change those words in the manuscript.




Writing for children is a very competitive business, and the more advantages I have working for me, the more frequently I find success.  By being involved in good critique groups, I have a way to give my story its final test—the reaction of my peers.  They'll read the story and tell me what's right with it and what's wrong with it.  Some of the points made will ring an instant note of truth and I'll make those changes without hesitation.  There will be other comments I will not agree with, or have doubts about, and so I keep those parts of the story the way they were written.  And in this process I learn to become a better judge of my own work.  I learn to weigh the value of individual critique suggestions, but in the end I must claim ownership of my work.  I must make the final decisions on what will be changed and what will remain unchanged.




I've revised yet again after all the critiques are in.  Now my story is at its best and is ready to be sent to an editor, and so I pack it up and ship it out. I can take a break, or better yet, start the process all over again with another story.  I make each story the best it can be, then keep it circulating.  I continue to study the market so I have even more knowledge working for me.  Different publishers have different needs.  Different editors have different preferences.  I need to find the right editor for each story I write. 

There are no secrets to writing a saleable book.  You find a method of writing that works for you, and you continue to study the craft.  With each bit of knowledge you gain, you come closer to holding your own published book in your hands. 


© Dori Chaconas 2007 - Not to be used without written permission.