I find it really challenging to write a picture book without imagining its audience. In whose hands will the finished book end up? What will make them pick it up? Will they find my story satisfying? To me, writing a story without having an audience in mind is like going on a road trip without a destination—not particularly satisfying for the driver or the passenger unless you both looove highways.
When I initially started writing this column, I thought about all the things I wanted to say and started to write a case study for my latest manuscript that included a bunch of random details and asides. It felt so self-indulgent. Ugh. Thankfully, it eventually occurred to me that no one would have any interest in reading about my process except for, well, me. Dear reader, I know in my heart that you just care about your stories! And fair enough!
So, I decided that it might be most useful for me to share the list of questions I ask myself as well as the considerations I make when I write picture books. (Heads up: I’ve tried to outline them in some kind of order, but let’s be honest—my writing process is definitely not linear. It’s mostly mass chaos!) Let’s dive in!
1) When I first sit down to write a picture book, I try to think of what I want to say. I can imagine all these characters and plot points, but I like to know that I’m ultimately trying to say Something (Anything?) using all these characters and plot points.
2) Please note: When I say that I’m trying to say Something, I’m not trying to Teach a Lesson. (How many times have you ever read a story and thought, “Oooh! Super appealing characters, but there weren’t enough lessons!”)
3) Ultimately, you want your audience to feel something and your audience wants to feel something. This likely sounds super douchey, but if you aim to say something meaningful about the human condition you’re golden!
4) Next I try to imagine the type of person who will care about what I’m trying to say. Typically, it will be an audience of one. And even though I write for children, that Audience of One is often an adult. I mean, who will end up reading the picture book to children? A parent, teacher or librarian, really. Gatekeepers! And this isn’t to say that I don’t care what kids think of my stories—I care about them the most! I don’t start worrying about them until a bit later in the process. Also, all adults were children once, right? Right?
5) When I think of this Audience of One I try to get really specific. Usually, I choose someone I know well like a friend or a family member. This person could even be the person I dedicate the story to if it gets published. What types of stories do they love? Do I know what types of movies and television shows they watch? Who are their favorite characters? What type of story could they really use right now to entertain, reassure, or simply delight them?
6) Then I try to think of a more general audience: My Big Picture audience. How can I soften the specificity of my Audience of One just a little bit to ensure that my book appeals to, well, more than one person? This is typically where I start thinking about the type of children who might find my story appealing.
7) What would kids be looking for in a story that is different than adults? How can I make what I’m trying to say accessible to children? What would make them care about my story? And how can I say it in a way that will be both emotionally relevant and satisfying to them?
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8) Then I try to challenge myself to do something new in my story. Considering both my Audience of One and my Big Picture Audience, what have they seen before? What can I do to make my story unlike anything they’ve ever read before?
9) Finally, how do I want my audience to feel after they’ve read the story? What ideas or emotions do I want them to leave with?
10) And then I mash all these answers together in the hopes that something compelling comes of it!
And that’s all! But not really—there’s a million other questions that you should be asking yourself as you write about character development, atmosphere, narrative and more! That said, given that both our attention spans are likely compromised due to too much screen-time, I think I should end this column here and let you get writing!
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Naseem Hrab is the author of the picture books Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend and Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings, illustrated by Josh Holinaty. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Sometimes Naseem likes to get up on a stage and tell true stories. She loves improv and coffee ice cream.
She worked as a librarian for a time and currently works in children's publishing.