The Picture Book Storyshaper: Expert Advice From An Experienced Editor

How do you know when your picture book manuscript is at the right stage to send out to agents and editors? Natascha Biebow spells it out.

You’ve revised your story text to within an inch of its life ... Your opening will grab the reader, your characters are strong, their motivation is solid, the plot is a page-turner, and the ending comes full circle, resolving the conflict in a satisfying way.

Now you’re wondering: is it ready to send out to agents and editors?

STOP! Have you made a dummy book?

Stop Dog by Kai
A dummy book is a 32-page mock-up of your picture book.

WHY should you do this?

Reading a picture book is a physical experience. As you turn the pages, the action unfolds in words and pictures. Be sure to check it’s the best it could possibly be BEFORE you submit. Here’s how:


Take eight sheets of blank paper.

Cut them in half, either vertically or horizontally, depending on whether you want to make a landscape or portrait book.

Staple the pieces along one edge.

To save paper, you can also use four sheets, folded in half and cut.

Number the pages sequentially from 1 to 32. 
Example of a dummy book
Paste in your text (and images if you have them). Remember to allow for the prelims — copyright page, title page and endsheets (if relevant). Review other picture books to get ideas of how these might be paginated, as it varies depending on the publisher and format. As a convention, in a hardback, if the book has endsheets, the story usually starts on page 6 and ends on page 29, with 12 spreads for your story (pages 1 and 32 are stuck down to the boards). In a paperback, page 1 might become a half title page and/or you might have more space for your story (e.g. 14 spreads instead of the conventional 12). More information on pagination here.

Handy stickies for moving stuff around.
TIP: use Stickies or ‘magic’ tape so that you can move things around easily and experiment with changes.


• Does your story fit comfortably into 32 pages?

• 5% rule: check that by the time the reader has read the first three pages, they know what the story is about and what the problem is, and they have an incentive to keep turning the pages.

• check your pacing — are your page turns in the right place? Do they keep the reader wanting to turn the page to find out what will happen next? Do they advance the action?

• 75% rule: check that by the time the reader has read 75% of the book, they will arrive at the climactic turning point. Check there IS a climactic turning point!

REMEMBER: You can make the page turns surprising and fun!

• Be sure all loose ends are tied up. If something isn’t in the book to advance the plot, you should probably cut it.
Don't be afraid to cut your manuscript!
• Cut your text — many picture book editors are requesting picture book texts that are 500 words or less. Can you trim anything? Every word must be there for a reason! Is there too much text in one place? Can you find more concise ways to express the story? Do you need all that text, or will the pictures do some of the ‘talking’? Can some wordy bits be deleted? BUT be sure that when the book is read aloud, the story stands on its own, while leaving room for the pictures.

Are there enough different and varied scenes and images? Or are parts of the story too similar and bunched up together? Should you move the page turns or cut something?

 If you’re illustrating, ask: Are the images too samey? Do you need to vary vignettes and full-bleed scenes? Zoom in or zoom out? Vary your perspectives? Flip the book around?



TIP: If you’re an illustrator, if you use a 'design device’ in one place — e.g. a panel or a particular vignette style — make sure it’s used at least one other time in your layout.
From KRONG! By Gary Parsons
• Check that your ending resolves the problem and doesn’t leave the reader hanging or feeling unsatisfied.




If it sits in your bottom drawer, you will never know if it might land on the right editor or agent’s desk at the right time. Good luck!


Natascha Biebow Picture Book Storyshaper
Natascha Biebow is an experienced editor, mentor and coach, who loves working with authors and illustrators at all levels to help them to shape their storieswww.blueelephantstoryshaping.com
Check out the Cook Up a Picture Book Coaching Courses.
Natascha is also the author of The Crayon Man (coming in 2019!)

 Blue Elephant Storyshaing

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