A Picture-Book Writing Retreat and What I Learned There

By Fran Price

When I saw a SCBWI link about a two-day course in a beautiful Georgian house by the sea, focussing on nothing but writing picture books, it didn't take me long to sign up. So, last weekend I headed off to Herne Bay in Kent to talk, think and dream about my favourite craft with a few likeminded folks.

The two-day intensive course was run by author Rebecca Colby and hosted by Frances Brown, whose stylish and eclectically-furnished house provides the perfect backdrop for a seaside getaway. Frances has just started running a programme of courses and writing retreats through Grosvenor House Events. As a keen picture book writer herself, she joined us for most of the course, occasionally disappearing to whisk in the next round of coffee and cake.

Author Rebecca Colby
So what did we learn? We began by looking at the hallmarks of a great picture book: the importance of a catchy title, a fresh and unique concept, a character with emotional resonance. We studied techniques to keep the story flowing and the reader reading, like repetition, alliteration and internal rhymes; and how short and long sentences speed up and slow down the pacing respectively.

The hallmarks of a great picture book: a catchy title, a fresh and unique concept, a character with emotional resonance.

To keep us on our toes, there were exercises using both published texts and our own stories. One such exercise covered Show Don't Tell. We went through stories with a highlighter and saw how easy it is to slip into telling, or to be confused about which is which. There should be a balance of the two. The opening of Boris and Bella, by Carolyn Crimi and Gris Grimlyn, is a good example.

'Bella Legrossi was the messiest monster in Booville... Her piles of lizard gizzards blocked the doorways and her stacks of snake tails overflowed her counters.' The first bit tells us she is messy, the second bit shows us.

After a seafront walk and lunch, we discussed picture book dummies and page layouts. Dummies are good even if you are not an illustrator, to understand the interplay between words and pictures in your story, and for page turns.

Stick to 12 spreads for the UK market when you are unpublished. 'If an editor takes it on, then it may be extended,' said Rebecca. For the US market it is best to aim for 14 spreads plus two single pages at the beginning and end. Word counts should be short: 300-500 words is the 'sweet spot'.

Rebecca had hauled a suitcase full of picture books with her, and used these to illustrate many of the topics. Like being in a picture book library, their presence inspired us to play with ideas, and juxtapose or mish-mash well-known tales or phrases to create a fresh concept. This was how two of Rebecca's books, It's Raining Bats and Frogs and There Was a Wee Lassie Who Swallowed a Midgie, came about.

Next day we returned to Frances's light and airy dining room to delve deeper into our craft. First off, character development and ARF. Is your character Active? Relatable? Flawed? A child will empathise if the character is relatable and, if they have a flaw, they will be more relatable.

Other questions to ask:

What does your character want?

What are the obstacles to getting it?

What do they do to overcome those obstacles?

Crucially, the character has to have learned something in the process. How have they grown?

ARF: Is your character Active? Relatable? Flawed?

We looked at hooking your reader from the start and the importance of the first line. Then, in the middle of the story, the rule of three: the character tries to overcome the obstacle and fails three times (sometimes four) before succeeding. There are always exceptions, but it was useful to look at the classic picture book format.

Before we knew it, it was time to look at the business of submitting. As part of any pitch, you need to include a synopsis: for picture books, just three sentences that encapsulate what your story is about. We could probably do with another weekend just on submitting, but one useful website all about just that is Sub It Club (also on Facebook at Sub It Club).

And then it was time for the long haul home. I left with a stack of useful handouts, notes, lovely memories of Grosvenor House, four new picture book writing friends  - and countless new ideas.

Fran Price writes picture books and middle grade stories. Her middle grade novel was shortlisted by agent Gemma Cooper in the January Slushpile Challenge 2015. Her middle grade story, Nicole and the Paper Witches, inspired by her Mum's paper sculptures, was serialised in Aquila magazine. Fran lives by the woods and can often be found roaming around seeking inspiration for her stories. When she's not writing, Fran sketches, paints and makes pots. 

Twitter: @FranGPrice


  1. Great write up Fran. Lovely to see you again, can't wait for my next trip down to Herne Bay, my house was so noisy when I got back!

    1. Thanks Sarah! Really liked your blog piece about it too. V. jealous you are going again so soon.

  2. This workshop sounds wonderful and I bet that beautiful setting inspired lots of creativity.

  3. Lots of great tips for picture book writing, thank you Fran!

  4. Sounds like an incredibly useful & enjoyable weekend. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Sounds like we all missed out, thank you Fran!

  6. People usually attract to the picture taht are part of books. The sop writing services are for all students who want to write perfect statement must have this.

  7. Great write up Fran. Lovely to see you again, can't wait for my next trip down to Herne Bay


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