Category Archives: Writing Essentials

As the publication date for my first children’s book, The Dandelion’s Tale, grows nearer, I can’t stop thinking of all the things I’m going to have to do to promote the book. I’m a ‘first-timer’ after all, so I really have to kick things into high gear.

I was with my agent last week and she talked about school visits. She’s already working to set some up for me where I get to talk to different grades about different topics. For example, because my book is geared to 7-year olds, I would read the book to the younger grades. For older grades, I’ll talk about what it’s like to write a book or give a glimpse into the life of an author.

I know the kids will all be happy to have me there – any break from day-to-day school stuff is always a welcome distraction. But the whole thing kind of terrifies me. I like to write because it’s a quiet profession. Just me and my keyboard. If I wanted to perform in front of people, I would have taken up acting instead of being a stagehand in high school.

When I went to college, I majored in broadcasting because I wanted to work behind the scenes in radio or television. I never had dreams of being the ‘on air talent’. I was happy to leave that for the folks who were born hams or seekers of the limelight.

All of that is about to change. Somehow, between now and then, I have to learn to become a public speaker (which, by the way, is the #1 phobia in the country). All of the what ifs flood my mind when I think about it. What if I stumble and totally mess up reading my own book? What if the kids hate it? What if I can’t answer a question? What if I bomb? What if, what if, what if?

Past experience has taught me that I have to expel the what ifs. If I don’t, they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Public speaking

So, what do I do? Well, here’s my plan, and it’s based on talking to people who excel at public speaking.

Prepare. I know if walk into a school cold, I have no chance. What does it mean to prepare? First, I have to get comfortable reading my book aloud. That means my family is going to have to sit through little readings constantly between now and then. That also means I have to write down what I plan to say about writing and being an author and speak it, then rewrite it, then speak it again until it becomes second nature.

Make it fun. I don’t want to be the boring teacher from Ferris Bueller, leaving kids drooling on their desks. I have to make it exciting, funny, interactive. For the little ones, I’m making like sparrow and dandelion props so they can help me tell the story. I have to get prizes to hand out to kids who ask and answer my questions. Maybe I’ll even get some music in the mix. The event is mine to create, so it’s time to get creative.

Toastmasters. I’ve been told by more than one person to attend some Toastmasters meetings and get comfortable by speaking in front of people under their tried and true guidance. Hey, it can’t hurt! Sounds like I have a holiday project.

Visualize success. I know it sounds corny, but it works. If I know my stuff and imagine it going well, time after time, it will. Athletes pay a ton of money to sports psychiatrists to understand this concept. There, you now have it and you didn’t need to play sports or shell out a dime.

Ok, that’s how I plan to tackle my school visits. What are some of the tips and tricks that have worked for you? I’m far from an expert and I want to learn just as much as the students I’ll be seeing.

Now, before you call social services on me, this post isn’t as bad as you think.

When I say ‘kids’, I’m referring, in this case, to the children’s books I’ve written. My agent hates it when I call my work my kids because she’s always asking me to delete parts and change them and trash sections that don’t work well. As a man, though, this is the closest I’ll ever come to giving birth.

Why am I stashing my kids…books…in a drawer? Simply, because not everything I write is pure gold, or ready for the world at this time, if ever. Writing for publication is a hit and miss game. My golden idea that sounds perfect in my head may not sound so wonderful to my editor. Or, the idea may be similar to something that was recently published, or is on the docket (that I can’t see) to be published within the next year.

Writing in any genre is about skill, luck and timing. All three have to come into play at the exact same time to lift your book from your laptop to the printed page on a book shelf. And even after you’ve landed your big fish, that doesn’t mean you’re going to pull up a marlin every time you drop your line. (and if you’re fishing for marlin, make sure you have a crew ready to help!)

Over the past 2 years, I’ve written several picture books and 2 middle grade novels. Where are they now? My drawer. Some aren’t just right…yet. Others need some tweaking. One may never see the light of day. So what’s the use of writing these books and sticking them in your drawer? Because that drawer will become your portfolio somwhere down the line. That book that your editor passed on may be just what another is looking for.

So I have a drawer full of kids, waiting to come out and play. Until then, I look in on them from time to time to make sure they’re well fed and happy.

If you want to increase your drawer, I mean portfolio, you may want to look into Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 course, where you work with experts and other authors to write 12 picture books in 12 months. These are 12 first drafts, mind you, but it’s invaluable to have them at the ready.

How many kids do you have in your drawer? How many have gone from the drawer to publication?

My actual kids were not harmed in the making of this blog post. In fact, they were out getting their nails done. 🙂

If you have a toddler, then finding ideas for picture books on a daily basis is very easy to do.  If your children are a little older now, reminiscing might be all it takes to come up with a few good ideas!

I am going to go through a typical day spent with my toddler (Hazel) and the different picture book ideas, each activity can bring to light.

In the mornings, we generally go to a toddler group of some description, where Hazel will play with all sorts of toys.  When thinking of picture book ideas, I think about the toys she picks to play with, what she might be learning and how she interacts with the other children.

From toddler group, this morning, I thought that we could create a jammed packed picture book adventure story, as she rode on a zebra, crashed a car, fell off a tractor, stood on a turtle and hurtled down a waterfall (okay that was a slide)!  I could get photo proof of each of these activities to include in the picture book.

As Hazel has bucket loads of energy, we need to take her for a few walks a day.  She loves running around the fields and in the woods.  It was her love of nature and looking at trees that inspired us to create a picture book series about the sneaky things that squirrels do when people aren’t looking.  There are plenty more animals out there, who could get a similar treatment, not to mention what your pets might do when you are sleeping!


Shopping is a very exciting event for Hazel, she loves walking around shops picking up absolutely everything she can!  She also loves chasing pigeons, so they could get the squirrel treatment mentioned earlier. Another good picture book idea might be to be create a shopping treasure hunt that you need to go to different shops for.

When it comes to bath time, Hazel has all sorts of toys in the bath with her.  Plenty of ducks and squishy water pistol ones.  She has one particular one that is an octopus, but it looks like a pig with eight legs – we call it Pigopus, so we could create a picture book around Pigopus and it’s adventures.

Every night I sing to Hazel and the songs I sing to her are either very modern, or traditional ones.  One that I sing to her to help her fall asleep is “Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird”.  The lyrics to this song are in the public domain (so you can make changes to them, as you wish).

We have come up with a few verses that include Daddy a bit more – it’s a work in progress, but the point is there are plenty more nursery rhymes that are in the public domain, which could do with the same treatment – who can come up with a better line than “The Dish Ran Away With the Spoon”?

A note about pictures:

I know that many people are put off creating picture books because they don’t want to (or cannot) draw pictures, in today’s world there are plenty of ways to get around this.

Most people can take a photo, and for some picture books all that is needed is an image on a white (or other colour) background, with a photo manipulation program (like Photoshop or GIMP), this can easily be achieved.

You can also turn photos into black and white sketches (which you could then color in), or into oil paintings, or create all sorts of other effects.  It will take a little experimenting to get it to look good, but you don’t have to draw.  Failing that, you could go to a site like and get amazing pictures drawn for you for $5, which you can then legally claim as your own.

I hope you liked these ideas that I shared with you today and that they help you brainstorm and come up with some amazing picture books.

This was a guest post by Lord and Lady Doherty – Parents of the Pen-name “Hazel Nutt”.  Hazel Nutt likes blogging her toddler opinions and advice on how to train your parents ( and in her spare time chats to squirrels and writes funny picture books about them (!

OK, this one is for the picture book writers out there who draw like their hands have 5 thumbs. Yes, I include myself in this category. I’m envious of those writers who are the double threat and can do both. One, you get to make your book look exactly the way it does in your head. Two, and maybe more importantly, you don’t have to split the advance or royalties.

For the rest of us mere mortals, we have a little more heavy lifting to do when crafting our stories than those multi-talented writer/illustrators. What do I mean by that? Isn’t it the job of the writer to…well, write?

Yes. And then some. You see, when you set out to write a picture book, you have to realize that if it gets accepted (and mega kudos to you if it does – celebrate!) it’s going to be sent to an illustrator you’ve most likely never met or maybe never even heard of. Publishers have their stable of artists, both tried and true and up and coming. It’s then their job to interpret your words and translate them into images. You don’t get to meet with them and tell them what you’d like to see, just like they don’t sit over your shoulder while you write, suggesting you undangle that participle. You have to trust in their own creative process.

Knowing that, it’s vital that every page clearly conveys strong visuals, complete with motion and emotion. Every word you commit to paper in a picture book is more valuable than gold…or a a tank of gas these days. When you write, you have to use those words to paint the picture long before your illustrator puts his or her brush to canvas.

One way to make this easier to envision is to print your book with all of the page breaks. A typical picture book will need about 25-30 pages. Read those pages aloud, stopping to consider the words before moving to the next page. Did you give your illustrator enough to work with? Is there movement? How does it flow from the page before and to the next?

Remember, you need to do this with the bare minimum of words. You can’t add every detail, just the major ones. Author Darcy Pattison has a fantastic series of tips that can help you. Putting the Picture in Picture Books is a great place to start.

While you write, picture a tiny artist sitting on your shoulder. From time to time, look over and see if he’s smiling or confused. Just don’t talk to him. People will think you’re crazy.

I have to admit, when I first started writing, I would look at picture books and say to myself, “Man, that’s the life. Just put together a story that will only take a few hundred words, tops, and I could write and publish a dozen books a year!” Compared to writing a novel, it seemed an easy access to publication.

Boy, was I wrong.  While I was busy cranking out novels for grown ups, I one day decided to write a little story for my girls who were five and three at the time. It was a fun little piece to keep them entertained and mean a little something heavier for me. I called it The Dandelion’s Tale. When my wife first read it, she cried. When I read it to my kids, they showed nominal interest, mostly because it didn’t have any pictures.

Year later, my agent asked to see whatever I had hidden in my manuscript drawer. I sent her my lone attempt at a children’s story and figured she’d send it back and thank me for the effort.

Then a funny thing happened. She loved it. Within a month of shopping it around, we had Disney and Random House showing extreme interest. A couple of weeks after that, I was signing a contract with Schwartz & Wade, a division of Random House.

The hard part was over. I’d make a few edits with my editor and get cracking on the next. I was in the clear, right?

Here’s how wrong I was and what I learned.

  • My editor is one of the best in the business. Over the course of the next year, we whittled out a couple of hundred words and went through maybe a couple of dozen revisions. I’ve written full length novels that were revised far, far less. Perfecting a picture book is the hardest work you’ll ever do.
  • Every word counts! because you have to say so much in a very small space, everything you put on the page has to have meaning and move the story forward.
  • Your prose has to convey motion. When you write, you have to picture the illustrations in your head, even if you can’t draw a stick figure. It’s your story. If you can’t picture how your words will translate into images, how can your illustator?
  • You have to know the age group you’re writing to and make sure the message is spot on and conveyed in a way they can easily understand. Oh, and you have to entertain them so they’ll want to read it (or have it read to them) again and again.
  • The path from acceptance to publication can be loooong. We’re talking glacial. There’s a lot more that goes into the production of a picture book than any other type of publication. Patience is your friend.

After all is said and done, though it requires Herculean heavy lifting, it is also the most rewarding writing you may ever do.

And now that I’ve cleared up any misconceptions you may have, go forth and write! And come back here to tell me how the process has been for you. Do you think it’s the hardest writing endeavor you can take? Just think of those little faces smiling when they see your book.

A friend of mine who is a talented, aspiring picture book writer, recently turned me on to an audio podcast that I have found to be chock full of so much information, it should be mandatory for all kid-lit writers. It’s called Brain Burps About Books and is as much fun to listen to as it is informative.

Host and author Katie Davis dedicates each episode to different aspects of writing and promoting your work, from building believable characters to how to market your work, blog tours, making the web work for you and so much more.

Each episode has interviews with authors, marketing tips, readings, helpful hints, listener Q&A and anything else you could possibly need, all delivered with Katie’s down-home, easy going style.

There are over 90 episodes available and more every week. I strongly urge anyone who is serious about writing for children to make Brain Burps part of your weekly routine. You won’t be disappointed.

The number one question all writers get asked is, “Where did you get the inspiration to…” or “What made you think of…”

It’s a tough question to answer because many times, we’re not sure ourselves. It could be a dream, a memory, a desire, a mispronounced word, a story in a paper, and on and on and on. When you think of it, the world around us when we’re awake and the internal world we visit in our dreams are all endless fountains of inspiration.

When writing for children, it’s especially fun to get into their mindset, or recall your own when you were young. Children haven’t developed cynicism or mistrust or learned that life isn’t always what you pictured it to be. Everything they see is a wonder bordering on the magical.

As an adult with a family and a job and typical big-person worries, it’s not always easy to tap into the innocent awe of a child. When my agent asked me to write a new book in the voice of my to-be-released The Dandelion’s Tale, I have to admit that I struggled for a bit. Like quicksand, the more I fought to find my muse, the deeper I sank, until I was good and stuck.

There were about 100 ducks at my back when I took this picture.

A week ago, I went out for a long walk. I started taking pictures of nature in slumber around me.

Midway through my walk, a story began to unfold. A half hour later, I was almost sprinting to my car so I could get the words out of my head and onto the page. In the course of a one hour walk, the story I had been struggling to find found me instead. I was literally shaking with excitement.

So, on that day, a stream, a pond, some ducks and leaf-less trees were my inspiration. I can’t say what it will be for the next story, but I can’t wait to find it.

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