Monday, July 13, 2020

Page Breaks, Art Notes, and Pictures to Order: How NOT to Format a Picture Book Manuscript

I've been asked many times how to format a children's picture book manuscript for submission, so I thought I'd create a blog post with my advice, such as it is. I'm speaking here to writers, not to illustrators, nor to writer-illustrators, who are proposing a book they plan to both write and illustrate. Expectations are very different in those cases. 

For those of us who only write the books, questions surrounding formatting bleed easily into territory where beginning writers often make mistakes that will damage their submission's prospects, and which reveal a fundamental lack of awareness of how picture books are made. Editors and agents will spot such inexperience from a mile away, and for most, it's a red flag that this writer hasn't taken time to learn the market they hope to enter. So let's not go there. 

The short answer to how to format a picture book manuscript is that it's extremely simple. You format it just like you would a novel, or even like a high school essay: 1 inch margins, double-spaced lines, 12-point type, simple and readable typeface (I use Times Roman). Just plop in the text. The first page, you begin about 1/3 of the way down, with a heading something like this:


Picture Book Manuscript

475 words

by Amazing Author
Represented by (Agent Name if there is one, OR if not, your contact info -- email, mailing address, and phone)

Once upon a time, a swamp monster ruled the world... (And you’re off and running.)

This means that the total length of your manuscript may only come out to be two or three pages. 

The formatting is, in other words, straightforward. I think the question arises in writers' minds because of information they've read about how to format picture books in dummies. Dummies are tremendous tools for your creative process, but they should not show up in your submission. There you see a lot of information about page breaks and portioning the text out across pages and spreads. This can create the impression that manuscripts need to be submitted this way, with page breaks already delineated. They should NOT be submitted that way; in fact, editors would probably be annoyed if they were. It’s their prerogative to decide upon those breaks. However, it’s VERY important that before you submit anything, you go through the process yourself of creating a dummy (just fold and staple some pieces of paper) and mapping out your text to see how it falls within the container of a picture book. It’s super important to make sure that you have enough story (but not too much) to fill the correct number of pages and spreads. Pay particular attention to page turns, as they are the actual dramatic payoff of the picture book experience. Page turns create opportunities for big reveals – for joke punchlines, or scary twists, or informational surprises, or emotional tugs at the heart. Above all else, they should advance things. The reader should reach each page turn eager to find out what comes next.

After you’ve decided upon how you think you would break it up, ask yourself, on each spread, does this text support the creation of exciting/interesting/fun artwork? Will it be artwork that is new and different from the art that came before and that which will come afterwards, or is my story essentially repetitive, with not much changing in terms of scene, location, action, expression, focus, or character count?  These questions are almost guaranteed to reveal opportunities for improving and tightening the text, and amping up the story elements. This is true even for a picture book text that is essentially informational (rather than a conventional story where a character embarks on some task or pursuit, faces troubles, and achieves a resolution). 

While you're at it, check to see if your text usurps the illustrator's prerogative. If you've dictated what color the character's hair is, ask yourself, why have I done so? Unless that hair color is absolutely vital to the story you're telling, I would take it out. The illustrator and art director get to make those choices. Not you. Many first-time picture book illustrators, alas, assume that the art is theirs to command -- after all, it's their story, right? They have a certain vision of the visuals in their mind's eye, and any serious departure from that vision is a violation of their artistic autonomy, n'est-ce pas?


It's wonderful if you can see the visuals in your mind's eye, because they can help you write a better story. But if you dictate them as instructions to the artist, whether in the text or in art notes, keep your descriptions of appearances, clothing, decorations, and places to an absolute minimum. A skilled illustrator will see the broad canvas of possibilities you're hinting at, and -- here's the best part -- will see beyond it, and add more richness to it than you could. That's their job. We're in the words business; they're in the visual business. For each of my picture books, I had a loose visual idea of how the art might go, which was shattered to bits by the expansive reality of what the illustrator actually supplied. It's so, so, so much better. That's the fun of watching a skilled artist take your words and add something to them. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 

So, like it or not, you have to step back. (And a lot of beginning writers really, really don't like it.) Your story submission needs to give the artist room to breathe, and room to add their own layers of tenderness or humor or mystery or intrigue or atmosphere, to the story, and they will. The submission that treats them like hired contractors who must do their employer's bidding won't make it far in the acquisition process at any reputable publisher, nor will it excite the interest of a talented artist. 

So far you're still looking at your picture book manuscripts through the lens of possible page breaks and page turns. Once you’re satisfied that you’ve arrived at a manuscript that’s poised to make the best use of the picture book framework and container, with the right amount of length, the crisis/conflict/resolution all happening where they’re supposed to (there are a zillion blog posts on this to refer to), then you go ahead and reformat the story text into a simple Word document, double-spaced, etc., a la the school essay, and send that in. Take out anything even faintly resembling a formatting note (ie "Spread 1," "Page 5," "Left side," etc.).  If you’ve done your work right, the page turns will be evident, and the editor will appreciate that you’ve already done the work of making your text picture-book-worthy. 

One more thing: don’t include art notes or instructions on what or how the illustration will be. It screams “amateur,” sadly. It’s the editor, art director, and illustrator’s prerogative to make those decisions. As above, relinquishing the desire to control that is sometimes hard for first-time picture book writers. There are a few small exceptions to this rule. For example, if your story contains a riddle or mystery, which will be solved by something being revealed as a picture only, you’d need to spell it out, but using as few words as possible. So, if the big surprise is that the missing cat is hiding in the tree, it might look like this:

“Where can that kitty be?”

“I don’t know! I’ve looked everywhere!”

[Cat on tree branch.]

Or if the story is a question, ie, who’s been making those funny footprints, the text might look something like:

Is it a dinosaur?


Is it a woolly mammoth?


What can it be?

[A bear]

Whatever you do, strenuously resist the temptation to include art notes like, [A bear, with his paw in a honey jar, and a guilty look on his face, while Gramma and kids look astonished, and Gramma has bangly earrings]. 

Basic takeaway, pretty much 99% rule of thumb, is just don’t include art notes at all.

So, in brief: Keep formatting simple. Don't dictate page or spread breaks in any way. Don't describe visuals in a way that treads upon the illustrator's freedom and territory. Don't dictate art notes unless you absolutely must. 

Sheesh, what's left? 

A story that makes you laugh, or cry, or sparkle with curiosity. That's your job, and your only job, but cheer up. It's not a bad gig. ;) Best of luck! 

My picture books: 

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