How I Write: Three Approaches to Writing Picture Book Rough Drafts

a few of my childhood writing notebooks

Hello writers! My last post was about how I come up with ideas for picture books. Today I’ll go into the next step in the process—getting a rough draft on the page.

One caveat to begin with—there’s a reason I’m calling these posts “How I Write.” Because they are about exactly that: how I, and I alone, write. My process for writing rough drafts (or any other step along the way) is just my process. Other authors will use different approaches. And you can write in any way you want. So, when I share my methods, please know I don’t see them as gospel truth—just what works for me.

Approach #1: Just Get Something Really Bad Down on Paper

Picture books are short. Though picture books published in times gone by can run into 1,000+ words (and you might Very Occasionally see a currently published picture book at that length), picture books in today’s market tend to be 500 words or less. And quite frequently under 300 words. This doesn’t mean that picture books are easy to write. (Them’s fightin’ words in the picture book author crowd.) What it does mean, though, is that I can really wing it on a first draft. Because it doesn’t take that long for me to write 500 words or less of an unpolished, unfocused, not-so-great, probably-quite-terrible picture book manuscript. It can be a one-sitting writing experience.

When I write longer works, I have to do a lot of planning beforehand, to at least try to shorten the amount of time revision will take (doesn’t always work, though, sadly—oh woe is me). But, with picture books, I can just go full speed ahead on the first draft, knowing that even if I don’t come up with anything great, hopefully there will be a seed of something special in there, a starting point that I can nurture into something bigger and better through revision.

Approach #2: Use Rough Drafts to Find the Narrative Voice

One thing that is really cool and pretty unique about picture books is that they are usually—not just occasionally, like with novels—but usually, read out loud. To me, this is a huge sign that they should be crafted in a way that shines in the read-a-loud experience.

This is why my primary concern when writing a picture book rough draft is finding the narrative voice of the story. How will this story sound when read aloud, and how will it draw the listener in with that voice? (If it were a song, what kind of song would it be?) Will it be lyrical, sweet, funny, rollicking, folksy, sleepy, swashbuckling, heartwarming, or even a little melancholy? Or a mixture of a few possibilities? Often the only thing I find in a rough draft to carry into further drafts is the voice. Or I might just find out that the voice I used is the wrong one, and so I need to keep exploring.

Approach #3: Have a Picture Book Marathon Day

I did this once and it was really fun and productive. (It can be tricky to arrange, however, which is why I’ve only done it once!) Here’s how it worked. I planned the day in advance, making sure I had the entire day blocked off for writing and all my other responsibilities taken care of, right down to scheduling pizza delivery for dinner. Then I convinced my sister to be my writing cheerleader for the day. I compiled a list of picture book ideas I felt had potential (many of which I’d been putting off writing for far too long), and got to work. The idea was to write as many rough drafts as possible in one day. I texted my writing cheerleader after finishing each draft and she sent words of over-the-top enthusiasm and encouragement my way.

In eleven hours of writing, I wrote eight picture book manuscripts! Very, very, very rough drafts (emphasis on very). Out of the eight, I’ve since revised four into polished, ready-to-send-to-editors manuscripts. It was fun and rewarding getting out of my comfort zone, feeling so super supported by my writing cheerleader, getting so much done in one day, and just having a change of pace in my writing life.

And Now, Two Rough Draft Examples From my Books:

Reading these on their own won’t be particularly helpful. But, if you own copies of FINDING WILD and/or FORT-BUILDING TIME, or are able to check them out from the library, you might be able to learn something from seeing how much my work can change from rough draft to final draft.

#1: Finding Wild Rough Draft

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You can see that I was getting some of the voice and concept on the page, but everything else is a bit all over the place. I mention the five senses (telling), but don’t draw them out with descriptive writing (showing). And, even though the final draft doesn’t have a huge narrative arc, I did develop that to a greater degree than is on the page here. Overall, I would say my main task when revising this rough draft was to draw out and develop the theme of “finding wild” in a more sensory and lyrical way.

#2: Fort-Building Time Rough Draft

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In my previous post on generating picture book ideas, I talked about how I came up with idea to combine the concept of building forts with the structure of the four seasons for FORT-BUILDING TIME. This is actually something I thought of after writing the first draft. As you can see, my first draft is just about doing a bunch of random fun things! I also used “today” “yesterday” and “the day before that” to introduce the activities, all of which gets a bit confusing and almost time travel-ish. Overall, I would say what this rough draft needed the most in revision was to keep the fun, playful feeling, while refining it into something more focused and with a (gentle) narrative arc.

The end of this post has overlapped a little into the topic of my next one, which will be, of course—revision. See you then!