Tips for Writing Picture Books: Some Ideas Just Don’t Work

Picture book ideas show up everywhere. Some of them are great! And …

Some Ideas Just Don’t Work

Yes, it’s true, I have a couple picture books scheduled to be published over the next couple of years. But I’ve written my share of terrible manuscripts along the way. Some of those ideas were doomed from the start – I just didn’t know it at the time.

A few years ago, I thought I would jump into the vampire fad (I know they’re particularly popular in picture books), so I wrote a story about a vampire boy who wants to be scary but all the little kids just love vampires now. I think it’s sort of like the end of that Adam Sandler movie Hotel Transylvania – when they’re running through the streets but everyone loves the monsters and isn’t scared of them. Oops, is that one of those places I should have said ‘spoiler alert?’ Anyway, my plot didn’t really translate to a young children’s audience, and I didn’t learn that until I worked on it for a while and brought it to a critique group where nobody ‘got’ it.

[Side note: I unintentionally chose gender-neutral names and when the vampire finally fell in love at the end, some thought he fell in love with a woman and some thought he fell in love with a dude (I’m not gonna say which was correct – I’ll leave that up to the illustrator)]

But it’s okay that this idea didn’t work! Lots of picture book ideas don’t work. That’s why the ultra-talented Tara Lazar came up with Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) – where all participants come up with one idea per day during the 30 days of November. Because it might take 30 ideas to come up with the one that really hits.

Uber-Author Kate Messner recently wrote a blog post discussing how she comes up with picture book ideas. It’s a great post and I suggest reading it, as I do for pretty much all her writing (except maybe her Twilight fan fiction). Madame Messner says “Hey! That could be a picture book!” nearly once a day about something, but over the course of a year probably delivers only a handful of manuscripts to her agent. Her experience probably stops her from working on a bad idea for too long before she wastes much time on it. Even the greatest writers have ideas that just don’t work.

Then sometimes, an idea will work.

One  autumn morning when my children were deciding what to eat for breakfast, they began arguing. “Pancakes!” “No, French Toast!” “No, Pancakes!” “No, French Toast!” Two hours later I had an awful first draft and my children were still hungry. Two autumns later I had an offer on that manuscript. And two autumns after that, LADY PANCAKE AND SIR FRENCH TOAST is scheduled to be published by Sterling Children’s. (Remind me never to complain about bickering children again)

Pancakes and French Toast
No, I did not cook these myself.

So don’t give up when an idea doesn’t fully materialize into the potential you once thought it had. Just grab your notebook and find another one. Draft it, revise it, and bring it to your critique group. Which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned: It’s so important to …

Keep Learning

Until then…


See all of Josh Funk’s 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books

Lesson #1: So, You Wrote a Book. Now What?
Lesson #2: Picture Books Are Short
Lesson #3: Every Word Counts
Lesson #4: The Illustrator Is Your Partner
Lesson #5: Show Don’t Tell
Lesson #6: Write with Active Emotion
Lesson #7: Story Arc Components
Lesson #8: Don’t Write In Rhyme
Lesson #9: Rhyming Is All About Rhythm
Lesson #10: Some Ideas Don’t Work
Lesson #11: Keep Learning
Lesson #12: Now You’re Ready! Dive In!

8 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Picture Books: Some Ideas Just Don’t Work

  1. This is so true! I can’t tell you how many ideas I have and think this is going to be the next great picture book! Then I write it and I say to myself after I read it. “What were you thinking?!” Like you said, the trick is figuring it out quickly so you don’t waste too much time on it.


  2. Very helpful josh! Sometimes you never know when inspiration will strike or when an inkling of an idea will materialize. Also, children are walking inspiration!


  3. Thank You, I was starting to think it is/was time to stop kidding myself about writing. I guess I need to keep trying, I know there are stories inside me bursting to get out.

    Thanks again Pam Phillips


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