Picture Book Writing—Make Every Word Sing

In books like Man on the Moon, Baby Born, and the critically acclaimed Window Music, author Anastasia Suen creates books that engage, entertain and educate children with words that sing. She offers advice on creating picture books as well as revision, writing groups, and “hearing voices.”

What are the most challenging aspects of writing picture books?

A picture book has to work on so many levels at the same time. Kids want the same books read to them over and over again. Can your story stand up to that, or will it be read once, and forgotten? That”s why I write short books, making them parent- and child-friendly!

I constantly rewrite. I have drawers and drawers of books that aren”t ready yet. Writing for me is not a linear process. I don”t get an idea, write a book, mail it out and sell it. In-between all of that, a lot of other things are happening. Books are going in and out of the filing cabinet. Ideas are running around in my head. It takes time to write a book with layers, a book that works on more than one level. I have to let go, and let my subconscious do the writing. That is why I can “write” a book in a day, but it has actually taken me twenty years! Draft after draft with the kernel of the idea has gone in and out of the filing cabinet during that time. Some books I have published have five or six books inside them.

With short books, how do you keep your writing to the essential elements?

I love short books. I don”t want to get caught up in the words, in long explanations, and have everyone start wiggling on me. I think of poetry as spoken music. If the beat is off, the verses aren”t even, the picture isn”t clear, or the story doesn”t build, I rewrite. I cut until I reach the very essence of the story, of the experience, until the words sing!

Do you participate in a writing group?

I am currently in several writing groups on the Web. My e-mail groups are not critique groups, however. We talk about writing. I have found when I”m in a critique group, I try to please everyone. It interfered with my process. I need to be free to throw everything in a story away, and start over. Groups that talk about writing work better for me than groups that talk about specific manuscripts.

Do you prefer not to talk about specific manuscripts with other writers?

I had to stop listening to other people”s voices. I can”t be a people pleaser and write at the same time. I try to please, and I lose my vision for the book in the process. I can”t listen to any voices until the book is ready. After the book is ready, I send it out into the world, and it comes back again and again, because it hasn”t found the right editor yet. More voices. After it finds the right editor and finally becomes a book, it meets the critics. More voices, and influential ones, too. If they don”t like the book, wow! The bad news goes everywhere! There are also face-to-face encounters with the public. Not everyone will like your work, that”s a fact, but some people feel the need to tell you all about it. Your private thoughts, ideas and dreams are there for all the world to see, and criticize. Ouch!

What advice do you have for children”s writers starting out?

Read, read, read every children”s book you can. Absorb the form, and write the kind of book you love best. Don”t worry about the marketplace. Do one thing at a time. When you are writing, write. When you are editing, edit. When you are mailing, see what the competition is, and act wisely. Don”t mail your book to 80 publishers at once. Send it to someone who will respect your work, and you.


Want to write children’s books that kids, parents and agents will love? Consider:
The Encyclopedia of Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books:
From Creating Characters to Developing Stories, a Step-By-Step Guied to Making Magical

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