Exploring Sparkle: An Interview with Peggy Tibbetts
by Moira Allen

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Peggy Tibbetts is a professional writer, editor, and full member of the Society for Children's Book Writers & Illustrators. She offers courses in children's writing and has edited several successful children's manuscripts. She is the author of the children's novel The Road to Weird, as well as the adult novel Rumors of War. Visit her online at http://www.peggytibbetts.net/.

Q: How would you describe the market for children's books? Is it a hot market? Growing? Or very tight for writers?

A: Rather than hot or steadily growing, I would describe the picture book market as constant. Mass marketing of soft cover, paperback, and board books in stores like Walmart and Target has created a consistent demand. Children's publishers are always on the lookout for good picture book manuscripts. But the market is also very competitive; some editors receive thousands of submissions per year. As a result, they've tightened up their submission policies; fewer publishers will look at unagented submissions.

Q: How tough is it to break into this market? Is there a lot of competition?

A: Competition is definitely a major issue for children's writers. The Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) has over 17,000 members worldwide. But there are probably only about 50 publishers who do picture books. Those aren't the most encouraging odds.

Also, established children's authors often work with a specific editor at a publishing house. If that editor is looking for a mass market picture book about Halloween, she'll turn to her "stable" of authors first, who are always more than happy to oblige, since a children's author's income is neither steady or lucrative. I'm afraid it's really the old catch-22: you have to get a book published to get a book published.

Q: Beyond good writing skills, what types of skills does one need to write picture books effectively?

A: A strong visual sense is certainly a necessary trait of every good picture book writer. Good PB writers are also very much in touch with their inner child. Naturally inquisitive, they ask a lot of questions, especially "what if?" Among the authors I've known, the PB writers tend to be more outgoing, extroverted, than say, novel writers, who tend to be more reclusive.

Q: How well do you need to understand children to write picture books?

A: During the writing process it's more important to be in touch with and understand your inner child. Kids are individuals just like adults. I always advise children's writers -- whether they write picture books, middle grade novels, YA or nonfiction -- to go to the library, bookstore, or school and volunteer for story time. You'll notice that every child is unique. By reading aloud to kids you discover their shared interests, common concerns, and what makes them laugh out loud. Then the adult in you finds a way to take all those things you observe and put them in your book.

Q: Is writing for children easier than writing for adults?

A: Because it can't be repeated enough, let's get this straight -- writing for children is not easier! Unfortunately I do believe some writers still think children's books are easier to write. Okay, they're definitely shorter. But that doesn't translate to easy. I compare it to writing poetry. In fact poets often make good children's writers. (Although I won't get into stories that rhyme vs. stories in verse; I cover that in greater detail in my workshop.) Good poetry packs emotion and story into as few words as possible, which is the same for picture books. In picture books, as in poetry, when it comes to words, less is more.

Q: Since illustrations are often provided after a story is written, how does one go about writing a picture book when one can't actually "see" the pictures?

A: If you can't see the pictures (in your mind) then don't write the book! It's that simple. I believe a writer has to see the story before she can write it. That's why the picture book dummy is so important. For picture book writers the rough draft begins with sketches. In my workshop, I not only teach students how to make a picture dummy, but also how to incorporate it into the writing of the story. The dummy is not meant for submission to editors, but as a way to bring the story to life for the writer. It is the writer's job to write a good story. The illustrator will bring the story to life for readers.

Q: What are some good reasons to write picture books? What are some bad ones?

A: The illustrations are one great reason to write picture books. I've had several stories published in children's magazines, and no matter how I visualize the story in my mind, the illustrations always work like magic to bring the story to life. It never ceases to amaze me!

Money, or lack of, is a good reason to stay away from children's books. While mass marketing has kept the market steady, the books are inexpensive, so the advances are low (usually less than $3000), or non-existent. Many publishers pay royalties only or flat fees. Some children's writers never quit their day jobs, or if they do, find they can only maintain a steady income by doing regular school visits, or speaking at conferences.

Q: What elements do you consider absolutely essential in writing a picture book? What are some common mistakes made by picture book writers? Most of all, what is "sparkle"?

A: I can sum up all the answers to these questions in one word -- story!

Storytelling is the most important basic skill of a good picture book writer.

The most common mistake new writers make is they don't tell a story. They have a good idea, interesting scenes, and charming characters -- but no plot. Incidents aren't stories. Incidents happen with no connection to what came before and no effect on the end. Sally spots a beautiful butterfly and follows it through the garden, then she goes to the library and learns it's a swallowtail. Sounds nice enough. But nothing happens. Not really. Sally learns about the swallowtail, but that's not a plot, and it's not a story. Incident stories convey a mood, a place, or a sense of time. Plot driven stories contain conflict, tension, and emotion.

Because of television and mass marketing, writers see plenty of examples of incident stories and believe that's what sells. The truth is, the children's book publishing industry is full of contradictions, and while incident stories are published and produced, they are not what editors want from new writers.

Story is what sets a great picture book apart from a pretty good one. If you want to break into the children's picture book market, you must write a good story with a strong plot. Not only will a good story make your book sparkle, but it'll make the editor's eyes sparkle, too!

Find Out More...

Eight Things Picture Book Editors Don't Want - Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz

Make Your Picture Book Sparkle! - Peggy Tibbetts

Copyright © 2002 Moira Allen

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Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


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