Dummying for Smarter Picture Book Manuscripts

by Lindsay Bandy

Have you ever tried dummying your picture book manuscript? I’ve found it to be one of my most helpful tools in taking a manuscript from first-draft stage to ready-to-submit stage. It helps me to remember that I’m only creating half of the finished product, and that I need to leave room for the illustrator to co-create! It’s also a fun way to involve my kids in my writing, because they love to cut, tape, doodle, and imagine with me!

dummy 4

During our Industry Scoop First Pages/First Looks session,  our panel commented again and again about pacing, figuring out when your story should begin, and staying focused. Stephen Fraser also discussed the perfect balance of pictures and words that is necessary for achieving a picture book that works. For those of us who have a special relationship with words and love to use them, it can take a physical activity to help us restrain ourselves a bit. Making a dummy forces you to look at each page spread and each set of words individually, and this is tremendously helpful for a word-lover like me.

I switch back and forth between writing picture books and YA historical fiction. The way I create with words is different in these two forms, but in both, I realize that I must leave room for co-creation. In a novel, words are used to create pictures, and the co-creator is the reader’s imagination. We need that delicate balance of enough details to form a mental image for the reader, but not so many that the reader is overwhelmed and bored, or pushed out of the process of creation, themselves! They don’t need to see my hero and heroine exactly as I do, really. They just need to see someone that they can form in their own minds and relate to. In picture books, leaving room for an artist’s vision requires letting go of a little more control (aka words!) to let someone else add their touch of genius to your work. Remember, you’re creating something to share….something that will become part of someone else’s life in some special way. That’s about the coolest thing ever.

Okay, back to the dummies. Even if you can’t draw more than a stick figure, you can still dummy your manuscript. In fact, it doesn’t require any drawing at all. Only concentrated imagining, page by page. Here are my steps for dummying. It’s helpful to me to consult a few actual picture books as I go for more concrete visual evidence!

Step 1:

Format your manuscript  double-spaced and in two columns and print. Then, go through with a pencil and make lines where you think page breaks should go.  (Using pencil and tape instead of pen and glue allow for more rearranging!)

Step 2:

Take 8 sheets of paper and fold them in half. This will give you the needed 32 pages for your picture book. Numbering them at the bottom is useful.

Step 3:

Write your title and name on the first page. This is your title page. Mine is complete with a poodle doodled by my lovely assistant.

dummy 1

Step 4:

Write “copyright and dedication” on page 2 if you wish. This isn’t a set-in-stone part of the formatting, but it is often done.

dummy 2

Step 5:

Decide whether your first page of text/illustrations might be a single page or double spread. If you think your first page would work on a single page, then cut the text from your document and tape it on. If you think it should be a double spread, then leave page 3 blank and fasten your first bit of text on pages 4 and 5.

Step 6:

Continue cutting a taping page by page until you’ve reached the end.

dummy 3

Then, go back through and evaluate each page. Reading aloud is best! Is the text on each page illustratable? Can you doodle or specifically imagine what might go on that page? Are any sections of text way too long? If so, think about how you might cut them down to balance the text with the pictures. Think about the flow of single and double spreads, and take time to imagine pages that might even have multiple smaller pictures on them with short chunks of text.

Step 7:

Repeat, with different page breaks and revisions!

Happy editing and submitting, everyone!

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2 Responses to Dummying for Smarter Picture Book Manuscripts

  1. Wendy says:

    It was a great workshop last weekend! (And lucky you with a budding illustrator in the family!)

  2. Glad you had a good time, Wendy! And yes, my little artist is still a little miffed at the idea of another artist touching Mommy’s stories….

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