Monday, August 8, 2011

Diane Muldrow: pacing the picture book

Diane Muldrow
Diane Muldrow is the editorial director at  Golden Books/Random House, editor of Little Golden Books, a sweet, classic line for preschoolers, and the author of the smart and elegant WE PLANTED A TREE (as well as many books about Barbie, Bambi, Pinocchio and other favorite characters).

She started off our intensive session on picture book pacing by sharing a little of her background, including the fact that she was once a professional dancer who performed au naturel on a famous New York stage.

“Anything is a cakewalk after you’ve performed naked,” she said.

Anything, perhaps, but picture-book pacing. During the three-hour master class, she shared a terrific list of tools we can use to make sure our manuscripts unfold in the right way on the page.

Pacing is a central challenge of picture books.

"You have to fit information and good storytelling and beautiful pictures into a very specific format."

Trade picture books are usually 32 pages, while Little Golden Books are 24, for example.

She encouraged us to take a trip to the bookstore or library and really study the formats, taking ownership over what we're writing.

“This is your lump of clay when you’re working on it. It belongs to you because it’s your idea. What I want to see more of … is when writer hopefuls don’t take enough ownership of their idea, let alone their manuscript," she said.

Once you've figured out your format, think in pictures, and don't be shy about including art notes that are essential to conveying your vision. (Non-essential ones are coincidental details, such as the color of a character's shoes when that is not of thematic significance.)

The best picture books come from thinking visually, she said--something most writers don't really do.

In addition, keep the page turns at the top of mind. “In a picture book, it’s all about the turning of the page,” she said. That's what gives a story its building sense of suspense, and what keeps the child on the lap--the one we're writing for--engaged.

As you work, consider using these tools:
  • Start your story with an opening spread (putting all the title information on that right-hand page).
  • Consider paging the story out as you go. Tip: The illustration should be of whatever is the first line of text on the new page.
  • Have images in mind and write to them. No talking heads. If you can't see the art, that's maybe a cue there's not enough happening visually in your idea.
  • Write in a way that reaches a very young ear.
  • If you get stuck as you're writing, figure out your last line? You want one with impact: beauty, humor, or some other thing.
She handed out the text for a Golden Books story called THE MERRY SHIPWRECK and gave us 45 minutes to paginate it and make thumbnails using a 24-page dummy. The task was hard enough that I had to give myself a little break for blogging, lest my eyeballs melt down my cheeks.

But it was challenging as the exercise was, it's a revolutionary way for writers to take their work to the next level. If you have a chance to take a master class with Diane, do. She's a master of the format and a compelling teacher as well.


  1. What a wonderful post! It sounds like an essential class for picture book people!

  2. Really wonderful stuff here, Thank you
    Kit Grady

  3. Great post and I have taken down notes. Blogs are so wonderful when you can't be there!