You Know You’re Done When You’re Half Undone

This is going to sound contradictory, but when it comes to writing a picture book, your book isn’t finished until it’s incomplete.

Be honest, I just blew your mind with that.

Okay maybe not, but it is nonetheless true. A picture book manuscript is meant to be incomplete—in fact it has to be, if an illustrator is going to illustrate the story you have written.

When someone reads your picture book manuscript, there should be points where the story may not make sense because the picture is not there to help explain what you wrote. But at the same time a well-written picture book should generate images in the reader’s mind that will fill in those gaps. It’s why the Great Picture Books are great. They use the perfect word that produces the perfect image.

Now I am not going to try and pass off my book as one of the greats but since I have access to the images it’s easy for me to give an example. First I am going to give you the text to a spread from Monster Needs His Sleep, to be released April 15, then the picture. Try not to look at the picture first.

He loved his little glowing friend and thanked me for the light. I said it was my pleasure and I gave a kiss good night.

If you haven’t looked at the picture yet then you may be asking yourself, what is this little glowing friend? Who is giving who a kiss? I don’t understand! Now look at the picture.

Click image for larger view.

You probably guessed that the little glowing friend was a night light, but did you guess that it was a canary or that it was blue? Or how about that it is a boy putting Monster to sleep? And how about that stuffed creature monster is clutching? No mention of that. It’s because I don’t need to. All of these question/surprises are explained in the illustration by Wendy Grieb.

As a picture book writer, your illustrator is your partner, though you may never meet or even talk. The illustrator creates half the story, so you need to leave them the room to work their magic.

Here is a drill. Take your favorite picture book and type it out, and don’t pick something easy like Good Night Gorilla. Then read the picture book as a manuscript. Notice how the text, by itself, all of sudden doesn’t seem to make as much sense? Now read your finished manuscript. If it reads like a complete story, then your story isn’t done. You need to go back and cut. Go through it with an illustrator’s eye and get rid of everything that can be explained through illustration. Until you do that, your story isn’t 100 percent done.

At least not until you get rid of 50 percent of your story.

Related Posts:
Why thirty-two pages? by Joyce Audy Zarins
3 Ways to Pace Your Picture Book by Joyce Audy Zarins
12 Questions for 12 x 12 Founder Julie Hedlund, interview by Kirsti Call


  1. Great post! I have been struggling with this. Cut out description and people say put more in, I put more in, others will say, cut it out! Love the way you explained this and it was great seeing the illo for your new book!


    1. Use them IF you need them. There are times a note must be used because it is an integral part to a story. There are many times a writer thinks a note is needed but really it isn’t because the detail isn’t important, its self explanatory, or the scene could be written better.


  2. This is a great post, Paul! I’d love to see a future post about how to walk that fine line for authors subbing picture books to agents/editors without having to litter the ms with tons of illustrator notes.

    Liked by 1 person

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