Category Archives: Writing Tools

Sticky-Note Picture Book Dummy Template


In this post, I’ll share the way I use printable sticky-notes in a picture book dummy to develop my stories, playing with pacing and page turns. I used to hand-write my story on the sticky-notes, but then I stumbled upon this trick for printing on sticky-notes, and have adapted it for use with picture book dummies.

What is a picture book dummy? It’s a version of your story in the form of a tiny book, with text placement and page turns and sometimes sketches all in place. I am a NOT an illustrator, but I still use a picture book dummy to check each W-I-P for:

  • pacing
  • rising tension including the use of page turns
  • story arc and placement of the climax
  • progression of visual scenes and elements
  • appropriate number of words (200-800 for most picture books)

Background on Picture Book Construction

For historical and economic reasons, picture books almost always have exactly thirty-two pages, created with eight sheets of paper (called folios) folded in fourths. Sometimes a book will have as few as twenty pages or as many as forty-eight, but most debuts are published in the standard thirty-two page format. Tara Lazar gives a great explanation of the two basic variations of this format here. In a self-ended book, those thirty-two pages include the title, half-title and dedication pages, the copyright page, the endpapers, and the two pages used to glue the printed book into the cover. This leaves you with twelve two-page spreads in which to tell your story. An alternative format uses colored endpapers, leaving potentially up to fourteen double-page spreads for telling the story.

By industry standard, picture book manuscripts are submitted to agents and editors without page breaks indicating page turns. It is the illustrator’s job to read the text and decide how to split words across the pages to match the art. In some cases, the art director, editor or perhaps even author may have some input here, but it’s my understanding that authors shouldn’t expect it. However, if you construct your story with the picture book format, page turns, and potential illustrations in mind, you can craft a text that best supports the story YOU envision telling. I generally dummy my manuscripts toward the middle-end of my revision process, to help me tighten the storytelling and also to expose potential problems in my picture book formatting.

Making the Dummy Blank

I keep several handmade blank dummies on hand, made from used paper folded and glued back-to-back as described here. Once I’ve dummied out a story, I use the dummy to read the story aloud as many times as possible to different audiences, revising as necessary. After I’ve made final revisions to my manuscript, I usually remove the sticky notes and keep them in a stack in my project file. Then I can use the same blank dummy again for my next story.

Creating the Sticky-Notes

I copy and paste my manuscript sentence-by-sentence into this template, one sentence for each  square. I like to use 2″ x 2″ sticky-notes, so that I have plenty of room to also include sketches. By putting just one sentence on each sticky-note, I give myself lots of flexibility to experiment with different page turn possibilities. Once I’ve added all the text to the template, I print up one copy on plain paper. Then I cover each square with a sticky-note, being sure to align the edges smoothly and keeping the sticky strip on each note toward the top of the page to help with the printer feed. Then I print again, one page at a time, feeding the paper into the printer by hand (face down with the top of the sticky notes toward the back works with most printers). And voilá–I have a version of my story neatly-printed on removable sticky-notes, ready for my dummy!

Assembling the Dummy

Making sure to leave pages for the endpapers, optional half-title page, copyright/dedication, and title page, I begin placing the text the way I imagine it will fit best in the picture book. I use 4″ x 4″ sticky-notes for quick sketches to represent potential illustrations. With these sketches, I am mostly checking for visual movement across the book. I want to make sure that there are opportunities in my text for change of scene, action, landscapes and closeups, humor and tension. Ultimately it will be my illustrator’s job to accomplish all this, without my input. But when I’m constructing my text, I want to be sure to leave space for the possibilities. For example, if the first 300 words of my picture book text involve two people explaining things to each other in dialogue, this might prove difficult to illustrate in an interesting way. Creating a picture book dummy will highlight this problem and allow me to address it before ever submitting my manuscript.

Artists can choose to use full double-page spreads, single-page spreads or spot art to illustrate your story. Publishers and art directors can influence this decision too. Double-page spreads can lower the expenses of book production because they require fewer pieces of art, but there are many factors that go into picture book design, most of which do not involve the author. But when I’m making a dummy, I try to be cognizant of the visual possibilities my text implies, and place my story in the dummy in a way that makes sense.

Then, I make my revisions, polish up the manuscript, write a snappy cover letter, and let my story go out into the world, hopefully to meet the publishing team that will bring my book to life. I strip out the dummy and once again face the blank page, ready to begin storytelling all over again.

Get your template here!

PB Small Dummy Template Blank

PB Dummy Template


PiBoIdMo Idea Cards

Photo by L. M. Quraishi, © Words Like Rain, 2015

Photo by L. M. Quraishi, © Words Like Rain, 2015

Thanks to author Carter Higgins, PiBoIdMo guest blogger, for her brilliant suggestion about picture book ideas. She urges us to ask ourselves, What is this book about?

Not a synopsis, but an about about.

Authors, agents and editors all focus on this question as they create pitches to sell completed manuscripts, but Higgins suggests wrestling with “the about about” much earlier in the process, at the genesis of an idea. Author Kathryn Otoshi described this as identifying the heart of a story at the May 2015 SCBWI North and East Bay Picture Book Intensive.

After three Novembers of participating in Tara Lazar‘s Picture Book Idea Month challenge, I’ve added Higgins’ idea to my Picture Book Idea Notecards, completing the system I use for logging and developing my picture book ideas.

Continue reading

What I Didn’t Do—ReViMo 2015 Recap (with Revision Strategies Checklist)


Meg Miller’s ReViMo (ReVise More) online writing challenge was my exciting new discovery in January 2015: participants pledge to revise seven picture book manuscripts in seven days. A stellar list of picture book authors and illustrators offer daily motivation and ideas for revision in a series of guest posts. And of course, as in every good online challenge, those who met their revision goals were eligible for fabulous industry prizes. You can even buy ReViMo goodies (all proceeds benefit the wonderful Reading is Fundamental program—which puts actual books in the hands of kids who will love them).

So here’s what I didn’t do for this year’s ReViMo: I didn’t revise seven manuscripts. I didn’t revise even four manuscripts, the minimum to be eligible for prizes. I didn’t post updates on the Facebook group about how my amazing revision efforts were going. But I also didn’t get down on myself for my failure to meet any of my writing goals for the week.

How can I even claim to have participated in this event? What did I do (aside from nursing my children’s ear infections and pneumonia, that is)? I read every delicious post on Meg Miller’s generous blog. I revised ONE manuscript. And I did what I do best when I’m not doing what I really want to be doing—I made lists. And here they are, just for you.

List #1: a compilation of revision strategies for picture books:

Words Like Rain




Revision Strategies for Picture Books

(a Words Like Rain Printable)



And List #2, to help me next December, when I’m…

Getting Ready for ReViMo

  1. Tidy writing space.
  2. Choose and print out seven manuscripts for revision.
  3. Re-read the manuscripts, and then set them aside.
  4. Sign up.
  5. Read the pre-ReViMo posts to get revved up.
  6. Go!

When ReViMo ended all too soon, I felt at first that I had not met the challenge. Being a lurker didn’t qualify me for anything, in my mind. But then I re-evaluated my participation. I learned a lot, I revised one manuscript (ending up with something I’d be proud to see in print), and I gave it a try. I think maybe I will post that winner’s badge on my website after all. And next year, watch out! I’ll be ready.

How did ReViMo go for you this year? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them? I’d love to hear, especially in time for petite ReViMo in February.


Sticky Ideas for Post-PiBoIdMo

© Apple, Inc.

Like many of you, I came out of PiBoIdMo (Tara Lazar’s annual November challenge, Picture Book Idea Month) with more ideas than I can handle. Which ideas are going to stick around long enough to grow into stories? I use the Apple software Stickies to find out.

First, I rifle through my writer’s notebook for the ideas that really spring out at me, the ones that have energy, the stories that obsess and excite me.

Next, I use the Stickies app to litter my computer desktop with those ideas, so that every time I power up to write, I’m reading and rereading them. This gets the story compost going, growing stories even when I’m working on another draft or revision. I keep the compost hot by stirring every once in a while–moving favorite ideas to the top or coming up with clever titles for ideas that started with a character or situation or premise.

I write the first idea note in yellow, with a large, appealing font. By selecting “Use as default” under the Note drop-down menu, I can create new notes with the same size, color, font and format as the first note simply by pressing Command+N.

Throughout the year, I check in with my sticky ideas, using a color code to track my ideas through drafting and revision. I like to move from warm to cool colors as I progress through the writing process:

Yellow = Idea —> Pink = Outline or start —> Green = Complete draft —> Blue = Lightly revised —> Purple = Heavily revised —> Grey = Ready to submit

Using Stickies to grow ideas into stories, © L. M. Quraishi, 2014

Using Stickies to grow ideas into stories, © L. M. Quraishi, 2014

(My desk doesn’t usually look this neat–I cleaned it up just for you!)

Since I compose on my laptop and use my desktop computer for other work, I keep my sticky ideas on the desktop so that my ideas are up in the background while I write. My laptop is where I collect research, resources, information, inspiration and wisdom from my writing peers.

© L. M. Quraishi, 2014

© L. M. Quraishi, 2014

What do you do with your idea hatchlings? Where do you keep them safe? How do you feed them? How do you help them grow up into the stories they were meant to be?

Welcome to Words Like Rain!

Words Like Rain


L. M. Quraishi is a children’s book writer, teacher and mom who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes fiction and non-fiction for children of all ages – about pelicans, magic, kung fu, being naughty, irritable zoo animals, loss, getting along, escalators, goddesses, and anything else that catches her fancy. Currently she’s seeking representation for her picture book manuscripts, and working on a middle grade novel. In her blog Words Like Rain, she explores the art and business of writing for children, reviews diverse books for children, shares tips for writers and lesson plans for teachers.