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:
- 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!