Writing Advice: Nette Hilton on Picture Books and Junior Fiction

Occasionally I'll attend a writing workshop or seminar that is so absorbing or entertaining, I completely neglect to record it visually. Nette Hilton's weekend workshop on Picture Books and Junior Fiction hosted by Book Links QLD and its children's writing arm, Write Links, was both these things and more.

Nette Hilton, fellow poultry enthusiast and lover of storytelling, is a proflic writer of children's fiction; many of her award winning works deemed as classics in children's literature such as, A Proper Little Lady and The Web - both favourites in this house. More recent titles include the popular, Smallest Bilby Easters picture book series and the hilarious First Adventures of Princess Peony. *

A former teacher, Nette has worked with some of the most notable illustrators and publishing houses in Australia but by her own admission was a complete novice when it came to the world of publishing and storytelling. She only knew she enjoyed sharing and telling stories. Her natural propensity for humour reflects in nearly all of her texts endearing her to both adults and children alike but what really makes a good picture book? How does it differ from junior fiction? And what are the key elements to remember when constructing both?

Here are a few of my scribbled recollections that provide some of the answers.
  • The key to successful story writing is to know what your story is about because that is what helps you define what needs to be in the book
  • Writing picture books is all about using the best word at the best time and eliminating the words that can be illustrated - that is, used in pictures instead
  • Junior fiction uses punctuation to paint the pictures. For example inserting line breaks to create drama, underline emphasis etc. (Think Morris Gleitzmann - nearly every new sentence is a new paragraph!)
  • Whomever you include in your story be they the main character or secondary cast members, they must serve a purposeful, story-driven Role. Their role must reflect them as being the centre of their universes, this creates empathy and authenticity
  • Picture books are a 'grab at a moment in time'. Therefore they can be regarded as being at the pinnacle of the triangle of writing along with poetry because they rely on generating emotion, rapidly in a very limited space of time and pages. Novels fall to the bottom. 
  • Write hard to the image in your head. This applies to Junior fiction, too.
  • Be aware of the audience you are writing for with regards to use of language and reading ability
  • Picture book writing is exacting but also intuitive and transformative, both for the author and reader
  • Be careful that you are not sub-texting the wrong message or information; ie. make sure your writing is grounded
  • Picture books can be close to wordless and up to 400 odd words and still be impactful
  • Junior fiction is a word count of 1,200 - 6,000 words

Story Structure was then discussed. here are the elements that should always be considered regardless of the genre:
  1. Setting - the world in which the story takes place
  2. The Problem - what is it and why does it exist. This leads to the Character's Goal - what they want and why
  3. Stakes - how are the character's goals going to be achieved. What happens if they are not? This forms the story build
  4. Complications - what's stopping the character reaching these goals
  5. Ending - it's not always happy ever after
It's gratifying to see that these insights reflect the common knowledge that we might have heard before albeit expressed in different ways. For more established practiced authors, these are the bedrocks of what we ourselves may lecture to others. However what is really useful about sessions like Nette's is the reminder of what we are actually doing or should be remembering to do. 

In short this summed up Nette's Top Tip

Know what you are writing about - really distill what it is you want to say - then, Say It!

If you are based in SE Queensland and are a lover of Kids' Lit or keen to pursue your own creative kids' tale, visit the Book Links event calendar for other great workshops, seminars and literary events. New members always welcome!

* This was my take on the first Princess Peony book from a Boomerang Books Blog review - superb!

I detest the colour pink and princesses who like to adorn themselves in it. However, I LOVED this supremely funny tale about a little girl named Peony who lives in a castle with her dragon, pink bits and all. Beautifully told from Peony’s unabashed point of view and illustrated with striking tri-coloured drawings, this is a joyful read about giant imaginations, dogs, family and princesses, of course. Highly recommended for pre-schoolers, early primary schoolers, emergent readers and those of us struggling to accept the little princess within. Watch out for following titles in this illustrated series.


Norah Colvin said…
You're right, Dimity, because I agree. This session with Nette was brilliant. What an engaging speaker. Nette shared her knowledge and experiences candidly as if one friend to another. It was a pleasure to get to meet her in person. I didn't realise that the Easter Bilby had originated with her, though I have some of her Easter Bilby books. My daughter always objected to the Easter Bilby as she loved bunnies. I have written my own Easter Bilby story which is included in my teaching resources on readilearn.
DimbutNice said…
Fabulous, Norah. Viva la Bilby! I think there is enough room for both don't you. :-) x

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