When you’re happy with the revisions of your picture book manuscript, it’s time to mock-up a picture book, or what is usually called making a dummy.
Why Make a Dummy?
Picture books combine text and words in a short 32 page book. The structure is so unusual, that you need a mock-up or a dummy to refine and polish your text. It can tell you which section of text is too long, let you look at pacing of the story across the pages, help you spot needless repetitions and much more.
How to Mock Up a Picture Book
- PRINT. Print your manuscript with wide margins and a 14-16pt font. I like to divide the text into proposed pages before I print and number each section. For example, one piece of text will be page 5, pages 6-7 and so on. Text usually begins on page 5. Pages 1-4 are for “front matter” that consists of title page, half-title-page, copyright page, and dedication. You have lots of flexibility, but I suggest you start your text on page 5. You’ll need at least 14 text divisions to meet the 32 page size. (Why are picture books 32 pages? See here and an update here.)If you have an author’s note or other back matter (glossary, sources, etc, such as for a non-fiction story), you’ll need to reserve a couple pages for that at the end.
- CUT. Take 8 sheets of typing paper and cut in half to 8.5″ x 6.5″ If you like, you can use 16-full size paper for a larger dummy. The late Sue Alexander recommended using brightly colored typing paper to simulate art and text better.
- STAPLE. NUMBER. Staple the pages in either a portrait or a landscape orientation, your choice. Number the pages in the bottom corners. It will begin with a single right-hand page as page 1, and end with a single left-hand page as page 32.
- TAPE IN TEXT. Cut and tape your text into the dummy, page by page. Put the title on page 1, but leave pages 2-3 blank, as these are usually front matter, such as copyright page, half title page, or dedication. Now, you have a choice: you can start your text on page 4, for a double page spread, or just on the right-hand page 5. After that, the text should lay out across the full spread. A full spread or full-page spread means that the book is opened displaying both a left-hand side and a right-hand side; together, they make up a full-page spread. Alternately, you can split the text across a full-page spread and have some text on the left and some on the right. Study current picture books to get an idea of how this looks.
EVALUATE: USE THE DUMMY TO REVISE
Here are some things you might notice:
- The story doesn’t fill up 32 pages; or, there’s too much text to fit. (Revise for length.)
- Read the dummy aloud and listen to it. The story sounds awkward when read aloud. (Smooth out the language.)
- Each page has enough text, but some spreads have a weak illustration possibility. (Strengthen your verbs.)
- The story doesn’t make me want to turn the page. (Add tension; or use one of the page turn ideas.)
- The story doesn’t change a bit if you skip reading a page. (Omit page; or add essential plot elements.)
- The story is unclear; no one can figure out what is happening. (Tighten the story; check transitions; write clearer.)
OVERALL REVISIONS YOU MIGHT NEED TO MAKE
- The story feels too wordy. (Cut in half!)
- The pacing feels jerky. (Consider where you want the reader to speed up and where you want them to slow down. Revise accordingly.)
- The story all takes place in one setting. (Consider moving the story around for better illustration possibilities.)
- The story has too many settings. (Reuse some settings, but with a different perspective, different actions, etc.)
- The story feels flat. (Work on the emotional impact of the story on the characters; work on language and voice.)
- The story’s narrative arc is weak. (Create more tension; put more at stake.)
Mocking up a picture book, making the dummy, can’t be under-estimated for its help in pointing toward weak spots that need revision in a picture book text. Get out the paper, stapler, scissors and mock up your book!
WHEN USING THE DUMMY, REMEMBER
- The picture book dummy is just for you. This mock-up is just for you to use as you revise to make sure you fit the format. You would never send it in to the editor.
- The published book may have different page divisions. The editor, art director and illustrator may decide that the story should be divided differently. That’s fine. Your job is to give them enough illustration possibilities that they can visualize this as a complete book. If you’ve done that, then your job is done and their job of actually making a book begins.
- Keep the Dummy Updated. As you go through the next few lessons and make changes to the text, cut and paste the current text into the dummy and go back through the questions again. Make sure all changes keep the story within the parameters of picture book structure.
Make a dummy of your picture book manuscript and evaluate each section. Rewrite as needed.