Friday, March 19, 2010

3 Who Are You Calling Dummy?

Unless you are also an illustrator, creating a dummy for the picture book you are writing may feel like an unnecessary step. Every agent and publisher out there will tell you never to send one in with your submission. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't make one for yourself.

Creating a mock-up, or dummy, for your picture book text is very useful, and it can open your eyes to details that go beyond merely well-written prose printed on a full-sized page. Picture books are meant to be read aloud, so you need to consider the pauses and suspense of page turns while evaluating pacing. In addition, you have to give the illustrator something to illustrate on every page, or every pair of facing pages. Knowing where your pages may be turned and where your visual images are anchored can give you a better sense of how an editor or illustrator will view your work. With a picture book, there's a specific format everyone has to follow, so you can't just arbitrarily cut out a page.

Almost every picture book printed is thirty-two pages long. Picture books are printed on one large sheet of paper, which is then cut into individual pieces. These pieces represent four pages of your picture book. They contain the front and back for both the left and right sides. Four of these sheets are sewn together, creating sixteen pages, or a “signature.” Two signatures will be used to create the final product adding up to a total of thirty-two pages. While picture books can be created in multiples of eight, sticking to thirty-two pages is still the best bet. Printing picture books is expensive, and you don’t want to give a publisher another reason to reject your work.

So, how do you go about making a dummy? There’s no single answer for this question. And again, it’s important to remember this is strictly an exercise--you will never submit the dummy, that means you can approach dummy-making in whatever way works best for you. I usually use Microsoft Word and insert page breaks where I want them, add an extra break at the beginning, and then view the document in two-page view. This mimics a picture book format, and I just have to remember to subtract one from the page count as I work. Another way I like to do it is to cut 8 pieces of 8 ½ x 11” paper into half sheets, assemble them and staple them into a mock-up book. There are many templates available online to illustrate the dummy layout. (Check the links below at the bottom of this post.)

Once you have created the basic template you intend to use, there are further considerations. Several of the pages of the dummy will be what publishers refer to as “front matter.” This can include a half-title page, a full title page, a copyright page, and sometimes, a dedication page before your story begins. While the precise page layout is widely debated, the chart below includes some popular picture books and their layouts. These may help you to determine what’s feasible for your own picture book:

Making the dummy is only the beginning. It's true value doesn't emerge until after you have made it. While looking at what you have created, ask yourself the following questions:
  • Is the text spread evenly throughout the dummy?
  • Do you have too many pages?
  • Too few pages?
  • Is there a lack of forward movement anywhere in the story?
  • Does the action sag in the middle?
  • Is there enough action to support at least thirteen double page spreads and two single pages?
  • Will there be enough scene variety for illustrations?
  • Does your story’s main focus emerge on or before the third page of text?
  • Does the climax appear one or two pages before the end?
Now that you've made your dummy, you can visualize the finished product and see the problems.  Practice reading it aloud several times. Consider tape recording yourself reading. Not only will you see the problems more clearly, you will hear them more clearly, too.

If you're writing picture books, creating a dummy can be an essential part of the writing process. So what are you waiting for? Happy dummy making!


For More Information:
Editorial Anonymous Tackles Dummies
Knowing Your Layout
Creating a Dummy
Planning Your Picture Book
Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul


  1. Thanks for the post. I never thought of this. I've written a couple of kids books and my wife has done some illustrations, but creating a dummy is a great idea.

  2. Thanks for reminding us of this important step.
    It makes it easier to visualize the end product and helps to decide if changes need to be made from an editing point of view.

  3. I don't do an actual dummy when writing, but I do number my text so I know what is on what page. Great post -- thank you.


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