A couple of years ago I rescued a bumblebee from the kiddie pool in my backyard. As I stretched out over the water with a toy shovel, I felt like a hero. Bumblebee rescuer. As an author/illustrator, my next logical thought was this would be great in a picture book! I put the bumblebee on a flower, ran in the house, and scribbled down a rough draft.

By the time fall arrived, I’d revised the story many times. I made a book dummy for the Smart Dummies online challenge. (The idea behind the challenge is to complete a submission-ready picture book dummy in a month.) I went into the challenge with character designs complete and thumbnails finished. By the time I’d finished, I was in love with the story and in love with the character. I had positive feedback from my critique groups. But I had a nagging feeling that it wasn’t ready for submission. I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I stashed the dummy in a folder and moved along to other stories.

In the spring, I attended the SCBWI Canada East conference and paid for a manuscript critique with author/illustrator Ruth Ohi. Ruth started the 15-minute session with, “This is really great, so I’m going to tear it apart.” Her critique was the perfect mix of cold, hard truth and encouraging remarks about what I was doing right. I took a short break from the story to let the comments sink in. Over the summer, I revised the manuscript.

That fall, I participated in Smart Dummies again, and this time I completed a submission-ready dummy along with final art samples. I queried five agents and was thrilled when one took the time out of her busy day to reply. She didn’t love it. It had an educational arc but no real character growth. Her comment really struck a chord with me. So, I started revisions again. I deleted characters, added characters, deleted them again.

A character I added, deleted, re-added, and deleted again while trying to find the story.

But eventually I began to feel that I had plateaued. The story wasn’t working, and I wasn’t sure why. I realized that I needed to grow as a writer to bring the story to the next level. I needed a mentor. I began to look seriously at the various opportunities. And that’s when I heard about Storyteller Academy. I was already familiar with Arree’s NINJA! books, but the icing on the cake was that Arree was an author/illustrator—a perspective that I really appreciated even though the course was equally suitable for authors who don’t draw. I decided to sign up for the “critique group with Arree” option.

It was a fantastic decision. I had some reservations at first about working on my bee story during the course, since I’d been working on it for so long. Many of my course-mates were just beginning their stories. But after some discussion with Arree, I decided to just go for it. The combination of course and critique was exactly what I needed to level up. The feedback on my own story was helpful, but I was also learning from the critiques of the other members’ stories.

This comic sums up the critique group experience.

How Many Dummies Does It Take to Write a Picture Book?

Before taking Arree’s course, making a dummy was a month-long slog. Now I find it a quick and easy stress-free way to flush out the story. By the end of the course, I had so much momentum that I was making a dummy a week.

Caption: The four dummies on the left are ones that I made before Storyteller Academy. On the right are five of the dummies I made during the course. There were several that didn’t make it to print, and I also filled a sketchbook with ideas.

What changed? I stopped trying to make submission-ready dummies and started making revision dummies. They were tiny. Instead of jumping from thumbnails to an almost full-sized dummy, I now start with 3x5 inch spreads. Sometimes I photocopy, then cut and paste my sketches. Then I use the scan option in the Google Drive app on my phone to combine my sketches into a digital dummy. I prefer to work with pen and paper whenever possible, so I print my dummies out, two spreads per page and staple it together. I make notes/revisions right on the dummy. Once I think a spread is working, I start sketching a slightly larger version. If I want to look at how the story is working as a whole, adjust pacing or page turns, I might even do a miniscule thumbnail so that I can see it all in one glance.

For me the words almost always come first, so I still prefer to polish my manuscript first. But now sketching and making dummies are a bigger part of my writing and revision process. Sometimes focusing on the images by themselves helps me figure things out. Sometimes I find it easier to set the images aside and focus on the text. And I’ve discovered one of the bonuses of using sketches to flush out the story—more sketching practice!

As for my bee story? It was still a work-in-progress when I finished the course, but now the plot and text are polished. I’ve moved on to polishing my dummy. Some of the sketches are pretty rough! My goal is to submit the story in October.

Sample artwork from the story.

In case you were wondering - I cut the scene that was inspired by my bumblebee rescue. As a writer, I’m very familiar with the phrase cut your darlings. I hadn’t considered that it might apply to illustrations, too, but it wasn’t until I cut the rescue that I was able to find the story I was trying to tell.

Marla Lesage is an author/illustrator from Atlantic Canada. She also writes poems, makes comics, loves urban sketching, and is working on a graphic novel. You can find her illustration portfolio and writing samples at https://marlalesage.com. Marla also contributes to the SCBWI Canada East blog.