Friday, May 16, 2008

#3 Too Long


One of the biggest problems I find with a large number of picture book manuscripts is that they are too long. The average I see is 1,000 to 2,000 words. For modern picture books, that's just too many words. It's no longer a picture book, but a short novel.

The average picture book these days is :500 to 700 WORDS!
Yep, that's it. Yes, you can go down to the bookstore and find many books that, but if you are a unknown, unpublished author, I would highly recommend sticking within those guidelines.


Because you're a writer with pictures in your head and only black words on white paper, you may be tended to use descriptions. Resist this temptation! A good place to shave off excess words is in the descriptions. This is where you have to trust the illustrator. Your illustrator is a professional who will be using pictures instead of words to convey an image; beautiful pictues that will make your descriptions null and void. Unless it is absolutely, one hundred percent needed for the story, leave the descriptions out.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

#4 Rhyme

We all love Dr. Suess. He set the standard for children's literature. His timeless classics are still loved and cherished by young and old alike. He set the bar very high for picture book writers.

And he also ruined it.

Most people today think that if they are to write a picture book, they have to do it in rhyme.


About 90% of the children's picture book manuscripts I look at are in rhyme. The worst part is, 99.99% aren't very good rhymes. They are usually off in beats or meter or are strained to make the words fit, at the sake of the story.

Do most editors take rhyming stories anymore?

Sure. We like rhymes. But we like good rhymes, and as I just said above, most of what we get are not good rhymes.

Does that mean you should never do a rhyming story?

Of course not. Go ahead. But I would highly suggest that unless you are a poet (a real poet) and know what you're doing in terms of beat and meter, then by all means, tell a rhyme. But if you're not sure, remember this simple rule:


Monday, May 12, 2008

#5 Illustrating It Yourself

Or Your Friend, or your child, or your spouse, illustrate it.

Unless you (or your friend, etc.) are an accomplished artist, I would never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never recommend that you try to illustrate your own picture book.


1. Because publishers already have a great pool of talent at their fingertips. There are artists out there just yearning to be called and asked to help illustrate a picture book. Publishers must have hundreds of them, so they really don't need your drawings.
2. When an editor reads a picture book manuscript, we like to see the images in our head. Sometimes we may have very different ideas of what we might think the pictures should look like than you do.

3. It's a pain photocopying the artwork in full color anyway.
4. Realize that the pictures you thought were masterpieces look like this:

compared to professional artists that look like this:

Then go ahead and submit your pictures. However, be prepared for a few things:
1. That the editors may feel that while your pictures are good, they may not express depth or motion that they feel the story needs.
2. They look too commericial. (A word thrown around a lot. What this means is that they look too slick, like Strawberry Shortcake, or Spongebob Squarepants.)
3. They just don't match what the editor had in mind for the story.

So if you are an artist and a writer, be prepared for the possibility that the editor may like your drawings, but not your story, or s/he may like your story, but not your drawings. What you decide to do in that situation is always your call, but remember that it helps to be flexible. If you're unwilling to compromise, it may end any possible relationship you might have with the house and limit your options in the future.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Name Game

Giving birth to a new character is like having a new baby. You want to care for it, nurture it, but most importantly, you want to give your character a good name. You obviously want to give a good name to your bouncing baby girl or boy. You think very carefully, think of the characteristics of your child, even consult family and friends, and in the end, make the choice that you like and feel will suit the baby.

The same goes for your characters.

What Doesn't Work?

If your main character is a penguin or a peacock, please do not give the name Petunia, Pearl, Petal, Patty, Patrice, Patricia, Paul or Paula, or even Penelope.
Likewise, if your character is an owl, steer clear of Olivia, Oscar, Opal, Opie, or Otto.
If your character is a jellyfish, don't even think of Jerry, Jelli, Jene, Janet, or Jane.

Do you see where this is going? Paula the Peacock, Patty the Penguin, Otto the Owl, or even Jerry the Jellyfish don't inspire much in the way of creative thinking.

Whether your charcter is an animal or a human, it's most important to think of what you want to say with a name. Just as our names say something about ourselves, your character's name will say something about him or her.

So What Does Work?
Obviously, that's a harder question to answer. That's up to you and your character. What characteristics does your character possess? What do you want to project about her or him? And what names do you like? J.K. Rowling chose the name Harry because it was one of her favorite names for boys. But what does it also say about him? It's a rather common name, not very distinguishing. But that's good for Harry. He believes he's a common boy until he gets his letter to Hogwarts. Readers are able to relate to Harry because we feel that he's one of us (except that he gets to go to a magical school). Can you imagine what the books would be like if Rowling decided to name her main character Draco, for example? Not the same, is it?

On the other hand, the name Artemis Fowl really stands out. This, again, is on purpose. Artemis is supposed to stand out. He's not one of us, he's a mastermind criminal.

I recommend purchasing a baby name book with lots of names from traditional American to Zulu and everything in between, preferably with meanings to the names. You can also use the internet to search names. Choose them carefully and wisely and you'll really see your character come to life!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Bad Beginning

There's nothing more important to any story than its first sentence. It sets the tone for the rest of what will happen, and, in many cases, it is what catches the editor's eyes. But what distinguishes a good sentence from a bad sentence?

Let's first take a look at some bad first sentences.

- Once there were two little penguins who were best friends.
This is the classic telling, not showing. Why not instead put the two penguins in a situation so that we can see that they are best friends?

-Once upon a time, in an enchanted forest, unicorns ran freely, trolls and elves played leapfrog over toadstools.
Not only is this sentence grammatically incorrect, but it gives no sense of where the story is going. Is the setting more important than the characters?

-This is the story of a peacock named Percy.
Why do we need to be told whom the story is about? Why not tell us the story?

-Oscar the owl lives in a forest along with his friends Ronald the robin and Oscar's mate Opal.
Just tell me the story! I don't need to know where he or his friends live and definitely not in one big sentence.

-Maryanne likes to play with her new hamster whose name is Harold.
This one is close to good as it tells us something about Maryanne, but the aside telling us her hamster's name diminishes the sentence.

These first sentences show not only a lack of creativity, but a small understanding of the dynamics of storytelling. We all can fall prey to a bad sentence, no one is immune. That is why good revision is always important. You can always change what you wrote later.

So what makes a good first sentence? One that catches your eye and leads directly into the story. Look at some of your favorite books. How do they start? What makes them effective in your opinion? Why do others not work?

Here are some good ones:

"If your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of the year for it."
-The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts by Richard Peck.
Not only is this line funny, but it sets up the rest of the story involving the young narrator.

"Emma-Jean Lazarus knew very well that a few of the seventh-grade girls at William Gladstone Middle School were criers."
-Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis.
This not only tells us who the main character is, but it gives us a sense of her character and a hint of how the story will unfold.

"My lady and I are being shut up in a tower for seven years."
-The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale.
That says it all right there, doesn't it?