You’ve Written a Picture Book…Now What?
You’re pretty sure you’re finished.
I hate to say it, but you’re just getting started. I’m sure you’ve gone back over it, maybe several times, and made sure each word was just right. Good. Roll up those sleeves because now the fun begins.
Here’s a checklist:
- Before you think you’re finished, take a step back. Do a little bit of research into what makes a good picture book, to make sure yours is on par. Actually, do a LOT of research. Think of it as an investment. You wouldn’t start a business without first looking into all aspects of your competition, right? Read 100 picture books. Not classics, current within the past two years. They’re short, it won’t take too long. What’s common? What makes one irresistible? What are the price ranges? What’s out there similar to yours? What shelf does it sit on (Scifi, Mystery, Humour, etc)? Who publishes them? What’s their Amazon ranking/sales? How is yours different/better? Why would a publisher take a chance on yours, and which publisher should that be?
- Does your manuscript tell a story with a true beginning, a middle and an end? A descriptively beautiful sunset, lyrical wind chime, and colorful rainbow might make a wonderful poetry collection but it won’t fit well in the children’s book market. (I’m not saying that’s good or bad, I’m telling you what sells. It’s not worth the battle to try to change the industry, so in that case you might consider a different channel/market.)
- Speaking of beginning: Do you start off with a bang? Don’t start off slow and grow. Kids today don’t have time for that. (Who does?)
- The middle: don’t let it sag (Hmm, I hope we aren’t talking about my middle! Leave me alone, I likes me my chocolate, okay?!). Tell me you know what a story arc is!! If you don’t, oh my. Google it! And then start over.
- The end: Your story needs to have an inevitable, yet unexpected ending. If people can predict your ending, it’s less memorable and less satisfying.
- Do you have identifiable characters that kids can relate to and cheer for? The main character, even if it’s in animal form, needs to be the age or slightly older than the reader. Otherwise kids don’t engage. You want a main character kids cheer for.
- Where does it happen? It has to be in a relatable environment like the first day of school or wanting a friend. Even if it’s a foreign/alien environment, it needs to somehow seem instantly familiar or intriguing.
- Does the main character (you have a main character, right?) have a problem that needs solving, and does her or she try then fail, try then fail, try and succeed, on his or her own? He or she can have help along the way, but the solution has to come from within, as a result of what he or she learned from failing. (See earlier reference about a main character to cheer for!)
- Word count and word choice: how closely have you looked at your words? Are they kid friendly? Are they fun? Are they there to impress the parent–or the kid? (Hint: impress the kid!) Most picture books today are 500 words or less. (500? Yes. Five hundred. Or less. You should have noticed that in your research. Ahem.) Cut out every single word that doesn’t need to be there. You’ll probably be fine with 600. But 1600? No way.
- Did you leave room for the illustrator to tell the other half of the story? Many times we feel the need to paint a picture with our words, and we do, but in picture books we need to be careful to not include so much detail that we leave the illustrator out of a job. Don’t say the girl is wearing a blue shirt, for example, unless that color comes into play later on. Leave those specifics for the artist. Trust that they’ll do what they do best (art), just like they trust that you do what you do best (write).
- Read it out loud. How does it flow? Does it make you proud? Fix what doesn’t. Do any lines trip you up? They’ll trip up your reader, too. Go back and edit and re-edit and fix and fix until it’s perfect. Your readers deserve nothing less.
- Find a critique group. There are lots of people that are going to be willing to read your story and give you feedback. Now, no offense, but their opinions might not be helping. Seek out people that do this for a living. Even if they’re online (as long as there is no fee and you can verify their credentials). Fellow writers love helping fellow writers, we really do. Now bear in mind I said HELP you, not rewrite it for you. Or magically get it published for you. There’s a difference. Don’t expect to hand it over to a published author for them to get it published for you (trust me, I’ve had that happen. A LOT). They should be able to give some tips on ways to make things a bit better, in ways you never thought of. You’re the one that will need to sort out how to implement the changes. It’s your story, so take their two cents and change things around as you see fit. You don’t have to do anything they say. But please do listen. If more than one person says the same thing, you should seriously consider what they are telling you.
- Have you heard the term “dummy”? (Not the insult. The graphic art term.) It’s a mockup of what the picture book will end up looking like, with thumbnail placeholders for words and sketches. Think about how your paragraphs and sentences might split up into pages. Every picture book is printed in a variation of 8 pages; most total 32 pages. The text might be on 28 of the 32 pages. Author Tara Lazar has a great link where she details out how to create a dummy. REMEMBER, YOU ARE NOT CREATING ANY ILLUSTRATIONS. Don’t even try. You’re the writer, stick to writing. It’s the editor and publisher’s jobs to find the illustrator. The dummy helps pacing and word count. [This is for your eyes only; you won’t submit this to anyone or even mention it to an agent or editor. Think of it like the part of long division when the teacher says you don’t have to show your work…you still need to do the work to get the right answer.] Creating a dummy is helpful because it gets you to really think through the last step in “is my manuscript ready to be a book“?
It’s a lengthy process, this “simple” picture book writing. Many beginning writers, including yours truly years ago, greatly underestimate the amount of time and care that goes into picture books. I mean it’s a children’s book, how hard can it be, right? HAH! IN YOUR FACE! Done right, it can take years to do it justice. If you’ve written a picture book in an afternoon, I can assure you, it’s not ready. It might be good, but it’s not ready.
Once your manuscript can pass all thirteen items here, you just may be ready to go.
Of course if you’re ready to go, that means you can start the How Do I Find an Editor or Agent? part of the process…which I guess will have to be my next blog entry!
If you’ve got a check list item I didn’t include, or have some thoughts on one of these 13, please let me know.