You have a fantastic idea for a picture book. You’ve written it down, crafting every word and putting into it all the heart you can muster. You’ve left it in a dark drawer for a week or two, and now you’re ready to give it a good, objective second look. How will you know when it’s ready to send off to a publisher?
Every manuscript is unique, of course; each has strengths and weaknesses all its own. But when I look at submissions or give critiques, I often find myself wanting to give authors the same advice. So here’s that advice: four tips to help you make your picture book manuscript stronger.
1. Read your story aloud
This is an important thing to do with every revision of your story. After all, picture books are meant to be read aloud! Notice any places in the text where you stumble or end up naturally saying something different from what you have written. Taking time to read your story out loud can help you figure out places where your story may need more polishing.
One additional note here: if your manuscript is written in rhyme, reading it aloud is even more critical for making sure that the meter is working and the rhymes truly rhyme. Do bear in mind, though, that rhyme is hard to do well, and it tends to be successful in picture books only when the author is skilled and when rhymed text suits the story in some way.
2. Write a one-sentence description of your book
Doing this forces you to distill the idea of your story down to its absolute most essential points. What’s at the heart of the story? What’s the most important thing you want the reader to see in it? Now take another read through the manuscript. Does that summary still ring true — is the essential part of the story clear to the reader?
3. Pay attention to the basic elements of storytelling: plot, character, voice
Is there a main character — and is it a character that a young reader will relate to? Is that character relatable, but also unique and interesting? How does the character change over the course of the story?
Does the story have an identifiable beginning, middle, and end? Is there some conflict or tension that is resolved by the end of the story, and does the main character take an active role in resolving that conflict? Does the plot carry the reader on an emotional journey?
Is the tone appropriate for the age range? Do you show the reader what you’re talking about, rather than telling? Do you use vivid language, without providing too much description of things that will be shown already in the illustrations?
4. Create a dummy of your book
Try pacing your text out over a 32-page layout, and maybe even creating a storyboard of what your book could potentially look like. You can find templates online that will help you lay this out, including title and copyright pages.
Creating a dummy is a great way to ask yourself some important questions. Do you have enough text to fill 14 or 15 spreads? Or, conversely, do you have far too much text on each spread? Are there places where the story slows down, or does the text make the reader want to keep turning the pages? Are there long stretches of dialogue with nothing to illustrate, or is there enough material on each spread to provide unique illustration possibilities?
Bear in mind that this step is for your benefit only — you won’t include any of this when you submit your manuscript to a publisher. The artist who will eventually work on your story will have their own ideas about how to pace out and illustrate your text. Creating a dummy is just a way for you to determine if the pacing of your story will work as a picture book.
Stay tuned for more picture book revision tips next month!
* * *
Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Read her From the Editor’s Desk column — packed with editorial insight and behind-the-scenes info on Eerdmans books — one Thursday a month here on Eerdlings.
Great suggestions. Thank you Kathleen.