Last month, I shared a few suggestions for writers looking to revise their picture book manuscripts. But stories are complex, and there are many different ways to go about polishing them. Here are some additional ways to work on honing your story.
5. Cut out whatever isn’t necessary
Go through your story word by word and phrase by phrase. Are there words and phrases that don’t serve the purpose of the story — that don’t advance it in any way? Do you spend too much time describing things, instead of focusing on the action and the emotion of the story? Then start cutting. Every single word should be doing some important work. If it’s not, get rid of it.
I’ve talked in blog posts before about how difficult it can be to cut material from picture books. But if a phrase or a scene doesn’t serve the overall story, it needs to go, no matter how lyrical or fascinating.
6. Share your story with children
Conventional wisdom holds that stories for children should always have children as their protagonists. But this rule would mean that we could never have books like A Sick Day for Amos McGee, so I think it’s worth admitting exceptions. However, picture books should always at least appeal to younger readers. And there’s no better way to determine if that’s the case than by sharing your story with younger readers and seeing if it connects.
7. Take a careful look at the ending
The ending of a picture book is one of the most important parts — what sets it apart and makes it unique. Many picture books offer some sort of clever twist. But at the very least, the ending should offer something satisfying for the reader. Beware the manuscript that just trails off, or the moral statement that merely summarizes the story. Your story should take the reader on an emotional journey, and your ending should elicit a corresponding emotional response from the reader, whether that is laughter, tears, inspiration, or something else altogether.
8. Share your manuscript with a critique group
Every manuscript, every writer, every story is unique — and each will need different honing and different encouragement to help improve them. General revision tips and techniques are great and can be applied broadly to any manuscript, but there is no substitute for having careful, intelligent readers sit down with your story and offer their constructive criticism.
Be aware, of course, that readers may bring their own biases. Author Neil Gaiman has said, “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Do not expect a critique group to always have the best solution to your story’s issues — but do trust that if they raise concerns, those concerns are probably somehow validly rooted in issues you will probably want to address, and they can help you improve your story in ways you never would have been able to imagine yourself.
To all you aspiring picture book writers out there: good luck! I hope these tips are helpful, and I wish you many happy and productive revisions!
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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.