Friday, August 1, 2014

Common Picture Book Mistakes

I've talked plenty about novels; I want to focus on picture books today!

It may be hard to imagine revisions on a 500 word (or less) manuscript, but by golly...picture books go through more revisions, sometimes, than novels! Every word counts, when you have space for only a few.

It's difficult to say what exactly gives a picture book that SPARK; that something special that resonates with readers young and old. But I can offer up some of the most common mistakes that I see in picture book submissions, to help you find that spark!

1. Too didactic

I.e., too educational and message-driven. While yes, most picture books boil down to basic themes, and many have overarching morals, they aren't the focus or purpose of the book. A child isn't going to want to read WHY STEALING IS BAD! But they sure as heck enjoy I WANT MY HAT BACK.

There are, of course, educational picture books; these tie into specific school curriculum (Common Core) for the intended age group - and aren't any of the below!

2. Too long

Picture book texts are getting shorter and shorter; you should aim for no more than 500 words, unless you're writing a picture book biography, in which case, I'd aim for no more than 1200 words, including the Author's Note/End Matter.

3. Non-professional illustrations

Can't draw? Don't even try! It's not necessary to have illustrations prepared in order to sell a picture book. If you aren't an illustrator and are debut, the publisher will want to pair your text with an illustrator with a track record, perhaps some awards, to help promote the book.

4. My daughter/grandson/local library kids love it!

I don't care. No really; I know that's harsh, but I'm not selling it to them. There are lots of stories that kids love that aren't translatable to a wider market. And guess what - kids aren't actually the end buyer. Parents are! Librarians are! Your child or local children may LOVE the story about your dog finding a kitten - but is that just because they've met your dog? Like the way you tell the story? Will ALL children love this story, especially when you aren't telling it? Perhaps; but it's also possible it will be...

5. Too familiar

Before you press send - make sure you've done your research. Are there already ten billion stories about tangled, messy hair? Yep. Are there already a zillion ABC and counting books? Yep. How about books about bunnies? And pigs? Yep. Yep. Or on the opposite end - are there NO picture books like yours - and why not? (i.e., if you're writing an erotic picture book, uh...wrong market, buddy). The picture books that stand out are FRESH; even if they boil down to the same basic themes that all the rest do, it's the fresh, unique spin on it that makes it stand out.

6. Forced rhyme

For some reason, a lot of authors seem to think that picture book text has to be rhyming. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Rhyme is actually one of the toughest types of picture books to sell - and that's because it's very difficult to do RIGHT. It's never, ever a good thing when I'm cringing as I read because I can totally tell that next line was forced into the narrative just so the author could have something that rhymes with the word above. And you have to pay attention to rhythm with rhyme, too - syllables, how it sounds when read aloud. If you're writing, and struggling to find words or phrases that go in the direction you want - stop. Try writing it without rhyme!!

7. Too slight

"Cute" isn't good enough. "Sweet" isn't going to cut it. It has to be AMAZING. It has to leave an impression; you can't just smile when you finish reading and forget about it a week later. It has to resonate around in your brain and get you excited. You will remember it and be able to recount the narrative even if you've read it only once, over a year ago.

8. No over-and-over-again readability

This ties into the above; is your story timeless? A story that can be read over and over again and be just as fun and surprising the fourth, fifth, eighteenth time around? I would liken this to movies; some you go to, you enjoy. Will you buy the DVD? Is it a movie that you'll want to watch over again, invest hours in, even though you know what happens?

9. No take-away

As above, the book should leave an impression. Something that you take away long after the pages are closed; does it leave your child feeling safe? Does it leave a lingering moral reminder or a new idea or inspiration, tucked discreetly behind the lasting joy of the story?

10. Too complicated

Don't try and throw everything and the kitchen sink into your story; simple is better. Find a focus and build from that; too many themes, too many characters, too much noise just leads to confusion. Keep your age range in mind - a two year old isn't the intended market for WHERE'S WALDO!

11. No narrative arc

Finally, your story should still have a beginning, middle and end. Even a concept book introduces and concludes. Is your story just a series of vignettes? Or several shorts in one? There should be an over-arching theme and narrative.

I realize that there are classics that break these mistakes. THAT DOESN'T GIVE YOU FREE LICENSE TO MAKE THEM. The bottom line is that yes, there will always be exceptions, but a) when were those exceptions published? In THIS market? and b) why make your journey harder than it has to be by trying to be an exception?

The next time you meet with your critique group, don't just ask them for impressions or critique; ask them to specifically tell you if they think your story falls into one of these categories - and why? Use that feedback to strengthen the text - or to find the strength to shelve it, and write something amazing.

Not every story will leave the same impression; picture books are just as subjective as novels. But, more people than not will love it. And that's what makes it work.


  1. Thank you for this! In some of the writer's groups I belong to, we get newbie writers bringing picture book manuscripts--either because they think they're easy to write, or because they told the story to their grandkids (who loved it). I try to gently explain that they're not easy [but keep working because it's worth it] and your grandchild liking it doesn't guarantee universal appeal. Now I have somewhere with a comprehensive list to direct them!

  2. I echo Angelica's comments. I have several picture book manuscripts and I'm trying to pick one. I keep picking the one that gets a lot of positive attention from my writer peeps, but the word count is too high. I think I'm picking the wrong one. I've got to work on another one that follows the rules before I can submit something that breaks them!

  3. Thanks. A very helpful post. A great list to refer to when doing revisions.

  4. This is an awesome list! I posted it on my corkboard over my desk.

  5. This is such a great guide. Thank you!

    I think you should write a book for writers. You have a deep understanding of the writer's struggle (since you are one) and you also know how that relates to selling work in today's marketplace. It's like a puzzle that you put together for us blog readers and we say, "Ohhhhh. I get that now."

    I'll be running my ideas through this as a litmus test until I find a maybe-good-enough one. Thank you so much!