In my capacity as an acquisitions editor, I've read a number of picture book manuscripts that never should have left home. There are many articles telling writers how to write a picture book, but here are eight types of stories publishers don't want to see.
You've all seen them, so you know publishers will publish a story in rhyme. As a beginning writer, you should bear in mind that most editors cringe when they see a rhyming story in their slush pile. Why? Because so many of them are badly written.
Putting together a string of rhyming words doesn't make a story. Writers who try to do this put more time into finding words that rhyme than actually crafting a story which has the main elements of a good tale -- a beginning, middle, and an end, as well as problems for the main character to solve.
Imagine an editor's chagrin if this came across her desk:
Yes, this rhymes, but it isn't a story. Unfortunately for the beginning writer, it's difficult to craft a rhyming picture book an editor will want to publish. You must be very gifted at telling a story in rhyme to be successful. New writers will add unnecessary words just to keep the rhyme going in their story. They may add characters and events, too, which don't contribute to the story, other than making a good rhyme. It isn't just about the rhyme -- it's about a well-crafted story.
Too often writers believe the best way to gain publication is to emulate another writer. Many times that writer is the beloved Dr. Seuss. He was a master in his field, but it's been said he wrote over a 1,000 pages for every 64 pages he published.
Consider Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham. The main character (MC) is approached by Sam and asked to eat green eggs and ham. The MC refuses, but Sam continues to pester him and offer him any number of ways to try green eggs and ham. Finally, the MC agrees, only to find he likes green eggs and ham. This is a delightful story children love. It has a beginning, middle, and an end. The MC has to overcome his disgust at eating green eggs and ham, and he does so by the end of the story.
Remember, to create a rhyming book editors will love, you need a good story that happens to rhyme. You need a main character (preferably a child or animal), who has a problem that he needs to solve. Along the way, the child has obstacles that he must overcome. Finally, he solves his problem by himself without the aid of an adult.
While you may think a story about a shoe that has traveled a thousand miles makes a fun read, children cannot relate to an animated shoe. Sure, the shoe may need to find its way from New York to Los Angeles and may encounter all kinds of disasters along the way, but please don't submit it to a publishing house. Keep your main characters to children, birds, and animals.
There are a few successful stories that have machine driven characters. Remember the classic The Little Engine That Could and more recently the Thomas the Tank Engine stories. If your story can only work by using a character other than a child or an animal, try using a machine-driven object, such as a lawnmower. Don't write a story about a rake trying to figure out how to get all the leaves in the yard piled up so the neighbor kids could jump into them. Kids won't be interested, and an editor won't buy it.
There are also books, such as Pinocchio and Toy Story, where the main character is a toy. The reason toys work as main characters is that they commonly have a face, like the rabbit in The Velveteen Rabbit. Children relate to their toys, often as imaginary friends. It's easy, then, for them to imagine the toy in the story becoming real.
Slice of life stories are probably the ones that most often cross an editor's desk. These are cute little vignettes that often have the potential to become a full-fledged story; however, they fall short. Imagine a story where there is no conflict. For example, Janie wakes up one morning and decides to go for a walk. On her walk, she finds a flower, and a stone, and a playground. At the playground, she stops to swing on the swing and play on the slide. When she gets hungry, she goes home to eat lunch. This is not a story. Janie has no problems in her life. She has no obstacles to overcome. Imagine instead that Janie has a fear of spiders. On her walk, she encounters a spider in a web right in the path. She has to figure out a way to go past the spider. On one side of the path there is a barking German Shepherd. On the other side of the path, there is a steep slope and a pond. Now, Janie has a problem; she has obstacles to overcome. The story is no longer just a slice of Janie's life.
Imagine you and your child are reading along, both of you are fascinated with the story and can't imagine how the main character will get out of his predicament when you come to the fatal words, "and he woke up." Just as you would be disappointed with this conclusion, so, too, will an editor be disappointed looking at the manuscript. This is not an ending an editor wants to see. Your character needs to solve his or her problems. Waking up from a dream is not a solution. Give your characters real problems and real ways to solve those problems.
Aesop got away with telling moral tales, but today's modern writer won't. Neither children nor editors want to read a tale loaded with moral platitudes. If you feel you have a mission to teach morals to children, volunteer at your church; don't put those teachings into a picture book intended for the general public. It won't get published, unless you, as the author, decide to self-publish.
In today's market, it is possible to embed a moral into the plot of your story, as long as you're not preaching to the reader. An example of this is Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, by Kevin Henkes. In this story, Lilly loves school. One day, Lilly brings a pair of sunglasses, three quarters and a plastic purse that played music to school. Lilly's teacher asks her to put away her purse, but she loves it so much. To her horror, Mr. Slinger confiscates her purse until the end of the day. Later that day, Lilly is so angry she draws a terrible picture of Mr. Slinger. When it's time to leave school, Mr. Slinger gives Lilly back her precious purse. When she opens the bag and sees all of her things, plus a note from Mr. Slinger and a bag of treats, she's so upset, she runs home and tells her parents. That night, on her own, she draws a new picture of Mr. Slinger and writes an apology, which Mr. Slinger accepts.
While Mr. Henkes doesn't preach to his readers, he cleverly tells his story in a way that will enable children to understand the significance of jumping to conclusions. Everything is not always what it seems and tomorrow will be a better day. Only if you can weave a moral into your plot should you consider doing this.
It is amazing how many writers will slap together a group of words, leave the proofreading to the spell checker, and send off the manuscript hoping to be published. While writing a picture book may seem like an easy task, most picture book writers will take over a year to craft a 32-page book. One of the manuscripts I received contained numerous spelling errors. Yes, the words were correctly spelled, but they were the wrong words, such as "her" for "here" and "there" for "their." Other errors included sentences that should have ended with a question mark but ended with a period instead. I have also seen dialogue with unclosed quotation marks. Editors have hundreds of manuscripts from which to choose. A sloppy manuscript will not get past the first reader.
A picture book is just that -- a book reliant upon pictures. The reader knows what's happening in the book from the visual on the page. A picture book isn't a novel or a 1,500-word short story. A picture book editor doesn't want to know what your character looks like or what color shorts she's wearing. He doesn't need to know what race your character is. Neither does she need a description of the house or the yard where your character lives and plays. If you have to write those descriptors in your first drafts, go ahead, but before you send off the story to a publisher, remove all references to how someone or something looks.
Remember that the standard for picture books is only 32 pages. On those 32 pages, there needs to be room for pictures. Keep your story to a short time-frame and write with a strong active voice. Eliminate adjectives and filler words. This isn't an essay you're padding for your English class. This is a compact story where the fewer the words, the better the chance of acceptance.
Now that you know what an editor doesn't want to see, explore what is already written. Spend time at the library and in children's book stores. Read published picture books. Learn from others, and then write your own unique story.
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Copyright © 2011 Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.