"The major problem with the submissions we get... is that they don't stand out in any way. They lack a sparkle that's hard to define," says Stephanie Owens Lurie, Publisher of Dutton Books.
If the publisher can't define sparkle, how can writers be expected to achieve it? What makes a story sparkle?
In that same interview (published in the 2001 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market), Lurie also said, "I look for a story that speaks to me right away, a character I feel like becoming for the duration of the book, or I look for humor, imagination, something that touches my basic emotions. I enjoy good word play... fun to read aloud."
Okay, now we're getting somewhere -- story, character, humor, imagination, emotion, word play. Good concrete words we can use to define sparkle.
Whether you've just come up with a brilliant idea for a children's story or you have a finished manuscript ready and waiting to submit to editors, you need to determine whether or not the story is strong enough for the competitive picture book market. Picture book manuscripts make up the largest number of submissions to children's book publishers.
Make a dummy. Most picture books are 32 pages, which only allows 28 pages for text and illustrations. Children's writers are usually advised to make a dummy after the story is written. However to create a strong story, you must consider the illustrations right from the start. Outlining your story idea in 28-page blocks is an excellent way to begin. Writing With Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children's Books, by Uri Shulevitz, includes a section on making book dummies.
In his book, The Business of Writing for Children, Aaron Shepard says, "The number of scenes determines whether a story is best suited to a picture book or a magazine."
Take a closer look at your favorite picture books. Study the ratio of illustrations to text. Some picture book illustrations cover a two-page spread, so you don't necessarily need 28 scenes. But if you can't come up with at least a dozen concrete visual images for the illustrator to choose from, you might want to re-think your picture book idea. It may be better suited to the magazine market and should be written that way. Page space is limited in magazines, so editors look for action stories that lend themselves to a few cartoon-like drawings or clever border illustrations.
For a picture book or a magazine story, keep the plot structure simple. Novels contain several conflicts, but short stories only have room for one. The action should move forward in chronological order. Flashbacks disrupt the flow and are difficult to illustrate.
Your main character should be a child, or a character with child-like sensibilities, within the story's target age group. Keep the number of characters to a minimum. For every rule there is an exception, so let's get it out of the way -- the exception is folktales.
During a panel discussion at a regional SCBWI conference, Stephanie Owens Lurie and illustrator Lynn Munsinger emphasized that the job of the writer is to tell a great story, and let the illustrator do the rest. Don't spend a lot of words on narrative or description of the characters. In fact, it's a good idea to ignore species altogether; don't presume your characters will be illustrated as humans. Leave character portrayal up to the illustrator.
Instead, use your words to create a sympathetic character, someone a child can identify with. Use telling details to identify your character, such as a physical characteristic, a mannerism, or favorite phrase. Consider Sesame Street's beloved Big Bird. Even though he's an over-sized, yellow Muppet, children everywhere adore him. Why? Because he frets, worries, and makes mistakes, exactly like children do. They can relate to him because he acts out and gives voice to their fears.
Emotion affects the pacing of your story. Does your story flow? As you review the dummy of your outline or story, make sure you've given the reader good reasons to keep turning the pages.
In a novel, the writer makes use of the five senses -- sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch -- to invoke emotion in the reader. With picture books the job is somewhat different. Think about the illustrator again. How do you draw smell? Or taste? Or touch? Most senses don't lend themselves to illustration.
Look at this sentence:
"Cubby stepped into a meadow of sweet-smelling flowers."This doesn't tell us much about Cubby or the meadow. Nor does it convey a mood. The reader has no idea how Cubby feels. How would you illustrate it?
Now look at the sentence revised:
"As Cubby bounded through the tall grass, sweet lavender tickled his nose."
The words "bounded" and "tickled' imply happiness. The reader can tell Cubby is happy. The "sweet lavender" instantly conjures a specific visual image, not to mention smell. In one sentence your reader is engaged.
Humor and imagination go hand-in-hand. Humor triggers a child's imagination. Kids love to laugh. Funny picture books sell. Even if your story isn't humorous, make sure you include some funny moments. Humor adds another layer to your story. When a group of six-year olds shout, "Aha!" and get the joke, they are engaged.
Avoid preaching. There's an age-old saying among editors, "If you want to send a message, write a letter." This doesn't mean your story can't have a moral; it simply means any lesson to be learned from your story must be implied. A good story awakens a child's imagination and invites him to come to his own conclusion. In Aesop's fable, "The Fox and the Grapes," he didn't state outright, "it's human nature to express disdain for what we can't have," even though that's what the story's about.
Cut unnecessary words, like "very," "big," "little," and words ending in "-ly." If you use two words to describe a character or action, choose one word to convey a concrete image. Look for words like "that," "was," and "had," which indicate passive voice. Substitute strong action verbs. The best way to judge whether a word is necessary is to go through the manuscript, remove the word, and decide if the sentence makes sense without it.
Let's go back to Cubby in the meadow and look at this sentence:
"Cubby was looking for his very best friend."
Here is a simpler, more vivid, even slightly humorous, way to show the action:
"Cubby searched for his pal Stinky."
Poetic devices can be a good way to inject light humor and word play into your story. Common tools are rhythm, repetition, and alliteration: "Cubby captured the crazy cat." Using rhyming words within the story can also be effective; however avoid writing your story in verse. Even though there are plenty of picture books written in verse, as a rule, children's book editors publish very few. If your story is written in verse, it might be more suited to the children's magazine market. (Again, there are always exceptions.
Test your concrete word imagery by performing a simple exercise that's popular with many picture book writers. Dissect your manuscript by re-typing it and skipping two lines between every sentence. Read it aloud. Analyze it sentence by sentence, make sure every word, every sentence, every scene creates a visual image. You'll see that sparkle is not some elusive ideal to strive for but simply a matter of technique. A marriage of colorful words and vibrant pictures is what makes your story sparkle.
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Copyright © 2002 Peggy Tibbetts
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.