Hooray! More notes from the September NJ-SCBWI first page session!

Those familiar with peer critiques know the “sandwich” method: begin with what you liked, then move onto what needs work, and end by pointing out the manuscript’s merits. The editors followed this method well and offered compliments to soften the criticisms. Everyone must have left feeling good about an aspect of their writing. But we still have plenty to work on.

Some common suggestions:

  • Rhyme carefully. Rhyme should have a consistent beat and meter. The editors easily picked out when a rhyme stretched to make it work. There was only one rhyming manuscript that worked. The other manuscripts felt limited by rhyme, and one in particular featured subject matter for an older audience, so the rhyme felt out of place. There’s a lot to live up to if you’re going to rhyme, so read many rhyming picture books to get a sense of how it all fits together. It’s not impossible, but great skill is required. They advised rewriting in prose and suggested using alliteration, which can be as fun as rhyming, without the restrictions. But use alliteration in moderation! (Umm, I didn’t mean to rhyme there…)
  • Amp up the humor. The editors felt picture book laughs weren’t taken far enough. They wanted the stories to go from simply funny to outrageous. There’s always room for more humor. Make it crazier and more outlandish.
  • Avoid common themes. Pets dying. New babies in the family. Monsters. Imaginary friends. First words. Retellings of The Three Little Pigs. These have all been done before, and done well. Stories on these subjects need to dig deep to find something new to say. Stand out, don’t blend in.

The editors also discussed avoiding clichés, clarifying the conflict on the first page, and cutting text to move action along faster. Out of 26 manuscripts, only two or three were considered strong contenders as written, and even so, they still required a little tweaking.

[An interesting tidbit for all you artists: if you’re an author/illustrator, consider yourself at an advantage. An editor is attracted to working with you since they skip the difficult step of matching your PB manuscript with an illustrator. Instead of communicating with two professionals to produce a book, the editor works directly with just one person—you.]

My friends and I thought that for the most part, both editors agreed on the manuscripts. However, one editor thought they didn’t agree very much at all!

But I think we can all agree that we need to work smarter. Some questions to think about as you work on your manuscript:

  • Why should a publisher choose your story? What makes it unique and appealing, different from any other book in the marketplace?
  • Why should a publisher spend tens of thousands of dollars, work several months (and in the case of PBs, years), and utilize the resources of a dozen or more staff members to produce your book?
  • Is this truly the best story you can write? How can you make it even better?