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by Darcy Pattison

You’ve written a picture book manuscript and now you want to know if it’s ready to send out. Here are seven crucial questions to answer.

The first three questions focus on the overall story.

1. Topic: Is the story kid appropriate, kid appealing?

2. Language: Is the story age appropriate? Have you used interesting, fun language? Have you allowed places for kids to join in, such as a refrain to repeat?

3. Illustrations: Have you left space for the illustrator? Don’t describe every visual, but leave that to the illustrator. However, DO add things you touch, smell, taste and hear.


From BEAR SNORES ON by Karma Wilson & Jane Chapman

The next four questions focus on the structure and how well the story will lay out in a 32-page format

Instructions for these questions:  Divide your manuscript into a minimum of fourteen sections, with each section a scene in the story. The fourteen sections will roughly be equal to the number of double page spreads in a 32-page picture book. (If you have fewer than fourteen sections, it’s probably a magazine piece, not a picturebook.) Now, consider each section and answer these questions.

4. Does each section have an action to illustrate?

5. Does each section make you want to turn the page?

6. Does each section advance the story? If you take out a page, does it destroy the story?

7. Does the plot have a narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end?

If you answered, “Yes” on all these questions, then submit your story with confidence.

Not sure about any of the answers? Children’s book author Darcy Pattison and children’s book author/illustrator Leslie Helakoski will co-lead a unique workshop, PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz at Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, PA on April 23-26, 2015. Join them and learn how to make your story rise above the fierce competition.

Anna Staniszewskiby Anna Staniszewski

As an author who’s slowly been transitioning from novels to picture books (my first picture book will be out in March 2015), I’ve realized that picture book techniques have started influencing my novel-writing process. Here are a few examples.

1. Brevity and Word Choice
This is probably the most obvious connection. When you’re used to working with 500 words, you tend to get a little pickier about the words you use in longer projects. Even when I have 50k words to work with, for example, I still find myself making sure to cut out unnecessary phrases (particularly unneeded dialogue tags) and using strong verbs and interesting nouns to make each sentence count.

2. Tying the End to the Beginning
This is my favorite picture book technique. In picture books, the ending almost always echoes the beginning of the tale. I love using this approach in novels, reflecting something from the opening chapter in the closing chapter in a different context. This technique shows us that the character has grown and changed, and it also makes the story feel cohesive and satisfying.

3. Repeating for Emphasis
Repetition can be great in picture books, but in novels it can feel like telegraphing. A strong repeated image, however, especially one whose meaning deepens over the course of the story, can work well if it’s revisited throughout the novel. It can help show how the meaning of that image or experience has changed for the character over time.

4. Using the Senses
In picture books, we have to be mindful of not focusing too much on the visual details so that we don’t step on the illustrator’s toes. That means we have to use other senses to give the story depth. I try to use a similar multi-sensory approach in my novels, so I’m not simply describing how things look to the characters, but I’m also thinking about the smells, sounds, and textures around them. I’ve also found myself using a lot of onomatopoeic words—kapow!

For those of you who write in longer and shorter formats, how do you find the two influencing each other? What’s your favorite picture book technique to use in novel-writing? Please comment below and join the conversation!


prank list cover 2Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. Currently, she lives outside Boston with her husband and their crazy dog. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. She is the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series and the Dirt Diary series. Her newest novel, The Prank List, released on July 1st from Sourcebooks. You can visit Anna at

You may be wondering–what ever happened to Tara? It’s been almost a month since she blogged. (Or you may not. You may be relieved your inbox has been devoid of my blivel. I made that word up, in case you’re wondering. A portmanteau of blog and drivel.)

Well, I’ve been traveling! I’ve actually changed out of my pajamas several times in the last few weeks!

Not so pristine white board.

Not so pristine whiteboard.

At the end of March I drove down to MD/DE/WV SCBWI’s Annual Conference to present my workshop “From Concept to Dummy for Picture Book Writers”. About 70 writers attended–it was a full house in our little room. The attendees got a taste of my imbalance. Yes, my mental imbalance, but also my MS imbalance. Luckily I didn’t topple the whiteboard. I did, however, have one sinking moment when I thought I used a permanent Sharpie on the pristine white surface. It reminded me of NJ-SCBWI 2008 when I volunteered to hang signs on the aging plaster of the Princeton Theological Seminary, only to take chunks of wall with me when I removed the signs. Be forewarned, I cause mayhem and destruction at SCBWI events.

I think many will agree that the best part of the workshop was when we read the beginnings of successful picture books to discern the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN in each opening line. Incorporating these details makes your reader ask WHY and eagerly turn the page to find out.

Many new writers mistakenly begin stories with, “My name is Jamie and I’m six years old.”  This tells a reader nothing about the story to come. And more importantly, an editor who reads this plain first line will most likely stop there. YIKES. Not what you want. You have to break out of that slush pile with a line that captures the editor immediately.

After reading a dozen picture book openings, with me screaming WHY? WHHHHHYYYYY? and bending over in feigned painful anticipation, shaking my fists at the sky, I challenged the participants to rewrite their opening lines. Everyone was quite thrilled to get their own Tara WHHHHHYYYYY? in response to their improved introductions.

Writer Sarah Maynard summarized my workshop with bullet points, to which I’ve added my thoughts from the event:

  • You have 30 seconds to grab their attention. MAKE IT GOOD!
    Like a resume to obtain a job, you have limited time to make an impression with an agent or editor. They can have hundreds of manuscripts to read each week, so they give each one only a few moments to grab them. Punch that opening, make them want to continue reading.
  • “Writing a picture book is 99% staring and 1% writing.”
    There is A LOT of thinking involved in writing a picture book. Don’t worry if you’re not actually putting words on paper every day. Think about how to resolve problems in your story. Stare at your manuscript. Your subconscious will most likely be working on a solution and it will pop out while you’re doing mundane chores, like emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, or taking a shower.


  • Learn who YOU are as a WRITER.
    A lot of authors, including me, espouse advice that may not work for you. Discover how YOU work best and stick with it. For instance, routine doesn’t jive with me, although it works for a lot of other people. I used to force myself into routine only to get frustrated, losing my creative mojo. Only you know how to thrive in your creative mode. It’s very personal. Don’t take advice that doesn’t serve you well. (It may be useful to note here that I’ve shunned routine my entire life.)
  • If it’s not apparent by words you’ve written, add an art note.
    One attendee told me I was the first person to speak positively about art notes. Yeah, I think they get a bad rap. They’re absolutely ESSENTIAL to use if it’s not apparent what’s happening by your words alone. If the text says your character is smiling but you actually want them to frown, you need an art note to convey that. Of course, you should not use them to direct the entire shabang, but to ensure there are no misunderstandings. Which brings me to the last point…
  • Don’t make an agent or editor guess!
    I find that some new writers like to surprise the reader on the second or third page of a manuscript. This means the beginning is not entirely clear and the reader must guess what is happening. Well, what if your reader guesses wrong? Then they become hopelessly confused at the reveal and probably discard your manuscript. You don’t want an agent or editor to have to guess what is happening in your tale. Make it CRYSTAL either by the text or the addition of art notes. It can be as simple as “[art: the character is a bear]” to make everyone understand.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Maryland—the hospitality of the chapter went above and beyond. We had a lovely faculty dinner at the Craftsman-style log cabin home of former RA Edie Hemingway. Is there anything more writerly than that (I mean, c’mon, HEMINGWAY)? Edie has a charming home with a writing hut tucked into the woods.


Far better than my writing space—my unmade bed!


As I crawl back into my pajamas, I’ll be getting another blog post ready. This time, about my trip to Reading is Fundamental and the donation that my publisher and PiBoIdMo participants made possible, enriching the lives of children with BOOKS!


***UPDATE 3/28/14: “Fiction Magic” is now fully funded! Thanks to everyone who contributed. You still have 9 more days to get some fabulous pledge packages, too!***

Sometimes writers need a good kick in the pants.

Wouldn’t it be great to have your own personal writing coach by your side every day to get you moving? She could whip the sheets off you each morning, bugle reveille in your ear, even toast  you an Eggo while you shower.

Eh, who am I kidding? Writers don’t shower!


Author Deb Lund brought together her 20+ years of teaching experience in a magical way—with 54 surprising writing prompts, tips and tricks for you to apply to your work-in-progress whenever you’re feeling stuck. It’s like having that writing coach right there with you, only a lot less annoying. It’s “Fiction Magic”!

Fiction Magic Title screenshotMagicalDebLund

For years, Deb taught 4th- and 5th-grade students how to write, and she wanted to make it cool for them, so she developed these cards. Her real “aha” moment came when she realized that she could teach adults the same way she taught children, using the same FUN strategies. ABRACADABRA! These “magical” cards act as triggers to pull something out of your head that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to coax out.

At the Oregon Silver Falls SCBWI Writing Retreat, star agent Jen Rofé of Andrea Brown Literary Agency attended Deb’s session and then exclaimed, “I want all my writers to have your cards!” Yep, she was that impressed. The only problem? Deb’s cards were a prototype that cost her $200 to produce. How could she make them for a dozen writers? A hundred? A THOUSAND?

Enter Kickstarter. Deb’s Fiction Magic campaign is on right now and it’s 94% funded already! But with just 10 days to go, she needs your help. And believe me, you want her help, too!

Let’s do a few tricks right now, shall we? Whip out your WIP and see if these magical remedies help!


Your characters must make some bad choices along the way. They may even have to negotiate for something they need or want with people they loathe. Characters may know they’re agreeing to bad deals but feel they have no choice. Or the deals appear good, but fall apart later. Or time factors make the deals even more ominous. Make the stakes of bad deals so high it’s difficult for your characters to back out of them.

When you feel stressed by all that’s on your plate, be gentle with yourself. Let your characters agree to bad deals, but the only agreement you need to make with yourself right now is to write, no matter how bad the writing may seem.


Secrets can be powerful tools or sources of trouble. Or both. What information could your characters unwittingly slip out to the wrong people? Characters could be in danger because of secrets. Other characters could reveal secrets that affect your lead characters, whether the secrets were theirs or not. In trying to cover up secrets or escaping from those trying to conceal secrets, what could go wrong? Who will be angry? Hurt? Feeling betrayed? Put in life or death situations?

Do you keep your dreams secret? Sometimes they need protection, but when you’re ready and the time is right, reveal them to others who believe in you.


If you’re lucky, you’ll pick this card over and over, because this is Key. Your characters are on quests. Delay them. Interrupt their journeys. Who or what could step in to make your characters stop in their tracks? The interruptions may be people, objects, circumstances, thoughts, feelings… Send your characters merrily down the road, and then run them into roadblocks. Keep tossing them unending hardship. Warm up your pitching arm and let it rip. Throw after throw after throw.

As a writer, you have plenty obstacles. For each one you throw at your character, remove one from your writing life! Where will you start?



There are 51 more Fiction Magic tricks for you to try. But only if you help Deb reach her goal.

Check out her Kickstarter and create your own magic! (Even if that includes the bugle call. But that’s not for me. I am NOT a morning person!)




Allow me to be Andy Rooney for a moment.

Imagine me as a white-haired, bulbous, salty old man with a whiny accent.


I know, it’s hard. But just IMAGINE. (By the way, isn’t “bulbous” a marvelous word? I think we, as writers, should seek its descriptive assistance more often. But sorry, I digress. Back to being Andy…)

“Ya ever wonder why so many children’s books feature THREES? Goldilocks and the THREE Bears? The THREE Little Pigs? Snow White and the SEVEN Dwarfs? No wait…I miscounted…I mean The THREE Billy Goat’s Gruff?”

Yes, there’s something downright appealing about the number THREE. (P.S., I’ve returned to being Tara. Thank goodness ’cause those eyebrows are itchy.)

It’s like two is too little. And four is too many. As Goldi would say, three is “just right”. Three is as satisfying as a warm, comfy little bed. (Until the three bears arrive home, that is.)

According to Wikipedia (yes, I’m quoting Wiki), “things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes. From slogans (“Go, fight, win!”) to films, many things are structured in threes.”

The rule of threes is all around us. In photography, the “rule of thirds” dictates that the most visually striking elements of a photograph should align with the intersection of theoretical lines which break the image into thirds lengthwise and widthwise. (Geesh, what a clunker of a sentence.) Hence:


In interior decorating, objets d’art are often grouped in threes.


Architecture adheres to this rule as well. Three are more aesthetically pleasing than two or four. Threes help to balance the focal point in a room. Just ask Genevieve.


There’s the “three schema approach” in software engineering. But don’t ask me to explain. That’s the hubby’s forte.

Even religion espouses threes—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

“Omne trium perfectum” is a Latin phrase which translates to “everything that comes in threes is perfect”. The world seems to think so. You’ll see the “rule of threes” demonstrated everywhere. Hey, I even sneeze three times in a row.

So in picture books, where do we use this rule?

Descriptive groups of three.


“The Monstore” by Tara Lazar & James Burks


Three images upon a page.


“Boy + Bot” by Ame Dyckman & Dan Yaccarino


Even three text boxes!


“Children Make Terrible Pets” by Peter Brown


And the classic three characters.



But the most important rule of threes in picture books is three attempts to solve a problem. (Prior to the fourth successful attempt.)

These three attempts invest the reader in your hero’s struggles. Solving the problem in one fell swoop? That doesn’t feel genuine, and the reader won’t care about their journey because it’s over before it’s even begun. There’s no time to empathize with your MC. And with two attempts, the main character has not yet collected enough information to help complete his task. But third time’s the charm! (See that?) It’s when he tries again, fails, hits his lowest point, but then realizes just what he needs to rise again. Three attempts build tension and encourage the reader to turn the page–eagerly! Oooh, what happens NEXT?

Crack open your favorite picture book and you’ll notice threes abound. What did you find?

But now, I’m going to tell you about some different numbers…


THE MONSTORE author and PiBoIdMo creator Tara Lazar’s “7 ATE 9”, a pun-packed preschool noir mystery, starring a hard-boiled Private “I” and a mysteriously missing number, to Kevin Lewis at Disney-Hyperion, by Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency (World).

Hip, hip, hooray!

(That’s three cheers!)

Hippity, hoppity…


Come meet some new kidlit authors with the Children’s Author Blog Hop!

I was invited to participate by Darlene Beck-Jacobson, an author I know from NJ-SCBWI whose historical middle grade novel WHEELS OF CHANGE releases next year. It’s set in 1909 Washington D.C. and follows a young girl who attempts to save the family carriage business during the proliferation of the automobile. (Really cool premise I cannot wait to read!)

To participate in this hop, you don a pair of your fluffiest Hello Kitty socks and…wait a minute! This isn’t the Children’s Author SOCK HOP? Oh darn. And I was itching to do the mashed potato, too.

Darlene and me at a NJ-SCBWI book signing

To participate in the BLOG hop, you answer four questions, then pass the torch onto three other authors. One of the great privileges of writing this blog is to promote other talented kidlit professionals. I’m so pleased to introduce you to PiBoIdMo participants and authors you may not know yet—Elaine, Angie & Jacque—but you will!

And now the four questions…

Why is this night different from all other nights?

Whoops. Sorry. That’s the first of the Passover four questions. Maybe my Jewish friends had a chuckle. The rest of you are going HUH?!

1. What are you currently working on?

As you may know, I host Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) every November. It’s the picture book writer’s alternative to NaNoWriMo. The challenge is to create one new picture book idea daily.

I caution PiBoIdMo participants NOT to post their ideas anywhere online. Concept is primarily what sells a picture book, and you don’t want someone to snatch your hook-y concept.

So I’m going to follow my own advice and be a little cryptic about what I’m working on. It’s a magical story about someone who’s not happy with magic.

My usual M.O. is to begin with a title, and that’s what I’m doing yet again. It’s got a snazzy, catchy title, something that will make people wanna snag it right off the shelf. The bad news is that I’ve already written this story once before—and revised it at least a dozen times. But it just didn’t work. In fact, I set aside this story for an entire year before I re-read my final draft again just last week.


In my zealous quest to perfect the manuscript, I darted further and further away from my original intentions. The story didn’t resemble anything I’d like to call my work. And so, it got filed in the circular file.

This week I began again with nothing but the title. I’ve got the opening down and I can already see it’s going far better than it did last year, but I’ve still got a long way to go.

I’m also putting final edits on LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD, a punny skating adventure coming from Penguin Random House Children’s in October 2015. All your favorite fairytale characters will be along for the glide—Humpty Dumpty, Old MacDonald, even Jack Sprat and his wife.

2. How does it differ from other works in the genre?

The magical story will feature an adult. In fact, it opens with an adult. I know this is typically a no-no, but the adult is not an ordinary grown-up. You’ll see. Know the rules, but know when to break them, too.

3. Why do you write what you do?

I have always had a love affair with the short story. I prefer the brilliance in their brevity. And with picture books, I adore the juxtaposition of words and images. It’s like playing for a living.

4. What is the hardest part about writing?

Not letting the words get away from you. Sometimes the words have a way of writing themselves, pulling you in a direction you didn’t want to go. You have to learn to tame your words, and that’s no easy feat.


And now, ladies and gentleman and children of all ages, I’m pleased to present the three authors I’ve chosen to hop to: Elaine Kiely Kearns, Angie Karcher and Jacque Duffy!

E. Kiely Kearns is an elementary school teacher and a member of the SCBWI. She earned her Masters in Education from Fordham University. She dreams up wild and wonderful stories in New York State where she lives with her husband, two children, and menagerie of animals. She lives on coffee, chocolate and humor. Mostly humor. Get your “Book Smarts” fix at

Angie Karcher’s first book, WHERE THE RIVER GRINS: THE HISTORY OF EVANSVILLE, ILLINOIS came out in November 2012. It was part of the city’s Bicentennial celebration and is a resource book for local history in all third grade classrooms in Evansville. Her current project, THE LEGENDARY COWBOY JONES, about a 70-year-old jockey who’s still racing, comes out after the first of the year. She is a former Kindergarten teacher and professional storyteller. Read more of her story at

Born in Brisbane, Australia, Jacque Duffy has always been creative and entrepreneurial. She has written, illustrated and self-published seven children’s books in a series. These books were sought and purchased by the Queensland State Government and placed into schools and libraries. In 2014 her first picture book THE BEAR SAID PLEASE will be released by Wombat books. Follow her down under at

Happy hopping!

I enjoy discovering new social media tools, and today I stumbled across Padlet!

Padlet gives you a wall. You can post anything you’d like, plus invite others to participate. “Simple yet powerful” is their motto. Dude. Right on.

Excited to try it out, I began a “Picture Book Writing” wall. Ask me any question about writing picture books. Plus, read other Q&A’s.


OK, it looks a little plain right now. Don’t worry, I’ll jazz it up soon like a tween girl’s locker, full of sparkly doo-dads, baby animal posters and I heart this, I heart that.

Join me there:

I’ve set up this wall in “stream” format, meaning the most recent post will appear at the top. Padlet also offers “freeform” format so you can pin stuff all willy-nilly like you would on a real corkboard.

To post a question on this Padlet, click the green pencil icon on the lower left of the screen. Please be sure to include your name at the top of the text box (it will appear in red) before typing your question.

Padlet was previously named “Wallwisher” but that wasn’t catchy enough. If they’re riding on the coattails of the iPad, I won’t blame ’em.

Enjoy, and let me know if you create your own Padlet!

The possibilities are endless! Classroom notices, brainstorming with friends, artwork in progress, travel itineraries, family menus, reunion planning…

rhymeweaverlogoOK, silly title. And if anyone under 30 reads this post, they’re not gonna get the reference to Moon River.

But heck, I like it, because your smile will be wider after you visit RhymeWeaver…

Many kidlit writers hear “don’t rhyme” from picture book editors. It’s not that editors hate rhyme (well, maybe SOME do), it’s just that they see badly-executed rhyme so often in the slush, it’s easier to discourage it. Common rhymes like “me, see” and “you, two” and other one-syllable predictability can kill the joy of a story.

celebrityapprenticeABCRemember “Celebrity Apprentice” when the men’s team gleefully authored “I know my A, B, C’s and my 1, 2, 3’s” as if it hadn’t been regurgitated in a googolplex of board books? They thought it was a rhyme worthy of victory and publication. Well, they did win the challenge, but the book Trump promised to publish was released by a vanity press, not a traditional publisher. No publisher was gonna touch it, ten foot pole or not.

Editors also see a lot of rhyme with flawed meter. Meter is a tricky thing. There’s stressed and unstressed syllables, plus the lilt of natural speech patterns that can render your meter more choppy than Zoanette Johnson’s drumming. If you read your own rhyme aloud, you might not even hear how off it is, because you are forcing yourself to follow the pattern [you think] you created.

Then there’s the near-rhyme mistake, when the words don’t really rhyme at all, unless you twist your tongue or alter your accent. Like “hat” and “what” or “hat” and “back”. Once or twice and you can maybe get away with it. More than that and the editor may assume you need the WaxVac.

Moreover, writers can find their story dictated by rhyme, getting trapped in nonsensical situations simply because “dishwasher” rhymes with “impostor” (almost). It’s obvious when a plot decision has been forced based upon one word.

For these reasons, editors will advise, “don’t rhyme”.

For these reasons, author Lane Fredrickson created

cecilybeasleyLane is the author of WATCH YOUR TONGUE, CECILY BEASLEY, a rhyming picture book with a joyfully jaunty rhyme. Remember as a child when you stuck out your tongue and a parent warned, “It will get stuck that way!” Well, Cecily finds herself in that very predicament. Hilarity ensues when a bird takes up residence on Cecily’s perfect pink perch. What’s Cecily to do?

Knowing the difficulty of rhyme for picture book writers, Lane created to teach the bard-challenged the complexities of rhyming well.

Lane, your rhyme is perfection! How did you get to be so good at it?

Ha. Thank you, Tara.

The short answer would be: a gnawing question and a genetic glitch.

But there is also the long answer. When I first joined SCBWI, everybody seemed to be telling everyone else NOT to write in rhyme, like there was a disease associated with it. You know, literary sarcoma or writer’s blockjaw. You almost didn’t want to admit you were a rhymer lest they sit in some quarantined section and slap a scarlet R on your forehead. The other thing I kept hearing was that a person’s rhyme had to be PERFECT. I wanted to write PERFECT rhyme, but I could never get a really good answer as to what PERFECT rhyme was. This is the kind of scenario that drives a slightly obsessive-compulsive person to behaving obsessively compulsive. So I googled around and studied my Seuss and found a website that offered critiques for $50. The critique, although well-intentioned, was just plain bad advice involving “counting syllables.” And don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely given bad advice (but I’m pretty sure it was free when I did it). I totally get that sometimes bad advice seems good because it comes from multiple sources, but “counting syllables” is not the way to perfect meter and I had (being slightly obsessive compulsive) already figured that out. So I went back to school thinking I’d take a poetry class and clear up the PERFECT meter issue. But the thing about college is they don’t tell you what you want to know, they tell you whatever they want to tell you. So it took a BA in English and healthy stab at an MA in British Lit to figure it out that meter is a lot of things, but PERFECT is rarely one of them (I only stabbed at the MA, I haven’ t killed it yet).

lanefredricksonWhat inspired you to put all your rhyming knowledge into a website?

I watched a lot of people go through exactly what I went through: trying to figure out the rules, trying to decide if writing in rhyme was worth the stigma, trying to find complete resources that explained everything. I have a degree in psychology, where I focused on cognition and development (which is the opposite of those people who ask you to talk about your problems). Cognitive and developmental psychologists look at how people think and how they grow, mature, and learn. I knew that I could show meter in a way that’s visual and image-based. I knew that I could break it down into constituent parts in a way that I had never seen done. I knew that I could make it easier to grasp. But I wanted it to be free because I’m trying to improve the status of rhyme in the literary world and the more people who rhyme well, the less it looks like I have a disease.

Lane’s website has already helped this ruined rhymer who can’t hear meter even if I got whacked upside the head with it. So I encourage you to pay a visit, Pin it, share it, study it, LIVE IT. Children deserve better rhyming picture books like CECILY BEASLEY.

And hey, you can WIN CECILY! Just leave a comment telling me about the most interesting thing you learned at A winner will be picked randomly in a week (or knowing me and prize distribution, two weeks).

So don’t hesitate, get out there and rhyme, oh Kate! (Sorry if your name isn’t Kate. I had to end on a rhyme.)

“Don’t use art notes,” is what you may hear as a new writer.

It’s not that editors don’t like art notes. It’s just that many new writers want to dictate illustrations that do not require direction.

For instance, you shouldn’t pick what your character looks like. Red hair, blue shirt, green sneakers, pigtails, etc. are not for you to decide. The editor of Mary Ann Hoberman’s THE SEVEN SILLY EATERS thought the characters should be animals, like crocodiles. Marla Frazee, the illustrator, thought they should be people, and she was right. She even made the mother a cello player, which was not in the text, but it added a delightful layer to the mother’s personality. The options were wide open—the author never described the characters’ appearance.

The exception to this rule is when your character’s appearance is crucial to the story, like FRECKLEFACE STRAWBERRY. Although the title pretty much says it all, right?

You must trust that your editor and illustrator have ideas for what your scenes should look like. Better ideas than you. Leave the art direction to them (and the art director). Writing that the house has a front porch, or that the cat is calico, or that the car is yellow is all unnecessary.  Again, unless that car needs to be yellow for your story to work.

But you will no doubt read picture books with subversive text—where the character is doing completely opposite what the words say. Or books with text so spare, the action comes thru only in illustration. These are times when your text requires art notes. SCREAMS for them.

But if you have an art-heavy manuscript, where much of the story relies upon the illustrations, how do you submit it? Putting the art notes in [brackets and italics] is typically the way to go. However, too many art notes can interrupt the flow of the story. It gets difficult to read and comprehend.

So what do you do?

Maybe…submit your manuscript in grid format.

What?! But Tara, I’ve NEVER heard of this before.

I know, me neither. But my agent just submitted a manuscript like this. I was skeptical at first, but then I realized the grid was the best no-nonsense way to present the text with the illustrative mayhem. Yes, this book has MAYHEM. And FRACAS and PANDEMONIUM, too.

Here’s what the grid looks like in manuscript format:

The header includes your name, contact details and a word count.

Then the title (in caps) and your byline.

There is a general art note at top which introduces the story idea. Moreover, it states the art notes are “intended as a guideline.” Again, as an author, you cannot rule over all that is picture in picture books.

Next comes the grid. On the left is the story text, on the right appears “rough art direction.” Notice we said “rough” because they are only suggestions for the editor to understand the story. Remember that the illustrator may create something even better, funnier, more poignant. Remember the CELLO.

The grid continues for as long as it takes to tell your story. Typically one or two more manuscript pages.

Please note this isn’t a standard way to submit, it only serves as an example of what one author and her agent did. It’s like the photos on the front of frozen food boxes that say “serving suggestion”.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I suddenly became very hungry.

When I teach a picture book writing class or speak to new writers, I tell them I don’t subscribe to the “write every day” philosophy. That just doesn’t work for me as a picture book author. Sorry, wise writing sages.

However, I do give out this suggestion: “stare every day”.

Yes, I spend the bulk of my time staring (a.k.a. thinking) when writing a picture book. In fact, it’s about 50% of my effort. And thanks to my friend Carter Higgins from Design of the Picture Book,  I can now share this secret with you in a deliciously accurate chart.

Can I get you a slice?

(Please note: “Writing” is the cherry on top!)

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