by Lynne Marie
As the Owner and Administrator of Rate Your Story, I had the honor of being one of the core four contest judges for the Rate Your Story Summer Contest. I always love diving into entries -- it's like digging up a treasure chest of stories! However, as we sift through, some are gold and some are gems, and some are more slight in value.
What are the causes of the imperfections? I'm digging through the manuscripts and a post from our last contest to see if there's a pattern.
What to do? Read this post. Even if it feels redundant to my last post, these issues are such that bear repeating. Even if you read the last post, re-read each comment as I have added to them.
I really want to help in advance of our next contest and in advance of any future submissions, so I hope you share this post far and wide.
[REPEATED] PROBLEM/FORMATTING: Some manuscripts utilized improper formatting. Picture book manuscripts should generally be double-spaced and not have huge blocks of text. Here's a good link for acceptable guidelines.
However, keep in mind that picture book manuscripts often have and should have more sparse text than what is depicted in the link. The thing about this is that if you aren't using the proper formatting, it can appear as a sign that you don't quite know what you're doing. Often the story reflects a degree of rawness, as well to go along with this.
FIX: Learn proper manuscript formatting and learn the craft. There's so many ways to learn - reading, writing, researching, revising, critique groups, classes, webinars and more. A winning idea is, of course, a great start. But how does that idea come alive on the page? It's all in the presentation and execution.
[REPEATED] PROBLEM/WORD COUNT: In today's markets picture books are getting shorter and shorter, with the sweet spot being 300 - 500 words. While this wasn't quite as much of a problem as in our last contest (many were within the limit), there were still stories with weak / passive words, weak or ineffective phrases, or sentences / dialogue that didn't move the story forward. So basically, the stories could have even been tighter and had stronger language. Scenes / sentences should flow and the language should sing.
FIX: Write tight. Put every word on trial and make certain it does work in the story. There should be three reasons for a prop or character or situation to be in the story, so make certain every item/person/issue has enough connections to justify it staying. Never use several weak words when one strong one will do! Read your stories aloud and see where you stumble or where the words or structure feel awkward. I didn't mention this last time, either, but READ, READ, READ current picture books and become familiar with a satisfying length and economy of language as well as a satisfying flow of a story from beginning to end.
PROBLEM/KID ACCESSIBILITY: Many manuscripts were not kid-friendly in oneway or another. There was no child door into the story, the main character was not a child or a child-like adult and the problem was not one that a child could identify with. Inactive children pose a concern too. The child main character should be active and have agency over the story. Allow the child to inspire and empower the reader through their story.
FIX: Incorporate these elements into your story. Ask yourself - it's it your adult POV or a child's POV? Will a child connect with the main character? Is the problem kid-friendly? Will a child care about what is happening within the story?
PROBLEM/TOPIC: While we didn't see several manuscripts on the same topic, as we did last contest, we did see several manuscripts that were vaguely too very similar to books already published. That truly gave it a been there, read that type of feel, and often these stories felt pale in comparison to the well-known books.
FIX: If you are submitting a manuscript which relies on a common theme, make sure you read everything that's out there and make sure that your story stands out via a fresh twist AND that it's well-written. So again, I challenge everyone to read comp books and objectively compare your own story to those already out there. Is it a better story? Is it better written?
[REPEATED] PROBLEM/SHAKY BEGINNING: Some manuscripts just didn't get off to a good start. Some problems were that the story started too quickly without laying any foundation and/or introducing the character successfully, or they just started too slow. In general, a picture book problem should be revealed by the third spread. I'll be honest, it's hard to pick even what ends up to be a good book for a finalist or winner if the story is not off to a compelling start that hooks the reader. Other times, the language or action was just not compelling.
FIX: Study beginnings. Try a few different ones on for size. Try starting in the ordinary world, the ordinary world with a crack in it, or inciting event, to name a few options. Even try a different main character point of view -- for example, a child instead of an adult, or a younger child instead of older. Also try punching up the language and/or starting with more engaging action or eve an engaging emotion. Think of your beginning as not only a hook, but on another level, as the story's foundation. Many entries this year did not give their main character a clear goal or story problem to navigate.
Read it aloud and make certain it acts like a hook with intriguing characters and action, as well as vivid language.
PROBLEM/ADULT PROBLEM or FLAW: This is a concern as it will be a challenge for a child to identify with the main character's problem or flaw, or even the main character itself.
FIX: Noodle a few variations of the problem or flaw that would be more kid-friendly or just give your character a new problem altogether. Be objective in your approach. While the story might be *inspired* by you, allow it to navigate a story path that is relevant to today's children.
PROBLEM/TOO MANY PROBLEMS: Too many problems make the story confusing and distracting, as well as hard for the reader to follow. Sometimes it makes it appear there is more than one story and it's hard to successfully execute satisfying elements. A picture book should be a linear story from beginning to end that is relatively easy for a child reader to understand and navigate.
FIX: Pick one story problem (a good one -- in fact, the best one) and make sure everything in the story supports solving that problem / achieving that goal (or even accepting the problem, but that's a topic for another day). Get rid of anything that distracts from the story's intent.
PROBLEM/STRUCTURE: Often the story structure just does not support itself and the story does not stand up.
FIX: Learn story structure and evaluate how it works. See in it action by reading and taking notes on picture books that work. Try a traditional story structure, for starters and see the differences it makes.
PROBLEM/MOTIVATION AND STAKES: Often the characters in the submissions did not have motivation and stakes over the problem.
FIX: Ask yourself why the character needs to solve the problem and/or achieve the goal (motivation) and what will happen if they do not succeed (stakes)?
PROBLEM/PACING: The story should pace naturally, sometimes a bit rushed for tension or a bit slow for reflection. However, just framing a story with days of the week is not pacing. The days of the week must be important to the story. The page turns should be evident to the manuscript reader.
FIX: Read, read, read picture books and type them out in picture book skeletons. Study their pacing. Make a list of important points occur and the page #s they occur on. Note the page turns. Get a sense of the general pacing of picture books. Make sure your story flows just as well as the best of them!
PROBLEM/LANGUAGE: Overwriting or using words that were not kid-friendly and portrayed adult thoughts and emotions. Sometimes these words will even bounce an adult out of the story, nevermind a kid. Ask yourself if there is any context for the word in the sentence or scene.
FIX: Let your main character think and feel like a kid. While picture books can use more challenging language as long as there is context for the child to understand it, they cannot use that type of language when the thought or dialogue is coming directly from the kid. In all cases, if a word is big, but essential and cannot be swapped out for a more kid-friendly one, make sure there is context for it.
PROBLEM/STAGE DIRECTIONS: This comment is extremely new to this list. But this round, we got so many manuscripts that had too many stage directions. They were either not essential or could be shown in the art. These really bog down the sentences (and manuscripts) with unnecessary weight and interrupt the true flow of the action.
FIX: Consider whether the stage direction is inferred, can be left out, or could be shown in the art.
PROBLEM/TALKING HEADS: Picture books generally should have a nice balance of dialogue and action. Often when there is just dialogue, the characters come off as talking heads and there's not a lot to illustrate. There are some cases where this works, but be certain you are being objective as to whether your story works.
FIX: Strive for a better balance text and dialogue, or do a deep study of picture books with talking heads that actually do work and get an understanding of why. Take notes and discuss with other writers.
PROBLEM/BABY TALK: On the opposite end of the spectrum, the child was too young and using baby talk. Picture books are usually written for age 4-8 with the main character being around 5-6. The problems with baby talk are many. First it will be harder to read, not so fun to listen to, and usually the reader will want a point of connection with the reader, which is harder when the MC is speaking like a baby. It's also distracting.
FIX: Model proper, but kid-friendly, language.
PROBLEM/PREACHINESS: Most kids read to learn and be entertained, not to be preached at. Unless the story's message is subtle, find a better way to get it across to the reader.
FIX: Read books that are effective in getting the message across in a subtle way, and pull back on the message in your book. Rewrite until you find an effective way to show, rather than tell, your story's message. When an adult is telling a kid exactly what to do, rather than having the kid try and learn for itself, you know you are on the wrong path. That being said, from time-to-time, an adult can give a piece of advice, and then the child can take that advice and actively navigate it on their own.
PROBLEM/GIMMICK: Perhaps the manuscript features a clever gimmick but there's not enough narrative arc to make the story satisfying. There were quite a few gimmicks in this crop of manuscripts that, overall, were distracting and/or didn't work.
FIX: Let the gimmick take a back seat to the main character's growth and change as he attempts and fails and repeats this process to evolve both internally and externally by the end of the story.
PROBLEM/NOT ENOUGH FLOW: If there's anything that makes your story stumble, like awkward language or inconsistent character or wandering plot, the reader isn't going to be pulled through to the end.
FIX: Make sure your story flows from the title, to the beginning, through all the transitions, scenes and page turns and to the very end. This means that sentences are not clunky, words are not unnavigable, and the main character drives the action from beginning to end.
PROBLEM/NOT ABLE TO "STAND OUT": This is a new addition to the list. Several of the manuscripts were good ideas that had been touched upon before, and these attempts simply did not stand out against those that have gone before.
FIX: Make sure your interpretation is new and different. Make sure you have a compelling character, problem and resolution. Make sure, also, that is appropriate for today's market and would sell in today's market. Many classic stories and fairy tales would not sell as a new title today. They would need some editing and adaptation.
I took a lot of time to make notes as I read the submissions so that I could share these thoughts. I do hope they will help bring the next batch of contest entries and global submissions anywhere and everywhere to the next level.
Our prizewinners will be announced shortly. For those who didn't win an honorable mention / zoom consultation prize, I am extending the following offer: For a digital copy of one of my three books books AND a 30-Minute Zoom Introductory Zoom Consultation, make payment of $25.00 via Friends and Family Paypal to ThePictureBookMechanic@gmail.com.
Please e-mail that address with your choice of book (Let's Eat! Mealtime Around the World, Moldilocks and the Three Scares or The Star in the Christmas Play) AND book your time here:
Lynne Marie is the author of Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten -- art by Anne Kennedy (Scholastic 2011), Hedgehog's 100th Day of School -- art by Lorna Hussey (Scholastic 2017), The Star of the Christmas Play -- art by Lorna Hussey (Beaming Books 2018), Moldilocks and the 3 Scares -- art by David Rodriguez Lorenzo (Sterling 2019 and Scholastic 2019) and Let’s Eat! Mealtime Around the World -- art by Parwinder Singh (Beaming Books 2019), The Three Little Pigs and the Rocket Project -- art by Wendy Fedan (Mac and Cheese Press / CAW Publishing, November 2021) and American Pie -- art by Dea Lenihan (Dancing Flamingo Press, 2022).
She’s also the Owner and Administrator of both RateYourStory.org and ThePictureBookMechanic.com, as well as a long-time Travel Agent with PixieVacations.com (www.pixievacationsbylynnemarie.com)! She's been a Cybil's Judge in the Fiction Picture Books and Board Books category since 2016. Recently, she's been handed the ReFoReMo torch from Kirsti Call and Carrie Charley Brown, which will return under its new name March On With Mentor Texts in March, 2022 (www.rateyourstory.org/march-on). You can join her at her weekly Tinker and Talk Book Chat here: Tinker and Talk Book Chat by The Picture Book Mechanic | Facebook
When she’s not searching for story ideas all over the globe, she lives on a lake in South Florida with her family, a Schipperke named Anakin and several resident water birds. Visit her at www.LiterallyLynneMarie.com. Lynne Marie is represented by Marisa Cleveland of www.theseymouragency.com