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Thoughts and Tips from a Contest Judge

I had the honor of being one of the Judges for the Rate Your Story Cooking Up Culture Contest. It was a challenging contest and we got an impressive amount of entries. If you participated, feel free to grab and save the above badge. Please link it to on your website. Thanks!

There were many wonderful ideas combining both food and culture. However, many of them weren't executed in a way that made them stand up and out above the others. One of those might have been yours, and even if you were not a finalist, I would love to help. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the thoughts I had while reviewing the entries presented as issues with potential fixes.

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.

PROBLEM/WORD COUNT: In today's markets picture books are getting shorter and shorter, with the sweet spot being 300 - 500 words.

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.

PROBLEM/KID ACCESSIBILITY: Many manuscripts were not kid-friendly in one way 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.

PROBLEM/TOPIC: This is something that no one control but it's just how it goes sometimes. In a prior contest, there were many manuscripts about or featuring turtles. This time it was soup, and in particular the Stone Soup retelling. Plus I have successfully retold this story and sold it to Highlights so I am well read on the versions and it has to be better than what I've read to stand out.

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.

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 it not off to a compelling start that hooks the reader.

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.

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.

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.

PROBLEM/TOO MANY PROBLEMS: Too many problems makes the story confusing and distracting, as well as hard for the reader to follow.

FIX: Pick one story problem (a good 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).

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.

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.

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. Get a sense of the general pacing of picture books.

PROBLEM/LANGUAGE: Overwriting or using words that were not kid-friendly and portrayed adult thoughts and emotions.

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.

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.

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.

PROBLEM/GIMMICK: Perhaps the manuscript features a clever gimmick but there's not enough narrative arc to make the story satisfying.

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.

I hope that scoping out and identifying these problems in your own work will help bring it to the next levels as well as guarantee you more success in the next contests.

For those who didn't win a zoom consultation prize, I am extending the following offer: For a digital copy of one of my three books books AND a 15 Minute Zoom Introductory Zoom Consultation, make payment of $15.00 via Friends and Family Paypal to 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 your availability (dates and times) for consultation.

Lynne Marie, Children's Author

Owner and Administrator of Rate Your Story

Owner and Administrator of The Picture Book Mechanic



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