Writing the Premise of a Story Before Writing the Story

Ever thought about writing the premise of a story before writing the actual story? No? Well, put on your open-mindedness hats, guys, because it’s about to get real. (Agents hate her! Learn the one writing secret to save yourself years of frustration!) No, but seriously…

It’s a pitch. Get it? The premise of a story is also known as the pitch, but I’m not calling it that because pitching makes writers nervous.

What is the Premise of a Story?

The premise of a story is what your story is about. Simple.

Oh, you want more? Okay…

I give this talk on self-editing for fiction writers (which you can play on-demand on Udemy or wait for the free webinar) and I always start the talk very, very, very zoomed out. I ask writers about their “Mission Statement,” which is another way of talking about the premise or the “what is your story about”.

Basically, it’s a combination of your character’s main transformational experience (do characters have to change?), the story that takes them to that experience, and a sense of your theme.

For example:

A girl who is accidentally infused with moon magic must fight for the ones she loves, in a society bent on seeing her and the witch who saved her life as the enemy.

That’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. You’ll notice it’s not the whole story, but we have a sense of the character, what the character has to do (or how the character has to change), what the character is up against, and any other key characters or story elements. In this case, the witch (Xan) gets a mention, as does the society that “sacrificed” Luna to the witch when she was a baby.

What is your story about? Who is at the center? What do they have to do, or how do they have to change? What is the main conflict? (Or, if not the main conflict, a big conflict?) What is your theme?

Now, imagine that you’re not just doing this for your book after the fact…

Starting With the Premise of a Story

Let’s say that you’re actually creating the premise before you create the book. This is a smarter, more efficient way of writing. Remember, the first thing I ask of my revision students is: What’s your premise?

You’re going to have to know it eventually. But most writers don’t even start putting their premise together until long after they’ve written their story. Maybe even long after they’ve revised it.

Most writers don’t think about their premise until it’s time to pitch.

Why is this an issue? Well, you don’t want to spend five years on a novel only to realize that you may not have enough story to attract agents, publishers, or readers. (Even if you publish independently, you still have to attract readers. You still need to be able to tell them what your story’s about so that they click that all-important “Buy” button!)

What if you don’t have enough story to truly turn out a compelling, saleable project? This is why I highly recommend writing a premise (or the bones of one) for the project you’re about to start working on first.

Is there enough meat? Does it sound exciting? Or is your premise loose and vague, like, “A coming of age story about a boy who has to learn the true meaning of friendship.” I’d contest that there’s not enough meat on that bone yet. The story needs some additional layers, some specificity, some action, so that it doesn’t sound so much like a lot of other stories I’ve read.

Try It Backwards

Before you sit down to work on your next project, as you work on your current project, or before you revise a draft manuscript, stop what you’re doing immediately—do not pass GO, do not collect $200—and write out a premise.

You’re only doing it for yourself. You’re not pitching. There’s no agent hovering over your shoulder, watching you. Write out what your story is about. Is there enough? Do you have a solid premise of a story? Are you focused? Or do you need to add more layers, action, tension, and/or meaning to your work?

Catching potential issues and course correcting at this highest, most zoomed out level could literally save you years of work, and keep you from following a misguided path all the way to a disappointing conclusion.

If you haven’t tried this yet, you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

What do you think of this bass-ackwards approach?

If you’re struggling to pressure test your story and see if there’s enough substance, or if you want to catch pitfalls and opportunities at the outline level, hire me as your developmental editor. Let’s get at it together!

 

Novel Scene Description

Scene description tends to flummox many a novel writer. The devil is in the details, you’ve heard. Well, it’s possible to have too many details, and also too few. Then there are static details. Ack! How to walk this fine line when crafting your own scene description? Read on.

What do you want readers to see? How to write novel scene description that’s just right.

The Ideal Balance of Scene Description

Scene setting exists to not only bring your reader into your story, but give mood to each scene, and do world-building. A 1950s kitchen will be very different from an alien world. The issue is, many writers don’t know how much scene setting is too much, or how much is too little. They don’t know where to put it in their prose. They struggle with its overall arc as the novel progresses. Here are some thoughts for achieving that ideal balance.

Considerations About Reader Attention

When you write scene setting, you are directing reader attention. You are either highlighting a place, or downplaying, according to the amount of description you choose to include.

Yes, it’s possible to get bogged down with description, and, as a result, scene setting. We’ll talk about that in a moment. It’s also possible to skip scene setting altogether and end up with a strangely ungrounded project.

Remember this when you write: How much you describe something directly ties into how important a reader thinks that something is. As you decide how to describe a scene, how much, and when, keep this in the back of your mind.

You can describe a scene more liberally the first time a character visits. This is their introduction to a place, after all, and you want readers to create it in their minds. But don’t do a few big paragraphs of description at the beginning of every scene. This will be a pattern readers grow tired of. Instead, think of places to pause and insert description throughout the scene that takes place in a certain setting.

Once that groundwork is done, future visits to that place can do with less scene setting. But you don’t want to abandon it completely.

Too Few Scene Description Details

If you suffer from too little scene description, pick some evocative details of each scene. A big problem in novels without setting is that scenes often turn into talking heads. Just dialogue and human motion. These tend to read very quickly and readers won’t feel grounded. Can you pick evocative details, maybe that match the emotion of the scene? Pepper them on pages where you see a ton of dialogue and little action.

Maybe three or four details will be all you need. Maybe you’ll sit and start thinking about the room and be inspired to describe it more. As a good rule of thumb for you, try a few sentences of scene setting at the beginning of each scene that your characters enter. Then, when they go back to a location, note any changes or comment on how the setting might feel different because of all that has happened since the characters’ last visit there.

Too Much Scene Setting

Indulgent scene setting is an opposite problem. Usually, writers lavish the first page set in a specific scene on description. This can stop action cold. Redundancy also becomes an issue, especially if description is ongoing, even though a character has visited a place many times.

Think of a new scene or a new chapter as an invitation to the reader. You are asking them to join you for the next installment of story. If you immediately bombard them with colors, smells, the various textiles and appointments of a room, the vibe in the air, the music drifting in, and all of these other small details—that’s a lot to keep in mind. It makes the beginning of a scene, which is ideally a light and inviting thing, seem heavy and too complicated.

If you struggle with this issue, limit yourself to three significant details and three more specific details. And don’t introduce all of them when a character first enters the scene. Pepper them throughout.

How Scene Description Changes Throughout

Think of the scene setting in your novel as having its own arc. You will be doing more scene setting at the beginning of a novel, simply because you are introducing readers to a world and its environments. They have never been to each place before, they will want to see the big picture and a few evocative details.

But as the story moves forward and the settings become familiar, don’t drop your scene setting. Simply shift your focus. Is the diner dreary on this foggy day, as the character goes to sulk over a milkshake? Does the brilliant sunshine over the field cheer the whole place up? As characters go through a story, they will develop relationships to the places they have been. These relationships can change the character’s viewpoint of a place. They can add emotion to the place.

Pick three locations that your character visits a lot. Can you give them an emotional “tone” every time the character goes there? Add some specific scene setting description that teases out a sense of arc? Even more neutral settings can contribute to story with a few well-chosen descriptions.

Work with me as your developmental editor and we can address your questions about scenes, arcs, and writing description in a focused encouraging one-on-one setting.

Avoid Long Sentences in Colloquial Writing

I work a lot with voice, especially colloquial writing, with my editorial clients. Aside from dry voice, which is a topic in and of itself, I have been battling long sentences quite a bit recently. I write this post as a reminder to all writers: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. (Cue my thirteen-year-old self giggling.)

long sentences, colloquial writing
Today’s voice favors colloquial writing and eschews long sentences. Especially for young readers still finding their reading confidence.

Long Sentences Are Hard Work

There are two common ways in which writers elongate sentences unnecessarily. One is via the semicolon, one is by stacking action. Unless you are British or from another Commonwealth country, the semicolon is largely leaving modern trade fiction. (An interesting anecdotal study done for The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer found that semicolon use is inversely proportional to commercial success. Plus, not a lot of people use semicolons correctly.)

I personally encourage clients to avoid them because they create awkward long sentences that drag on. They are especially undesirable in picture books, early readers, and chapter books, and some early middle grade because those readers are not yet comfortable with complex sentence structures.

Another tendency I see is the stacking of action, especially by using “as.” I encourage writers to limit a sentence to three actions, for example:

She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absently at the wall.

(This happens to be my favorite activity…)

Here’s what happens to the sentence, which is long enough already, if “as” comes to the party:

She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absent at the wall as the cat prowled for puzzle pieces along the hallway and the mail carrier knocked at the door.

It’s too much for one sentence to do comfortably. (Also, my cat can’t be the only puzzle enthusiast out there, right?) Your work shouldn’t be, well, work to read. When you’re tempted to use a semicolon or “as” to keep something going, consider either zooming out and conveying less action (because you might not need such detail) or breaking up the sentence.

Reading Long Sentences Aloud

Another trick I love to use, especially for picture books, is to read the work aloud. Not only will this help you get a visceral feel for colloquial writing and voice, but it will absolutely indicate which sentences are too long. Why?

People need to breathe. And if you need to breathe in the middle of one of your sentences, it’s too long. Especially in dialogue. We tend to speak in shorter sentences than we’d use for narrative and description. If you have characters speaking in 50-word sentences which are exactly the same as your narrative writing style, that’s an issue. Speech should have its own cadence.

Read your work aloud to focus on long sentences and either eliminate them or break them up. Colloquial writing is here to stay, and shorter, more energetic sentences are going to help you a lot on the voice front. A win for you, and a win for your readers!

If you struggle with voice, I can step in as your manuscript editor and guide you in the right direction with personalized, encouraging feedback.

Character Development Questions to Ask and Answer

Perhaps this is a contrarian approach to character development, but I don’t care what your character’s favorite flavor of ice cream is. I don’t necessarily want to know what sport they played, or what their spirit animal is (unless these factor into the plot, of course). A lot of character development that writers are coached to do doesn’t really translate into great story. So what should you focus on? Keep reading to find out.

character development, character development questions
“If you were an island, what color would your sand be?” Huh? Ask significant character development questions instead.

Why Ask Character Development Questions?

A lot of writing books suggest getting to know your characters. Act like you’re interviewing them. Ask them questions. This, the logic goes, will lead to deeper and more nuanced character.

But you have to ask the right questions! I have seen spreadsheets that writers have created of a character’s hometown, favorite TV show, etc. None of these things move the needle. A key part of writing character, in my opinion, is creating vulnerability. Inner struggle is crucial to character and story. Those are the deeply human elements that are going to reel your readers into the heart of your characters and stories. If you’re not asking these types of questions, it’s never too late to start.

Things to Consider When Doing Character Development

Here is a list of character development questions I wish more writers would ask their characters or about their characters:

  • What is your deepest conscious desire?
  • What is your deepest unconscious desire?
  • What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
  • What do you want from yourself?
  • What do you want from other people?
  • What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
  • What’s your most positive and supportive relationship?
  • Is there any conflict to it?
  • What’s your most negative relationship?
  • Is there any positivity to it?
  • If there were no obstacles, what is one thing you would do in a heartbeat?
  • What obstacles (internal and external) are preventing you from doing that?
  • How do you feel about yourself on a good day?
  • How do you feel about yourself on a bad day?
  • What does an ideal life (referring to the character’s own life and situation) look like, to you?
  • What does an ideal world (referring to society at large for the character, his or her loved ones, and people in general) look like, to you?
  • What three experiences from the past defined you in the present?
  • Where do you see yourself in three months? One year? Three years? Ten years?
  • What is the inner wound or inner struggle that keeps you up at night?
  • What is your ugliest side? How do you manage it? Does it ever overtake you?
  • What is your most noble, best side? How do you encourage it? What’s keeping it from shining more often?
  • What does it feel like to you when you’re stressed? Bored? Angry? Proud? Happy? Excited?
  • Is there any friction between how you see yourself, and how others see you? If so, what is preventing you from closing that gap?

These questions aim to address a few crucial (I believe) components of character development: What are the inner struggles? How does the character deal with adversity? How do they see themselves in their mind’s eye and in relation to others? How do conflicts and tensions affect them?

The rest of the decisions you make about their favorite subject in school and what kind of cake they like … those are fun but fluffy. Here, I aim to drill down to the very real. Why? Because these are the relatable things that your readers will connect to on a deeper level.

What to Actually Use

One big mistake I see is that writers do all of this character development, and then shoehorn all of it into their manuscripts. They can’t bear to leave any behind. But some of those spreadsheet ideas need to stay in the spreadsheet. The purpose of doing any kind of “getting to know you” work with your character is that you sit down and do the work. You get to know them. You plan them out.

Invariably, some of that work will end up on the “cutting room floor.” It’s for you, it’s not for the reader. Though you’ve developed it, you don’t necessarily have to use it on the page. And you don’t want to be terribly overt with the answers to the above questions, either. Avoid putting these things on the page. Real people don’t walk around saying, in dialogue with others, “My childhood wound is that I wasn’t loved enough.” But if this is true, it drives a lot of their behavior anyway.

Think of it as homework, not necessarily something for the final product. Focus on what’s really important when it comes to character. Leave the rest for your spreadsheet.

If you struggle with character development, you might want custom, actionable advice from a novel editor. I can help take your protagonist, and therefor your story, to the next level.

Choosing Your Main Character

Some writers don’t have to decide on their main character, the protagonist has been in their imagination forever! Others, though, struggle with the choice or protagonist. These writers having big casts of characters, multiple POVs, or small, tightly knit ensembles. If you find yourself struggling to define the main character in your story, read on.

If you have trouble selecting the best potential main character for your manuscript, you’ve come to the right place.

main character, protagonist, novel hero, picture book main character
If you have trouble selecting the best potential main character for your manuscript, you’ve come to the right place.

Choosing Your Main Character

One question I’m asked a lot is: Does a character have to change from beginning to end? This is otherwise known as a character arc. My answer has always been a resounding yes. Unless you’re writing an antihero (a tough proposition, especially for younger readers), a character’s change arc is going to be one of the more interesting parts of your story. Whether your character learns something by solving a problem (common in picture book) or undergoes a fundamental identity shift (as seen in MG and YA), their potential for change is a big determining factor in who you should select for a main character.

Remember what readers want. They read to care and feel. That’s it. Change is messy, it’s emotional, it’s usually very gratifying. The character who changes the most is also the character who has the potential to connect most with your reader. If this isn’t currently your main character, you might have a decision to make.

Main Character and Emotion

One of the cornerstones of my teaching philosophy about writing is interiority, or access to a character’s thoughts, emotions, reactions, and inner struggle. The character with the biggest change arc usually also has the most potential for emotional scenes. The character is going through a lot, they feel deeply, they aim to learn or grow … readers will want to see this on the page. By choosing this dynamic character, with deep, nuanced feelings, for your main character, you will be putting more emotion into your story. The scenes of your plot will have more feeling to them. What you write about will seem to matter more to readers. If your character floats along, not changing, not really feeling that much, do they have enough potential to be a true protagonist?

The other thought here is about  novel theme. Every book has something that it’s about, in a big picture sense. Character will often be tied into your theme, meaning that if you want to write about loss, then maybe a good protagonist in that type of book is grieving. So when you choose your protagonist, and you think about their journey, and their potential for emotion, you’ll also want to think about how all of these things align with your bigger picture. If your book is about self-acceptance and your main character spends most of the story in denial, while their friend plays a supportive and emotionally vulnerable role, maybe you’ve chosen the wrong point of view. Let the lens of the character match the thing you want to do or say with your project.

Special Consideration for Picture Book Main Characters

I was speaking to a client this weekend who has this problem with a picture book. He has three potential candidates for the protagonist. In addition to all of the thoughts, above, I gave him the following advice:

Since it’s generally a bad idea to use adult or teacher characters to dispense picture book lessons, the main character in a picture book should be the character who realizes the moral of the story themselves. Which character here can realize the strongest solution to the problem, and present it to readers in a kid-friendly and realistic way? That should be your main character.

This client had one character who would’ve been a good mouthpiece of the message, which was about dealing with change (a perennial picture book theme). But there was another character who was actively going through a change. I counseled this client to pick the character who was experiencing change, because readers would be much more receptive to hear from that particular character about how to deal with it. That character would be speaking firsthand about the topic, rather than giving a more passive lecture.

In summary, follow the change, follow the development, follow the emotion. Connect these back to your theme. The person who hits as many of those points as possible is your book’s main character, and if they’re not, they should be.

Struggling with creating a relatable protagonist? I can be your developmental editor to help you create the necessary depth and nuance.

How to Avoid One Dimensional Character

Too often, one dimensional character translates to predictable fiction. Flat character descriptions have the potential to sink your novel before it really gets off the ground, especially in children’s fiction. Picture books suffer from caricature as well. Here’s why one dimensional character is harmful, and how to avoid it.

one dim
If I’ve read your character many times before, you have a one dimensional character. But how to fix your sheeple, er, people?

The Danger of Flat Character

One dimensional character is, basically, quite boring to read. A lot of manuscripts I’ve seen over the years pick an attribute for a character (“the brave one” or “the shy one”) and then … that’s it. The Brave One can always be found doing something brave, the Shy One is always hanging in the shadows without speaking, and the whole manuscript proceeds along these lines.

It’s as if the writer has boxes they feel they need to check, and various attributes they want to include, and that’s it. But these caricatures aren’t true characters, and they’re no fun to read. They’ve also been done thousands of times before … the definition of flat character. This goes for protagonists, secondary characters, antagonists, even the helpful librarian (I’m talking to all of you  middle grade mystery writers!). The kid who loves adventure (shout out to my picture book people).

Every type of characters deserves nuance. Something to make them surprising, something to make them relatable, something to make them complicated. So take your thumbnail sketch of the character you’re writing and thrown in a few wildcards. The thing is, nobody makes sense all the time, or plays to “type” consistently. And if they do, there’s something wrong.

How to Fix One Dimensional Character

Throw a surprise into the works. Does the Shy One come up with a bold idea? Add struggle. Maybe the Bold One hates being the daredevil, but they’re overlooked in their large family if they don’t stick out–sometimes with disastrous results. What’s something the reader can’t tell about your character at first blush? What’s a secret your character is keeping? An unexpected desire? A rebellion against their identity, or what others think of them?

Imagine a scene in your manuscript that will make readers change their opinions of your character. Maybe it’s after your character says or does something controversial, dangerous, tame, or “out of character.” Write this scene. Aim to change not only the reader’s mind, but the minds of other characters who think they know the person in question. You’ll have a flat character no more!

You may find that you like playing with impressions and expectations. You may uncover a character attribute that you will then incorporate into your manuscript. How does what you learn change your character’s arc? Objectives? Motivations? You may be inspired to do this “second impression” scene with your other important characters.

Surprise yourself. Surprise your characters. Make sure you never suffer from the one dimensional character pitfall again.

Character is the window to story for your readers. If you’re struggling creating a compelling, multi-layered protagonist, I can offer customized advice and feedback as your developmental editor.

Writing Motivation

As spring comes to my corner of the world (finally!), I am thinking about writing motivation. This is a conversation I have endlessly with my editorial clients. How does one stay motivated? How does one stay motivated despite dealing with rejection, which is, unfortunately, part of the writing life? How does one maintain writing motivation when life threatens to get in the way? Here are three common scenarios where writers find themselves needing motivation. See if any of this resonates.

writing motivation, writer motivation
Unexpected writing motivation for those of us out there who need to hear it.

Writing Motivation When You’re Not Writing

All you want to do is write, dang it, but life keeps getting in the way. You made a goal to write fifteen minutes a day at one point, but paying bills and cooking food and showering seem to steal that time.

This may sound like strange advice, but don’t focus on finding time to write right now. That will only make you feel worse about not writing. Instead, fill your creative well with indirect writer motivation. Take a walk. Binge Shark Tank (or is it just me?!). Sketch something funny in the margins.

The harder you push yourself to write, the more stressed you’ll become. And sometimes, it pays dividends to be nice to yourself. Maybe this isn’t your time to write right now. Maybe this is your time to recharge. After all, burnout is a very real thing. Do something else creative and see if it inspires you to go back to the page.

I had this conversation a few days ago with a client who hadn’t done their scheduled revision because life got in the way. I told her what my midwife said to me a few weeks ago at an appointment: “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” So before you try to pour, refill your cup in other ways, if possible. And if it doesn’t happen every day, or on any kind of schedule, that’s fine, too.

You’re not doing your best work when you’re stressed or forcing yourself.

Writing Motivation When You’re Stuck

When you’re stuck on one thing, the best writing motivation is to start flowing elsewhere. Either skip over the section where you can’t seem to catch a break, or work on an entirely different project. You can always go back and splice sections of writing together, or switch documents when inspiration for the current dilemma strikes again.

But too many writers, in my experience, buy into the idea of writer’s block and let their momentum slow in front of it. If you’re otherwise on a roll (and not taking some downtime, as advised above), don’t let a problematic section slow you down.

I firmly believe that writer’s block is just fear talking. You might be trying to avoid writing bravely about something vulnerable or true. Ditch it for now and work up to it. If you’re finding it difficult to generate writer motivation, you may want to fly in the face of common sense and start with a totally blank page. Face the enemy head on! Freeing yourself from what you’ve already written can be a good way to generate new ideas.

Writing Motivation When You’re Discouraged

Nothing stops writer motivation cold faster than rejection. Whether that’s rejection received from others or, even more dangerous, rejection received from yourself. Writing can be a lonely, long road and it’s hard to paste on that smile and get to it when you feel low.

Good writing motivation in this case is doing something else proactive, where you can see results more easily. For example, posting to your social media and getting a tangible response from your audience. You got two new followers? Great! Instant gratification is a cheap thrill but it can feel good when you need a win. You can also do something proactive for someone else. Have you been putting off working on a critique group submission? Is there a beginning writer you could mentor? Can you attend a friend’s reading to show your support?

Reminding yourself that there are successes out there, and celebrating them, even if they aren’t yours, can be a good way to reinforce that there’s room on shelves. And one day, your book might fit there. This may be easier said than done but it’s worth a try.

Finally, reading is always inspirational. Read a writer you admire, or a new book you’ve heard a lot about. Read an old favorite. Read something that has nothing to do with what you’re personally writing.

Or, you know, eating an entire pizza works, too. You do you.

If you’re hitting a wall with your writing, let personal, actionable feedback energize you. Work with me as your book editor.

Character Objective and Writing a Strong Protagonist

Writing objectives for your characters creates strong protagonists with nuance and drive. Remember, you want to focus on writing a proactive protagonist into your novel. Character objective is a top notch way of doing that. Here’s what I mean by that, and how you can use this powerful idea to move your story forward.

character objective, writing objectives
Strong goals and reasons for them form the foundation of compelling character objective.

What is Character Objective?

Character objective is easy to understand: It’s what a character wants.  Objective also goes hand-in-hand with character motivation. The reason why a character wants something. If you don’t know this about your protagonist, you are in deep, deep trouble. Writing objectives should be top of mind. Why?

All characters should want something. Wanting is universally compelling, we can all relate to it. When I know what a character wants, I am that much more excited to root for them. When I understand why they want it, that feeling only grows. (Making a reader care is one of the cornerstones of how to hook a reader, after all.)

Writing Objectives That Compel Readers

The act of writing a character objective is a bit more tricky. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Establish the objective ASAP. Don’t leave readers hanging. Within the first chapter, make sure the character has at least an initial objective that they’re pursuing. This can tie into their bigger picture want and need as a person, or it can be something short-term. But let’s show them wanting something.

Make the objective specific. “To feel happy” is a very vague objective. It is too broad, and doesn’t have a clear way to know whether it has been achieved or not (since “happiness” is so nebulous). “To help Mom get her job back by impressing her boss” is much more specific.

Let your character imagine the possibilities. Add nuance to the objective by letting your character think about the ramifications. What happens if she does get Mom’s job back? How does she plan to impress the boss? What happens if the gambit fails?

Add stakes. Create a sense of ramifications for success and failure, and don’t forget to add nuance here, too. Maybe if Mom gets her job back, that will solve a lot of problems, but then she’ll be away from home. If Mom doesn’t get the job, maybe the family will fall into dire straits, financially. What might all that mean for your character and plot?

Weaving Character Objective Into Story

Finally, let objective translate into a larger sense of story. This is where the rubber of writing objectives meets the road. Let the character come back to the objective often, mentally. Dream about it. Worry about it. Take action toward it. The latter should then translate into plot.

Start with a strong sense of objective and let the character work toward it. Make it important. Give it layers. Not only will this help your character be more compelling, but your entire narrative as well.

Still struggling with character, objective, motivation, or creating a truly three-dimensional protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor and get in-depth, personal advice from an experienced publishing professional.

Breaking In as a Picture Book Illustrator and Writing an Illustrator Query Letter

Picture book illustrators need an illustration query to break into the field. You have several extra considerations when crafting an illustrator query letter and starting to pitch your illustration services, so here’s how you will want to approach the topic of pitching yourself and your art.

illustrator query letter, illustration query
There are a few special things to keep in mind when writing an illustrator query letter and pitching your art.

Getting Work as An Illustrator

There are several ways to break into picture book illustration. The first (and best) is to create a picture book project from scratch. A lot of picture books these days are sold as author-illustrator projects. Why? This makes things easy for a publisher. They deal with one creator, the art and text tend to have more complex interplay, and they don’t have to go through the arduous process of matching a text to an artist.

But you can also try your hand at an illustration query if you want to enter a publisher’s stable of potential illustrators (they all have one). This is the more circuitous route, with (often) less pay-off. If you don’t have a picture book project ready to go, though, this is what you’ll have to do. The bare minimum you need is a portfolio.

Picture Book Illustration Portfolio

Before you think about writing an illustrator query letter, you will need to assemble some materials. A strong illustrator portfolio needs to be available and viewable online (more on this later). As a bare minimum, it should contain:

  • 6 to 8 fully finished illustrations
  • Different styles, if you have them
  • Different compositions, if you can, with some close-ups, and some wide angle scenes
  • Different subjects, from settings to characters
  • A special focus on characters and faces–portraying emotions is key for picture book illustrations

If you don’t have this kind of work available yet, you aren’t ready to pitch your portfolio around. Concentrate there, first.

Making Your Illustration Portfolio Available

There are two main ways to showcase your illustration work. The bare minimum is an illustration portfolio that’s viewable online. Many websites, like Wix and Squarespace, can help you put together a visually appealing, easy-to-navigate website for cheap. (I personally use Squarespace for my editorial website and a WordPress blog hosted independently for this website. I highly recommend Squarespace for ease of use. I’ve been using WordPress for over a decade and am comfortable with it, but it tends to have more moving parts.)

Since most literary agents and publishers don’t accept unsolicited email attachments, having your work hosted online so you can direct them to a website is key.

Mailings and Other Opportunities for Illustrators

The other approach is to target literary agents, artist reps, and publishers with postcards. (Artist reps are specialized literary agents who work with illustrators. Some illustrators opt to get a literary agent, and those are usually illustrators who are also interested in writing their own books. Some, who are interested primarily in illustration work, target art reps instead.) Use a website like Vistaprint (though do spring for better quality paper so that your art is reproduced faithfully and in more vivid color) to print postcard mailings. (I recommend Vistaprint for the first few mailings because they’re cheap and run promotions, but for quality reasons, you’ll want to move on from them eventually.)

Use books like Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market to find and target literary agencies, artist representatives, and publishers (aim for the art director role at houses) with your postcard mailings. Showcase one to three of your top pieces and include a way to contact you on the back of the postcard.

A third way to showcase your art is to go to conferences that feature portfolio showcases or join the SCBWI, which has an area for illustrators to create galleries. There are a lot of other places to showcase art online, like creating a portfolio with Deviant Art, for example, but the SCBWI and conferences with illustrator opportunities are very targeted to the publishing business.

(For every activity you do, consider what you want to get out of it. Are you looking for representation for your art? Are you looking to connect directly with people who might be looking for illustrators to hire, like self-published authors? Are you looking to do all kinds of illustration, from editorial to picture book, or to target picture books exclusively? Some of these questions and answers are beyond the scope of this blog post, but food for thought. More thoughts on illustrating your own children’s book here.)

The Illustrator Query Letter Made Simple

If you are pitching a picture book project along with your illustration talents in the query letter, you will want to follow my advice for the picture book query, but also add a paragraph that contains any illustration credits you have (magazines, blogs, etc. count!) and links the recipient to your online portfolio.

If you have a dummy of your picture book, you will need to transmit it somehow since, again, most agents and publishers don’t accept unsolicited attachments. Have a PDF available and upload it to your website, but don’t make it widely available. Instead, put a direct download link in your illustration query (or make the file password protected and send credentials). You can also use tools like Google Docs and Dropbox to generate a link to a file, but make sure the links don’t expire.

If you are just sending an illustrator query letter to literary agents, art reps, and publishers that pitches your general talents, you will want to keep it very simple. You don’t have a story to pitch, so instead give an abridged resume of your experience and a link to your online portfolio. Easy peasy! What will really set you apart here is a strong sense of your publishing history (so work on getting illustration jobs) and your online portfolio (so spend valuable time developing it).

I work with illustrators, too, as a picture book editor, so don’t hesitate to reach out for feedback on your art!

Comp Titles in a Query and Other Questions About Book Comps

Questions about comp titles in a query are common, because book comps can either be a powerful part of your pitch, or a bit potential pitfall. Here are some more thoughts on whether to use them, or not, and how. (My original article on comparative titles is here.)

comp titles in a query, book comps, comparative titles, comp titles
Your book comp are calling. But are you using them well?

Comp Titles in a Query and How to Use Them

The conventional wisdom about book comps is that, if you have good ones, use them. If you have outlandish ones that communicate your delusions of grandeur (I’m Rick Riordan meets Suzanne Collins!), skip them.

The purpose of strong book comps is to make a realistic comparison between your work and someone else’s. Ideally, the author or book you’re choosing is thoughtful, rather than just a runaway bestseller. It’s always best to give reasoning for your choices, if you can. For example:

My manuscript has the quirky sensibility of How to Say Goodbye in Robot and the freewheeling voice of Sorta Like a Rock Star.

Both of these comps are older than I’d use (see below), but they came easily to the top of my head because they’re both so very specific. Here are some more considerations, gleaned from questions asked over the years:

Age of Book Comps

It’s best if your comp titles are recent, published within the last three years or so. This does double-duty and communicates to the literary agent or publisher not only your comparison, but that you’re keeping up with the marketplace.

But don’t despair if your perfect comparable title (an alternate term for “comparative title” that you’ll sometimes see used) is older. If you simply must weave The Giver by Lois Lowry into your pitch, pair it with a more recent comp and ta-da! The best of both worlds.

Relevance of Comp Titles in a Query

Per the “reasoning” point, above, your comp titles should be relevant to your current pitch. It’s okay to compare your middle grade historical to a young adult dystopian comp onlyThe Hate U Give if you give a specific rationale. For example, The Sun is Also a Star by Angie Thomas and  by Celina Yoon don’t have a lot in common in terms of premise. But they both explore societal pressures and race in different ways, and those are connections you can draw for an unlikely “meets” comparison.

As long as you’re thoughtful about it and guide the literary agent or publisher on why you made the choices you did, and the choices make sense, you can do whatever you want here.

Similarity to Your Book

You can get away with book comps that aren’t really similar to your book, except for an element or two. But what if your comp titles are too The War That Saved My Lifesimilar? This is a fine line. If you’re pitching a story about a disfigured girl whose mother hides her away during World War II and using  by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley as a comparative title … uhhhhhh … you’re maybe calling too much attention to the fact that your idea already exists. And then you may have to justify how yours is different or better. It’s a better idea to pick books that are similar but not eerily so.

Picking Comp Titles from the Agent or Publisher’s List

Some smart writers customize their comp titles in a query to reflect books represented by the literary agent they’re querying, or the publisher they’re submitting to. This can be an effective strategy. Keep in mind, however, that agents and publishers won’t want to cannibalize their own lists. So if the book you’re pitching is too close to one the agent represents or the publisher has published, this might actually be a liability for you. Their loyalty will always be to the author and project that already exists in their portfolio.

Number of Comp Titles

The ideal number of comp titles in a query is two or three. I recently read a query with six book comps mentioned. That writer had clearly done their research, but they need to tone it down. Two strong comps are better than four lukewarm comps and way better than six comps that just all happen to be in the same category. The more specific the better, so you don’t want to dilute your pitch by citing too many other books.

How to Find Book Comps

This is a quick answer: Read! (Here’s my argument that reading not only exposes you to your market, but helps develop great writing voice, which every writer should care about.) Read in your category. Read outside your category. I will never, ever, ever understand writers who refuse read because it pollutes their process. Spinning in your own echo chamber is fine, but it also tends to produce (ironically) derivative fiction because the writer doesn’t know enough about what’s out there to realize that they’re repeating common tropes, using cliché language, or not exposing themselves adequately to what’s possible.

Reading is a delightful way to get to know the publishing landscape, discover new voices, add fresh ideas to your own writing toolbox and, yes, discover book comps that you can use in your pitch.

As a freelance manuscript editor, I not only work on your book, but I help every client with their pitch, query letter, and book comps, too. Let me set you up for success in submission!