Writing advice for writers who want to write children’s books. These articles are full of actionable and proactive advice for those who want to write and sell fiction in the children’s book marketplace. Topics range from picture books to young adult novels, and all of these articles are full of writing advice on how to craft and publish children’s fiction.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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:
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!
Picture book manuscript format flummoxes a lot of aspiring children’s book writers because there is so much potential variety. In my career, I have seen hundreds of examples of picture book format. To help you stand out in the slush as polished and professional, I’ve developed a picture book manuscript template handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.
Picture Book Format
Picture book manuscript format tends to vary WIDELY. Some writers have it down. Others think they’re paginating correctly if they allocate a separate manuscript page to each line, resulting in a 32-page Word document that contains 300 words. What if a picture book manuscript template existed? It would certainly streamline things. As is, some writers include illustration notes, others stay far away. How do you paginate a children’s book? How do you format illustration notes correctly? This resources answers those questions (and here are more thoughts on illustration notes in your children’s book manuscript).
Remember that picture book format is just one small component of a successful children’s book submission. You also have your picture book query letter, and, well, the most important thing: an awesome manuscript! Don’t focus so much on picture book manuscript format that you lose sight of character, plot, and writing style. Those are going to take you a lot further than a nice-looking, polished file … but the latter certainly doesn’t hurt.
As a picture book editor, I work with writers on all aspects of the picture book craft, from creating a compelling children’s book manuscript (in proper picture book format, of course!) to nailing the query letter. Contact me for personal, actionable advice on your project.
It’s my pleasure today to feature a picture book self publishing case study for a change of pace. Full disclosure: Shelby Wilde is an editorial client of mine from earlier this year. We worked on this picture book manuscript together and discussed her career next steps. She decided to self-publish her project, and did, in my opinion, a wonderful job with it.
I don’t often feature client work on the blog or do interviews, but I chose this project because I think it’s extremely well done and I think Shelby has some great insights that will be useful to other writers considering self publishing, especially picture book self publishing. (For any writers in this boat, I highly recommend the Self-Publishing Blueprint from Writing Bluerpints. It’s a comprehensive online class on the ins and outs of becoming an indie publisher. I watched the whole thing with great interest.)
Here, she shares her experience with deciding to “go indie,” the unexpected things she learned, and her lovely book. A long article, but a must-read. Hear about it directly from Shelby, below. I will pop in occasionally to comment with takeaways over the course of the interview!
Deciding to Self Publish
When I decided to self-publish SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND, I spent months researching the process. I knew I would have to pull out all the stops in order for the book to compete with the quality of traditionally published books on the market. I chose to have hard cover books printed in China, which I would then sell through Amazon. Hard cover format is the preferred format for children’s picture books.
There is another self-publishing path called Print on Demand (POD). I did not choose that option because there are very few POD options for hard cover books and the quality is not where it needs to be, in my opinion. Traditional publishers have set the bar high when it comes to the quality of children’s books and self-publishers need to meet and exceed consumers’ expectations.
Kidlit Takeaways: Picture book writers have the self-publishing options of choosing to print physical books in softcover, hardcover, or both (a big investment upfront as you have to buy a print run of expensive books), POD (no upfront investment but quality control can be an issue), or ebook (despite being easily suited to illustrated content, ebooks do not offer the same reading experience for parents/children as physical copies).
Shelby’s point about competing with traditionally published books is spot on. I tell this to my clients all the time: You can do whatever you want when you self-publish. But you are selling to customers who are used to spending money on traditionally published books, and standards are high as a result. You need to offer them something equal or better in order to convince their dollars to come over to the indie side!
Self Publishing Case Study Interview: The Decision to Go Indie
What is this book’s “origin story”?
SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND was inspired by my daughter, who is a rock hound—she loves hunting for rocks. One day she sat me down and started telling me stories about how she acquired each of the rocks in her collection. In her stories, she debated with dragons, haggled with mermaids and convinced aliens so she could take home her treasured rocks. The combination of fantasy and reality inspired me, and I know it is something that captivates kids.
How did you make the decision to self-publish and why?
Early on, I considered the traditional publishing path for SCAVENGER SCOUT, but soon after the manuscript was completed, I realized I felt a strong connection to the main character. I wanted to guide her story through the publishing process myself, overseeing every aspect. Another reason I decided to self-publish is that I wanted to select the illustrator. If you choose the traditional publishing path and sell your book to a publisher, they will select the illustrator. Because I was so connected to the character of Scout, I wanted to be able to choose the style of illustration that would bring her to life.
Kidlit Takeaway: Choosing to self-publish gives you ultimate control over your project. Control you would lose with traditional publishing because the publisher does have final say on issues like title, format, illustrator, etc. But with great power comes great responsibility, and it behoves you to do your due diligence and make strong, marketable decisions.
Self Publishing Logistics
Describe the process of preparing the book for publication. What was unexpected? What did you learn?
When it comes to preparing the book for publication, selecting the illustrator is only the tippy top of a very large iceberg. The most important thing I learned is something that should have been obvious to me: When you decide to self-publish, you will need to wear all of the hats that a traditional publishing house does. You will need to hire an editor (or editors—did you know there are different kinds?), an illustrator, a book designer (or your illustrator may be able to provide this service), a printer, a shipping company, storage space (if you are having your books printed and shipped to you, instead of ebook or POD). The difference is that the publisher has a team of people who are specialists in their areas and you have just … you. A writer. The learning curve is steep, but it is doable as long as you’re willing to put the time in.
One unexpected challenge was dealing with long timelines. Traditional publishing cycles are long: it typically takes two years to bring a book to market. Self-publishing is a little bit faster—mine took 11 months from start to finish, but still not quick. You have to have a lot of patience. If you have ever created something to sell, the last thing you have is patience. You can’t wait to get it out there. And even though you are a small, nimble company (yep, you need to get a business license if you want to self-publish), you are stuck with a lot of timelines that you don’t own. It takes weeks to months for the illustrator to complete their illustrations, months to print and ship the books, months to promote the book before launch.
Another unexpected challenge: Advertising budget: I didn’t think much about funds for advertising when I was in the planning stages. It’s just a fact that if you want a product to sell, you have to advertise it. Advertising is a skill and it costs money. It’s also relentless. If you stop advertising, you will see an immediate drop in sales. While it’s true that even if you sell your book to a traditional publisher you will still have to market it, at least you’ll have some support from the publisher.
Kidlit Takeaway: The leap from writer to publisher can be a rude awakening. Self-publishing isn’t just a shortcut to making your work available. You are responsible for many things you’ve thought of–and haven’t yet! Shelby also brings up a great point: budget. Do you have one? Picture books are especially expensive to self-publish (as opposed to a novel made available on Kindle, for example) because the biggest expense is the illustrator. To hire a good one, you have to pay thousands of dollars (five figures isn’t unusual). Otherwise, it will show. Unfortunately, readers do judge a book by its cover. Layout costs more money. Then, if you’re creating a physical book, you have to pay for expensive full color printing on a bigger trim size product. Shipping. Storage. Shipping to the consumer. And that’s before you even think about marketing. Picture book self publishing comes with sticker shock!
Describe the process of launching the book. Any lessons there?
This is another area where you have to understand that publishing is a business and you have to do all of the same things that traditional publishing houses are doing in order to compete. Among the activities you will want to put on your launch list: blog tour, social media ads, frequent social media posts, giveaways, partnerships, cross promotion with coordinating products, press release, media interviews, email blasts. Just like the production of the book, launching the book involves skill sets that writers don’t often have: public relations, media relations and marketing. The most important thing I learned when I launched my book is that you have to start months in advance.
Kidlit Takeaway: Marketing is a skill in and of itself. But all writers, whether indie or traditional, have to learn it at some point. The good news is, you are allowed to take small bites. That’s why I like the tip about starting months in advance–you’ll want to give yourself plenty of runway to learn.
Self Publishing Marketing and Career Path
What’s life after independent publication like? How are you currently involved in marketing the project?
I have completed my launch communication plan and have now moved into the “Keep the momentum going” phase. Frequent social media posts, cross promotion, blog tours, book reviews, giveaways, email blasts, etc. Once you self-publish a book, you are now on the hook for marketing the book forever. That sounds daunting, but you have to think of it like any other product. Products don’t sell themselves. You have to put yourself out there as the author, put the book out there through ads, all to keep the stream of people flowing to your book. I enjoy the marketing aspect so it’s fun for me, but it is also time consuming.
Kidlit Takeaway: Ah, the old “art vs. business” debate! A great reminder that any book, even a traditionally published one, becomes a product. And then you sell it forever. The good news is that every positive review, blog post, interview, etc. gives you additional traction, but you always have to be proactive about creating opportunities. Unfortunately, “if you build it, they will come” is not a realistic adage in the age when hundreds of thousands of books are being traditionally and independently published per year.
What’s on the horizon for you? Would you self-publish again? Why or why not?
When I wrote SCAVENGER SCOUT, I also wrote a sequel so I have committed myself to self-publishing that book as well. I anticipate launching in Q2 of 2019. Once SCAVENGER SCOUT Part 2 is out, I will definitely have my hands full managing the printing, shipping and inventory that will come with both books. I am just one person and I’m not interested in becoming a small publisher. I have three other completed manuscripts that I’ve decided to pitch to agents in hopes of getting a contract from a traditional publisher. Choosing the self-publishing path means you are choosing to focus on the business side more than you will focus on the creative side. I want to have more time to spend on writing so I’m happy to let a publisher handle the logistics, even if it means lower profits for me.
Kidlit Takeaway: The takeaway I hear from clients all day every day is that writers are very surprised that they have to become publishers/marketers/businesspeople when they self-publish. They are not just writers. In fact, writing often falls to the bottom of their To Do list. Shelby’s point here is a great one to remember. It’s echoed in Teresa Funke’s excellent and very in-depth online class on self-publishing via Writing Blueprints: each project has its own life and potential. For some projects, self-publishing is the way to go. For other projects, you can always try traditional. Having these options means you can learn about them and choose the ones that are right for you on a project basis, and on a career basis! The bigger message is this: Successful, tenacious writers have more than one project in the pipeline!
Looking to make the jump into self-publishing? My editing services are perfectly suited to writers preparing to go indie. Get professional eyes on your work so you create the strongest product possible.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your Scriveners for NaNoWriMo 2018! It’s officially that time of the year again, when thousands upon thousands of scribes spend the month of November pounding out 50,000 words of prose (or more) in the name of writing achievement, damn it!
Your NaNoWriMo 2018 Success Strategies
For all of this year’s National Novel Writing Month participants, here are three success strategies I’d like to plant in your heads on this, the heady first day of unbridled writing creation.
Don’t Sweat Your Novel Beginning
Edit Your Novel Later
Focus on Character
Let’s unpack these tips one by one.
Don’t Sweat Your Novel Beginning
As I mention in my novel first pages webinar, first pages are so tough to write. Starting a novel can be very intimidating because there’s so much pressure on a novel beginning. That’s why I’m able to speak for over an hour about it, and many books have been written on the topic. (If you missed the webinar, I’ll give it again. See my Webinars and Events page!)
For National Novel Writing Month purposes, don’t sweat your beginning. Besides, you won’t know what your novel opening truly needs to be until you reach the end of the manuscript (on approximately the 30th of this month!). So you can–and should–always go back to the start and revise.
So do your best today and lay some groundwork. Remember to start in action, a compelling scene that introduces the character and kicks things off without immediately sliding into an info-dump of backstory. The balance of action and information is crucial in a novel beginning.
Then leave it. Seriously. Leave it be. It’s going to change. You aren’t going to nail it on the first try. Nobody does. Move on. Because otherwise, you risk getting stuck on your opening, or obsessing about it, and then you may lose your NaNoWriMo 2018 momentum right out the gate.
Which brings me to my next point…
Edit Your Novel Later
Some writers go through an entire novel without looking back at their work once. Some writers hammer and edit and refine on a scene or chapter until it’s perfect, only then do they proceed. For National Novel Writing Month, you obviously want do more of the former and less of the latter, just in the interest of finishing your project.
Writing is writing. Revision is revision. Huh? What I mean to say is, they are two completely different skills. They live in the same neighborhood, but opposites sides of the street. Revision’s for December! (And January, February, March … honestly, it could be a while once the initial rush of creation wears off.)
Some participants psych themselves up for their writing day by reading the previous day’s work. Others barrel straight through. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of going back further than that, at least for the time being. The first week of this exercise is the most important in terms of creating good writing habits.
If you start to read what you’ve written, you may be tempted to revise and, again, might stall out and being nitpicking or obsessing. Most of your success with this project will be created in the revision stages, and those are going to come later, using different parts of your brain and different skills.
You have my permission to step on the gas and ignore your blind spots. For November at least, don’t look back!
Focus on Character
The biggest job in front of you (other than, you know, writing 50,000 words in a single month!) is to get your character down on paper. The first chapter will change (weren’t you listening a minute ago?), the plot will change, individual scenes and descriptions will change. But once you’re able to “birth” a character during National Novel Writing Month, this really will be the anchoring element of your manuscript going forward.
Remember, readers read primarily to bond with character. A writer’s most important job is to make readers care. This comes from character. And it’s never too early to start fleshing out a strong and compelling character. As you write, you can forget the nit-picking and first chapter, but remember to add as much emotional substance to your protagonist as possible. This is where the quick work of creation can really pay off for later drafts.
Have you heard of my concept of interiority? If not, read up on it and keep it in mind on your adventures. The more you get down about your character now, the less you’ll have to develop later. If your manuscript reads like a giant character sketch at the end of the month? I wouldn’t be too upset. You can always shape the character and focus and give them stuff to do (plot) during the revision process.
What Happens After NaNoWriMo 2018?
You might laugh, but literary agents cringe at the end of National Novel Writing Month because their inboxes swell with “novels” on December 1st, nary twelve hours after well-meaning writers have finished their masterpieces. Because a novel is done once the word count gets to 50k, right?
As you’ve heard me suggest several times, the real work, unfortunately, of crafting a novel happens in the months after this one. So whatever you do, as tempting as it is, don’t rush to submit just yet.
Over the winter, I might suggest reading some writing resources. I just dove back into The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. It’s a dense read, but I came away from it with some rewarding ideas. National Novel Writing Month is all about passion and fire and speed. It’s a rush.
Revision is a slow burn. Appreciate both for what they are. You have the rest of the year to revise before this whole crazy trip happens again!
If you want personal feedback on your project, or revision proves overwhelming, hire me as your novel editor. I work on manuscripts in all stages of creation, from WIP to if-I-have-to-look-at-it-one-more-time-I’ll-cry.
There are quite a few ways to think about picture book structure. Here, I’m going to present a looser “Problem and Solution” structure, and a more specific
The Basics of Picture Book Structure
Keep in mind that you are working with 24, 32, or 40 pages for most picture books, with 32 being the hands-down favorite. Take three or four pages away because you need to accommodate front matter (like the copyright and title pages), and I’d say you have about 28 usable pages to work with.
When you are planning your picture book, imagine telling the story in individual pages (either the right or left side of the book, “profile” view) or spreads (both pages, “landscape view”).
How do you fill those pages? Spend five of them describing the character’s favorite ice cream flavor and how nice they are? NOPE. You need to dive right into story without wasting too much time. Preferably, you will jump straight into action. Here are two examples of common picture book structure that you can work with.
Picture Book Structure: Problem and Solution
When I was doing some speaking on picture books in 2012, I wrote a talk that incorporated simple Problem and Solution picture book structure. Basically, your character is introduced in terms of a problem they’re having. Then they make several attempts to solve the problem, before some kind of resolution. It looks like this, assuming that your book starts on page 4 because of front matter:
Page 4: Character introduction
Page 5 to 6: Conflict introduction
Page 7 to 8: Raise the stakes (establish why the conflict fights the character, what happens if they don’t get what they want, etc.)
Page 9 to 18: First two attempts to solve the conflict, story stakes rising
Page 19 to 26: Third and biggest attempt
Pages 27 to 29: Climax and success hanging in the balance
Pages 30 to 31 or 32: Resolution, reversal, final image (whether you go to page 32 depends on if you end the story on the right side of the page or after one more page turn)
Note: These page number prescriptions are a starting point for helping you map out your thinking, they are not a hard-and-fast rule.
Character Development in Picture Book Structure
Nobody cares what your character’s name is or what their favorite ice cream flavor is. Sorry. You do, but nobody else does. That’s not what makes them a character. Fancy Nancy was a character not because she liked poodles but because her whole driving passion in life was making ordinary things fancy. This is a characteristic that will fire up reader imaginations.
So once you’ve established a character with an objective (something they want) and motivation (why they want it), you can give them a conflict that grates against who they are. This makes the conflict more powerful, and gives them extra reason to want to solve it. Is also establishes stakes–what happens if they aren’t successful, why it matters.
Otherwise, if readers don’t understand why your specific conflict is a big deal for your specific character, your whole story won’t matter. But if you create a strong foundation that ties character to plot, their attempts to solve the conflict will be noble, and the classic Problem and Solution picture book structure will work well for you.
A Reminder About Preaching in Picture Books
But keep in mind something I mentioned above. Their attempts to solve the conflict. That means you’re writing a proactive protagonist who is going to drive the story.
This idea for picture book structure comes entirely from Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s HOW TO WRITE A CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK: VOLUME I: STRUCTURE. Her writing on the topic of picture books is definitely worth investigating. I’ll summarize the structure here but won’t reveal several fine-point components, in fairness to their creator.
The Components of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Book Structure
This is a looser wrapper and more applicable to different types of story. It has a lot in common with the Problem and Solution structure, but there are some nuances. Here’s how it goes:
Act I: the Beginning or the set-up, about 20% of the story or 5-7 pages
Plot Twist I: a plot twist that separates the Beginning from the Middle
Act II: the Middle, or the primary action, about 60% of the story
Midpoint: a moment in the middle where the story splits into a “before” and an “after”
Plot Twist II: a plot twist that separates the Middle from the Ending
Act III: this contains the resolution or the Ending, about 20% of the story, or 5-7 pages
What I really like about this Symmetrical Paradigm is that it inspires writers to carefully consider what separates the different sections of their book, the plot twists and midpoint, which provide emotional layers to the character and story.
Examples of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Books
Bine-Stock cites many classic examples in her book, and her explanations are worth looking into. They include:
There are exceptions to every rule. While the above are good options for narrative-style picture books, those aren’t the only ones around. Non-fiction picture books are their own animal, and need to be organized according to the narrative structure of their subject matter (for example, in a picture book biography, the subject’s life is going to provide its own flow).
Concept picture books or picture books for very young readers often have their own structure, and it tends to be very repetitive. Alphabet books are obviously organized according to … the alphabet. And concept books like DUCK RABBIT by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld follow a Problem and Solution framework but only insofar as there’s a question asked, and then variations on an answer (or question) are given over and over. If you examine that example, there isn’t really a resolution at all.
Let’s dig into your own picture book project. Hire me as your picture book editor and get advice customized to your manuscript.
Writing a proactive protagonist is one of the single most important things you can do to set your novel up for success. I feel like I’ve been giving this note over and over in my freelance editorial practice lately: Your protagonist is too passive. They do not drive the plot. They are passenger, not driver. What is this problem and how can you address it? Read on!
Active vs Reactive Protagonist
Novels are hampered when a “main character” takes a backseat to action. Higher concept plots are often vulnerable to this. (Because, remember, stakes in writing can be tricky.) If you have Ordinary Kid and you throw them into Extraordinary Circumstances, they are likely, a) not going to know what’s going on for quite a while, b) not going to know what to do, and c) going to rely on others for help.
You’ve perhaps made a plot that’s “too big” for your Everyman character. This thwarts them because they spend the entire novel either, a) learning the ropes, b) discovering their talents, and/or c) figuring out where they fit in.
Thematically, this makes sense, especially for a middle grade or YA novel. If every kid was self-assured at the beginning of their story, you wouldn’t have a relatable novel for tween and teen readers (who often feel incompetent or unsure). But it’s possible to make your character too impotent.
Take a look at your novel. Does your character spend a lot of time receiving instruction? Are there a lot of guide/mentor characters? Do events happen to your character, rather than your character making events happen?
You are in danger of having a passive protagonist. After a while, if the character doesn’t become “activated” and start acting with their own goals, desires, and agency, they are going to be the eternal backseat driver and their power to affect the story–and, more importantly, the reader–will evaporate.
Writing a Proactive Protagonist
No matter how unsure your protagonist is about their life, themselves, or their upcoming challenges, they still need to be a hero. For sure, this doesn’t have to happen immediately, or there’s no growth trajectory. But when you’re writing a proactive protagonist, you should at least the hint of some confidence/ability at the beginning.
Everyone is good at something. And even if a character is not good at anything (or just believes they aren’t), they have a secret weapon that you shouldn’t hesitate to deploy: their desire or need. This secret weapon can make all the difference between an active vs. reactive protagonist.
Use Desires or Needs to Motivate Your Protagonist
Desires and needs are universally relatable and everyone has them. They come together to form your character’s objective and motivation. The objective is what they want, the motivation is why they want it. I define desires as things characters want, which can be external. Whether a physical object or an outcome. A need is something a character, well, needs on a deeper level, so it’s usually an internal conflict. They desire to win the championship but they need the validation such a coup would provide, for example.
The best thing about desires and needs? They make us brave and they make us active. I may not usually be outspoken (Ha! Obviously not speaking personally…), but if my desire is on the line, I’ll act.
Too many times, a character arrives on the page without strong desires or needs. “Ugh, I’m so ordinary. Ho hum. If only something good would happen.” This isn’t specific. Sure, everyone can relate to being bored, but boring characters are … boring. Sitting around and waiting for “something, anything” to happen is a prime set-up for a passive protagonist. This leaves them wide open to anything that comes along, but not really pursuing anything.
Instead, give your character strong goals and wants. Let’s see them chasing after something right away, even if it isn’t yet their central objective. And when the plot does kick in, solidify their objective, motivation, desire, and need. That way, even if the plot sweeps them along on a wild ride, they are always able to take proactive steps, they always have their eyes on the prize.
Better yet, the plot might threaten their objective. Then the stakes rise. They can’t lose X. They can’t sacrifice Y. They only have one shot at Z. Or else what? They go unfulfilled, because their deep need isn’t being met. If you have your character actively chasing, no matter what else happens, you give the impression of a hero.
Secondary characters and subplots help in terms of making your protagonist active rather than reactive. A character can do things for others, or do things that dovetail with another plot thread. Ideally, all of these actions serve their core need (not every need should be 100% selfish, but you should always have strong personal reasons for selfless actions, too). If the primary plot puts your protagonist in a passive position for a moment, is there anything they can DO for anyone else?
Give Your Characters Enough Info to Act
Finally, too many writers hamstring their characters by not giving them enough information. Why? The misguided urge to save everything for a huge reveal at the 70% mark of the plot. Well, guess what? If readers aren’t compelled by a character or story right away, they won’t even get to the 70% mark. Too many writers withhold too much information, stalling until “the time is right” for a reveal. Instead, give your protagonist information earlier. Empower them. Allow them to act with some of the facts in hand. Otherwise, they’re sitting on their thumbs until you’ve decided to throw them a bone. In this active vs reactive scenario, reaction is going to win out — which spells disaster for your protagonist.
Big Choices and Small Moments
Even if you can’t give your character a bunch of information or make them an ass-kicking hero from page one, you can let them be proactive from moment to moment. Study this article on writing active character reaction. If they simply can’t participate just yet, at least let them be engaged. You’ll also want to take a few big risks and step outside of your comfort zone.
Keep training/explaining to a minimum, especially in the first 100 pages. It’s always better to have your protagonist active vs reactive, even if they make a mistake doing so because they’re green or don’t have all the information yet. Really take a close look at all of these types of montages. I will bet that you can make some big cuts and redistribute key information elsewhere.
Perhaps the biggest choice you can make to empower your hero is to stop giving them so much help. The best friend who only exists to support them? Give that friend some nuance and conflict, or they’re just going to be boring scaffolding for your protagonist. The older, wiser mentor who gives the trainee the lay of the land? Let the character start to discover things for themselves, make assumptions, and get out there, ready or not.
Remember, fiction is life elevated. Big stories. Big characters. Big stakes. Most of us feel like we’re just along for the ride in our daily lives. When we come to get away from it all and read fiction, we want to see protagonists who take risks, make choices, chase dreams, and grow into their power. There’s definitely an aspirational component to relating to character. Make sure your hero is someone readers can be inspired by, warts and all, and put them in the driver’s seat. What are you waiting for?
Are you struggling with writing a proactive protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.
The novel synopsis is a source of great consternation for many writers, and I completely understand why. To be honest, I hate writing them, I hate reading them, and I know I’m not alone. They are, usually, both crime and punishment. But they are a necessary evil for several reasons, which I’ll mention. Read on to find out how to write a novel synopsis in a way that’ll keep your sanity intact.
What a Novel Synopsis Is and What It Does
A novel synopsis is, in very basic terms, a one-to-four-page document that explains every major plot point and character development moment. That’s it and that’s all. For such a short and simple document, it sure seems to stir up a lot of angst.
Okay, so maybe my perspective is biased. I’m sure not everyone hates the novel synopsis. I’m sure there are writers out there who write amazing synopses, and agents/editors who gobble them up. Don’t get me wrong, they serve an important purpose.
A novel synopsis demonstrates how you think about story, how you plot, and how you wrap everything up. These are very important skills. A wonderful elevator pitch can very easily fall apart in the execution.
Agents and Publishers are Curious to Know the Following
that you have a lively cast of characters
that you are working with enough plot and subplot, or whether it’s too little or too much
that you’re building appropriate stakes and tension as the story progresses
how you plan on landing this thing once it’s going, whether everything will be resolved or you’re leaving some threads open for potential future stories
if you have any big red flags or fatal flaws in your story, which usually happen in the second half (see “Fair Warning”, below)
Some agents and publishers pay a lot of attention to the synopsis. Some glance at it. Others don’t even request one. But no matter what, you should know how to write a novel synopsis. Better yet, it would behoove you to have this document available in at least two lengths, to deploy when necessary.
How to Write a Novel Synopsis
The best way to write a strong novel synopsis is to sit down and do it. Sorry! That’s it! There’s no secret magic dust that I can give you in this case. But once your butt is in the chair, here are some basic tips on how to write a novel synopsis.
Open a blank document and jot down all of the major plot events of your story. You can start in bullet points, if that helps, but eventually you’ll want to write them out in narrative format. Don’t worry about making it cute, pitchy, or voice-y. Your writing should be clear and tight. Just the facts, ma’am. Be sure to fold in the three or four biggest character turning points, too. These are the changes your character goes through as they get where they’re going. My strong belief is that a synopsis will involve character somehow, to give a sense of how plot and protagonist play together.
For plot, at minimum, you want to hit your opening (the inciting incident that launches your story), a handful of strong points in the middle as things go wrong and obstacles arise, your climax, and your resolution.
Mention only those details that are necessary for clarity and understanding. If the mom’s job is important to the plot, include it. If the dog and cute neighbor factor into the story but not in a big way, you may want to leave them out. For the purposes of this document, you are running lean.
For all of my surprise and reveal fans: Sorry. I’m about to crush your dreams. But you have to reveal your twists and turns, and your ending. I know you want to tease, tease, tease an agent into reading the whole manuscript. You think that if you just withhold the major twist ending, they will fall over themselves to request and sink five hours of reading into your novel because the suspense will kill them otherwise. Well, catch-22, the odds that they’ll request the full and then get all the way to the end are slim if you don’t demonstrate that you know what you’re doing first and that your twist is worth it. (There are people who vehemently disagree and will fight me on this. You’re not changing my mind, but I fully expect to hear from you!)
Tips for Novel Synopsis Writing
The most common lengths for a novel synopsis are: one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages (roughly the same as one single-spaced page), two single-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages. The reason for this wishy-washiness is that different agents/publishers will request different things in different formats. I recommend having three synopses available to send when you start submitting: a tight one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages (this one will not be requested that often).
So you can attack this beast in one of two ways:
Option 1: You sit down and write your entire novel in one single-spaced page (you still need normal 1″ margins and paragraph spacing, so you can’t just use every available centimeter of space). This is the more difficult approach, because I’m guessing your novel probably has more than one page of material. So whittling it down so drastically is daunting. But doing it all at once is also very helpful, because once you’ve shrunk it, you can much more easily add some substance to make a longer synopsis for a two-page and four-page option.
Option 2: You sit down and you do the painful shave. Start with four double-spaced pages. Put down more detail than necessary. Introduce the bulk of your secondary and tertiary characters. Mention events that don’t have a lot of bearing on character change or plot stakes. Save this version. Open another document. Now you’re aiming for two double-spaced pages. Shave, shave, shave. Delete everything possible that doesn’t impact the reader’s understanding of your story. Save this version. Then single-space it and realize that you’re over one page. Now the real agony begins as you distill further. Save the one-page version. And voila! This is perhaps the more scenic route, but the destination is the same.
There is one great test of a novel synopsis that I recommend to everyone: Show it to someone who doesn’t know your story, and then have them explain your book to you. If they kinda sorta get it and are able to hit the major points, you’ve written a successful synopsis. If they start to squirm, you’re not being clear enough. Your synopsis is either too thin or too detailed.
The only way out is through, my friends. So sit down, embrace our love/hate relationship with this document, and let’s get started.
Fair Warning: Part of the synopsis’ job is to reveal story problems. If you write a synopsis and have trouble filling it with actual plot points, it might mean that your plot is too thin. If you can’t possibly omit any plot points and your synopsis is five pages, that might mean that the scope of your novel is too broad. Be prepared to learn that you might have bigger issues as you write this summary document. It definitely happens.
I had a client recently come to me for a 30-minute discussion of his query and opening pages. My big piece of feedback was, “I don’t know if this is a query problem or a novel problem, but I’m not seeing any plot here. Something should be kicking into gear in these opening pages, and the query should be covering more development than I’m seeing.” We moved on to a complete manuscript service and, guess what? There is very little plot, and that is a big issue. Keep your eyes and ears open as you prepare your synopsis documents, you might learn more than just how to write a novel synopsis.
I include synopsis comments with every service as a manuscript editor. If you’re really struggling with yours, let’s work on it together.
This post about how to overcome writer’s block is very different from one of my favorite “advice” posts about writing bravely. There, I talk about pushing yourself (in a good way) to write what you don’t want to (in a good way) because that’s a strong signal that a breakthrough is coming (in a good way).
This post is not that post. This post is for those writer problems where you’re trying very hard to write what you think you have to, but deep down, you really don’t wanna.
How To Overcome Writer’s Block: Three Tips
1. Let That Knee-Jerk Reaction Be Your Guide
Over the weekend, I had a lovely client phone call with a person who was trying to decide between categories. Is the idea a chapter book? A picture book? An article? Someone had told this client that it would make a great novel, but the problem was…she just didn’t wanna write a novel. Her manuscript is too short to be a novel and she didn’t want to flesh it out. Full stop. That’s it and that’s all.
Could it have worked as a novel? Sure. I thought so. Other people thought so. It could’ve been a strong contender for a novel.
But there was a problem.
The writer didn’t wanna!
And sometimes that is the best reason not to write something the way you’re being told to write something (unless, of course, you are a contracted writer employed by someone to write something a certain way, then you should probably avoid “freestyling”). Why?
It’s Easy To Tell When The Passion Isn’t There
If you are just writing YA because you think that’s where the market is and you’re writing a kissing scene because you have to (even though it makes you cringe) and you are putting swear words in because that’s what all the kids want these days, etc. etc. etc. Are you being true to you?
Another phone call last week. A woman had been told by several people (not in the industry, so with questionable experience, see below) to abandon her ambitious multiple-POV narrative and make the story more streamlined. That’s sometimes good advice–people can get in over their heads when they experiment with advanced narrative techniques.
But the multiple-POV idea had been with her since the very beginning, since the first dream she had for her novel. Could she get rid of it? Sure. Would she still have the prospect of a novel without it? Yes.
(say it with me here)
she didn’t wanna!
And sometimes, that “don’t wanna” instinct is a good guide. (Sometimes it’s not. Like, I don’t really wanna pay my mortgage every month, but I probably should…)
2. Be Selective About The Feedback You Follow
The issue with writing feedback is that, sometimes, it can be wrong. Sometimes the problem is that the advice-giver doesn’t know what they’re talking about. (I often see this problem with people who have asked family members or children for feedback.) Sometimes the issue is that the advice they’re giving is the wrong advice for you and your project.
I often encounter writer problems where the issue is conflicting feedback. They are stuck. They don’t know how to overcome writer’s block when there’s not a clear path to follow.
The more feedback you receive, the more different people you work with, the more you will develop your own compass. This will help you parse through feedback and know whether or not to act. Does this feedback feel right? Does it make sense? Does it stir up your inner “don’t wanna”?
Not All Feedback Is Created Equal, And Not All Feedback Is Going To Be Useful
I just responded to an email from another client. This client had some rebuttals to my notes, and we probably have some disagreements about the project. My advice to him? “Take the wisdom and leave the rest.” I stand by my feedback, even though I understand his points. But if my advice isn’t working for him on certain things, then he can move forward, having at least considered it. I count that as a win, because the advice–even if he didn’t end up taking it–helped this client make more conscious choices about his story.
Sometimes realizing you don’t wanna do something is a great way to resolve your questions about how to overcome writer’s block.
So following unqualified feedback can be dangerous, because, simply put, people love to give uninformed opinions. But even more seriously, following your own advice can sometimes be even more dangerous. Because, as humans, we are prone to having a very skewed sense of what “should” be. A lot of human misery sprouts from these ideas we get about what everyone else thinks we should or shouldn’t be doing.
Examine your motives. Are you only writing something a certain way because you think you “should”? Are you acting on advice you received but didn’t like?
3. Find Your Passion Again
The real issue is that writing that comes from a “should” place is not likely to sell. I talk about this in my post about children’s book writing trends. Because if you’re not having fun, and if you don’t have the passion for the project, that will eventually show on the page, no matter how good you are.
If you’re slogging through it, imagine how un-fun it’ll be to read. (This, by the way, is the issue with most synopses. It falls under the category of classic writer problems, because writers hate writing them–and it shows.)
Sure. There are some projects that are just a bad idea, no matter how much energy and love you pour into them. My favorite example is the 200-page picture book. It’s most likely never gonna happen. So if your heart’s desire is a 200-page picture book, then, yes, you may want to take some advice about basic feasibility. But if your project is do-able, market-wise, but you just don’t wanna do it, listen up.
Step Away From The Word Processor
Do some freewriting or daydreaming. Try to reconnect with what inspired you about the story in the first place. Did you start with an idea and then lose it during the writing process? Were you forced to make cuts or changes that you didn’t agree with, deep down, in order to please someone else?
This rut often happens when we get away from our vision and away from ourselves. The lesson? Just because you feel like you should be good at something or you want to be good at something, try to develop your authentic writer self. What do they want to do? What excites them? Start–or very likely, get back to–there.
Wondering how to overcome writer’s block? Get some feedback you can trust. I even help writers synthesize conflicting critiques they’ve already gotten. I am also great at giving you permission to try the thing you deep-down-want-to-try, if that’s what’s been holding you back. Hire me as your book editor today.