Tuesday, March 13, 2012

16 . . . 15 . . . 14 . . . 13 . . .

Week of March 11, 2012—20 Tips for Great Picture Book Manuscripts
Tuesday, March 13, 2012—16 . . . 15 . . . 14 . . . 13 . . .

One of the least discussed topics at picture book seminars, intensives, and boot camps is setting. We know every story has a setting—so why is this subject so rarely discussed? Simple—because in a picture book setting is often communicated through the illustrations more than the text. Once you’ve said the setting is a farm, unlike a novelist who needs to paint every aspect of the farm for us, the picture book author relies on an illustrator to do the painting—literally. When I wrote COWBOY CHRISTMAS I had a very specific setting in mind. I pictured the hills, mountains, and scrublands around Santa Fe, New Mexico. I pictured a chuck wagon and the campfire the cowboys circle around each night. But the only words I used to describe the setting were: range, campfire, cactus, chuck wagon. John Manders, the illustrator of the book, has painted the setting for me. As a picture book author YOU must determine the setting and YOU must lay the foundation for it. You may even have to write descriptions into your art suggestions. More often than not, you’ll rely on an illustrator to show the setting. For more information about setting, visit:

Most established authors say they write their opening line last. Of course, they draft something to hold the spot in the beginning of the text, but once the book is written that is often when the most effective beginning becomes apparent. Most picture book purchasers pick up a book based on the cover and perhaps the title. They usually flip through the pages next to look at the illustrations. If they take time to read, they often make their purchasing decision based on the first page or two. So our openings must catch our readers' attention. The opening (like the title itself) is the promise to the reader of what they can expect. With picture books, the opening often encapsulates who the main character is and what the problem is. There are as many ways to begin a manuscript as there are authors, so experiment until you find the perfect opening for your book. Check out these links for more info:

Show don’t tell is the mantra of good writing. There’s tons written on the subject, though I have to admit I’ve never devoted posts to the subject on Picture This! (You can bet I will in the future.) An example of tell is when someone writes: Pam saw the ice cream. She chose one. Then she paid for it. These sentences don’t show us anything, but we can turn them into showing sentences quite easily . . . Pam studied the fifty-two flavors of ice cream staring up at her from the open-mouthed gallon containers inside the freezer. Her eyes scanned swirls and chunks, pastels and deep chocolate browns, chunks of nuts and sticky marshmallows. Then she chose her regular—one scoop of vanilla in a cup. She dug the $1.25 from her purse before she reached the counter. As picture book writers, we have to scale back our showing because of limited word count, but the need to show still remains.

Two great quotes on the subject:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
—Anton Chekhov
“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
—Mark Twain

Nouns and verbs are among my favorite things to teach, to play with in my writing, and to critique in the writing of others. You don’t need a string of adjectives to make great writing. You need strong nouns and vivid verbs—words that put pictures in the minds of your readers. I often quote the great Georgia Heard on this subject: “If verbs are the engines of sentences, then nouns are the wheels on which that engine rides.” I circle my verbs in my manuscripts and then list them on paper, being careful to avoid being redundant in my verb choices. I use specific and proper nouns every time I can, never letting pronouns pile up and confuse the reader.

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