ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BOX: THE FIRST PICTURE BOOK
I'll be honest -- when my desk is covered with paper, and I feel the need to throw out massive amounts of something in one fell swoop -- the answer is unpleasant, but obvious.
It's time to go through the slush pile.
Going through the slush pile can leave you with an enormous feeling of accomplishment and also give you significantly more room in your office -- all in a couple of hours. But it also leaves me with a weird sense of guilt. Perhaps, it's the knowledge that someone, somewhere, could be deliriously ripping open my envelope, quickly reading the letter, and stuffing it back in the SASE. When I high-five my coworker about cleaning out the slush box behind me, I also cringe because part of me really believes that query karma is a bitch and somewhere I've just been high-fived out of someone else's pile.
I'll admit, I am no stranger to the slush. I submitted my first picture book in 1997. I was 14, and the book was truly terrible. It was about a group of anthropomorphic animals who found a hat in a bush. I collected around twenty or so rejections and spent a lot of my parents' money on postage. (Sadly, they may never see the return on that investment.)
As the writer I thought, "this is the best book EVER" and "thank goodness all of my old stuffed animals can pose for the illustrator." (I kid you not -- this story was drawn from real, stuffed-and-furry life. Awesome.) Reading it now, I think, "Thank God this was never picked up!"
I had made some huge but common errors in my first picture book attempt. First, my characters were "furry kids." While they were labeled bear, duck, bunny, etc. they didn't actually exhibit any animalistic behaviors. In this case, they could (and should) just have been three or four kids.
Secondly, I hadn't thought about the book's re-readability. Once my readers had learned what type of hat the characters had found, there was nothing to make the reader read the book again. My favorite picture book growing up was CHATTY CHIPMUNK'S NUTTY DAY by Suzanne Gruber and Doug Cushman, which was also about hiding/finding something. What that book had, that mine didn't, was great line repetition and alliteration of the "ch" sound. (Now, to the dismay of my roommates and coworkers, I 'alliterate' all over the place...)
Another common picture book pitfall is trying to ingratiate a moral lesson into the story. Luckily, I did not lecture in the middle of my pb about the benefits of sharing, though I'm sure I thought about it. As someone that reads the box, though, this is a good time to point out -- you can't beat the reader over the head with your moral -- it is boring. There. I said it.
My first attempt was also full of 'talking heads.' Dialog heavy picture book manuscripts usually make for monotonous illustrations. In this case, my picture book as written would have looked something like this:
First page: Duck finds hat
Second page: Picture of duck talking to rabbit
Third page: Picture of rabbit talking to duck
Fourth page: Picture of duck talking to rabbit
Fifth page: Picture of rabbit talking to duck
Etc., etc., etc. until we bring in the bear.
On the other side of the box, when I read a picture book manuscript, I have to think about how the illustrations will move the story. What is going to keep the reader turning the page? Is there enough variety in the text to lend itself to a 32 page picture book? If a writer is unsure if their book has enough action to carry the story, making a picture book dummy can help. Make a small 32 page booklet, mark off the endpapers, copyright page, title page and acknowledgments (this leaves about 28 pages to work with), write out the text and sketch out the book. If you flip through it and you see a bunch of faces talking to each other or the same picture over and over again, it's time to relook at the text. (Don't submit this dummy, btw. This is just for you.)
On the other side of the box, we know that in a picture book, the main character must solve their own problem and meet their initial want/need. Invoking the power of "I'm telling!" just isn't as satisfying to the reader.
Finally, though my first picture book did not break this rule, a lot of the picture book slush I see comes in rhyme that is off meter. Bad rhyme will kill a good story. Writers should ask themselves -- will this story really benefit by being told in rhyme? Is my poetry as strong as what's already in the marketplace? Always read your work out loud, this will help you hear where the rhyme is awkward or offbeat.
Most of the above mentioned mistakes are big 'red flags' and makes going through the slush pile easier (thus increasing the amount of bad slush-karma I have accumulated.) So, don't make my mistakes, and help me earn some good slush-karma.
I'll see you on the slushy side!