I was browsing new books at a shop this weekend, picking them up, reading some flap copy, flipping to the text, and putting things back on shelves (or, for the lucky few, into my bookbag). It occurred to me then, and I can’t say why not before then, that the experience was very much like reading queries.
People ask all the time what it’s like to have an inbox full of manuscripts, and how agents and editors know when something is right for them. And I tell you what, if you’ve ever been looking for the right next thing to read out of the mountains of options at the bookstore or library, you already know what that experience is like.
We picky-but-voracious readers suffer from always wanting the next excellent story, and needing to comb the stacks to find it. How many times have you found yourself not knowing what you’re in the mood for, until you finally read a jacket that gets you excited? You take the book home and dig in excitedly and either it is as wonderful as you’d hoped and you can’t wait to tell everyone, or it falls flat and you move on.
Well then, surprise! You know exactly what it’s like to read as a publishing professional. We go through queries in that same mindset we all have at bookstores or scrolling GoodReads. Where is that thing we didn’t know we wanted? What ignites and delights and intrigues? Where is that thing we can’t wait to stay up all night to finish? Keep it in mind when you’re wondering what will make an agent request your manuscript. It’s basically the same thing that makes you want to buy one.
There, now you know. And for writing effective queries, knowing is half the battle.
Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions on Twitter about the so-called rule of threes. And my inbox is seeing a lot more refrains used at least three times in picture books. For those of you who aren’t aware, the rule of threes is something many picture books employ. For instance, in the Three Bears, Goldilocks tries out three chairs, porridges, and beds. In the Three Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf huffs and puffs three times. It’s a story framing device that works pretty well for picture books.
But not all the time.
The rule of threes isn’t something that can be slapped into a manuscript with the expectation that it will help it stand. I think the hope is that kids will magically start chanting along with a book when it’s read out loud. And so many writers invent a phrase and just tuck it into a story willy-nilly. Many times, it isn’t necessary, and so comes across as forced.
When applied well, the rule of threes helps to provide some tension. In both the classic tales above, the story moves forward because of each thing being done. Each time G-Lox sits in a chair is a chance for her to cause trouble, which ups the ante little by little. Each time BB Wolf blows a house down, the stress level of the pigs (and reader) goes up.
A refrain is something different, but should be employed with equal choosiness. Another post, perhaps.
Not every picture book uses threes. Some are a straight narrative. Look at Stop Following Me, Moon! by Darren Farrell. Or I’m My Own Dog by David Ezra Stein. Or Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin.
It’s true that I could name a dozen picture books that DO use the rule of threes. And I have nothing against it. It’s a great tool. But I don’t want writers to think it’s absolutely necessary or to lean on it when it’s not structurally sound. I want it, like all the tools in the box, to be used thoughtfully and not just because “you’re supposed to”. And I’m certainly not going to reject something that doesn’t use this “rule” on those grounds.
You wouldn’t use a waffle iron to make pizza, would you? (On second thought…)