Title: Untitled

Titles are a funny thing. The good ones intrigue book browsers, grab attention, and are memorable. The best ones describe a whole book in a few words. (Some, on the other hand, are not as clever.) And so it’s normal that writers spend a lot of time stressing over giving their manuscript the very most intriguing, grabby, memorable title.

However, from this side of the table, I gotta say, titles are about the least important part of the work I’m considering. Yeah, it’s nice to be catchy in a query. But I’d estimate about eight times out of ten (four out of five, then), a title changes, sometimes multiple times, before it hits shelves. In at least one case, I’ve seen a title change after it was published.

Even if a title doesn’t change, it’s almost always part of a discussion at some point in the editorial process. So when writers and clients ask me what I think of their title, the truth is that I generally think of all titles as “working titles” until they are printed on jackets. It’s not something I focus on in critiques or edits, unless I think it’s wildly inaccurate or misleading. But as part of the query process, it’s not a make-or-break aspect. Make it as good as you can, but also know it may change a dozen times, and then a couple more.

Why I Don’t Care About the Rule of Threes

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…)

How to Find an Illustrator

I just got off the phone with someone who called because she had seen an image done by one of our artists, and she wanted to know how she could get him to illustrate her picture book for her. I spent some time trying to tell her that that isn’t really how it works, but she just wasn’t hearing me. And so I changed tacks, and ended up telling her it would be very, VERY expensive. That she heard. But I was left with the feeling that my point was not made.

Writers: You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

In nearly all cases (exceptions explained below) the publisher will hire an illustrator for you. Your job, as a writer, is to write. And you shouldn’t be spending money on an illustrator (or an agent, or making hard-copies of your work). You’re doing things out of order. Once your words have been sold to a publisher, they will work very hard to find exactly the right artist for the job. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator.

I know it seems like a smart idea to send out a full-package to potential agents or publishers. But agents, editors, and art-directors are very practiced at reading picture book texts without art. Part of the fun is imagining the pictures before they exist. By hiring an illustrator, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. Here are a few reasons why you definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator:

  1. Your vision is not the agent or publisher’s vision. Your manuscript could be brilliant, but even the best professionals have a hard time separating text from art sometimes. And sub-par art could mean turning down a perfectly decent manuscript.
  2. The friend who you hired isn’t really as great an artist as you think, which can make you both look unprofessional.
  3. You end up spending money when you don’t need to. Let the publisher pay the illustrator for you.
  4. It would be nearly impossible for a picture book hopeful to hire, say, a New York Times bestselling illustrator, but it’s pretty easy for a publishing house to do so. Don’t you want a New York Times bestselling illustrator attached to your project?

But what are the exceptions? 

  1. The friend you paired up with has a few picture books under her belt already. Or is at least more than a weekend hobbyist-artist. You and she have been working hard together and attending conferences and understand that you are doing things in an unconventional way.
  2. You plan to self-publish
  3. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator

Here’s why it’s a good idea to trust the agents and publishers to hire an illustrator for you: 

  1. It’s their job to understand the entire industry, from what stories and styles are working in the current market, to who won which awards this year. We know people’s schedules and stuff, too. 
  2. It’s common practice to pair a new writer with a “known” illustrator to bring some name recognition to a debut. 
  3. The publisher may have an “open contract” with an illustrator, and they may be looking for just the right thing to fill it.

Please, please save yourself time, money, and the headache of art-directing someone who isn’t right for the job. Trust that your words are enough, and that the person in charge of finding you an illustrator will do so with aplomb.

You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

Who Are You?

So many picture book manuscripts begin with a character introducing her-or-himself.

My name is Jiminy and I’m 5 years old! I love chimichangas!

With only a few exceptions, very few books begin this way. I mean, this is how we make new friends, right? We introduce ourselves and maybe share a few details about what we like. But how often do we walk away from that meeting thinking  “that is a person I can’t wait to climb a mountain with? She really gets me.” For me, it’s rare. Comparing things we have in common is baseline acquaintance stuff. I mean, we all like Kimmy Schmidt, right? But I’m not writing you into my will because of it.

The more interesting conversations and meaningful friendships are ones in which we relate to something deeper that our new friend has experienced and subsequently shared. In books, real emotional connections are formed when people feel like they’ve been in the shoes of the protagonist (whether kid, adult, or chicken).

The best picture books are not just about a character and a list of their traits, or a list of things they did that day. They are about a person who is growing and changing and having experiences and reacting to those things and getting feelings and then dealing with those feelings.*

As you draft your picture book, think about who the protagonist is, and what they are like after you’ve hung out with them for a year or two, instead of who they are on the first meeting. Your book will make a much more lasting impression on readers who think of the character as an important friend.

 

*Yes, this goes for non-fiction too.

Aaaand ACTION!

I read a lot of YA manuscripts that are super interesting. Great premise, smart, insightful writing, nicely developed character arcs, marvelous dialogue. But they just aren’t working.

Interrobang! (WHAT!?)

It’s true. More than once I’ve read a manuscript I really like but for one fatal flaw: nothing happens. I’d say, when I was an editor, this was the number one reason a manuscript got the gong at acquisitions.

In picture books, it’s generally pretty easy to spot. Texts in which nothing happens usually come in the form of a list. It might be a list of things a kid does in a day. It might be a list of something that kid loves. Maybe it’s a list of traits they enjoy in their menagerie of monster friends. But a list isn’t a plot.

It takes a bit longer to identify in middle grade and young adult novels. I’m usually reading along for a while, enjoying some great banter, the dialogue carrying me away like the best late-night conversation with a friend. But then I realize, the scene is a late night conversation between friends. And so was the last one. And the one before that was at lunch. And the one before that was in the car on the way to lunch.

It’s a trap some of the best writers fall into. Scenes of people discussing things that have happened off-page are stories in which nothing actually happens. I want to see the character actually run their grocery cart into the ankles of their crush, setting off a chain of events they have to react to, instead of telling their sister about it the next day over mochaccinos at the mall. A next-day dialogue (or whenever it happens) removes the reader from the scene, creating an impenetrable barrier between the reader and the action.

Here’s a little test to tell if your manuscript has enough action: act it out, or at least imagine it as a play. If your scene is of your protag whispering deep thoughts at the library, it’s not so fun to watch. The conversation might reveal a lot, but it’s a bit of a snooze for the reader. If your protag is at the library whispering, and then decides to throw a paper airplane at the jerk librarian (just kidding, all librarians are the coolest), that’s action. If that happened on stage, it would be fun to watch, and it likely makes something else happen.

It’s not the most exciting example, but I think you understand that your character needs to do things. Do things that lead to other things, I mean. Because sure, stirring mochaccino foam and sighing and thinking are technically action, but a whole play of that would be pretty tedious. We’d be in a pretty weird place if Nike had told us to Just Talk About Doing It.

 

Rhyme Time

Oh, the poor rhyming picture book. Love them or hate them, they are a much discussed topic among picture book folk. Some label them outdated, or old fashioned, and some believe they are the only true picture book style. I like to camp somewhere in the middle.

A good rhyming picture book is marvelous, and a bad rhyme is like a new pop-star sans autotune. But how do we tell the difference? I’ll give you some examples.

Dr. Seuss is the most often imitated rhymer, and for good reason. His stories are bouncy and weird and fun to read out loud. The rhyme propels the reader forward building momentum like a bobsled race. You can’t stop mid-line, or even mid-story without feeling like you might cause an 80-word pileup behind. But, as a former colleague once noted, “Dr. Seuss ruined rhyming picture books forever.”

I agree. Dr. Seuss is Dr. Seuss, and you, I am sorry to say, are not. When I read submissions that follow his particular rhyme scheme, I’m not impressed. First of all, I think the author isn’t totally innovative. Second, his texts are long by today’s standards. Have you read the Cat in the Hat lately? It’s 1621 words, and 61 pages, which is about twice as long (in word count and page count) as today’s picture books. It’s also 59 years old this year, so.

My point is that it takes a LOT of words to keep to that rhythm and make it tell a story.

But borrowing an innovator’s style isn’t the worst offense. I also see a lot of submissions which keep to a rhyme scheme, but force the words into an odd, unnatural structure. For instance (made up by me):

The temperature was ten below

But off to school Babs did go

This is a case of rhyme before language, and rhyme before story. In the first line, temperature gives a nice rhythm, but no one actually refers to that word when talking about the subject. Natural English is more likely to use “it” because we don’t talk about anything else being ten below. It’s implied we’re talking about degrees. The second line is completely backward. Babs went off to school is more natural. She did go in this context is nothing anyone would ever say, so please don’t put it, or anything that doesn’t sound the way people speak, in your rhyming text. EVER. (In a better text, this would simply say “It was freezing, but Babs went to school anyway,” saving you three precious words to use later.)

So what makes good rhyme then? Ah, the million dollar question. I have been thinking about this a lot. We live in an age of innovation in music, and why shouldn’t that carry over into our texts as well? Why write a plodding ABAB phrase when you can get jiggy? Seems like the whole world has been listening to Hamilton (whose creator won a MacArthur Genius Grant, just sayin’) because it’s thrilling. It’s fresh and cool and mind-blowing. Why shouldn’t picture books do that too? Hip hop isn’t the niche it once was, and authors can find inspiration in how it’s put together. Go back and read your beat poetry collections from college. Or read new poetry for inspiration.

Here are some examples of recent rhyming texts which are doing it right:

I Stink! (the whole series) by Kate McMullan and Jim McMullan

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry and Tom Lichtenheld

Some Bugs by Angela DiTerlizzi and Brendan Wenzel

Counting Crows by Kathi Appelt and Rob Dunlavy

Skippyjon Jones (the whole series) by Judy Schachner

Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts

These texts tell a story using rhyme in some way, but come at it with syncopation and a jazzy sensibility. Or they use really modern language in fun, off-kilter ways. Because of that, they feel new and interesting and original. Do all rhyming texts need to be that way? Not really. For example, a bedtime book probably needs to be more regular and soothing.

Many editors say they won’t even consider rhyming books. If you’re just getting your feet wet in picture books, I generally advise staying away from rhyme. Picture books are the hardest thing in the world to write, so why give yourself the added challenge of rhyme? But if you’re up to it, dig in. Don’t rhyme because you think you have to. Do it because you want to write a powerful, tantalizing rhyme that will make an agent or editor dance. Be the exception to the rule.

The Problem with Girls Who Don’t Like Pink

I see a lot of picture books submissions that challenge gender stereotypes by presenting the stereotype and then knocking it down. I am all about knocking down gender (and all other) stereotypes, but there is a problem inherent in this method, which is that in order to knock something down, it has to be set up first. For instance, a typical line might be, “Who says pink is just for girls?”

This is not the only example. It could be about a stay-at-home dad, or a boy who likes dance.  But I will use pink and girls for this case. Within that question, clearly set up to knock down later, lies the statement “pink is just for girls”. And now that idea is planted in the mind of a kid who may never have thought that colors only belong to one gender or another. The only reason to ask that question is to challenge an idea already in place. It gives a reader the chance to say “lots of people” or “I do”, and when they do, we haven’t moved very far.

But, maybe more problematically, it also sets up the reader as though they are breaking from the norm, which can be uncomfortable. The reader is forced to acknowledge that some people think pink is just for girls before considering which side of the equation he or she is on. And there is always the chance that they will side with convention. And that is the opposite intent of a writer who is challenging gender stereotypes. Once these characters are presented as unique or unusual or breaking from the pack, or even brave or bold or daring, the notion that pink isn’t just for girls can be scary. It takes guts to speak against that, and not everyone is willing to pipe up.

The best way to deny stereotypes is to speak as though we have already moved on beyond the stereotype altogether. This way, newer ideas—like all colors being for everyone without it even being a question—sound comfortable and “normal” and not something it takes guts to get away from.

Of course, I’m not suggesting we re-write history.  Old books give a great window into old ways of thinking. When And Tango Makes Three and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding came out, ideas about gay marriage were not where they are today. And so those books made a splash. They paved the way for us today. Now, seeing two dads or moms at school with their kids isn’t unusual, and since it’s a normal thing we see, presenting two dads in a picture book without comment is a modern reflection of our time and a better approach to good storytelling.

So why do we keep publishing picture books about princesses who like to get dirty as though this is a new and novel idea? Girls who like soccer and boys who like to bake are not revolutionary ideas. Free to Be You and Me included “Billy Wants a Doll” in 1972, 43 years ago. It’s much more progressive to assume everyone already knows pink isn’t just for girls, and show some boys in pink doing other kid things, like fishing or competing in a quilt-off. We’ve moved on, and so should our stories.