I recently stumbled across this very valuable and up to date list of 30 children’s book publishers–big and small–who will accept unsolicited, unagented manuscripts. So if your New Year’s resolution is to send out that manuscript, here’s a good place to start.
“I have a great idea for a picture book. How can I get it published?”
If I had a dollar for every time someone’s asked me that question, I could probably pay for the dental work to repair the teeth it’s caused me to grind into dust.
I can understand beginners asking the question. They assume that because picture books are short, writing them is easy. A happy hour tapping on a keyboard, a little consult with the Rhyming Dictionary, a quick pass through Spellcheck, and voila! Ready to send to a publisher.
Less easy to understand is a professional penning a 1,000-word article called “How to Write a Picture Book” which contains only 7 words actually dealing with the topic of writing, and they are these:
“You need to actually write the book.”
Really? You do? But instead of telling them how, the author leapfrogs over this to more fun stuff like finding an agent, illustrating your story, and promoting your published book. Hard as it may be to accept, aspiring authors are probably better served learning how to “actually write” a picture book before anyone goes stoking their fantasies about fending off all the publishers clamoring to sign them. So in that spirit I offer a few “actual writing” tips for picture books:
1. Think visually. By definition, picture books are a visual medium. Pick a concept or story line that’s illustratable. Someone thinking about something–moping, fearing, wishing— is not easily illustrated. The havoc a certain Cat can wreak on a home is.
2. Make sure there is some kind of tension. At the very least, there must be a need to find out what comes next. Young readers–just like old readers– must have a reason to keep turning pages. The driving force behind your story can be as complicated as finding out who stole the bear’s hat, or if the Cat can put the house back in order before Mother returns. Or it can be as simple as just wanting to feel the exquisite comfort of bidding good night to every single thing in the Great Green Room as night falls.
3. Make that tension grow. Is it a humorous book? The humor should get funnier–the chaos caused by the mouse, or the Cat–should increase page by page. Is it a scary book? The monsters should get scarier on each page. A quest for something? The obstacles get harder and harder.
Think of the great children’s book stars:Eloise, Madeleine, Olivia, Frog and Toad, Max, Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, the Cat in the Hat. They all have unforgettable personalities. You should be able to describe your main character in one or two adjectives: feisty, stubborn, self-pitying, irrepressible, mono-maniacal…
5. Make sure the ending is satisfying. Max comes home to find… ….his supper is still warm. Your readers should say “Aaahh” when they come to the end. You’ve given them what they wanted, but not necessarily the way they expected it.
Your idea for a story has all those potential things–hurrah! Of course, you still have to sit down and “actually write” it. Sorry, but you do. Can’t help you with that part. But when you’re done with the writing, get back to me; then we can talk about agents and illustrators, publishers and promotion and Pulitzer Prizes.
When I visit elementary classrooms, I frequently see a list, posted on the wall, of synonyms gleaned from a thesaurus for overused words like said. This is an admirable attempt on the part of teachers to add some freshness to student writing–though it can be overdone. (Let’s face it, sometimes said is the right word for the job.)
I’m asked a lot if I use a thesaurus to vary my vocabulary. I don’t. Aside from the fact that it seems like cheating, it also often produces an uninteresting word, or worse, one whose meaning is at best a close cousin to the one you need. As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning, and lightning bug.” The thesaurus often gives us lightning bugs when what we need is a paralyzing electric shock.
Instead of a thesaurus, I have taped to my laptop a list of words that I encounter when reading but that aren’t part of my active vocabulary. (As you probably know, our active vocabulary–the words we employ ourselves–is a fraction of our passive vocabulary.) The hope is that having the words in front of me will encourage those words to slide from passive to active vocabulary. Currently on my list: Svengali, discomfit, peroration, kewpie doll, bravura, captious, immanent, strangulated, sere, canard, valence, eschew, baleful, languor, coruscate, cynosure, and otiose.
Recently I was reading one of my favorite authors–the comic master P. G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves and Wooster fame)–and I started jotting down the words he used instead of walk. Jeeves the butler never walked into a room: he streamed, shimmered, floated, trickled, flowed, sifted, slid and trickled. Other, less reserved, characters surged round, rocketed, and bounded.
Would Wodehouse have found any of those words in a thesaurus under “walk?” Your Honor, I rest my case.
So, have I convinced you to eschew the thesaurus?
PS I’m curious to know what others have taped to their computers for inspiration? And teachers: what techniques do you use to broaden your students’ vocabulary?