Sunday, September 12, 2021

Does your picture book manuscript tick these boxes? ...

What ho, fellow writers, readers, assorted friends and family members - how goes it? I am in Limboland also known as Level 4 lockdown in Auckland. We are in week 4 of level 4, and at this point it feels likely the level will be extended a bit longer - and while I'm here to do the work required of me (staying home, wearing a mask when out and about, being vaccinated) because I have no interest in endangering anyone, my brain feels a little curdled by it all. 

I have daily goals. Get a few chores done, achieve at least one work related task, get a little exercise and then do whatever it takes to keep mind and soul together. I am running out of work related tasks though, and because tradition dictates that I leave the hardest jobs till last I am finding it extra challenging to complete the last few things and meet those daily goals. This is compounded by the fact that the last few things on the to-do list are self imposed. I don't HAVE to do them, but I just thought they would be a good idea. And I am very unsatisfied by my efforts at the moment so the tasks and I are languishing and giving each other the stink eye.

None of it is helped by the fact that my usual schedule is generally quite varied so even though it looks like much hasn't changed for me I am down to doing only around 2 things out of my usual 8 or 9. It IS doing my head in even if it looks easy and unstressful. Also I am currently operating in a vacuum - all the interactions I would normally be having with publishers and librarians and schools and organisations like Read NZ are down to a trickle. I don't like it. I feel disconnected, and I spend half my day willing missives to arrive. And of course they won't so it's all a bit futile. This is the usual lot of a writer dialled up to 'extreme.' 

Anyways, I thought it might be useful to talk about one of the potential topics for discussion that I mentioned a while back, especially as entries for the Storylines Joy Cowley Award close at the end of next month and if you are going to enter it's a good time right now to be gussying up your manuscript. There is nothing surprising or new in what I'm about to say but it's a good checklist and bears repeating IMHO. 

What your plot cannot live without ...

Your picture book plot needs:-

1) Structure: Is the story orderly? Does it have a beginning, middle AND end? If you introduce an idea or dilemma, is everything explained or resolved by the end? Is there logic to the events that unfold? Does it make sense? And have you avoided resolution by convenience (as in 'I have this magic gizmo that restores everything to how it was before', or 'it was all a dream' )?

2) Something interesting: is the topic/theme at the centre of your plot interesting? Is it fun for the target audience? Or relevant to their concerns? Or stage of development? Is it something they want to know about or understand? Bonus points if the topic/theme is also interesting for the potential intermediary who might be sharing the book with children such as parents/grandparents/teachers/librarians. Is there space/opportunity to take the topic/theme further? Does the plot open doors for discussion or further reading? 

3) Something different: have we heard it all before? Has this subject already been explored a thousand times? You can get away with an old topic/theme if your writing is super fresh or your point of view is unexpected or original. But the bottom line is, what makes your story stand out from all the others? Why this version?

4) Totally for/about the kids: children don't want an adult perspective on a topic. Are children centered in the story, or alternatively, is the approach one which speaks directly to them? This is a book primarily for young readers - where are they in the story?

D) Something satisfying: does your plot resolve in a satisfactory way? Will it stand up to multiple reads because the punch line/resolution never gets old? Do you feel good when you get to the end of the story?

E) Respect for the words: Is the language dynamic? Does it respect the young readers thirst for new vocabulary and ways of combining? Is the writing rhythmical? Is language used actively, and attractively? Is it surprising, rich, quirky? And I don't mean making up new words, whether for the sake of a rhyme, or for fun. Good new words are way harder to pull off than many think.

F) Room for the illustrator: A picture book is a shared venture (unless you are both author and illustrator). What have you left unsaid for the illustrator to explore? What can they add, tease out or finesse? Where is their chance to show themselves?

Sure, there are picture books on the bookshop shelf that don't fulfil all these criteria, but I reckon the more of these you can say yes to, the better your chances of having your manuscript accepted for publication. 

I hope wherever you are, in whatever stage/level of lockdown you are in, you are finding a way to keep your body and soul together and your creative mind happy. Our current circumstances mean we might need to find new ways to do this. Surprising, interesting ways ... Maybe that's a topic for next time ... Talk again soon ...


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