Exceptions to Top 12 Tips for Writing a (Good) Picture Book

Writing a picture book is easy.

Writing a good picture book is hard.

Exceptions to the top twelve newbie tips for writing a picture book, plus one bonus thought*

(which okay technically makes it 13 but who’s counting?)

A refute to “The top twelve newbie tips for writing a picture book, plus one bonus thought*” which was also written by Bitsy Kemper and posted just moments before this one–so read that one first, then this one

By Bitsy Kemper


There are plenty of exceptions to the rules mentioned in my last post. (If you haven’t read it yet, please do so now, or this post won’t make any sense)

(Seriously, scroll down and read that last post to put this one in perspective)

(I am not warning you again)

  1. “How do you find an illustrator?” The answer to this was “YOU DON’T.” But if you are a professional artist and happen to also be a stellar writer, oh how lucky you are. (Also: I hate you. It’s so hard to master both skill sets. Sooo jealous.) If you are a member of this very small minority, you might consider submitting your manuscript complete with illustrations. But know the editor might love the art and not the words, or love the text and not the illustrations. I still suggest you pick one, especially early on, and work repeatedly to hone that chosen skill. You can dabble (or excel) in the other one once your foot is in the door. The DON’T answer still applies to having your niece illustrate, hiring an artist, submitting with clip art or photos, overdoing it with art notes, etc. You only have one chance to make a first impression! Show the editor or agent that you’ve done your homework and know enough not to submit artwork with text.
  2. “A story has a beginning, middle, and end. A series of anecdotes, no matter how charming, isn’t a book.” The exceptions here are concept books: something that teaches a certain skill such as ABCs, counting, or colors. In those cases you’ll still want to make it unique and compelling as you’re competing against hundreds and hundreds of these long-shelf-life books already in stores. What makes yours different or better? (If you find a way to create a beginning, middle, and end with a concept book, you get bonus points but also I hate you because that’s pretty hard to do well too.)
  3. “Good writing is rewriting.”  No exception to this one. Sorry.
  4.  “Do your homework.” There is no exception to this one, either. Sorry.
  5.  “Take it out of rhyme.” If you’re a learned poet and know what you’re doing, and others can give a cold reading of your manuscript aloud without a single falter, yes of course I hate you. YOU, my friend, are allowed to keep your manuscript as written. If your rhyme works, stick with it. Just make sure the story doesn’t suffer because of it…that you’re not rewriting sentences to force a rhyme or using obscure words to make the meter work (only Yoda can get away with that), or that the plotline jumps all over the place.
  6. “NO alliteration and anthropomorphisms (giving human qualities to something non living, like a talking mop).” Peter picking a peck of pickled peppers might work as a nursery rhyme, but not as a title or when constant within the text of a picture book. First off: you may think your alliteration is clever and cute, but most editors find it annoying as heck. It shows a newbie is at work, because so many new writers think if you use alliteration, kids will be drawn to the story. Not so. The story needs to stand on its own. Alliterations sprinkled in here and there, sure. But not in the title and not every three words. Friends don’t let friends use alliteration.                                                                                                                                                                   There are a ton of exceptions to the no talking objects rule too. Talking animals you can usually get away with. But talking objects just doesn’t work. Exceptions include Veggie Tales and Cars and very few other others—but remember they are cartoons, not books. It’s not that your story about a talking flying carpet will never get picked up. It’s just that kind of story has to fall WAY to the extreme thumbs-up end of the lame-to-awesome scale. If a kid can’t find a universal truth or common ground with the main characters, you’ve lost them by page one. The easier you make it for them to find themselves somewhere in the main character and story, the faster you’ve found an enthusiastic reader.
  7. “Speaking of editors/agents, they DON’T CARE if it’s a true story, or if your grandkids love it, or if getting a book published is something you’ve always wanted to do. All they care about is the story.” Exceptions here fall ONLY under “true story.” Non-fiction stories, biographies of famous people, or an average person overcoming a huge obstacle in a unique way are good ideas. But writing about the swell dog you had when you were a kid, well, not so much. Everyone has a great pet story from childhood. You have to tell a good story, nay, a greater-than-life story that’s well written. It being true doesn’t tip the scale, and may work against you because newbies assume true stories are better jut because they’re true. It’s not WHAT you say, but HOW you say it. As for mentioning how much your grandkids like it, well, of COURSE your grandkids love it! They love everything you do. Same goes for neighbors/friends. Let the editor/agent decide if THEY like it. They have years of experience in spotting talent. Your posse doesn’t count. Sorry.
  8. “Don’t moralize. No one wants to be talked down to or lectured.” No exceptions here. Kids enjoy coming to conclusions on their own.
  9. “Join SCBWI!”  No exceptions here either. In fact, I’ll even add to it. Join a critique group. Take a class. Attend a workshop. Read blogs by other children authors. Come join our tribe! You’re gonna love us.
  10. “You don’t have to have an agent—but it usually helps.” I don’t have one. Many kidlit writers/illustrators don’t. Surprised? It can be just as hard to land an agent as it is to land a contract deal with an editor/publisher. Where do you want to spend your time? Many writers get an agent AFTER they’ve had publishing success. Many prolific authors don’t have or want and agent at all. I have a friend that’s authored >25 children’s books; not one of them was sold by her agent. That’s not to say her agent isn’t working hard; but my friend is working harder. She trusts her agent and they work well together. But it hasn’t resulted in sales yet. You can put your future in the hands of someone else, or you can boldly storm some doors on your own. This is one of the few industries that give you a choice.
  11. “Plan on getting rich? AHHAHAHAHAHAH! Contracts can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.” The only exception here comes with experience and popularity. The more books you sell or have sold in the past, the higher the contract amount will probably be…it’s akin to paying extra for the master hair cutter vs someone that started yesterday. Experience is respected for a reason! Some publishers shy away from new writers, or offer them a lower amount to start, because new writers have no track record. One hit wonders can prove expensive.
  12. “If you don’t have patience, find some.” The only exception here is ebooks—which are not to be confused with book apps. An ebook is formatted for instant download, bypassing the long time spent at the printers and the transportation and set up time it takes to get on store shelves. An ebook has minimal illustrations so it’s rare to find a new ebook; most take what’s already out there and format it for a computer or handheld screen without any additional features. Book apps need to not only be illustrated but enhanced for reader interaction, which if done right, can take many many man hours of work. Book apps might take just as long as if it was sent to the printers, or even longer to perfect and beta test, but they skip the time-to-store-shelf line. Nothing worth it is ever easy, kid.
  13. “The good news? Even if you never get published, I bet you’ll enjoy the process.” The exception here is a person that whines and complains and only does the minimal amount of effort, with the thinking that the end justifies the means. “I’m only doing this crud to get published.” Don’t be that guy. Enjoy yourself as much as you can. Sure, there’ll be times when you’re bombarded with tedium and distractions and all kinds of unexpected stuff flying at you that you can’t control. Please see earlier reference to nothing worth it being easy. Doesn’t mean it can’t be fun at the same time. Lighten up, have some fun, sneak in a glass of champagne now and again. You’re the only one who can make you happy.

*There are probably exceptions to these exceptions. There may be reasons why none of this applies to you. Take it all into consideration regardless. Hit the road untraveled if you feel so inclined, but do so with your eyes open. Knowing what challenges await will prepare you for that bumpy road ahead.

Now get out there and start creating something wonderful! (Unless you want to hang out for a minute and comment on this blog, which is a great idea, I’m so glad you thought of it…go ahead…hit the comment button…)

4 thoughts on “Exceptions to Top 12 Tips for Writing a (Good) Picture Book

  1. Pingback: Submit Your Children’s Book Without an Agent! *New List of >100 Open Publishers* - Bitsy Kemper

  2. Pingback: Over 50 publishers accepting unsolicited picture book manuscripts! | Bitsy Kemper

  3. Picture books for kids are hard! As you mentioned – at least writing a good one. I had one I was going to write just for my dad, kind of as a cheer-me-up, and perhaps something I could show to my niece, but I could not keep adult jokes out of it! It was shocking how hung up I got on it!
    But then again, that was about ten years ago, so perhaps by now I’ve matured a bit.
    But these are great! Thanks for the tips!

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