You can only imagine how excited I was in January when Emma Walton Hamilton contacted me to see if she could support the 12 x 12 in 2012 challenge. Luckily our discussions were conducted by email so she couldn’t see me jumping up and down! Emma, as you probably know, has co-authored over twenty children’s books with her mother, Julie Andrews. She is also a huge champion of children’s literacy, and much of her wisdom on the subject is contained in the fabulous book, Raising Bookworms. She teaches children’s literature at Stony Brook Southampton University’s MFA program and is also the Executive Director of the annual Southampton Children’s Literature Conference. The deadline to register for this top-notch event is TODAY, June 1. With Peter Reynolds, Kate McMullan and Cynthia Leitich Smith on faculty this year, it’s well worth attending.

I’ve come to know Emma best through The Children’s Book Hub, where she provides information, resources and support to children’s writers of all genres and experience. Because I know first hand the quality of information she provides, I am more than a little envious of the 12 x 12 participant who is going to win Emma’s extremely generous prize this month – a gift certificate to take her 8-week online picture book writing class – Just Write 4 Kids – for FREE! Yes, you read that correctly – for FREE! Now, sit back down and enjoy Emma’s post. 🙂

The Mucky Middle

When Julie and I discussed what topic would be most valuable to address in this guest post, she suggested “the mucky middle” of writing picture books. “It seems appropriate, since by the end of June we’ll be halfway through the year,” she said, adding,  “I’ve noticed with my critique group partners (and therefore probably with my own writing) that drafts often start to lose focus in the middle and ramble on longer than they need to.  Could you give pointers on how to keep the pacing and the language tight throughout the story?“

Little did she know that the “mucky middle” is just what I’m wrestling with myself this month, as my mother and I strive to work out the next

Emma, her mom Julie Andrews, and the cover of the first of their best-selling "Very Fairy Princess" series

installment in our Very Fairy Princess picture book series. Here, then, are my thoughts about mucky middles – and perhaps, in the sharing of them, the picture book gods will see fit to help me solve my own mucky middle challenge…

Of course, we can’t really talk about middles without talking about beginnings and endings. Middles exist as a result – and in the context – of the other two. So, let’s revisit – briefly – the beginning-middle-end (also known as “three-act”) plot structure. Bear in mind that we’re exploring story-driven picture books, not concept books, or even “a day in the life of…” picture books (although many of the same rules may still apply.)

Act 1: Set-Up – We meet our hero, learn what he or she wants or needs, and the nature of the problem, or thing(s) standing in the way of achieving that goal.

Act 2: Conflict/Crisis – The hero pursues the goal, but obstacles arise and the problem gets compounded.  As the obstacles are overcome, new obstacles arise that raise the stakes. The dramatic tension increases, until the problem peaks or reaches a crisis point. It seems as though all is lost… our hero may never achieve the goal or solve the problem.

Act 3: Resolution – Some realization or lesson learned helps our hero overcome the final obstacle, or problem, and arrive at a resolution. While perhaps different than originally intended, the resolution provides redemption – and satisfyingly addresses the need established at the beginning of the story.

OK, now let’s look at Act 2 a little more closely.  And in honor of one of the greatest contributors to 20th century children’s literature, let’s use Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are as an example before considering the same questions relative to our own manuscripts.

Let’s begin by positing that what Max wants is to be wild, or more specifically, to be master of his own destiny… and that the problem is that his mother is still the boss, and therefore his wildness has resulted in his getting sent to bed without supper.

So, in Act 2:

  • The hero tries to pursue his goal. Max conjures up a forest in his room, then an ocean and a boat, and sails off to join other wild things where the wild things are. 

How does your hero try to pursue his/her goal? What actions does he or she take? How many different ways or strategies does he or she try, and why do they fail?

  • Obstacles arise and the problem gets compounded. At first the wild things are scary. They roar their terrible roars, gnash their terrible teeth and show their terrible claws. It seems Max is as unwelcome here as is he is at home.

What obstacles arise for your hero? How do they compound his/her problem?

  • As the obstacles are overcome, new obstacles arise that raise the stakes.  Max tames the wild things with a staring contest. They are so impressed that they make him King. Now there’s even more pressure to be wild – so Max orchestrates a ‘wild rumpus.’  But even that doesn’t really satisfy…  Max may be King of the wild things, but he’s still not the master of his mother. 

Notice the plural here in reference to obstacles. Ideally there is more than one failed attempt to achieve the goal. In fact, a series of obstacles, each one building upon, or generated by, the previous – and further raising the stakes – is the ideal.  

  • The dramatic tension increases. Max steps into his mother’s shoes and sends the wild things to bed without their supper. That’ll show ‘em!

How does the dramatic tension build in your Act 2? Are there any twists, turns or surprises you can incorporate?

  • The problem peaks, or reaches a crisis point. Now that the wild things are asleep, Max feels… lonely.  It’s a hollow victory, and it suddenly seems as though none of his wildness has been worth the effort.  Max realizes that what he really wants is “to be where someone loves him best of all.”

How does the problem peak for your hero? What is the realization or lesson learned? It doesn’t have to be epic – remember that something seemingly minor to an adult can feel like a crisis to a child.

Max’s realization brings him home. There, he finds his supper waiting for him (still hot!) and we – and Max – infer that all is forgiven, and that he does, in fact, have some sway over his mother after all (if only that her resolve has been softened by her affection for him).

If the muck in your middle has less to do with plotting and more to do with pacing, here are a few things to attend to:

Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Be mindful of what the illustrations will show, and focus more on verbs than adjectives whenever possible. Also watch out for adverbs that are being used to prop up weak verbs. Find a better verb!

Telling versus showing – Show through dialogue and behavior rather than telling through narrative description.

Unnecessary Modifiers – such as “really,” “very,” or “just.”  For instance, instead of describing someone as “very tall,” try “towering.” Strong adjectives don’t need modifying.

Redundancies – For example, “Suddenly, the door flew open” is redundant. The door flying open implies that it was sudden.

One last tool that may be useful: The Rule of 3. 

Things that come in threes are inherently more satisfying and/or more effective than any other number. A series of three mirrors the sequence in which tension is created, built up, and released – or, the beginning, middle and end. There is even a Latin phrase – omne trium perfectum – which means “everything in threes is perfect.” So, when coming up with obstacles to your hero’s goal, aim for three of them. Then, hasten your way to the end – or, Act 3.

But that’s another blog post…

EMMA WALTON HAMILTON is a best-selling children’s book author, editor, educator and arts and literacy advocate. She has co-authored over twenty children’s books with her mother, Julie Andrews, six of which have been on the New York Times best-seller list, including The Very Fairy Princess series (#1 NY Times Bestseller), Julie Andrews’ Collection Of Poems, Songs And Lullabies(illustrated by James McMullan); the Dumpy The Dump Truck series; Simeon’s GiftThe Great American Mousical and THANKS TO YOU – Wisdom From Mother And Child (#1 New York Times Bestseller).

As the creator and host of the “Children’s Book Hub” membership site, Emma provides resources, information and support for children’s book authors and illustrators world-wide. She is also the creator of “Just Write for Kids!“, an online course in writing picture books.

Emma serves as the Editorial Director for The Julie Andrews Collection publishing program, dedicated to quality books for young readers that nurture the imagination and celebrate a sense of wonder, and works as a freelance children’s book editor, providing editorial evaluations, line-editing services and one-to-one mentoring. Her blog about writing for children, Emmasaries, can be found at

Categories: 12 x 12 Featured Author, 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Giveaway, Goals, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,



  1. A BIG HELLO from your old UES friend, Suzanne Bastien!!!
    And thank you for helping us with the mucky middle, Emma.

  2. Hi Emma *waves from downunder*. How wonderful to have Emma here joining the 12x12in12 group, and such a timely post as I have had trouble with my May ms, and yes…. it was the “mucky middle.” Thankyou Julie and Emma, and as one of the earliest students of the “Just Write for Kids” online Course, I can highly recommend it. (you can read about how I found the course on my blog… )

  3. Thanks for the tips. It must be a lot of fun to write stories with your mom. I love having my mother-in-law around to help me fix problems in my stories.

  4. Thanks Emma and Julie,
    A great tutorial and reminder-always a matter of going back to the basic rules!
    I’m having a hard time with a PB manuscript right now. Will hard copy this post
    and set one copy here beside me.(so I can scribble and jot notes all over it!)
    Must get back to slogging out of the mucky middle!!!

  5. Hi Emma – I just ordered The Very Fairy Princess to help with my princess story, none of my local bookshops down here in Oz had it, so I went online 🙂

    Great tips and exactly what I needed right now.

  6. Thank you, Julie and Emma. So great to revisit the essentials of these three acts of a good picture book. It was very helpful to be reminded to try and up the stakes in that murky middle. Will focus on this in my present MS and revisions.

    Don’t put me in the draw, as I have already had the privilege of doing the Just Write for Kids course to at the very onset of my writing.

  7. My delight was palpable when I saw who the guest author for June is! Thank you, both Julie and Emma, for this excellent post. (It’s an interesting experience in itself to use the phrase “Julie and Emma” and mean a different Julie!) It seems to me that the mucky middle must be a universal struggle for writers. I’ve certainly been mired in that muck more than once (and thanks to Emma’s skills as a freelance editor, I’ve worked my way out of the muck, hopefully successfully).

    Put me down as another person who has completed the Just Write for Kids course (in late 2010) and recommends it highly every chance I get, so I don’t need to be entered in the drawing, either.

    And in delightfully serendipitous timing, I will be interviewing Emma on my blog on Wednesday, June 6th, so I hope people will pop over to my blog that day. (And pop back on Wednesday, June 27th when I interview our own Julie Hedlund!)

  8. All this information is so important to keep in mind as we write. Thanks so much, Emma for presenting it in a clear, coherent manner.
    Good luck to everyone for the June manuscript!

  9. Thank you, Emma! The mucky middle has bogged me down on more than one occasion and I appreciate having some good advice on escaping the mess. Thank you for sharing another wonderful author for the 12X12 challenge, Julie!

    Heather Newman

  10. Such an awesome post, Emma. Some really great points to remember when tackling that mucky middle. And great tips on tightening up the prose, too. Thank you!

    Jo Hart

  11. Thanks, Emma! Yup, my middle gets too broad and mucky – and so do the middles of my stories sometimes. Lots of good advice here – stuff I should know but clearly need to print out and tape to my forehead. Or maybe the wall next to my monitor.

  12. Thank you for this wonderful refresher, Emma. Maybe one day these things will sink into my brain fully. This feature showed up at the perfect time for me. I believe it will be helpful in seeing my current 12 X 12 story more clearly.

    As always, thanks to Julie for your support!

  13. Excellent post ladies! I’ve been struggling on my middle for a few weeks now. I needed that lesson today, thanks so much Emma.

  14. Great advice, Emma. Thanks!

  15. Thanks Emma for a great post. I will be coming back to read it again many times.
    -Jan O’Neil

  16. Wonderful post, ladies, and so timely. A mucky middle was, and still is, my problem in last month’s story. Thanks for the refresher on story basics. We can always, no matter how experienced, use a reminder.

  17. Thank you for such a great post! Middles are the worst part, but the reminder gives me the extra motivation to work on my middles again.

  18. Great advice, Emma, thanks for the awesome post! It’s so important to not let middles sag or get mucky.

  19. Elizabeth Stevens Omlor

    Wonderful post! Thank you so much for these great tips. I am now inspired to get working on that June draft!

  20. Patricia Nozell

    Such an awesome, timely and useful post, that I, for one, plan to implement immediately by working on my currently-sagging middle!

    Thanks so much, Emma & Julie! And Beth, I plan to definitely stop by your blog this Wednesday & then again for Julie’s post, later in the month!

  21. Great writing tips to hear again! Now I want to revise my ms again. Thanks so much, Emma, for sharing your wisdom. Thanks Julie for hosting her!
    ~Tina Cho

  22. Margaret Greanias

    Very useful post! Thank you Emma and Julie. Mucky middle is exactly the problem I’ve been having — thanks for reminding me what SHOULD be happening in the it!

  23. Wonderful post Emma and Julie. Thank you. I am dealing with a saggy, flabby, floppy, bendy, middle as we speak. Now I am excited to get in there and tone that sucker up! 🙂 On to June! Woot. *Waves*

  24. Thanks so much, Emma. A little lightbulb is now bright in my brain.

  25. Great post, with nary a sag! Thanks Emma and Julie. Did anyone else notice that Emma and Julie look like they could be sisters?? Kismet.

    • I’m assuming you mean Julie as in me and not Julie as in Andrews??? 🙂 If so, I’ll take that as a huge compliment!

      • Yes, YOU! I think your family tree must branch back to the Andrew’s somewhere along the line.

  26. The “rule of 3” will be helpful as I plot my story…thanks Emma! What a blessing to co-author with your Mom, whom I have admired through the years. Looking forward to reading your book…

  27. Wow – we are in the middle already! How did we get here so quickly?
    Such an interesting post. We observe life events as they unfold chronologically, and that subtly guides our internal rhythm of Before, During and After. Yet in story-telling we must re-train ourselves to think perhaps of the After (a twist ending?), then the Middle (apply the Rule of 3) and finally the Before.

    Good luck to all 12X12’ers with your June drafts, your mucky middles, and thanks to Emma and Julie!

    Cathy Ballou Mealey

  28. What a fantastic post Thank you Emma and Julie. Thank you for the great tips – I’ve already got my idea for June and this is perfect to help give it a fleshy middle that will hopefully
    Lead to a juicy end!
    Melissa Mead

  29. Another post bookmarked for future use! Thank you Julie and Emma! This was very helpful!

  30. Wow, I hadn’t even read half way through the post when something struck a chord and I found the way out of the mucky middle of the story I have been working on for sooo long! It might have been fine as it was, but with one line I was able to knock the story into a whole other ball-park! Incredible! Thanks Emma and Julie – this has totally made my day!

  31. Thanks all for the great comments – and thank you, Julie, for giving me the opportunity to be a Featured Author here this month and talk about mucky middles. Would that I could apply similar tactics to the mucky middle of my waistline… oh, well, just another author challenge. Good luck to you all!

  32. GREAT post! Sounds a little like my Story Elements feature by giving examples from real books. Ah, the mucky middle…I must go play in the muck now.

  33. Dissecting “Where the Wild Things Are” to illustrate the “murky middle” –and how to avoid it — was very helpful. I think it’s also helpful to see how all these challenges and building tension change the protagonist. He realizes being wild isn’t everything, which leads to the conclusion.

  34. Thank you Emma and Julie! Great topic– like the name “mucky middle.”. I am struggling in this area myself. Great beginning and end, but just don’t have the middle right. Thanks for the discussion. Emma’s “Just Write for Kids” is extremely helpful. Highly recommend it. Don’t put me in the drawing Julie. Great interview ladies!

  35. Excellent post, Emma! Middles are always challenging for me. I enjoyed your breakdown of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. It helped me understand better why it’s such a great book. Hoping to win your PB Class. But regardless, I will check it out. :o). Thanks for hosting Julie!

  36. Yet another post that I’m bookmarking for when I get stuck on my manuscripts!

  37. What a great post! Thanks so much!

  38. Thank you Julie and Emma! That was very helpful! Here’s to not getting mired in the mucky middle. 🙂

  39. Thanks Emma for the help on our middles! I am revisiting my PB Draft for May right now, and this will help tremendously. Also, heard you on Katie’s Brain Burps podcast…was a great interview there too. Thanks for sharing in multiple venues, thanks Julie for hosting.
    Now I’ve got to go meddle with my middle… – Damon Dean

  40. I’ll add a thank you too.

  41. So wise and wonderful! Down with the muck!

  42. I *really* need to watch those unnecessary modifiers. Thanks for a much-needed lesson in mucky middles!

  43. This is a very interesting take on Where the Wild Things Are–I’ve always looked at it from the point of view of the illustrations and how they grow to dominate the page and even conquer the text and then shrink back to the reality of Max’s room. I’ve never really examined the text from the point of view of Beginning, Middle, End. It just goes to show how much can be learned from a really careful reading of a picture book text. Thanks for a great post.

    Sallie Wolf

  44. Thanks for talking about this topic Ms. Hamilton! It will be helpful! I think it could be used for novels too, right? About what Ms. Greenely was saying, I thought Ms. Hamilton was Ms. Hedlund! 😉

  45. I’m a little star-struck right now, but I agree with Erik, this will be helpful. Thank you for this post. 🙂

  46. Hi,

    Very timely for me and a great help. I start celebrating that things are going great… I have a great beginning conquered and then a mucky middle steps in and trips me up…


  47. Thank you, Emma, for this reminder! Here’s to better middles in the middle of our challenge here!

  48. Great write-up. Thanks for dissecting Where the Wild Things Are, I actually learned some new stuff.
    Will be reading and re-reading this post again as I revised my MS. Thanks!

    Darshana Khiani

  49. It took me half a week to get around to reading this, and I’m thrilled I didn’t miss it! I, too, will be saving this for frequent reference and inspiration to get the job done…right! Thanks Emma and Julie. Definitely enter me in the drawing (note to self: get that June ms done!).

  50. I am so excited!! I’ve just recently joined Children’s Book hub and learned about Emma’s writing course from Beth and now an opportunity to be in the drawing! WOW! Thanks, Julie and Emma. AND I’m doubly charged and encouraged from the post! I’ve printed it out and put it in my 12×12 notebook. It already has highlights and underlining and will be applied like a salve to some sagging sections. Just the statement about strong adjectives not needing modifiers corrected one problem spot. Blessings to you!

  51. Thank you so much for the great wealth of information! I too struggle with the “mucky middle”, and I am glad to see that I am not the only one!


  52. Wonderful information to share with us! Thanks so much for taking the time! 🙂

  53. Thank you for an excellent distillation of the writing process for PBs. Most helpful!

  54. What a great post this month! Thanks for the help with the mucky middles and for the reminder of the “Rule of 3.” And what an amazing giveaway! Thanks!
    Jennifer Rumberger

  55. Emma,
    This is post that will be bookmarked. It has so many great tips. Thanks for taking the time to post about the mucky middles!
    Also, I won your book, The Very Fairy Princess: Here Comes the Flower Girl!, on Beth Stillborn’s blog. What a wonderful story. Many little girls will be finding their inner princess 🙂

  56. Patricia Nozell

    I posted at the beginning of June, reread in the middle of the month & am posting again now that the June draft is complete! And thanks to your words of wisdom, I don’t think the middle is sagging (too much).

    Thanks, again, for the terrific interview & words of wisdom!


  57. I’ve been on vacation and late catching up on emails this month. Can’t believe I didn’t get back to Emma’s advice sooner. It would have helped with my writing. I nearly always get bogged down in the middle. Looking forward to putting this advice into practice.

  58. Perfect timing for excellent tips. Thank you so much! I have printed them out to refer to when editing…eventually, one day, they may become ingrained! (Nicky Johnston)

  59. Thank you Emma… a wonderful post! So helpful!
    – cynthia iannaccone

  60. Thanks so much for the great tips! I often start with a beginning and an ending, but get stuck in that middle part. So helpful to see an example played out in a book we all know and love so much. Thanks!

  61. Middles are wicked mucky! Stories come into my head either at the beginning or at the end. Lost in the middle is where I remain for much of the rest of it. Thanks for the tips!

    Genevieve Petrillo

  62. Thank you for packing lots of helpful advice into this post! I love the phrase “mucky middle”.

    Erin Pearson

  63. Holy cow. I’m so glad you always remind us to sign in for both posts–how did I miss this? And the Children’s Hub? How did I miss THAT? So now I’ve starred this bit so I can take a few notes.

    Assuming I remember to come back again!

  64. What a great kick-off for the midway point this month! Thank you so much for your words of wisdom, Emma. I am such a fan.
    Thank you again,
    Beth Thaler

  65. Wonderful tips, Emma and Julie. Thanks very much!

  66. Just the guidance I needed for my mucky middles. A BIG thanks to both Emma and Julie.

  67. I really enjoyed the analysis of WHERETHE WILD THINGS ARE. I have loved that book but now I appreciate it even more. Thank you!

  68. I enjoyed the analysis of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. I have always loved that story. Now I appreciate it even more. Thank you!

  69. kelly McDonlald

    oh loved this.. one great thing about this 12×12 is how much we learn … it

  70. oh, just corrected my name…. Kelly McDonald (Kelly artist illustrator)

  71. Ok! I finished my draft for June, Julie. I’m checking in. 🙂

  72. I’m checking in now too. I can’t believe I didn’t comment on this earlier, it was such an informative post.

  73. Kathy Cornell Berman

    Somehow I missed this post. Thanks for reminding us to look back at this. I love the references to “Where the Wild Things Are”. It has crystallized my prior knowledge. Thanks. Will definitely bookmark this.
    Kathleen Cornell Berman

  74. Hello Julie and Emma!
    Was I Snow White who ate the poisoned apple and feel asleep until wakened by the kiss from Prince Charming?
    No other reason could excuse me from waiting until July 3rd to read this post!
    It’s no wonder I was disappointed in not winning the 8-week picture book writing workshop…you can’t win if you don’t play…I mean comment. 🙂
    Please forgive me for taking so long to read this…the information is extremely valuable to anyone who wants to improve their story-writing. Thank you so much, Emma, for sharing these gems with us. 🙂 I especially loved your advice about using powerful verbs…I will definitely reexamine my picture book drafts of the first six months of this year!

  75. By the way, Julie, I’m sure I checked in on one of your posts for the month of June…but just to make sure…YES…I did complete draft number six. 🙂
    Vivian Kirkfield

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