For those of you who have not met our May featured author, Jean Reidy, you are in for SUCH a treat! I met Jean a few years ago at the Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference and I fell in love, not just with her books but with her. She is warm, funny, generous, and an amazing writer. She spends a great deal of her time giving back to the writing community and to the children we serve. She’s been a major source of inspiration for me as my career has grown over the years.
What’s more, at the RMC-SCBWI conference last year, Jean gave the single best talk I’ve ever heard on the craft of writing picture books. You guys know I am a total conference junkie, so that says a lot. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I opened her guest post and found myself salivating over how meaty and useful it is. Seriously, it’s like ribs cooked so perfectly that the meat is falling off the bone in hunks. You’ll see. I expect everyone to bookmark this, print it up, and save for permanent future reference. AND, one lucky 12 x 12 member will win a picture book critique from her! Please welcome Jean!
DOES YOUR PICTURE BOOK PREMISE HAVE POWER?
Every once in a while, one of my editors throws me a bone. Not just any old bone, but a big beautiful “our kids’ list needs a book about ‘community'” hambone. When that happens, all other Milk-Bones – I mean, ideas, are pushed aside and I chase after that hambone idea with the gusto of a golden retriever. That’s how my latest picture book ALL THROUGH MY TOWN came to be.
But that’s only every once in a while.
Most often, I’m juggling 5-6 or 11-12 of my “own” picture book ideas. Ideas that come to me on a daily basis from any number of encounters – real or imaginary. Ideas that have survived their initial honeymoon period of inspiration during which I spew thoughts onto scrap paper as recklessly as an unobstructed sneeze.
Even though I have a dreamy cast of critique buddies, rarely do they say, “Jean, work on this project NOW!” or “Shelve this for a while – like forever.” So there I am, bouncing from project to project, wondering which, if any, will earn an editor’s love.
It can be hard to do the hard work without knowing if a particular idea could sell. So how do I decide which idea deserves more attention? How do I choose which manuscript rises to the top of the heap and warrants more focus?
I’ve developed a checklist – a simple list of “yes/no” questions – to test the strength of my picture book ideas. While I’ve used the tool as a quick assessment of an individual idea, I’ve also used it for comparing several ideas across the board, sorting the strong from the weak, if you will. I don’t claim this as the one-and-only, use-this-or-fail-in-the-worst-possible-way, definitive checklist, but it’s one that’s worked for me.
Since the tool involves evaluating my own work, honesty is the key. The questions are not meant to cause argument or critique of the questions themselves. But they are meant to trigger thought, brainstorming and, perhaps, discussion. And when I find myself challenging the importance or validity of one of the answers to these questions, it’s often a sign that I’m getting defensive of a picture book idea that won’t yet cut it in the market.
Certainly the list could be maneuvered and complicated with weights applied to questions based on current market preferences. Or if you’re really into analytics and need a way to further procrastinate, rate your answers 1 through 5 rather than “yes” or “no” and see where that leads you.
But for now, I like to keep it simple and just tally up my “Yeses.” You can bet, when a “No” answer pops up, I explore what it would take in my picture book to turn it around. So far, my little list has steered me in the right direction. I hope it will help you too.
So without further adieu …
10 POWER PREMISE QUESTIONS
- Will a kid like it? (Is it part of a kid’s world – real or imaginary? Is it relatable?)
- Is it a completely fresh idea OR a new twist on an evergreen topic?
- Is it a story book or a concept book or something in between? (LIGHT UP THE NIGHT is something in between. It’s a cumulative verse about earth, space and a kid’s sense of place. Which brings me to my next question …)
- Can it be summarized in 1-2 sentences? (Try starting with “What happens when …?” or by answering “What’s the point?”)
- Does it have a commercial hook? (We’re talking “high concept” or out of the ordinary. Does your premise take a risk? Not all picture books have a strong hook, but it’s something I’m always aware of. One of my newer ideas recently jumped to the top of my “to-write” list largely because of its hook.)
- Is it highly visual? (Can you imagine 14 + scenes coming from your story?)
- Does it convey an emotional truth? (Chris Crutcher calls this that “head nod” moment. Does your premise have that?)
- Has it been done before? (Did you research your premise in the market? How is yours different?)
- Does the idea lend itself to fun, imaginative or innovative use of language?
- Does it have a compelling title? (Yes, titles often change during the publication process, but why pass up your first opportunity to catch an editor’s eye?)
By honestly running each of my ideas through this gauntlet of questions, I not only find the one idea that deserves my time and attention, but I clearly see red flags where my other ideas might be weak or need fleshing out.
Let me close by saying, I’m a huge believer in Julie’s 12X12 challenge. I learn volumes about the art of picture book writing every time I sit down to write a new picture book. But in case you need further convincing, here’s my plug for writing 12 picture books this year.
12 Reasons to Keep 12 Picture Books Percolating
- A portfolio of many projects keeps one project from becoming too precious. And it’s hard to remain objective when one project receives all your time and attention.
- You never know which muse will sing to you. Today it might be picture book #5. Tomorrow it might be #8.
- You banish writers’ block by hopping from project to project.
- Projects stay fresh as you take time between them and, hence, between reads.
- One project might inform another. You might cannibalize picture book #9 to make #10 better.
- When a project is rejected, other potentially winning projects-in-progress help soothe the pain.
- You always have a manuscript ready for your critique group.
- You get ALL your ideas out there. Like in a brainstorm, sometimes it’s the 5th, 10th, or 12th idea that hits the mark. You might just have to work through the good, the bad and the ugly to get to the GREAT.
- You never know which project will resonate with a given agent or editor – it’s often not what you think. And editors are often looking for projects to match various illustrators – you don’t want to be one-dimensional.
- Getting agent representation for picture book authors is tough, but you increase your chances if you have several projects to offer.
- Trends come and go. You’ll always want to look beyond what’s currently “hot.” Multiple projects improve the odds that you’re looking toward fresh ideas.
- You’ll have 11 more options when an editor asks, “What else you got?”
Julie, thanks for having me. And best of luck to all my fellow picture book writers in the 12X12 challenge.
Categories: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Authors, Friendship, Giveaway, Goals, Picture Books, Publishing, Rhyming, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Author, Friendship, Giveaway, Goals, Jean Reidy, Julie Hedlund, Picture Books, Publishing, Rhyming, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing