If You Wanna Be a Picture Book writer...

I remember back in the day (oh...about nine years ago), I'd struggled with learning the art of the picture book. In fact, I'd received one of the MOST discouraging rejections ever. It read:

"To avoid unnecessary anxiety and lost time in the future, we'd suggest that you reconsider submitting to us again."


They got their wish. I was so humiliated!

But that form letter spoke volumes to me. Why would a company tell me that I should never grace their publishing doors again? What did I do (or didn't do) that made them not see ANY talent whatsoever?

So, I decided I'd better learn what I was doing wrong. I took a class with Anastasia Suen. Here's the link: Anastasia Suen's Picture Book Intensive and I'd highly advise taking all her picture book classes if you're serious about publishing in picture books. She forced...um...suggested that I read 100 picture books in five different genres. Then I took her next class and again, I had to read ANOTHER 100 picture books. Afterwards, I began to see how different picture books were set up and where my talents might fit. (And at that time I was obstinate enough to think I actually had some talent even though that other publisher thought I was crazy.) The authors I felt attached to were all visually humorous:

Doreen Cronin, Tom Lichtenheld, Jon Scieszka, Lane Smith, Tedd Arnold, Amy Axelrod, Lisa Campbell Ernst, Babette Cole, Lauren Child...oh, I could go on and on!

Many of these authors are also illustrators, but that didn't faze me. I saw in each story that they wrote the art of visual humor and knew the things children would laugh at--not adults.

Another light went on when I took a workshop given by a well known editor at Chronicle books. She took us through the editing of one of her most beloved picture books. Her beloved, I should say, but not her senior editor's. The book never made it to publication. But in that workshop, she showed us the process of all seventeen, yes SEVENTEEN, revisions. She wanted it PERFECT before she took it to acquisitions. I noticed a few things:

1. The book was FULL of puns. So full, in fact, that at the time in my inexperienced opinion, I thought it was a tad overdone. Well, that was my taste. I didn't know anything! But I never realized editors liked puns until that workshop. Um...so, you'll see a few puns in my work and I must say, children and adults like them, too! (And now I love them...ha!)

2. The book had visual slapstick. So much so, that there had to be artnotes within the text so the illustrator would know what to do. You couldn't tell it from the text. Visual irony is key to getting laughs!

3. The book used the law of threes. The law of three is inherent in all my picture books. In Princess Peepers, I wrote about three kinds of eyeglasses she particularly loves. She messes up by going to three different places before her climactic ending.

4. The book had an unseen, funny twist ending. The twist is key. And can literally sell your book. Princess Peepers was highly considered at many different publishers because of its twist.

After I came out of that workshop, I knew I had a formula that could help my writing and get me to the story I was yearning for! Now, there is one more characteristic that's a must and I think the workshopped manuscript didn't have this and that's why it failed at acquisitions:

5. The book must be unique. The workshopped manuscript was about a funny frog and at the time, the Froggy books were all over the place. It wasn't different or special enough to make it out of acquisitions and so it died there. Thankfully, Princess Peepers fit that bill. There had never been an eyeglass wearing princess in all the history of storytelling. (Belle of Disney wore some reading glasses but she wasn't known for wearing them.) She was unique. And that's one of the reasons the book has met with success in the market.

Now the above characteristics worked for me because I write visually humorous picture books. There are other types of picture books out there but you must discern what makes you love a picture book and write it. Always study the market. Always study what makes picture books saleable. If you forget that, you'll be hitting your head against a very hard and very high wall.

Happy writing!


Corey Schwartz said…
I can't beliebe someone actually sent you that rejection!
Pam Calvert said…
I know! GASP!! I was pretty upset by it. The publisher is defunct at this time, although its parent company is still around. And the editor is at a large publisher now. I don't hold it against her. It was a great learning experience! I didn't know what I was doing. :-) But I won't send her anything again for fear of another harsh rejection! LOL!
Unknown said…
I don't blame you for not wanting to ever resend something to that woman. She could have truly scarred you for life!!! At least you were able to learn a valuable lesson and take a class... everything piece of information is a learning experience!!!

I will probably need this pep talk when I recieve my rejection letters!
Pam Calvert said…
Yes, Jen! If you do receive anything like this, please do remember that it is only one opinion. Actually, the piece that was rejected ended up getting published and got great reviews but it wasn't strong enough to hold up as a picture book. It was more of a short story. But still...to receive a rejection like this could have made me give up writing altogether! Fortunately, I'd had many articles and other stories published, so I knew not to listen except that this particular editor definitely did NOT understand my work. HA!
Jon Paul said…
Pam--I had no idea there was so much craft in picture books, but I suppose it makes sense once you stop and think about it.

That is a great story with your rejection letter. Certainly the rejection was beneficial in getting you on the right track, even if it upset you at the time. Happy your hard work paid off in the end.

If you don't mind, I'm going to stick around and read more of your stuff. I believe much can be gleaned from tips in genres other than my own.

Thanks for stopping by my place BTW, and thanks for the follow!
Rena Jones said…
Great post, Pam. But like the others, I'm agast at the rejection you got. Kind of makes me appreciate all those form letters a little more. Thanks for the picture book tips. They gave me something to think about. I especially like the law of threes.
I love your post! I recently resubmitted the same piece to a publishing company and the rejection letter I got back this time was not nearly as mean as the first one so I take that to mean I'm getting better :)!
Honestly though, I've kept you in mind as I've been getting rejections thinking, "If an awesome writer like Pam Calvert had such a rough start and then did so well, maybe THERE IS hope for me after all!"
Thanks for your post!
Unknown said…
Great post, Pam! (And I'm also in shock at that rude rejection, but kudos to you for pressing on.)
Anastasia Suen said…
Thanks for the recommendation, Pam!
Hardygirl said…
We just picked up Princess Peepers at the library and LOVED it!! I'm over here from Corey's blog and thrilled to find you. Can't wait for the next Peeper book!

Tamsyn Murray said…
That's a terrible rejection to receive and completely unneccesary, IMO. I'm glad you persevered :)

I can't agree enough about having a USP for a picture book - it's a crowded jungle and only the snappiest titles survive. Or something like that, anyway!
Anonymous said…
What a wonderful list of ideas for writing a picture book. Very informative.
Sue Ford said…
Enjoyed this entry very much.

You have a typo you might want to fix though: phase should be faze. ;-)
Pam Calvert said…
Thanks, Sue!
Ella Kennen said…
Hmm... Hope you are still checking comments. In differet places, you recommend Anastasia Suen and ICL. Any suggestion on which an aspiring author should try first?
Pam Calvert said…
Hi, Estela:

If you know a lot about the publishing business and want to concentrate on picture books, you should do Anastasia's class. If you know nothing, take ICL--it will step you through the process of becoming a professional author--something that will get you up to speed in no time! Good luck!
Ella Kennen said…
Thanks, Pam. If I don't know how much I know, I probably know closer to nothing...
Also, thank you for this post. Just learning the rule of three has helped quite a bit. [I think I have a way to go before I can fully embrace puns, though...]
I can not imagine how can you be rejected!!! I recognize that individual perceptions are different from each others. But Everyone should have some common set of standard. I think they have not.....I reject them & appreciate you.
Squee! I am so excited to win a critique from you. I want to write humorous picture books too, but I haven't grasped how to add humour that people actually get, yet.

Sorry about your horrible experience with that rejection. Brrr.

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