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.