How I Write: Fifteen Questions for Picture Book Revision

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Paper Mice, written by me and illustrated by Phoebe Wahl

Now that I’ve thought of an idea for a picture book, written a rough draft, and made sure I’m in a good mindset for revision, it’s time to revise my picture book manuscript. Here are some questions I ask myself as I tackle a revision. (I might be thinking about some of these questions when I’m writing a rough draft, too, but overall I don’t get into a very analytical mindset until I’m revising.)

  1. How can I strengthen the plot?

Because I focus on capturing a narrative voice—or even just getting some rough ideas on the page—in the first draft, it’s during revision that I start analyzing how to craft a plot. My picture books tend to be on the quiet side, but it’s still important to me that I use at least some elements of a three-act plot structure, with a problem, rising action and then resolution.

  1. Will it improve the story to incorporate a classic picture book structure?

I’ve already mentioned the three-act structure—found in all kinds of storytelling—but picture books also have a lot of traditional structures specific to the format. Some common structures include: concept (theme-based, like FINDING WILD), circular (IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE), cumulative (THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT), reversal (LITTLE PEA), contrast (what is happening is the opposite of what the text says—usually used for comedic effect), the yearly pattern of the seasons, the daily patterns like from morning until bedtime, etc.

  1. How does this story connect with a child’s perspective and experiences?

While many adults enjoy picture books as an art form, the main intended audience is children, so I always make sure to consider that audience as I develop a picture book. What do kids, in general, love and hate? What do they struggle with? Have fun with? What are the patterns, themes, and general experiences of their lives? Some examples from FORT-BUILDING TIME—building forts, creativity, friendship, community, the seasons. And BUILDING BOOKS—sibling dynamics, building, reading, the challenge of trying new things, creativity.

  1. Can I cut down the word count so it’s under 500 words? Under 300 words?

When I give critiques, I find that many people are very resistant to trimming their word count. If the thought of getting the word count down to under 300 words stresses you out, just make a copy of your document and try to cut the word count in that doc. Instead of thinking of it as a revision, you can approach it as an experiment. You might be surprised at how much you are able to cut and still retain the voice and content of the story.

  1. How original is my idea?

Does it seem like there is space in the market for this idea, or has it been done many times before? If it’s something that’s been done before, then what new twist or theme am I bringing to it?

  1. What’s the hook?

In the context of picture books, I think of a hook as what a parent might say to another parent, or a bookseller might say to a customer, to recommend a book. Being able to pare my book idea down to a pithy pitch isn’t just about selling it—it can also help me refine and home in on my idea as I revise it. Here’s how I would describe FINDING WILD: a lyrical exploration of the joys of being outside and appreciating the big and small wonders of nature. And PAPER MICE: two paper mice bravely explore their new home at night and find what they didn’t know they needed—each other!

  1. Am I trying to write a rhyming picture book?

I usually stay away from rhyming, because it’s very hard to write good rhyming stories and rhyming just isn’t something I’m passionate about. But I’ve tried it out on a few projects. If rhyming isn’t a really important part of your writing to you, I would definitely suggest trying to rewrite your story in prose, as there are a lot of challenges unique to writing in rhyme. But, if rhyming is central to your vision as an author or to a certain story, this rubric for a Best in Rhyme Award might be helpful.

  1. Can I envision how my text could interact with illustrations on the page?

During the revision process, sometimes I staple a little book together based on the typical layout and lengths of picture books (I use Tara Lazar’s templates). Then, I write out my manuscript to see how I would break up the text page by page. It helps me to gain a better understanding of the page-by-page rhythm of the text and see if there are any page-turn moments I should be taking an advantage of (page-turn moments are an amazing opportunity in picture books). It can also help me see if my word count is too high. (Of course, a publisher won’t necessarily break up your text in the same way you envision, and there’s no need to include page numbers in your manuscript.)

  1. If I have art/illustrator notes in my manuscript, do I actually need them?

I know some writers include more art notes, but personally I prefer to use them very sparingly, and usually only when there is something that I envision in the art that is essential to understanding the story. If it’s not essential, but something I still think is valuable enough to include, I try to phrase it as a suggestion. FINDING WILD, for example, had no art notes. It’s important to me that I respect the illustrator’s creative space and don’t try to art direct the book.

  1. Am I using text to show things that the art cannot?

The illustrations in a picture book can show SO much of the story. I love it when the text adds something that can’t be seen in the art alone—like lyricism, more humor, repeated phrases, sound effects, dialogue, and incorporating the other four senses (since the visual will already be on the page).

  1. Could my first and last sentences be doing more?

Because the first and last sentences function as the entry and exit points of a book, I try to pay special attention to strengthening them. One strategy I use is to have my first sentence introduce at least two elements of the story (such as mood/style, theme, problem, main character, etc.) For the last sentence, I try to really put that perfect period on the story—whether with one last heartwarming burst or a gentle settling bedtime story feeling or a final punchline (and often, with picture books, the art can add one more beat at the end).

  1. Have I considered this manuscript in the context of We Need Diverse Books and #ownvoices?

I try to critically analyze my motivations for telling a story, how it is inspired by my specific life experiences and perspectives, and how it connects with broader cultural issues.

  1. And, related, is my story free of stereotypes and harmful tropes?

I try to do my homework and make sure that I’m not using harmful tropes and/or perpetuating stereotypes. For example, I’ve found that non-human and animal characters in picture books tend to be male. So that’s something I pay attention to with my picture book manuscripts—am I making characters male by default? Because even when something doesn’t match up with your reality, it’s easy to fall into the patterns you’ve seen repeated in books and other forms of storytelling.

  1. How can I incorporate feedback into my revision?

If I’ve shared my previous draft with critique partners, early readers, or an editor I’m working with, I have their comments to review in revision. I try to seriously think about any feedback I’ve received, whether someone is suggesting a simple word change or overhauling my approach to the entire story. However, I also try to remember that just because someone had a reaction to something in my manuscript doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily pinned down the right way to fix it. Their questions and concerns are valid and speak to a change being needed, but I might need to find my own way to adjust the story.

I also want to note that while it’s easy to focus on the negative, I find it just as helpful to think about positive comments. If there’s something that readers love or are connecting with in a story, I often look for ways to expand this element. For example, several people who read my first draft of PAPER MICE commented on how much they liked the voice at the beginning. When I revised it, I ended up throwing out everything except that beginning and rewriting the entire story to be more in that vein. No one writer is perfect at every single aspect of writing, so while it’s important to work on improving your weaknesses, at the same time, why not play to your strengths?

  1. What is the “heartbeat” of this project?

For every manuscript I write, I try to identify the “heartbeat” of that project–the one or two aspects of it that are the most important to me. They are the reason(s) I wrote the project. Maybe I wanted to explore a certain theme, or I have a character I just love, or this specific narrative voice just came to me, etc. Once I’ve identified these one or two things I love the most about a project, then I try to be ready and willing to change pretty much anything else. (This includes being open to shifting the project out of picture books and into a different age group.) Striving to have this combination of a devotion to the central thing I love about my story + a flexible attitude about all other aspects of it has really helped me be willing to take on bigger, and ultimately more effective, revisions.