I just read an excellent post by children’s book writer, Laura Sassi: Here’s What I “Tinkle”: Thoughts on Critiquing Stories.
And it got me “tinkling” too.
Now and then I am asked to critique a picture book manuscript. The one I worked on last week was surprisingly good. This aspiring author had done his homework. The story had lovely imagery, remarkably good meter and flowing rhymes. And it was told with heart and humor.
I was enthralled by the imagery and the mood in the story, but in the end, I didn’t know what the story was about. It was beautiful but not coherent. The writer had used multiple points of view and the plot was unclear. I was baffled.
In my comments I suggested that he stick with one point of view, that he eliminate a couplet or two because they did not move the story forward, that he build the story a bit more and that he clarify it.
I also told him his story was beautiful and that, once polished, was worthy of submitting and that I would put in a good word for him to my agency, should he decide to go that route.
Needless, to say, he was very pleased.
When he returned the manuscript with his revisions, it was not what I had expected. Yes, he eliminated the verses that were superfluous and corrected the few uneven rhymes, but the story still had multiple points of view and remained confusing.
“But I can just see the pictures in my head,” he told me.
But I couldn’t. And I am usually good at that Well, I could see pictures for, as I said, the imagery was beautiful, but the pictures were vague- a scene here, a scene there, but what the heck was really going on?
Words and pictures do work together in children’s books- but a story must still be strong enough to stand on its own. Pictures serve to enhance and clarify parts of the text, but stories still have to make sense. And they are meant to be read aloud and sometimes without seeing the pictures.
He was very discouraged by my last set of comments. Perhaps I’d been too exuberant with my praise early on. Perhaps he was unprepared for the hard work of revising. He said he would take a break from it for a while.
It is never my intent to shatter dreams- and especially not the dreams of someone who has talent and has done the homework. Writing for children is hard- so many constraints: word count, vocabulary, subject matter…Rhyming texts are especially restrictive. With only 27-29 pages in which to tell a story, picture book writers must move the plot forward efficiently and keep it concise and precise, with, of course, a bit of conflict and drama and a nicely rounded ending. Oh, just that?
I have every hope that this writer will come back to his story with a fresh eye, bright spirits and dogged determination. And it may be hard to revamp parts to make the story cohesive. I never said it would be easy. But he has the makings of a wonderful story, and I, for one, would love to see it in print.