Picture Book Revision Steps
This is a document I put together for a presentation for my Writing Barn Write. Submit. Support. group. For anyone stuck on a revision, or with a giant folder of picture book manuscripts that need polishing, this might help…
STEPS FOR REVISING A PICTURE BOOK DRAFT
Step 1: Check your pitch. Does your short pitch succinctly tell what your story is about? Is it unique? Does it hook the reader? Does the story sound kid friendly?
Ex. Extra Yarn - A monochrome town gets a change of color and attitude with the help of a magical box of yarn and a girl named Annabelle. But what will the greedy, clothes-loving archduke find when he tries to buy--then steal--the box for himself?
Ex. Whobert Whover, Owl Detective – Help Whobert Whover, Owl Detective, keep his woods safe in this hilarious who-who-dun-it. What happened to Perry the Possum? Whobert is on the case!
Ex. Sophie’s Squash - Sophie chooses a squash at the farmer’s market, but instead of letting her mom cook it, she names it Bernice. From then on, Sophie brings Bernice everywhere. But what's a girl to do when the squash she loves begins to rot?
Step 2: Check opening. Do your opening lines grab the reader’s attention? Ideally, they address the Who, What, Where, When and Why all in one power-packed beginning.
Ex. This Moose Belongs to Me – Wilfred owned a moose.
Ex. Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse – Adrian Simcox sits all by himself, probably daydreaming again. And Adrian Simcox tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse.
Ex. Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great – Things are a lot different around here since that Unicorn moved in.
Step 3: Check the need/problem. What does your main character want? What do they need? What is their goal? Have you stated your main character’s problem clearly?
Ex. This is a Moose – This moose wants to be an astronaut.
Ex. I Want My Hat Back – My hat is gone. I want it back.
Ex. Wanted the Perfect Pet – What Henry wanted more than anything else in the whole wide world, more than chips, more than a cowboy costume, more than an all-expenses-paid trip to the moon, more, even, than world peace itself, was a Dog.
Step 4: Check agency. Has the main character solved their own problem without the benefit of wisdom from adults or books?
Ex. Elwood Bigfoot – Elwood was too pooped to dance and holler. He could only smile. Other birdies swooped in, and something occurred to him: Did a dancing, hollering bigfoot scare little birdies? Elwood barely. Even. Breathed.
Ex. The Perfect Pet – “So you might not be a dog,” said Henry happily, “but you are certainly not JUST a duck. In fact, you might be the Perfect Pet for me.”
Step 5: Check story structure. Do you have all the elements for a story? Is there a beginning, middle, climax and end?
Step 6: Check theme. Does your story have a universal theme that’s relatable? Is it clear to readers what the theme is?
10 Common Themes In Children’s Stories
Ex. Teeny Tiny Toady (COURAGE) - Teeny tried to keep from crying as she scrabbled up the road, wishing she could be a bigger, stronger, hero kind of toad.
Ex. Love Monster (LOVE) - He decided to set out and look for someone who’d love him just the way he was.
Ex. Little Elliot Big City (FRIENDSHIP) - Elliot felt like the tallest elephant in the world!
Step 7: Check character arc. How has your main character changed from beginning to end? Or has your main character stayed the same, but those around your MC have changed? Every picture book doesn’t have a character arc, but often the most satisfying and memorable picture books do.
Ex. The Rabbit Listened
Ex. Library Lion (two characters change!)
Ex. The Carrot Seed
Step 8: Check VOICE. How is your main character’s voice unique? Can we tell the difference between your character/narrator and any other?
Ex. School’s First Day of School – They got everywhere. They opened and closed all of his doors and lockers, and drank water from his fountains, and played on his jungle gym. “So that’s what that is for,” thought the school.
Ex. Teen Tiny Toady – An idea flittered deep inside her warty little head, til she chased it round and pinned it down. “I’ve got it!” Teeny said.
Ex. Snappsy the Alligator - Snappsy the alligator was not feeling like himself. His feet felt draggy. His skin felt baggy. His tail wouldn’t swish this way and that. And, worst of all, his big jaw wouldn’t SNAP.
Step 9: Check heart. Do we care about your character? Are we rooting for them to succeed? See if you can go deeper and add even more heart?
Ex. Before I Leave – I’m scared to go. But you say it will be okay, and you’ll see me soon. But I’m not so sure. You seem so far away…until I unpack, and there you are!
Ex. The Rabbit Listened – The rabbit listened as Taylor talked. The rabbit listened as Taylor shouted. The rabbit listened as Taylor remembered…and laughed. Through it all, the rabbit never left. And when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor’s plan to build again.
Step 10: Check room for the illustrator and the reader. Does the story need illustrations, or could it be told just as clearly without the pictures? Words do not need to repeat what the pictures can show.
Step 11: Check your illustratable moments. Do you have ~13 distinct, illustratable spreads? Have you dummied your story to check for variation, page turn hooks (what keeps the child reading), and pacing?
Step 12: Check pacing. Check your page turns and word choice, which impacts pacing. Are you using words that match with your story? If your story is a about birthday party, are the words fast and upbeat? If your story is about a sloth, are you using words that could only be said slowly?
Ex. Game Night at the Zoo - Sloth sauntered so slowly that he hadn’t even moved an inch before Snake slithered to tag him.
Ex. When’s my Birthday? -
will my birthday have some singing?
will we sing so happy happy?
will we dance around and round?
will we jump and jump and jump?
Ex. Swan, The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova – Shirt, shirt, laundry. Shirt, shirt, laundry.
Step 13: Check humor. If it’s a humorous picture book, where can you amp up the humor? Can you make your reader laugh out loud? Can you end the story with a humorous surprise?
Ex. Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime – “There is no room for toothbrushing and bath time in this book.” “Hit the road, Ducky!”
Ex. Z is for Moose – M is for Mouse. “What?” Wait! No! That was supposed to be me! Moose! With an M!”
Ex. I Want My Hat Back – “I love my hat.”
Step 13: Check rhyme. Editors suggest avoiding rhyme for many reasons, including the fact that the book can’t be easily translated into other languages. But if you’re going to rhyme, it’s all about the rhythm.
Examples of books with excellent rhyme:
Ex. All the World
Ex. Bitty Bot
Ex. Bear Snores On
Step 14: Check show vs. tell. Are you showing whenever possible, or are you telling us what’s happening? The more you can show, the more we’ll feel like we’re a part of the world you’ve created and the more we’ll be invested in your character’s success.
Ex. Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse – I could feel some words coming up in my throat and tangling in there, like when I swallowed something and it went down the wrong pipe. (vs The words stuck in my throat)
Ex. Library Lion – Finally, the lion did the only thing he could think of to do. He looked Mr. McBee right in the eye. They he opened his mouth very wide. And he roared the loudest roar he had ever roared in his life. (vs. The lion roared!)
Step 15: Check for rule of threes. Threes are super satisfying. You can have three characters, three characteristics, three attempts at solving the problem, or any other combination of three.
Ex. Wemberly Worried – Wemberly worried in the morning.
She worried at night.
and she worried throughout the day.
Ex. Me Want Pet – Cave Boy had lots of things.
Rocks. Sticks. A club. But no pet.
Step 16: Check word choice. In a picture book, it’s important to make every word count. Have you chosen the best word possible? Replaced prepositional phrases with adjectives? Replaced verbs with strong verbs? Replaced weak nouns with specific nouns? Added word play? Listened for the sounds your words make – the rhythm and music?
Listen for the sounds, the rhythm, the “music” and emotion that are created. See the images. Imagine a [reader] reaching for the book to touch, taste and even feel the words. — Nancy Bo Flood
Here’s a list of words to try to cut from your writing when possible:
Free lyrical language lessons: https://www.reneelatulippe.com/
Ex. The Bear Ate Your Sandwich – After a berry feast, the bear curled up in the sunlight and listened to the buzzing of the bees.
Step 17: Check readability. Read it aloud. Again and again and again. Have someone else read aloud and note places where they get tripped up.
Step 18: Check your ending. Does your ending have an Awwww (cute/endearing/teary), Ah-Ha (surprise), or Ha-Ha (funny) moment? Surprise endings are extra satisfying as long as the surprise is logical in the context of the story (i.e. you’ve left breadcrumbs). I also personally find satisfaction in circular endings, where the story starts and ends with a similar sentence.
Rob Sanders – More on endings… http://robsanderswrites.blogspot.com/2011/02/effective-endings.html
Ex. Boats for Papa – Mama walked to the beach. She looked out to sea and thought about Papa. Carefully, she pulled Buckley’s boat from the kelp and brushed off the sand. As she wrapped it gently in her shawl, she saw the note Buckley had written. It read: For Mama, Love Buckley.
Ex. The Bear Ate Your Sandwich - So that’s what happened to your sandwich. The bear ate it.