“Variety in our narrative is important. Sometimes we might worry that using a character’s name or even a pronoun over and over again will grow repetitious in readers’ minds. But, frankly, this is not a concern. Character names and pronouns are invisible to readers. They’ll never fault you for overusing them. If you’re struggling with monotonous sentences, the problem is not that you’re using Sienna’s name in every sentence. The problem is that you’re not varying your sentence structures.”
I am going to add that I agree with this statement because the same blogger has also written statements that contradict this one.
Value in Repetition
“Off again! On again! In again! Out again!” -Dr. Suess (The Sneetches and Other Stories)
Picture Books love repetition, and so do readers.
Young readers thrive on predictable sequences because they are easier to read and understand.
It also helps maintain a rhythm and, if done right, can add interest to the otherwise boring text.
LeWhile searching for books to read this month, I ran across an article by Olivia Heinbaugh on Romper that recommended a picture book with no pronouns, What Riley Wore.
It is unique because it substitutes “Riley” for pronouns where you would typically expect them.
Pronouns are not always useful. So, I have tinkered around with the idea of leaving them out altogether. This example gave me the courage to put it to practice.
I did not notice the missing pronouns, at least not in a casual reading.
What Riley Wore succeeded because the author varied sentence structure to avoid monotony and carefully applied repetition where it suited the text.
The repetition did not grate on my ears; it did the opposite. It added interest to the text.
You can omit pronouns from picture books with:
Perfectionism is the enemy of productivity.
Quantity is more important than quality, especially at the beginning of a new goal. Nevertheless, it is uncomfortable to implement.
It means posting online knowing full well that I am not happy with how it turned out.
It means writing page after page, knowing there are errors and inconsistencies in the pages before.
It means taking videos without the best equipment, talking even though I have trouble getting the words out, and showing my face when I have a bad hair day.
It’s not pretty, but it is important.
Why is quantity more important? One of the biggest and most obvious reasons in my opinion is that algorithms favor quantity and consistency over quality. . .until it spills over into spam.
It’s not just algorithms, people favor it too. If the greatest artist in the world disappears for a few weeks you will forget they existed, but if a new photo or video pops up every day on your feed, you will be constantly reminded how great they are.
The second reason is not as obvious. Improvement does not come from creating one perfect thing. It comes from the process of creating over and over again, receiving feedback, and improving over time.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” -Will Durant
Here are 5 things more important than quality:
These 5 things will appear when you commit to create something every day, and they will show their value through steadily ripening quality.
When you critique your own or another person’s picture book manuscript you can use my Picture Book Cheat Sheet as a guide to probing questions and analysis. Get it here.
Besides this, be a good reader. Your feelings and opinions will go a long way, helping you discover what works and what doesn’t.
Your critique is an argumentative response to probing questions, feelings, and opinions, supported by evidence from the text or visuals.
After you have interrogated the content, develop an argument describing how and why the content does or does not aid the creator’s objectives. Refer directly to related best practices and identify textual or visual evidence to support your argument.
You will have to take notes (they could be mental notes) so you can provide detailed examples.
A good critique focuses on the content.
Straying from the content leads to problems, such as:
Provide a way forward. This does not mean you have to solve your partner’s problems. I become very suspicious of arguments that try too hard to solve my problems because they are prone to personal agendas, subjectivity, and misrepresentation.
Think along the lines of the 10-second rule: “If they can't fix in 10 seconds or less, don’t point it out.” Not really. Revising will always take longer than 10 seconds, but if there is not a clear and simple way to fix the problem, then there is not a path forward and you will leave your partner feeling lost.
Before you deliver your argument, analyze it as well. Be sure you can constructively deliver the argument.
There is no need to mince words. A direct and honest critique is the best way to get to the point and let someone else have the floor.
Start on a positive note, and end on a positive note (a Bad News Sandwich). I don’t like the bad news sandwich personally, because it suggests that critique is a negative thing. A critique is not about listing everything bad; it is about building.
Nevertheless, it is important for a healthy critique group that everyone leaves feeling like the experience was constructive. Because bad news is louder than good news, starting on a positive note and ending on a positive note will emphasize the constructive experience.
Finally, if multiple people support a critique, or say the same thing, there must be something to it. So, if you agree with someone else’s critique, chime in. It will let your partner know to pay attention.
Let me give you an example of a good critique following the points above:
“If your audience is 6 to 8-year-olds, who are reading books on their own, then you likely want to select words that are challenging but simple to understand from context. Words on lines five, ten, and twelve are difficult words to pronounce and understand without assistance.”:
A Good Critique Is:
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Definitely an artist. I dressed up as an artist as an 8-year old when my friend had a "Come as what you want to be when you grow up" birthday party.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Books, tv, and the world.
Do you have any influences?
I love Trina Schart Hyman, PJ Lynch, Joseph Zbvuik, The PreRaphaelites, Jonathan Stroud, and Lloyd Alexander.
Can you describe your process?
Thumbnail, sketch, refined sketch, digital color study, print the sketch on watercolor paper, and paint.
Who is your favorite author/illustrator?
Illustrators: Trina Schart Hyman, Iris Compiet, Pj Lynch,
Authors: Jonathan Stoud, Susanna Clarke, Marissa Mayer, Diana Wynne Jones, Lewis Schcaar,
Do you keep a sketchbook or a writing journal?
Yes. I have so many notebooks and sketchbooks.
Is there any story that you wish you could retell or illustrate?
So many. I love fairy tales. Someday, I'd like to do a retelling of The Three Spinners (A fairy tale kind of like Rumplestiltskin) because I think it's funny.
What do you do when you are not writing or illustrating?
Watch k-dramas, walk, cook, read, and garden.
What do you think makes a good story?
A story needs to have a reason to exist. A purpose in the telling, something that we can learn from and become better people because of it, plus feel emotionally connected to.
What makes a good author or illustrator?
One that works hard with a goal in mind.
What is one thing that others don’t know about you?
I have a flipper tooth. It's a fake tooth connected to a retainer that I can take in and out. Someday I might get an implant but I'm kind of scared of that idea, plus they are pricey. So I just still have the flipper.
Are you working on any projects that you can talk about right now?
I'm working on an illustrated novel called The Magpie Magician. It's getting close to the point where I'll be ready to submit to agents and publishers and I'm excited. There is more info about the story on my website talesfantastic.com
Rewrite / Redraw it
Time-consuming or difficult changes top the list, not only because they are a major setback to progress, but also because they are incredibly disappointing. Understandably, it feels like a personal rejection.
Do Something That is Already There
Sometimes a critique partner will tell you to add something that is already there. And while it is deeply satisfying to point it out, it is also frustrating to feel like your partner did not pay attention.
Change it Back to the Way it Was Before
When you fix a problem only to have a critique partner encourage you to change it back next month, you may feel stuck. It may cause you to question whether or not there is a deeper problem. Maybe there is.
Similarly, it is disheartening to receive competing feedback from different partners. But, in this case, the solution is simple because you can choose to go with your intuition.
I Don't Like it. . .
When a critique is vague or over-generalized, you are not left with a path forward. A good example is, "I don't like it." This is a bad critique.
You don't need detailed solutions for every problem. I am wary of details. When a critique partner is too specific, I question the agenda of the partner. Perhaps they are trying to add their flavor or they are making assumptions about my experience. Evaluate detailed critiques with caution.
This Reminds Me of. . .
Not many people like being compared to others. It may make them self-conscious, or feel derivative. But it is an important critique because you need to know what impressions you are leaving on your audience. You need to know if your work is derivative, even if it hurts.
The Critique Reflects Misunderstanding
Sometimes a critique can be so off-base that you wonder where it came from at all. This is a good opportunity to evaluate how you are conveying your idea.
Your Partner Has an Agenda
If a critique partner does not like rhyming picture books then they may pursue that agenda in their critique of your manuscript. This goes for any pet peeve, but it may also apply to partners who are in an adolescent stage of their careers and have a limited perspective.
Your Partner Enjoys Your Pain
Fortunately, I have not experienced this, but I have questioned the motivations of some critiques that were unnecessarily harsh. It is a subjective call. Perhaps the critique was simply tactless, or frustrating. Anyway, if you feel that your partners are working against you, then you may need to reflect on how you are handling criticism personally. If, after personal reflection, you still feel you are under attack, then perhaps the best solution is to ignore the criticism and find a new group. They can't harm your success.
Your Partner Wants to Add Their Own Flavor
This happens all the time! I suspect it is the most frequent form of critique among Illustration groups with members of competing styles. For example, a member from your group wants you to tighten a loose painting, or in a writing group, someone might like you to add humor. It is not a good critique.
Your Partner Makes it About You
This critique ignores the story altogether and instead makes assumptions about your experience, your qualifications, or even the way you introduced yourself to the group. No worries, this is just a bad critique and you can throw it out.
The Hardest Things to Hear in a Critique:
Remember that just because they are hard to hear, does not mean they are not necessary for your growth.
What is your least favorite thing to hear during a critique?
Setting goals is like creating a road map to your destination.
Your journey is from one end of a picture book to the other.
Set SMART Goals
In this context, setting SMART goals looks something like below.
Set Your Milestones
Here are mine:
I visualize this process like a funnel. For every 50 ideas, you may fall in love with 20. 10 of those may develop into a story. Of the 10 that are developed enough to write, you may settle into 5. Of those, you may only show 3 to your critique group.
Make each of these goals attainable by preparing the tools you need to complete them before hand. For example, you can use my free Picture Book Writing Cheat Sheet to evaluate your drafts.
Set a Schedule for Your Milestones
For example, you may participate in Tara Lazar’s Story Storm. You will set a goal to write down 1 idea for every day in January. There is daily inspiration from a collection of creators and if you choose to check in every day then there is added accountability.
Storystorm is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time based.
Set Up a Backup Plan
For when things don't go the way you’ve planned, which inevitably they don't.
What happens if you can't come up with an idea on January 15th? Maybe you were stressed, busy with work, or home life.
When I am feeling extra hyped or I have spare time, I come up with multiple ideas and put them in the bank. That way I do not feel bad when things happen.
Set Yourself Up For Success
When you accomplish a goal: celebrate! When things don't work out, go back and take a closet look at what happened.
When revising your goals look for micro-adjustments that you can make throughout your day to make a goal more attainable. Often, little changes can make a big difference.
In Picture Books, the text and illustrations will have varying degrees of responsibility.
Wordless Picture Books rely entirely on the illustrations to carry the story.
Other books, like BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures, rely entirely on text.
Most picture books marry the two extremes and use both vehicles to appeal to all the senses of the adult and child audiences.
Often, a writer creates a story with text and then publishers find an illustrator who can tell the same story with pictures.
“I don't think of myself as an illustrator. I think of myself as a cartoonist. I write the story with pictures - I don't illustrate the story with the pictures.” -Chris Ware
But the role of the illustrator is not simply to elaborate.
“When you make illustrations, you're supposed to have a subtext; you're not just communicating words - you're actually adding another story altogether.” -Peggy Rachmaninov
Storytelling is multidisciplinary.
Illustration and text are only two vehicles used to tell a story. There is also:
Exploring different vehicles to tell your story may help you flesh it out completely, or you may land on a vehicle that suits the story you are trying to tell better than others.
You can talk UP to children in your own books:
Ask Open Ended Questions
Open-Ended questions are questions that require a detailed response. For example, instead of asking, “Is it good to listen to your parents?” Ask “How does listening to your parents make them feel?” The two questions will guide your story in different directions. An open-ended question may also develop your story in more complex ways.
Let Your Characters Speak for Themselves
Get to know your characters well by developing them in your story. Make sure they do things they would do and say things they would say. Don't let adult characters control the kid characters or run the story.
Avoid Stereotypical Labels
Children are changeable, as are adults. As such, there is no need to limit them. A part of talking UP to children is to recognize that they grow and help them recognize it too.
Show, Don't Tell
If you have to share a message, don't tell your audience outright. Show them by example in the story you write and in the characters’ actions.
Get Down to Their Level
Maurice Sendak was known to say, “I don't write for children. I write and someone says it's for children.”
I appreciate the sentiment, but it is not exactly appropriate. Kids are not dumb, they are not simple, but they are an audience with special interests. The way I see it is, you must become an honest consumer of children’s literature. That way, the subjects you are interested in will also interest your audience.
“Ask yourself, do you read a lot of rhyming books? Do you find yourself making up rhymes for your animals, your children, your day to day activities? If rhyme is a struggle, it might not be the best choice. If rhyme feels like comfy slippers, you should pursue it. But you still need to hone the craft. Read rhyme. Listen to rhyme. Join a critique group with established rhymers. Rhyme is not a crime (groan) but it’s also not the best fit for every author.” -Karma Wilson
As a child, I was adamant about writing on paper. I loved the smell of the paper, the feel of the pencil in my hand, the permanent lead mark on my index finger. The writing was visceral.
Today, I write for speed and so a computer is much more useful. And yet all my activities have moved to the computer and phone so that I spend most of my working hours in front of a screen.
If you want that physical feeling back, remember that you can choose to incorporate handwriting into your note-taking, plotting, and sketching.
David H. Baker, the Executive Director of WIMA said, “Though computers and e-mail play an important role in our lives, nothing will ever replace the sincerity and individualism expressed through the handwritten word.”
When you write on paper, you are less likely to take notes verbatim. You spend less time correcting and researching. You spend more time manipulating, summarizing, and synthesizing. Your voice will come out in your writing much more naturally.
“Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart.” -Natalie Goldberg
Natalie Goldberg’s style of teaching writing is similar to the way I was taught Tai Chi. “You never ‘get’ it”, “Keep your hand going”, “No matter what comes up, you put it on paper and keep going.” You can watch 10 minutes of Natalie dragging pencil over paper here.
Writing is meditation or an exercise in letting your words flow into paper.
I use One Note by Microsoft to take notes. I use Word to write stories. They don’t take up physical space, I keep files for years, and they are searchable. Regardless, I still use a small notebook every day to keep track of ideas, quotes, and inspiration. My blog posts start in the notebook. This is Why Every Writer Should Write By Hand:
Hi, my name is Cory Shaw. I am an author and illustrator of books and book covers for children.
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