Top 10 Picture Book Mistakes
Beginning Authors Make

by Steve Barancik

10 Mistakes Beginning Picture Book Authors Make!

10 top picture book author mistakes

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As someone who helps children's book authors, I come in contact with a lot of picture book manuscripts. And unlike agents and publishers, who reject 99% of what they see, I have to read each book to the end! So you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who knows better than I the writing mistakes picture book authors make...

Again and again and again.

So if you've written a children's book (most of these mistakes apply to any kind of fiction), this is your lucky day. Take a hard look at your manuscript and see if you've committed any of these offenses! If so, it's a pretty good bet your book is never going to see publication.

So here's my top ten list of common and horrible storytelling mistakes. The order they're in is according to how much they raise my blood pressure!

Note: Much of what I say here is explored in more detail in my lesson on story structure.

Mistake #10) The unearned ending.

Guess what! The reason we so often call a main character a "hero" is because he or she has accomplished something difficult. So...

  • If your ending features a young character getting a good outcome despite having expended no effort or having made nothing but wrong choices, you have written an unsatisfying ending.
  • If another character has done all the work for your character, or simply given him/her what he/she wants, you have written an unsatisfying ending.
  • And if you have written a deus ex machina (look it up, it's important!), you have written an unsatisfying ending - one that was unearned by both you and the main character.

Mistake #9) Introducing fantasy or magic late in the story without establishing the "rules of the game."

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This one is pretty simple to explain. Let's say that on the next to last page, your main character's fairy godmother appears, just in the nick of time. But let's also say that on the previous twenty pages, you gave no indication that your character was operating in a world that includes fairy godmothers.

You have failed to establish the rules of the game, and your ending will feel like a cheat. (A deus ex machina, actually. Which I sure hope you looked up!)

Mistake #8) No characterization. No character development.

Characterization occurs a) when you describe a character, b) when a character's circumstances describe him or her, or c) when his/her choices describe him/her. (A character who hides under the bed when someone knocks on the door is different from one who yells, "I'm getting my gun!")

Character development is characterization that changes over time. (Note: your main character should be experiencing some kind of growth as a result of the story you're telling. If not, it probably isn't much of a story!)

Characterization and character development may not be hugely specific in a picture book, but they should at least exist. If your character could be anyone, well, you're probably not doing your job.

Mistake #7) Not limiting viewpoint.

The jury is in: fiction connects best with audiences when it comes from one character's viewpoint. (In longer YA fiction or fiction for adults, the rule is one viewpoint at a time.)

Writing from a single character's viewpoint enables us to stand in that character's shoes, to experience his/her experiences and feel his/her feelings.

Writers who write from multiple viewpoints sacrifice that emotional connection, and 99 times out 100 their viewpoint choices feel happenstance and sloppy.

If you, the author, tell us what Tommy thinks, and then you tell us, say, what his mommy thinks, you have multiple viewpoints, and your story is suffering for it.

Whether 1st person (I saw), or 3rd (Tommy saw), viewpoint in a picture book should be singular. And if that makes it a little tougher to figure out how to tell your story...good! This isn't supposed to be easy.

Mistake #6) Multiple main characters.

This offense, of course, can be one reason 7) occurs. But, more commonly, beginning authors send two or more characters out on an adventure, and - even worse - make no distinction between the characters.

Characters should be distinct! When authors tell readers that "Tommy and Billy thought," or "Tommy and Billy said," it's ridiculous! Who the heck talks and thinks in unison?! Your story has just lost all credibility...and it's made me want to tear my hair out.

Am I saying your main character always has to be alone? No! But I am saying he always has to be unique. If he's out with other characters, don't think of them as having an adventure together. Think of them as confronting obstacles and such and in conflict about how to proceed. Stories (more on this later) are about conflict.

Mistake #5) Too many darn words.

If you never took a writing class or read a book on writing, you may not have heard that your writing should be as concise as possible. Well, you're hearing it here!

The fewest words it takes to tell your story (while still being clear and including everything that needs to be included), that's how many words you should use. Good writers do at least one draft devoted solely to cutting every part of the story that doesn't contribute to the whole (or that's repetitive), and another draft to just cutting back on how many words it takes to say what's left.

Be a good writer.

Mistake #4) Illogic, and illogical choices.

Avoiding this mistake comes down to catching yourself cheating.

Writers can find themselves committed emotionally to a very specific sequence of events. That's fine. But if you can't figure out a way to sequence those events in a fashion that readers find believable, or if it depends on characters making choices that readers don't buy into, well, you've got a logic problem.

And if your story relies on coincidence anywhere but right at the beginning, you've got the same kind of problem.

Don't be a cheater! Either do the hard work to figure our an honest way to roll out the sequence of events you're so married to, or open yourself up to changing that sequence of events.

Mistake #3) Bad grammar. Poor spelling. Errant punctuation. Tense inconsistency.

It is possible to be a good writer without being a good speller. The others are pretty much deal-breakers and a sign you need to do more reading before investing so much time in writing.

What do I mean by tense inconsistency? Well, here's an example:

Tommy walks into the store. "Can I see the manager?" he said.

I can't think of a better way to say to a reader, "I hope you like my first draft! It took me twelve minutes to write!"

Mistake #2) Bad verse.

Nothing says, "Make fun of me behind my back!" more than bad verse.

If you think all Dr. Seuss did was rhyme, then throw out every rhyme you've ever written and hypnotize everyone you've ever shown one to so they don't remember.

Rhyme is just the "punch line" of a verse. The basic building block of verse is meter (which is essentially about the number of syllables and which ones are accented). Seuss wrote in anapestic tetrameter. If you don't know that meter is part of verse, then be assured that your verse is causing excruciating pain to those who do.

There are two solutions, and only two solutions.

  1. Switch to prose. Now.
  2. Take a break from your book and learn to write proper verse first.

Picture book mistake #1) NO STORY!

Imagine if you thought you'd written a story, but you hadn't. It doesn't sound possible, does it? But I see it all the time.

You see, those of us in the writing world have a very specific definition of what a story is, and very often those who aren't part of that writing world write something that isn't.

(When you finish here, you're going to want to check out my full explanation of what makes a story a story.)

Do I feel like a pretentious jerk telling someone their story isn't a story? Yes, every time. But I do it anyway if they're getting ready to send their work out into the world. Better to know sooner than later, right?

To put it as simply as possible, a story features a protagonist (main character) whose life is going along well enough until something happens. Now his/her life is suddenly out of whack, and most of the rest of the text is devoted to the character's efforts to get it back in whack. He/she confronts obstacles and experiences conflict on the way to some sort of resolution.

Pretty basic. Pretty much all the fiction you've read, all the TV and movies you've watched, use this formula.

Yet people send me stuff all the time where the main character is happy happy happy from start to finish. No problems, no resistance, no conflict. No story.

(If there are illustrations, they usually feature every character smiling all the time. And a lot of the time these characters are just looking at the reader, rather than engaging the other characters in the book.)

Why does this happen? I think there are two main reasons.

  1. The author doesn't know the rules of story.
  2. The author mistakenly believes that fiction for young children features non-stop happiness.

It's true: terrible, adult things don't usually happen in fiction aimed at small children. Rather, authors give their characters small problems - in other words, seriousness proportionate to the reader's age and circumstance. Whether it's a talking cat making a mess of one's house, a lost stuffed animal, or an eager pigeon who desperately wants the keys to the bus, the characters in picture books face small challenges and experience small triumphs!

There they are: the ten picture book mistakes I most often see from new and aspiring writers. If you want help with your manuscript (and guidance in not making these - and other - mistakes), here's where to find me.

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Do you know enough Seuss to excel?

Great info!