Okay, so you’ve completed a full draft of a picture book manuscript. Now what? Revisions, of course! As we all know, it’s unusual that a first draft (or even a tenth or eleventh) be ready right off the bat for submission. Writers should embrace the revision process. And while I’m no author, I do get it: revising is hard work. Questions abound, and answers and solutions are not always instantaneous. But the process is always rewarding and necessary. And so, here are some brief tips to help you through the sometimes tricky yet inevitably fulfilling journey.
1. Cut like an illustrator
Remember that your work will eventually be illustrated. Ask yourself whether there are opportunities to remove superfluous descriptions of character or setting that the art might show. Are there opportunities for your reader to fill in ideas with his/her own imagination?
2. Revise like a poet
Consider whether your text prompts an emotional response from your reader. How so? Or why not?
Are there opportunities to play with richer language to evoke such responses? Try metaphors or similes. Give yourself permission to put on your poet cap no matter your subject.
Discover how something like this:
“Back home I could read and write. Here there are new letters.”
can become something like this:
“Back home I could read and write. I shaped the letters and stacked them like blocks into words. The words opened like windows and doors into a story. Here there are new letters. They lie on the page like scribbles and scratches. All the windows are shut tight.”
(Example from author/illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien’s revisions for I’m New Here [Charlesbridge, 2015].)
3. Add like an action hero
Do your characters (including secondary ones) have agency on each spread? Are desires evident? Is there something clearly standing in the way?
Look for opportunities to cut away description and reveal action and motivation. Aim for sparse description within rich action, rather than sparse action within too much description.
Meanwhile, make sure the introduction of each character, idea, or concept moves your story forward—like how an action hero shows up and creates change or builds tension whenever he/she is present.
4. Be farmers’-market selective
Picture books are short. You have to be economical with each page. And the right words are critical. Be deliberate with your wording.
When you go back to revise, consider each word. Could you pick more convincing verbs or adjectives? Might focusing on rhythm or alliteration contribute to a more satisfying reading experience? Essentially, the words you choose will showcase the narrative’s attitude toward the subject/story at hand. Could brainstorming a list of words to describe the mood, tone, character, and/or themes help you infuse the piece with a fresher, more memorable sense of voice?
Deliberately hand-select your words, like you would the freshest, readiest fruit at the farmers’ market.
5. End like a filmmaker
Like any great filmmaker, you set a tone and a mood at the beginning of your story. So when you get to the end, finish like a filmmaker, too—respond to the beginning but don’t summarize what you want the reader to think or remember.
Consider this beginning and ending from Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call (Charlesbridge, 2017):
“From the beginning, the world all around spoke to Alexander Graham Bell. And he listened.”
[Book goes on to explore how Alexander Graham Bell was a curious child, always wanting to know how sound works and concocting new ways to convey or hear sounds, which lead to his eventual invention of the telephone.]
“From the beginning, the world all around spoke to Alexander Graham Bell. And he answered the call.”
Author/illustrator Mary Ann Fraser trusts her reader to understand the note she’s ended on, without needing to sum up how impactful Alexander has been on modern society, or why his childhood made him seem destined to invent the telephone. The reader can appreciate the callback to the beginning while making his/her own decisions about Alexander’s childhood and how it led to an important invention.
Now, go! Revise and be merry! Open your mind to the possibility of trying new practices and exercising new approaches to your manuscript. In the words of Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”