So for those of you who write picture books, I thought you may be interested in reading this article written by Simone Kaplan. She has more than two decades of insider experience at major publishing institutions such as Henry Holt and Company and HarperCollins Publishers, during which she’s personally accepted, edited, and rejected hundreds of children’s picture books. She knows how the words you write must spark the interest of an editor or agent. Don’t miss signing up for her free monthly newsletter filled with good information about writing picture books.
Beginning with Beginnings
by Simone Kaplan
The thing about the beginnings of manuscripts is that they are important. In terms of the overall narrative, they’re not more important than any other parts of your manuscript—say middles or endings. But because editors, agents, and children read them first, they have to show, right from the start, that what follows is worth reading.
Publishing professionals receive and read hundreds of manuscripts a month. They don’t have time to read every manuscript through to the end. They start at the beginning, so the beginning has to grab their attention, pique their interest, and indicate either that the author can write or has a good idea in order to read further. If you write a good beginning, editors and agents will read on to find out if you can develop a compelling plot, create credible characters, and sustain reader interest. If you don’t write a good beginning, the manuscript is likely to be rejected before the reader gets to the end of the first page. Just as important is the response of the ultimate “reader” of the picture book: the child who is hearing the words and who either is, or isn’t, engaged by the end of the first few spreads. Thousands of picture books line the shelves of libraries and bookstores; yours needs to engage the reader from the beginning.
So the big question is: How do you write a beginning that makes the reader—either the professional reading a manuscript or a child—want to read further?
The solution is simple to articulate but difficult to achieve. There are no rules when it comes to writing, but there are some helpful ideas. And one idea that helps answer the question posed above is that of dramatic structure. Having a structure helps anchor your narrative and gives you a way to think of plot. Plot has been analyzed and described by many critics across many genres and eras. For our purposes, though, a plot is simply a way of organizing a series of related incidents, events, and situations leading to a satisfying resolution. It’s helpful to divide the plot into three sections: the beginning, the middle, and the end. This arrangement starts with the first section: the setup, or beginning.
A good beginning does three main things:
1. It introduces your main character or characters—the who of your story.
2. It introduces the circumstances and situation, showing your reader the world in which your story takes place, and gives the reader a sense of what the story is about—the where of your story.
3. It introduces the desire/need/conflict that is going to drive the character and the story—the what of your story.
That’s why beginnings are sometimes called “setups”: they establish what the story is about, engage your reader’s interest, and make him or her want to continue to read.
A good rule of thumb is that the beginning should take up about one-quarter of the book. If you think of a standard thirty-two-page picture book and do the rough math—which allocates a single page at the beginning to the half title, a spread to the title and copyright/dedication, and a single last page of the book—you have twenty-eight pages, or fourteen spreads, to tell your story. That means the beginning should be about three to four spreads. If you’re thinking in terms of a 1,000-word-count guide, that means 250 words. When you consider that the trend these days is toward even shorter books (600 words or less), you don’t have a lot of time to set up your story and engage your reader.
It’s not easy to do, but it is possible. Since you don’t have a word to spare or a sentence to waste, you need to be economical. The most economical way of starting your book is to find a way to introduce all three elements at once. The best openings establish the situation in which the protagonist finds him- or herself combined with the dramatized action, the conflict, or the expression of a desire.
A skilled writer can establish mood and tone and write an opening that contains the premise and the situation of the whole book. You can—and should—aim to do the same. At the very least, you should set up the who, the where, and the what of your story. It’s been done in almost every good picture book you can read. And you can do it too. Examine some of your favorite picture books to see how they are set up; you can learn a lot by analyzing some good beginnings and seeing how the masters handle the challenges. Then try to apply the principles that worked for them to your own work and create beginnings full of promise and excitement.
© 2012 Picture Book People, Inc.
Simone Kaplan is a picture book lover, editor, consultant, and writing coach, and is dedicated to making you a better picture book writer. She provides creativity-enhancing, skill-building, heart-expanding support for the creators of picture books so they can write the best possible books they’re able to write.
You can find out more about her work at http://www.picturebookpeople.com, or reach her at email@example.com ro read more about working with her at http://www.picturebookpeople.com/services.html
Don’t miss signing up for Simone’s free picture book newsletter.