Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 28, 2010

Notes From First Page Session

This past Wednesday Chris Richmond agent at Upstart Crow Literary and Rebecca Frazer, editor of Jabberwocky at Sourcebooks joined us in Princeton, NJ to listen and make comments on our first pages.  We limit the amount of people attending to make sure  everyones gets to hear their work read.  I thought I would share some of the comments with you.

1.   Rhyme must be perfect –meter must be dead on and no near rhymes.

2.   Do not let the rhyme lead your story and make sure you have a beginning, middle and a end with a story arc.

3.   Too many adverbs.

4.   Too many descriptive tag words.  Most of the time “Said” is better.

5.   Using too many words to tell your picture book story.  Keep it short.  Most picture books are being told in less than 500 words.  Now-a-days, it is rare that a picture book would be over 1000 words.

6.   Look for places where the illustrator would be able to show the words for you.

7.   Illustrator notes are acceptable when the person reading needs to know something that isn’t being conveyed in text.

8.   Even if you aren’t an illustrator, you can still lay out your text on pretend pages to see if there is enough material for an illustrator to illustrate.  Or just to get a feel for how the text would be placed on the page.  You don’t want large blocks of text on a page.

9.   Don’t try to squeeze the telling of an older story into a picture book.

10.  Go to the bookstore and look at the picture books on the shelf, read them.  See how they are laid out, how many words are on a page.  Look for ones that are similar to what you are writing.  Pick up the award winning books.  When you read one you really like, try to figure out what it was about the book that made you like it.  Was if funny?  If so, then what caused you to laugh?  The drawings?  The ending?  The main character?

11.  What makes your story about a princess and a frog different?

12.  Does your story have a wide audience?  It will be hard to sell a niche book.  Example: If you are trying to tell a story about the death of a parent to a 3 – 5 year old audience, you should try to approach it from a positive angle.  No one wants to sob uncontrolablly everytime they pick up a picture book.

13.  Does the story you are telling fit the audience who you are targeting? 

14.  Start in the middle of the action.  You need to hook the reader, grab them and pull them into your story.

15.  Does your character sound like the right age?

16.  Is there too much dialogue?

17.  Historical fictions are hard to sell.  They can sell, but more contemporary novels sell.

18.  Make sure your language fits the age level of your audience.

19.  Make your first page count – hook your reader – don’t get bogged down in things that are not important to moving the story forward.  Watch for long blocks of text and long blocks of dialogue.

20.  Watch what you have on your first page.  A kiss on the first page may be too much for a mother buying a book for her young daughter, but a kiss at the end of the story may be like the icing on the cake.

Most of the mistakes were with stories that were too old and too long for a picture book.  They were good stories, but needed to be made into a chapter book or a middle grade novel.  They suggested that all the rhyming picture books would be better told in prose.  You could see that some of the lovely descriptions were not a good fit for a first page, where your goal is to draw the reader into wanting to turn the page to find out more.

I wish I would have remembered to take a few photos, so you could see Rebecca Frazer, but at least I will have a second chance, because Rebecca has agreed to come to our June conference.  I know you will like her.

Click here for more conference information.



  1. Regarding number 12… unless they are reading Love You Forever 😉


    • Barbara,

      I didn’t explain it right. This was in reference to a story trying to explain why their Mommy died from cancer to a 3 year old. It was so sad, that I don’t think anyone would want to read it – even someone who experienced this in their life.
      What the panel was saying was there may be a niche for this, but it would be too small for a publisher to want to publish the book. They suggested broadening it to reflect some happy things to remember in the book.



  2. I have to tell you that one thing I have trouble with, in a big way, is with #1, about rhyme. I can’t even count how many picture books are out there that are in rhyme, much of it forced, not following any strict poetry-form guidelines, a lot of “near” rhyme, etc. and they’re in print, and many of those are with the bigger publishing houses.

    This is not to say I like most of these books all that much (and some, not at all), but what’s out there shows a very varied opinion from publisher to publisher, as far as poetry guidelines.

    I find it frustrating when so often things are stated as though they are “rules across the board”, when in actuality, only a portion of the “rules” in the industry are common “understood” guidelines; this includes queries, etc. too.

    Sorry, but I feel like I may be venting a bit, not just stating my observation, but that may be my mood today. This is what I’ve noticed though, for the many years I’ve been studying publishing and writing, going to conferences, talking to agents and editors, etc. There are contradictory opinions on many things throughout the industry. To me, it makes it difficult to know what’s right or wrong when judging the content, quality and style of our own work.


    • Donna,

      You are so right – it is frustrating. Especially when it comes to rhyme. They are publishing rhyming picture books, but everytime you run into an editor or agent, they don’t seem to want them. There are books out there like “Bear Snores On” that are so perfect and so much fun that you instantly know why they were published and then there are those that lack that perfection that still are getting published. It would be interesting to try to take note, if any of those are lacking ones are from new authors. It could be that the lacking ones are by previous published authors who have a following. I don’t know. But imperfect rhyme is
      out there. I love rhyme and I think kids do, too. I guess it is like anything else, you have to find the right home for it.

      I should try to get an editor from a publisher like Wordsong to come out and hear what they have to say. Or maybe David L Harrison will be able to answer some of those questions for us at the conference. He has dozens of books written in rhyme.

      It is obvious that there are rules and the rules are continually broken, but I guess you need to learn the rules in order to make it work when you brake them.



  3. Kathy, I am sure. I was talking with my tongue across my inner cheek.



  4. Barbara,

    I always worry that people will read something wrong. Thanks for clarifying.


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