In January and August of 2018, I got the chance to be a Critique Ninja at Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 picture book writing challenge. Part of my job was browsing through a forum of posted manuscripts from handfuls of the 900+ members who subscribe to this popular group. I browsed through pages and pages of titles and ended up reading nearly a hundred manuscripts. Of those, I critiqued nearly 50 individual stories.
Browsing through what could be considered a slush pile of sorts, I noticed that I made some observations more often than others, and decided it might be helpful to share some of those thoughts with you. Please keep in mind that none of these comments are aimed at a specific manuscript or writer. In fact, some of them are notes I scribbled down in relation to a set of manuscripts I didn’t even get to critique. Others are based on patterns or realizations that occurred to me more than once while being a Critique Ninja. I hope you find this advice helpful, and if you’d like even more advice for writers, visit this page after you’re done reading here.
General observations from a Critique Ninja
- Being too vague or figurative confuses readers.
Especially with my August critiques, I read quickly. Editors and agents do this too. More than usual, I felt lost or confused. If I was perplexed, what will your young reader think? There’s a time and place for leaving details out (e.g. you’re writing a mystery), but generally a story needs some kind of setup or exposition, especially in a character-driven book or one that takes place in a setting that’s vastly outside most of your readers’ experiences. When I read something that’s intentionally vague or uses clichéd or figurative language beyond the target age reader’s likely comprehension, I wonder if it’s unintentional. And that leads me to think that perhaps the writer hasn’t spend enough time purposefully choosing the language and details of a story to make it cohesive and clear. I get that picture books are supposed to be short, and you might be looking for places to slash word count, but clarity trumps brevity. Always.
- Consistency and structure are your friends.
I read manuscripts that jumped back and forth in time. I read manuscripts with a silly title that promised roaring humor, but ended with issue-driven parental messages. I read books that skipped along like an Eric Carle concept book in the beginning but tried to knock my heart out like a Patricia Polacco book as sentences grew and intensity shifted. I’m often a big advocate for trying out many different formats and writing a story with alternate versions until you’ve got a format that fits the content and tone. Your opening will define your narrator’s voice and style, what tense you’re writing in (past, present, future/conditional), and give the reader a feel for what kind of story to anticipate. Then, deliver on that promise throughout the story—only changing things up when it’s on purpose and meaningful in terms of its effect on the reader at the right moment in the story. Oh, and if you’re writing a rhyming book—consistency and structure aren’t your BFFs, they’re more like your gods.
- Titles matter (even though they don’t really, or not in the way you think)
With hundreds of participants, choosing which manuscripts to read was impossible (I ended up just asking people to request my critique if they hadn’t gotten one yet). However, there were times when I’d just choose one—and though it was a bit random, it wasn’t entirely by chance. Titles that looked original or different, intriguing or well-suited to my taste (science, animals, humor, travel) got first dibs. While one of the pieces I often gave as advice was to consider a title change, and anyone who’s had a book published knows that marketing may want to change your title, it’s important that whatever you title your manuscript or what you put in your subject line of an email query MATTERS. You’re competing for a publishing professional’s precious unpaid time with hundreds or thousands of other titles or email header subject lines. Be brief, be original, and let that title be a promise (although, don’t “overpromise and underdeliver” as mentioned above.)
- You get what you ask for.
Almost all of you who followed directions and linked your manuscript on the facebook page got a critique. Thank you for asking—and making it easy to find your story. Furthermore, thank you, thank you, thank you to all of the writers who posted a note that stated what you were looking for in a critique. It helped me understand where you were at with a manuscript, and which parts to pay attention to more specifically. Asking for what you want is a very good thing to do when sending a manuscript to a critique group or even a professional critiquer. Knowing what you want or identifying questions you have about your writing is more likely to yield you information you’re looking for. And when your book is ready for submission, you’ll feel a lot more confidence in querying because you’ve made your work the best it can be. Essentially, a query is a big ask—”Will you publish this book?”—and I hope you all get what you ask for.
At the risk of overextending the length of this article, I also want to add one more striking observation from the past 12 months of critiquing at conferences, for contests, and other endeavors like this combined. And that is: BEING ORIGINAL IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE, BUT KEEP TRYING. I have read so many manuscripts that sound similar, with similar topics, and even picture book biographies about the same rare and obscure person in history! Take this with a grain of salt, but here are some of the subjects/topics/themes I see all the time:
Dogs (especially rescue dogs/rescue pets)
Farm Animals (especially chickens, poultry, and pigs!)
Picture book biographies (I love these—but I see SO many nowadays!)
Self-acceptance/Fitting in (especially with an animal trying to be another animal until it realizes it was perfect all along)
Stereotyped girl and boy characters (girls like fashion/hate spiders, boys are adventurous or wild)
Issue-based books set in contemporary classrooms where a conversation or inspiring words from a grown-up resolves the problem or delivers information
Writing is hard, publishing is hard, and life after publishing is hard. If you never expect it to be easy, it will feel a lot easier than you expected. Ha!
If you’d like even more writing advice, you can find it here. My very best wishes to all of you in your writing endeavors.