Monday, September 19, 2011

PB critique: No conflict, no story

Revisions are under way again via my scribbles.
Before I escaped to the Black Hills of South Dakota last week, I received a book editor's feedback on my picture book manuscript.

The editor's critique was part of a picture book retreat I attended in July through the SCBWI's Rocky Mountain Chapter. The picture book tract was under the direction of rhyme master Linda Ashman. For a newbie like me, the weekend workshop offered instruction, direction and inspiration.

I opted for a distance critique after the retreat, so I could polish up the story using the information I learned in the sessions. I tinkered with my 409-word manuscript. I shared the process here.

I received a four-plus page "critique notes and talking points" and thought I would share some of them here. Since I don't know the etiquette on using the editor's name, I'll fall back on my journalism motto: "When in doubt, leave it out."

  • Unusual imagery and character choice — a tumbleweed
  • Desert/western settings are always popular
Needs improvement: 
  • Rhythm and rhyme scheme need polishing
  • Clarify setting 
  • More tension in the story
  • Character development
She points out specific areas to improve the story such as:
  • Weaving the dog into the story more.
  • "Assigning a few very carefully chosen, telling actions or words to each character can go a long way toward conveying depth of character and a multifaceted personality." 
  • Discussing the use of a tumbleweed as a character and that these fantastical elements "must still behave according to an internal logic within the story that's firmly and clearly established in order to be believable."
  • On the rhyme point — "we usually recommend that writers avoid trying to write in rhyme unless they are professional poets."
  • She suggested I write in straight prose in simple sentences and focus on plot, setting and characterization.
  • On marketability, she mentioned stories with a western theme do well, but "in today's difficult market, this manuscript faces some challenges."

The editor's reality check on publishing mingled in with the other notes:
Generally, when presented a choice between two very similar books, one by a new, unknown author and one by a "big name" author with a proven sales record, book buyers will go with the known quantity, regardless of the quality of the writing of the newcomer. This is especially true in today's weak economy, unfortunately.
I'm calling this my "It's the story Stacy (I'll use my name instead of saying stupid)" moment. What do I do next? I'm revisiting my original story notes and looking at ones I made last week. I will refocus and revised my manuscript for the local SCWBI picture book critique group in October.

The editor said everything in the nicest possible way, but I understood the message: Without a better conflict, my story won't cut it.

Have you received a critique on a recent writing project — Did it make you change your writing or evaluate your work differently?


  1. I am happy to see such helpful "suggestions" come by to you from the editor. Having only worked one article to publication, I was open to the editors remarks and suggestions, and was also given some latitude to make it fit.

    The process only changed my writing in an effort to produce better first/second/third drafts by looking for those things that I had not done well the first time around.

    Thanks for sharing your story's story. Good luck with the revisions!

  2. Thank you for sharing this with us. It's always frustrating when they trot out that 'in today's difficult market' phrase. I've had that in rejections of picture books from publishers. I've also had the one about not writing in rhyme and yet my favourite picture books are rhyming and kids love rhyme. All we can do is to keep submitting and someone somewhere [hopefully] will want our work rather than the old famous geezer who should retire and make room for us! Good luck with your next critique session. It sounds like an excellent retreat.

  3. I appreciate how you give us a glimpse into your critique process. Thanks so much. And I think every writer will hear "It's the story, ___" (Insert your name in the blank)at one time or another.
    The question is: What are we going to do about it?
    Sounds like you have a plan.

  4. Wowee this is such great feedback for you--and helps from a blog reader's POV too! THX for sharing!

  5. @Dean, I think feedback improves us.
    @Rosalind- glad you continue to submit. I'm not anywhere near that stage. I'll be revising and rewriting. And, Anastasia Suen wrote a great post on Darcy Pattison's blog about her 25-year PB revision process. I found it very helpful this morning.
    @Beth - I think I need to attach your question to my monitor. Now, I just need to work my plan.
    @Christina - Yes. I thought the feedback was very helpful. Lots to digest.

  6. I love getting feedback, even when it's hard to take. So glad you got some positive feedback, and constructive comments. PBs are so hard to write! I don't know if I could do it.


  7. Thanks for sharing this Stacy, I am waiting on a 500 word critique right now and I know it isn't traditional Middle Grade material so I'm nervous. The thing was it was the only thing I was working on and I didn't want to miss out on the critique.

    I've heard the one about only professinal poets doing rhyme in picture books, it's such a hard one to swallow but so true. I've managed to get a rhyming poem published but not a rhyming picture book. I also tried to write a novel in rhyme and got told that about professionals. There is so much to it, with the meter and the internal rhyme, yikes!

    By the way I have an award for you on my blog today Stacy:

  8. It's so great you got such constructive feedback, Stacy. I'm glad the editor was so helpful. But gosh, isn't it also frustrating when you've worked and polished and struggled and slaved only to be reminded of today's tough marketplace!!! I know - it happens to me all the time. You've inspired me to get going again on a couple of stories I put away on the back burner, though. Time to reevaluate and see what I can come up with to make them better. As for rhyme - my first accepted ms was in rhyme and I am not a professional poet, so go figure :)

  9. @Debbie-I'm still not sure I can write them well. I need to hunker down and revise.
    @Catherine-Good luck with your middle grade critique. Yes, the poet point is well taken. My meter needs work. I've been reading a poetry book to educate myself. Thanks for the award. I'll stop by.
    @Susanna-Woo hoo. Dusting off the stories is always fun. I think the thing with rhyme is it works when it works. Sounds like your first one worked.

  10. Awesome opportunity, Stacy! Good for you for putting your ms out there and accepting the feedback. It's not easy to hear, but it always helps! Good luck with the revisions!

  11. Hey, Stacy, good post. I gave you two awards on my blog today, btw.

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and feedback. I have yet to attend a workshop or query so this is extraordinarily helpful information about the process.

    I am currently working as a freelance journalist, which as you seem to know, is an entirely different beast, so reading the post of a person who is working on both is really refreshing.


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