Flexing Your PB Muscles

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but picture books are stinkin’ hard to write. Creating a compelling story arc with memorable characters that appeal to both kids and adults is hard enough. But aiming to keep the story under 500 words? Ideally 300 words or less? That’s incredibly difficult.

When I write my PB manuscripts, I tend to start long, then edit down with each draft. This is effective for many reasons. It allows me to form my arc and flesh out the characters. I can fully realize the story before I have to slash words.

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Hook ’em with the First Sentence

The hook. Without it, a story can fall terribly flat. The more compelling the first sentence of your story, the more likely your readers are to keep reading. The sweet spot for picture books today is around 300 words, which means you better hook readers from sentence #1.

There’s no standard formula for a hook, but there are different ways to focus it to better grab attention: setting, story problem, in the middle of the action, etc. In fact, Ann Whitford Paul shows this in her book Writing Picture Books. She rewrites the first sentence of The Three Little Pigs many times, honing in on one of nine focuses each time.

One way to exercise your hooking muscle is to study first sentences. Below I’ve analyzed some PB openings that have hooked me like a hungry fish:

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Transfiguring My Novel

Finishing my first novel was surreal. It had been a dream of mine for a long time and I finally mustered up the guts to do it. Thanks to the NaNoWriMo community, I pushed through and finished a 50,000-word middle grade novel on November 30th. Cue the celebratory Wildfire Whiz-bangs.


The feeling of accomplishment lasted for a solid three months. I focused back on writing and revising my picture books, yipping and yahooing myself for starting and completing a longer work. A few weeks ago, after I submitted my best PB yet to various agents, I thought, onto the next middle grade book.

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My 7 Favorite PB Writing Resources

The short length of picture books often deceives the untrained writer’s eye. “PBs are short and cute, they must be easy to write, right?” WRONG!

As a PB writer, you need to craft a cohesive story, with a central, relatable character who faces a relatable problem, escalating, page-turning tension, and ultimate resolution, all in 500 words or less to entertain children ages 2-8 as well as the adults who read it.

NOTE: Often 500 words is too long. I shoot for less than 300 words in my manuscripts. By academic standards, that’s just over 1 page double spaced, people.


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Just Keep Critiquing

I’ve been a critiquing machine in the past few months. So much so that I’m ready to start querying. Huzzah! I’ll be glued to my laptop screen for the next few months hoping for responses from agents and editors.

While I wait, I’ll continue writing new stories and sending them out for critique. Peer feedback is a critical step in the writing process. No, it’s crucial. You HAVE TO let others read and critique your work. It helps you hone and polish your stories tenfold. When I swap my picture book manuscripts with other picture book writers, I feel like I’m receiving gold.

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Observational Research: How Exploring Helped Me Revise My Story

The fair is in town and I’ve been itching to go for a few weeks. This place is a huge slice of my childhood. My parents took my siblings and me to the fair every summer. We rode all the rides (at least the less fast, frightening, and high-up ones), won more stuffed animals than we needed, had rainbows and dolphins painted on our faces, and ate deep-fried everything. What more could a kid want?

I try to go every year, but wasn’t able to make it in 2014. So I’ve been determined this summer to set a date aside for some finger-lickin’, ride-screamin’, prize-winnin’ fun. The boyfriend and I finally made it to the fairgrounds this past weekend.

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