Picture Book or Magazine-Length Story

Oonce-upon-a-time-719174_1920ne of the most difficult things for new writers, and even experienced writers, to grasp are the differences between different types of writing.  How does an early reader manuscript differ from a picture book?  How does a magazine story differ from a picture book manuscript?

Today, I’m going to talk about how a magazine story manuscript differs from a picture book manuscript.  And let me emphasize something.  We are talking about manuscripts.  Once the two pieces are published, the physical form of the published piece takes over and dominates the form of the story or manuscript.

That’s why we are focusing on manuscripts.  So how does a magazines piece differ from a picture book?  First lets cover how they don’t differ.

It isn’t length.  Manuscripts for either form can have a word count of well-below 100 words to several hundred.

It isn’t focus.  Magazine stories focus on the protagonist.  You generally don’t have to the time or space to bring in numerous siblings or the entire class.  But a picture book can also have this super tight focus.

There are two principal differences between a magazine story and a picture book.  The first is illustration possibilities.  Due to the format, a picture book has 32 pages.  Some of these pages may become back matter.  There is going to be a title page.  But you usually need at least 14 spreads.  If you don’t have 14 distinct illustration possibilities than you probably aren’t writing a picture book manuscript.

The second principal difference is lasting appeal or value for the buck.  Is your story something that a parent or grandparent would be willing to pay $16.99 to read again and again and again?  If the story isn’t going to hold up to multiple readings, either to a classroom or a single child, then it isn’t a picture book.  This means that a picture book story has to have depth and adult appeal.

Take a look at your manuscript.  Have you created something with 14 distinct illustration possibilities? These can be changes in action, tone or setting.  The illustrator can zoom out or zoom in but you have to give this person a story they can work with.

Now look at it for value/depth.  Is this something that you can see an adult reading again and again?  Neither type of writing is easy but it is all much easier if you know what to look for in your work.


Research: How much is enough?

books-1605416_1920Recently someone asked me how much research is enough to write a book.  Do I use 20 sources?  Thirty?  Do my books for teens require more than the third grade books?

I wouldn’t say that age level plays as big a part in the amount of research that I need to do as the topic itself.  If there are books that you can use as resources, I may not have to use as many sources, especially if one or more books has a lot of information.  But if the topic is something new with fewer books already on the subject in print?  Then I am going to have to use more sources. If you have to use a lot of articles, you will have a huge bibliography.

Perhaps these numberw will show you what I mean.  For Ancient Maya, I used 52 sources including a number of books. when I wrote Black Lives Matter, there were no books for teens and almost nothing for adults on this topic.  I used 188 different sources.  The Zika Virus was similar with so much new material coming out and my bibliography had 120 sources.  But what about a book that is something of a survey?  Women in Sports covered the history of women in modern sports. Not baseball.  Not basketball.  Sports.  I used 206 sources.

These books are all 15,000 words long.  My books for 3rd graders are much shorter at 3500 words.  12 Incredible Facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis required 43 sources and I used 48 for the book on esports, both of which are comparable to the number of sources I used for the Maya book.

Although I understand why I teacher would tell a student to use 5 sources or 10, I would never answer this question with a number.  There is just too much variety depending on the topic and what else is in print.  Instead, I would say that you should research until you can start writing.

Just start.  Develop an outline if you are writing a longer book.  If you are writing a picture book, outline it and maybe rough it out.  This will tell you where you information is scant and what you still need to research.  I don’t worry about researching too much.  Research is too much fun to get stingy about it.  But I also don’t worry about researching too little.  If you’ve come up with a topic that has never been covered, which is what you need to do to sell, you are going to have to put in the work required to write a full and satisfying manuscript.  That is what is necessary much more than a specific number of sources.


Writing Challenges: These are both new to me

writing-challengesAs all of you know, I love a good writing challenge.  Hint:  NaNoWriMo?  Not a good challenge.  Storystorm?  An excellent challenge.

What’s the difference between good and bad?  Do-able while maintaining my sanity.  Here are two challenges that I just discovered.

Reading for Research Month (ReFoReMo).

This one is all about reading picture books as research for writing picture books.  Having just looked at the reading list, I’m trying to decide just how do-able this is.  The first four days list 10-11 books/day.  Now, I have a library card and I can request titles.  But I can only request 25 at a time.  Yeah.

That said, I want to discover how other authors use mentor texts.  I love the idea of mentor texts but I’ve never found it terribly successful.  I think that 95% of the problem is that I want to follow the mentor text too closely as if it was a template.  I’m hoping that this challenge, even if I can’t get every book ahead of time, will help me understand how other author’s use mentor texts and how they can be more helpful in my own writing.

This one starts Monday, February 27.
The Chapter Book Challenge (ChaBooCha).

This one is NaNoWriMo for children’s writers.  In the month of March, you are challenged to write a complete draft of a YA or MG novel, chapter book or early reader.  I’m signing up for this because I want to see what is what and how it differs from NaNoWriMo.  I’m hoping it will be less insanity inducing than NaNoWriMo.

Intelligently enough, they encourage you to start with an outline.  I’m going to work on Iron Mountain.  Of course, I can also get an early reader roughed next month because those don’t take nearly as long as finishing my young adult.  There are blog posts and a Facebook group and I’m looking forward to see what kind of information they put out there.

Hopefully one of these will interest some of you!



Query Letters: One Phrase to Avoid

I can see several problems in using this particular phrase.
1.  You aren’t really telling the agent about your manuscript.  Unless your character is literally risking life and limb, happiness and the very universe itself, you are using a cliché that doesn’t really tell the agent anything about your character or story.
2.  What is at risk can tell us something about your character’s situation.  That means that this phrase denies the agent a chance to get to know your character. If your character is risking the chance to ever see his parents again, we will know that he has somehow been separated from them.  We may not know how they became separated or how long they’ve been separated but we know that they are separated and this is something your character would reverse if possible.
3.  What is at risk can also tell us what your character values or loves.  If your character is risking her dream of going on to vet school, we can assume that she loves animals and had planned to be a vet vs loving music and wanting to go to Julliard or loving art and wanting to visit the Louvre.
4.  It can disguise a problem with the stakes in your novel.  If you use this phrase instead of describing what is at stake for your character, you may be doing this because what is at stake doesn’t really matter.  It is small potatoes instead of something truly big and meaningful.
Look for this phrase in your query and then do whatever it takes, rewriting the letter or rewriting your story, to bring a better phrase into the spotlight.

Little Free Library: And the Winners Are…

Recently, Little Free Library and Chronicle Books had a competition for architects to design Little Free Libraries that met the needs of library stewards.  I have to admit that I loved the range of needs that various stewards listed.  They included:

  • keeping in mind that adult and child users are different heights,
  • the need for motion sensor lighting,
  • balancing form and function,
  • having a place for a dog-walker to tie up their pup so they could browse the books.

With submissions from all over the world, the winners are an incredibly diverse group of potential libraries. You can see the entire grouping here.  I’ve included my three favorites below.









This entry was from Finland. I love that it can be manufactured off site, delivered broken down and flat and then assembled with minimal tools.  I can truly see this one take residence around a town square with multiple businesses participating or throughout an area of any town or city.  It also has that funky, modern Finnish design which I love.









This one is more than a design.  It has been built and has become something of a community center.  It is more than a library housing books also providing shelter for readers and a “little free” food pantry.  I’m not sure but it may also be part of a community garden.  Super cool!




And last but not least is a winner that lights up at night so to make it more visible for potential patrons.

I recently spotted a Little Free Library in my own community.  It truly made my heart happy.  My city can be a bit excitable when it comes to code enforcement and what is and is not allowed.  I honestly wasn’t sure they would allow Little Free Libraries so I’ll be keeping an eye on this one as I noodle over the possibilities.



Character Development: What Can Your Characters Do?

lego-peopleIt isn’t surprising that writers frequently draw on themselves and their friends when they create characters.  Keeping that in mind, I guess it isn’t surprising than that so many characters, especially secondary characters like parents, are writers. But it does make me wonder when editors are going to start bouncing back writer characters as too common.

When you develop a character, brainstorm some of the things that you can do or have done.  Remember, leave writing off the list.  My own list of accomplishments would look something like this:

Jobs I’ve Held:


Candy striper

Archaeological Illustrator

Research Assistant

Asst Scout leader





Dye cloth



Use a bead loom

Free bead

Paint/houses and pictures



Bake a chicken in an earthen pit

Make bread from scratch

Cook down a pumpkin

Make butter




Re-assemble a pump (as in pump and cistern)

Do laundry using a wash board and water pumped from a cistern, heated in my great-grandmother’s kettle

Refinish furniture

Wire a house

Build furniture kits



Assist in digging a dry well

Make a pot from raw natural clay

Create a map from raw data

Assist in building a television from a kit — tube type obviously

Assist in installing a new car engine

Repack barrel bearings

Respool a fishing reel



This is definitely a more diverse list than my current primary job — writer.  Why not create a similiar list and use it the next time you develop a character?  You might also include things that your mother, father or grandparents could do.  That said, I’d have to do some serious research to make some of those skills available to my characters.  My mother was a top notch seamstress whereas I can sew on a button.  My grandfather was an army mechanic.  My father helped develop the ceramic tiles for the Space Shuttle.



President’s Day

I hope that marooseveltny of you are enjoying your holiday.  I’ll be doing a bit of work but my family has a four-day weekend.  That’s means that I’m spending some time with them.

Have any of you written about one of our Presidents?  I have a lot of presidential picture books that I adore but I’ve been making a series of inspirational memes.  Many of them feature quotes from our Presidents.  Finding reliable quotes from political figures is no small task.

When I find something I like, I search on the quote itself.  I dig until I find it in an interview or a speech.  I’m not happy finding it on a quote based site because I don’t know how accurate their sources are.  So, without further ado, here are a few of my favorites.







Fiction or Nonfiction?

stemRecently one of my writing students wanted to know how to classify a book.  She was reading STEM books and had found one set in a classroom with animal characters.  They were learning about . . . rocks?  She might have said rocks.  I don’t actually remember.
There was a ton of information about the science topic but it was framed in a classroom setting with talking animals.  So would it be fiction or nonfiction?  She was really confused about how a STEM book could be fiction.
First things first, books that teach STEM topics can definitely be fiction.  Do a Google search on “fiction in STEM” and you’re going to find numerous listings on science fiction in STEM.  I’ve read fiction titles that demonstrate the scientific method, explain the fourth dimension, robotics, artificial intelligence, volcanoes, geology and more.
But it is easy to get confused.  At my library, Magic Tree House books are shelved with fiction but Magic School Bus books are shelved with what we commonly call “nonfiction.”  A talking bus that pops between one location and another?  Really?  I think we are going to have to start calling this section “informational books.”
But I can definitely see why Magic School Bus is shelved that way.  If a grade schooler wants to learn about sound waves, chocolate growing or the human immune system, there aren’t going to look first on the Magic School Bus shelf.  That said, it sure makes it hard for a Magic School Bus fan to read all of the books without going to the catalog.
I’ve never written a STEM book that was anything but nonfiction but I’m also matching series formats and standards.  That means giving the publisher what they want.  That said, I could see myself writing a fiction STEM book maybe in my spare time.

Reality vs Perception: When What You Know Isn’t Main Stream

Fort Davis, Texas

Tuesday I saw an article in Smithsonian. “The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys.”  Whoa. It was a surreal moment because I grew up knowing all about these cowboys.

An electrician by trade, my father was a history buff.  We toured every fort we passed, scoured museums and walked paths reading signs.  I grew up hearing about these cowboys as well as the buffalo soldiers.  We discussed the African American families that moved West after the Civil War as well as the escaped slaves that found homes as members of various tribes. Lesser known?  Honey, I grew up on this history.

But the problem is that what we KNOW may not be well known by the dominant culture.  A friend of mine wrote a mystery set in a small, fictitious Missouri town.  She has a four way stop in the middle of town and now I’m trying to remember what was there.  Post office, bank and something else maybe?  Her editor, a New Yorker, challenged her on this.  “These things don’t exist.”  This same editor had never heard of the New Madrid fault let alone the New Madrid earthquake.  Missouri reality is apparently not “mainstream.”

Not everyone you deal with from either coast is going to be so immune to other realities.  But some people truly have not heard of the things that we assume are “known.”  That’s why making sure that diverse books are available is so important. Books on all cultures and time periods and different types of science need to be out there.  Thta way the kid who comes home with a bag full of books every week has access to a wide range of stories.  In twenty years, she’ll be the one looking at Smithsonian saying, ” Little known?  I read about that when I was 8!”



You’re so lucky: Luck Doesn’t Drive Successful Writing Careers

horse-shoe-110987_1920Recently, Hope Clark, the editor of one of my favorite newsletters, Funds for Writers, wrote about someone telling her how lucky she is.  “You were lucky to have FundsforWriters to sell your books. I don’t have that luxury.”
Personally, I find it a little hard to believe that the person who said this can coordinate walking and breathing at the same time.  Rude comment on my part?  Probably, but you have to be a little clueless to think that Hope’s success has been as a result of luck.  Like all successful writers, she didn’t luck into success, she made it starting with FundsforWriters.  She built it.  Yes, she advertises her books in the newsletter but she worked hard to have both a successful newsletter and 5 novels?  6 novels?  I’d have to go count them to be sure.  It didn’t just happen.  Hope is world-class at looking for opportunities and working hard.
I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I’m lucky too.  I get to work from home.  I get to write for a living.  I have ten books in print.  Well, guess what?  None of that just happened either.  When I started writing, I was going to write picture books.  I took a class with Pat McKissack and roughed out several manuscripts.  Then a friend started editing Young Equestrian magazine.
I wasn’t a magazine writer but she was looking for writers.  Hmm.  Take advantage of the opportunity or decide that it wasn’t right for me?  I went with Choice A.
Then another friend’s editor contacted me.  She needed someone who could write how-to articles for other writers.  Did I have experience?  Only in my regional SCBWI newsletter.  I’d never been paid and this wasn’t writing for children.  But again I said yes.
This is how I wrote and sold how-tos, book reviews, testing materials, crafts, science fair projects, pre-school class materials, and now nonfiction books.  I saw opportunities and I said yes.  I didn’t wait around for a lucky break.
Should I have focused on picture book writing?  I’m sure some people would say yes but that wasn’t the path I chose.  I’m not going to say that I’ve been unlucky but I don’t believe my career has relied on luck.  Instead, I rely on my willingness to see an opportunity and try something new.
What about you?  Are looking for opportunities?