Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Conference Lesson #3: Writing advice from Laura Rennert

In case you missed it yesterday, I'm giving away a signed copy of Laura Joy Rennert'sBuying, Training, and Caring for your Dinosaur. So if you haven't entered yet you might want to get on that. Contest goes through Sunday and the winner will be announced Monday.

And as promised, today I'm going to share my notes from the wonderful session Laura taught at the conference called, It's Bunny Eat Bunny Out There (Heh. That title makes me laugh every time!) In case you don't know, Laura isn't just a fabulous picture book author. She's also a Senior Agent at Andrea Brown Literary--so she knows that of which she speaks.  I'm going to *try* to do her lecture justice, but if you ever have a chance to hear her deliver it live, I highly recommend attending.

Okay, so, she started out by satisfying our curiosity about what she looks for as an agent in any kind of book--and I thought I'd share with you guys since some of you may be thinking about querying her someday. She said she loves ambitious, voice driven work with emotional resonance, and she described herself as a "bathtub reader"--meaning that your story is a winner if it keeps her in the bath a few extra hours. Characterization is important. She also loves you to show her the ordinary in an extraordinary way. So if you think your MS fits that criteria I'm sure she'd love you to query her.

After that she talked about the art of writing picture books (though honestly, a lot of this advice can be applied to any type of book--you'll see as we go).

At a first glance a picture book may appear deceptively simple--but every word HAS to count and invoke visuals, which actually makes them quite a challenge to write. She stressed that we need to remember that a picture book is a child's first introduction to language, and that they are unique in two primary ways: they include illustrations, and they're designed to be read out loud--both of which should affect the way you write them. It's important to leave room in the words for the illustrator to tell information for you. And you definitely need to read your words out loud, and see how they work on an auditory level.

While there are exceptions to every rule, she said that the ideal age range is ages 4, 5, and 6 and that the "magic" length is about 32 pages, 600-1000 words (that number makes me cringe every time I read it. I sometimes write EMAILS longer than that!!!) And she highly recommended taking the time to make a dummy of the book--not for querying purposes--but so you can see not only the way the words work on each page, but the way they work on the full spreads and the way the plot moves as you turn the pages. And you absolutely must have a beginning, middle, and end (no matter what you write this is pretty important!) As a general rule, each double spread should cover one action, and each spread should move to resolve the problem you presented at the beginning.

As far as beginnings, again, something that applies to all books: start in the right place, which is usually in the middle of an action (we've all heard of in media res, well, it's even MORE important when you don't have a lot of words. No time for backstory here. Get right to the action!) You want to catch their attention, if not from the first sentence, then certainly from the first page, otherwise what's the motivation to turn the page?

And when it comes to picture books, here some methods that are generally very successful: repetition, humor, building on nature, verbal and visual clues, mini-cliff hangers, and a fresh POV. Also, the human characters should be children, or childlike adults, to make it easier for kids to relate to them. Children also want something that relates to their world, and they want something that is emotionally immediate. And for parents, make sure it's something that holds up to multiple readings, since we all know kids love to hear their favorite stories over and over and over.

That pretty much covers the main points, (she left a lot of time for Q & A, but most of the questions were awfully specific) but she has some wonderful checklists on her author website if you'd like some more information. She has one for picture book writers and one for fiction writers, and if you have a minute I suggest you hop over there. Not only are there more gems I didn't cover, but she explains things way better than I do.

Now, yesterday I hinted that there might be a chance for extra contest entries if you checked back today--and here it is: everyone entering the contest who leaves me a comment today will get one extra entry. I'd love to know what you think of this post, and I'd love you to tell me about a picture book you or your kids love, so please, leave a comment if you have a second. Just make sure you provide the name you entered the contest under so I can track you down and add your entry. Can't wait to hear what you have to say!


  1. 600-1000 words? Wow! I've been contemplating writing children's books actually. I wonder if I could do it...

    I think you did a great job telling us about all the points and I loved it! I love learning about the agents too because I know nothing. I have a list of them I would like to research, but I am focusing on revisions at the moment.

  2. Such great advice, and Laura is AMAZING!!!

    Picture books are tricky--more like poetry really with the precision of word choice and general structure and rhythm.

    We LOVE Mo Willems' books over here as well as Fancy Nancy. And, now that my youngest is learning to read all by herself, we are Dr. Seuss fanantics. They are perfect for her--with all of the repeats and nonsense words that she can sound out.

  3. Thanks so much for this, Shannon. As a PB writer, I ate up every word - I even own the Bunny Eat Bunny book! This was fantastic! :-)

  4. Brevity is so hard to do, every word counts with kids books. Thanks for sharing more about your experience at the conference.

  5. HAH! 600 words! HAH! Ummm. I mean, yes, I could totally manage with only 600 words...

    (This is why I have never attempted to write a picture book. The 6 year old would be in a coma by the time they got to the middle of the book.)

    But, thanks for sharing. I love getting to hear from the inside sources! ;)

  6. Very, very interesting. My daughter is just now getting into some longer picture books. Pinkalicious is her current fave. It's so cute--I always use the line, "You get what you get and you don't get upset" with her. It works because it makes her think of the book, which makes her happy! Win-win.

  7. Wow - 600-1000 words, that's crazy!! Great post! Lots of good info in here that could apply to any genre!

    Well for picture books, for my lil sis (since I don't have any kids...yet) Goodnight Moon is her favorite, a classic for sure, and she loved it!

    I would think it takes a lot of discipline to write a children's picture book! Thanks for sharing what you learned ;o)

  8. Love picture books! My kids & I spent many happy hours reading them & I use them in my classroom all of the time. I think our absolute favourite was Effie - about an ant and an elephant. Great story & great art!!

  9. Nisa: I'm sure you could write an awesomw picture book. You should give it a try. And I think it's good that you're not focusing too much on agents right now--the most important thing is to polish your draft. THEN you can research agents.

    Hardygirl: Aw, thanks. And she really is amazing! Ooo, and I LOVE Fancy Nancy. I have a signed one I'm holding onto, planning to give to my niece, once she gets past the whole, "Loves to tear pages out of books phase"

    Shannon O: Aw, I'm glad. I actually thought of you as I wrote this, so I hope it was helpful!

    Tere: As probably the most long winded person EVER, I can definitely agree, brevity is HARD. It's one of the main reasons I'm not sure I could even write a good picture book. I KNOW word count would be an issue.

    Tiffany: LOL. I feel you. I've spent my entire revision process having to cut words, so I am a VERY wordy writer too. Good to know I'm not alone.

    Lisa and Laura: Aw, I love Pinkalicious. And how adorable are you and your daughter? I just want to reach through the screen and pinch your cheeks!

    Erica: Ooo, Goodnight Moon is a classic! Love it. And aw, thanks, glad you enjoyed.

    Jemi: Hm, I haven't heard of that one. I'll have to pick it up for my niece--sounds adorable!


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