When I start on a new manuscript, I usually only have a kernel of an idea. I might start with a title, a character, or a situation, as I did with Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg and wondered what could happen if a boy chased his dog for a bath.
I think of the first draft as the first layer and it's the toughest to write. If I keep going, I get the first layer down. Sometimes, however, that first layer just won't come. If my writing sessions drag and my enthusiasm sputters to a stop, I realize that a story that’s not fun to write, won’t be fun to read either.
No first layer.
So I keep going and start on something else. Next time—success! I get the first layer down and I’m excited about my main character, plot, and when I reread certain parts, I can’t help laughing at the humorous words, phrases, or plot turns I’ve built into the story. Enjoying my own work keeps me going. If I like it, I’m confident editors and readers will like it too.
Then, I go back and add more layers. It's these additional layers that will transform a good manuscript into an exceptional one. Here are four elements I consider when I go back to add extra layers of interest and dimension to my manuscripts:
Sound words – Picture books are meant to be read aloud. A book with sound words will be more fun to read. Are there places in the manuscript where you can add sound words?
For example, in The Prince Won’t Go to Bed! by Dayle Ann Dodds, she wrote:
“They RUB-DUBBED through the castle,
They RUB-DUBBED through the hall,
Head to toe in bubbles,
Lord and Prince and all.”
She could have written "They scrubbed through the castle," or even worse, "They went through the castle," but instead she pumped up the language with great sound words that are fun to read aloud.
Repetition - This is another great layer that will add fun, predictability, and structure to the story. In the same book, the author created a repeating line that became more emphatic as the story progressed: "Waa! Waa! Waa! I will not go to bed!" the teeny-tiny, itty-bitty, little Prince said.
Would a repeating line add fun and dimension to your story?
Rhymed words – Some manuscripts are written in prose and some in rhyme. But many manuscripts use both. For example in Tammi Sauer’s prose book, Mostly Monsterly, her main character, Bernadette, wrote invitations to her monster classmates written in rhyme that added unexpected sparkle and fun to the story. Look at your manuscript. Is there a place where you can include bits of rhyme?
Emotional connection – Even if a story is simple, including an emotional connection can make the difference between a sale or a rejection. For example, I recently sold a counting story to Bloomsbury. Editors rejected an early simple and straightforward version. It counted up, and then counted down. This first layer wasn’t enough in a tough picture book market. So months later, I looked at it again and found a way to create an emotional connection by creating a scene at the climax with some dialogue. Now it wasn’t just a counting book, it was a story about rejection, acceptance, and friendship. This theme resonated with the editor and the illustrator, Betsy Lewin, who will add her own layers of magic.
So look at your manuscripts. What layers can you add to turn your good story into an exceptional one?
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than three dozen fiction and nonfiction books. A member of SCBWI, Lori is a frequent speaker at schools and SCBWI conferences. She also works as a writing instructor and is represented by Eden Street Literary in New York. Recent picture book titles include Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, recently named one of Amazon's Best Picture Books of the Year, (Clarion, 2013), Cindy Moo (HarperCollins, 2012), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault (Random House, 2010), and In the Trees, Honey Bees! (Dawn, 2009). Visit Lori’s website at www.lorimortensen.com
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