My Picture Book Got a Crew Cut

I wrote my first picture book. I brought the manuscript to a conference hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, held in Houston this past April. And I felt pretty darn good about my creation. I’d already spent months making adjustments and changes, rearranging sentences and paragraphs. I’d shown it to several friends and family members. I’d consulted with a few fellow writers. It’s a clean document, I thought. It’s pretty much done.

I knew I wanted to self-publish Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. I had already published a nonfiction history book through a freelance writing job. So, I knew the procedures of obtaining my ISBN, barcode, copyright, graphic designer, and printer. And I was confident that the text for my picture book was ready. I’d hired an illustrator, and he was busy drawing. I felt good about where my book stood at that point.

Fast forward to the end of Day Number One of the SCBWI conference. Wow. As I drove home, I reflected on what I had learned over the past eight hours. Much of it, I knew. Things like, trim the fat. Make every word count. Don’t use adverbs. Show, don’t tell! Show, don’t tell! Show, don’t tell! (We heard that one a LOT).

I heard some other information, too. One speaker emphasized, “It all begins with strong verbs.” He also said, “The adjective is the enemy of the noun.” By that he meant, don’t say “an enormous house” when you can say “a mansion.” An agent stressed, “Is your manuscript as polished as possible?” Another agent encouraged, “Trust the reader.” And in every talk, the editors stressed: Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite.

Arthur1-page-trimmedI came home and read my picture book with a fresh set of eyes. I tried to think like an agent or editor. I rewrote. Again. And again. And again. I’m including one page of my text to demonstrate what I did. I cut my manuscript. After one enlightening day at a SCBWI conference, I deleted 612 words from my story!

For a moment, self-doubt got the best of me. I’m untalented. I’m afraid. My ideas are lame. I have no business trying to self-publish a children’s book. But then I remembered something else I heard that day at the SCBWI conference: “Everyone gets rejected.” And, “Nothing succeeds like failing; because if you’re failing, that means you are trying.”

So, I flipped my thoughts and looked at my book-scalping experience as a success. I also hired a copy editor, and that—in addition to the fee to attend the SCBWI conference—was the best money I’ve spent while developing my picture book.

If you’re a writer, don’t be afraid to give your manuscript a serious haircut. Who knows? Maybe crew cuts are back in style.

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by Cathey Nickell

Houston-based author of ARTHUR ZARR'S AMAZING ART CAR—the first book for children about art cars. I do Author Visits at elementary schools. SCBWI member.

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© 2018 Cathey Graham Nickell