3 Things to Consider When Bringing Your PB Manuscript Back to Life
Writing to SELL vs. Writing for YourSELF
As a picture book writer, you have to approach every topic delicately. After all, you're writing for very young children, and you don't want to scare them or teach them the wrong things, right? Some people might think no topic is off-limits in the world of writing. Free expression, right? Yes, but...(there's always a "but")...will people buy your book?
Of course, you should be able to express yourself, but if you're writing to make a career out of it, then you always have to think about will this book sell? And for picture book writers especially, will PARENTS buy this book? Do they agree with the messaging? That's something I've had to ask myself over and over again whenever I write a manuscript. Yes, I can write whatever I want, but that's not the ultimate goal. If so, I could just write in a diary and call it a day. My ultimate goal is to write what I am passionate about AND to SELL that book.
But here's my problem...I keep writing picture books that won't SELL as picture books. I write about the things I love and am passionate about. I write things that make me laugh. I write about my experiences. But I keep hearing the same feedback from critique partners, writing mentors, agents, and even publishers. My manuscript is too controversial. The topic is too risky. The content is too problematic. So what do I do? I want to write about this. But how do I SELL this?
Is It a Controversial Topic?
I ran into this problem last year when I won a pitch contest hosted by Sandra Sutter, owner and editor of Gnome Road Publishing.
Because I won the contest, I received a free picture book manuscript critique. I was ecstatic (and still am!) knowing that an editor loved my pitch enough to give me a free critique. But not only that, Sandra said she loved the humor and playful tone of my pitch so much that she asked if she could consider my manuscript for publication at Little Gnome (an imprint of Gnome Road Publishing). Cue the confetti! I was ecstatic!
Sandra got back to me with my critique and gave such valuable, in-depth feedback. She even told me that she liked my manuscript so much that she sent it to her acquisitions team to look at it. Unfortunately, not everyone was on board, and here's why: the topic. Since my story was about a Diary keeping secrets, people might misinterpret the book's message as such: kids should keep secrets. Because of this, Sandra's team decided to pass on my manuscript. Knowing I was this close to getting published, I didn't want to give up just yet. I made a few changes as per Sandra's suggestions, and I queried a few agents. Got rejected. So I bought a critique from James McGowan, literary agent at Bookends. He had similar concerns regarding my manuscript, so I felt like I was at a standstill. This manuscript was dying. And quickly.
Determine the Right Audience
Luckily, I won another pitch contest (through KidLitZombieWeek 2021). This time, it was for a different manuscript, and I won a mini mentorship with Brian Gehrlein, author of THE BOOK OF RULES (FSG, 2021). I sent DIARY SHARES HOW TO KEEP A SECRET (the same manuscript that Sandra Sutter critiqued and James McGowan critiqued), and Brian took a look at it, too. In one of our Zoom calls, Brian mentioned that he understood why agents and editors were concerned. At this point, I thought for sure the manuscript was dead and there'd be no way to get it published or sell it. But...(there's always a "but" ;)... Brian said something incredible. He said...maybe this could be a middle grade novel.
Bingo! THAT'S how I could sell this manuscript. A controversial topic for picture books? Yes, but not for middle grade! Since I already wrote a middle grade novel in 2020 and started querying it in 2021, I knew I could pull this off.
This manuscript was brought back to life. My thoughts went a million miles a minute. How could I turn this into a 200-page book? What's the main character's problem? Could the main character really be a diary? How would there be any action? How can I make sure there are lots of different scenes? What's Diary's character arc? What does he want? These were all questions I had to answer before writing the new manuscript. Now, I have a completed outline, and I'm at 30,000 words, over halfway done with my novel!
Yes, I still have my picture book version of this manuscript, and maybe it'll still get published someday. But for now, a better use of my time is writing this middle grade novel. I'm much more confident that it'll get published AND it'll SELL.
Maryna is a former 4th/5th grade teacher who lives in Southern California with her husband and three children. If you'd like to see what picture books and middle grade books she's reading, follow her bookstagram account marynas_kidlit_corner. Or if you'd like to get a monthly email regarding a picture book or middle grade book recommendation, sign up for her email list. You'll also get a free Reader's Notebook Flipbook when you sign up (perfect for your kids ages 10-13). On the submission form, when asked "What grade do you teach?", if you're not a teacher, just type "Parent" or "Writer."