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by Cara J. Stevens

Part 1: From idea to first draft

The first time I submitted a manuscript, it was rejected within 24 hours. “This story is more instructional than engaging,” the editor said, and went on to suggest that it would make a great article. I was dismayed and confused. I thought I had written a story that hit all the notes of a good picture book. I wondered where I had gone wrong.

I reached out to a colleague who used to be a children’s book agent. “Your main character has no agency,” he pointed out. “If your main character has a problem and someone else solves it, then he’s not really your main character.” My mind was sufficiently blown. As soon as he said it, I saw it so clearly! After a lifetime of reading and exploring picture books, how could I have missed that?

He then went on to examine my manuscript from the opening through the story arc to the very end. He showed me what I did well and pointed out where I needed to refocus in a future draft. We stayed on the phone for almost an hour as we discussed every detail of my modest 850-word manuscript. After we hung up, I rushed to the library and pored through shelves of picture books, re-reading old favorites and measuring them by the metrics my colleague had used on my own manuscript. It was as though I had put on a pair of glasses for the first time and was suddenly seeing storytelling through a new lens!

Since then, I’ve written many picture books and I’ve edited dozens more. With each manuscript, I measure it against the guidelines he used, and I’ve added several of my own over time, as well.   

The gift of insight I received has served me well, and in the next two posts, I would like to share what I’ve learned with you. I hope it serves you just as well in your own writing and reading!

13 Guideposts for a First Draft

  1. The plot should drive the story from beginning to end
  2. There should be a problem, question, or obstacle, big or small, in the beginning that makes the reader want to read through to the end to find the answer
  3. Your main character must be empowered to find their own solutions
  4. Your plot should have ups and downs that take the reader on an emotional journey
  5. Your story should include some element of surprise that challenges expectations and makes the reader think
  6. Your characters’ world or world views should change by the end
  7. Respect your reader and don’t overtly state a moral
  8. Follow picture book standards for word count and length
  9. Your story should be uniquely yours with your writing style shining through, even if you’re retelling an old tale in a new way
  10. Reading your story should evoke an emotional response in your reader
  11. Your story and the language used should be clear and relatable to a young child
  12. Use details to show what happens instead of telling the reader
  13. Use words efficiently

**Note: This is the first in a two-part series. Check back next week for part 2!**

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Cara J. Stevens is the author of Picture Perfect: An insider’s guide to writing picture books and the host of The Picture Perfect Podcast. She has been a member of SCBWI since 1996, when she led a presentation about writing for the new interactive medium, the World Wide Web, at the SCBWI New York Conference. She is the 2023 mentor for the SCBWI-L.A. Mentorship program. Find out more at carajstevens.com. For more of her tips on writing and creativity, visit BookishlyYours.Medium.com.

Author image provided by Cara J. Stevens. Article images by Monstera and Vicky Tran on Pexels.com