Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Dear Query Shark,

Some might think Pru has it all. She's young, industrious, and planted in a prime location on a grassy knoll. Overlooking the stream just beyond the new amphitheater, it's a beautiful site for any tree. However, Pru doesn't feel so beautiful, especially compared to the older, more developed trees.

One of my favorite parts of Lord of the Rings was the Ents, so I'm not going to stop reading here but this is pretty unclear. The main character is a tree?

Inspired by the performances at the amphitheater, she has an idea. An elaborate gown (like the ones the human actresses wear) would make her the most beautiful and unique tree in the park! Unfortunately, this seems an impossible task she cannot accomplish alone. So, she accepts help from Agar - a fast talking, shady mushroom with an agenda of his own. Pru soon discovers that Agar's help comes with a price too costly for her to imagine.

A tree and a mushroom. I hope this is a kids book, but this doesn't sound kid-like.

THE BEAUTIFUL ONE is a 2,300 word fable/picture storybook. It will appeal to children who enjoy classic fables and fairy-tales. In particular, Pru's story will aid parents, teachers, and children in their efforts to deal with issues surrounding self-esteem and acceptance though character education.

Ah, ok, picture book.

First problem is that queries for picture books include the text of the book. ALL of it. 

Second problem is I think 2300 words is really long for a picture book.  Picture books are 32 pages (that's an industry standard) Given that you need two pages for the title and the copyright page, that leaves 30 for text.  2300 words on 30 pages... a little more than 75 words per page. Once you see that you an see why your word count is too high.

Third problem is that I'm really REALLY hoping that kids sitting on laps hearing books read aloud don't have problems with self-esteem. Picture books are generally for kids who are lap-size.

I currently make my living as a visual merchandiser/manager, who enjoys telling stories through installing window displays. I convey different themes through using props, mannequins, backgrounds, and lighting. That's how Pru was born. THE BEAUTIFUL ONE was initially an idea for an art installation to evoke social commentary. The more I thought about it, I decided that Pru needed a backstory. THE BEAUTIFUL ONE is my debut as an author. I hope to feature Pru and her friends in a series of character education-based fables.

Aha! You're the visual side of things.  I bet you have ideas for the art, maybe even the actual art? You might consider pairing with a writer who can help you hone your story to the more manageable length: 750 words or so. 

Writing short is very very hard. It's like writing poems. Bad poetry is very easy. Good poetry is hard.  Poetry that illuminates and enhances art work, uses language for developing minds, and doesn't bore the pants off the adults reading it either...well, that's a real trick.

Thank you so much for your consideration.

You're not ready to query yet.
Get the text in shape first, then revise your query and resend.


JeffO said...

I tell you what, as soon as I saw "Grassy knoll," I was thinking JFK. I was a bit disappointed to find I was wrong.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, way too long for a picture book. Check out the "Editorial Anonymous" blog. Google will get you there. She's no longer posting, but has some great advice on picture books in the archives.

Speaking of google, try out the words "grassy knoll" and you'll see why Pru's perch should be described using... some other term.

Angie Brooksby said...

I suggest that the author finds the SCBWI chapter closest to her.

Through my local SCBWI I had the chance of pitching an illustrated picture book to an agent from Scott Treimel and I met published illustrators and authors, including the US poet laureate. Thanks to them I learned lots, all of what Janet has already stated here.

Perun Thunder said...

I'm no expert but I spent a lot of time reading story/picture books to all my nephews and niece as they grew from infant to toddler (and beyond).

I cannot comment on the visual side of this but I cannot understand how a tree would get a mushroom to find a dress let alone help 'Pru' wear it. They are both anchored to the ground?

I am sure the picture book explains this better but suspending the disbelief goes for toddlers too.

I also have to agree with Ms Shark. It is a very sad world if our toddlers are already suffering from self-esteem issues. Sure little kiddies get lonely and sometimes little kiddies pick on each other but that's what mum, dad, grandparents uncles, aunts and other siblings are for. The adults are there to protect, encourage and love. And this community of affection and protection surely eliminates any self esteem issues?

Sia Jayaram said...

I think the idea is really nice but I can't see how, with such a complex plot, you can cut down to 750. You want to do justice to your idea, right?

Why don't you consider writing it for older kids? You can up the stakes and conflict to make it age appropriate.

Btw, I'm fascinated by Pru.

BonnieShaljean said...

I love this idea, and hope you can make it fly.

I have a slight problem with the gown, though, because it's misleading to visualise. A gown is alien to a tree, so the image jars. What if Pru longed to wear fine jewelry or fancy hats like the ladies on the stage did, instead of an actual dress?

I know that if you're including the full text, your query won't be in synopsis form anyway, but FWIW:

How about "especially compared to the older, more *majestic* trees" instead of "developed", which doesn't sound particularly arboreal.

Do please make the knoll just be a hill! The only thing the phrase "grassy knoll" brings to mind is the Kennedy assassination, which is probably not the association you want.

Also, can you change "prime location" to something simpler? Not only is this not kid-speak, it's become such a real-estate cliché that it isn't a good association either (especially considering what the property market did to the economy).

The same disconnect applies to the word "industrious". It suggests that Pru is capable of independent movement and deeds which trees, being stationary, aren't. (That's why she needs Agar, right? I know mushrooms don't perambulate either, but I have fun picturing him bouncing around on his stalk like a pogo stick.) I think you really must reinforce Pru's tree-dom in your first few words.

I can see your point about the self-esteem/self-image issue, so perhaps aim it at a slightly older readership, which should also allow you a higher word count.

I hope you will persevere. Please take to heart the Shark's advice at the end, about making the text as clear and simple as you can, even if it means partnering with a writer, or getting someone to critique it. You want to clothe Pru in language that will set her off to her best advantage, and mirror the beauty she seeks in the story. "Poetry that illuminates and enhances art work" as Shark says.

Pru sounds charming. I can tell you that as a little girl, I would probably have loved her. Good luck!

Katrina S. Forest said...

Hi Author!

Hmm, your last paragraph implies that you're not all that familiar with writing picture books, that this is more an extension of your visual project. If that is the case, I agree with the Shark that you might want to seek a co-author. If you truly want this to be a solo project, then you need to dedicate yourself to learning the writing craft as much as you have for the other crafts you've mastered.

For example, one of the more common issues with picture book manuscripts is that author tries to teach the audience something, and in the process, delivers a sermon rather than a story. Characters fall flat because they only exist to hit the reader over the head with the lesson. (There's a great blog post on Kidlit.com about this very topic.)

I do wish you the best of luck. Obviously, I haven't read your story and writing picture books could be a very natural thing for you. But if you're new to the genre, odds are you're going to make some classic mistakes that practice and research could've avoided.

LSkeers said...

My best advice is to join SCBWI and talk with other picture book writers and illustrators. Editors are looking for pbs that are 750 words or less so this will have to be pared down a lot or expanded into a chapter book. Also, make sure the message is subtle and comes through the story organically rather than being didactic and hitting readers over the head.

Laura W. said...

I'm wondering if this would be better if aimed at a slightly older audience. Up until the end, I thought it might be a satirical or humorous adult novel, or something similar.

@Perun Thunder: I didn't see a problem from the physics side with a tree getting help from a mushroom. If it's a kid's picture book, you can afford to toss realism out the window. Also, trees have roots whereas mushrooms don't, so it kind of makes sense. Though why she doesn't just ask a bird...

Laina said...

Generally I do not consider myself an expert in ANYTHING publishing related - however, I read aproximately 750 picture books (or more) a year for my job. I am condident in saying I know picture books :P

Too much morals, waaaay too many words to be for itty bitties. By the age a kid would be to have the reading comprehension for something like this, they'd probably already be in 3rd or 4th grade and consider themselves long past picture books. (Which I do not agree with because sometimes the language in picture books is FAR more complex than early readers or even chapters books BUT that's not point here.)

There was a post by... aha, by Jennifer Laughran, on how how the first and foremost goal in a picture book is to entertain and delight. http://literaticat.blogspot.ca/2012/10/the-d-word.html

The language of the query also seems to be... overly complicated. Honestly, I have no problems with a tree being the main character. It wouldn't be the first time! There's "Fall is Not Easy" http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/973419.Fall_is_Not_Easy which is excellent. Granted I don't know picture book querying that well (I couldn't write a picture book to safe my life, lol) but I would think that for the summary part, you need to be able to use language that is similiar to what you write in because you're not really trying to sell a lesson, are you? You're trying to get someone to read your book. It should be exciting.

And, you know, even encouraging self-confidence isn't new. Freckleface Strawberry is one I know, but I have a bunch of books tagged on library thing with "self-confidence". But you need to consider the audience. If you're aiming at kids who are in school, a picture book is not really your best bet, and for kids who are pre-school age, the story needs to be dynamic or they just won't read it.

Also if preschool kids in a group have the attention span of GNATS so XD

This is just my opinion, obviously, and take it with a grain of salt, yada yada, don't use in bathtub while sleeping, I've been awake a really long time please tell me this makes sense XD

Dr. Dick said...

I loved it and laughed out loud. But I would repackage it as a humorous tale for adults and definitely change "grassy knoll" to something like "hill." If you want it to be a children's book 30 pages is about right. But your focus on helping children with self esteem problems (which, as a child therapist, I think is worthy) suggests that you should market it as a therapy aid.