Monday, August 28, 2017

Lisa Amstutz's Recipe for Success (Writing a Picture Book that Sells)


We're excited to have a Guest Blogger for today's GROG post: Lisa Amstutz, author of more than 80 nonfiction books in the school and library market. Lisa's first trade picture book, Applesauce Day, was published this month by Albert Whitman & Co. For this lively story, Lisa drew inspiration from her family's applesauce-making traditions.

And here's Lisa, with her recipe for picture book success!
~ Christy Mihaly

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We’ve probably all had a recipe that flopped at some point. Burnt cookies, salty soup, bread that didn’t rise…. On one memorable occasion, my husband forgot the noodles in a tuna noodle casserole! It happens to even the best cooks. But following a recipe carefully will maximize your chances of an edible result.

The same could be said of writing a picture book. There is no guaranteed recipe for success—after all, even picture book greats like Jane Yolen still get rejections!  However, an editor is more likely to find your picture book "delectable" if you follow these steps.

Fresh, sweet apples
1. Start with a strong concept. You have a concept, but how do you decide whether it's "ripe" for writing? Check first on Amazon and WorldCat to see if someone else has recently written about your topic. If so, make sure your treatment is different enough to stand out. If not, ask yourself why no one has covered this idea before. Is it interesting to kids? Is it age-appropriate? If your story concept passes these tests, move on to #2.

Additive-free!

2. Look for a hook. A sales hook helps make your story “appetizing” to editors. Publishing companies have to make money to stay in business. If an editor falls in love with your story, they have to sell it to their acquisitions committee. Make it easy for them by giving your story a clear sales hook. Maybe it’s similar to a bestseller, or ties in with a major holiday. Perhaps there is an obvious curriculum tie-in. For example, with Applesauce Day, 
many teachers do apple units in the fall. Apple orchards and apple organizations are other potential markets.

Washed and ready for the chopping block
3. Find some mentors. Check out works by "master chefs." Look through recently published picture books to locate luscious mentor texts for your story. These do not need to be about a topic similar to yours, but rather should have the tone, structure, or style that you have in mind for your book. Do you want it to be lyrical? Funny? Rhyming? Straightforward? Circular? Don’t plagiarize, obviously, but use your mentor texts as inspiration.

The family works together in Applesauce Day
4. Add some “heart.” This is the "secret sauce." A successful picture book usually takes the main character, or the reader, on an emotional journey, or evokes a universal theme such as friendship, love, or family. This can be an important selling point for your story. When writing Applesauce Day, I started with a family making applesauce. But my story didn't find its heart until I added the special applesauce-making pot into the story: it symbolizes the handing down of this family's applesauce-making tradition from one generation to the next, and highlights the book's family-togetherness theme.
 
Into the pot
5. Be smart: make a dummy. I resisted this step for years. When I finally started doing it, my stories improved significantly. You don’t have to be an artist to make a dummy; just break your story into page spreads and draw some stick figures. Make sure you have enough content for 12–14 spreads and that there is enough, but not too much, for the illustrator to work with on each spread. Putting together a dummy makes my stories tighter and more visual. It also helps in creating page turns. You won’t submit your story this way unless you’re an author/illustrator. But if you’re serious about selling a picture book, don’t skip this step.

Is it applesauce yet?
6. Revise, revise, revise. Don’t submit your story “half-baked.” I have 40 versions of my current work-in-progress in my computer, and it’s not done yet. Find some good critique partners who will give honest feedback on your work. “Stir” your story well to smooth out any lumps in the storyline. Then sprinkle on some simile/metaphor, rhythm, alliteration, etc. to make your text really delicious.
 
Ta-dah! Delicious, homemade applesauce
There you have it – my not-so-secret recipe for picture book success. Good luck—and bon app├ętit! 

Lisa Amstutz is the author of more than 80 children’s books. Her newest picture book, 
Applesauce Day     was released Aug. 1 by Albert Whitman & Company. Lisa also serves as a judge at Rate Your Story and Assistant Regional Advisor for Northern Ohio SCBWI. Learn more about her books and critique services at www.LisaAmstutz.com, or follow her on Facebook



26 comments:

  1. Ah, love how you wrapped this all up in a recipe for us, Lisa. TY so much for being our guest blogger. I'm buying my copy @ our Ohio conference so I can get it signed by YOU. Fab post.

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    1. Thanks, Kathy - can't wait to see you!

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  2. What a great post! Thanks for a really wonderful plan, Lisa, and for such a fantastic book. Applesauce making has been a tradition in our family for ages, so I can't wait to get this one! :)

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    1. Such a fun tradition! We'll have to compare notes sometime :).

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  3. Thanks for your great recipe, Lisa. I love Applesauce Day and you. Thank you for my special "gift"!

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  4. Love the analogy on cooking picture books! Great post and congrats on your new book!

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  5. This is an excellent starting point for PB writing. It is a form I often struggle with.

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    1. Glad it was helpful! It is a challenge, for sure!

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  6. Thank you, Lisa, for the book recipe! Love it :)

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    1. You're very welcome - thanks for stopping by! :)

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  7. Ooh...these steps for writing a PB have made me hungry. Congrats on the new release, Lisa!

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  8. Great recipe Lisa. I love this post and this story. Thanks for Mali g the steps fun and interesting.

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  9. Great post, Lisa! Love the "recipe"... and the "secret sauce".

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  11. Great post! It's important to make dummies- great advice.

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  12. Great advice. This books looks yummy!

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  13. I love the way you added heart to your story. I can't wait to read and share it.

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  14. Thank you for sharing to help me get closer to writing my picture book. ✨

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