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Picture books that are really magazine stories?

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Lady Tea

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In a recent post on Mary Cole's blog she said a lot of decent picture books that get rejected are really better suited for magazines.  I found some other agents or editors echo that sentiment online, but haven't been able to find any concrete examples.  I've looked hard at my own stories, thinking maybe this is the reason they aren't getting picked up, but to me they seem as bookish as picture books I can pull off a bookstore shelf.  I've also read magazine stories that I thought would be perfectly good books.  So - any thoughts? What am I missing?
#1 - January 13, 2011, 02:50 PM

Long ago when I was trying to write PBs, I came to this conclusion about my own writing. They weren't lesser stories. It's just that the format I wrote in was more like a short story, not a PICTURE books story. Sure, I saw pictures as I read them, but they didn't fit the very specific format that is picture books today. For a while I railed against PBs being so narrowly defined. But, finally I got over it and decided I really wanted to write MG and YA anyway.
#2 - January 13, 2011, 03:04 PM
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I found this article by Jan Fields to be very helpful in understanding the difference between a picture book and a magazine story.

http://www.institutechildrenslit.com/rx/ws06/whatisit.shtml
#3 - January 14, 2011, 07:46 AM
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I found this article by Jan Fields to be very helpful in understanding the difference between a picture book and a magazine story.

http://www.institutechildrenslit.com/rx/ws06/whatisit.shtml

Thanks LoriA for this link (and thanks Jan for writing the article). I found it very helpful and encouraging. :cheers:
#4 - January 14, 2011, 08:18 AM

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Good, I'm glad someone linked to Jan's article. There's not a whole lot more to say on the subject. Yes, there really is a huge difference between the two, and many writers think they're writing PBs when they're really writing magazine stories.

A story can be both too long (in words) and too short (in scene changes/spreads) to be a PB.

As Jan also said, some PBs do better as chapter books or novels; the either/or isn't necessarily just between PBs and short stories.
#5 - January 14, 2011, 10:07 AM
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A great article--thanks for sharing the link!
#6 - January 14, 2011, 02:42 PM

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One way way to check whether your story is a PB is to number the scenes that could be illustrated. You should have 12 really strong scenes and they should keep the reader wanting to turn the page too (so that, say, you don't have another scene AFTER you've already resolved the conflict that started the story – the last spread should have the greatest impact possible).

I've only recently started doing that with my stories and to my horror realised that many don't have enough scenes in! Back to the drawing board... or keyboard.
#7 - January 14, 2011, 03:44 PM

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The more you study mag stories vs. PBs, the better idea you will have of the difference. The biggest difference has to do with structure, not story. There are many posts and threads here that talk about PB's and what distinguishes them from other forms and how to 'build' them. 

The relationship between text and illustration is huge. HUGE.

Have fun looking around and good luck!
#8 - January 14, 2011, 05:22 PM

Here's my two bits.
Something that few of us ever do but which is probably the most helpful exercise of all in understanding what makes a good picture book is this:
Get your hands on a whole bunch of picture books you love.
Type the text of each book into a document. 
Read the text-only documents over and over.
Then look back at the published book to study what the pictures do/add.
If you do this enough, you will come to a much better understanding of what makes a great picture book and, by inference, you may also understand
what kinds of manuscripts are better suited to the magazine market.

Hmm, I think I'd better go take my own advice . . .
 :pages:
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#9 - January 15, 2011, 10:59 AM

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Here's my two bits.
Something that few of us ever do but which is probably the most helpful exercise of all in understanding what makes a good picture book is this:
Get your hands on a whole bunch of picture books you love.
Type the text of each book into a document. 
Read the text-only documents over and over.
Then look back at the published book to study what the pictures do/add.


Yes yes yes! I did a whole bunch of my favourite PBs in this way. Some, like Olivia, made me realise that as a writer, I wasn't likely to ever write/publish a PB like that. Because without the illustrations, it wasn't funny! The deadpan text with the hilarious imagery is what makes Olivia so wonderful. Others had such clear page turns and story arc that they were also useful. It is a great exercise. I think it's recommended in Ann Whitford Paul's book Writing Picture Books, which is a fantastic book to read if you haven't already.
#10 - January 15, 2011, 11:08 AM

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I am reading Ann Whitford Paul's book right now and was planning to do that exercise next week! She actually recommends typing up a picture book that you love, and one that you don't like, to help you see the difference.

I also have a hard time deciding whether a story is a picture book or magazine story. I think I know the difference, but have to work at it to remind myself of the characteristics of both. I think a magazine story has a bit less action or changes of scene (which would require a new illustration), maybe a bit more dialogue between characters (though not necessarily). Also, I think some of the picture books that I love (older PBs) had longer, more involved stories that today's PBs, and did read more like a magazine story (I'm thinking of Robert McCloskey's books, for example). The illustrations are wonderful, and add a lot, but the stories can still stand alone without them. Whereas many of today's PBs have so few words that they absolutely need the illustrations to convey a lot of the story.

Carrie
#11 - January 15, 2011, 05:37 PM
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So funny about typing up pb text...I've been thinking about doing this lately. I know it's an amazing exercise, but I haven't made the time. I guess this was subtle hint  :bricks
#12 - January 15, 2011, 06:39 PM

There is a difference.
Two things that make a story a PB rather than a magazine story include:
1. Synergy between the text and pictures. Together they are larger and express more. In the best PBs, neither the text nor illustrations can stand alone
2. Number of scenes or spreads. A PB will have sufficient story and energy to require page turns (an article I wrote about page turns can be found in SCBWI Jan/Feb 2010 Bulletin) and turning points and scenes.

There is a lot more that can be said and studied, but these two points are fundamental.
Also--I always dummy and storyboard my PBs. This allows me to check and make sure I have enough story for a PB, plus I use these tools for innumerable other revision techniques.
Shulevitz' Writing With Pictures, though outdated in some ways, is still the classic text on PB writing. For a more academic (though still useful) viewpoint, Nodelman's Words About Pictures is another excellent resource.
Many other books are very basic and can be useful to the writer, but I believe the best source for a PB writer to study and analyze are picture books themselves.
#13 - January 22, 2011, 05:32 AM
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Lady Tea

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Thanks for all the comments and the links. I will pour through them, but I just wanted to comment on the points about picture books needing action that can be illustrated, and text needing to fit the standard picture book format.  I have done this, and I haven't found it to be especially useful - after posting this question I was lucky enough to receive a comment from an editor who said she enjoyed my story but saw it more suitable for magazines than a picture book.  This was for a story I had pasted (for my own purposes) into a mock-up book with sample illustrations and it fit just fine.  So it's not so simple.

Also the suggestion to look at picture books on library shelves and bookstores doesn't make the issue any clearer: the picture books that I grew up on are still available and read more like the stories I am writing than what is being celebrated in the market today.

Another comment - I don't see much of a market for children's stories in magazines either, save for one or two big name venues.  Most of the venues out there seem to want non-fiction or else fiction written by children.

I am beginning to suspect that it's really a matter of changing tastes - that publishers want bite-sized picture books, period, and that though the guidelines say "no more than 1000 words" they really mean "shoot for much less than that".

I realize it's not THAT simplistic, but... maybe that is a big part of it.
#14 - January 23, 2011, 09:14 AM

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Hi, I'm just adding this on to be a little annoying -- to say that it is never as simple as magazine v. pb  with crystal clear distinctions -- Weslandia ran in CRICKET before it became a book of its own (two different illustrators too) And yes, I know it is older, and longer than current picture books, but boy did my kids love that book. And I would take bets that picture books will lengthen again sometime, meeting graphic novels somewhere in the middle as far as age range...

but in the meantime, I read and type in books published in the last five years.  :oncomputer
#15 - January 24, 2011, 05:40 AM
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Herschel and the Hannukah Goblins was also a Cricket story first.

But folktales are also a different sort of beast than your run of the mill picture books.

#16 - January 24, 2011, 06:04 AM

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I have had a bit of experience with rewriting a published magazine story as a picture book.  A few years ago, I submitted my story "How Zebra Learned to Hide" to the Sylvan Dell contest.  I'd had it published in Clubhouse, but thought it could work for Sylvan Dell.

I got a request for editing -- they actually asked that I add more spreads.  So I had to restructure the whole story-- expanding it and then cutting in other places so that it would work as a PB.  I also had to remove a lot of the scene-setting description.  In a PB the pictures lift a lot of the weight.   

I was ultimately successful, I guess.  I made it too the finals and then lost on my total, utter inability to come up with anything vaguely resembling a marketing plan.

Hmmm....  I need to get to actual WRITING work, but I'll make a note to post the two on my blog later-- I've abandoned the whole PB thing (I'd rather write MG scifi!)-- but the comparison might be useful to someone!  (And, since clubhouse only bought NON-exclusive rights, I should be able to post both!  I'll dig them up out of the depths of my harddrive today or tomorrow and post the link here when I do!)
#17 - January 24, 2011, 06:10 AM

Lots of great advice here.

Another difference is that a picture book takes into account page turns. Exciting page turns help move the story forward, and compel the reader to keep reading.
#18 - January 24, 2011, 06:38 AM
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Here's the link if you guys want to see the comparison:
http://deirdremundy.blogspot.com/2011/01/blogposts-on-magazine-story-vs.html

I'd forgotten how long ago I'd written these.  Ugh.  Even my GOOD stuff from 5 years ago is mildly embarassing now! :paperbag
#19 - January 24, 2011, 07:39 AM

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A lot of people made some good points.  I really like Jessica's idea--I think it would really benefit almost everyone to do that, including me. 

But I want to play Devil's Advocate here.  It's happened more than once that an editor told me that a certain ms. was more of a "magazine piece," and I later sold it as a picture book.  If an editor falls in love with your story, she'll help you turn it into a pb--even if it isn't quite there yet.   

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#20 - January 24, 2011, 08:06 AM
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Also, since many PB editiors have never BEEN magazine editors, "Better as a magazine piece" may just be the "gentle letdown" version of "This does not suit our needs."

Also! Another random thought--- what time of year did you get these rejections?  Editorial Anonymous had a piece a few years back about how, over the summer, the interns are in charge of slush rejections --and how many of them feel compelled to try to add a nice note to the rejection.  So, if the magazine comments came over the summer, it MAY be that they're 'over-nice-intern-talk' and not actual comments from the actual editiors involved.....
#21 - January 24, 2011, 08:13 AM

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A lot of people made some good points.  I really like Jessica's idea--I think it would really benefit almost everyone to do that, including me. 

But I want to play Devil's Advocate here.  It's happened more than once that an editor told me that a certain ms. was more of a "magazine piece," and I later sold it as a picture book.  If an editor falls in love with your story, she'll help you turn it into a pb--even if it isn't quite there yet.   



Thanks for playing DA. I agree with you ... but given that I don't have PBs under my belt (they don't call my pretty NF WFH books for younger kids PBs even though kids think of them as PBs) I have taken my rejected PBs into the magazine market ... however, I've gotten the response from some editors (this is a PB!) ... so I'm stuck. I guess I have to persevere and not stick those mss in the drawer.

Every year, I give a little workshop in the PB class about magazine writing because so many folks think they are writing PBs but they aren't ... and I give them Jessica's advice. It really, really helps to see the words on the page without the pictures to see what the pictures bring to the story. I have them do this even for magazine stories that are highly illustrated for the younger kids.

I can't tell you how many doors this opens for the students because we all have tons of ideas ... but not every idea is *book* worthy. Many are just perfect for magazines.

And of course, as others have mentioned, it's not so simplistic ... many stories in the magazines can be adapted for the PB or easy-reader market, if an editor is willing to work with you.

Vijaya

#22 - January 24, 2011, 09:52 AM
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Here's the link if you guys want to see the comparison:
http://deirdremundy.blogspot.com/2011/01/blogposts-on-magazine-story-vs.html

I'd forgotten how long ago I'd written these.  Ugh.  Even my GOOD stuff from 5 years ago is mildly embarassing now! :paperbag

Thanks for posting these on your blog. It was interesting to see the differences! I thought the story was really cute, too. I wish there were more ways to see these kinds of comparisons. Hmmm...maybe that would be a good writing exercise. (In all my spare time....)

Carrie
#23 - January 24, 2011, 10:50 AM
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Thanks for the complement! :)  I'm glad it was helpful--

You may want to get a list of stories that actually made the jump, and then try to go back and find the original magazine publication and compare it to the finished book.  It might help you get a handle on what's missing in yours.

Oh! I thought of another Magazine v. PB difference:

Magazines are, by their very nature, ephemeral.  They get read a few times and then tossed.  So a good magazine story doesn't HAVE to (it still can, but doesn't have to) stand up to repeat reads.  It can be a "That was kind of cool!" and move on sort of thing.

On the other hand, PBs have to stand up to many, many readings.  Every day for a few months readings. Read until they're memorized readings...

So perhaps, the editor means your story is more 'ephemera' and less 'for the ages?'
#24 - January 24, 2011, 03:25 PM

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Verla has written the best list I've seen on this in the FAQ: http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php?topic=20258.0
#25 - January 24, 2011, 04:26 PM
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Several years back I wrote what I thought was a PB and my agent rejected it, saying it was better suited for a magazine. There is definitely a HUGE distinction between PB's and short stories published in magazines.
#26 - January 24, 2011, 04:50 PM

Lady Tea

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Can I just say -

Having Ellen Jackson back up my sense that "what is a picturebook" really depends on the editor is... pure gold.
You just made my day.

<3
#27 - January 26, 2011, 08:46 AM

Lady Tea

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Seriously, though.  Thank you everyone for the discussion.  This is all incredibly helpful.
#28 - January 26, 2011, 08:53 AM

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To piggyback on Ellen's comment, I sent something to my agent that seemed like it might be a magazine piece, but she said it was definitely a PB.  One distinction may be that it was a very short piece for the very young.  Perhaps those are more likely to been seen as either mags or PBs.  If in doubt, get a second, third, fourth opinion!
#29 - January 26, 2011, 10:56 AM
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LoriA,
Thanks for sharing Jan Fields' article....  I need to go and read it again!
#30 - January 26, 2011, 12:04 PM

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