Friday, May 6, 2011

First Page Critique: picture book

I'm critiquing a 300 word picture book this week. Scroll down to yesterday's post if you want to read the whole manuscript without comments first.

I like a lot of things about this submission. It's a funny and quirky retelling of Goldilocks. It's short, which is marketable, and you have lots of action which makes for a good variety of illustrations. I can imagine exuberant and hysterical art. Mama Cat is a great character, and her dialogue shows how much characterization can be done through dialogue.

So lots of good stuff. My concern is that I'm not sure who the main character is. Presumably it should be Goldipig -- she's the title character and introduced first. But we don't get that much of her personality. I found her less interesting and dramatic than Mama Cat. Plus, insofar as she has a problem, it's that she doesn't like her murky sty at the pond, and this isn't really resolved.

Max has personality and a suggested problem -- he doesn't fit in with his family (though some adults would argue that his problem is disobedience). His problem is sort of solved at the end, if he's going to go play with Goldipig. But he's not an active character until halfway through the book and he doesn't really solve his own problem. We have two main characters, but neither has a complete character or plot arc.

A quick review -- stories nearly always should start by introducing a main character who has a problem or goal, show that character working to achieve that goal or solve that problem, and have that character solve the problem at the end. Are there exceptions? Sure, but that pattern is satisfying, so it's a good place to start when developing your story ideas. It's also good to refer back to it to check your plot.

Humorous stories like this one can more easily get away with a plot that rambles a bit. Goldipig almost works, and maybe great illustrations could carry the story, but I found it not quite satisfying.

So let's think about ways to strengthen one or both of the main characters. For Goldipig, what does she really want? Maybe she thinks she wants a clean, tidy home, but in the end realizes she's more comfortable back at the pond. But if this is her emotional journey, why does she trash the house that looks so appealing? Maybe she tries to keep it neat but she's just too big and clumsy. Or maybe she has another reason for exploring the house.

Maybe Max could be a bigger part of the story if he sneaks back right away, so he's there when Goldipig is causing a mess. But he won't set a very good example (by parental standards) if he's destroying his house. Maybe they're making a mess without being quite so destructive... maybe they are even playing with the blocks and reading the books before they leave them all over... or maybe Max, like the kids in The Cat in the Hat, is warning Golidepig that Mama will be mad and trying to control the destruction.

This is your story, so I won't tell you which direction to go. But think about a connected plot/character arc at least for Goldipig and ideally also for Max. You might also think about your theme. What's the message of this story? The grass always looks greener on the other side? We can't choose our family that we can choose our friends? Deciding what you want to say may help you direct your plot.

Chances are much of your wording will change, but I've made some additional comments in the story, in brackets.


    Goldipig thought the tidy cottage in the woods looked WAY better than her mucky sty at the pond.
    She watched Mama Cat instruct her family as they stepped out the door. “Single file! No pushing! [Great dialogue to show her character, but I think you could cut this part, as we get the situation without it and the focus should be more on Goldipig: ” said Mama Cat. “Papa Cat, comb your whiskers! You look dreadful! Hurry up!] We must be at Grandcat’s house in exactly six minutes! Max! Don’t dawdle!”

Illustration note: Six kittens in matching clothes are lined up tallest to shortest. Max, the smallest kitten is not with the program. Goldipig is watching from behind the neatly trimmed shrubbery. [I doubt you need this illustration note. Trust the editor and illustrator to read between the lines.]
  The moment the cat family was out of sight, Goldipig followed her snout to the kitchen.
    “Where do they keep the food in this place?” she snorted.
    The hungry pig rooted through the pantry, raided the refrigerator, and rummaged in the cabinets. Munch, munch, slurp.
    “So, what’s to do around here?”
    “Books? Bah!”
    “Blocks? Boring!”
    “Banisters? Beautiful!”

    Illustration note: Goldipig tosses the books off the shelves, kicks over a neat stack of blocks, then slides down the banister, breaking it. [By making this one illustration note, you suggest all of these things happen in one illustration. It would work better as three illustrations, which would also put you closer to the appropriate 14 to 16 page count for standard picture books. You probably don't need illustration notes for Books or Blocks, but maybe for Banisters.]

    “Nap time! Now, where can a pig go for a snooze?”
    “Not comfy!”
Illustration note: Goldipig is trying to fit on a stiff looking sofa.

    “Not cozy!”
Illustration note: Goldipig lying on Mama Cat’s perfectly arranged bed.

Illustration note: Goldipig lying across the kittens’ side-by-side beds. [I don't think you need the two illustration notes above, but this one is necessary or we won't understand the page.]

    While Goldipig snored, the cat family finished their 27 minute visit with Grandcat and marched home.
    “Wipe your feet on the mat! Hang your coats up in order!” barked Mama Cat.
    Then she walked into the kitchen.
Illustration note: Max drops his coat on the floor behind Mama Cat and tracks in mud. [I'm afraid he comes across as more of a brat than a rebel or outsider.]

    “GOOD HEAVENS!” she cried. “Papa Cat, call the police! Raymond, clean up those cans! Suzy, mop the floor!”
Illustration note: Max is secretly lapping up milk and eating a treat.

    Then she walked into the parlor.
    “GOOD GRACIOUS!” she exclaimed. “Papa Cat, call the fire department! Sylvia, line up those books! Robert, stack those blocks!”
Illustration note: Max slides down the banister and flies off the broken end. [I would avoid using all capitals in a manuscript. I haven't heard that officially, but to me it looks less professional. The words, the exclamation points, and the cried/explained are plenty.]

    Then she walked upstairs.
    “GOOD GRIEF!” she shrieked. “Papa Cat, call the President! Roger, fluff those cushions! Max, pull up those covers! Max? Max, where are you?”
    Max slipped into his bedroom.
    “Hi,” he said. “Mama Cat thinks you sure did make a mess.”
    “Hey, a pig’s gotta have some fun,” said Goldipig with a grin.
    “You’d better get out of here before she sees you,” Max whispered.
    “Well then, what’re we waiting for?” winked Goldipig. “C’mon, kid. Let’s go!”
    Illustration note: Goldipig and Max are outside playing in the mud while a horrified Mama Cat watches from the window.

CE: Thanks for sharing your work, and good luck with revisions!


  1. Thanks so much for the critique! Your comments are very interesting and helpful. I'll have to think it all through and figure out what direction to take it.

    A follow-up question to you, though, about the problem-solving part of the story. The original "Goldilocks" folktale doesn't seem to follow the problem-solving formula, so does that story get away with it because it's a classic, or is it an example of successful rule-breaking?

  2. Good question. Older tales often don't follow the modern guidelines, and they may be primarily morality tales to teach a lesson. You could argue that Goldilocks's problem is that she's rude and she solves the problem by being scared by the Bears at the end, thus learning a lesson about respecting private property. Or something.

    Problem solving can be subtle. I sold a story to Highlights about a parent and child enjoying a rainy night full of frogs, after I added conflict. I had the child wanting to stay inside where it was warm and dry, not go out in the rain with yucky frogs. By the end, the child appreciated the chance to connect with nature. That's another example of someone not even knowing he has a problem, but solving the problem anyway.

  3. Chris, your comments were very insightful and could help a lot of people (including me) firm up character and story arcs. Storylady, thanks for sharing this--it's terrific. The idea of Goldipig is brilliant, and I like Max. The illustrator might help his "image problem" by making him appear hapless rather than rude or defiant. Good luck with your revisions.