Penny Parker Klostermann is the author of There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight and A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale (Random House Children’s Books, illustrated by Ben Mantle). She has an informative website with gobs of great info about poetry and rhyme. She recently made a comment on my art notes post that I thought deserved its own space, so I asked if she’d answer some questions for me. She’s given back to the writing community in so many ways, and I’m grateful she took time out to teach us what’s she’s learned about art notes and rhyme.
Thank you, Penny, for your time!
Note: When I got Johnell’s interview questions, she asked about two things — art notes and rhyme. These are two topics that come up often in the picture book writing community. And these are two topics that I had many questions about when I started writing.
The ONLY reason I have published books, and that I think I have some insight to share, is that while I asked questions and thought about the answers, I worked on my craft. I don’t feel any advice will make much sense or help you unless you’re constantly working on and improving your craft to apply the advice.
Think about all the advice, rules, and information that we hear about writing picture books:
- Word count
- Character development
- Pacing and page turns
- Art notes
I wouldn’t have gained understanding about any of these things, if I’d just read articles and blog posts and asked questions.
I had to focus on my craft for any of this to make sense…for me to apply it to my own work.
I wrote manuscript after manuscript.
I revised and revised.
I submitted stories to my critique group, and I critiqued their stories.
I read hundreds of picture books … eventually over a thousand, and I’m still reading constantly. (Currently I have eighteen checked out and six on hold.)
And that’s why the pieces started falling into place.
When I first started writing I’ll admit that I was looking for the magic words in an article or blog post that would transform my writing into a manuscript that an editor would want to publish. But the truth is that I had to do the work.
Does that mean I don’t think articles and blog posts are beneficial? Absolutely not! I still read many and find them very beneficial. We must know the rules and have the advice and information to apply as we work.
So now I’ll step off of my soapbox and answer Johnell’s questions. But please keep in mind that my main advice is to keep working on your craft.
You made a great comment on my post about art notes. Why do you think art notes are such a hot topic in the kidlit world?
Here’s a bit of my comment that I left on Johnell’s blog post.
“I got a professional critique and she said my text was weak in one spot and I was using an illustrator note … almost like a cheat. I changed the text. It upped the word count a little but made a better story.”
I think art notes are a hot topic because as picture book writers we truly want to learn how to write a manuscript that will grab an editor’s eye. We’ve learned that we have to let the illustrations do their part. We hear that we should include art notes ONLY to clarify something in the text. Art notes should not be “instructions” for an illustrator. But many times we are confused by what needs clarifying and what doesn’t. That’s what leads to questions and a lot of discussion as we try to understand the mystery of art notes.
What have you learned about art notes since submitting and publishing your own stories?
Oh my! So much. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that the stronger my story becomes through revision, the more I’ll understand where I need an art note … polishing my manuscript is what unravels the mystery for me.
Now that you’ve been doing this a while, when do you know you need an art note in your manuscript? Can you give us an example of an art note you had in one of yours?
To be clear, I put art notes in my first drafts if I feel they’re needed. But as the manuscript evolves, and I polish the story, the art notes usually change or are removed. I know I need an art note when there is a place in the story where the art will do the heavy lifting.
But then . . .
[Art: Cinderella slips on a piece of pie. One glass slipper flies through the air. The glass slipper hits the prince. Prince smacking lips and smiling as he picks pie from slipper and eats it.]
Before revising, I had Cinderella leave the slipper behind like in the original tale. Then the prince went looking for the baker of the pie, and when he found William, I had this:
“I must find who baked this pie,” said the prince as he plucked a morsel of pie from a slipper and popped it in his mouth.
Of course my explanation was wordy as the prince searched for William. But then I decided to use four action words and have the slipper fly off in the moment. There was no need for Cinderella to leave it behind and no need for the prince to search. In fact, it was funnier to have it all in the moment. The change required an art note to show the action in the illustrations.
I never did think about doing A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale in rhyme. I’d say my manuscripts are about fifty-fifty when it comes to rhyme and prose.
Let’s talk about rhyme. When I first started writing, I wrote some pretty awful rhyming stories–I think most beginners have to get the bad rhyming stories out of their system. I’ve heard this before, and I’ve said it too: “The story just came to me in rhyme.” Why do you think most beginners start off writing in rhyme, and why is it rarely a good idea?
It’s rarely a good idea because beginning writers have a tendency to focus on the rhyme instead of the story. And the story is what will sell the manuscript.
I think many start off writing in rhyme because, let’s face it, there are many amazing rhyming stories. We’re able to quote all or parts of those stories because the rhyme helps the story stick with us. And when rhyme is well written, it’s so much fun!
Also, I think that many beginners have fond memories of rhyming stories they loved as children and they have a desire to write that kind of story. And rhyming stories appear easy. After all we learn to rhyme words at a very young age. Dog-log, tree-knee. See…easy! But those are just the words at the end of sentences. I don’t think beginning writers think about all the other words that make up the majority of the story. They aren’t yet aware of what it takes to write a story that will stand out in a big pile of submissions.
When do you know a story really should be written in rhyme, and what do you need (the short version) to do it right?
The short version. Story comes first, not rhyme. A story in rhyme must have all the elements of a picture book written in prose. And the rhyme and meter must be perfect! PERFECT!
What would you tell writers just starting out that you wish someone would have told you?
To be honest, I was given excellent advice when I started out. Every article and blog post I read gave me great advice—honest advice that told me just how hard this would be and how much work I would have to do. But, at the time, I have to admit I thought my stories were so wonderful that somehow an editor would absolutely LOVE my early drafts.
So the advice I would give to writers just starting out is to take all of the advice to heart. Don’t think that there are shortcuts. Don’t think that somehow your journey will be unique and you don’t need to listen to all this excellent advice. For instance, when you’re told to read at least one thousand picture books, don’t think that reading one hundred will do it. When you’re told to join a critique group, don’t think your mom, your kids, and your friends will give honest, valuable feedback.
And as I said above … make sure you’re working on your craft and applying the advice.
Does it get easier once you’ve published a book?
No. In fact, if you’re writing picture books, you can strike the work “easy” from your mind and your conversations about writing. Each manuscript must be stellar. Also, once you’re published there are other demands on your time such as marketing, school visits, etc. that can cut into writing time. Balancing all that is not easy.
Where can we find your books?
You can find my books at bookstores and online. You can find out more about me and my books at my website: https://pennyklostermann.com/