David L. Harrison today

UPDATE: At this point in the voting, Mary Nida Smith is leading Beth Carter and Jane Heitman Healy among the adult poets and Taylor McGowan has the lead in the young poet division. Past Hall of Fame poet Mimi Cross leads in overall votes. Cutoff to vote is 10:00 CST Sunday night. Don’t forget.

Hi everyone. Mary Nida Smith and others have asked to see a few more specifics about manuscripts — collection, theme, layout, and so forth. I promised to provide the requested information so here it is. For those who have also been published as poets and/or picture book authors, I hope you’ll chip in with your own thoughts, experiences, and suggestions. Editors, correct me where I fail to properly convey the situation at your end! Now without further ado, here’s me!

By David L. Harrison

You are in the shower. You realize with sudden, intense clarity that the strange bug you found in your garden yesterday is a great idea for a book starring an insect that has never been discovered by science and therefore has no name. You tell yourself that this is a novel idea, kids will love it, and adults will stand in line for you to sign it. You hurry from the shower, towel off, and get to the desk.

If you’re like most of us writers, the first thing you do is try out a few sentences to see how this thing is going to feel.

Little bug was sad. He had no name. Lady Bug had a name. It was Lady Bug. Stink Bug had a name, too, even though it wasn’t a very good name. Click Beetle had a name. So did Lightning Bug, May Fly, and Centipede. Little bug sighed. If everyone else could have a name, then why didn’t he?

Hey, that’s pretty good! You are on your way to fame and fortune. But you might need a map before you set out whistling down that road. Managing the twists and turns and avoiding potholes along the way may be harder than you think. Here are a few tips.


Your first audience is not that young reader. Believe it or not, he or she is your last audience. Before your story can reach those eager young hands, you have many other steps to take.

Your first reader will probably be an intern, an associate editor, or the editor herself. The first reader sees hundreds, maybe thousands of manuscripts every year. She reads in her office before the day officially starts. She reads on her lunch hour (if pushed). She stays after work to read. She reads coming to work and going home at night. During the day, when she wishes she had time to read, she’s in one meeting after another or preparing to attend a conference or talking on the phone or working on a manuscript that is already under contract.


So think about your editor as you prepare your manuscript. If you are writing a picture book, the usual format is 32 pages. Subtract 4 pages for credits, title page, and end papers. That leaves roughly 28 pages. Most publishers like full 2-page illustrations so that gives you about 14 spreads in which to tell your story. That means you’ll have copy on somewhere between 14 to 28 pages. Divide your telling accordingly.

My rule of thumb is to rarely if ever exceed 50 words on a page (100 on a 2-page spread). At the maximum, 50 words times 28 pages (1,400 words) would be far too long for a typical story although there are good ones out there that take 1,000 words or so. I usually shoot for 700 tops and prefer to stay under 500.


Think of the artist. He’s another member of your audience and he has to paint pictures of the images your words create. He can’t illustrate the same scene over and over so you have to change something important on every spread. Think like a stage director. Break down your story into potential scenes. Do you have enough? If not, you need more action.

Little bug was sad.
He had no name.


Lady Bug had a name.
It was Lady Bug.


Stink Bug had a name, too,
even though it wasn’t a very good name.


Click Beetle had a name.
So did Lightning Bug, May Fly, and Centipede.


Little bug sighed.
If everyone else could have a name,
then why didn’t he?


That quick beginning, when broken down into potential illustratable scenes, weighs in at probably five pages (2 ½ spreads). See what I mean? The first page has 8 words. Page two has 9; page three has 14; page four has 13; and page five has 14. Those are good numbers. At that rate you’ll wind up with 350 words or so. Your story will be crisp. The scenes change routinely. The editor likes what she sees. The artist smiles.


Bear in mind, your story has to be fresh, your telling imaginative, your manuscript polished until you can see your face in it. I’m talking mechanics here. I’m talking presentation. Don’t let a lousy first impression spoil your chances of grabbing that editor’s attention. This business is tough enough without penalizing yourself with a poorly conceived manuscript. And in many ways, that properly presented manuscript helps you write the story by deciding where to trim verbiage and where to add action.


Most of the advice above also applies to how you prepare a poetry manuscript. Most poems will live comfortably on one page so you may have room for 24 – 28 poems in a 32-page format. In poetry, the industry stresses themes. If you like school, write a book of poems about school. If you get a terrific idea about camping, save it for the book about camping.

Poetry is difficult to sell as a book. The population of poetry lovers/readers is far smaller than the audience for stories. Only a small percentage of boys admit to liking poetry to read on their own and both genders prefer a wide range of other activities over reading or writing poems. Publishers know this of course and it makes them quite conservative in how many poetry titles they acquire.

So the lesson here is to get good; get better; get best. Your work must meet or surpass that of the most successful poets in the marketplace. Poems without a clear reason to exist won’t make it. Poems that fail to produce strong images won’t make it. Verse poems that don’t scan well (meaning they establish a rhyme or meter pattern but don’t stick to them) won’t make it.


If you’re ready to submit your story or book of poems, write that query letter. Depending on the publisher, you can e-mail or land mail your letter. WRITERS MARKET and other guides for authors provide such information. At this point you are a salesman with two products: yourself and your story. Don’t sell yourself if you don’t have anything to sell. Do not say, “This is my first story but I read it to my three-year-old granddaughter and she just loved it.” Do say, “I taught third grade for thirty-one years. Do I have stories? I can’t wait to tell you!”

Do not say, “I never took a course in writing but all my friends tell me I’m extremely good.” Do say, “I’ve read the books on writing, attended the conferences and workshops, joined the local writers groups, and worked on manuscripts for years. I’m ready.”

Now tell the nice editor why she should read your story. Pretend you hear her moaning in anguish, “Oh gag! Don’t tell me it’s another dog story. Not another cat story. Or rabbit story. Or bashful story. Or ugly story.”

That’s approximately what she’s saying. So avoid that pothole in your road to success. Present her with a new approach that will fill a niche that you perceive in the market.

“Sure, this is another bug story – but this bug has no name! It hasn’t been discovered yet. Scientists have identified and named more than one million kinds of insects in the world. How would you feel if everyone else in your garden had a name but you? The answer lies in my story.”

Consult the writers’ guides to see which editors want a query letter before inviting you to submit your manuscript. In short pieces like picture books and poetry, some editors prefer to see the manuscript and don’t require a query letter. Pay attention to the descriptions listed in the guides and follow the rules.

The day you get the idea is a good day. The day you finish writing the story is better. But the best day? You know it: “We love your story and we want to publish it.”

Good luck, and keep writing.