I broke a rule … but it worked

Sonia and BerniceNew picture book writers often hear rules they should follow if they want to avoid making beginner mistakes and increase their chances of being published. Those rules usually go something like this:

Don’t write about overdone topics like the tooth fairy or the first day of school.

Don’t use talking animals.

Don’t write in rhyme.

Don’t write a story with a moral.

Don’t write a story based on something your child did.

At first glance, those are all good rules. And they exist because editors see far, far too many stories about talking teddy bears getting ready for kindergarten written in terrible rhyme designed to teach children that being nice to their classmates is a good idea — all because the author’s grandson came home crying after his first day of school saying the other kids were mean.

So I agree. If you disregard any of these rules you may be taking the long path to publication.

And, yet …

There are terrific stories about the tooth fairy and the first day of school (You Think It’s Easy Being the Tooth Fairy? / First Day Jitters).  Treasured tales about animals that talk (Owl Babies). Wonderful rhyming stories (Tom’s Tweet). Successful stories with morals (Little Bunny Foo Foo) and stories that are based on something your child did (like … um … my upcoming book).

Sophie's SquashYes, it’s true. Sophie’s Squash, which will be published by Schwartz & Wade on Aug. 6, is based on something my youngest daughter did when she was 6 or so. (That’s her in the top photo, holding a reincarnation of the first squash she adored.)

Will my book be successful? I have no idea.

But I am proof that you can get a story published that’s inspired by your own child. I do, however, have a few tips that might make doing so easier.

— Be inspired by the event, but don’t feel you have to tell it exactly as it happened. Stories are different than real life. They have a format they need to follow. A problem that has to be resolved. My daughter, Sonia, fell in love with a butternut squash, drew a face on it and carried it around like a doll, but that’s where the similarities between her and my main character, Sophie, end. Sophie carries her devotion much farther than Sonia ever did. And the parents in my story are much more gracious and patient with her squash-love than I ever was.  Why? Because it makes a better story. Even if it didn’t really happen exactly that way.

— Feel free to combine memories. Sonia’s love for a squash got me writing. But as I revised, I realized the story needed some more tension and heart. So I pulled another Sonia memory up, a comment she had made after our beloved cat, Lucy, had died. We planted a tree and scattered Lucy’s ashes by its roots. When we were done, Sonia turned to me tearfully and asked, “Now, will a new kitty grow?” That hope that the things we love can return to us  inspired a new ending for my story that ultimately proved to be just right.

— Don’t overdo it. Yes, your child inspired the story. Yes, your child is wonderful. But don’t get so hung up on those things that you find yourself naming your main character after your child, working in your other children’s names and providing detailed illustrator notes about exactly how your child looks and how the tiles on the kitchen backsplash should be red because that’s the color they are in your kitchen. The essence of your story is what’s important, not whether the main character has shoulder-length, feathered hair, just like your daughter. Plus, your illustrator might have ideas to take your story to an entirely different level. Don’t tie his or her hands.

— Look for ideas everywhere. Don’t rely just on your kids for ideas. They’ll grow up way too quickly and you’ll be left scratching your head. My next picture books were not inspired by either of my children.

But, I have to admit, another one I have in progress was.

(Oh … and hey. While I’m here, I also want to mention that I have a giveaway over at goodreads. If you go here, you can register for the chance to win one of two copies of Sophie’s Squash.)


Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Writing

15 responses to “I broke a rule … but it worked

  1. Fun to read the story behind the story. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Well said! This could apply to all our writing, I think. Thanks!
    (Also, am I the only one who’s now singing the post’s title to “I Kissed a Girl”?)


  3. Yes–Well said! Thanks, Pat!


  4. Thanks, Pat! The picture of Sonia and the squash is precious and I loved hearing the story her squash-love and how you wisely broke a rule, but did it right!


  5. I’ve never understood these rules, which is one reason why I’ve avoided writing picture books. There are so many examples of books that have broken the rules well, that I wish the language would be changed to, ‘You should be wary doing these things because it can be overdone.” After reading your forthcoming book, I can see that breaking that rule was what helped you provide the details that make the story come alive.


  6. Norene Paulson

    Great post, Pat! And the pic of Sonia and her “squash” baby…priceless!


  7. Oh, Pat, this is a great post. I loved hearing the inspiration behind Sophie’s Squash. And what wonderful wisdoms about “the rules” being somewhat flexible if the story is told well. And yours is. Bravo!


  8. Pat, this is awesome! I had no idea Sophie’s Squash was inspired by true life events. I love your advice on not being a slave to everything that actually happened, though. I think you struck just the right balance in your wonderful book!


  9. Jarm Del Boccio

    Congrats on your new publication’ Pat!



  10. I totally agree with Lisa’s “You should be wary…” observation. But you have to know the rules in order to break them thoughtfully. I sold a story to HIGHLIGHTS very loosely based on a great story of what happened when I was a kid inspired by something my grandmother did. When I sent her a copy of the manuscript–she was closing in on her hundredth year and HIGHLIGHTS holds onto stories a long time–she wrote back and said, “It didn’t happen that way.” I thought to myself, Exactly.


  11. Great post, Pat. Sonia and her baby squash is very cute… reminds me of a Russian nesting doll. Maybe that could be a sequel to Sophie’s Squash – Sophie turns all the little squash babies into shellacked nesting dolls, preserved forever in hardened acrylics! Anyway… I KNOW Sophie’s Squash will be a success!!! How could it not? So excited for you! 🙂


  12. Adorable picture of your daughter, Pat. And thanks for the tips on writing about stories inspired by our child(ren). These are excellent!


  13. Reading this a little late, but it’s a great post!


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