Tuesday, June 7, 2016

#FicFest Fables #4 - Common Issues In Contest Entries

I need to apologize to those on my "give feedback" list who still haven't heard from me. Some health issues have clogged up life since #ficfest finalists were announced. My mentees have been patient with my delayed responses and I'm grateful for that. I will still be sending that feedback as soon as I'm able.

It truly surprised me how many of the same issues popped up in the #FicFest entries that didn't make it into my favorites list, and some of those issues existed in my favorites, too. Here's a brief list. I hope that this can help those who walked away from FicFest disappointed recapture not only their love for their story, but also with their future projects.

Passive Voice - I said it multiple times on Twitter as I read the slush, as did other mentors. Picture books only have so many words. Don't waste them on passive verbs (is, am, are, was, were) when you can use active, fun, meaningful verbs to entertain your readers. There are so many out there. Check out these great blog posts and resources to help you:

Incorrect rhyming - This was my biggest pet peeve and also the most frustrating of the common issues for me. SO many great premises got buried under horribly written rhymes. Meter and rhythm help make rhyme work, and a children's book can rhyme but it needs to be creative and interesting, not just rhyming for the sake of rhyming. I could easily pick out a dozen stories that had rhymes that could have been written better without it. Also, there are dozens of literary devices besides rhyme that could make your story fun to read. Repetition of word, refrain, or structure, alliteration, hyperbole to name a few. 

High Word Count - This is a debated issues among mentors and mentees alike. A few years ago, the picture book word count sweet spot was 250-350 words, with a maximum of around 600. There are always exceptions to these rules, but at that time attention span seemed to rule the industry. However, in the last twelve months, some longer length amazing picture books have reset this way of thinking, bringing longer, more lyrical manuscripts back into vogue. Of course, word count will depend on your audience and your writing style. 

Unfortunately, in the Ficfest slush, many books were way to long and it was obvious they could be reworked into a shorter, more focused and interesting manuscript to read. (My FicFest query contest winner was one of these!) Again, if you're going to write a long piece, every word needs to have a purpose to drive the story problem and paint a tight, interesting picture for your audience. Removing passive verbs, redundant phrases, and expressive, unnecessary words can help. A note: a few entries were also too low in word count, needing to give the reader just a little more to paint the full picture.)

Query Not Ready - Despite the thousands of query workshops and resources on the internet about how to write a query letter, it is still a highly personal endeavor that is difficult for most authors. By and far, it seemed almost every entry's query needed a little help. I'm going to throw out a few tips using the made up query I used for the query mentorship contest.

- Simple salutation

- Don't focus on the story's inspiration

- Don't give the story's ending away in the query. Instead, give them a stakes sentence to entice them to read it to find out the ending.

- Always give a little bit of info on yourself, even if you have no literary experience.

- Other PB manuscripts can and should be mentioned in picture book queries. Agents of PB want to make sure you aren't a one hit wonder. Offering up info on at least 2 other COMPLETED manuscripts is advised by several of the FicFest mentors. (I actually didn't know this, as my getting-an-agent journey focused on my entire age spectrum of children's works.)

- Always end with "Thank you for your time and consideration," NOT "I look forward to hearing from you" or "I can be reached by phone or email". Leave that ball in their court and expect nothing from them, at least in your letter.


Dear agent name;

Mattie and John are playing hide and seek but the storm outside is loud and scary. Passive first sentences. The lights go out and they don’t know if they should keep playing or stop and ask mom for dinner. There are lots of hiding places, and the storm is making lots of don’t use same words in so small a space sounds like crashes, booms, and bangs. Maybe they can make similar sounds in their game?

A better story query paragraph:

BOOM, BANG, CRASH! As John and Mattie play hide and seek, the storm outside takes out the lights. The darkness makes finding each other hard and the once-familiar angles and hiding places of their house scary. Now, they must find each other by mimicking the sounds of the storm and decide whether to keep playing their improved game or find their way to Mom. Either way, they soon realize it will be more fun if they do it together.

Crash and Seek Book names in all CAPS CRASH AND SEEK is a picture book submission with about 800 words  way too many words, you probably shouldn’t be submitting this yet in the manuscript. It is similar to Chicka Chicka Boom Boom great compand will be as famous as Harry Potter bad assumptionI don’t have illustrations but I’m sure you could help me find someone to create my vision before we send it to publishers.   No, no, no! Don't put anything that makes your manuscript seem like more work to the agent. Plus, editors and publishers have more control over 
illustrations  anyways.

I am a writer and have been for about five years. My family says this is a perfect and fun book that any child would love to read.  The agent won’t care what non-industry professionals think about it. If you have any questions, please feel free to calll me at xxx-xxx-xxxx. Don’t ever provide a phone number unless the agent asks for it. Even then, reconsider. I just know you’ll love it since I read on your personal website that you love thunder storms.  While its good to do research, only mention things they like in their professional capacities, or things they’ve asked for on manuscript wish lists or in the contest you’re entering. Also, include a couple other PB manuscripts pitches that you have ready to go here. It's better to submit when you have at least three completed, ready-for-an-agent manuscripts.

Sincerely, Thank you for your time and consideration,

Emily Moore

The #QueryHelper learned almost everything she knows from reading EVERY. SINGLE. EXAMPLE of query letters and the critiques on  Query Shark, as well as reading blogs with great examples like Nathan Branford's blog. This is one place you don't want to short cut. The query can make or break your submission.


  1. Did not know about adding two completed PBs to my query, either. Thanks for the info.

  2. Thank you Emily! As always, fabulous information for the newbie writer to ponder over :)