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Manuscript Critique 2

Manuscript Review & Critique

author: Dror Shai Levi

reviewer:Gaylen Andrews

DATE: 02/28/00

 

summary

Title: "The Ancient Forest"

Theme: People joining together can overcome indifference and work toward the accomplishment of a common good.

Goal: To alert the public to the imminent destruction of old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.

overview

A picture book is aimed at emergent readers in kindergarten, first and second grades generally ages three to seven.

Main character a child; story told through this character’s viewpoint.

While children are the primary audience, they are not the real market. Adults are your real market. For this reason, the story needs to be understood on at least two levels: It should appeal to an adult’s sensibility and emotions, as well as to a child’s very literal understanding of the basic story.

evaluation

Strengths:

The author believes in what his story is about.

Picture book editors are always looking for original manuscripts that deal with timely topics. Environmental issues and science themes are two trends that have been dominating editors’ choices—and will probably continue to do so in the future.

The manuscript has a theme that both a grown-up and a child can relate to.

Viewpoint character selected is the child, which is perfect; her viewpoint unfolds from beginning to end.

Plot is the simplest plan of cause and effect: because of this, that happened.

Uses a repetitive action pattern (main character going from one to another in her quest for help) as a successful attention-keeper for the very young who are unable to follow a wandering plot.

Weaknesses:

The manuscript does not meet the average picture book length of 24 to 32 pages, or more.

There are too few (eleven) illustrations and only one includes the main character. Strive for fourteen to eighteen scenes per book. Children at this age do not understand symbolism. They require true-to-life artwork depicting text and information not detailed.

The story does not yet have universal appeal with an idea big enough to justify making it into a book. It does not uniquely reflect needs and experiences common to us all. As is, it will not hold the reader’s/listener’s attention. 

Picture book editors are not looking for stories that hit readers over the head with a moral or lesson of some kind. Some messages evoked by your secondary characters and narrative lean toward sermonizing, which is off-putting. While your story should have some redeeming value or feature, your approach should be subtle. There is nothing wrong with children learning something, but this information needs to be incorporated into the story. It needs to be endowed with so much human interest that it is an integral part of the story. Instilling a story with redeeming value without hitting the reader over the head with a moral is one of the challenges of creating an appealing and marketable picture book.

The opening line introduces the character, but doesn’t reveal any real urgency about the story at hand. The first thing you want to do in your picture book is to introduce the conflict—in the story’s opening lines. For example: "Early one winter’s morning, Katherine walked in her beloved ancient rainforest. She was worried. Deeply inhaling the fresh smell of moist, nutrient-rich earth, she sensed that something was wrong."

[Inconsistency (I believe, unless things are different in the Pacific Northwest): If it’s winter ("…the winter frost formed on the tips of the pine needles, and on the edges…"), would the forest be filled "…with so many colors of green!"]

Loosely adheres to specific formula or typical pattern regarding storybooks, where a main character wants to achieve or acquire something. Three episodes of conflict should follow, each one rising in intensity. During the final episode, the character strives the hardest to reach her goal and succeeds, more or less. The plot then resolves quickly.

The ending does not satisfy.

critique:

Vocabulary and Readability:

Although you need not confine yourself to the "easy reading" vocabulary of some 200 to 500 words (indeed, you have not), you still want to choose simple, rhythmic, expressive words a child can understand. Repeated actions (which you do employ) and words become a pleasing, familiar landmark. For example, regarding the use of words: After seeing the Lady of the Forest, perhaps the main character’s "battle cry" refrain can be something like "there must be others who can help!"

Because picture books are often read to rather than by children, you must find special ways to allow them to participate in the story. One effective device is the repetition of a key word or phrase, a rhythmic refrain that the listener can chant along with the reader, something like the above phrase.

Regarding narrative, even dialogue: You tend to write run on sentences. Short, unencumbered sentences without a lot of extraneous clauses are best. Sentences should be an average give or take of about ten words long. However, this is not a hard and fast rule since you want to establish a varied reading rhythm.

For the most part, select words that can be understood in context, even if they are long words that a child might not be able to define. Introduce a context for more difficult vocabulary words (extinction, compassion, essence), if you can, or use simpler terms. Children understand sadness, but not depression. Never use a difficult word or concept (oneness of existence), without explanation that is necessary to the understanding of the story’s plot line.

For example, when introducing a more difficult word such as "suffering," use it more than once in context so the reader can glean its meaning. Repetition is one way children master reading.

But, if there is a simpler word that means the same thing, use it. (The Children’s Writer’s Word Book is a thesaurus organized by grade level and is an excellent resource, if you are unsure about word choice and reading level.) Words such as "severely raped" and "desecrated" should not be used. 

Most good writing is written in active voice. Recast as many passive sentences as you can in active voice. Instead of, for example: "Once, a young girl was walking." write "Once, a young girl walked," Instead of, "…her heart was filled with joy." Write "her heart filled with joy." Instead of, "She felt the forest’s essence filling her whole body…" write "The forest’s essence filled her whole body…"

Because of the very nature of picture books, action usually dominates description and dialogue, so make the most of them. For example, in The Growing Story by Ruth Kraus, a little boy finds that he, like his puppy and his chickens, has grown with the changing seasons. How does the reader learn he discovers this? Not through pages of explanation, but when he puts on last year’s clothes!

Embellish your sentences with visual words. For example, you could rewrite "She saw a cold stream rushing by, passing over rounded rocks, and under tree branches and downed logs." with a more active and visual voice like "A nearby stream rushed by, flowing under ice bent tree branches, splashing against worn rocks and submerged timber." Note there is no "she saw." It’s inferred that she sees this.

Setting:

Although illustrations pick up some of the slack, even the most exotic setting needs to be described in specific visual detail, if it is to come through as a strong presence in a story. I am surprised you did not bring in the most immediate impression a first time visitor in an old-growth forest experiences— the majesty of the trees, how you can almost bend over backwards and not catch sight of the tops of the trees.

Skillful visualization is essential for authenticity; it fixes what is happening in the reader’s memory. A lack of imagery makes a manuscript colorless. Create the overall background for your narrative by enlarging on the smaller sensory impressions that you have already worked on. Here’s a good guideline to follow for creating the greatest dramatic effect. Start with the largest impressions and descend in order to the smallest, the way most people respond to a new scene.

Children are naturally inquisitive, always asking questions. They want to know why something is the way it is, what makes it different, and how it works. For this age group, you need eyes and ears to see and hear the small sights and sounds of a child’s world, as well as the great big obvious ones. Get down to the child’s eye-level—physically squat, kneel, sit, lie down flat on your back or your stomach, and see as children do.

Clarity is necessary for maximum communication with children, for sharing ideas and enhancing identification. Readers are able to experience understanding and emotional impact when a storys sights, sounds, and smells are recreated with authenticity.

Sensory Detail:

Children understand much of what goes on around them through their senses. Without bogging down your plot line with too many details (we don’t want the reader to lose sight of where the plot is going), develop different kinds of uncontrived, natural sensory detail in your plot. Add references to smell, texture, sound and taste to enhance the story. Do so by weaving them unobtrusively through the action and dialogue in your story, not in long, unrelieved paragraphs of description. It is imperative that your story be eloquent with simplicity and understatement.

The inclusion of sensory detail is important because it is the essence of childhood. Pay careful attention to word choice. Be as specific as possible. For example, taking the short cut of summing up something as being vaguely "wonderful"—an overused and cliché expression, does not tell readers much.

The strength of their identification with the situation will be undermined. Tell them how wonderful? Perhaps "Deeply inhaling the heady smell…"

Rather than writing "Suddenly she heard terrible, loud noises…," write the terrible sound itself (whatever it is, for example, a tiger goes Grrrrr…), followed by "What is making that terrible noise?"

Fantasy, in particular, needs specific detail to persuade the reader to suspend disbelief. But making a sensory impression specific does not mean including everything about it in the narrative. The detail incorporated into a scene creates a mood. Yet it’s essential to select only those characteristics that will contribute to the effect desired. If you describe all aspects, both pleasant and unpleasant, they will cancel each other out. Then the special atmosphere needed to reinforce your plot will be lost.

It is not enough to rely on child-centered conflict and a child character as your primary subject matter though. You’ll also want your readers to see glimpses of the familiar "things" in their own lives on the pages of the book. If children can sense their own world in the pages of your book, they will identify with the story. Presently, from your text, the reader knows next to nothing about the main character other than that she’s a girl and young. Also, she is depicted in only one illustration. How is the reader to identify with this character? There are few clues to go on.

Just as you want readers to identify with the main character, you also want them to feel. If your characters appear to feel nothing, a reader will feel nothing either. You tell the reader "…her heart was filled with joy." In an illustration, you can show her spinning around like a top with her head thrown back and arms spread wide, as if to encompass the entire forest. Just as a story builds toward a climax, all aspects of your story should build toward emotion—an element that is built up in a story from the very first paragraph.

You want readers to become more conscious about the environment, become involved in saving old-growth forests in particular. But before you can reach readers and make them feel something about this issue, you must reach them through their emotions. They must experience a sensation or emotion in common with one of the characters. Emotions are revealed through either dialogue—what and/or how something is said, and through narrative—described or inferred. Make readers identify with the emotion felt by a character, then what is painful, for example, to that character becomes painful to the reader. As is, your story is a little flat and one-dimensional. Part of the reason for this stems from poor characterization.

Characterization:

Picture book characterization is, of course, the very simplest. Space is at a premium and brevity is necessary. The child is named. The age is given, or more likely, indicated in pictures. But your important main viewpoint character has no name or identity. The way the "young girl" has been written, there is little for readers to identify with. Once you’ve identified your character’s problem, you need to work in a few details about a genuine kid character to lend familiarity and comfort to the reader. You can’t keep calling her "the girl." Give her a name and personality! She should never be too perfect. Likable—yes, never phony or contrived. One of the biggest complaints that editors have about characters is that they are "too good to be believed."

While there are major exceptions to this rule, in general, most editors are shying away from books that feature talking animals, anthropomorphic creatures, and inanimate objects that somehow take on human characteristics. So you’ll want to take special care in the development of these types of secondary characters.

Your secondary characters need to be "fleshed out" or developed more. They are not vivid enough; they exhibit no individuality—no singular mannerisms, traits and eccentricities. "A salamander appeared from under some rotting leaves" is not descriptive or visual at all, while "A fat brown salamander with sleepy eyes slithered out from beneath some rotting leaves" is.

Characterization is something you must do consistently with every character every time he or she appears on a scene. 

Plot:

The answers to the following questions give your story a framework and plot:

1. What does your main character want? (Something much desired which readers will sympathize with, nothing too easy or trivial.)

2. How much depends on her success? (Readers must care what happens; their sympathies must be strongly in favor of having her achieve her aim, because of what would result from her failure to do so.)

3. What events and people oppose her? (It must never be easy for her, or you’ll have no suspense.)

4. What does she do to overcome these obstacles? (Your heroine reveals whatever admirable characteristics you have given her in the course of her struggle for success. Of course, before one obstacle is overcome, another is introduced, so that the reader is carried along from scene to scene, always eager to know what will happen next.)

5. How does she by her own action solve her problem? (Luck can play a greater part in real life than it can in fiction. Someone can’t just come along to save the day, getting your heroine out of her scrape.)

Answers:

1. She wants to prevent the destruction of an ancient forest that is important to both mankind and wildlife.

2. Everything depends on her success, because such a forest can never be duplicated and it will impact many things. Except for the apparent loss of beauty, what other things will be lost is not made clear in your story—only in the foreword. It should be interwoven into the story itself.

3. This needs a bit more work. What can one little girl do by herself? Getting your main character in continual hot water is one of the secrets of suspense. Are the obstacles the attitudes she encounters during her quest to get help? If not, you need to throw at least two obstacles (events or people) in her way.

4-5:

These also should be thought through and reworked.

(4) Obstacles: Perhaps the obstacles to be overcome are Depression, Resignation, and Suffering (represented by the Lady of the Forest, the Lord of the Sea, and Mother Earth, in that order). But will children understand these concepts?

(5) As I see it: While going from one to another seeking help, the main character learns that the problem is more than one person—let alone a child, can handle. But there is strength in numbers and Depression, Resignation, and Suffering can be conquered. She realizes that while "Rome wasn’t built in a day," with everyone working together total destruction of the forest can be stopped—eventually.

It’s not enough for the main character to simply achieve her goal. By facing the obstacles in the story and overcoming them, she needs to be transformed in an important and significant way. Editors will look to see whether you have shown the reader the process of that character growth. For example, the young girl loves the forest, but aside from that, does she really understand its importance? She wants to stop the "desecration" of the forest because it is ugly, but there are other more significant reasons for preventing the destruction. These are part of the things she should learn. They should be revealed to both her and the reader through narrative and dialogue.

At the end of your picture book, it is appropriate to sum up her character growth and change. Reinforce the fact that your character realizes everyone needs to work together to stop the destruction of the ancient forest and share her reaction with the reader. Then end your story quickly and tie the ending to the story’s beginning.

Recommend that you be alert to whatever comparisons come to mind when re-creating your observations in a story. The more unusual, the better. For example, toward the end of your story—before the conflict is resolved, you may want to briefly describe (or illustrate) a haunting sunset when the color is all but gone.  

This particular image with the trees in black silhouetted relief against a sky gray as ash creates a wistful sense of loss and desolation. Conveying an emotion in this way is a more direct and powerful technique than relating the feelings of a character or group of characters after the moment has passed. These connections are more memorable because of their originality. Avoid boring clichés.

The Ending:

If your heroine doesn’t achieve her goal through her own efforts and actions, if something just happens, your story will not have a satisfying climax. The ending must satisfy. Not everything needs to turn out exactly right at the end of a story. You must write a satisfactory solution that helps give the main character the confidence to go ahead and solve her problem(s). Young readers want something from fiction they can take away and use in their own lives whenever possible. Perhaps, you can leave readers with the knowledge that sometimes a problem cannot be resolved immediately; sometimes it takes time and people working and struggling together to make it happen.

Consider: Beginning writers often feel that young children should be shielded from anything disagreeable or upsetting in their reading as in real life. Try, for the most part, to resist this urge. It can make a manuscript bland and dull.

Your ending doesn’t sit well with me. It ends--abruptly. I strongly feel there shouldn’t be a storybook ending. In keeping with reality, life is usually not "and they lived happily ever after." We strive, but things don’t always meet our dreams and expectations. Readers usually can suspend disbelief, but only so far. "And so, the loggers stopped cutting ancient rainforests, and the forest stopped disappearing" is not believable.

Readers can find satisfaction in tears. But while not everything needs to turn out exactly right at the end of a story, there must still be hope. On the surface, your story is about a little girl’s wanting to save the forest, but it is really about everyone working together to make it happen. The thing is, saving a forest from the logging industry never happens in a day.

Your ending can be hopeful and upbeat. It can show that it’s necessary to spread the message that everyone needs to work together to make it happen, while warning the reader/listener that everyone always needs to be vigilant.

======================================================

critique summary:

Does the book have publishing potential?

Not as is. It needs a rewrite.

 

What is required to get it to the point of submission?

Author task (or ghostwriter?): The picture book is one of the hardest things to write. Since it requires brevity, not a word can be wasted. It usually requires many rewrites four, five, ten times, for the desired effect. The production of a child’s book of lasting value is a highly demanding art and requires perfectionism. While your theme is powerful, the narrative falls a bit flat, lacking emotional purpose. The reader comes away with little emotional experience.

The manuscript has excellent promise. With a well-conceived, skillful re-write, proper format, and competently presented, it should be acceptable to an editor and receive serious consideration.

suggestion:

For a book to sell, it must have a target market and a way to reach that market with something that would capture the reader/listener interest. The present manuscript is missing the following elements if it is to become a readable book: 

1. Better characterization: Needs a main character that readers can identify with. Work on secondary characters.

2. Make sensory detail come alive via action and dialogue.

3. Recreate story observations via unusual comparisons to illustrate emotions and mood.

4. Re-think plot, obstacles/conflict.

5. Additional illustrations needed. Possible three: (a) Suggest adding an illustration of a fierce looking tractor set against an ominous sky—so ferocious that it looks like it could devour a forest in one clean sweep. (But not so scary as to alarm young readers.) (b) Also, an illustration looking down on main character from the tops of the trees while she is looking up. (c) You can show main character spinning around like a top with her head thrown back and arms spread wide, as if to encompass the entire forest.

6. Reveal main character’s growth and change. What has she learned and what is she going to do about it. For example: return home and get her parents, school and community involved.

7. Recommend the inclusion of a one-page appendix of sorts in the back of the book "(name of character) needs your help in saving our old-growth forests. Here’s what you can do to help." List agencies and people to contact, resources, web sites, ways for getting involved, to learn more about how they can help, who they can write to, etc.)

8. Re-work ending.

9. Please acquire and read a copy of The Great Kapok Tree—A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest by Lynn Cherry (1990: A Gulliver Green Book, Harcourt Brace & Company), who is the author/illustrator. This book won the IRA Teacher’s Choice for 1991, was an American Booksellers "Pick of the Lists," a Reading Rainbow Review Book, and a NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children. Read it and analyze it in terms of the various elements discussed here. It should be worth your while


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