- Good characters make good stories.
You may have invented the coolest world. Your character might be having the bestest adventure ever. But if you don’t have a compelling, at least somewhat likeable character for the reader to become emotionally invested in, your book will flop. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an anti-hero. Artemis Fowl in the first book is a villain. Holly, the fairy, is the good guy. But they are both such wonderfully well done, compelling characters, that as the reader you’re rooting for both.
- Good stories require conflict.
Even if you write the greatest character that all your readers adore, if that character doesn’t do anything, the book will be boring. A character must have conflict and strife. The character must have something to do even if it’s just a battle with the evil dishwasher that just will not get those glasses spotless. If you don’t know how to structure your conflict, use The Hero’s Journey. Although primarily known as the formula used for quest fiction, it can be applied to anything. Look at Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey to see how the Hero’s Journey can be applied. Although the book is geared towards screenwriters, it works equally well for fiction. "But I would never write with a formula," you say. Well, there’s a huge difference between formula fiction like Nancy Drew and structured work. As the book shows, you don’t have to use every element. It’s more of a guide than a formula. But now that you have good characters and plots, what do you do to write the actual text?
- Avoid hyperrealism.
Hyperrealism is a coin termed by A. LaFaye to describe moments when authors meticulously describe every part of a character’s day. A lot of the times it’s not important that the character got up at 7, had breakfast, watched 2 hours of TV, got dressed, went to the mall, argued with Mom over the length of her skirt, stopped at the bathroom, etc. This kind of uneventful stuff can be glossed over with a passage of time summary like: "The highlight of her boring, never-ending day came when she fought with her mom over the length of her skirt. She never thought she'd say it, but she couldn’t wait for school to start back up." Okay, so I can’t think of a story where those two lines would actually sound good, but you get my point. Which leads me to my next one . . .
- Every scene must do double duty.
I think this is another A. LaFaye wisdom. Simply put, every scene in a novel (and especially a picture book) must be doing a minimum of two of the following three things:
- Expanding the setting
- Expanding character development
- advancing the plot
The second and third are the two most important elements. If your scene isn’t doing at least two things, it borders on being superfluous. Hyperrealistic scenes are generally not doing any of the three.
There are many more truths, but this post has gotten long enough. These are the main things that I immediately notice when evaluating slush. Breaking any of the above truths tends to be a sign of a young or inexperienced writer. Something about the work has to be truly outstanding for a submission with one of these problems to move on in the acquisition process.