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Not-So-Random Thoughts from the RYS "Writing with Heart" Contest Judges AND Results Update

We will shortly be announcing our winners for the 2022 Spring Rate Your Story Contest, Writing With Heart. We understand that everyone was anxious for these results and apologize for the necessary delays due to the prolonged moving of our offices and COVID. But now that we have had time and bandwidth to give these entries the thought and consideration they deserve, we do have a lot to share as far as our experience with these many stories.

Notably, we did not get many if any entries in the board book, novel or non-fiction categories and unfortunately do not have any winning entries as a result. However, this is important to note for next year -- should you have a strong manuscript to submit in any of those categories, the chances are good to place or even win! If I personally was allowed to enter (LOL), I would start focusing on a board book and non-fiction manuscript NOW! And I would make sure it was the very best it can be for optimal results.

We had an impressive amount of submissions in the fiction picture book category. However, many of these manuscripts did not make the cut and, as a result, we ended up with less finalists than we have prizes.

We actually read quite a few of the manuscripts over several times to see if we missed something that might elevate it to at least, an honorable mention. But as this is a contest, we really couldn't give out prizes for manuscripts that were not submission-ready and/or had numerous flaws. We would have loved to have given a prize to everyone. We know this business is difficult and are proud of you all for putting yourself out there!

In an effort to make this a learning experience and provide take-away value to all (those who entered and those who will enter in the future), here is our list of common flaws we found in the manuscripts we reviewed. This list took us quite a long time to compile and we do hope that you will all use it to further yourselves on your writing journey. Many basic conventions were missed among the many manuscripts. And this can be fixed!

Here are some general symptoms with obvious RXs before we dive in deeper:

SYMPTOMS (with RXs): Common manuscript flaws.

Abstract Concept (Make certain a kid would be able to understand and follow)

Adult Point of View (Write from a child's perspective)

Didn't follow submission procedures (Follow submission procedures)

PS We did not disqualify any manuscripts, but it does give pause.

Didn't integrate the theme (Insert heart)

Included a massive amount of writer's notes (Submit only the manuscript)

Not a Board Book (Read / Study Board books)

Not a Picture Book (Read / Study Picture Books)

Too long (Shorten)

Too tell-y (Show, don't tell)

Too list-y (Weave in narrative and dialogue)

Punctuation errors (review grammar rules)

Rhythm and Meter was terribly off (Learn the craft)

Sounded too much like a book already published (Read comp books and mentor texts)

Weak words and sentences (Punch up with strong nouns, active verbs and poetic devices.)

Words missing (reread manuscript several times, including out-loud, before sending).

SYMPTOM: The title was not a hook.

While this did not deter us in any way from reading forward as was our job, it is notable that many of the titles either lacked luster or did not give an idea as to what the story was about (without giving away the ending).

RX: A title is the first exposure to the manuscript and should be compelling. If possible, it should also encompass the hooks, and perhaps, in some cases, a character to connect with. So be sure and try many titles on for size and pick the perfect one, rather than settling on the first one that comes to mind.

SYMPTOM: The beginning did not serve to hook the reader.

Although we read each and every entry to the end, the Judges and I agree that we need to stress the important of first paragraphs and first pages. We're not sure that all writers understand that an Editor and/or Agent may not even read past the first page, or even, past the first paragraph. The reader needs to want to read more.

RX: It is important to read your manuscripts aloud and to develop the objectivity to determine whether the beginning is compelling. You simply cannot rely on the fact that "the good part is coming." Simply put, it all has to be good.

SYMPTOM: Unlikable main character.

RX: Your main character should have a flaw, but still be likable. There are few cases where bad characters work, like BAD KITTY, but they are often the exceptions. For the most part, even if your main character makes mistakes / doesn't do the right thing, they should be trying to do the right thing and should mirror good behavior for the reader. The reader should be able to connect with the main character on some level.

SYMPTOM: Too much adult POV and interference / Too little child POV and action

RX: Picture books are intended to empower children, so allow the child to have a stake in the problem, as well as motivation to solve it, and agency over it. The child should be active in moving the story forward as it identifies its goal / story problem and works toward achieving the goal or finding a solution.

SYMPTOM: Despite a good and/or promising idea, the story played out in a way that was boring or mundane, and/or just did not come to life.

RX: Read good books and bad. Be able to tell them apart. Study what works and what doesn't work in these stories. Take notes for future reference and even make a checklist. Then, integrate those techniques and concepts naturally into your own work. Remember that one of the hallmarks of a good picture book is that kids will not only select it from a pile, but finish reading it and want to read it again and again and again. Some of these manuscripts touched upon a good idea, but the execution was ineffective.

SYMPTOM: No picture potential or the scene doesn't change.

RX: Since a picture book is a marriage of text and art, it's important to be mindful of the pictures evoked on each spread, and how it will change on the next spread, and so on, and so one. Spend valuable time to consider the action happening and the change in the art to allow your story to come to life on the page.

SYMPTOM: The message is not at all clear, or it is preachy and/or heavy-handed.

RX: Clarify the message in the case of an unclear one, and make sure that everything in the story supports it in a natural way. In the case where the message / text feels preachy or heavy-handed, pull back on it. Show, rather than tell and allow the child to glean the message for the story.

SYMPTOM: The problem isn't clear, or it doesn't have much stakes or impact

RX: Clarify the problem and make sure that it is an important one, as well as one that the child reader will connect with. There has to be motivation for the main character to solve it (and not anyone else), as well as stakes -- which is what will happen if the MC doesn't solve the problem.

SYMPTOM: The ending isn't satisfying.

RX: A satisfying ending usually features a goal achieved or a solution found. The main character has grown and changed as a result of the story and is different than the beginning. Usually there is also a fun or humorous twist that brings the satisfaction further. And importantly, there should be some takeaway value for the reader. They should have learned or experienced something through the story that helps them understand or grow and changes them in a small way, too!

These are just a few of the main issues that we spotted. Those of you who opted for feedback will get specific feedback and a rating on your story. Some have gone out already and the rest will be going out in the next few weeks.

Thanks to those who entered. We hope to see you next year, with bigger and better stories that ever before. We hope we've provided a few ingredients to your recipe for success!

And on a closing note, Rate Your Story is open for Membership starting November 1st for Non-Members, with an even earlier window for Members of October 15, 2022. Membership spots are limited, so be certain to mark your calendars.


Lynne Marie is the author of Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten (Scholastic 2011), Hedgehog's100th Day of School (Scholastic 2017),The Star of the Christmas Play (Beaming Books 2018),Moldilocks and the 3 Scares, (Sterling / Scholastic 2019),Let’s Eat! Mealtime Around the World (Beaming Books 2019),The Three Little Pigs and the Rocket Project (Mac and Cheese Press 2022),The Three Little Pigs and the Rocket Project Coloring Book (Mac and Cheese Press 2022), and more, forthcoming. She’s also the Owner and Administrator and aTravel Agent. She lives close to the magic in Central Florida with her family and a Schipperke named Anakin. Visit her at Lynne Marie is represented by Marisa Cleveland Follow her on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

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