Peg366's Blog

Glen and Karen Bledsoe’s Article on Overused Ideas.

Posted on: June 9, 2009

Overused Ideas

Some ideas that seem great at the time might be so overused that editors would rather polka over hot broken glass than read your manuscript. Save yourself time, money, and postage by steering clear of these slush-pile fillers:

Bad Rhyme

Why is it that so many new writers who get an urge to write for children believe that they must write in verse? If you love poetry and have a real talent for verse, that’s fine. But slush piles are stacked with bad examples of verse in Dr. Seuss rhythm, with forced rhymes and lousy meter, all from writers who have the impression that this is the way children’s literature is supposed to be. Yes, Dr. Seuss wrote in rhyme all the time, but he had a genius for it, and his style is so characteristic that anyone who writes in the same meter is going to be seen as a Dr. Seuss wannabe. Using Dr. Seuss rhymes also suggests that the writer doesn’t really know the field well — that the only children’s book author that the writer is familiar with is Dr. Seuss.

What do you do if you’re a poet and love writing in rhyme? If you have a real genius for poetic forms and can create a compelling story, you may have a publishable product in spite of the common wisdom that verse doesn’t sell. It’s bad verse that doesn’t sell. Good verse can be hard to sell, but editors recognize good verse when they see it and will give it a fair appraisal.

Ugly Duckling look-alikes

The Ugly Duckling look-alike story takes a couple of forms. The classic form is the original, in which an animal (swan) that was raised with other animals (ducks) and doesn’t know what it really is, gets mocked for being different, then finds out in the end that it’s something wonderful. The heavy-handed moral of the story is that being different doesn’t make you bad, that being different may mean you have a hidden talent, etc. It worked for Hans Christian Anderson, and it worked in Stellaluna, but it takes talent and a highly original idea to pull it off.

A variation form is the “little (something) with (some unusual feature) who saves the day.” This is another story that is heavy on the morals, as some animal with what appears to be a handicap uses that handicap to rid its community of some threat. While it’s meant to be a feel-good story, the theme pops up over and over again in the slush piles, and rarely done well. Again, it worked in Stellaluna, but it may not work for you unless you can find a truly fresh approach.

Pinocchio look-alikes

Stories like these could be given the generic title, “The little (something) that wanted to be (something else),” just as Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy. Editors have seen all the bizzarre variations, from anthropomorphic animals hoping to be another animal, to anthropomorphic appliances wanting to be human or a different appliance. In the end, the little (something) learns to like himself just the way he is, which drops a heavy-handed, overused moral at the end.

In the news

Lance Armstrong wins his 7th Tour de France, and the next day the publishing houses are overrun with books about Lance Armstrong. That would have been fine if the books had been submitted two years prior and could have been accepted, edited, laid out, printed, and delivered in time to bookstores so that the books could be on the shelves the day of the great victory, but by the time Lance made the news, it was too late.

This doesn’t mean that you have to magically develop psychic powers so that you can write about news events two years before they happen. Just don’t expect editors to welcome your new manuscript with a story that’s old news.

Your kids/grandkids/pets

Yes, they’re adorable. Yes, Junior’s first trip to the zoo was one long day of cute anecdotes. But please, resist the temptation to turn it into a picture book for anyone outside of your family and circle of friends. Everyone believes their own child or grandchild is the most adorable, clever, and wonderful child in the world, and of course they want to brag, but other children aren’t interested in hearing it.

The same goes for pets. Your Boston terrier may be your little snuggy-wuggums, but there are millions of other dogs, cats, bunnies, hamsters, chameleons, parakeets, ferrets, goldfish, tarantulas, and other pets that other people adore, that do cute tricks, that barked for help when a toddler got hurt, or that have won prizes in a show. Unless Snuggy-wuggums rescued twenty orphans from a burning building all by himself and then dialed the fire department, he’s probably not going to have a story unique enough to merit publishing a book about him.

Fuzzy bunnies

Don’t. Just don’t.

Other highly-used characters

Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are popular characters for beginning writers, but it’s hard to think of anything fresh to say about them. A few writers have come up with interesting angles. Have a look at Santa Calls by William Joyce, or Olive the Other Reindeer by J. Otto Sielbold and Vivian Walsh, or The Polar Express by Chris van Allsburg, which was so fresh and wonderful that it was made into a movie. Is your story that fresh and wonderful? So wonderful that it will sell all year long? That’s another drawback to the holiday book — it tends to sell well during the holidays, but not at other times, so editors are often reluctant to accept them.

As for copyrighted and trademarked characters, avoid them entirely. You may have a wonderful idea for a book based on a cartoon character, but getting permission to use that character is time-consuming and terribly expensive. Unless the publishing house already has a contract with the company that owns the character, they aren’t going to go to the time and expense of obtaining the rights to publish your book. The cartoon character books that you see in the bookstore were put together by book packagers for the company that owns the cartoon, and written by hired authors under work-for-hire contracts.

Cute Little Animal’s Wonderful Day

Cute Little Animal almost always has an alliterative name: Sammy Seal, Kathy Kangaroo, Wally Warthog, Timmy Tapeworm (don’t laugh — editors have seen that and worse). Using an alliterative name almost always sets an editor’s teeth on edge, so it’s already a bad start.

Then the tale begins. Cute Little Animal has a wonderful day. Maybe Cute Little Animal goes to the beach with Momma and Poppa, hunts for sea shells, has a picnic, and then — oh, no! — it rains. They all run for the car and go home. The problem is that this isn’t a story. It’s an anecdote.

Even if Cute Little Animal saves the day by suddenly remembering that there’s a blanket in the back of the car and quickly fashions a beach cabana complete with a working heater and folding chairs from the blanket, a piece of string, and some Duct Tape, Cute Little Animal has already lost the editor’s interest. The character is too cute, the story is too cute, and off to the rejection heap it goes.

Anything with an obvious moral

Don’t. Just don’t.

When you’re as well established as Stan and Jan Berenstain, you might get away with it, but not when you’re first starting out.

Series books

Kids love series books. But before publishers are willing to publish a series, they need to see if the first book sells well. So write a great book that stands alone, and if it’s accepted and has good sales, suggest a sequel. Then another sequel. And yet another.

The really hot series books, the ones with thirty or more titles in them, are usually started in-house by publishers or, more often, by book packagers. So don’t start by writing a 30-book series yourself and then try to sell it. No legitimate publisher is going to want it.

Your own memoirs

Not for the children’s market, unless you’re already famous and kids are clamoring to read all about you. Even if you think that your childhood was remarkably interesting and kids could learn a lot from it (which is a bad start to begin with), unless you spent your childhood trekking across Antarctica or single-handedly ridding the Barbary Coast of pirates, kids won’t be interested and editors may think you’re hopelessly self-centered.

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2 Responses to "Glen and Karen Bledsoe’s Article on Overused Ideas."

Thanks for article. It is very good read.
I love to read peg366.wordpress.com.

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Thanks. I enjoyed it so thought I would share it with others. Hopefully, I’ll find more for you to enjoy.

Peg

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peg366


I am an aspiring picturebook writer with some magazine credits just no picture book contract yet. I know it is coming and I am more than willing to work for it.

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