Choosing Your Story: Shelf Research Points the Way

Photo by Dean Hochman

Photo by Dean Hochman

I’ve got picture book ideas–and the sticky notes, crumpled napkins and scribbled notebooks to prove it. I’ve got manuscripts–some crappy first drafts, some overworked revisions and some that look pretty good. But which story to focus on next?

This summer, I’m gratefully participating in Mira Reisberg and Kelly Delaney‘s Children’s Book Academy course on the Craft and Business of Writing Children’s Picture Books on a Yuyi Morales scholarship. For this online course, participants choose one story to hone over five weeks. How do I go about choosing just one story?

After two rounds of Tara Lazar‘s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), I’ve learned a few tricks that help me make these kinds of choices. One of my favorites is SHELF RESEARCH.

First, I look at all the ideas in my Possibly Good pile (see Laura Gehl‘s wonderful post about sorting ideas), and notice which idea seems to be tickling my fancy and tugging at my heart (á la Michael Garland).

Then I go to Amazon Books. It’s the only time I do. I search as many iterations of my title and idea that I can imagine, and see what comes up.

  • Is my title taken?
  • Are there lots of similar books on the shelf already?
  • What has been published recently that’s like my idea?

I’m trying to find the place on the library shelf where my book will fit. If I discover that the shelf space is already pretty crowded, that doesn’t necessarily mean I give up on my idea. Instead, I consider ways to tweak my idea with the uniqueness only I can impart to a perennial topic.

If something similar has been published, but not for a long time, then I brainstorm how to present my story in a fresh and contemporary way.

Sometimes, I even start a bibliography and check out some titles from the library. I want to ensure that whatever I create is different from what’s already been done. Also, these titles may be useful comps (comparison titles) when it comes time to write a cover letter.

Just a note: I do NOT recommend shelf research for very beginning writers, or for ideas you LOVE. If you love it, write it. If you’re just beginning to write, the work you do on a story idea you love will build your craft and knowledge, even if it’s already been done. Then you’ll be ready to apply that developed craft knowledge when a truly unique and marketable idea comes to you.

What are your favorite strategies for choosing your next story? What do you look for when you do shelf research?


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