Wednesday, July 29, 2009

“A Successful Picture Book is a Visual Poem”

[Note to teachers: while this post is aimed at adults trying to write commercially publishable picture books, the Writing Workout at the end can also be used with young writers creating their own illustrated stories.]

My childhood was similar to Jeanne Marie's in that no one read picture books to me. But when I started reading them to my son (more years ago than I care to admit), I fell in love with the genre. I was working as a freelance writer at the time, and I began fantasizing about writing stories that would be brilliantly illustrated—by someone else. (I can barely draw stick figures myself. April's sketches make me so jealous!) While I never said, “I can write a picture book on my coffee break,” I did often think: “How hard can it be?” As it turns out, at least for me, it can be VERY hard. But that didn’t keep me from trying.

I enrolled in my first class in writing for children (many years ago) with the sole intent of becoming a picture book author. I wrote several awful picture book manuscripts for that class. The instructor was too kind to tell me just how bad they were, but editors later responded to them with form rejections.

One of the last weeks of class, the instructor gave us an assignment to write in a genre we hadn’t tried yet. So I took a crack at the first chapter of a young-adult novel. I was surprised at how much fun it was. I was soon hooked. Like Mary Ann, I discovered I was really a novelist at heart. But I still dreamed of writing a publishable picture book manuscript one day, and I worked on several while I was at Vermont College. When I submitted those picture book manuscripts to editors, I received some “encouraging” rejection letters, but still no sales.

So I kept reading and studying picture book texts. I finally broke down and tried a technique I’d read about years earlier—I typed out the text of several picture book manuscripts I admired. That experience was truly eye, and ear, opening. (Esther mentions this technique, along with several others, in her article in the Sept/Oct 2008 SCBWI Bulletin.) For some reason, it wasn’t until I typed those texts and saw how they looked on the page, without illustrations, that I began to get a real feel for picture book format, pacing, and rhythm.

Later, I had a real “aha” moment when I read a quote from Caldecott-winning author-illustrator Maurice Sendak, in which he said:
“A successful picture book is a visual poem.”
(According to Janice Harayda at One Minute Book Reviews, the quote is from Sendak’s book, Caledcott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures.)

Sendak may have been speaking about the almost magical interplay between text and images. But his words made me think about how much picture book texts have in common with poetry. For example, in both:
  • Every word must count.
  • Words often work synergistically, so that the effect of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  • Both are meant to be read aloud, which makes sound, rhythm, repetition, and wordplay important, even in the absence of rhyme.
  • Both have standardized forms: just as a haiku or sonnet must follow certain rules, picture books have rules too.
Two basic rules predominate in picture books being published today:
  1. The text should not exceed 800 words. (Many publishers prefer texts shorter than 500 words.)
  2. The story must fit into a 32-page format.
But even within a 32-page format, the actual number of pages available for text varies. For a detailed explanation, see the Editorial Anonymous blog. And after reading that post, check out the follow-up comments at Tara Lazar’s blog. Tara even provides diagrams that can help you create a storyboard for your manuscript. Finally, click here for a printable one-page picture book storyboard (for a book with end pages).

[Note: I don’t storyboard my picture books until I’ve gone through several revisions of the basic story. But depending on the type of story you’re writing, you can use a storyboard to help plot out the events in advance. For a discussion of this, click here.]

But to get back to similarities between picture book texts and poems: I found JoAnn’s comments about her love of wordplay interesting. JoAnn talked about how, for her, the rhythm and language come first and how she sometimes has to work at developing the story. For me, on the other hand, the story generally comes first, and I have to work at strengthening the rhythm and language.

I continue to revise my picture book manuscripts to try to make them more poetic. In the process, I think I’m getting closer to a publishable manuscript—I recently had an editor actually ask to see a revision of a story I'd sent her. Stay tuned. I’ll let you know how it works out. Meanwhile, here’s a Writing Workout to help you turn your manuscript into a “visual poem.”

Writing Workout: Creating a Visual Poem

Take a picture book manuscript you've written and look at your use of poetic devices. See if the addition of some of the following devices might enhance your story. (If you're unsure what these terms mean, check out this poetry glossary.):
  • alliteration (Be careful of alliterative character names, though, as they have become cliche.)
  • assonance
  • consonance
  • onomatopoeia
  • simile
  • metaphor
  • repetition
  • internal rhyme
Read your manuscript aloud. Does it have a strong rhythm? Do you stumble over any of the words? Revise as needed.

If you can, record yourself reading the manuscript and play it back to listen to the rhythm and flow. Or have someone else read the manuscript aloud while you take note of any parts that sound awkward. Keep polishing until your words sing!


writerlady said...

Great article, Marti! Insightful and useful for all writers. Thank you for including links to the resources you mentioned. Have you seen the previews of the movie version of "Where the Wild Things Are"? I hope the visually poetry of Sendak's story remains intact...

writerlady said...

oops...that's visual poetry...

Sarah Campbell said...

Another concept I have found useful as I consider writing a picture book manuscript is to think of a film -- with each page turn as a scene.
Thanks for all the links in this page. It is a good exercise for writers (new and experienced).

Michelle Sussman said...

Thanks Marti! Great info!

Carmela Martino said...

Hi Everyone,
No, I haven't seen the previews for the film version of Where the Wild Things Are. I believe there's a play of it, too, though I've never seen that either.

And yes, Sarah, thinking of a picture book as a film with scenes can also be helpful. Of course, I often think of my novels that way, too.

Thanks for the comments, Ladies.