Monday, July 27, 2009

The Accidental Picture Book Author

I never meant to be a picture book writer. I was a novelist. More specifically, a middle grade novelist. Picture books intimidated me. Pre-schooler intimidated me, even though I was the mother of a three-year -old.
Unlike those who think they can rip off a picture book during their lunch hour, I regarded those who could write picture books with awe. To me, picture books were about as simple as writing haiku...another art form I would not dream of attempting. Why"

Because the novelist is used to big expanses of time and space in which to tell a story. True, middle grade novels aren't the size of War and Peace, but they aren't less than eight hundred words, either. My first drafts of novels run 60-70,000 words. (I might add they are considerably less before they go off to the publisher.)

Not only are picture books short, but the text is only half the story. The text is the sound track for the illustrations, which tell the other half of the story. How on earth did you write a story like that unless you also were the illustrator? (I am not an illustrator.) Most of my picture book author heroes...Kevin Henkes, Peggy Rathman, Amy Schwartz...are illustrator/authors. They know how the characters look. They know how to draw a visual punchline. At the time, I was finding plenty of rejection for my novels. I saw no reason to add picture books to my pile of rejected work.
Then, for no other reason than to cheer up my four-year-old, I wrote My Best Friend
in two hours. I didn't know it was a picture book until I took it to my Vermont College workshop group. The group couldn't decide if it was a short story or a picture book. I had thought it might be an easy reader (which shows you how much I knew). The workshop leader really liked it and told me I ought to send it "somewhere." Seventeen "somewheres" later, it sold to Viking, who told me that it was a picture book. It was from that first editorial letter that I learned how to write a picture book. Writing like a picture book writer means dumping all the tricks that make me an novelist.

Gone was 99% of the description. I learned to tell the story through dialog and single well-chosen action verbs. The illustrator would do the rest. This is why I decided that producing a picture book was a lot like an arranged marriage. You write a text that does not become a book until it is illustrated by someone you never meet or talk to (editors like it that way), who then adds their vision to your text. Somehow, it all turns out well. At least it has for me. My illustrators have found far more in my stories than I ever dreamed was there.

I struggle every day in writing picture books. I have to remind myself to "leave room for the illustrator." To include the elements that give the artist something to work with, while leaving room for the artist's visual story. It is never easy, wihch is why I work on novels and picture books at the same time. When I need to paint my own word pictures in detail, I work on my novels. When I want to feel that I have accomplished something fast, I do a picture book draft. I can do a draft in a day. It takes fifty plus drafts over a period of several years before I even think about sending a picture book to my editors.

Knowing that we would be talking about picture books this time, I have been reading....picture books these past two weeks.
Here's the list: Fiction: Rainy Day by Patricia Lakin, Camping Day by Patricia Lakin, Abigail Spells by Anna Alter, Tiny & Hercules by Amy Schwartz, Silent Music by James Rumford, Nobody Here But Me by Judith Viorist, Yoon and the Jade Bracelet by Helen Recorvits
Poetry: Red Sings from Treetops by Joyce Sidman, Birds on a Wireby J. Patrick Lewis and Paul B. Janeczko
Non-fiction: A River of Words by Jen Bryant, 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy, Keep Your Eye on the Kid by Catherine Brighton.

Writing Workout

Try this exercise when you feel as if your inner novelist is overtaking your outer picture book writer.
1. Take your basic story.
2. Write the story using only nouns and action verbs. (OK, you can use prepostions too)
For instance, The Three Bears might look like this:
Bears exit house. They amble through forest.
Girl sees house. Girl looks in house. House is empty. Girl enters house. Girl sees table....(OK, you get the picture.)
3. Now that you have the skeleton of your story, go back and add in more specific nouns livelier verbs and selected adjective.
4. Avoid adverbs.
5. Add sound effects if you like and they make sense in the narrative. (If you've read Surprise Soupy ou know I love sounds. They're fun to read aloud.)
6. Before you add words to your original word count, ask yourself if the word is absolutely necessary. Would you pay a hundred dollars to put that word in the story? You would? Then it must belong there.

I don't guarantee that this will deliver a publishable manuscript, but doing it over and over helps mold your story into picture book form.


Sarah Campbell said...

Great post, Mary Ann.
How about?
Wolfsnail emerges hungry.
Wolfsnail eats.

Corey Schwartz said...

Interesting post. I am a picture book writer who can't even imagine attempting a novel.

Tara McClendon said...

I like the analogy of the arranged marriage. I've never looked at it that way.