Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What’s So Hard (for Me) about Writing Picture Books

I love wordplay. I savor the delicious way words feel in my mouth. The taste of an especially yummy combination—one that tingles with rhythm, rhyme, or alliteration. The way exciting language tickles my ears. I search for tangy, succulent, flavorful words.

Sometimes the sounds of words almost feel more important than their meanings.

Eeek! Halt! Hold everything!

When I get so enamored with sounds, I know I’m sliding off track. Because something else is much more important. Those tantalizing words have to say something. Mean something. The ideas they express have to take precedence over the sounds, no matter how delectable they are.

When I work on a picture book, I write by hand in purple ink on legal pads, over and over and over until I feel each stanza, each line, each word is pulling its weight—fitting into the pattern, portraying an emotion, saying what I want to say. Something grabs me, I play with it, I sink into the words and ideas and sounds and images and write. And write and write and write.

The hardest part for me is recognizing and incorporating something that resembles an actual plot—a story with a beginning, middle, and end—that adds the necessary depth to those strained-to-attain scrumptious sounds.

When I sold my first picture book, Cats on Judy, the editor asked me to add details that implied the passing of time so that the text felt more like a story. The same thing happened with Sing-Along Song. Do you see a pattern here? I didn’t, at least not at first.

Many of my rejection letters say that the text is “slight.” What does that mean? How many rejections have I received over the years for the same reason? I’m afraid to count.

Not too long ago as I worked on a new picture book idea, something clicked—almost audibly—like the flick of a light switch.


Somehow right after I finished the first complete draft, I knew it was weak. It needed something more to propel it beyond a simple counting book with rhythm and rhyme. After all these years (and rejections!), I figured it out for myself. I recognized slightness when I saw it (at least in this one manuscript) and took it back to my desk to tear it apart and start over. Now it’s more than a counting book with rhythm and rhyme; it’s an actual story—with counting elements woven in in alternating stanzas—and I’m also adding nonfiction back matter. I hope it works!

Some writers seem to attain the necessary depth in a picture book manuscript without a conscious thought. Or they know enough not to begin writing unless and until all the elements are in place. Not me. I have to work at it, word by flavorful word. But at last, I understand the meaning of slight—lacking that strength, that depth, that extra layer that makes a manuscript more than just what meets the eye at first glance and makes readers want to read it again and again.


Tara McClendon said...

I love the idea of yummy combinations of words. :]

Corey Schwartz said...

Oh, I have the exact same problem! Always get back from the editor, "Love the language, rhythm, rhyme, but a little thin on plot."

Carla said...

I am working on my first submitting my first manuscript and actually looking forward to my first rejection....I suppose it's all a learning experience and I am grateful that a published writer like yourself shares her experiences with others. Thanks a lot.

Carla T.

JoAnn Early Macken said...

Thanks, Tara! I think I inherited my love of words from my mother, who wrote poetry before I was born & still enjoys crossword puzzles.

Corey, I think recognizing a problem is the first step toward fixing it, don't you? I love it when editors take the time for a personal response!

Carla, best of luck with your submission!