Saturday, February 5, 2011

The 29 Minute Picture Book

     Remember when rock and roll songs had to be under three minutes to fit AM radio format? (when AM radio had actual music) I don't know why this was, but those 45's were all two minutes plus. I will wait while you look for your old Herman's Hermits collection. There was endless PR (mostly untrue) that such and such a song had been written in 15 minutes. My father, who is pretty open-minded about all kinds of music, said he doubted it took more than a half hour to write Meet the Beatles, the entire album.

     Some people have the same attitude toward picture books. (None of you, of course.) Not a week goes by when someone doesn't ask why I've written "only six "baby" books in ten years. (I also wrote two novels, but somehow people zero in on the picture books.)  I mean how long can it take to write 700 words or less? Or if you happen to be Maurice Sendak and wrote what is arguably the classic picture book, Where the Wild things Are in 160--something words.

    It takes me three to four times longer to write a picture book than one of my novels. Why? For one thing, I never ever intended to become a picture book writer. I was very comfortable in my 45,000 word count zone.  I was intimidated by people who could craft these little jewels of less than a thousand words (This was years ago when a picture book could be a thousand words.)

My first picture book, My Best Friend, sold in 2000, was 990 words. Today, adults often tell me they like the book "but it's so long."  Less is more...a lot less. Editors lust after the 600 words and under book. The best I've been able to do is 690 (Camp K-9, May 2011, Peachtree.) I'm still trying for that magic 600.

 Each word has to carry its own weight. The words have to be lively but easy to read aloud. My husband still turns purple at the memory of one of my daughter's favorite books in which nearly every word began with the letter "p." One page, and he was sputtering like Porky Pig.

If all this weren't enough, you need actions that the illustrator can draw. "To be" "think" and "felt" are not words illustrators (or editors) want to see in a picture book.

     I have talked about novels simmering on the back burner of my brain for a year or two before I begin to write. By then, I know my characters, and the story arc.  Not so the picture book. They are on super slow simmer. I'm amazed they don't scorch, simmering so long.

     My Best Friend was a miracle. I wrote it in two hours. Two furious hours, because someone had been mean to my four-year-old and I wrote it to make her feel better. I failed; she didn't feel one bit better that I had given her real life problem a fictional happy ending. However, the nice people at Viking appreciated it and bought it. I have never again written a picture book in less than three years (which only goes to show what can happen when someone picks on your kid, and you are M-A-D!)

    Here's what usually happens. I get an idea. I write a first draft and put it away for a couple of months.
I take it out again, and discover that not only is the first draft way too long, the story is lame.
Write another draft. another couple of months. Another draft.  Around year two, I start sending the book around, even though I know it's not  quite right, but hey, maybe the editor won't notice. They notice, but they don't tell you how to fix it. Then I put the story back in the file, because you don't want to use up all your available editors.   Unless an editor says these words "This is almost right. Please revise and resubmit," do not revise and resubmit.  Being rejected by a publisher is a bridge burnt, And there are few enough publishers who will even read un-agented writers, like  me. But that's another blog.

At this point I used to pester my picture book writing friends for their input. I have since learned to ask for their critiques before I start wasting postage and editors' patience. At this point big things start changing. Like the entire concept. I can write and write and still not know what the story is about. For instance, Surprise Soup started off as a story of two brothers, stuck in the house on a rainy day, so their father teaches them to make an old family recipe,  And it was 300 words too long. When the book finally came out (seven years after I got the original idea), the only thing that remained from the original story was the word "soup." Even my human characters had morphed into bears (the wise idea of my illustrator G. Brian Karas) Not to give away the whole story (and lose a possible book sale!) what really changed was the focus....from bored boys making soup to family dynamics. And 300 words less.

At this moment, I have at least five picture books (plus my current novel) running on little gerbil wheels in the back of my head.  They have gone through all of the above agony, so it is time (when I find the time) to do what finally got Surprise Soup off the launch pad.
Writer's Workout
 1. See if you can sum up your story in one sentence of seven words or less. Not the plot, the theme.
If you can't do that, you're not "almost" there yet. Give it another couple of months.

2.  Sometimes you can ignore step one. All I knew about Surprise Soup was that I had two brothers arguing over soup-making. This is kind of ironic since my idea of soupmaking involves a can opener and a microwave. Soooo....

3. I made lists (I may have mentioned this in another post) of sounds you might hear. I didn't limit myself to actual words like rattle or clatter or clink. I made up words. I love making up words (although sometimes my copyeditors don't. Yes, I know it's not a real word. I made it up!) The list looked something like this--splooshety-sploosh, slippity-slop, plippity-plop, woosh, swoosh, whirrdiddy. Allowing myself to get silly with sound words encouraged me into the next part; sibling bickering.

4. Some of you could probably write volumes of taunts and name calling and the accompanying body movements. I am an only child who has an only child. However I grew up in a neighborhood with huge families, who could stage some colorful throwdowns. I remembered what they said, plus some choice pieces of snittering (I know it's not a word, but it's what you do when your entire fight takes place in whiney or all-knowing voices.) That list really doesn't need to be repeated although I can't resist saying
"you doodoo  French accent" was on that list (but not the book)

5. One of my current lists (for a story I've been fiddling with for four years) looks like this; sand-itch, spliddle, spladdle, whooshswish, flippity-flap-flap,drippity-drip, bingety-bang, sproing, tickety-tackety.  Just writing this down makes my original concept do a 180.

6. Stay with tis list making for part of your writing time for a week (I do not spend four hours a day just making lists)  You may have an a-ha moment. You may finish that sucker up in 24 hours. Most likely, it will get you some new directions know what I'm going to should put it back in the file for a couple of months. By then, I'll bet you will not only know what your story is about, but that you can finish it as well.

Have  a happy writing week...and work in a few lists.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Kelly Polark said...

Thanks for a great post on picture books. I'm doing the picture book marathon (26 rough drafts in Feb) knowing full well I'd finish 2 or 3 but it would motivate me to strive do that many rough drafts. Then I shall let them sit!

Beth MacKinney said...

Usually picture book manuscripts trickle out of me. They remind me of Sunday cartoons, because they have to end with a good gag. (At least mine do.) But they take months of work to get just right, besides input from my two critique groups.

Becky Fyfe said...

Thanks for this very useful post about picture books! I have three picture books (sans the pictures at the moment), and now I know what to look for when I go look at them again to make changes (especially looking at that all-important wordcount!)

Becky Fyfe said...

Hmm. My first one is 813 words. Too long?

mary ann rodman said...

For those of you obsessing about word count, it is such a subjective thin I believe that a book takes as many words as it takes, but not one more. I tell my students who are undecided if a word is necessary or not, I ask the if they would pay me a hundred bucks to use that word. If it's not worth $100 to you, then it isn't that necessary to the story.
I find "the whittling challenge" almost like a puzzle. You would be amazed how fast you can dump an easy 100 words eliminating "the" "and" "or" etc, and specific descriptors ("the little girl had red hair and a pink dress") unless the story centers around her hair and dress color. That this is the difficulty of being both a novelist and a picture book writer. Novelists describe (no art), picture books are told half by you, and half by the illustrator. Giving your illustrator room to add their vision helps cutting unneeded words. I have found that my illustrators have always been brilliant artists who will pick up those details in their art, saving you many words. I you want to see what I mean, check out my FIRST GRADE STINKS and see how Beth Spiegel could take one detail (that was probably mentioned five or six times in the original ms) and incorporate it into the further words needed.

Leanne Pankuch said...

What a great post, Mary Ann! So much good advice. I, too, am a novelist, but every now and then I get creatively "taken over" by an idea for a picture book!

Sabrina Mock-Rossi said...

Loved your post Mary Ann! Its all so true. Picture books are hard not only as someone who writes 'other' literature for children, but also NOT being an illustrator. You are relying on faith that the editor who reads your ms gets what you are aiming for - only having told half the story!
By the way - on word count I wanted to add that a senior editor once told a group of us that they look for 500 words or less and truly they really want 300 or less! With great characters, a real problem and a satisfactory solution! Eek!

Jean Reidy said...

Really great post. Loved every bit. And oh how important that raw spillage step is. Because it's usually the ideas generated mid-spill that end up in the story.