Friday, February 28, 2020

Leaping into the Deep End

I don't know how to swim. Years of Learn-to-Swim classes, and I still can't do anything resembling a crawl. I can't coordinate my arms and legs and breathing, but I can make from one end of a pool to the other. I'm not afraid of water. I know I can save myself. I just don't look pretty doing it.

It's the same way with me and picture book writing. I never meant to be a picture book writer. My comfort zone has always been middle grade and YA fiction. I can remember what it was like to be those ages. Those genres allow me to explore side roads in plot, take deep dives into characters' heads.

Picture book writing doesn't allow for meandering or deep diving.

Picture book writing used to terrify me. A set number of words, which has shrunk considerably over the years.  Every word chosen for maximum impact. Connecting with a young child's world in language they can understand. Words that are read aloud, so they must flow in a rhythm that is easy, yet interesting. Terrifying!

So why do I have seven published picture books, with number eight arriving fall of 2021?

I took the leap into picture books by accident.

I've told the story behind My Best Friend before, but if you missed it the first time, here is the synopsis.  I got really mad over some pre-school "mean girls" picking on my four-year-old daughter at the neighborhood pool. A Jack Daniels-and-Coke later, I had written a story meant to cheer her up. She couldn't have cared less. Due to circumstances beyond my control, that was the only new writing I had done in six months (I was revising Yankee Girl at the time. ) As a result, My Best Friend became my workshop piece at Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children Program that summer. My lovely workshop leader, Eric Kimmel, was the only one who showed any enthusiasm for it, and told me I needed to submit it "somewhere." Seventeen rejection letters later, it sold. Won some awards. Is still selling well fifteen years later.

I was more surprised than anyone. I still am. All I did was write a happy ending story for my unhappy child. Picture books were supposed to be hard... and here I'd hammered out this story in two hours, with next to no revisions between my computer and the published book. How did I do that?

I'm still asking myself that, twenty years after the hot, sticky afternoon Mr. Jack Daniels and I sat down and banged out that story about little girls, friendships and swimming pools. Faced with the expectation that I would write more picture books, I set about learning how to write them. My Best Friend was a gift from God. I wrote because I had no expectation that anyone other than my daughter would ever hear the story. Now I was supposed to do it again. Terrifying!

I hear stories in my head, rather than see them. I knew how picture books sound because I read endless picture books to my daughter. I absorbed their language and rhythm into my bones. I understood the "rules" for picture book writing. So I wrote picture books...ten of them over two years.

They were all awful. So awful I never even printed them off.

You can have a million ideas...but how do you know which ones are worth writing? What makes one book good and another least favorite adjective..."slight" I didn't know. I still don't. All I could do was write what I wanted in the moment, put it away and look at it again in a couple of months.

It took two years and another crisis with my daughter, before I came up with First Grade Stinks! Two years to find a "story seed" that truly had potential. Then came another year of writing and rejecting stories that came from that seed. Thank goodness for good writing friends who can read objectively and make suggestions. They wouldn't let me give up, no matter how many times I chased the story "into the weeds."

If you are reading this post, hoping to find the magic formula for picture book writing...surprise! I don't possess it. I am still chasing story seeds that float away like dandelion fluff. I am still writing "slight" books that never make it to manuscript status.

The real "leap" was in allowing my self to jump into the deeper water of picture book writing, while only sort of knowing how to do it. Swimming the length of a pool and back takes me a long time. Sometimes I have to tread water to catch my breath. But allowing myself to do something in my own clumsy, klutzy way, without expecting to look confidant and coordinated...that's a leap! I've learned to feel the same way about picture book writing. Coordinated or klutzy, automatic or trial-and-error writing...both can end in the same result, something that children want to hear over and over.

It's worth the effort!

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

1 comment:

Carmela Martino said...

Wow, I SO relate to this post, MA! I'm a poor swimmer too--had to hold my breath to swim 2 lengths of the pool to pass my high school test. And while I've never had any of my picture book manuscripts published, I keep working with those seeds, hoping to finally see one take root!