Saturday, August 23, 2014

Picture Book Writing is HARD!

I have trouble finishing my novel manuscripts. I am the Queen of Unfinished Manuscripts. I have a lot of great starts, and even middles - but no endings. Yet (she said hopefully).

So last spring, I thought I'd try a picture book instead in hopes that I could actually finish a manuscript. I thought it would be easier. I know all picture book writers out there are either rolling their eyes or are tempted to throw a brick at my head right now. But yes, I thought that. Wrong! Could not have been more wrong.

The basic conundrum of picture books: How do you get your point across, beautifully, in hardly any words?

This is very different from novel writing, where you can, and should (at some points), describe people and places and give details and you have thousands of words in your word count limit.

In trying to wrap my head around this, I turned to my friends on the Blue Boards at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Here is their advice on writing picture books:

  • Picture books are an equal marriage of the text and the illustrations. The art will tell half (or more) of the story. Leave room for the illustrator. This means your text should describe the action but not the visual details. The illustrator will add those the way they 'see' them from your text. You and the illustrator are creative partners - let the illustrator bring something to the story.
  • Think more about the art. What words are left out to leave room for the art? What story does the art tell and how does it enhance or expand the story? 
  • To get your word count down, try writing the book as an outline or just the bones of the story at first. Outline as poetically as possible. Then, take each action in the outline and write that as a line in your book.
  • To get your word count down, cut back anything you can picture - descriptions, emotions, even some actions.
  • Write in poetry. Not literally, unless you are writing a poetry book. But write the way you would write if you were writing poetry - the techniques that get meaning across beautifully in a few words.
  • Think in picture instead of words.
  • Have exciting page turns to make the reader want to continue reading.
  • Each page needs to show something new that moves the story forward - new action, new character, new emotion.
  • Read the story. If it is complete without needing any pictures to tell the story, your manuscript may be better suited as a short story.
  • Read your manuscript out loud to yourself. You will catch awkward places that don't roll easily off the tongue this way.
  • Make a dummy. There are lots of online sources for picture book story boards. Here's a great one with explanation from Tara Lazar's blog Writing for Kids While Raising Them. When you do this, also think about what illustrations you visualize on each page. You won't be illustrating them (unless you also happen to be a children's illustrator), but this will help ensure that there is a great picture for each page of your manuscript. You can also think about how your pages lay out in book form and think about your page turns this way. Are they exciting or boring?
These golden pieces of advice helped me tremendously on this adventure!

And now I know just how hard writing a picture book is! I'd describe writing my first draft on this first attempt at a picture book kind of like sitting in front of my laptop and bleeding from the eyeballs. Squeezing those words out in blood through my eyeballs! This was just my first attempt - maybe it gets easier?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


I wrote my first book, Twink the Circus Monkey, in first grade. I don't remember what shenanigans Twink participated in, or what circus feats he performed. But I do remember I wrote it on stapled, mondo-sized index cards in red pencil. And I was inordinately proud of it. I wrote A BOOK. Those awesome, magical vehicles that have the ability to transport us all over the world and beyond, to crack open thoughts never before thought, and dreams never before dreamed. And I WROTE ONE.

I've been in crazy love with books all my life. I've dallied in writing all my life. But I want to be much more intentional about it - hone my craft, write daily, learn continually. Because I think I will be writing all my life, through eternity. Thus: From Here to Writernity (I don't anticipate a trip to Hawaii any time soon).

Think of Buzz Lightyear.

I may go down that race track many times and go around in circles at times, but I'm going to bounce off that ball and keep on writing. Because that's what I do.

When you wake up with a story three-quarters written in a dream, when you wake up in the middle of the night with phrases that stick to your heart, when you giggle at word play - that's what you do. You write. And it doesn't really feel like there is much of a choice. It's just something that comes out of you.

Sure, I need to learn a lot more. And I sure as heck need to finish what I start! I am the queen of unfinished manuscripts. I need to give my writing the priority it deserves. "Writers write." as Chuck Wendig says.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Summer Learning

This summer, I spent a lot of time improving my writing knowledge, meaning the craft of writing. I am a Literacy Coach and Reading Specialist and have written creatively for years. While I am definitely capable of communicating effectively, that doesn't mean I have a lot of knowledge about the craft, the art, of writing. I need to learn more. I think most writers realize they need to learn more to hone their skills. Since I am interested in writing for children, I sought resources specific to that niche.

One of the best sources of information for writing for children is the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. In addition to a slew of resources, they also have amazing discussion boards where you can ask almost anything and get very helpful answers from the authors who also belong to SCBWI. I got great tips and suggestions (and more resources!) for writing picture books from the fab folks on the discussion boards.

I also participated in Kami Kinard and Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen's Kid Lit Summer School (part of the Nerdy Chicks Write blog) focusing on character. It was fabulous! There were great webinars, #30mdares and daily blog posts by guest authors designed to deepen our character knowledge.  And it was free! Yep. F.R.E.E. I found the exercises and daily focus on character really helpful. You missed it? Don't worry - they are going to do it again next year! And you can also sign up for their blog Nerdy Chicks Rule.

I've also found a few great books (they were recommended to me and are spot on):

The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig - for writers of any genre
Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul - specifically for picture book writers, but useful by any children's book writer
The Plot Whisperer, Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master (also has a workbook) by Martha Alderson - for writers of any genre

And of huge import - I reached out to my friend Alison DeLuca, author of The Crown Phoenix Series, for help revising and editing my picture book manuscript. No matter what other resources you seek out, it's vital to take that scary leap and have others read your manuscript. The key is they must be people who will give you honest feedback. Wherever the manuscript sucks, I want to know it so I can make it better. Thank you for that, Alison. And now it is ready (Well, you know. You can only tinker so much. After you've tinkered for months.) to submit to Lee & Low's New Voices Award. Scaaaarrryyy!

Happy writing, photographing and end-of-summer, everyone!