After getting my MFA in Creative Writing for adults, I thought I knew how to write. Turns out, I didn’t know how to write stories with pictures.
But for the past two years, I’ve been trying. Correction, the first year I flailed about in the dark. The second year, I bought a flashlight to shine on the guideposts.
Picture books live by their own rules. Some of what I learned in my MFA program applied, but there was a banana boat load of things I didn’t know. So I read some of the classic kid lit writing texts, took online classes and added a separate goal-setting kid lit writing group to my schedule.
I now know just how difficult it is to write a satisfying story in 750 words or less. And today’s market is dipping below 500. Exhausted parents—at least those with young children—want speedy bedtime reading.
What’s a clueless writer for adults to do? I joined online children’s book writing communities, started sharing the pain and lunacy with others, including those with far more experience.
For example, Susanna Leonard Hill makes writers work. After entering two of Susanna’s rigorous competitions, ones with 100 and 250 word limits, a 500-word allowance felt like I’d just been led to a smorgasbord of chocolate ice cream, chocolate cake, chocolate pudding, 70% cacao chocolate bars, chocolate eclairs, chocolate donuts…get the picture?
Five hundred words for a full character and plot arc. Archetypes. Heroic journeys. Descriptive language. Humor. Fresh metaphors. Wordplay. Rhythm and rhyme (especially internal). Compression, compression, compression. Surprise and magic. Oh, and remember to visualize what can be presented more effectively in the illustrations, and leave that out of the text.
Decide whether it’s important to include specific instructions in the illustrator’s notes. But don’t be too specific unless it’s essential to the story. You don’t want to be considered a control freak and cramp the illustrator’s style. One more thing: lay out the text, and plan the page turns. Maximize the tension at those points. Got it. OK.
In the midst of all this learning, the Dogpatchers came sniffing round the house looking all hang dog:
So I revised a fiction story for adults this past February for their critique, a story that I’ll be using to apply for the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop this summer.
And guess what?
After exercising my slicing and dicing powers for picture books, I found all kinds of words that didn’t need to be lounging around inside my bloated, five thousand word story. I took that flabby thing and shook it out the door. Let the wind blow that chaff away. Now, what I’ve got is more finely tuned and ready for the judges.
Want to be a better writer?
Learn how to write a picture book—one that kids and adults will want to read.