What’s Harder about Picture Books—#4,385

Okay, maybe I should have said “different” in the post title, instead of “harder.” As I work through my first picture-book attempt, I’m finding lots of things that do just qualify as different, and some that are actually easier than, oh, say, a historical novel. Did someone say *cough*, “Research?”

This week, though, I’m heading into some more revision, and I had a lightbulb moment about what exactly I’ve been struggling with.

When I revise a novel, I work in threads. Or chunks. Or arcs…however you want to describe it. Basically, if I know that a character’s arc isn’t strong enough, I’ll follow her story all the way through the book, tweaking her interactions with other characters, amping up her responses to events, making connections tighter and layers deeper. Or if I drop a new plot point in toward the end of the book, I go through and plant seeds for that point in earlier chapters, making sure (hopefully!) that they mesh well with the rest of the story. The nice thing about this is that it lets me pay attention to something specific and not bounce around as randomly as I would if I were just revising page-by-page with whatever I noticed not working.

The other nice thing is that I can spend some time around each of these threads. As I work, I do notice other things to play with on another revision pass, and I spend more time with my characters, themes, and voice–getting to know them all that much better. It’s not a fast process, but I think the hours are valuable and add to the quality of my project.

Here’s the thing about a picture book. Each “thread” has maybe a dozen sentences to it.  Even if I stare at each of those sentences and think (a la Winnie-the-Pooh) really hard about them, I’m not getting hours worth of revising time for any of them. I realized this was a problem, when I’d tried to revise about a half-page of text and hit overwhelmed. Because…yeah, I was trying to revise three character threads at once.         

I can’t DO that.

So, this week, I’ll be taking it a thread at a time. Which may sound easier, and–in terms of keeping my brain INSIDE my skull, will be. In terms of letting me dig into my story, though, really immerse myself in the characters and plot, I’m just not sure. Even if each revision thread goes quickly, I’m not sure that I can shift onto another and another that quickly. Still…if I spend a half hour or hour per thread each day, I should have another solid revision done by the end of the week, and that’s a goal I can live with.

How do you revise? And does it vary for you depending on the length (or other quality) of the manuscript?

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7 thoughts on “What’s Harder about Picture Books—#4,385

  1. I like to revise by character thread as well. It’s easier to make sure the continuity is there, and maybe I have a small brain, but I can really only concentrate on one thing at once.

    Another thing I think is harder about pbs is that you just have fewer words to spend to make the story yours. With novels you can have a similar premise but really diversify. It’s harder when you are so limited with words.

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    • beckylevine says:

      The fewer words, I can usually deal with–at least on the first draft. Although it is trickier to get the layers in–that’s true!

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  2. Your process sounds similar to mine. “Threads” is a good way to talk about it. I use the word “layers”.

    This morning I’ll be going through my manuscript working on the layer that is my character’s letters and diary entries – making sure the two sound different from each other. After that, the layer I need to work on is adding sensory details. (Crazy how I can ignore that for so long!)

    And of course, there are more layers after that! And to think – I thought I was almost ready to submit. But a critique from my former teacher helped me see how much work I have left.

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    • beckylevine says:

      It’s amazing how close we can think we are, and yet…

      I can totally see leaving out the sensory details–maybe it has to do with writing historical? Those details, for me, are so tied to the research I’m still doing.

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  3. Tiare S. says:

    Funny how we all revise in such a similar pattern. I also revise in layers. Sometimes I focus on plot (like this week). Other times, I focus on sensory details, character quirks, humor, etc. Picture books (and short stories) are very challenging for me to revise, because it takes so much work when absolutely every word counts. Sometimes removing a word or two changes the entire story, so I have to shift other sections around until it works again, like a puzzle. And I am not very good with puzzles.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I know. Somehow, even though I know that every word counts in a novel, too, it doesn’t feel like the same kind of pressure! Still liking the story, though, so I think it’s worth pushing through.

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  4. This is fascinating, Becky. I haven’t tried writing picture books, but I can see why it would be helpful to think of them thread by thread, too. There’s so much going on in such a small space that it could hard to see all the arcs at once.

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