Picture Books and Me
If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you may have–in the past few days–had your fill of this subject. I’ve been working on the picture book a lot lately and I’ve been posting random updates about it. If it makes you yawn, feel free to click away. 🙂
If you’re not sick of this yet, read on.
I’ve committed to a couple of things lately that come with critique opportunities. (To get, not to give this time!). I know that the YA is SO not ready for this stage, so–because I don’t want to pass up the chance–I’m going to be submitting the picture book. Which means I’m also going to be working on the picture book. No, I’m not deluding myself that I can get it Ready-Ready in time, but I can sure as heck get it a lot closer to Ready. That’s the (one?) advantage of working with a lot fewer words.
Anyway, because the posts here may be a bit picture-book-centric for the next couple of weeks, I thought I’d share a little of my reading/writing history, as it pertains to these shorter works. Just so you see what I’m in for and so you don’t wander around under any delusion that I consider myself an expert in this genre. I took this book on as a learning curve I wanted to tackle–I had an idea I loved (and still love, thankfully), and I promised myself I’d take it to the point where I decided it was ready for submission or that submission was not going to happen. Still working toward the first of those choices.
Anyway, let’s go back a few years. Okay, let’s go back a few decades. Picture me in high school, one with an “interesting” English department that sort of skipped over the standards of English & American lit and offered classes in Sci-Fi/Fantasy, “peasant” lit (I have no idea if that’s a real term or just one teacher’s label, but think Halldór Laxness), and–oh, boy–Russian lit. I read Michail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don and I was hooked. In love. Skip ahead a few years to college. Somebody handed me a Dickens novel. Then one by a Bronte. Victorian novels–pages and pages of staying with the same characters. Days, instead of hours, in the same world. (I read fast). I fell in love again. And stayed there through grad school.
Now let’s look at something. A Victorian novel, British or Russian, has anywhere from 500 pages (that’s a short one!) to 800+. They have description out the wazoo–whether you’re talking about a place, a character’s physical appearance, or their familial (and often genealogical) background. Action? Oh, sure, but you can sometimes expect a half-page paragraph to describe a couple of steps of movement. Dense is a good word for the Victorian novel. Lovely, beautiful, spectacularly flavored dense, but still.
Picture books, not so much. The word is spreading quickly through the genre that some agents won’t look at submissions longer than 500 words. Not pages–words. Description? Okay, you can have a word or two, but that’s what the illustrator is for. Background information? Not if you can’t get it across in a sentence. A sentence. (Can you hear Elizabeth Gaskell rolling over in her grave yet?!) My brain underwent a big twist when I started reading and writing YA, but this picture book thing is tying that twist into an increasingly tighter knot. A fun, challenging one that would be the delight of any boy scout, but still, quite the knot.
And here’s another layer of my history with picture books. I had my favorites from when I was a child, sure. And when my son was born, reading to him was one of the fun parts of mothering an infant. But…I could not wait until we could start reading the longer books. No, I didn’t force Great Expectations into his ears, but when we got to Ruth Stiles Gannett and Roald Dahl, I was in heaven.
What I’m saying is that, if you give me a novel to read, I’m happy. (And like the mouse with the cookie, I’ll be asking you for another.) I put down a lot more books now than I used to, but honestly–if you catch and keep me with voice or character or story, I’ll keep going and I’ll be content. I’ll escape into that world and I’ll be glad to stay there for as long as you let me.
If you give me a picture book to read, and you want me to come back, it had better be good. Really good. You had better give me everything–voice and character and story. This book has to snap me in and not let me pull out for even a split second. Which means, honestly, I have not spent anywhere near as many hours
reading studying the picture-book form as I have the novel.
So, yes, I have a long way to go. I am working hard to get my 10,000 picture books under my belt (another plus for that fewer-words thing). I am looking at structure and young heroes with strength and word choices. Oh, yeah–word choices.
And I’m trying to plug it all into MY picture book.
Where is this project going to take me. To publication? Oh, we can hope and dream. And the premise of this story is good enough, that I think it’s a possibility. But I do know it’s going to take me deeper into this genre, into finding and reading more of those really good picture books out there that I have yet to read. Or that I will choose to read over.
And it’s most likely to take me those places, and more, on this blog. Lucky you. If you want to come along, I’m happy to share the journey.