I’ve Been Tagged: Picture Book Projects
Okay, I was tagged almost two weeks ago, but I’m here! Thanks to Carol Baldwin for giving me the chance to talk about my project(s) and process. And, rather than tag anyone specific in turn, I’m just throwing out an invite. If the questions in this post look fun and you’ve got a project you want to talk about, drop the link into the comments so we can all see.
What are you working on right now?
Picture books! I actually have three picture books in the works. Partially because these stories called to me, partially because I have fallen in love with all the manuscripts, and partially because I’m learning that if I want to submit a picture book to an agent, I need to have more than that one ready to go. So the MG novel is set aside for now, even though it keeps sending out little peeps to try and get my attention. I’m promising it lots of time when these other manuscripts are ready and done.
I’m not going to share details about the picture books, because by the time I’ve told you anything about them, I might as well tell you everything. And I’ll hold onto that for marketing time, when/if that comes! But I will tell you that I feel like I have tapped into several different story modes, voices, and characters for the manuscripts. When I look at them, I’m not quite sure how they all came out of my brain and fingertips, but I think some of the credit has to go to Tara Lazar and PiBoIdMo. (Holy Cow! I have to start thinking up new ideas in TWO DAYS!). Something about the speed and craziness of coming up with one or more ideas, every day for a month, seems to let loose a randomocity of ideas, at least for me. It’s a challenge, because I have to shift neurons and synapses each time I turn from one to the other of the three manuscripts, but it’s also energizing and just really, really cool.
How do picture books differ from other genres?
Okay, the original question is how does your manuscript differ from other books in its genre, so feel free to answer that one in your post. But since I’m talking about three picture books, it doesn’t quite work. So I changed it! As I’ve talked about before, I’m fairly new to picture books, so they feel very different. I have always been a novel person, from the series books I read as a kid to the years I spent reading 700-page works of Victorian fiction in college. Dickens got paid by word-count; in picture books, you are seriously encouraged to reduce your word count. Which I love. Maybe I’m coming at it wrong (but don’t tell me if I am!), but I am finding that the tighter I can make the words in a picture book, the more clear the theme/vision/main problem becomes. It’s truly like trimming away the fat, or chiseling the marble away from the statue inside. As a reader, I have always loved spare writing, and while I’m not sure I’ve achieved this in any of my novels, I’m so there with my picture books. I have one manuscript that is down to 200+ words. Some of those still need to be replaced. Some will be cut. But I’m pretty sure I won’t be adding back a whole lot more.
The other difference for me, and the real challenge, is how tricky it is to create a truly active protagonist when they are, essentially, a very small child whose life is constantly impacted by bigger, older, theoretically wiser characters. You’ve heard that we’re supposed to read what we write. Well, I spend a huge chunk of my picture-book reading time tracing the actions and the behavior of the hero, seeing what techniques and steps the author has taken to bring their protagonist to the forefront of the story and give them some control over their lives. And then I go back to my protagonists and tell them to get their act together. Please. And again and again.
Why do you write what you do?
Well, obviously because I’m loving it. But I think there are two other reasons. One, frankly, is time. And impatience. I went back to work a couple of years ago, and started feeling like a completed novel was way, way, way down the line. (For those of you starting NaNoWriMo in two days, just ignore me! Seriously. Get out there and dump it all onto the page. And have fun!) I had some picture book ideas and while it was never easy, I could see progress in a way I wasn’t able–right then–to see on my novel. It felt good to be able to take time on a weekend and see some actual changes, get some new ideas and put them into effect…on the entire manuscript.
The other reason, I think, goes back to me and my lifetime of novel reading and writing. Picture books were new. I didn’t know the structure, I didn’t know the voice, and I really, really didn’t know how to tackle that super young protagonist. I felt my brain wake up, felt the areas that had been comfortable resting in the patterns of a 200-page manuscript, sit up and stare. What is this? We want to play! Something about having to learn a new genre, a very different genre, felt like magic–neurological magic, I guess. The last thing I want my brain to do is stagnate, and I have a feeling adding picture books to my repertoire is going to help it not do that.
How does your writing process work?
Process? It’s changed so much over the years, so much with every genre/project, and so much with whatever else is happening with my life. These days, unfortunately, it seems to be a lot of bringing myself back to a project. I haven’t been as good as I’d like at keeping the writing going every day, along with regular job-work things. So there’s pretty much always a gap between the last time I wrote and the next time, and not just a gap of 24 hours. So there’s fear. There’s that feeling of not remembering quite where I was and of not automatically knowing the next step I need to be taking. The only thing I’ve found for a cure is to get to the computer. Even if I am only looking at one sentence in a manuscript and thinking about it, I make myself do that. And if I can make myself sit and look, gently think, then I almost always hear the key turn in the lock. Ideas start coming. My fingers start typing. And something changes.
Other than that, I revise and revise. My first draft, especially on a picture book, is a wild dump. I am amazed at how powerful and complete I can think an idea is until I try to write it down. If I were going to give up on a manuscript, that would be the point at which it would happen. But I’m learning (again, thanks to PiBoIdMo), that junk doesn’t stay junk. And even when it does, for a long time, that core idea is still there, and something about it is valid. So, like I said, I revise and revise and revise. And I sent the manuscripts to my critique group. Again and again and again. They are saints. And I whittle, and I trim, and I substitute, and I go on wild rampages of totally new angles. And each revision gets me closer to something right. And something done.
Any departing words of wisdom for other authors?
Nothing brilliant. Read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. She will tell you about the pain and anguish and joy and delight of writing much better than I can. But basically, if you want to write, write. Somehow, make some time for it. And be incredibly patient with yourself. When something matters as much as writing does, then worry, fear, and struggle are going to come along for the ride. But so can stubbornness, determination, and moments of absolute light and inspiration.
And, something I learned for myself this past year, if you’re not happy with the project you’re working on, stop. I don’t mean worried or stressed or confused. But if every time you come to sit down with that manuscript, you’re grumpy and sad and unmotivated, take a look around. Is something else calling to you? Work on that for a few days. Do the grumpies go away? Even while the challenges hang around? Maybe that’s where you need to be. Writing is too important to be truly, steadily unhappy while we do it. Truly.