Finding Balance (In Picture Books)

Rhyming in a picture book is one thing–and, so far anyway, it’s definitely one thing I can’t do. (If you want to read a few books by authors who can, I suggest pretty much anything by Sue Fliess; Interstellar Cinderellawritten by Deborah Underwood; and Cheerful Chickwritten by Martha Brokenbrough,) There’s also rhythm which, I think, is made up of word and sentence patterns, emphases, inflections, etc. that you hear (or don’t hear) when you read a picture book out loud. Take a look at In a Blue Room, written by Jim Averbeck (the rhythm is almost musical) and Sparky!written by Jenny Offill (I think the rhythm of the longer sentences broken up by the shorter ones mirrors the differences in personal rhythm between the girl and her sloth).

And then there’s balance. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I still don’t know how to explain it. It has to do with plot and structure. It has to do with how the story develops. It has to do with repetition. But, most of all, I think, it has to do with how the author distributes weight across…oh, across the pieces you would label “stanza” and “scene” in other genres. When the weight is distributed evenly, the story works. It flows.

Balance is actually easier to identify by its absence–that little bump you hit when the you read a sentence or a scene, and it isn’t quite delivered in the way your brain was expecting. author uses a set of three plot points, but one is two long sentences, the next is a half-dozen shorter ones, and the third is a single word with an exclamation point at the end. (Yes, I’m exaggerating–I told you it was hard to explain.)  For me, it manifests mostly as a moment of, “Huh?”

For some examples of balance done well, look at Sophie’s Squash, written by Pat Zietlow MillerBike On, Bear, written by Cynthea Liu, and Children Make Terrible Pets, by Peter Brown. Maybe after you read them, you’ll be able to define it.

Whatever it is, it seems to be the foundation I need when I’m writing or revising a picture book. Do I always build it early on? Of course not. Do I have anything close to it for several revisions. Rarely. But once I have some kind of draft–whether first or fourteenth, I can feel when and where the balance is off. And that’s often where I start the next draft, trying to pull that spot back into balance with the rest of the story. Or if I love that spot, try to pull the other stuff into balance with it. The best way I can describe it is–it feels like when you think you have the right puzzle piece of blue to fit into the empty spot of sky, but–when you go to press it in–it doesn’t quite fit. So you have to go off and hunt through all the other blue pieces.

I hate that when I’m working on a puzzle. Luckily for me, I love it when I’m writing.

If you want to see other posts by me about picture books, and some great craft posts about middle grade and young adult books, you can pop over to KidLitCraft. I’ll be blogging here and there, on an occasional basis.

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Highlights & Thoughts from the 2016 SCBWI Golden Gate Conference at Asilomar

I’ve been watching this conference for a decade. I have heard wonderful things about it, but–since it’s not cheap (well, staying at Asilomar isn’t cheap; the conference itself is more than reasonably priced), I felt like I needed to have some work to show before I went. So this year is it. It was a wonderful, wonderful weekend. And, although so many things are still circling around in my head, in no particular order yet, I wanted to get a few randomy thoughts done before I forget them.

  • I wasn’t sure what I needed this weekend to be. Turns out I needed it to be about rejuvenation, recharging, and–most of all–recommitment. And it was. Obviously, I need to sustain this feeling and act on it, but I came away feeling that, yes, my writing is going to land at the top of my priorities list once again. Everybody I met and listened to contributed a lot to this feeling, but Deborah Underwood‘s talk about getting rid of obstacles to our creativity really hit a home run for me.
  • You think you’re ready, and you’re not always ready. That includes the state of your manuscripts, your receptivity to hearing critiques about them, and your understanding of what they need to improve. But if you smile and breathe and give things a few hours to sink in, they usually do, and you find yourself thinking the critiquer much more sincerely later in the day, because you now do have some next steps to follow. AND you can see why they’re necessary and important.
  • Clare Vanderpool is not only a wonderful writer and a speaker with a lot of important things to say, she is very possibly the funniest person on the planet. If you are a conference organizer, invite her. If you have a chance to attend a conference where she’s on faculty, go. And be ready to nod and nod and then LAUGH AND LAUGH.
  • I’m pretty sure I’ve never been to a conference where tears were shed during so many talks. It may have been the theme: Live Your Story, but people shared so openly and honestly, the keynotes and workshops stopped being just about my work and your work and became about our work and our worlds and our lives.
  •  Rhyming picture books DO get me. Who knew? Go get Deborah Underwood’s  and Meg Hunt‘s Interstellar Cinderella and Corey Rosen Schwartz‘ and Rebecca J. Gomez‘ and Keika Yamaguchi‘s What about Moose?, and you’ll see what I mean.
  • We had power outages that faculty laughed and spoke through, even though, literally, the power was going off, on, off, on, off, on, like a badly out of sync strobe light, and must have been driving them crazy.
  • I remembered that calendars have power. Every weekend, I will be calendaring my weekday writing into its after-work time slots. And I will be printing a monthly calendar to check off all the days during which I put in writing time. I have promised myself I get to go back to Asilomar in 2017, IF I DO THE WORK. Guess what? I’M GOING TO DO THE WORK.
  • The deer at Asilomar barely look up when you walk near them. Okay, they look up, but they keep chewing away and just let you ooh and ah at them. Because we are no threat. Now we all just need to work on expanding that safety and peace beyond our relationship with deer and beyond the gates of Asilomar.
  • There was a quilting conference going at the same time as ours. I never did get a chance to sneak past their classrooms and see all their work, but I chatted with some while we were in line for meals, including the cousin on one of my absolutely favorite picture book authors. Yes, I asked her to tell her cousin how much I loved her book. Random and special.
  • I have some work to do with my art notes. Or maybe I should say without my art notes.
  • Some of us had to take off after the last sessions, but some of us lingered, joining each other for one last long talk around the lunch table in the dining room. As the last of us pushed away our chairs and started to head toward our cards, one of us said that it felt like leaving summer camp–making sure you gave and got hugs, exchanged emails, shared good and powerful wishes for the next year. I understood what she met, but it felt different for me. I never wanted to go back to summer camp. I DO want to go back to Asilomar.

And I will.

Revision: Getting Re-Excited

You know when you stare and stare at the monitor and your fingers just sit there on the keyboard doing nothing? Because the picture book in front of you may be technically fine, even good, but it’s not there yet and all the staring doesn’t seem to be giving you a clue about what would get it there? You haven’t found the magic?

The magic? That indefinable ZING! that is in the best stories and that–I really believe–is rooted in a word, a phrase, a detail, a structural twist, but when you read it, what you get is that feeling of Oh, Yeah! Or Ahhh.

Some examples? Sure.

  • Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska’s The Quiet Book: The absolutely perfect, layered, resonating choices of types of quiet that she made.
  • Jim Averbeck and Tricia Tusa’s In a Blue Room: The stubborness of the little girl, the patience of the mother, and the ever-increasing stillness of the room and the story.
  • Alan Arkin and Richard Egielski’s One Present from Flekman’s The ever-growing gap between the opposing goals of the grandfather and the granddaughter.
  • Sarah Stewart and David Small’s The Library: The utter contentment, even in the moment of highest conflict.

I’m pretty sure that each of these authors had their moments: first the staring, then…ZING! That Could-This-Be-It wonder that they pursued and found out Yes! Or maybe a few times, No! But then, finally, Yes!

Why am I writing about this today?

Because I may have just…

ZING!

sunzing

Friday Five: A Random Version

1. I’m meeting with a young writer today to talk about her novel. I’ve started reading it, and it’s fun, and I’m really looking forward to editing and brainstorming with her.  I’m also taking her a copy of my book, because she’s young and she’s clearly going to be a writer all her life, and it’s my decision that she should be know about critique groups.  Not to mention I will begin my indoctrination about joining SCBWI. Mwahaha!

2. I just read Deborah Underwood’s The Quiet Book. I know, I’m a bit behind, but I’ve been wanting to read it and then I found out that Deborah and I will be on an SCBWI critique panel at the end of this month , and then I really wanted to read it. And…wow. Honestly, I’m always hesitant about concept picture books, because I typically need story. Plus, I’d seen some of Renata Liwska’s incredible illustrations, and I knew that those were potentially powerful enough to take over from the prose. Nope. Yes, the art is amazing, but–honestly–so are the words. I read the words first, on purpose, and every single page evoked a sense for me–an emotion. Deborah hit the nail on the head every single time. Beautiful.

3. It’s cooled off. We actually just left the windows open last night, without running the so-loud fans. The car thermometer hit 117 degrees one afternoon this week, while son and I were sitting on an onramp waiting to get through the metering lights. I find it hard to even exist when it’s that hot. So yay for coastal fog and a light breeze.

4. There are colds in the house. Husband woke up with a slight sore throat and son is sneezing and sniffling. Medicine has been given, and I am crossing my fingers that the flu shot I got this week will magically transform into cold-protection. I may have to turn in to Lady MacBeth this weekend, to stay safe.

5. I have to go to the grocery store today. I went to the grocery store earlier this week. I’ll go to the grocery sometime at the start of next week. Am I having hallucinatory nostalgia, or did my mom manage to do a huge grocery run on the weekend & then stop for milk if we ran out during the week? And there were 5 of us then, to the 3 of us here. Was she just more organized (yes!) or more determined (less lazy) to really fill that fridge and freezer to the brim when she shopped (probably)?  Whatever it was, and as nice as the people at my grocery store are, I feel that I am way too familiar with that place. Do you ever find yourself wandering the aisles, “waiting” for something new and exciting and delicious and healthy and simple to cook to just pop out at you? Sigh. At least I’m remembering to bring in my reusable bags these days, and don’t have to ask the checker to “wait just a minute while I run out to the car.”

Happy Friday, everyone!