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.