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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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

The Joy and Torture of Art Notes/No Art Notes

I love art notes.

I hate art notes.

Okay, I really only hate them a little bit. Mostly, I do love them. And, at this stage on my PB path, I’m using them. A lot.

As I’ve mentioned before…I. Can’t. Draw. stick figure

But, you know, I can see! One of my favorite things about writing picture books is that I seem to get snapshot images in my brain as I write–as though I’m eavesdropping on my characters and, at just the right moment, I click my cellphone camera, and…There! That’s what it looks like. Except the images don’t really look like photographs, they look like illustrations. Illustrations I can’t draw.

So I throw in an art note. It seems to capture that image for me, not just on the page, but in my mind. It brings the characters and action to live–still life, yes, but “animated” in the way only a fantastic illustrator can do.

Yes, most of the art notes will come out. (Remember that little bit of hating them?) I know they have to. I know, when I get to the stage where an illustrator is actually working with my words, I won’t get to say, “Draw this.” And, although it’ll be painful at the time, I believe it’s the right way for this process to go. I remember Jim Averbeck talking about the illustrations Tricia Tusa did for his picture book, In a Blue Room (which if you haven’t read, you MUST, because It is the most amazing blend of perfect words and perfect art). Jim said, and I’m paraphrasing and interpreting here, that Tricia created art and, consequently pieces of story, that he had never imagined. And, at least to me, he seemed to describe that fact as a gift to him and to the book.

So, no, I don’t want to push my ideas on any illustrator. (Okay, only a TINY bit of me wants to do that!) I’ll take out the art notes. Most of them. One of the skills I think PB writers have to learn and, hopefully, master, is what very few notes need to stay and which very many notes are simply writing tools.

Tools that I’m using.

From Concept to Specific: Hunting the Perfect Detail

No, it’s not quite like hunting snipe.

But it matters a lot more.

Yes, I’m working on a picture-book revision this week, so the detail problem is more in my face than when I’m writing early draft thoughts about the YA WIP. But still…it’s relevant for all writing, I think.

Yesterday, on Facebook, Hélène Boudreau said she was craving s’mores. And then she posted this picture:

Look at that. Is that a chocolate bar over which the marshmallow is melting? It is not. It’s a peanut-butter cup.

Besides making me drool crazily and want to run right out to the store for supplies, what does the peanut-butter cup do? It changes the whole thing. If you’re like me and you love peanut butter, not to mention peanut butter inside chocolate, it makes the whole idea of a s’more so much better, I’ll never go back. (Now if someone would just come up with a replacement for those dry graham crackers!) If you are someone who doesn’t like peanut-butter cups (seriously?!), it might make you shake your head in dismay. If you have peanut allergies, I’m guessing you’re not having a happy Pavlovian response right now.

My point? There’s a difference between a plain chocolate bar and a peanut-butter cup. And it’s a difference that can tell us something specific about a person or a character.

You start with an idea, a concept. Let’s say: Friendship. I like that. Now, because you know better than to tell this friendship, you try to think of something that shows friendship. How about a present? Okay. Great. What present? A book? Or a racing-car set? Tickets to the next James Bond movie? Or to that all-nude production of Waiting for Godot?

One more? Concept: Anger. Details: Throwing a chair through the window or curling up into a ball on the couch? Knocking down that tower of blocks or turning your back on everybody else in the room and building that tower slowly, steadily, as close to the sky as you can get it?

I’ve gone on here about how I’m usually on the side of fewer details, especially in historical novels. And I stand by my belief that too many details is just…too many.  I also get that–with a picture book–the writer who supplies too many details is not only overdoing the word count, but is probably also getting in the way of the illustrator. BUT…when it comes time to actually pick a detail, you need the right one. It needs to add to the story, reveal character, and create an image in the reader’s mind.

What will I be doing today? Sitting at my computer, staring into space, letting ideas and words and images saunter through my brain. I’ll have my butterfly net handy, ready to catch any possibilities, drop them into my story, and see if they’re the right fit. Most I’ll set free again, but I’m definitely hoping for one that will decide to stay.

A couple of recommendations for picture books in which the authors have, IMO, done a beautiful job picking details:

Form: Learning It

Years ago, I read a writing book by Lawrence Block. I’m pretty sure it was Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. The advice I remember most from this book was that the best way to learn plot was to go out and plot a book. One you liked. By a good writer.

At the time I was working on a mystery novel (for grown-ups), and I did dig a few of my favorite mysteries off the shelf and re-read them and look for the big plot points. I probably didn’t go as far with this as I should have, but (in forgiving hindsight to myself) that book turned out to be the one that dragged on way too long and did nothing to make me happy, and I put it in a drawer when I made the jump to kids’ fiction. Someday, who knows…

Anyway, this week, I’m reading Anastasis Suen’s Picture Writing, and she’s basically giving me the same advice. In her book, she asks writers to storyboard out a few picture books–ones with strong characters. So I went to my shelf.

And just in case any of you are anywhere near being as much of a kids’ book addict as me, I’ll show you my list, so you can ooh and get all nostalgically syrupy for a moment.

Now, obviously, when I talk about form, I’m not talking about a formula. There is no formula, as much as we would sometimes like. But there is form. There is a common structure upon which every book in a genre is built–even if doing the building means taking the familiar shape and twisting or even breaking it.

An example: Suen talks about a big story problem, then three small problems that show the big one. One of the books–Bread and Jam for Frances did have the three problems, although I had to read pretty deeply to identify them to my satisfaction. Another book, though—Miss Spiders Tea Party uses eight small problems to illustrate what’s going wrong. And they both work. Between the identification of the big problem and the ending climax & resolution, the authors give the hero a strong or increasingly bad problems to deal with.

And–here was another fun difference. The Hobans and Kirk handled the last, most critical problem in two very different ways. Remember, this is the problem just before the Climax, so it has to be big, and it has to have impact. In Frances’ story, the Hobans deliver several scenes of Frances not getting any other food than her bread & jam. The authors took their time over the first two problems, but they deliver these scenes in quick succession, not giving Frances–or us–any time to recover between them.

Kirk has taken the opposite route. He gives the first seven problems a two-page spread each (one page of verse & one full-page illustration). The last problem, though, he spreads out over eight pages (four verse and four illustrated). He’s drawing out the problem, raising and dropping Miss Spider’s hopes, and seriously increasing the tension…again, to get us to the climax.

Now, I would never say that writing a picture book is easier than writing a novel. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s harder, & you’ll probably hear me say that plenty of times in the next year or ten.  But…it is, I think, an easier form to study in this way–simply because there are fewer words in which to hunt for the structure.

Why am I doing this? For the same reason we should all be doing it in whatever genre we’re writing. No, we’re not out to learn that mythic formula. No, we’re not out to play “Copycat the Rich & Famous.”

We’re out to learn everything we can about the form we’re writing. We’re out to make our own books in that form the best that we can.