Thursday, March 3, 2011
The challenge (and joy) of writing picture books
I’d never thought about writing a children’s picture book until I heard Pam Smallcomb speak at a SCBWI-sponsored ABC (Author Book Club) event this week. (I’d assumed that children’s picture book authors do their own art and I knew that my own doodle-y art would never sell.) But Pam has sparked my interest in writing within this concise and often humor-filled form.
Not that she made it seem easy—writing a 250- to 600-words book is like writing a really good poem. You can’t just sit down and write something brilliant; you have to pare it down, then be willing to revise and/or rewrite it again and again until it says only what needs to be said and says it as perfectly as possible.
Pam compared picture book writing with advertising: you have to be aware of your target audience, know your message, and work on deadline. Like a TV commercial or ad campaign, she said, a good picture book crams a lot of story into a short amount of time and space. And you have to make it fresh, figure out a new way to say something that’s probably already been written about before.
As ad people do, Pam suggested using brainstorming techniques to come up with story ideas. (When brainstorming, don’t self-edit but let the ideas flow). Some of her suggestions included:
• Blend two unlike things: Make a column of nouns, a column of verbs, then a column of nouns (or just two columns of nouns). Then crisscross them for incongruous combinations that can be used for titles and/or to spark story ideas.
• Ask yourself the question: What was a bad/good day in my childhood?
• Recycle. Revise and retool old ideas with new characters, settings or messages.
My friend, Mary, and I tried the first technique the next morning and came up with: "tomato-ottoman" (a garden that grows furniture instead of vegetables?) and "Beethoven-shoes" (the shoes of famous people through history? putting yourself into Beethoven’s shoes—too tragic?). I’m not sure these are books that will ever get written, but it was a fun way to get the (collaborative) creative juices flowing.