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I’ll let you in on a secret—I’m not really an author. Actually, I’m a poet who has managed to trick a bunch of people (including some very nice editors and a terrific agent) into believing I’m an author. I’m sneaky like that.
For me, the work of writing prose is hard. All those words! My novels tend to shrink a lot, before they grow. I revise and edit myself so heavily that the pages melt away. My background in poetry, and my love of precise language, doesn’t lend itself well to the mad dash—the word-sprint—you have to do when you draft a novel.
But picture books? Ahhhhhh, picture books! Picture books are so much like poems. With their economy of language and their image-heavy text, picture books do much the same work poetry does. I actually enjoy the feeling of trying and failing and shelving an idea, because with picture books, you can just start over again with something else. I love seeing art come in from my illustrator, finding out what my words looked like inside an artist’s head. But best of all, I love the beginning of a picture book, the burst of a new project.
I have a huge junk file on my laptop called JUNK, and it is absolutely filled with documents that are “new beginnings.” Empty documents with only a title or a single line in them.
See, as a poet, I don’t really come up with “ideas for picture books” so much as I dream up little spurts of language, lines of text from which a picture book can grow. For me, the beginning is more about the way a few words sound together than it is about an “idea.”
Let me explain. I’ll use as my example my first book. INSIDE THE SLIDY DINER grew out of my career as a waitress, so if I had begun with an idea, I’d have written down, “make a picture book about a diner.” Instead I wrote down, “Inside the Slidy Diner, the Greasy Spoon of stuck.” I didn’t even know it was a picture book when I began it. At first I thought of it as the first line of a prose poem. I had no idea that I’d invent a character named Edie, or that the diner would be a kind of pseudo-magical place, or that there would be a funny cast of characters. I only had the internal rhyme of “sliiiiiiidy diiiiiiner” and the alliteration of “ssssssspoon of sssssstuck.” But the story sprang from that language.
Likewise, the JUNK file I mentioned earlier is full of lines that I’m not sure about yet. In each case, I don’t know what my idea is exactly, or what the story is about. I only know that I liked the way a few words sounded in my head. Maybe you can help me puzzle them out. Here are a few:
See what I mean? These are not ideas. They could still head off in a million different directions. They’re just words, that sound nice, in the right order.
So now, as an exercise, for other folks who are equally language driven, I might suggest that instead of trying to think up a picture book idea every day, you can also try to revisit the way you describe things each day. You could spend the entire month describing the same thing differently, day after day.
Because each description might, in the end, give way to a different book! Language drives tone and voice, and those things can drive your idea and your story instead of things happening the other way around. For me, it’s much easier to make up a story to match a voice than it is to find a voice for a story.
Try it right now! It’ll only take a second. Go look at something—a squirrel, maybe, or the ground at your feet, or your closet door, and instead of trying to think of the idea it might lead to, try to think of different sets of words for what you see.
That squirrel? How might you describe him? Don’t try to be smart, just think of different ways to talk about him. Using as many different words as you can. It’s okay if they’re lame. Maybe that squirrel is:
1. A fidgety bit
2. A tree rat
3. Too loud
4. Fluffytail, the adorable poufypie
5. The fattest squirrel in the tree
6. The squirrel who lost his tail
7. A nut-thief
8. A nuisance
9. The one who wouldn’t leave
See what I mean? By the time you revisit your titles, Fidgity Bit might be a funny board book about a kid who can’t sit still, and Tree Rat might be about a rat who moves from New York to the country and wants to fit in with the squirrels, and Harold might be about a geeky squirrel who wants to study for the LSAT instead of finding nuts all fall.
For me, it is hard to think of new ideas, and far simpler (and more fun) to think of new ways to say things, and then figure out what they might mean.
Give it a try! Or a whirl! Or a go! Or set your pen scratching! Or dive into your dictionary! Or head off into the word mines! Or take a dip in the language lake.
Or… or… or…
Oops! There I go again…
Laurel Snyder is the author, most recently, of a picture book, BAXTER, THE PIG WHO WANTED TO BE KOSHER, and a novel, PENNY DREADFUL. Her next book, Nosh, Schlep, Schluff: BabYiddish will be out in January. She is also the author of a book of poems (for grownups), THE MYTH OF THE SIMPLE MACHINES. Laurel lives in Atlanta and online at http://laurelsnyder.com and she tweets obsessively, if haphazardly. Follow her @laurelsnyder!
BAXTER art by David Goldin, SLIDY DINER art by Jaime Zollars (who also did the cover for MYTH). PENNY DREADFUL cover by Abigail Halpin, NOSH art by Tiphanie Beeke