A typical day as a newbie writer: sit down at the computer, start writing.
At least, that’s what I did two years ago. I got an idea and I didn’t stop to think: is this a good idea? Is it marketable? Has anyone written something like this before? Nope. I just wrote, motivated by my muse.
And perhaps this was good back then. I was honing my skills, finding the right words, crafting sentences, building stories.
But they were looooong stories. At an average 1,500 words my tales were neither picture books nor chapter books. I insisted I was writing picture storybooks, and I used Patricia Polacco’s body of work as an example of how my stories could be published, not realizing, c’mon, she’s PATRICIA POLACCO.
It took me a while to learn to THINK before I write.
An idea begins. I ponder it. I write down the initial concept. What is my topic—what is this story about on its surface? Bulldozers or ballet dancers or dragons? What is at its heart? Is it about friendship or fitting in or family? Who is my character and what does he want? What is my hook? Can I boil the concept down to one line?
Then I research. Is there anything similar already published? If so, I’ve got to change it up a bit. Or let it go.
I ask myself these important questions:
- Is this picture book marketable?
- Will someone pay $16 to buy it?
Granted, these are difficult questions to answer objectively. Of course you want to believe that everyone will buy your book! But as a mother of two picture book age kids, I know this isn’t the case. If we don’t love reading the book over and over again, I won’t buy it. I try to use my motherly instinct to answer these questions and I think of my other parent friends. (And then I stalk parents in the bookstore and ask them what they think. No, just kidding. But I’m tempted.)
If I can’t answer “yes,” the idea gets filed away for the future, when I can perhaps transform it into something more extraordinary.
If I do answer “yes,” (or even “maybe”) then I create a brief outline or I just write. And I keep the proper length in mind: 500 to 700 words.
Some writers may call this process stifling. But I call it smart. Because if you want to be published, you have to examine these elements before you write. Because although picture books are short, they don’t take a short time to write.
Sure, you may pump out a first draft in a few days, or even less, but picture book revisions could go on for weeks, months, even years until you get it right. You whittle down the length so every word packs a punch, while still presenting a compelling page-turner, full of illustrative potential. (Which means you have to leave some things unsaid.) With all that time invested in a product you want to sell, you’re playing Russian roulette if you haven’t researched the story’s potential first.
It took me a while to learn this, to realize this, so I’m just paying it forward. Many of you are probably nodding your head in agreement. And maybe some of you are waving a finger at me for being a creativity killer.
In any case, I’m eager to hear from both sides! Think or write? Or a hybrid of both?