by Becky Levine

Here you are, participating in PiBoIdMo. All you have to do this month is come up with ideas. Okay, you have to come up with 30 ideas. But still—short, sweet; bing-bang; and you’re there.

There’s a second goal, though, behind these 30 days. And that goal is that, once the month is over, we will all take at least one of these ideas and turn it into a story. Which means, first, writing that story. And then…yes, eventually, revising it.

We could debate for hours whether it’s harder to write a novel or a picture book. We could debate for more hours which is easier to revise. Especially when you’ve got critique feedback about that project staring you in the face.

Sure, when your critique partner tells you to work on dialogue in your novel, you know you’re facing a lot of dialogue over a lot of pages. That’s work. On the other hand, when your critique partner tells you to fix the dialogue in your picture book, you’re staring at ten, maybe twelve words, with which to get it right.

Let’s face it. Revision, any revision, is hard.

But…the thing I love about revising a picture book is actually the thing that seems the toughest—the tiny number of words you have to write with.

When I critique a novel and pass that feedback onto the writer, I tend to talk about the big things that aren’t working yet. I’ll tell them that I think their hero needs a more specific goal in each scene, or I’ll talk about weaving any necessary background information into the action. And then I’ll make this suggestion: Take one chapter and play. Figure out your hero’s goal in one scene, set up some obstacles, and then revise that chapter until you have the pacing and tension just right. What have you done? Well, you’ve successfully revised a scene, yes. But you’ve also taught yourself a lot more about scene structure, and now you can go on to all the other scenes in the story and make them tight and tense and active.

When I first started getting critique feedback on my picture book, I felt overwhelmed in a kind of backward way. I was used to thinking on the bigger scale of a novel, feeling that I had plenty of time and space to understand that feedback and revise around it. With the picture book, all that time and space was suddenly compressed. I felt like a Mime-in-a-Box; every time I made a turn or tried to stretch, I ran into an invisible, but very solid wall.

The freedom came when I realized that, I needed to tackle the revision in the same way I attacked novel rewrites. I needed to take one scene and revise one problem. The only difference was that my one scene would be 150 words, instead of 1,500. Yes, that was a challenge, but it was also doable. If I needed to make my dialogue more powerful, sure, I only had a dozen words to play with, but those words were right there for me to see, in one tiny chunk on one page. Instant feedback. Change one word and see if it makes things better. Nope? Change it again. Yes? Great. Move on to the next. Yes, every word matters (and I do think it matters more than in a novel), but every word also makes a difference. A big difference. And you can see it happen, or not, really, really fast.

And guess what? You know when I said, above, that I recommend revising a novel by working on one problem in one scene, then extrapolating what you’ve learned to all the other scenes in the story? Well, how much easier (and faster) does that become in a picture book? Especially if you’re using a repetitive structure and some repetitive wording? Once you figure out, in your teeny, tiny picture-book scene what isn’t working and how to fix it, carrying that change through the rest of the story can be greased lightning.

For me, it’s become like a jigsaw puzzle, except that each piece has a complete word on it, rather than an unrecognizable shadow or color-blur. Put one right word in its right spot, and you—suddenly and dramatically—see a huge chunk of the picture, and a dozen more pieces fall into place.

Working on a picture book is working in a tight space. But compression catalyzes an explosion, restrictions spur on creativity. The challenge, once you open yourself to it, can work magic.

Which, after all, is pretty much the definition of a picture book.

Becky Levine is the author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Make Revisions, Self-Edit, and Give and Receive Feedback. Becky also writes fiction for children and teens, and finally stepped into the world of picture-book writing (and revising!) last year. She lives in California’s Santa Cruz mountains with her husband and teenage son, who still happily reads the picture books she brings home from the library.

Becky is generously giving away a copy of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. Just leave a comment to enter and we’ll randomly select a winner one week from today. At the end of the month, if you complete the 30-idea PiBoIdMo challenge, you can win a picture book critique from Becky, too! Lucky you!