First, I know I’m not the only one who owes the inestimable Tara Lazar and the PiBoIdMo crew a huge debt of gratitude for turning an often cold, gloomy, and hectic November into a month of opportunity. What a wonderful time to gather seeds of imagination to counterbalance the weather outside. But now it’s December, potentially colder, gloomier, and even more fraught with relatives… I mean, activities. So what does that mean? It’s the perfect time to plant those seeds.
Tend Your Garden
It tickles me to make December a time of beginnings. Wait. Wasn’t that November? No… whether you beat the PiBoIdMo challenge by a mile, or only managed to come up with one idea, that was just the prelude to the beginnings. Writers write. Ideas are prerequisites to that, but no more.
Many people dream of having written… but then, people also dream about winning the lottery. I once dreamed of growing vegetables in a community garden. None of that dreaming is going to put food on your table. It bears repeating: the only way to be a writer is to WRITE. The only way to become a better writer is to write, critique and get critiqued, and revise, ad naseum. If you don’t have the time (and who does?), make it. If you can’t find the time, that’s fine. Nobody expects you to rearrange your life so you can write. But don’t be surprised if your literary garden ends up looking like, well, dirt.
Plot it Out
When I say plot, I don’t mean your story (that will come later), but your action plan. Just like I needed to know where to put the marigolds in relation to the tomatoes and how much real estate to allocate to the spinach, you should have some idea of where you’re headed. Otherwise you may end up with the debilitating disease known as writer’s cascade (a term which I have just now coined)—the inability to write due to the torrent of ideas that are streaming your way. Prioritize—by tackling the idea you’re most excited about or that’s most fleshed out or that you already think you have a market for or, heck, by choosing randomly if that’s your style. How you choose to start doesn’t matter; only that you start, and then continue putting one foot (or one word) in front of the other.
If you succeeded in generating lots of ideas, you might want to prioritize and prune. Not every idea is going to turn into a story. That’s as it should be. Not everything we think is going to be brilliant bears fruit every time, so it is fitting that we cull. But before you do so, take the time to ponder whether that weed is really a weed.
Rethink Your Weeds
When I lived in Colorado, I trained to be a volunteer naturalist. One day, some botanists came to lecture us on controlling weeds. For them, weeds were anything not native to the area. That’s a very different definition than what a home gardener would use, or a farmer. The lesson? One person’s weed could be another’s treasure.
So, before you yank an idea out, ponder whether you just need to look at it in a different context. That story idea that’s been done a thousand times before? Challenge yourself to turn it into a new classic. The idea that you’re just not excited about? Dig deeper to find out what’s missing for you, and then fix it. The story that seems too ambitious to undertake? Start it anyway, no matter how shaky your beginnings. You can’t grow as a writer if you don’t reach. And if it takes you three years to get those 500 words right, so be it. Might as well start now.
By the same token, be wary of the seeds that seem like sure-fire prize-winners. Perhaps they are. But the more I read and write, the more I realize those stories that come to us fully formed are rarely half as good as the ones that are hard-won. There’s too much to get right in a picture book—pacing, characterization, dialog, action, the interplay between pictures and words—for it to all come together perfectly the first (or even fourth) time. Sometimes those stories that come to us fully formed are the ones in need of most help.
Nurture Your Seedlings
If you were to start a novel that lacked substance, it might take you a while, but you’d eventually probably figure out that something was missing. But picture books are so short that it’s easy to finish a manuscript that an editor would call, at best, “slight.” That means you’ve created something akin to a bamboo – all reedy and hollow in the middle. Instead, you should aim for a bonsai—tiny but intricate, fully formed and purposefully shaped. How do you do this? By asking heavy questions of your manuscript:
- Have you chosen the best character for the story? Is this the character with the most to lose or the most interesting journey?
- Have you chosen the best story for the character? If you ask my six-year-old, she will tell you the number one rule of writing is to be mean to your character. Age-appropriately mean, of course, but if there is no conflict, no struggle, then there probably isn’t a story.
- Have you started at the right place? You usually need to establish the tone, setting, main character, and at least the set up for the problem within the first few sentences.
- Does the story arc? You’d be surprised how many pb manuscripts are just slice-of-life vignettes instead of actual stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Learn how to arc your stories—it’s one of the most fun things about being a writer. (Even nonfiction books can arc, and are usually better for it.)
- Does the ending satisfy?
- Is the writing tight? Does every word advance the plot or characterization?
Whether you like to get a first draft down first or plan out your story in advanced, at some point (and, more likely, various points) you need to make sure you are creating something with substance. Tend your garden, and watch it grow.
Ella Kennen is a globe-hopping homeschooling mom with a profound love for plants and two brown thumbs. Her first picture ebook, THE RELUCTANT CATERPILLAR was published by Mee Genius earlier this year. Her series of five sci-fi fairy tales, AMAZING TALES, is currently being released by CBAY Books. Ella also edits fiction for grown-ups at Musa Publishing.