by Dev Petty
I know, I know…You’ve probably read or been told you should write every day. Twenty minutes? Thirty minutes? Some number of minutes that gets you off your behind and typing away.
But I’m here to suggest a different approach, something especially useful for picture book writers.
Yes, you heard it here first. Stop. At least for a while.
Work with me here…
When I was first writing picture books and I found a story idea, I’d race home and get to writing it. Words streamed off my finger tips into my story, clickety-clack, clickety-clack and BOOM! I’d be done and I’d congratulate myself for finishing. Then I’d edit and revise and tinker and make little changes. I wrote a lot of stories this way, but they were often a bit one note. They were linear, a super straight shot at my story idea. Moving so fast from an idea to writing, I got mired in language and word choices, small stuff, instead of thinking about the idea itself. It’s one of those forest for the trees kinda things.
Somewhere along the way, I put the brakes on that process. What did I do? I started thinking.
Here’s what I’ve found. When I take some time, in some cases LOTS of time, to think about my idea and how to get that idea onto the page, I come up with a richer, more original story. I lie on my deck, I think in the shower, I think on a walk, I think on a rock, I think as I’m going to and coming out of sleep. Sometimes, if it’s a really juicy idea, I think for MONTHS about how that idea could turn into a story. Fair warning, thinking is hard. Our brains are filled with lunch making and appointments and things to do- it takes time to learn to think.
So, while I’m lying on the deck “writing” (Imagine my husband making an air quote gesture here), what am I thinking about? Well, I think about structure and about voice. I try my story in my head in different ways: Traditional, present tense, past tense, third person, sparse, only in dialogue, repetitive, wordless. When I’ve done this long enough something really strange happens. I start to hear it, I start to hear my story. Then, and only then, do I write down the words.
I also try to think about my story from many angles, to turn it around in my head. Can my idea be expressed as a metaphor or in a way that’s deeper? Is a story about a kid with head lice more interesting if it’s about a monkey with fleas? These are the deep questions I ask…”Monkey or no monkey?” Monkeys aside, a wonderful bi-product of thinking instead of writing is that you find new ideas. Ideas breed ideas, so it’s like you’re making tiny little baby stories while you’re bringing the first one into the world.
Finally, before I ever write a word, I force myself to ask myself this most basic question. WHAT IS THIS STORY ABOUT? (Hint: the answer does not have your main character’s name in it) If I can’t answer that, I’m not ready to write the story. Period.
When I finally do write words, it goes pretty fast and requires less tinkering, it comes out of the oven a little more baked. Still, in those first few moments of writing the story I’ve formed in my head, I will try the opening in a bunch of different ways to see what sticks. That opening forms the framework for the whole book and I’m always prepared to write the opening, read it back, throw it away and try again if it isn’t right before continuing.
It’s a good bet this method isn’t for everyone, but for me it has fundamentally changed my experience of writing picture books. My stories are now more ME. They have MY voice. They come out as I imagined. Also, I get to spend a lot of time in the sun just thinking. About monkeys.
Dev Petty’s debut picture book, I Don’t Want to be a Frog (Random House/Doubleday) will be released on February 24th. Told in hilarious dialogue, this book is about a frog who wants to be anything but a slimy, wet frog. Before writing children’s books, Dev worked as a senior visual effects artist in film on The Matrix films and dozens of others. She lives in Albany with her husband, two daughters and critters. Connect with her at www.devpetty.com.
Dev is giving away a picture book critique!
This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:
- You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
- You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
- You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)
Good luck, everyone!