Sometimes I’ll get an idea for a picture book that I know is a winner! I scramble to write the key lines, the story’s premise, its arc…and then, something goes wrong. There’s a piece that’s missing, or elements that aren’t quite gelling. Maybe the ending isn’t satisfying enough. But, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. So I save it.
I have a “Pre-pubbed Books” file in which I keep folders brimming with ideas. In these folders I’ll put sketches, various story versions, images of books I think might be similar, or reference photos that fit the story. You name it.
Of course, not all ideas come in whole. Some arrive as only a title or simple phrase. For those I have an “Other ideas” file. Inside are the years: 2004—2014. In those folders, I just save Word documents. Sometimes it can be one phrase or a character idea, but it was something that made my brain light up, so I keep it too.
And then there’s my dummies wall. Sometimes a story is so strong, I’m dying to illustrate it. Maybe I just do character sketches, or a few spreads. Sometimes I sketch out the entire dummy and even take a few pieces to final. This can lead to a lot of paperwork with no place to put it. This is when bulldog clips become my friends. I collect everything together, clip it, and hang it on the wall on a pushpin.
I’ll often sit back to look at these works-in-progress hanging on my wall and wonder if I have a new seed or tweak that might help them along.
Some of these folders, documents and dummies have been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean they’re dead. Sometimes it takes combining ideas, or swiping a phrase from one story to make another story stronger. So, I keep them organized so that I can mine them whenever I want to.
I also firmly believe some of them are ready to be published, but for whatever reason, the publishing world isn’t ready for them yet. Because of trends, word counts, a hit book that is too similar… whatever the reason, I’ll let them wait until trends circle back around and they become relevant again.
The irony is, with all these attempts at creating stories I’ve trained my storytelling muscles. I tell kids that writing is like lifting weights. The more bicep curls you do, the stronger you get. The more you write, the more those writerly muscles seem to know what to do. I’ve written so many picture book manuscripts that now, when I write, it seems stories come out of me in just the right word count and just the right number of page breaks. I’ve trained my brain to the structure of picture books.
But that still doesn’t mean they all work, hence, my folders and files and dummy wall. Sometimes a story will sit for a day, sometimes for years before I figure out the key that unlocks whatever was wrong and makes the story work. But I’ve learned to be patient with myself. Some stories, even the simplest (seeming) ones, need more time.
So, if you know deep down inside that your story isn’t there yet (don’t ignore that little voice), put the manuscript aside. Put it somewhere where you won’t forget about it, and let your brain work on it—while you sleep, or garden, or take a shower, or just get on with life. It doesn’t have to be perfect straight out of the box, few stories are.
I call it putting the clay on the wheel. You’ve got the idea down, you know its missing or lacking something. So knead it in the back of your mind, for however long it takes, until you get your story just right. You’ll know when.
And then, then you send it off to a publisher or to your agent. And maybe that manuscript that you struggled over, that you let simmer, will finally be so perfect, so right, they will buy it and publish it and you will get to share it with the world!
Elizabeth O. Dulemba is an award-winning children’s book author/illustrator with two-dozen titles to her credit. She is a Board Member for the Georgia Center for the Book, and Visiting Associate Professor at Hollins University in the MFA in Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating program. Her latest picture books are a series of books for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and LULA’S BREW. Elizabeth gives away free coloring pages and hosts interviews, guest posts, and giveaways on her website each week. Sign up for her weekly newsletter and learn more at Dulemba.com.