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Three attempts to solve a problem—you’ve been told thirty trillion times this is the way to build a picture book plot. I even covered it in an earlier post.

It’s a tried-and-true method for telling a story. But does an editor reviewing all these similarly-structured submissions feel like she’s been there and read that? Well…….maybe.

There are other ways to frame picture books by using different story structures, as Tammi Sauer once pointed out during Storystorm.

But if those formats aren’t right for your story and you choose a more traditional arc, when is it OK to abandon the “three attempts”? When is it reasonable to break free from this rule?

First, we have to look at the why.

Why do we employ the “three attempts” structure? TO BUILD TENSION.

The main character tries to solve their problem and fails, repeatedly. This tension invests the reader in the protagonist’s struggle. It compels you to turn the page.

However, I wrote a manuscript recently where the protagonist doesn’t even realize she has a problem. The reader sees the problem, but the character is oblivious. It doesn’t make sense for her to attempt multiple solutions because she doesn’t see anything wrong in the first place!

Remember, three attempts builds tension. But that’s not the only way to achieve “what happens next?” excitement and anticipation.

In my manuscript, the humor comes from the reader knowing more than the main character (that’s a kind of “superiority humor”). The humor builds because the protagonist keeps mistaking her surroundings for something else, something that’s familiar to her. That escalating humor adds to the tension—OH NO! DOESN’T SHE GET IT YET?!

There’s also a deadline, an end goal that the reader and the main character both know. But can she get there if she’s so confused? You don’t know. More tension.

Bottom line—if you’ve built tension into your story via another means, you don’t need the three attempts. It certainly didn’t make sense for my story. Who tries to get out of a jam they don’t know they’re in?

Let’s look at picture books that build tension in different ways.

[Meta Device]
THE PANDA PROBLEM by Deborah Underwood & Hannah Marks

In this meta tale, the narrator and Panda argue about who’s the main character. The narrator wants Panda to be the protagonist with a problem to solve. But Panda thinks the narrator is the main character because uncooperative Panda is the narrator’s problem. This story mocks our “problematic” picture book rule. It keeps the tension high as both characters wrestle to control the story.

[Versus Device]
FIRE TRUCK VS. DRAGON by Chris Barton & Shanda McCloskey

A follow-up to Barton’s popular SHARK vs. TRAIN of 10 years ago (wow, time flies!), this new “battle” features a stand off between the reader and the characters. The reader understands what the two friends excel at, but the fire-starter and fire-squelcher don’t ever mention THOSE skills. That’s “superiority humor” again, with the reader knowing more than the characters. The tension arises from wondering if fire truck and dragon will ever get to what’s downright obvious to everyone else.

[Chronology Device]
THE END by David LaRochelle & Richard Egielski

This story is a fairytale told backwards. There’s a surprise each page turn as you discover what happened immediately prior to the current sticky situation. Does that create tension? You bet, as each spread also displays a new predicament.

[Parallel Structure]
OPERATION RESCUE DOG by Maria Gianferrari & Luisa Uribe

The parallel picture book tells two tales which eventually converge. The tension is kept high by a back-and-forth narrative between the two main characters. In this book, Alma misses her military mama. She and Abuela decide to adopt a rescue dog as a surprise for mama’s return. The rescue dog, Lulu, is lonely and afraid, without a family. Both characters face delays in their journey to the dog rescue rendezvous. But at the end, Alma and Lulu finally meet and it’s destiny!

Some of these stories also employ the classic “ticking clock” or deadline to achieve tension. THE END ends at the beginning. OPERATION RESCUE DOG has two ticking clocks—Alma wants to adopt a dog in time for her mother’s return…plus, the Dog Rescue Truck is only open for a limited window. Will they make it there on time?

For the “ticking clock” device, think of Cinderella’s carriage turning back into a pumpkin at midnight!

So while you’re reading new picture books, pay attention to the building of tension. Did the author use three attempts to solve the problem, or a different device? Were you still riveted? Compelled to turn the page? Invested in the main character’s plight? Then take note and try to break free in your own writing!

 


Guess what? I’m giving away an hour-long kidlit career consultation via video chat.

Leave one comment below to enter.

A random winner will be selected next month.

Good luck!

The winner of the GOOD NIGHT, BADDIES giveaway is:

LILLIAN HECKINGER!

Congratulations, Lillian. I will be emailing you shortly.

Thanks for entering and I hope everyone will pick up a copy!

Bella and Me Salina fix deborahUby guest blogger & singer Deborah Underwood

I’ve been a singer for even longer than I’ve been a writer. But when it became too hard to juggle rehearsals and concerts with my writing work, I regretfully resigned from the chamber choir I’d sung with for nearly two decades.

But I really missed making music. So I had an idea: I’d write and record a lullaby to go along with GOOD NIGHT, BADDIES, my new picture book about all the supposedly-bad fairy tale creatures clocking out and going home to spend a lovely evening together.

Baddies Cover hi-res

Easy-peasy, right?

Here’s what I learned about the similarities between writing a picture book and recording a song.

They both seem simple at first, then completely impossible. But if you keep moving forward, they get done.

My first picture books were total messes. One had six main characters. One had nothing resembling a plot. It took a while for me to understand just how difficult it is to write a good picture book, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know!

Recording was the same way. I naively asked a recording artist friend what I needed to do, and learned I’d need a team of professionals, a recording studio, a bunch of knowledge I didn’t have, and a whole lot of money.

I almost threw in the towel, but decided to ask around first. Did anyone know a sound engineer? Did anyone know of a studio? Or a guitarist, since I’d cleverly written a guitar part I was unable to play?

Luckily, one of the folks I asked was Gunnar Madsen, founding member of The Bobs and a former critique group member. It turned out he has a home studio, he could do the engineering, and he knew a guitarist, Jules Leyhe, I could hire.

Ta-da! Most of the obstacles disappeared—after I did a bunch of research and reached out to people who might help. It was still a hefty expense, but not as much as my friend had predicted.

Both are learning experiences.

Every picture book I’ve written has been instructive—especially the ones I wrote in the beginning. (I don’t write books with six main characters anymore.)

Likewise, I learned a lot making this recording. For example: the guitarist and I were recording in the same room, so if either one of us made a mistake, we had to redo both our parts. A recording studio with separate booths for each musician could have made the process speedier.

Nothing’s perfect.

It’s hard not to want to go back and change things in my published books. But I’ve come to realize that with every book, I do the best I can. If my present best is better than my past best, that’s only a good thing: it means I’ve grown.

That was a hard-won lesson for this recovering perfectionist, and I’m happy it transferred to this new venture. The recording isn’t perfect, but neither am I. We could have spent hours in post-production trying to make every note flawless, but Gunnar and I agreed that the result would be less appealing; I wanted to sound like a human being, not a robot. Who wants to be sung to sleep by a robot? (Hmm, I may have a new picture book idea…)

All in all, it was a great experience. I’d dreamed of recording a song for ages, and it was a thrill to combine, rather than need to choose between, my love of singing and my love of writing.

The song is a free download at deborahunderwood.bandcamp.com. Listen here:

gnbaddiesplayer

I hope you enjoy it! And please look for GOOD NIGHT, BADDIES. Juli Kangas’s art for the book is gorgeous, rich, funny, and heartwarming—I am one lucky writer! You can get a sneak preview of some of the beautiful illustrations in the trailer, which you’ll find at DeborahUnderwoodBooks.com.

Thank you, Deborah, for sharing your beautiful voice and original composition. It’s BAD! (That’s Michael Jackson BAD, not bad BAD.)

GOOD NIGHT, BADDIES releases TOMORROW but you can win a copy TODAY! You have until MIDNIGHT PST tonight to enter by leaving a comment below.

Bella and me - David Peattie version!by Deborah Underwood

Congratulations, PiBoIdMo-ers! You’re more than halfway home! (56.6666% home, but who’s counting?)

At this point in the game, you may be a little stuck. Believe me, I know the feeling. When I’m devoid of ideas, sometimes remembering the origins of an existing manuscript yields clues about how I might forge ahead.

So, in hopes that it might help you, let me share the genesis of Here Comes the Easter Cat, illustrated by Claudia Rueda. The book resulted from three things that happened in June of 2011:

1) I was floundering around looking for inspiration, so I wrote to a friend, the founder of an animal museum. I asked if there was a kids’ book she saw a need for, something that might be helpful to her in her work. She mentioned that a woman she knew had trouble finding suitable Easter books for her vegan book review site. I didn’t find the idea of writing an Easter book particularly compelling, so I thanked her and promptly forgot about her suggestion. (Or so I thought!)

2) A few weeks later, I had a weirdly illustrator-centric week. I had coffee with one visiting illustrator, coffee another day with two others, and lunch with a local illustrator friend.

PastedGraphic-2

3) Several days after that, I was sitting on my bed, still trying to come up with a viable idea. My cat Bella was sprawled in front of me, so I idly doodled a cat. The cat looked grumpy. I asked why, and, to my surprise, the cat held up a sign with the Easter Bunny on it. Intrigued, I continued to ask the cat questions, and Here Comes the Easter Cat took shape.

 

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Why did I decide to draw? I’m not sure, but I’ll bet it was because I’d just talked with all those illustrators.

And why did the Easter Bunny show up on Cat’s sign? Undoubtedly because my friend had mentioned that Easter book a few weeks earlier.

So the book idea came about because:

  • I actively sought input from someone outside my usual circle.
  • I took off my pajamas—horrors!—and got out into the world, and in doing so, learned more about how illustrators work.
  • I gave myself the space to think (sitting on my bed, trying to be receptive) and to play (doodling).

So I was active, and I was passive. I soaked up information from others, and I experimented with something outside my area of expertise. If any of those elements hadn’t been present, I suspect there would be no Cat.

Here are my original sketches alongside Claudia Rueda’s terrific finished art:

SC1

SC2

TwoCats

In particular, the drawing component was critical. So I encourage you to play around with doodling or sketching, even if you think you’re not an artist. Here Comes Easter Cat came out earlier this year, Here Comes Santa Cat was just released, and two more Cat books are in the queue. I’m very, very glad I did that first Cat sketch.

One more thing: when I began Easter Cat, I was not thinking of the market. I was definitely not saying, “What the world really needs is an 80-page picture book!” or “I’ll bet my editor is dying to see a stack of sketches by someone who can’t draw!”

Rather, I was having a conversation with Cat for the best of reasons: it amused me. It made me laugh. And what I loved turned out to be what my agent and my editor loved, too.

I am embarrassed to say that I need to remind myself of this over and over. It’s so easy to get caught up in questions like “What do editors want?” and “What can I sell?”

When really, the critical question is, “What do I love?”

So write with your heart. And draw! And if one of your sketches starts talking to you? You should probably pay attention. Best of luck!

guestbloggerbio2014

Deborah Underwood grew up in Walla Walla, Washington. When she was little, she wanted to be an astronomer. Then she wanted to be a singer. Then she wanted to be a writer. Today her jobs are writing and singing. Two out of three’s not bad! (Okay, she also wanted to work in a piano factory and paste the labels on new pianos, but let’s just ignore that one.)

She’s the author of THE QUIET BOOK, THE LOUD BOOK, PART-TIME PRINCESS, the SUGAR PLUM BALLERINAS series (with Whoopi Goldberg), and, of course THE CAT books, among others.

When she’s not writing, you might find her singing in a chamber choir, playing a ukulele (very badly), walking around in Golden Gate Park, baking vegan cookies, or petting any dogs, cats, pigs, or turkeys that happen to be nearby.

You can connect with her at DeborahUnderwoodBooks.com or on Twitter @underwoodwriter.

prizedetails2014

Deborah is giving away one copy of EASTER CAT and one copy of SANTA CAT!

eastercat  Santa Cat

These prizes will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for these prizes if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!

by Deborah Underwood

It’s the end of the month. Hooray! And congratulations!

If you’re brilliant, you have thirty picture book ideas, all of which can be transformed into stunning manuscripts. If this is you, stop reading here; take the rest of the day off.

If you’re like me, however, you have thirty sparks. Thirty scraggly shoots. Thirty teensy brown-paper-wrapped parcels of hope.

Now it’s time to test them for viability.

Here’s the image that always comes to my mind during this part of the process: I’m in a dentist’s chair. The dentist pokes and scrapes at a suspicious tooth, gently at first, then harder, then really hard. I silently pray, “Please don’t find anything wrong. Please. Ohpleaseohpleaseohplease.”

My ideas are my babies. I love them. But my ultimate goal is to get manuscripts out into the world. If an idea isn’t strong enough, better to let it go than to spend the next month banging my head against my desk.

So here are some suggestions as you begin your deliberations:

1)  Check for competition.
If my idea hinges on a distinctive title, I Google and hope the title doesn’t turn up elsewhere. If it centers on an unusual animal or situation, I go to Amazon.com or Books in Print and search for similar books. If it’s a hook-y concept, and I can’t remember if I’ve seen it before, I ask around (a good children’s librarian can be your best friend for this type of thing).

2)  Make sure the plot—or the concept, for concept books—is strong.
Sometimes I turn an idea over and over in my mind and come to the sad realization that it’s just not different or special enough. Out it goes. But if you have a great character drowning in a mediocre idea, toss him a life preserver; maybe you can find him another home.

3)  Think about marketability.
We all know the picture book market is tough. If I have a choice between developing a high-concept story or a clever but obscure idea that will require a book with expensive flaps, pull tabs, and a triangular fuchsia mirror, I’m going to go with the former.

4)  Don’t think about marketability.
Ha—fooled you! It’s good to be aware of trends.And if an editor says she’s looking for a book about platypuses, and you happen to have one (or think you can write one), you’d be silly not to give it a shot.

But.

If you have a potentially hard-to-market idea that you really, truly love, an idea that floods you with energy and fills you with joy, here’s my advice, courtesy of Admiral Farragut: Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

We simply cannot allow our creativity to be controlled by conventional wisdom. I know everyone’s saying picture books need to be—what is it now, less than seven words long? Maybe it’s six this week.

You know what? I’d bet good money that in the next year or two, some brilliant, 2,000-word picture book will take the publishing world by storm. It will be a bestseller. It will be adored by both critics and kids. And it will exist because some writer had the courage of her convictions, and because some editor was gutsy enough to take a chance on it.

I adore Press Here by Hervé Tullet. Is it character driven? No. Did Tullet write it because he read a market update saying, “Editors are seeking unconventional, graphic-driven books that readers can poke with their fingers”? Unlikely.

I’ll bet he wrote it for one reason:

The idea delighted him.

And now it delights us.

We want to write great books. And greatness does not come from following trends. It comes from breaking boundaries. So let’s get out there and break some, shall we?

Deborah’s picture books include The Quiet Book, The Loud Book, A Balloon for IsabelGranny Gomez & Jigsaw, and the forthcoming Part-Time Princess and The Christmas Quiet Book. Deborah is the author of the easy reader Pirate Mom, and she co-writes the Sugar Plum Ballerina chapter book series with Whoopi Goldberg. She has also written more than 25 nonfiction books for kids. Please visit her online at www.DeborahUnderwoodBooks.com.

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
2021

BLOOP!
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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