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by Dev Petty

My first book, I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG, came out last February and it’s been a wild ride this year publicizing and reading my book across the San Francisco Bay area which I call home. It’s kind of been the year when I went from “person who wrote and sold a book” to “writer,” if only because I now actually say “Writer!” when people ask what I do instead of coughing and pretending I didn’t hear the question like before.

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My journey from Visual Effects artist, to mom, to writer was fast. I didn’t have a ton of time to consider what being a writer would mean or what it would feel like to read my book to a room full of eager faces. I’ve visited many schools, dozens of bookstores, a few libraries, workshops and panels too. I had a lot to learn, if only about engaging with kids, which even though I’m a parent, I needed some work on. What was surprising, and exciting, was how much I learned about writing FOR kids through the process of reading TO kids. It turns out, if you do the same sort of spiel and read the same book enough times, you start to notice some things and, like so many other experiences, those things inform the act of writing picture books…who knew?! So here are a few WRITING lessons garnered from READING.

Kids are power-hungry little critters. What do I mean? It means they like to have the information, fill in the gaps, answer the questions, even guess the question all before you, another kid or another adult gets a word out. Every time I read a certain page of I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG, I get to the part where I say “Because you are a….”

and the kids all shout out FROG!

Which is infinitely more fun that me saying “frog” to them in my not-that-fun voice. Time after time, I realize that when given a chance to extrapolate and interpolate they’ll do it. What does this mean for writing? It means you can leave a little space. Kids can draw conclusions and they’ll feel good for doing so. It also means you can play with that phenomenon. It’s a fun technique to send ’em down one road and get them thinking they know the answer and then turn the page and it’s something else entirely…it’s kind of a safe way to be wrong about something.

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Kids are smart. They OFTEN ask me about publishing, how a picture book is put together, how and where I write, etc. Unlike young Dev who spent a lot of time drawing some sort of hybrid human/hotdog people, these kids are sophisticated and curious and savvy. Spend an afternoon with a bunch of second graders and you’ll be jotting down words to look up when ou get home. I talk to them about paste downs, collaboration in a digital world, and revision. This ought to remind us writers to not dumb things down- it may take more than one read, but they’ll get it…and then they’ll teach you.

Dev's required reading shoes

Dev’s required reading shoes

Kids are also weird and they appreciate weird. I’ve written about this before, but many, many readings have reminded me of the truth of this statement. The best readings I have are the ones where I am revealing of my own oddities, shortcomings and foibles. It may get back to the power-hungry nature of the little guys, but they do love to feel that you’re on equal footing, that the writer is goofball, kid-like participant in the process and not button-up preacher sitting in the adult-sized chair above. What does it mean for writing? It means I’ve learned the joy of letting go a little and using a big brush to write strong, strange things and hope that kids, if not adults, will get it. Or at least enjoy it.

mikeboldtKids like pictures. Well, duh Dev—of course kids like pictures…they draw them ALL THE TIME…on paper! But seriously, I found when I incorporate images into my reading, even a simple 20 minute reading, they are much more involved and attentive. Examples: I used to just say Mike Boldt illustrated the book…but then I put a funny picture of Mike in a big flowery frame and started bringing it along…they love it. I bring the alternate language versions of my book and pass them around. I draw a little. It’s pretty obvious what this means for writing—it means, think about the pictures! It means letting the pictures do a lot of the work for you, it means present, don’t preach.

So in this year, I’ve sure learned a lot. I’ve come a long way since my first reading when my hands wouldn’t stop shaking and I had notes written on a scrap of paper so I’d know what to say. My writing has changed because of all these kids, parents, librarians and teachers who’ve welcomed into their rooms. In fact, these days when I’m writing a new story, I IMAGINE myself reading it to a room full of kids and I imagine the page turns and pauses and laugh lines, the open space for them to guess and wonder, and the possible reactions to things. Of course, in my head, the kids are all wearing overalls and red converse and yellow rain slickers and have rosy cheeks and bacteria-free hands and speak a little french and go fishing and think I’m terribly cool, like spy cool and that they might want to be like me some day. I digress…

Finally, in case you’re a new author and in the market for a few tips you may not have considered—here now a few Reading Your Picture Book Lessons I’ll offer for free:

  1. Don’t swear. Seems obvious, right? Harder for some of us than others.
  2. If you take questions, always ask the kid’s name before he/she talks.
  3. Bring along a little giveaway, not all kids can afford your book and you’ll feel good if you send em home with something.
  4. Show up early.
  5. Send a thank you note to the teacher, book store manager or librarian after.
  6. Connect with the parents and teachers, let them ask questions too
  7. .If you make a joke about something like eating bugs, be ready for the possibility that one of the kids in your audience has, and often does eat bugs as part of their culture and then be prepared to feel really, really awkward.
  8. Seriously, don’t swear.
  9. When signing books, bring scratch paper to write the names down before you pen them in your book. The kid might say “My name is Max” and that might have an umlaut and a couple h’s these days.
  10. Finally, remember what the whole point of this writing for kids thing is. It’s to delight, inspire, amuse…kids. I’m just the hired help–another reminder this is the best job on Earth.

Thanks, Dev. These are great tips. (And I second that umlaut warning. Also, don’t say another name while you are writing a name, otherwise a book for Marcie will wind up being a book for Autumn. True story.)

You can win a copy of Dev’s newest book, I DON’T WANT TO BE BIG. Just leave a comment below–include a reading aloud tip if you have one. A winner will be randomly selected in a couple weeks. US addresses only, please. GOOD LUCK!

idontwanttobebigDev Petty is the author of I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG, I DON’T WANT TO BE BIG, and CLAYMATES (L,B & Co. ’17). She is a former visual effects artist who loves writing picture books because they’re like tiny, paper movies. Dev is a Berkeley native, devout Californian, and she’s super good at word jumbles. She’s represented by Jen Rofé of ABLA. Visit her at DevPetty.com.

devPetty1by Dev Petty

I wrote a whole post for this very blog some time ago about NOT writing and just thinking. I wrote about getting to the heart of your story idea in your head before you ever write a word. I believe in that process…big time. But it’s not how I wrote I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG. That’s a different story. That’s the story of how a sort of basic story idea turned into one with legs…frog legs! In fact, it was the writing of FROG that taught me to slow down and think, to find the story thread before I started writing.

frogdevpetty

I knew I wanted to write a story all in dialogue. I wanted it to be funny. And I wanted it to be about a frog. I like frogs, it was that simple. Not much to go on, eh? Believe me, my first efforts on frog reflected just how thin the idea was. Frog went from animal to animal saying “I want to be like you…because…you’re furry (or you can fly or you can hop).” It was repetitive and a little hollow and NOTHING REALLY AT ALL HAPPENED. These are the sort of problems I usually suss out when I’m just thinking instead of writing, so I don’t usually have this situation. But there was something about the first draft I liked enough to keep at it.

froginterior

This is when I stopped and realized I needed to answer my own critical, favorite story writing question.

“What is this about?”

The answer, as written, was “A frog who wants to be a rabbit or a cat or an owl.” And after a ton of rewrites and rearranging, it wasn’t getting any better on the page. So I stopped revising. I stopped writing. As I closed the laptop and started thinking, I realized it was a little deeper. The answer really was, “This is a story about a frog who doesn’t want to be a frog.” It’s about wanting to be something other than what you are. Now THAT’S a little more interesting. When I started thinking about it that way, the story opened up and it wasn’t anymore about cats or owls, it was about nature, it was about accepting your nature.

That answer allowed me to start thinking about the frog, the good parts, the bad parts, the way we all sometimes envy things about others that we can never, and probably should never have. The story was getting deeper, but still…nothing really happened. The frog went from animal to animal saying he wanted to be them and then the book ended. You’re a frog. Get over it.

froginterior2

Confession. I’ve tried to write novels. A bunch of em. I am a Viking at writing three awesome chapters and then running out of steam, throwing the laptop across the room and eating ice cream for a while. But I do it often enough that I’ve learned a few things. Newsflash Dev, your story has to have a PLOT and not just be a rambling treatise on frog existentialism. So I decided to bring a new character in…a wolf…who would act as a bit of a therapist, a reality checker who would point out the good parts of being a frog through his own nature. Once something happened, the wolf, my story had a turn and a direction and something, albeit small, happened. I hope kids will read frog and realize that everyone has things they want to change about themselves, and that’s a totally okay, natural thing to explore. But you also sort of have to accept who you are, find the bright parts about who you are and work with what you have.

I guess the truth is, I sort of violated most of my own rules of picture book writing in the writing of the one picture book I have out there. I kind of teased a good story out of a pretty mediocre one. But that’s ok too, it taught me a lot about finding that thread. It helped me develop a process…find the thread FIRST! Remember to TELL a story and not just muse.

Since we’re talking story threads, I thought I’d put down a few tools I use to try to figure out what I’m getting at when I’m developing a story idea in my head, before I start writing.

  1. I write a poem. It’s not the kind of poem anyone would ever, ever, ever want to read. But the lack of rules in poetry allow me to explore an idea without limitations. I usually write pretty long, stream of consciousness poems about my story idea and most of it will be total garbage. But usually, when I read it through, somewhere in there is a thread I can hold onto and start crafting a story around.
  2. Imagine your story as a trailer. I’d never thought of this one until I started watching a lot of picture book trailers and working on my own, for Frog. But when you have to introduce your character, a story problem, a plot twist and a possible solution- you’ve covered a lot of story elements and it’s pretty easy to find where you need to go a little deeper.
  3. Ask yourself what your story is about. Sounds obvious, I know, but I forget to do it ALL THE TIME. And, while you’re busy talking to yourself, why not have a whole conversation?

“Dev, what is this story about?”
“Well, it’s about a frog who wants to be a cat or an owl or something else.”
“Gosh, Dev, that’s not very interesting.”
“It’s not? Crap. OK, it’s about not wanting to be a frog.”
“Getting there.”
“You’re bossy. Fine. It’s about not wanting to be what you are.”
“That’s sad.”
“Okee…it’s about accepting who you are.”
“Bingo!”
“I don’t like you.”
“I don’t like you either.”

Finally, Never throw anything away. Whether you save one giant list of picture books in Scrivener or text files or email drafts (I’m partial to that one), never give up on a story. Put it aside, let it steep, even put it in total cold storage, but don’t throw anything away. SO many of my stories come from little breadcrumbs of ideas I left myself along the way.

Dev Petty is the author of I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG (Doubleday 2015, Illustrated by Mike Boldt) and CLAYMATES (Little Brown, 2017).  A former film effects artist, she lives in Albany, California and writes funny books for kids and immature adults. Visit her at DevPetty.com.

Do you want to be a frog? No? Do you want to own a frog? Not really? How about own a SIGNED COPY of Dev’s I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG? Plus bookmarks? Yes? OK then, leave one comment below and a winner will be randomly selected in two weeks! Good luck!

devheadshotby 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.

STOP Writing.

blankstop

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.

writingonthedeck

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.

guestbloggerbio2014

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.

prizedetails2014

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:

  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!

 

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COMING SOON:


illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019


illus by Ross MacDonald
Disney*Hyperion
October 15, 2019

THREE WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
Spring 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
August 2020

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