I had the very good fortune of not only meeting our July 12 x 12 featured author, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen at the NJ-SCBWI conference, but also receiving an amazing critique from her on my March draft. That is why I am so excited for the one lucky 12 x 12 participant who is going to win a critique from her this month. You are in for a treat!
Sudipta gave several presentations at the conference that were (almost) as packed with information as this post is. 🙂 She sold out of her books so quickly at the conference that I was only able to get my hands on Pirate Princess and Hampire, both of which my kids ADORE! I can say for certain that Sudipta knows her way around a picture book, and we’re lucky to be able to learn from her. Please welcome Sudipta!
Problems, Truths, and the Quotable Yoda
When Julie asked me to be the July author for 12×12, I was so flattered that I accepted on the spot. But I didn’t think it through. (This is a typical practice for me.) See, Julie said I could just write about the craft of picture book writing and that it should be easy-peasy, lemon-squeezey. But then…I started reading all the great posts by the authors who’ve already had their say, and I wondered what I could say about picture books that hasn’t been said already? This is a real problem. A panic-worthy problem. A potentially-professionally-and-personally-embarrassing kind of problem. Luckily, my college experience beat something into my brain that has served me well, even now when I do nothing at all with my college (or graduate) degree. It’s a simple rule of life, applicable to anything, apropos to everything.
All problems have solutions.
I remember taking final exams in physics classes where the jargon was so complex that I was never really sure it was English and not Swahili, realizing that I couldn’t solve any of the problems because they were unsolvable, going into full panic mode…and then realizing that it couldn’t be as bad as I was making it out to be. These were only problems, and all problems have solutions. You just have to find the right protocol, utilize a strong framework, and rely only on things that are true. Only when I realized this was I able to take a breath and take my exam. (And since I got a degree, I couldn’t have failed all of them.) You might be wondering why this is relevant now – after all, could there be two more disparate things than theoretical astrophysics and children’s picture books? (The answer there is ‘no.’) But it is relevant – because writing can be just as hard astrophysics. Knowing the right way to craft a story can be just as mysterious as the way electrons tunnel through barriers (or something. My recollection of college physics is fuzzy at best) – and it can be just as much of a problem. And what was that that we just learned?
All problems have solutions.
So, here’s what we are going to talk about today in this post:
- Finding the right protocol.
- Utilizing a strong framework.
- Relying only on things that are true.
Let’s begin. Finding the right protocol. Long ago, in another life, I was trained as a scientist, and as scientists, we dealt with proven techniques and tested procedures. When I became a writer, I quickly realized that I was most effective – and most efficient – when I used proven techniques and tested procedures. So I learned how to tell a story, what steps were required, what elements needed to be present, and I put that knowledge to use. Now, before I go any further, I just want to say that I am not trying to imply that writing a picture book is like following a recipe. The magic that happens when you write a story that is publishable is not something anyone can tell you about. (In fact, if I knew the secret to making that magic happen, I wouldn’t have a pile of unpublished manuscripts gathering dust.) What you can learn is how to write a technically correct narrative. The rest is fairy dust and rainbows. But back to the protocol. I can certainly tell you that secret. Here you go:
- Limit yourself to 500 words. I’m finding in today’s market, even 500 is considered long (the last picture book I sold had 32 words in it).
- Write stories with a beginning, middle, and end. Young children need to be grounded in the reality of the world of your story before they can understand or appreciate it. Therefore, avoid the common pitfall of jumping too quickly into the story. Remember, your story doesn’t take place on any old day – it happens on that day that the world became different. If you don’t tell the reader how things normally are (in that good story beginning), how will they understand the significance of the change? Similarly, young readers need to be satisfied at the conclusion of the story – the “happily ever after” moment, if you will – so you have to leave room for that.
- Use no more than 10% of your word count for the beginning, 10% for the end, and 80% for the middle. As much as your readers need grounding and resolution, you don’t want to bog the story down with these things. Get to it, get it done, move on.
- Make use of the rule of three. Remember the Three Little Pigs and The Three Billy Goats Gruff? Those are the classic examples but most literature utilizes the rule of three in determining “how much plot” is necessary to be satisfying. So put your main character through at least three hurdles (more often, three failures and then a final success) over the course of your story.
Obviously, there is much, much more we could discuss, but this is a good start. And I want to talk about some other things, too. So, moving on… Utilizing a strong framework. The number of places where the need for good structure is compared to architecture/construction/etc is many, so I will spare you of that here. But, to me, framing the story structurally is essential for creating a good narrative. Part of that is the beginning/middle/end structure we’ve discussed, but there are other tricks to use that can heighten and enhance the tension of your story. One of my favorite tricks is the refrain.
The refrain is a wonderful way to give your book narrative structure. It should be catchy and easy to remember/read/say, and, because of that, the reader should look forward to the next time he will run into it. But, structurally, the refrain serves a dual purpose. First, it marks every high point of the story. When the reader hears the refrain, he knows that the main character is feeling confident about his chances of solving the story problem. This enhances the anticipation for the reader, since he is rooting for the main character to win. But the second purpose of the refrain is the one that makes the story stronger from a narrative sense – it does not just emphasize the high point, it also foreshadows the low point to come. After all, since we are following the rule of three, the main character will fail several times before he solves his problem. The main character won’t know that, so he’ll launch into his refrain with gusto – and then will be met with disappointment. Tension rises, tension falls. You can use the refrain only in the “middle” of the picture book, or you can actually use it to structure the entire thing.
In my book CHICKS RUN WILD, we open with Mama seemingly putting her chicks to bed. She gives “one more kiss for each dear child, but when she leaves… those chicks run wild!” The first time we hear the refrain, it is launching us from the book beginning into how the world is changing that night. Throughout the story, then, Mama goes in and out of the bedroom, exhorting her chicks to go to sleep each time. And each time she leaves, “those chicks run wild!” Each time, then, the reader knows when he sees those words that there will be a funny scene followed immediately by the chicks getting into trouble again. Until, of course, we reach the book’s climax: Mama catches her chicks again, and asks why she had not been invited, and after consulting with each other, the chicks as Mama to join them and “they all run wild!” There’s the refrain again, but because this time it is signaling the climax and not just another stop of the journey, it gets a bit of a tweak – similar enough to feel the same but different enough to mark the change. By the way, the refrain in this case is used in the resolution of the story as well – again, with a tweak. After going wild as a family, the chicks are tired out and beg for sleep. So Mama puts them back in bed and gives “one last kiss for each dear child, she leaves the room, and Mama runs WILD!”
Relying only on things that are true. So far, we’ve covered some structural rules for writing picture books. Now I’d like to shift gears and talk about truth. The purpose of science is to expose the truth about the universe, to take something mysterious and make it less so. The purpose of literature is basically the same. So in all these scientific steps to writing that I take, my goal is to expose and convey a universal truth. I do this through character and through theme.
Truth in character is harder than you’d think. That’s because the picture book main character has to be true to the reader’s experience and to the author’s experience. Since it’s been a very long time since I’ve been in the age 3 to 8 demographic, I have to constantly remind myself to focus on both. The temptation when creating a main character is to focus on the charismatic, the character’s talents, skills, and gifts. But a trick to keeping your character true is to balance the flair by imbuing him with flaws. Remember who your reader is: a child who probably feels on the wrong side of right most of the time. That child wants to be able to identify with the main character – and it is the flaws that make that possible.
Truth in theme is often what separates a good, publishable picture book manuscript from a fun romp. A lot of writers – even experienced ones – focus so much on creating compelling characters and crafting a gripping plot that they forget that the primary role of literature is to expose universal truths. Now, the scope of a picture book is obviously not the same as WAR AND PEACE, but we still need to deal with universal themes. Is your book about friendship? Family? Is it about finding your place in the world? About learning patience and perseverance? Whatever it is, make sure there is something more to the story than a bunch of punch lines. Experiencing the theme, seeing the truth – that’s what makes a book re-readable.
Putting it all together Writing a good book can be a problem. But all problems have solutions. For me, the solution involves the steps I’ve outlined above. Except…I left off a step. And it’s kind of an important one. Yes, to craft a good picture book you should find the right protocol, utilize a strong framework, and rely only on things that are true. But you have to find a way to put all of these things together in a logical way. And that’s where some of the art of what we do as authors comes into play. There is so much wonderful information in this year’s 12×12 posts so far, and I’m sure there are many more wonderful posts to come before the end of the year. And as much as I am a believer in following tried and true protocols, each of us has to find the formula that works for our story – one that allows the character to go on meaningful quest in a way that makes sense. To make it even more complex, it will likely be a different set of steps for each story. In essence, we reinvent the wheel every time.
So what do I hope you take from this post, and from this blog? Please know I’m not saying that a story can’t work with four failures before the main character solves the problem, or can’t be published at 600 words or 700 words. Obviously, everything I’ve discussed here is optional – you find what works for you, just as I’ve found what works for me. While all problems have solutions, your solution to your story may be different from mine. But at least you know now that there is a solution. And that’s what I hope you take away. Every day you sit down to write, no matter how problematic it is, there is a solution. Which means it is not impossible. And if it’s possible, it can be doable.
And if it is doable, well – remember the immortal words of Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” I hope you all choose “do.”
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen never thought she’d grow up to be a writer. In fact, in 2001, Sudipta was well on her way to NOT being a writer. She had graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1998 with a BS in Biology, spent a year in Boston, and then had returned to Caltech as a PhD candidate in developmental biology. Even the birth of her first child, Isabella, didn’t change Sudipta’s plans — she thought she’d take a long maternity leave then return to graduate school. Then, her daughter Brooklyn came along.
With two small children, Sudipta found herself less interested in biology as she was in parenting. And for the first time, she found that she had stories to tell, stories she wanted to share with her daughters, and she decided to try to get published.
She loved picture books, so using a facility with word play and a love for animals (especially pigs), Sudipta worked on a number of manuscripts. Her first picture book, Tightrope Poppy, the High-Wire Pig, illustrated by Sarah Dillard, about a proud pig who perseveres was published in 2006. Since then, Sudipta has written many picture books including her latest, Pirate Princess. Other books by Sudipta include Hampire, Chicks Run Wild, Half-Pint Pete the Pirate, The Hog Prince and more.
Participants – to enter to win a critique from Sudipta, you must be an official challenger and leave a comment on this post (INCLUDING YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME) any time during the month of July for one point. On May 31st, l’ll put a check-in post on the blog. If you completed a picture book draft in May, you can let us know in the comments of that post for another point. I will draw a winner using Random.org and announce on August 2nd.Categories: 12 x 12 Featured Author, 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Children's Books, Giveaway, Goals, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Publishing, Rhyming, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: 12 x 12 Featured Author, 12 x 12 in 2012, Chicks Run Wild, Critique, Giveaway, Goals, Guest Blogging, Half-Pint Pete the Pirate, Hampire, Julie Hedlund, NJ-SCBWI, Picture Books, Pirate Princess, Publishing, SCBWI, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, The Hog Prince, Tightrope Poppy, Works in Progress, Writer, Writing