I never tire of hearing (or reading) people say how tough it is to write a picture book. But I was especially impressed by the admission from today’s Tuesday 12 x 12 author, Connie Dowell, that she waited to try writing picture books for years because she knew she needed strong writing skills. So often it’s the other way around! People think they are going to ‘cut their teeth’ on picture books and then graduate to longer-form fiction or non-fiction. Please welcome Connie and read on to learn more about the differences of writing picture books vs. middle grade/YA fiction in this fascinating post.
Picture Books and Carry-over Skills
When I tell people I’m working on a picture book, I’m often surprised by how many people assume picture books are easier to write than other forms. I’m quick to correct them. Picture books are tough! In fact, I put off trying a picture book manuscript for years, worried I wasn’t a strong enough writer to do one justice.
I had been writing middle grade and young adult for a long time when I first fell in love with picture books as a library assistant during graduate school. I couldn’t resist flipping through the picture books in the library’s collection to see the beautiful images and read the sometimes lyrical, sometimes funny, always fascinating words. I wanted to write those words, but I already knew that, frequently, the shorter the piece the more difficult it is to compose.
This year, I finally took the 12 x 12 challenge, hoping the regular writing exercise and community environment would be just what I needed to get started in this intimidating (to me) new category. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Knowing I have to get 12 of these puppies at least in first-draft form before 2014, I’ve been furiously brainstorming and putting pen to paper and hands to keyboard, no matter how awful I feel like my drafts are when I write them. Not only have I a learned a great deal about picture books through this process, I’ve gained writing skills that carry over to fiction for other age groups as well. Furthermore, I’ve learned those skills as a direct result of some of the differences between picture book and novel writing, the length and the illustration component.
The shorter length of picture books intensifies the entire writing process. It forces me to think about every single word I put on the page. In just a few months of doing this challenge, I’m writing more concisely than I ever have before and editing more ruthlessly to eliminate redundancy and unnecessary words. In addition, the short length makes picture book characterization more difficult and more crucial. It’s too easy to have characters feel like fill-in-the-blanks, because as writers we don’t have much word count to work in those details that bring characters to life. It’s important to concentrate on what’s special about not just the protagonist but any secondary characters and bear all that in mind for every single action the character takes.
The illustration component of picture books presents an additional challenge. One of the first maxims you learn in picture books is to “leave room for the pictures,” and boy was that hard for me. I spent years refining my use of visual description, finding just the right balance between not enough and too much detail. When I started writing picture books, all that was gone, and I finally realized how much I used it as a crutch. Without visual description, I started thinking about smells, textures, etc. A book is not a movie screen; it can appeal to more than just the eyes and ears.
Thus far I have written and revised two picture book manuscripts, I’m working on a third, and I have a long list of ideas to fill the rest of the year. I’ve enjoyed exploring this fascinating form and improved as not only a picture book writer, but as a writer overall. I can’t wait to see how much I will have learned by the end of the year.
Connie B. Dowell is a university writing tutor and writing center assistant manager. Her freelance editing and proofreading business launches in May. Always passionate about children’s literature, in high school and college, she hid her books for younger readers lest anyone should discover that she read “little kid books.” Now she reads whatever she pleases right out in the open, daring anyone to judge. Connie lives in Virginia with her husband and an overly clingy cat. Find her online at www.bookechoes.com.Categories: 12 x 12, Authors, Books, Children's Books, Creativity, Goals, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: 12 x 12, Author, Authors, Children's Books, Creativity, Goals, Guest Blogging, Julie Hedlund, Picture Books, Tuesday 12 x 12, Works in Progress, Writing