Keep It Moving, People!
Last week a friend asked me what I like so much about writing picture books. I told him, “I think what keeps me coming back to picture books is how darn HARD it is to write them. I’ve always liked a challenge!”
His reaction was typical of someone who doesn’t write picture books. “Is that right? They’re so short, you would think it would be EASY to write one!”
Well, it might be easy to write a bad picture book, but that’s not why we’re here, is it? I told my friend it is the job of the picture book writer to create a memorable character, give her a relatable problem, build tension, infuse emotional resonance, surprise and delight the reader with the ending, and don’t forget to tug on those heartstrings…IN ABOUT 500 WORDS!
Easy? I think not.
In order to accomplish this Herculean task, we must make sure that every sentence in our manuscript is doing one of two things:
1) Characterization (a.k.a. making clear the distinct personality of your character)
2) Advancing the plot (a.k.a. keeping the action moving forward toward the end)
My main characters, a cat named Tabitha and an elephant named Fritz, do a vacation home swap and exchange letters. Here is Fritz’s first letter to Tabitha after the swap begins.
Do these lines characterize Fritz? Yes! Fritz refers to Tabitha’s owner as “an adorable little human” and to the town swimming pool as “a watering hole.” This tells us that Fritz is coming to this new experience with a positive, open attitude. We also infer that Fritz will relate to this foreign environment in unexpected (and hilarious) ways.
How about the postscript? Does it advance the plot? Yes! By introducing Rocky, the African Rock Python, in this way, the reader gets a hint that a troublesome antagonist will be slithering his way into the story soon. This creates tension which will encourage your reader to keep turning those pages!
If your manuscript is running long or feeling sluggish, read through it and make sure each and every line either contributes to characterization or advances the plot. Bonus points for lines that do BOTH of these things simultaneously! If you identify lines that are doing neither of these things, sharpen your axe. It might be time to kill some darlings.
And when a friend tells you one day that writing picture books looks easy (and I’m telling you, it is GOING to happen), take it as a compliment. A well written story SHOULD feel effortless to the reader! You don’t want kids and parents plodding through your story, struggling to reach the end. It should be a breeze! A delight! A smooth and joyous ride! Only you and I will know how much blood, sweat, and tears went into honing that beautiful text. And we understand that the challenge is what makes the effort worthwhile!