I’m an author, and one who mainly writes picture books. Every day, when I sit down at my computer to work, I try to think of new picture book ideas to work on.
That’s when I realize I have a problem. A real problem. A panic-worthy problem.
I don’t have anything to write about!
(See what I mean about a 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. Even writing picture books.
All problems have solutions.
To find a solution as a scientist, I was taught to find the right protocol and to rely only on things that are true. And where I went to school, there was quite a bit of Yoda-quoting as well (well for it – I will tie it in, I promise!). So that’s what we are going to talk about today in this post: how to solve the problem of writing a new story.
Finding the right protocol
When I was a scientist, I 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.
I’m not trying to imply that writing a picture book is like following a recipe. The magic that happens when you write a publishable story is not something anyone can tell you about. 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:
- Limit yourself to 500 words. I’m finding in today’s market, even 500 is considered long (the last picture book I sold had 22 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. So avoid the 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.
Relying only on things that are true
Obviously, there is much, much more we could discuss, but that’s a lot for one blog post. So 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 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.
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.
You have to find a way to put all the things above together in a logical way. And that’s where some of the art of what we do as authors comes into play.
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? Please know I’m not saying at all that a story can’t work with four failures before the main character solves the problem, or can’t be published at 700 words. You find what works for you, just as I’ve found what works for me. While all problems have solutions, your solution 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.”