Monday, February 18, 2019

A picture book is like complicated origami ...

Things are heating up. I recently revisited some picture book manuscripts I've been working on, on and off, some for a few years, some six months or a bit less...

Some picture books turn up on your doorstep complete. They flop out on the page, beginning to end, as you tap away at the keyboard and apart from the 'always needed' editing/tweaking/titivating, they are good to go in a surprisingly short amount of time. I suspect these have been percolating away deep inside the old noodle for a while, like complicated origami pieces folding and unfolding, till they take their intended shape and then rise to the conscious zone ready to emerge acting like they always looked like that and aren't all covered in creases. My conscious always acts surprised, but those stories always have a whiff of the familiar.

Then there are some stories that resist. Or their shape is not just a matter of twelve folds in a particular order and you're done. Or maybe they have to be seen to be realised? They appear as a blistering idea that fills your entire head space and you have no choice but to turn it out on the page already and see what it is. And what might be done with it. And there might be an obvious resolution carrot dangling but no matter how much you trot towards it, it remains tauntingly out of reach. Or there really seems no way to achieve that paper crane with a round piece of paper. And sometimes you thought the answer was a crane but really it is a butterfly and you must unfold and refold many times until you get there. And sometimes, sometimes your ambition has leapt ahead and the rest of you hasn't quite caught up yet and waiting patiently is the only answer. This is why, no matter how fragmentary a picture book idea might be, I never throw them away or give up on them. It took around ten years for The Song of Kauri to find its final form and that was a good lesson for me.

So, over the last month I have unexpectedly wrapped up a couple more picture book texts and I feel pretty happy with the results. And the most interesting thing to me is that I didn't return to those manuscripts because some penny had dropped about how to resolve them, I just kept coming back to them because I had faith that the ideas were worth something and maybe this time I'd fold the story the right away to make the crane (or the bear or the dragon as the case may be). I wasn't expecting to complete them in this round of revisions, but apparently their time had come.

Of course, sometimes the shape looks finished and you send something out on submission, but it's almost yet not quite right, and it is the agent or the publisher who makes the final fold to reveal the perfect form. Last week I rewrote the second half of a pb manuscript at a publisher's suggestion and by crikey I like it much better now. Luckily so do they. The story is the same same but different. In this case, the final fold was out of my reach and I needed a fresh pair of expert hands to point it out. I hope it gets to be a book. It would be cool to show you what I first thought the story should be, what it ended up as, and the journey it took between the two points. Of course the bit I can tell you now is I believed there was a good story inside that first idea.

So, points to take away?

1) Each picture book story has its own writing journey. It might be that no two are alike for you and you will get along better if you don't expect them to be.
2) Don't throw anything away that at some point you believed was a great idea.
3) Don't wait for some plot revelation to get you to return to those manuscripts. Regular revisiting is a good idea, even if you sometimes make no progress/go backwards.
4) How do you know when the story is ready for submission? The moment of true certainty never arrives. Trust your instinct and send it out when you think/feel it is ready. Sometimes the next pair of hands that hold your story are the only ones that can make that final fold for the perfect shape.
5) Don't worry if a story is taking an inordinate amount of time. As always, remember this lark is a long game ...

Note: Last time I wrote about being addicted to the 'yes' and just in case you are interested in this, I hope to return to this topic with some tools to help manage this issue in future posts.