Monday, March 16, 2020

The picture book gospel according to me ...

A couple of weeks ago I had a pretty rubbish week. Rejections, failures on several fronts, and it was all a bit depressing. Then last week was a good week. Some good news about a submission, beautiful pics to look at for my next book Moon and Sun with Upstart Press, and some more good news for another family member. Now this week is just plain weird. I'm a bit 'all at sea', wondering if I'm doing enough in response to Covid 19, wondering how Covid 19 might affect me healthwise and book wise, wondering where this will all end, wondering if I dreamed last week's good fortune. And it's only Monday.

I'm an asthmatic with high blood pressure so I'm immunocompromised when it comes to an illness like Covid 19. I'm sticking at home as much as possible. You might think this is a great thing for a writer but all the developments happening around the world are making it difficult for me to focus on my writing. And I just finished the first draft of a new project and I'm not at all hopeful I've nailed it. I'm trying to read as much as possible. Especially as I have a few reviews to write. Maybe this is the time I finally make a dent in my tbr pile.

My good news about a submission (fingers crossed this isn't compromised) means there will be a tenth picture book by me published. I think I might have the hang of this picture book writing thing. I also recently judged a picture book writing competition. I have thoughts. Maybe if you have down time and want to use it writing picture books these thoughts might be helpful. Here are ten of them. Please note these are just my opinion rather than hard and fast rules.

1) There should always be a penguin.

2) Don't write at children, invite them in. Your story should make them feel centered (whether there are children in the story or not). They should be part of the fun - like a juvenile conspiracy. It should make them feel respected too.

3) Yes you can be too silly. Be restrained with your made up words too, although they do have their place. Some picture books that appear to be complete nonsense actually have an underlying sense or meaning or value. Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan are a lot harder to imitate than you might think.

4) Good picture books only look effortless, but make no mistake, the language has been carefully crafted. This is where our youngest readers learn to love words, stories, books. Give them great language and they'll be readers for life, and probably good at expressing themselves too. Don't stint on the words. Passive, monosyllabic writing should definitely be avoided.

5) If you are going for a more old fashioned style of story or storytelling, you are competing with all the classics which are already readily available, and have already stood the test of time and survived many previous book cullings. Old fashioned is a hard sell. Look forward, not backwards.

6) Make sure you are reading some recently published picture books. Read some prize winners. And some best sellers. Have a good think about why they are winners and/ or bestsellers, or just made the cut in general. And yes some published picture books defy explanation, but that is not what we are aiming for.

7) Find some recent books with writing you really, really like. Have a go at imitating their style and voice with some of your picture book ideas. The underlying goal is to move toward developing your own distinctive style and voice. This is also a good way to refresh your writing if you feel you are stagnating. I have definitely tried to incorporate some of the stylistic tendencies of some of my favourite writers over the years and I think this has made a significant difference.

8) Struggling for ideas? The natural world is a good place to start. What are hot topics for today's kiwi kids in the natural world? Some successful titles over the last few years have included natural disasters like oil spills and earthquakes, endangered species like the hector's dolphin and kakapo, also rainbows, fantails, and kiwis. Natural topics I have written about recently include the Moon, the Sun and the Rain.

9) There is nothing fresh about a fairy.

10) Don't think you can get away without a proper ending. That's cheating.