PICTURE BOOKS ARE EASY TO WRITE? OH, REALLY?

It is not uncommon for new writers [and the general public] to think that writing a picture book is so easy it shouldn’t take more time than the afternoon coffee break. I remember telling an illustrator that Maurice Sendak took six months working on the text of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE before he ever picked up his sketch pad. She laughed and said, “I do that in a day.”

My response was, “And how many of those have sold, let alone become classics?” Picture books are deceptively difficult. My theory is this: the easier it reads the harder it writes. Those who approach writing for the young as something to throw together quickly to teach them some life lesson are doomed to fail—and well they should. When we reach out to touch children’s minds we have a responsibility to do it well. J.R.R. Tolkien, when asked how to write for children, responded, “Write as you would for adults, only better. “

First, know your audience. Children are neither little Goody Two-Shoes nor The Bad Seed. They already come with baggage, just not as much as we adult readers bring to a book. They have that keen sense of survival, meaning the need to love and be loved, to achieve and learn, to be respected for themselves and to respect others, and to feel secure emotionally, physically and spiritually. Keeping those needs in mind give you endless plots when you can throw obstacles between them and the child.

Second, remember that children learn by emulating grownups, not by being told “do as I say, not as I do.” That means that your stories SHOW the child what you want them to know and not just tell them. Forget your adult-speak. From the minute that the lecture begins [even if it is by the child character] the red flag of caution goes up: Grownup in the Room. Think action and logical or natural consequences [Psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs believed that discipline was a matter of mutual respect. You can still find his books on Amazon and in libraries. They are excellent for writers and/or parents.]

Third, let the child character figure out a solution to the problem. Unless it is something dangerous or physically impossible for a child let him solve it without the help of the adult. Life is not all sugar plums and sunny days. Solutions are not always happy ever after. We are obligated to recognize that sometimes we take an alternate solution. Jean Karl, a grand dame of editors years ago, said that we should write, recognizing how things are but showing how things might be. [I’m paraphrasing as I leant out the book and it never returned, but that’s the gist of it.]

Fourth, demonstrate that the child has achieved something important through action-none of those “and little Johnny never again crossed the street without a grownup” endings.

Remember, kids are smart. You can be subtle, and they get it. As a classroom teacher for decades I have seen too many adult hang-ups aimed at the primary readers. [The puppy doesn’t HAVE to die because the child left the gate open; the child can catch the puppy through ingenuity and the message is still loud and clear]. There is virtually no subject that cannot be a theme; it is a matter of seeing it through the child’s understanding according to her age. That’s probably a good subject for a future article.

Before you sit down to write for the primary child you should look at the world from their point of view. Drop to your knees by your favorite chair or the dining table. Now look up at the ceiling. It got a lot farther away, didn’t it? Try getting in your chair from that position. Suddenly it became a big deal. The world is a lot different when you live in a giant’s world. You feel a lot less power and a lot more dependent on the good will of others. Your brain is still working; you know things are unfair, so you want to believe that the best is yet to come. Keep that in mind as you think about writing for the primary child.

Think about their limitations. They are told when to get up, when to go to bed, and when to eat and if they can play. Their world is their home, neighborhood, day care, elementary school, and church, and places adults take them: doctor, dentist, or grocer. Their transportation is trike or bike or hike. Subjects and situations they can identify with include Family [their place in the nuclear family], neighbors, God. They always want to know what it will be like next year. Their humor is still pretty primitive, but they like exaggeration [numbers and actions, for instance].

Picture books have many levels. The surface level is the series of related, gradually more challenging, events. But the emotional level is there, too. One emotion overcomes another emotion and leads to triumph. For instance the boy’s love for his cat is more powerful than his fear of heights, and to climbs the tree to free his cat from the vine. The understanding, then, is that he has overcome a troublesome obstacle in his life and has found courage to tackle future challenges, too. To be a stronger story it needs both levels.

Successful picture books appeal to adults as well as children of all ages. The adult will be called on to read the book over and over, so that it had better have adult appeal. Older children return to books from their primary years and find the many levels and depth of meaning, too. Brother against brother, human against nature—these are the same themes in adult novels tackled on a child’s level of understanding. Next time you pick up that “easy little 700 word story” look twice. You just might see more the second time around.

As a writer you become that child. You take the readers hand and explore with them, seeing it all for the first time instead of towering over them and watching them explore. Only then do you truly reach your audience. I cherish that little boy who came up to me after a school visit and said, “You had me fooled. I thought you were one of us.” I could truthfully respond, “It’s our secret, but I am.”

WRITER, CHARACTER AND READER: A POWERFUL TRIO

Tags

, , , , ,

I climb the stairs to my office and turn on the computer. As I begin to type the room and everything in it fades and disappears. It is morning in the valley, and there is a hint of dawn beyond the distant mountain range, its ragged peaks still bearing the remnants of last winter’s snow. The ring of fire from the previous night is now smoldering ash. The pack of coyote, their eyes flashing golden, their teeth white against the night, are gone. The shades of gray gradually become green.
The campfire burns high and curls around the stacked brushwood, and I inhale the scent of coffee brewing. I am tall, slender Hannah, young, brave and athletic, adventurous to the point of blind impulse. I am fearless and determined to do my job, even if it means arresting the man sitting across the campfire, his eyes focused on me in a way that sends shivers of delight up my spine. I realize that I have cast aside the pragmatism that has served me through hardship, and beyond logic I have fallen in love with this exasperating man. I am at a crossroads: do my duty as a detective or bring to an end the loneliness of a lifetime. What will I do?
I turn off the computer. The morning breeze is only the air conditioner. The campfire is the sun streaming through my window. As I rise from my chair I feel the sharp pains in my titanium-patched ankles and the misery in that old rotator cup injury. I see the dust bunnies under the desk, and I hear the unsolicited pitch for aluminum siding on my answer machine. But for those brief moments none of that existed. I wolf down a tuna sandwich for lunch, anxious to go back to that valley, where Hannah will make a decision that affects the rest of her life.
If I’m lucky, my readers will leave the mundane behind and become Hannah, too. They will lose themselves in another time and place.
Actually, luck has little to do with it. It’s work to grab readers and hold them for the duration of a book. To get them to abandon the waiting wash load, the weeds in the garden and that dress that needs hemming we must create someone they will care about, someone like themselves with problems to solve and personality traits that make solving them difficult. We must forget ourselves and become that person for however long it takes.
How do I know what Hannah will do? Because I know her as I know myself. I may have joined her at a crisis in her life, but before I knew what she’d do to solve it I stepped back in time to her birth. How many times have your heard a TV cop say, “Run a full background on …” Until you know how your character came to this crossroads you will decide how she handles it when it should be her decision. What was her childhood like: loving family, single parent, orphan, or absentee parent [physically or emotionally]? What of the major traumatic events in life occurred before the moment we join them?
Psychologists say that death, marriage, divorce, and moving are all life-defining moments. Childhood is a defining moment. Now they tell us that our personalities are forming even in the womb and that what we experience by age five pretty much completes the job. We then spend the rest of our lives refining, modifying those traits or using them as an excuse for our behavior.
Take a good look at the person you want to use as your main character. What made them who they are? And don’t forget to do the same for the advisory. That exasperating guy sitting across the campfire from Hannah has a past, too. As writers we create these characters. The moment they stop being characters and become people what they do is pretty much up to them. Sit back and enjoy the write!

Starting in June I will have room for a limited number of writers for critiques or on-line individualized lessons. Query through this sight.

HOW TO BEGIN A STORY: The Long and the Short of it

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

I remember reading that at the beginning of World War II a White House employee was tasked with writing a memo. I have misplaced the actual words but it took a lot of verbal detours such as “It is important that in the interest of national security that employees who find themselves in their offices after dark that they take every precaution to see that the windows are secured with dark fabric that will obscure light from the sight of enemy aircraft …” FDR said, “Just tell them to cover the windows at night.”
We writers must find a happy balance between flavoring our stories and boring them with unnecessary details that do nothing to move the story forward. Readers come to us with plenty of baggage of their own. Most of us have had our hearts broken at least once, have been scared or near giddiness with anticipation. We have felt betrayed by a friend or ashamed of something we wish we could take back. We all grew up, learning life as we experienced the good and bad mingled amid the ordinary. Writers call on our own similar experiences to portray what our protagonists go through.
The readers call on their similar feelings to fill in the blanks, too. That way we don’t have to spend two pages to describe the anguish a protagonist feels at betrayal when a few well-chosen sentences will do.
In fiction, we often make our stories better by cutting from the top down. Every character has a back story. Their personalities, environment, past experiences make them react to current situations in their own unique way, and that creates the conflict and growing complications. It is a surface situation (others, self, nature) that may start the action, but it is the person formed by the back story reacting to the current situation that peaks our concerns enough to keep turning the pages.
Our back story may be a 15 year old girl is has been lucky enough to grow up in a two-parent family, middle class, parents working, no severe illnesses, no setbacks, just all plugging along as the average suburban family. Nobody in print gets off that lucky, so let’s let Darcy learn that her father is having an affair. She will of course feel her world shattered around her.
Let’s write a one sentence scenario to keep us focused: Fifteen-year-old Darcy discovers that her father is having an affair with the office secretary and sets about to straighten out the family before it is destroyed. You have a lot of leeway here. Does her back story tell you that she’d tell her mother immediately, tell her father that she knows and threaten to tell her mother, threaten the secretary, or pretend it isn’t happening? It is your job as the writer to create a backstory that will give her the tools to react in the way you want. But after that first action, be prepared to let Darcy take the lead. Your job is done. Every complication and solution from here on is hers to face and solve or give up.
Let’s say that your first draft begins this way:
Darcy stretched across the nubby chenille bedspread with her trig textbook opened. Her foot tapped restlessly as she wrestled with the last problem. Done! She groaned as her mom’s voice floated up from the kitchen. It had that “do me a favor” tone—bad news dipped in honey.
“Sweetie, please take Dad’s suit the cleaners, and tell them to make it a rush. I forgot to leave it off this morning on the way to work. Make sure he didn’t leave his cellphone in the pocket; he’s getting so forgetful these days.”
Darcy snatched Dad’s suit slung at the bottom of the stairs and slammed the door behind her. Dad’s forgetful? How about Mom? Rats. By the time she gets back, it’ll be too late to go to Julia’s. Striding toward her bike in the side yard, she jammed her hand into one pocket after another. She pulled a folded paper from the right back pocket.
It was a sales slip for a negligee size 8. Darcy could feel blood throbbing through her temples. Mom was a 12.

In 174 words we introduced the main character, indicated that it is a two-parent household, a two-story home, and that Dad leaves his personal errands to Mom, who also works. That could be important later on. There’s nothing really wrong with starting with the ordinary day as contrast to what is to come, but we may not always have the word allowance to do that.
We could omit the introduction that shows Darcy doing her homework. We could even omit Mom’s quote. There’ll be plenty of opportunities to let the reader know that it’s a week day, that it isn’t yet summer vacation.
Discovery:
In only 46 words in the next example we know there’s a family of three and that Dad is cheating, a surprise:
Darcy stared at the words on the sales slip from Bon Ton Jolie that she recovered from Dad’s suit pants: black negligee, size 8. She felt the blood throb through her temples. Mom wears a 12. She felt her safe little haven crumble at her feet.

Decision
In 46 words in the next we know the above and that Darcy isn’t going to just pretend it isn’t happening:
Darcy clamped her fist, crumpling the sales slip. How could Dad buy a negligee for another woman? Should she tell Mom? Everything she thought she knew vanished in a heartbeat. Her tears blurred her vision, but not her thoughts. She knew what she had to do.

Initial Action
In 25 words we are plunged into Darcy’s world with her already taking matters into her own hands:
Darcy brushed past the startled receptionist and burst into her dad’s office. She tossed the crumpled sales slip onto his desk. “How could you, Dad?”

However we chose to begin our stories if we do a thorough job with the back story of our characters they will almost write the story for us. Our clever readers bring their own experiences to help them empathize, even if the protagonist’s adventure is unfamiliar. The emotions will be. Good luck.

MAKE ME LAUGH OR CRY: WRITING SHOULD BE EMOTIONAL

Tags

, , , ,

When readers open a book [or flick on their electronic reader, I reluctantly add], they expect to enjoy it, or at least to FEEL something. Most adults will continue to read, even when a storyline is only so-so. I do that, too. I keep hoping that it’ll get through the rough or boring spots and wow me at some point. I am generally disappointed to find that its one positive feature was that it was consistent—consistently boring or unrealistic. I don’t know if I am more disgusted with the book or with myself for not reading like a child.

 There is no way a child will read a boring book. There are far too many books and electronic distractions to choose from for children to spend a boring moment hoping a story will get better. They simply toss the book aside the moment it fails to interest them. That is why editors can tell by the first page if they want to read a manuscript further.

 That makes it our job to start out with great writing and not hope the reader sticks with it until page ten where the action begins. It doesn’t have to be a Mickey Spillane “two shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on another adventure” type of lead. But hook the reader with something familiar enough to make them feel comfortable, but different enough to whet their curiosity.

 A sure way to grab a reader is with emotion. Think of all the emotions we experience in a day—joy, anger, fear, shyness, etc. We give the reader the opportunity to experience emotion with whatever challenges they face. Readers expect to not only learn about a piece of life they have not experienced themselves, but they also want to laugh, to cry, to empathize–to feel. But they want to do it vicariously by identifying with a protagonist much like themselves.

  The character is like a surrogate and a buffer between us and harm the same way those magic words, “Once upon a time” let us know as children that ogres couldn’t reach us. The emotions will be greater than the story itself. It is a scary world in reality, and few of us feel we can control any of it. Stories allow us to face those fears whether they are as overt as an abusive parent in a contemporary story or facing down a fiery dragon in fantasy.

 Just remember that these feelings we give to our protagonists can’t be conquered by reason. They must be overcome by a stronger feeling. [Example: A young boy is afraid of heights. Everyone tells him it is silly to be afraid; just be careful. It isn’t until his kitten appears trapped on a branch higher than an arm’s reach that the love he feels for his trapped cat overcomes his fear and he takes his first step off the ground. It takes a stronger emotion to overcome one that we have felt for long time.

 Our desires direct our reasoning. We can justify just about anything if we put our minds to it. If you don’t believe that, just listen to the rhetoric coming out of Washington! We internalize our emotional struggles that eventually cause our actions or inactions. [Example: I know I’m not supposed to stay up past my bedtime, but I can do it without being caught. But what if Mommy catches me? Etc.]

 As you think your story through, see it in your mind’s eye as scenes, each leading to the next. Be aware that your reader will “become” the character as he or she reads. Your reader will experience the emotional struggle going on with a clear view of the protagonist’s thoughts. That’s subjective viewpoint, whether you use the preferred third person or first person version. That is what bonds you, the reader, and the protagonist together until the last word.

 If I haven’t laughed out loud or had a good cry by the end of a book I feel cheated. How about you?

 

MARY BLOUNT CHRISTIAN, AUTHOR & EDITOR

Tags

, ,

I am author of more than 100 published trade books [i.e., no self-published] including picture books, beginning readers, chapter books, Hi/Lo’s and novels for adolescents, teens, and adults. Genre’ include mystery, history, contemporary, fantasy, and non-fiction. If I forgot anything, the on-line bookstores haven’t.

Two non-fiction books for middle and senior high readers were published in January, 2015: Special Forces: Tactical Training, and Working With Immigrants and Migrants through Service Learning. Both are published by Rosen. Early in 2016 i will have three cozy mysteries for adults [also suitable for young adults], published by Annie’s Publishing: Arsenic & Old Silk, The Secret Letter, and Lady in the Locket [tentative title]. 

I have taught in college and continuing studies classrooms, produced workshops, and on-line. I have launched a private manuscript critiquing and editing service. You can contact me at mblountchristian@embarqmail.com. I will send you the details.

For this website I offer hints and hard-learned secrets that may help some of you, who want to get started in writing your own manuscripts. Those veteran writers may recognize most of them. I am preparing articles in brochure form that can be downloaded, but it is taking some time since I’m working those in between my writing. Check in often. I promise I’ll try to make it worth your while.

Remember: Writing is a Pleasure, but Selling is a Business