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Monday, September 24, 2012

Picture Book writers are humans, We err!

While writing a picture book may seem like the easiest thing to do, here's why it ain't that easy-peasy, honey.  And all of us picture book authors are sure to fall for one or more (in most cases, it's all) of these common mistakes with the first few books.


It is imperative that we learn to WAIT (with patience) after we've prepared what-looks-the-wowest-final draft (maybe after the second edit? Boy, we work hard) and let the 'ready to publish' story incubate. And the plot brew. And the possibilities of different ways to treat the same theme grow. Start fingering the sleeping devil in us to rouse and do what it's supposed to do. And train our minds to tune in to its frequency to hear it say: this is the most pathetic piece of BLAH ever penned.

If you're with me this far, chances are, you'll tide over this ego-crushing jolt pretty soon. For that is when the mind starts juggling other possibilities, starts toying with ideas and playing with words and comes to realise what a terrible crap we'd produced earlier. In India, most of us never quite even reach this stage so getting past this is like an out-of-syllabus question. We are in a tearing hurry to have our book out, which is understandable, so chances are that we've already dashed it off for acceptance, and chances are again, that it has got accepted. So there. The fate of this book that we will have to live with for the rest of our lives is already sealed! Hah! And we take weeks to decide our wedding lehanga which we wear just once:)

Once we have gone through this ready-not ready-doubt-crap-reboot cycle several times (over the course of several months that could well run into a couple of years), we'll finally have a chiseled gem in our hands.

A picture book story is NOT a Tinkle / Nandan short story

In fact, a picture book story can work equally well without carrying a single word in the book. My writer friends, let's swallow our egos, sharpen our word-skills, learn the craft of brevity, do an impressive quick jig with the best story we can produce, and then gracefully leave the stage for the illustrator to do her show-stopping act. If it's any ego-massage, remember that the illustrator is working on those pages only because you thought up the idea, the plot, the story, and hey, your name will appear on the cover first, unless if happen to be that terribly enviable breed of an author-illustrator combo:)

Golden rules of writing a picture book story:

  • Cut the description crap. Anything that can be shown as part of the illustration can be blindly edited. And yes, you will do it yourself and not leave it for the editor. She has a thousand other things to do in the course of a day.
  • Get straight to the action / crisis in the protagonist's life. Children love to solve problems. Give them what they like right away.
  • We do not tell the action, just show it  (so no saying, Rinki ran to the door to answer the door bell; either show it as part of the illustration or a simple 'I'll get it' or some thing snazzier but crisp).
  • 32 pages, MAX 1000 words (I am talking about a classic picture book and not an illustrated story book). Anything above 600 is a sin. 1000 and above, the writer and the editor both deserve to fall into a wordless-quicksand never to be heard of again. Ideal is 400-500 words. An exceptionally talented author will keep it at 200. A genius will have no word at all.

Rhythm and not Rhyme

Sad but true, the two are different. Yes, rhythm in every single sentence that we write. Rhyme, the easiest way to end up looking like a rookie. Most often, we go to ridiculous extents to rhyme lines; the core and soul of the story gets lost; and our meter goes for a toss (making reading aloud a verse an extremely uncomfortable experience).

Oh, so you forgot to read aloud the words? 

No, once is not good. A hundred times? You're getting there.

But let me hear this from you again! Did you really forgot to read aloud the words to yourself before deeming it fit and final?

And you call yourself a picture book author?:)

No adults, please. Ok, let's keep it to the bare minimum, if it's any help. 

Unless you make something terribly nasty happen to the grown ups in your story (which will have the bacchaas rolling off the bed, believe you me), let's try and keep ourselves away from their zone. I know it's not always possible because an adult will always find crazy ways to sneak into a child's story, but we can try and give ourselves as little importance as we can. They pretty much have enough of us adults all day, anyway, the least we can do is give them a nice time when they're immersed in a picture book:)

I ended up making this mistake with my picture book, where an adult intervention helps solve the little crisis in two little girls' lives. Am finding it impossible to forgive myself for this sacrilege!

The only time we get to totally bend this rule is when we have a grandma or a grandpa in the story! There! You have a sure shot winner of a book:)

There's a hell of a lot more that needs to be said while we are on this topic, but I'll save the rest for another post. Till then, we keep snuggling with picture books we love!

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