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How to describe the effort required to write a PB?

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I was trying to explain to someone exactly why a picture book isn't as easy to write as it first looks, and found myself waffling on about characterisation, story arc, tension-building and so on. Once I'd finished waffling, the guy I was talking to said, "I still can't quite imagine how it would take so long."

Has anyone got a clever one or two-liner that explains why PBs aren't as easy to write as they seem? Something that non-writers could grasp?

PS Mods, if this thread belongs somewhere else, please move me! I couldn't quite figure out the best place for it...
#1 - January 17, 2011, 06:45 PM

I had to explain this to someone just last week. I don't know if this quite covers it, but I told her that it's like writing poetry because every word you choose has to be perfect and that you need to pack an entire story into 300 or so words. The "like poetry" part seemed to really connect with her.
#2 - January 17, 2011, 07:04 PM
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Oh, dang! I can't remember who said it, but there's a quote that goes something like "I'm sorry I wrote such a long letter but I didn't have time to write a shorter one." Anyone know who and the exact wording?

I think part of the difficulty in writing PBs is that when you have so few words in which to write a story, it takes a while to get just the right ones.

Still, if they still don't believe you, tell them to try to write one.  :ha
#3 - January 17, 2011, 07:04 PM
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Still, if they still don't believe you, tell them to try to write one.  :ha

No kidding! The only problem with that, sadly, is it's really easy to write a terrible picture book...and think it's the best thing in the world.

#4 - January 17, 2011, 07:06 PM
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LOL too true Anna! Just ask anyone who deals with slush...(thankfully, that's not me!)
#5 - January 17, 2011, 07:12 PM
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Andrew Clements has written many middle grade novels, but he did write a picture book in haiku about a stray dog who shows up on a family's doorstep. It's called DOGKU, and it's delightful. In his author's note in the back, he talks about writing a story with characters, problem, solution, etc. in so few words. He says:

In the wide garden,
I am dizzy with flowers.
I choose a small vase.

And that's really it, isn't it? Writing a story that feels complete, yet knowing what to leave out (and leave to the illustrator). Choosing words that tell the story, yet are fun to read aloud over and over and over.

I don't know any snappy one-liners to tell your friend. Maybe you could tell him to try it himself--write a good story, then cut the word count in half. That's only the start, of course. But maybe then he'll have an inkling. Maybe.

 :goodluck
#6 - January 17, 2011, 07:13 PM
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I have no words of wisdom -- but I always think of that famous quote (Jane Yolen? Somebody equally as awesome) about how writing  a PB is like encapsulating War and Peace in a haiku....

#7 - January 17, 2011, 07:17 PM

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Yes!

This is my favorite quote on the subject:

“My main considerations for any picture book are humor, emotion, just the right details, read-aloud-ability, pacing, page turns, and of course, plot. Something has to happen to your characters that young readers will care about and relate to. Oh, and you have to accomplish all that in as few words as possible, while creating plenty of illustration possibilities. No easy task.”--Lynn E. Hazen

#8 - January 17, 2011, 07:22 PM
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The poetry analogy is a GREAT one. That should help, I think. The problem is also that truly great PBs don't read like they took much effort because everything words so beautifully you can't imagine it could have been written any other way... the rubbish PBs, however, also read like they don't take much effort (but for different reasons, obviously!).

Ooh, and encapsulating War and Peace in haiku? Genius. Yes, I'll be borrowing that! Thanks Jenna and Jane Yolen, too, of course!

I also like the idea of pointing out that you also need to know what to leave out, Natalie, that's a really good point too.

The guy was really nice about it, not at all dismissive, but just genuinely couldn't grasp quite how it could take so long to put something so apparently simple and short together! I might hunt out some well-known authors and find out how long they took to write a certain PB. If I could say, "You know XXX? That took So-and-so a year to complete," that might help too.

Thanks all! Appreciate it!
#9 - January 17, 2011, 07:25 PM

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Well, I know it's not a PB, but an easy reader, but talk about th Cat in the Hat.  Dr. Seuss being limited to those 20-30 high frequency words (no more!), to RHYME, create plot, character arc, etc., etc., in an (what is now a) seamless story.  I've always wondered how many drafts he did for that one?
#10 - January 17, 2011, 07:30 PM

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Oh, dang! I can't remember who said it, but there's a quote that goes something like "I'm sorry I wrote such a long letter but I didn't have time to write a shorter one." Anyone know who and the exact wording?

I found it attirbuted both to Blaise Pascal and to Abraham Lincoln...
#11 - January 17, 2011, 07:36 PM
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thanks, Marissa!
#12 - January 17, 2011, 07:39 PM
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I think Mary Kole just said something about how it's not just the writing of the PB, but hitting on that idea that will make a book parents will read that book to their kids over and over and over... you can also talk about the illustrating, and storyboarding...
#13 - January 17, 2011, 07:44 PM
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:-) I love this discussion. Especially loved Lynn Hazen's comment, since I was one of her first mentors when I critiqued a manuscript of hers before she was ever published.

How long can a picture book take to write? My Rough, Tough Charley book took me 11 years, from the time I started researching and writing it until I finished and saw it in print. It's well under 500 words. But they are VERY SPECIAL words! They tell a true story (biography of Charley Parkhurst - 1850s and 60s stagecoach driver extraordinaire) and they have perfect rhythm, perfect rhyme and tell a really compelling, interesting story as well. As everyone else has already said, to do all of that and get the story perfect enough for an editor to want to publish in less than 500 words can definitely be a real challenge.
#14 - January 17, 2011, 09:09 PM
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... you can also talk about the illustrating, and storyboarding...

Squeeeeee! a shout out to us writer/illustrator types!! thanks Robin!  :yup
#15 - January 17, 2011, 09:54 PM
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The amount of knowledge needed just to apply age appropriate grammar is nothing small. But I also like the poem analogy. Ask him if anyone ever rushed Poe... :yup
#16 - January 18, 2011, 04:19 AM
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#17 - January 18, 2011, 06:23 AM

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Oh, dang! I can't remember who said it, but there's a quote that goes something like "I'm sorry I wrote such a long letter but I didn't have time to write a shorter one." Anyone know who and the exact wording?

I'm pretty sure it was Abraham Lincoln who wrote that.

Laura
#18 - January 18, 2011, 07:36 AM
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A Dr. Seuss quote:

"So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads."
 
I also remember an anecdote where someone told him in passing that they wrote picture books in their spare time. To which he responded, that he did surgery in his spare time.
#19 - January 18, 2011, 08:19 AM

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Fantastic. I feel armed and dangerous now! Love having a pithy answer or two up my sleeve.

Thank you all!
#20 - January 18, 2011, 08:22 AM

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A picturebook is 50% text and 50 % pictures- dually designed so the story comes out through  both- thus the economy of words-- to my experience a concept very hard for many PB authors who are not also illustrators to let go of- not to decribe in detail what the dog looks like, etc. (least that is my experience workshopping with them!)
#21 - January 18, 2011, 08:31 AM

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I think it also has to do with 'show don't tell',  so that the listener experiences the story, not just hears it
#22 - January 18, 2011, 10:00 AM

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Writing a picture book is like trying to stuff an elephant into a breadbox.
#23 - January 18, 2011, 10:43 AM
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Ooooh, eecoburn, yes yes! That's the a great one! He he he. And so, so true.
#24 - January 18, 2011, 11:25 AM

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"I'm sorry I wrote such a long letter but I didn't have time to write a shorter one." Anyone know who and the exact wording?

I was taught that Mark Twain said it, and it IS attributed to him -- along with Pascal, Lincoln, Voltaire, and Proust, among others. It's worded many different ways, too.
#25 - January 18, 2011, 12:00 PM
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#26 - January 18, 2011, 12:28 PM
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#27 - January 18, 2011, 01:37 PM
"The mind is everything. What you think, you become." ~Buddha   

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I know well that look of astonishment when I try to explain what it takes to put together a picture book--not only writing the story, which in the case of nonfiction or historical fiction can entail months of research even before trying to stuff the elephant into the breadbox, but the back-and-forth editing process, the illustrator's painstaking efforts to match text, the editor's focus on each and every word, the rewriting, rewriting, rewriting that also lasts for months, even sometimes more than a year...   
#28 - January 18, 2011, 01:44 PM

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Sawing logs with a butter knife.
Writing a picture book is like sucking a watermelon through a straw.
Writing a picture book is like trying to stuff an elephant into a breadbox.

YIKES! I was about to revise my PB ms (a new genre for me),... but now, I'm too scared to!  It sounds IMPOSSIBLE!  :hiding
#29 - January 18, 2011, 01:47 PM

There's a woman here who would understand.  She told the newspaper that it was really hard to write her self-pubbed pb, and it took her "all day!"

Really?? Gag.
#30 - January 18, 2011, 02:28 PM

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