Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Go on, try an experiment with your picture book writing, by Paeony Lewis


If your story just isn't working, you could screw it up and fling it in the bin. We all have ideas that need to be abandoned. We also have ideas that don’t appear to work, but we’re not ready to give up. There’s something there, but what? Maybe it needs more than the sort of revision that merely moves words around? Maybe it needs you to slip on your white coat and start experimenting?

Sometimes experiments fail, sometimes they succeed. I prefer to concentrate on the successes and conveniently forgotten the failures. And don't forget, the great thing about picture books is that they’re short, so if your experiment fails, you won’t be engulfed in an explosion of thousands of random words.

A Small Experiment: Change the Point of View
Often it’s easier for a young child to understand a story in the third person (he, she). Therefore I began writing my first Florence and Arnold story in the third person. Hmm… Florence’s personality was there, but I wanted more of her feisty determination to shine through. So I experimented and wrote the story in the first person (I), and her attitude burst out of the page. That was the Florence I wanted, but something still wasn’t quite right. 


Florence and Arnold in
No More Yawning,
 illus by Brita Granstrom
Here they are again in
 No  More Biscuits
illus by Brita Granstrom












Another Small Experiment: Change the Tense
For my next experiment I changed from the past tense to the present tense. Ah ha! Now I felt the sense of immediacy I’d been fumbling for in an exuberant young girl, like Florence. Using the first person, present tense, seemed to reflect Florence’s character. Florence’s voice could be clearly heard and a publisher (Chicken House) took two stories (No More Biscuits and No More Yawning).


New US edition (Tiger Tales), 2013
by Paeony Lewis, Illus Penny Ives
A Fundmental Experiment: Change Direction
My story, I’ll Always Love You, was also an experiment, although it was written in the traditional third person and past tense. The experimentation for this story came earlier and was far more basic.

When I first started writing I wrote quirky tales that appealed to my ‘individual’ sense of humour (imagine a dragon on a motorbike in the wild west?). I’d had lots of positive comments, but no contract. So I took another look at the picture books on the shelves in bookshops. Many were cute cuddly tales that oozed emotion and love. They felt a little twee, but hey, I decided to experiment with my ideas and writing.

On a long car journey I asked myself what mattered most to very young children. I thought of my own children and I recalled that my little son, strapped into the car seat behind me, sometimes worried that I wouldn’t love him any more if he was naughty. Of course I would, and I was sad that he’d think otherwise. The words, “Will you still love me?” haunted me for the rest of the car journey. That was the inspiration for I’ll Always Love You (Little Tiger Press). By experimenting I discovered that adding emotional depth to a story can make it resonate.

A Scary Experiment: Start Again
Will my chickens inspire me?

Right now I’m experimenting with chickens and shoes (perhaps I’m reverting to my quirky ways). I sent the original story to my agent and heard a big fat nothing. So I put it aside. Then a year later I decided I didn’t want to give up on this story. However, hearing a big fat nothing made me suspect it needed more than just revision, so I’m experimenting by not even taking a peek at the original story. I’m starting again, from scratch. Plus as I’ve been attending poetry classes for a year, I may use a poetic form. It might work. It might not. It’s an experiment, so it doesn’t matter!

So go on, be brave, experiment with your writing. And if you've tried a writing experiment that failed or succeeded, do tell…


Paeony Lewis is a children’s book author and writing tutor.
www.paeonylewis.com



25 comments:

  1. Paeony I completely agree with your 'be brave!' tip. To your excellent suggestions I would add: play with the illustrations. Even if you can't draw, just sketch some thumbnails - it helps you think about the book in a whole new way :)

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    1. Good suggestion, Abie. Thanks. I should have thought of it as I've just started an Art and Design course (another experiment and this one really does threaten to explode my brain!).

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  2. Great suggestions. Isn't is so important to be able to truly rethink a manuscript?

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    1. Thanks :-) And I agree, Danielle, though sometimes it can be hard to take off our rose-tinted glasses.

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  3. Great tips, thanks, Paeony, I'm going to revisit some of my nearly-but-not-quite texts with them in mind.

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    1. Good luck with your experimenting, Jane!

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  4. Thanks, Paeony. Good advice and I'm looking forward to doing this with some of my not-quite-right manuscripts. An excellent time to play around with manuscripts and ideas is coming up: PiBoIdMo Picture Books Ideas Month, which starts on November 1st (with a run up on the website: www.taralazar.com ). You can spend the whole month experimenting!

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    1. Yes! Thanks for the reminder about PiBoldMo - excellent idea. (One day I'll be able to type PiBoldMo without having to look it up!)

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  5. Nice post. I know the feeling of having to reconsider what I would like to work on in the light of what children (and publishers and book buyers etc) actually like. There has to be some kind of emotional truth in a picture book I think, even if that means flirting with what, in other less capable hands could be twee ;-) And if that emotional truth is resonant enough, as in your case with 'I'll always Love You', then any twee-ness that might creep in is thoroughly eclipsed and rendered irrelevant by it.
    ps - I did get to draw a red dragon on a motor bike for a pop-up book in the nineties. That was fun!

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    1. I like your point, Jon, about the importance of the strength of the emotional truth. I also like the fact you got to draw a dragon on a motor bike - wonder if it's anything like the image in my head? Oh, and as for google, didn't you know it's another of their sneaky plots to take over the internet?!

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  6. 'Jon' as in Jonathan Allen. Not sure where that 'jon' google account came from. . . sigh. . .

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  7. Great tips and will use them in class. By the way saw your fab book 'I Will Always Love You' in my local newsagents the other day. Pulled it off the shelf, said to him in doors "I know her she's fab" then made sure it was at the front of the pile.

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    1. In a newsagent, Lynne? That's intriguing. Was it a small yellow hardback with plain italics for the title (rather than the colourful lettering on the US one)? And thank you :-)

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  8. The longer I've bottom-drawered it, the more radical I find I can be. A week in, past tense can become present, first person third, as you say. A year in, a caterpillar becomes a dinosaur. A story about death becomes a story about birth and renewal. The truth of a story, the workability of it, lurks in the edge-places. It can take a lot of work, a lot of time. Sometimes we never find it. Sometimes we do.

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    1. Very good point, Malachy, about the age of the manuscript/idea.

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  9. Great post, Paeony and a particularly timely one for me, as I've just had a 'no' on a story as it stands, but I know that there's something there somewhere. I will take your advice. I'm soooo jealous that you are doing an art and design course, by the way. Good luck! I think it will be like plugging into a mains supply of creative electricity!

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    1. Shame about the 'no', Moira. Buckets (or should it be test tubes?) of good luck with your experiment. And I'm not sure about the creative electricity - maybe when I'm relaxed enough for it to flow, but right now I'm so tense, it's draining! But it's early days...

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  10. Here's a chicken with shoes, Paeony and a certain attitude to crossing the road. Good luck with your story and the new course too. Penny x

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    1. Thanks, Penny, and do you like the new US title typeface for your illustration? I do. And thanks for the great chicken via email x (I too tried to post your lovely illustration in the comment box, but it's not possible.)

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  11. There is always a new way to look at an old idea and composting a story can give you the distance you need to see it in a fresh light.

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    1. Ah yes, composting is good (as long as nothing starts stinking too much...).

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  12. What nicely refreshing and hopeful advice that coming at your story idea from a different angle just might make it work so very much better. That's useful message, Paeony, and also a rather fun game to play. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks, Pippa. Your brilliant 'You Choose' was an 'experiment' that definitely worked.

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  13. This advice came at the perfect time! It should be tattooed on the inside of my eyeballs. Thanks, Paeony!

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