HAVEN: A SMALL CAT’S BIG ADVENTURE is out today from Candlewick Press! Hooray!
For more about my inspiration for writing HAVEN, read below.
I thought it would be fun to share what I worked on in 2021 and my plans for 2022. I love hearing this kind of stuff from other writers, so this is for those you that also enjoy a deep dive into the details.
Work Published in 2021
Thank you to everyone who watched and participated in our launch events, and to everyone who has read, reviewed, and recommended ALLERGIC. It was on the Indie’s Bestsellers List for months, and just popped up again on there again for the first two weeks of 2022!
A few ALLERGIC links:
-One of many places to buy a copy
-One of many places to buy the audiobook
-An essay I wrote about the inspiration behind ALLERGIC: “What My Allergies Taught Me About Resiliency”
-A bonus ALLERGIC minicomic: “How to Be a Friend to Animals (When You’re Allergic!)”
I also had one other small publishing experience this year: a little short story about going strawberry picking in June’s Ladybug magazine called “A Sweet Spring Strawberry Day.”
What I Worked On in 2021 (that has sold for publication)
SQUISHED is my and Michelle’s next (standalone) graphic novel together and will be out in 2023. In 2020 I finished the final-ish draft of the script for SQUISHED, and then this year I worked with our editor Cassandra and Michelle to revise the text as Michelle drew sketches and sketch revisions. Michelle has now moved onto the inking stage—very exciting! I will have more updates about SQUISHED as we get closer to the release date.
After finishing the greater part of my work with SQUISHED (I will still be part of double checking and revising the text in small ways up until the book is finished), I began working on my and Michelle’s third graphic novel together, LUNA (another standalone). This is still in early stages, but I’m very happy with how it’s developing so far, and have been really enjoying working on it.
In 2020 I wrote the script for my and Abhi Alwar’s new graphic novel project, SUPER PANCAKE. And then this year I worked with our editor Rotem to revise the text now that Abhi has drawn the sketches.
I wrote and revised the script for book two, SUPER PANCAKE AND THE MINI MUFFIN MAYHEM. I can’t wait for everyone to read these super silly books.
5. HAVEN: A SMALL CAT’S BIG ADVENTURE
I finished the bulk of my work on HAVEN in 2020, but I did spend time in 2021 with copyediting and proofreading. And got to be part of the excitement of seeing the cover develop! We also went through a title change. Originally it was going to be called HAVEN: THE STORY OF A CAT, but I love how HAVEN: A SMALL CAT’S BIG ADVENTURE communicates so much more of the scope of the story to readers.
What I Worked on in 2021 (that hasn’t sold…yet!)
(More info to come if these projects sell…)
1. Finished putting together a YA graphic novel pitch (with a super talented illustrator–wish us luck!).
2. Wrote/wrote and revised four picture book manuscripts.
3. Started two middle grade novels. One is in pretty rough shape, but I’m seeing a little more potential in the other one.
Writing Plans for 2022
I need to finish up:
1. SQUISHED—any remaining revisions as Michelle finishes the art.
2. SUPER PANCAKE—any remaining revisions as Abhi finishes the art.
3. SUPER PANCAKE AND THE MINI MUFFIN MAYHEM—a few remaining script changes
and then any revisions as the art develops.
And then the projects that will be my focus this year:
1. LUNA—I need to finish writing and revising. I’m really happy and feel very lucky that I get to work on this story. It feels very “me” in a way I can’t quite explain.
2. A secret project that hasn’t been announced yet. I’m looking forward to sharing more about this!
3. A new middle grade novel about a doll with starry-eyed dreams—I’m hoping to finish the rough draft and possibly get to revising as well.
4. A fantasy novel for adults—this project is one of my long-term goals. I’m hoping to make some amount of progress—even just a little—on it this year.
(And of course I will rearrange these priorities a bit if one of my other projects sells :)
My 2022 Book Releases
On to the most exciting part of being an author—book releases!
The big author event of 2022 for me will be the publication of HAVEN: A SMALL CAT’S BIG ADVENTURE with Candlewick. I’m absolutely thrilled to share this story, and I’ll be sharing the cover and doing some ARC giveaways soon! It comes out in August, and I can’t wait for you all to read Haven’s story. (HAVEN is already available for pre-order!)
The North American Spanish edition of ALLERGIC will also be releasing in August 2022! I’m really excited this version will be available for young readers. (Also available for pre-order!)
Where You Can Find Me in 2022
February 5, 2021, 11 AM EST: I’ll be part of the All About Graphic Novels webinar panel through MD/DE/WV SCBWI—register here
Instagram: I haven’t been on here as much lately, because it wasn’t bringing me as much joy, but I still pop in occasionally, and I always post any big news. You can find me @meganwagnerlloyd
Newsletter: You can sign up here. I send it about 2-4 times a year.
HAVEN events: TBA! As always, I will post these on my website and on Instagram
Wrapping up the Recap
If you’ve read this far, I’m truly impressed. Thank you for following along on my writing journey and supporting my books.
Wishing you all the best <3
P.S. Here’s my full future publication schedule, current as of this posting, for those of you that enjoy seeing the chronological plan:
HAVEN: A SMALL CAT’S BIG ADVENTURE (Candlewick)
ALÉRGICA, with Michelle Mee Nutter (Graphix)
SQUISHED, with Michelle Mee Nutter (Graphix)
SUPER PANCAKE, with Abhi Alwar (Knopf)
SUPER PANCAKE AND THE MINI MUFFIN MAYHEM, with Abhi Alwar (Knopf)
LUNA, with Michelle Mee Nutter (Graphix)
(Nothing scheduled yet!)
OUCH, with Michelle Mee Nutter (Graphix)
THE ABCs OF CATCHING Zzzs, illustrator TBD (Chronicle)
I was planning on writing a “how I write graphic novels” series of posts, like I did with picture books…but I keep getting stuck! I think perhaps I’m still so new to my process that I’m not quite ready to break it down and explain it to others yet. So, in lieu of those posts (for now), I thought I’d share this resource list. (My apologies to those who were hoping for more detail. I hope this is enough information to get you started!)
I came into comics without knowing anyone in the industry or anyone else who was writing graphic novels. I just really wanted to write graphic novels! I told my agent I wanted to learn how to write comics in 2017…and now my first graphic novel ALLERGIC, created with illustrator Michelle Mee Nutter, comes out in March from Graphix/Scholastic! These are the books and online resources I used along the way (and a few that I’ve found since!).
These books are my #1 recommended resources. Very insightful and instructive.
(Free or you can pay to have your assignments graded, etc.)
(Free or you can pay if you want credit.) (I didn’t discover this one until after writing ALLERGIC.)
(Free or you can pay if you want a certificate.) Recommended if you are writing a superhero story or just want to learn more about the history of comics.
Very detailed-oriented podcast about comics and the publishing world in general. (Another resource that I didn’t find until after writing ALLERGIC.)
ON SCRIPTING/FORMATTING A GRAPHIC NOVEL
As far as I have been able to tell, there is no One True Way to format a graphic novel script. And you can see that in the varying approaches below. I think it’s about finding what works best for you, and, if you are not doing the illustrations, what works well for both you and your collaborator.
Jarrett J. Krosoczka (This one’s more like a film script.)
Matthew Holm (And this method is more of a collaborative/storyboarding approach.)
(last updated by MWL December 2020)
I’m going to write about my graphic novel process soon, but before that I wanted to address a reader question.
To paraphrase, the reader asked:
Are you part of a critique group? Or do you have trusted readers who help you prepare your manuscripts? Or is your agent the sole person you turn to for that?
The short answer is: all of the above! Different approaches have worked for me at different times, and they all have their pluses and minuses.
In-person critique groups
I was part of an in-person critique group that met weekly for six years. (My involvement ended because I moved.)
–Being in a critique group that met so frequently put a lot of pressure on me to actually write, as I needed to have something to bring into the group.
–Reading my work out loud over and over again helped me get used to sharing something that felt so intensely personal with others.
–Being critiqued in person helped me learn to listen to and absorb feedback without becoming defensive. And I learned a lot by hearing from perspectives very different from my own.
–I learned to critique others in hopefully helpful ways.
–I was exposed to styles and genres of writing that I didn’t necessarily read.
–It was really fun to be connected with other people who loved writing.
–Big time commitment. After I moved, I just haven’t found myself in a place where I’ve felt like I can make that type of time commitment again.
–I found that this type of critiquing (reading the work out loud and then critiquing on the spot) worked way better for me for picture books than for longer works.
Online critique groups
I was also in an online-only critique group for six years, where we exchanged picture book manuscripts monthly. (My involvement ended because this group was specifically focused on picture books and lately I’ve been focusing on longer works, so I couldn’t keep up the monthly participation any longer.)
–Online format is convenient.
–Again, having a critique group commitment helped me stay motivated to create new work
–Writing is a quite isolating profession, so, again, it was fun being connected with other writers!
–It can be harder to communicate and get to know each other as well when things aren’t in-person.
Online critique partner match ups
I see references to these sometimes, and I even signed up for one once (I can’t remember what site I used). It seemed good at first. I was writing a kids’ fantasy novel at the time and was matched up with someone working in the same age group and genre. But, after exchanging a few messages, the other writer ghosted me. Maybe she didn’t like my writing (understandably—it was quite bad at the time)? Who knows! However, I have heard of some people having great luck with these, so might be worth checking out.
Paid professional critiques at writing conferences
I haven’t been to very many writing conferences, but I did go to the Oakland, CA SCBWI writing conference several years in a row. It was nice because it was fairly cheap and only a one day time commitment. A couple of times, I even paid to have one of the faculty critique a chapter of my work-in-progress. (One time I cried because they didn’t have anything complimentary to say…but that was a good lesson in toughening up!)
Since being published, I have been on the other side of this equation, critiquing submitted work at the MD/DE/WV and Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conferences. My advice to anyone who is paying for one of these would be to make sure that your manuscript is following basic industry guidelines first. For example, with picture book manuscripts it is the industry standard to submit the manuscript unaccompanied by artwork (unless you are an author/illustrator). If you’ve made sure to follow basic guidelines first, it’s more likely that the critique will focus specifically on improving your story.
Though I don’t have a regular monthly or weekly critique group anymore, I’m still in touch with some of the writers I met in those groups, plus a few others that I’ve met in other ways, and I’ll often reach out to one of these writers to trade critiques or see if they have time to give me feedback on a certain project.
Working directly with my agent
Usually I prefer to send my agent stuff that I’ve already workshopped with some other people first, but sometimes I’m confident enough in a project that she’s the first one who sees it. My agent is an editorial agent, so we often go through several revisions (even if I have shared it with critique partners before sending it to her) before something’s ready to be submitted to editors.
Working directly with an editor
I’m usually only working directly with an editor if they’ve already acquired my manuscript for publication. Occasionally, an editor who is somewhat interested in acquiring a manuscript might have some revision ideas and say that they would be willing to take a second look if I am willing to revise. (And I’ll almost always give this a try!)
Five strategies for when you are revising on your own
Finding someone to give you useful, constructive feedback just doesn’t always work out. It’s not easy to build a writing community, especially if you are really pressed for time and/or money. Conferences and writing retreats are expensive and time consuming. And it’s difficult to spend time making writing friends when you are barely squeezing in enough to time to actually write in the first place. Lots of people seem to succeed at building community through social media, but sometimes seeing so many authors interacting like best friends online can leave you feeling even more isolated.
And then there are other possible barriers to getting feedback, even when you have found a critique group or critique partners. For me, sometimes I write something that is just really different from what any of the writers I know are writing. (This happened to me when I started writing graphic novel scripts–I didn’t know anyone else writing them.) Or, I’ve asked for too many critiques without being asked to return the favor yet. Or I have a deadline and I can’t line up critiques with the timeline I need to work with. So, I’ve come up with some hacks to try to critique and revise my own work with a more unbiased eye, on my own.
1. Print it out and retype it. (Yes, even for a novel!) This can really help me become conscious of big problems and get the brainstorming going again.
2. Read it out loud. This helps a lot with improving the flow of the sentences and strengthening the dialogue.
3. Even if I’ve made an outline before writing, sometimes I take the draft and deconstruct it into a new outline. This can help highlight structural weaknesses.
4. Give it time. Even if I have a deadline, I try to work on the project, then squeeze in some work on a completely different project, then go back to work on it. Time away from the project really helps me return to it with fresh eyes .
5. Get re-inspired. Sometimes the difficult part about revision is that I no longer remember why I even liked this project in the first place and I just want to give up on it already! Taking some time to think about what initially drew me to the project can really help me get re-inspired to dig deeper and improve the manuscript, whether it’s by thinking about connected memories, listening to music, looking at art, getting outside, watching related movies, or reading related books. For some projects I make playlists or Pinterest boards that I fill with things that put me in the mood to work on it.
Whew! Hopefully there’s something helpful in there. Best of luck with your writing!
Now that I’ve thought of an idea for a picture book, written a rough draft, and made sure I’m in a good mindset for revision, it’s time to revise my picture book manuscript. Here are some questions I ask myself as I tackle a revision. (I might be thinking about some of these questions when I’m writing a rough draft, too, but overall I don’t get into a very analytical mindset until I’m revising.)
Because I focus on capturing a narrative voice—or even just getting some rough ideas on the page—in the first draft, it’s during revision that I start analyzing how to craft a plot. My picture books tend to be on the quiet side, but it’s still important to me that I use at least some elements of a three-act plot structure, with a problem, rising action and then resolution.
I’ve already mentioned the three-act structure—found in all kinds of storytelling—but picture books also have a lot of traditional structures specific to the format. Some common structures include: concept (theme-based, like FINDING WILD), circular (IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE), cumulative (THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT), reversal (LITTLE PEA), contrast (what is happening is the opposite of what the text says—usually used for comedic effect), the yearly pattern of the seasons, the daily patterns like from morning until bedtime, etc.
While many adults enjoy picture books as an art form, the main intended audience is children, so I always make sure to consider that audience as I develop a picture book. What do kids, in general, love and hate? What do they struggle with? Have fun with? What are the patterns, themes, and general experiences of their lives? Some examples from FORT-BUILDING TIME—building forts, creativity, friendship, community, the seasons. And BUILDING BOOKS—sibling dynamics, building, reading, the challenge of trying new things, creativity.
When I give critiques, I find that many people are very resistant to trimming their word count. If the thought of getting the word count down to under 300 words stresses you out, just make a copy of your document and try to cut the word count in that doc. Instead of thinking of it as a revision, you can approach it as an experiment. You might be surprised at how much you are able to cut and still retain the voice and content of the story.
Does it seem like there is space in the market for this idea, or has it been done many times before? If it’s something that’s been done before, then what new twist or theme am I bringing to it?
In the context of picture books, I think of a hook as what a parent might say to another parent, or a bookseller might say to a customer, to recommend a book. Being able to pare my book idea down to a pithy pitch isn’t just about selling it—it can also help me refine and home in on my idea as I revise it. Here’s how I would describe FINDING WILD: a lyrical exploration of the joys of being outside and appreciating the big and small wonders of nature. And PAPER MICE: two paper mice bravely explore their new home at night and find what they didn’t know they needed—each other!
I usually stay away from rhyming, because it’s very hard to write good rhyming stories and rhyming just isn’t something I’m passionate about. But I’ve tried it out on a few projects. If rhyming isn’t a really important part of your writing to you, I would definitely suggest trying to rewrite your story in prose, as there are a lot of challenges unique to writing in rhyme. But, if rhyming is central to your vision as an author or to a certain story, this rubric for a Best in Rhyme Award might be helpful.
During the revision process, sometimes I staple a little book together based on the typical layout and lengths of picture books (I use Tara Lazar’s templates). Then, I write out my manuscript to see how I would break up the text page by page. It helps me to gain a better understanding of the page-by-page rhythm of the text and see if there are any page-turn moments I should be taking an advantage of (page-turn moments are an amazing opportunity in picture books). It can also help me see if my word count is too high. (Of course, a publisher won’t necessarily break up your text in the same way you envision, and there’s no need to include page numbers in your manuscript.)
I know some writers include more art notes, but personally I prefer to use them very sparingly, and usually only when there is something that I envision in the art that is essential to understanding the story. If it’s not essential, but something I still think is valuable enough to include, I try to phrase it as a suggestion. FINDING WILD, for example, had no art notes. It’s important to me that I respect the illustrator’s creative space and don’t try to art direct the book.
The illustrations in a picture book can show SO much of the story. I love it when the text adds something that can’t be seen in the art alone—like lyricism, more humor, repeated phrases, sound effects, dialogue, and incorporating the other four senses (since the visual will already be on the page).
Because the first and last sentences function as the entry and exit points of a book, I try to pay special attention to strengthening them. One strategy I use is to have my first sentence introduce at least two elements of the story (such as mood/style, theme, problem, main character, etc.) For the last sentence, I try to really put that perfect period on the story—whether with one last heartwarming burst or a gentle settling bedtime story feeling or a final punchline (and often, with picture books, the art can add one more beat at the end).
I try to critically analyze my motivations for telling a story, how it is inspired by my specific life experiences and perspectives, and how it connects with broader cultural issues.
I try to do my homework and make sure that I’m not using harmful tropes and/or perpetuating stereotypes. For example, I’ve found that non-human and animal characters in picture books tend to be male. So that’s something I pay attention to with my picture book manuscripts—am I making characters male by default? Because even when something doesn’t match up with your reality, it’s easy to fall into the patterns you’ve seen repeated in books and other forms of storytelling.
If I’ve shared my previous draft with critique partners, early readers, or an editor I’m working with, I have their comments to review in revision. I try to seriously think about any feedback I’ve received, whether someone is suggesting a simple word change or overhauling my approach to the entire story. However, I also try to remember that just because someone had a reaction to something in my manuscript doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily pinned down the right way to fix it. Their questions and concerns are valid and speak to a change being needed, but I might need to find my own way to adjust the story.
I also want to note that while it’s easy to focus on the negative, I find it just as helpful to think about positive comments. If there’s something that readers love or are connecting with in a story, I often look for ways to expand this element. For example, several people who read my first draft of PAPER MICE commented on how much they liked the voice at the beginning. When I revised it, I ended up throwing out everything except that beginning and rewriting the entire story to be more in that vein. No one writer is perfect at every single aspect of writing, so while it’s important to work on improving your weaknesses, at the same time, why not play to your strengths?
For every manuscript I write, I try to identify the “heartbeat” of that project–the one or two aspects of it that are the most important to me. They are the reason(s) I wrote the project. Maybe I wanted to explore a certain theme, or I have a character I just love, or this specific narrative voice just came to me, etc. Once I’ve identified these one or two things I love the most about a project, then I try to be ready and willing to change pretty much anything else. (This includes being open to shifting the project out of picture books and into a different age group.) Striving to have this combination of a devotion to the central thing I love about my story + a flexible attitude about all other aspects of it has really helped me be willing to take on bigger, and ultimately more effective, revisions.
Before I go into my revision strategies, I wanted to share some thoughts about the mindset I try to lean into when I revise. Coming up with ideas and writing rough drafts has always been the easier side of writing for me. Revising (and revising and revising) has always presented more of a challenge. I often get discouraged, want to give up on a project, and, in the past, would want to give up on writing altogether, etc. Developing a healthy mindset towards revision has been a crucial part of leveling up my writing and developing a professional writing career. Here are four facets of the revision mindset I’ve adopted over the years.
It’s really important to me that I take enough time between drafts to be able to approach the manuscript with a more balanced and less biased eye. And I don’t just take time off, I work on other writing projects in the meantime. Rotating through different projects helps me take the pressure off any one project, which, in turn, helps me to be willing to revise ruthlessly and sometimes even completely toss that draft to start again.
I am somewhat obsessed with focusing on writing goals that are 100% within my control. Things I haven’t been able to control over the years: whether any editor wants to acquire my work, whether any given person wants to read my work, whether anyone who reads my work actually likes it, whether there is currently a place for my project in traditional publishing as a business, whether any given project ends up being “on trend” or not, how much time I have to give to my writing vs. the other responsibilities in my life, etc. Things I can control: making my work the best I can currently make it, using the time I do have for writing in productive ways, trying to carve out more time for writing, and working to improve my writing skills over time. When I go into revising a project, I try to block out the many aspects of the business and of life that are out of my control and zero in on what is in my control—crafting this particular manuscript into the best possible story I am currently capable of creating.
In order to not waste as much time being frustrated with myself/my writing abilities, I have developed a pretty patient growth mindset over the years. Yes, I am not A Natural Total Genius/The Best Writer Ever. But writing isn’t just about innate talent—it’s also a craft that can be practiced and improved over time. Like woodworking or playing the violin, or any other skill that we view as a learned craft instead of a purely intuitive art. Genius though I am not, I have been able to slowly improve my writing, step by step, year by year, and I plan on continuing to do that for the rest of my life.
If someone has a nine to five job, they have to show up at work and do the work. Writing is my job, so I have to show up and do the work. (And even before I was published, I tried to think of it as A Job, even though I couldn’t put in full-time hours on it.) As stated before, I am (tragically, I know) not a Natural Genius, and can’t just write in pleasant, joyful fits of inspiration. By hook or by crook, I just have to get it done.
This quote by Ira Glass really helped me keep trying, and keep revising, in my pre-published days:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Hello writers! My last post was about how I come up with ideas for picture books. Today I’ll go into the next step in the process—getting a rough draft on the page.
One caveat to begin with—there’s a reason I’m calling these posts “How I Write.” Because they are about exactly that: how I, and I alone, write. My process for writing rough drafts (or any other step along the way) is just my process. Other authors will use different approaches. And you can write in any way you want. So, when I share my methods, please know I don’t see them as gospel truth—just what works for me.
Approach #1: Just Get Something Really Bad Down on Paper
Picture books are short. Though picture books published in times gone by can run into 1,000+ words (and you might Very Occasionally see a currently published picture book at that length), picture books in today’s market tend to be 500 words or less. And quite frequently under 300 words. This doesn’t mean that picture books are easy to write. (Them’s fightin’ words in the picture book author crowd.) What it does mean, though, is that I can really wing it on a first draft. Because it doesn’t take that long for me to write 500 words or less of an unpolished, unfocused, not-so-great, probably-quite-terrible picture book manuscript. It can be a one-sitting writing experience.
When I write longer works, I have to do a lot of planning beforehand, to at least try to shorten the amount of time revision will take (doesn’t always work, though, sadly—oh woe is me). But, with picture books, I can just go full speed ahead on the first draft, knowing that even if I don’t come up with anything great, hopefully there will be a seed of something special in there, a starting point that I can nurture into something bigger and better through revision.
Approach #2: Use Rough Drafts to Find the Narrative Voice
One thing that is really cool and pretty unique about picture books is that they are usually—not just occasionally, like with novels—but usually, read out loud. To me, this is a huge sign that they should be crafted in a way that shines in the read-a-loud experience.
This is why my primary concern when writing a picture book rough draft is finding the narrative voice of the story. How will this story sound when read aloud, and how will it draw the listener in with that voice? (If it were a song, what kind of song would it be?) Will it be lyrical, sweet, funny, rollicking, folksy, sleepy, swashbuckling, heartwarming, or even a little melancholy? Or a mixture of a few possibilities? Often the only thing I find in a rough draft to carry into further drafts is the voice. Or I might just find out that the voice I used is the wrong one, and so I need to keep exploring.
Approach #3: Have a Picture Book Marathon Day
I did this once and it was really fun and productive. (It can be tricky to arrange, however, which is why I’ve only done it once!) Here’s how it worked. I planned the day in advance, making sure I had the entire day blocked off for writing and all my other responsibilities taken care of, right down to scheduling pizza delivery for dinner. Then I convinced my sister to be my writing cheerleader for the day. I compiled a list of picture book ideas I felt had potential (many of which I’d been putting off writing for far too long), and got to work. The idea was to write as many rough drafts as possible in one day. I texted my writing cheerleader after finishing each draft and she sent words of over-the-top enthusiasm and encouragement my way.
In eleven hours of writing, I wrote eight picture book manuscripts! Very, very, very rough drafts (emphasis on very). Out of the eight, I’ve since revised four into polished, ready-to-send-to-editors manuscripts. It was fun and rewarding getting out of my comfort zone, feeling so super supported by my writing cheerleader, getting so much done in one day, and just having a change of pace in my writing life.
And Now, Two Rough Draft Examples From my Books:
Reading these on their own won’t be particularly helpful. But, if you own copies of FINDING WILD and/or FORT-BUILDING TIME, or are able to check them out from the library, you might be able to learn something from seeing how much my work can change from rough draft to final draft.
#1: Finding Wild Rough Draft
You can see that I was getting some of the voice and concept on the page, but everything else is a bit all over the place. I mention the five senses (telling), but don’t draw them out with descriptive writing (showing). And, even though the final draft doesn’t have a huge narrative arc, I did develop that to a greater degree than is on the page here. Overall, I would say my main task when revising this rough draft was to draw out and develop the theme of “finding wild” in a more sensory and lyrical way.
#2: Fort-Building Time Rough Draft
In my previous post on generating picture book ideas, I talked about how I came up with idea to combine the concept of building forts with the structure of the four seasons for FORT-BUILDING TIME. This is actually something I thought of after writing the first draft. As you can see, my first draft is just about doing a bunch of random fun things! I also used “today” “yesterday” and “the day before that” to introduce the activities, all of which gets a bit confusing and almost time travel-ish. Overall, I would say what this rough draft needed the most in revision was to keep the fun, playful feeling, while refining it into something more focused and with a (gentle) narrative arc.
The end of this post has overlapped a little into the topic of my next one, which will be, of course—revision. See you then!
Welcome to the first of my “How I Write” posts!
To start with, I’ll be doing a series on writing picture books, with the goal of posting once or twice per week. After that, I’ll be doing a series of posts on writing graphic novels. I didn’t go to school for creative writing and haven’t been able to attend very many workshops or conferences, so I learned what I know mainly by reading how-to books and finding advice from authors online. My hope with these posts is to pay it forward by sharing specific practical writing advice and ideas for aspiring writers, as well as giving a behind-the-scenes look at how I write.
One of the main questions kids (and adults) always ask me is “How do you get your ideas?”
Sometimes, an idea just seems to float by like a lost balloon, begging me to grab it before it slips out of reach. Sometimes…but not usually. I believe that we become more creative by practicing creativity, because I’ve gotten most of my ideas by actively trying to think of ideas. It’s not as whimsical sounding as ideas floating by, waiting to be snatched up, but I think searching for and finding ideas has its own kind of magic.
Here are four of methods I use to think up new picture book ideas:
This one is pretty self-explanatory. I brainstorm ideas by making lists of things I love or am interested in that I think young kids might like, too—topics, activities, foods, holidays, concepts, etc. I also think about the things I loved when I was little. I came up for the ideas for my books FORT-BUILDING TIME and BUILDING BOOKS using this method.
For FORT-BUILDING TIME, I knew I wanted to write a picture book about building forts—something that I loved doing as a kid and something that seems like it’s almost universally enjoyed by kids. But I felt like the concept was a little bit thin conceptually, even for a relatively simple young picture book. It needed more. Going back to my list of things I loved, I saw that I’d written “the four seasons.” I combined the idea of building forts with the idea of building forts in all four seasons, and FORT-BUILDING TIME was born. Introducing the seasons gave the book structure, as well as reinforcing the theme that no matter the season, no matter the weather, and no matter the fort-falling disaster, any day can be a fort-building time.
For BUILDING BOOKS, I combined two things I loved as a child: reading and building. I loved reading the most—I was a classic bookworm as a kid, always reading. But I also have happy memories of building with Legos. After acquiring FINDING WILD and FORT-BUILDING TIME, my editor at Knopf was interested in doing a more story-based picture book with me, so I developed siblings to align with these two pursuits: Katie loves reading and Owen loves building. By the end of the book, they—and their hobbies—have come together, and they use books not just as reading material, but as physical objects to build amazing creations.
Sometimes I’m trying to write for a different age group, and the trick is simply recognizing that what I’m writing would make a great picture book instead. When I first started writing what became FINDING WILD, I was trying to write an essay for adults about appreciating the wild. But as soon as I thought of shaping it into a picture book instead, I knew I’d found the right form to explore this theme. Interestingly enough, adult readers often connect with FINDING WILD just as much as kids do. It makes me wonder if my initial intended audience is still layered in there, and adults can sense that. Experiences like this are proof to me that pushing myself to write in new areas can often pay off in multiple ways—it helps me develop the writing chops for those new areas, but also helps me think of new ideas and new approaches to the genres and age groups I’ve already been focusing on.
One thing I did several years in a row is force myself to write down one picture book idea a day for an entire month. (Picture book author Tara Lazar hosts a community doing this same thing every January called Storystorm. It’s kind of like NaNoWriMo for picture book authors. I’ve actually never participated formally, but it seems great! More info on her site here.)
One year when I was doing this, I wrote down the words “The Paper Mice.” I didn’t have any idea beyond that title. I didn’t know where I could go with it or what it could become. I just had to come up with something for that day and somehow my brain, under pressure, landed on paper mice.
After I wrote and sold PAPER MICE a few years later, I found a bundle of mice paper dolls that I’d loved when I was a kid. I think that I must have subconsciously remembered them and how much I loved them.
Some people seem to think that forcing yourself to create will lead to forced-feeling work—as if you have to have a dream about an idea or some huge experience to prompt it for it to be genuine. But I think that forcing yourself to come up with new ideas is just as valid and can actually make you dig deeper and be more creative.
Another way I look at finding ideas for picture books is through the concept of evergreen topics—themes that come up again and again in picture books. Things like: bedtime, going to school, being away from parents, a parent’s unconditional love for their child, learning to share, learning the alphabet, etc. I would also include classic structures, like fairy tales and ABC books in this category.
There are SO many books centered on these ideas that it can be hard, but is essential, to come up with a fresh approach. I always ask myself, how is my take on this evergreen topic original and interesting? What can I add to this topic, or how can I use this theme or structure in a new and unique way?
My upcoming picture book with Chronicle Books, THE ABCs OF CATCHING Zs, is about going to bed (a common topic) and it’s an ABC book (a common structure). But I added my own sweet and silly spin: that the little zzzs (often pictured floating above people’s sleeping faces in illustrations) are actually small flying creatures that help people fall fast asleep each night. And how are you supposed to fall asleep when your Zs have gone missing? (By doing all the steps of the bedtime routine to lure them back, of course!).
So, there you have it—four ways to come up with picture book ideas. Next time I’ll be detailing how I go about writing picture book rough drafts. Please comment here or on Instagram if you have any questions that you’d like addressed in future posts.