Even if you read every book in the library about how to write a good story and every blog on the internet, it wouldn't teach you what story to tell or how exactly to tell it. That’s because the stories you write bubble up from your heart, mind, spirit, and sense of play. They come from the experiences you’ve stored up, living on the planet. Every word, every phrase of your story is drawn to you by who you are, the thoughts you think, and how you choose to live your life.
The need to “store up” is one reason some authors take months or years to write their manuscripts. They may have the basic concept and the main character down, yet still be unsure how to wrap everything together into the beautiful package it has the potential to become. Perhaps their stores are depleted or were never filled to the level needed to write such a piece. So they wait. They live their lives, read their books, and go on their adventures. Some day, along the way, they find the missing piece, the shaft of wheat that fills the larder to overflowing and makes their story complete.
High on the list of “what to do if you want to write a picture book” is to read other authors’ picture books: the Caldecott winners, the classics, the new books on the library and bookstore shelves. But to be able to choose from many wondrous possibilities, it’s best to have a plentiful larder. That means reading beyond picture books in order to write picture books.
Read poetry, everything from Caedmon to William Butler Yeats to Mary Oliver. Read the classics and old folktales from Milton to Dickens to Tolkien. Read non-fiction, to learn about the plants and animals we share the earth with, to understand history, to experience new ideas, including 21st century issues. Currently, I’m reading two books that revolve around today’s world and children: ten ways to destroy the imagination of your child and Parenting Well in a Media Age. There are wonderful tidbits here and more than a little wisdom.
Even more important than reading is stepping out into the world. Walk not just in nature. Walk with nature. Whether you travel to Africa to be among elephants, cheetahs, and giraffes or travel down the sidewalk among persistent weeds in cracks, a window box of fragrant rosemary, or the crunch of autumn leaves, marvels will appear.
Fill your larder with grand adventures and little adventures. Walk into museums, aquariums, cafes, and bus stops.
Recently, I stopped for two quick adventures on the way home from my son’s wedding. One morning my family experienced the culture of Charleston’s historic French Quarter, another, the wild beauty of Okefenokee Swamp. I was stocking my cupboard.
Such rare and beautiful experiences help us more easily form our writing goal, our mission statement. My mission is to write stories that give fun without meanness, quietness without boredom, serious thought without despair, playfulness without frivolity, and hope, always hope.
What do you want your stories to give?
It’s true our work of writing for children is joyful and fulfilling, but it is also a solemn “job” in what some mistakenly consider a silly field. In the end our most important work is not to write stories that fill a common core need or missing subject in the library. It’s not even to write stories that win a prize or make the NY Times Best Sellers List. It’s to write stories that feed spirits, ours and our readers’. And to do that, we must constantly be filling our larder.
Marsha Diane Arnold is an award-winning picture book author with eleven traditional books, two digital apps, and an e-book to her credit. Represented by Red Fox Literary, in 2013 and 2014 she sold four picture book manuscripts to Neal Porter Books, Kate O'Sullivan of Houghton Mifflin, and Random House UK and two board books to Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. Marsha grew up on a Kansas farm and for decades created imaginative worlds and wacky characters in northern California. She’s now creating those worlds in southwest Florida.
Her Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books course has helped many published and aspiring writers to write stronger characters. You may read about her books, school visits, and life at www.marshadianearnold.com
Meet the Friday Blogonauts
First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
Third Fridays will feature independent Aladdin/Simon & Shuster editor Emma Sector who has helped bring many books into the world.
Fourth Fridays will feature the great Christine Taylor-Butler who has published over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction and nonfiction books including the acclaimed new middle grade series - The Lost Tribes.
Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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