If you’ve ever sat down to write a picture book, you’ve probably wished the words would rush from your fingertips onto the keyboard like water from Niagara Falls. When we read the finished product on the bookshelves, it’s easy to imagine that that’s the way it happened. If only we could tap into that mystical source of picture book magic and write like that too.
When I sat down to write my first picture book many years ago, however, it was a completely different story. (No pun intended!) Instead of filling up the page with picture book perfection, it felt like I was trying to navigate a rocky river of possibilities, bumping into one rock of words after another. What did I want to write? Every choice seemed wrong when compared to the polished stories on the bookshelves. It would have been easy to give up and conclude that I wasn’t cut out to write picture books.
No doubt, whoever wrote them, lived some sort of charmed life where words floated magically into place like Cinderella’s gossamer gown at the flick of her fairy godmother’s wrist. How did writers write such wonderful manuscripts, anyway? My early attempts at writing picture books were fraught with multiple missteps.
But over time, I discovered an essential piece of the picture book puzzle—pinning down that first rough draft no matter how awful and misshapen it may be. Why? Because, each time I work on a manuscript--it gets better. I usually start with a crumb of an idea, and I’ve learned that great ideas don’t show up all at once. Instead, they wander into town like a distant relative who raps on the door unexpectedly. Each time I revise, I get new ideas, better ideas, ones that I would not have discovered if I hadn’t written the awful stuff the first time around.
My rhyming, nonfiction picture book, In the Trees, Honey Bees (Dawn, 2009) is a good example. Since my father-in-law was a beekeeper with over 300 hives, I decided to write a rhyming picture book about honey bees for young readers. There were already a lot of nonfiction books about honey bees, but I wanted mine to be different. This book would approach the subject from an angle every child would understand—what bees do from morning to night. I was excited to share the thrilling details. So, I opened with this verse the first time around:
What’s that sound
In the trees,
When I finished the manuscript, I sent it off into the editorial cosmos where everyone rejected it. After the first group of five rejected it, I took another look at it. Hmm . . . maybe it could be better, especially that first verse. So I revised it:
What a sight!
In the trees,
More rejections and revisions followed, such as:
Hive’s first flight . . .
Time for flight . . . .
So many possible rhymes. Which one was best? It seemed like a toss up, until ten rejections later, a better verse sprang to mind that made all the difference and captured what was most important in the first part of a honey bee’s day:
Warm and bright.
In the trees,
It sold the next time out and was an important lesson in learning to take my time and unearth the rich layers of “better” that were just waiting to be discovered with each revision.
My latest rhyming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg (Clarion, 2013), is another great example of how an ordinary first idea can transform into something better if you keep going. I originally got the idea for this story because my neighbor’s dogs regularly bolted out of their backyard and raced down the street to jump into a refreshing creek. Seconds later, my neighbors raced down the street after them.
So one day I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to write a story with some kind of dog chase in it? My first draft was a complete snooze. A dog jumping over a log and lots of other rhyming obstacles. Ugh. After a while, I didn’t even want to work on it, which was a bad sign. But the idea niggled at me. Surely, there was something I could do. And there was. I’d recently read some picture books with a cowboy setting and all of a sudden it occurred to me that I could have a cowboy chase a dog. That sounded exciting. In an early version, the cowboy lived with his Ma and she was telling him to wash the dog. In time, I realized I didn’t need Ma to tell the story, so I ditched her and set Cowpoke Clyde off on his own merry chase to catch his dirty dawg for a bath. When it was finished, I knew an editor would want it! They had to. It was too fun not too.
It would have never happened if I hadn’t pinned down that first draft and kept going.
It’s a secret every writer discovers—it gets better.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than three dozen fiction and nonfiction books. A member of SCBWI, Lori is a frequent speaker at schools and SCBWI conferences. She also works as a writing instructor and is represented by Eden Street Literary in New York. Recent picture book titles include Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, (Clarion, 2013), Cindy Moo (HarperCollins, 2012), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault (Random House, 2010), and In the Trees, Honey Bees! (Dawn, 2009). Visit Lori’s website at www.lorimortensen.com