Blogging straight to you from Frankenstorm today in NYC! It takes more than an epic storm to hold us kidlit writers back.To everyone in the storm's path, please be safe. Stay home. Read. Write. Just think of the influx of storm stories that will flood editors desk in about 6 months. :)
But, the show must go on at The Write Routine. And today I have a very special guest.
I fell in love with THE QUIET BOOK the second I picked it up. Deborah Underwood's simple, yet endearing words matched with the amazing illustrations of Renata Liwska is pure picture book magic! Along with THE LOUD BOOK and THE CHRISTMAS QUIET BOOK, I think we are witnessing the creation of some classics.
Please welcome Deborah Underwood....
Leaving room for the illustrator is one of the most important lessons for picture book writers. And I’m sorry to say it took me about six years to learn it. SIX YEARS. I think that was because I didn’t really understand why we need to leave room, why we shouldn’t write a lot of description. Now--finally!--I do.
Here’s an exercise I like to do in my writing workshops. Please get out your crayons and play along:
First, draw a house. It can be any kind of house--a person house, a dog house, a bird house, a Martian house. It can be any shape, any size, any color.
Done? Good. Now draw a white, two-story house with a red roof, green shutters, and a pink plastic flamingo in the front yard.
I suspect if I collected and displayed all your virtual papers, your first drawings would be wonderfully diverse and imaginative. The second ones? Less diverse. Less imaginative.
Because with every descriptor I gave, I took a choice away from you. You wanted it to be a purple house? Too bad; I said white. You thought it would have been great to make the house seven rickety stories tall? It might have been great, but you couldn’t do it, because I said two stories. You wanted a burlwood ogre in the garden? Nope; it had to be a flamingo.
So there it is. Every descriptive word in a picture book limits your illustrator.
This lesson was powerfully brought home to me when we were working on THE QUIET BOOK. In my manuscript, “Coloring in the lines quiet,” was followed by “Thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall with a green crayon quiet.”
My wonderful editor, Kate O’Sullivan, suggested deleting “with a green crayon.”
I resisted. I whined. I said I liked the specificity of the green crayon. Kate didn’t think we needed it. I reluctantly acquiesced.
Thank goodness! Because this is how the brilliant Renata Liwska chose to illustrate those lines:
The moose’s self-portrait on the wall is one of my favorite parts of the book. If Renata had been limited to showing a green crayon, she might not have come up with that idea--what self-respecting moose draws himself in green? The green crayon business was completely gratuitous. It would have tied Renata’s hands. And the book would have been diminished.
When I finally had the pleasure of meeting Renata in person, she said that the spareness of The Quiet Book text had appealed to her, that it had allowed her to immediately begin seeing pictures in her head. She said that if there’s too much description, she feels as if she’s tracing a line that’s already been drawn. If you were an illustrator, would you rather trace or create?
So I learned my lesson. In The Christmas Quiet Book, I wrote text like:
But what if you see pictures in your head while you write? What if you know the way your words are supposed to look?
I feel your pain! But think of it this way: what if every time you sat down to write, you had an illustrator hanging over your shoulder saying things like, “Can’t we set the story in Mexico instead of Philadelphia? And can’t the main character be a macaw, instead of a fox? I really like drawing macaws.”
Ridiculous, right? Because it’s not the illustrator’s job to tell you what to write--just as it’s not your job to tell her what to draw.
I, personally, am a total control freak (another reason this lesson has been so difficult for me). But it’s only in letting go that we make space for synergy, that phenomenon in which, because of the contributions of two creative people, the whole truly does become greater than the sum of its parts.
Does that synergy alway materialize? Nope. But it’s worth taking the risk. Because when it does, it’s picture book magic.