The PIXAR Generation (of Parents) … & Picture Books

What makes PIXAR movies so great? Lots of things, of course. Being the first to create fully computer animated films was cool. And the characters are very marketable and kid-friendly. Maybe the most important thing is that nearly all of the movies tell excellent stories. But what originally made PIXAR movies so different from other kid flicks?

pixar-logo

PIXAR movies entertain adults.

Lots of other studios have tried, some very successfully, to emulate this feature (pun intended). See this winter’s LEGO Movie.

This is my approach to writing picture books. A recent post on Writer’s Digest by Rick Walton discussed 10 reasons why picture books are not just for children, and without repeating every point, I’d like to say that I couldn’t agree more.

Some highlights include (I’m paraphrasing, but you should really read the article):

  • Picture book language is and should be somewhat advanced. Exposing kids to big words, whether they understand them at first or not, is a really good thing.
  • Picture books contain some of today’s best art by some of today’s best artists. And who doesn’t like art?
  • Picture books are great for bonding, family together time, sitting on Grandma’s lap. So when those advanced words come along, Grandma can tell you what a accoutrements means.
  • Picture books are short. Five or ten minutes and you’re done.

Not all picture books are meant to be enjoyed by adults. Some are meant to help kids learn to read. Some are meant to teach children lessons (although I don’t think that means they definitively have to be uninteresting to adults). And some tastes of children need to be fulfilled, regardless of whether a parent has interest.

Regarding the books I write – it’s my goal to try and entertain everyone:

from infant …

baby

… to ancient.

ancient

PS Don’t be offended by my use of the word ancient – I’m using my poetic license because infant and ancient are near rhymes. That’s what poetic license means, right? It’s like a get-out-of-jail-free-card, isn’t it?

Tips for Writing Picture Books: Story Arc Components

Today it’s all about …

Story Arc Components

To be clear, I’m not discussing all components of the picture book story, just those relating to the arc. And personally, I am not a fan of writing stories containing all of the traditional arc components. Those would be:

  1. Opening
  2. Tension increase
  3. Success
  4. Wink to the reader

The opening should be quick and concise, brief and succinct. In short, it should be short. Set the scene, introduce the character(s), and inform the reader of the problem statement. But don’t forget to show not tell. The best advice I have is that you should start by deleting the opening sentence/line/page/paragraph.

“What?” you ask. That’s right. Start on page 2. Take this example:

Anthony was so excited for today’s basketball game. He had been practicing all week. He shot 100 free throws a day and dribbled in every room of the house. What else could the shortest boy on the team do to prepare?

“Anthony! Are you ready for the game?” asked Mom.

If you simply start with Mom asking the question, you can show who Anthony is throughout the story (rather than showing his basketball prowess here). The illustrations can show Anthony in a basketball jersey and holding a ball. And Mom’s question pulls you in much more actively than the telly first line.

manute-bol-spud-webb
Anthony vs Manute

To increase the tension, I’m personally not a fan of the traditional ‘rule of 3’ – that being the rule that the main character should fail three times before eventually succeeding. Some people love it – it makes them feel warm and fuzzy, and I don’t begrudge those who feel that way. I just prefer to be nonstandard and find different ways to increase the tension. But whether tension rises through multiple failures or some other mechanism, the reader needs to see the main character at the lowest of low (or shortest of short?) points before ultimately succeeding. If the main character doesn’t hit rock bottom, the final success will not be satisfying. And without a satisfying conclusion, the story will fall flat (or air ball).

And once your main character succeeds, it should happen quickly and the story should be over. Don’t drag it out. When Anthony scores the winning basket, sum it up with a single line or two and end it. Don’t drag it out for 5 pages, because after Anthony’s team wins, there will be no reason for the reader to turn the page. The only page turn that should occur after success is to the all important …

Wink to the reader. This is where you make a little joke and give the reader something to continue thinking about once the book is over. It’s like the scene after the credits in a movie (or during the credits of a tv show). It’s the line that leaves the book open for a sequel. Or the line that turns the previous 31 pages upside down.

And for my wink, you just might think, I really stink – when I tell you the next thing I learned about writing picture books is …

Don’t Write in Rhyme

But that’ll be next time…

 

See all of Josh Funk’s 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books

Lesson #1: So, You Wrote a Book. Now What?
Lesson #2: Picture Books Are Short
Lesson #3: Every Word Counts
Lesson #4: The Illustrator Is Your Partner
Lesson #5: Show Don’t Tell
Lesson #6: Write with Active Emotion
Lesson #7: Story Arc Components
Lesson #8: Don’t Write In Rhyme
Lesson #9: Rhyming Is All About Rhythm
Lesson #10: Some Ideas Don’t Work
Lesson #11: Keep Learning
Lesson #12: Now You’re Ready! Dive In!

Some Things I’ve Learned

So, I decided I would share some of things I’ve learned over the last few years since admitting myself to the asylum for people who want to write books for children.

Why listen to anything I have to say, you ask? Unfortunately, that is a question for which I have no good answer. So I’ll simply ignore it.

There are blogs up the wazoo containing tips on writing for children. How to come up with ideas, how to format manuscripts, how to submit to agents and editors, and on and on. It’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed in all that advice. And I’m here to tell you … that there’s no easy way around it.

I’m not going to list every piece of advice out there. That’s for you to research. There are some great starting places like Harold Underdown’s Site and SCBWI. Unfortunately, there’s no one-stop-shop for all the do’s and don’t’s of getting published.

You probably will notice, however, that there are some tidbits that continue to pop up  everywhere – and you can take some of these as universal truths. A few I’ve come across include:

Keep Writing

rejected

You’re never going to get published don’t write. That statement may seem obvious, but you have to remember this every time you get a rejection letter (or don’t get rejection letters).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “and after ten years of writing, my first book was finally published.” And when they say ‘first’ book, it’s usually not the first book the author wrote. It’s usually the 6th or 7th. It’s very rare to hit it big (or even publish) the first you write.

The first book I wrote is in a state of disrepair, and I expect it will stay that way. Frankly, I’ve learned so much since writing that first book, that I’m not sure going back to it would do much good.

That leads me to my second point, which is …

Learn

Take classes. Go to conferences. Do research. Read books about how to write for children. Read blogs (especially my blog). Read interviews of authors you really like. Read books in the genre which you’re writing. Read books in other genres. See authors speak. Absorb as much as possible.

Calvin in Class

You don’t have to do all of those things. Personally, I don’t like reading (just kidding. Or am I?). But all the other stuff has been invaluable. Writing books for children is both an art and a business – two things for which I have no professional qualifications whatsoever. Everything I know about the writing world was learned in the last two and a half years.

That’s why, I also recommend that if you want to get published, you have to …

Dive in

Dive InHead first. Give it your all. If you’re gonna write, then write your heart out. Get your manuscript(s) critiqued by other writers. Do the learning necessary. And submit! Submit to agents. Submit to editors (that accept unsolicited submissions, of course).

You can’t just dip your feet in the water. If you never finish your story, it will surely not get published. If you don’t get it critiqued and revise, odds are likely that it’s not quite ready for prime time. And it never gets sent to agents and editors, it’s not gonna magically publish itself (although that would be pretty cool).

Don’t overdo it, though. Always …

Leave Your Readers Wanting More

For that reason, I’m going to end this post by telling you to check back later on in the week when I post ‘Some Other Things I’ve Learned.’

A Fool’s Step-by-Step Guide to Children’s Publishing

The following steps are a proven way to become a published children’s picture book author:

1. If you want to write picture books, always write rhymes. Even if the story doesn’t make sense, always make sure you don’t have dents. Rhymes are a sure way to become published.


2. Always ask your parent(s) or spouse(s) if they like your writing.  If they say “no,” then fire them. If they say “yes,” you will definitely be published soon.


3. Once your Mom says you are good enough, bypass critique groups, organizations like SCBWI, and literary agents. Start emailing your manuscript to every publisher. If you can’t find an email address, call them up and ask to speak directly to the Vice President of the Editing Department.


4. Don’t stress about typos orb grammatical errorings. If you made everything too perfect, all copy editors would lose they jobs. This could have a mass ripple effect for the economony.


5. And don’t worry about so-called submission guidelines. Publishers want you to send your manuscripts as attachments. Trust me, that’s how the real authors do it (it’s true).

6. If you don’t get a response within a week, start calling the publisher. Leave at least one message per day until they call you back. Editors are extremely forgetful people.


7. When you have multiple offers from multiple publishers, demand that they give you a six figure deal and let you pick the illustrator. This way, they’ll know you’re serious. Then, pick the publisher with the longest name (more letters means more books sold). If an editor gives you any negative feedback, immediately void your contract and go to the publisher with the second longest name.

8. After the book is published (a few weeks later), go on a book signing tour, but demand candied pineapple in your dressing room. If said candied pineapple is not provided (or not at a high enough quality), do not go on stage! And fire your manager (unless you manage yourself).

9. Set up a blog, a facebook, and a twitter and watch as everyone begins to follow you everywhere. Bask in the automated love.

10. Once you reach #1 on the New Yorkers Times Best Sold Bookers List, go back to step B.

Congratulations! You are now awesome!

Break All the Rules!

I’m going to start (or continue?) breaking all the rules of writing children’s books. I’m tired of characters having to learn things on their journeys. Why does a story need an arc? Does tension really need to build throughout the story? Who says proper grammar and speling must to be used at all times? Formulas are sooooooo boring! Drab! Lifeless! Tiresome! Prosaic!

While many claim they want to find the next new exciting thing, too often do I hear “there’s no place in the market for that” or “I didn’t feel the tension build enough” or “16,000 words is too long for a picture book” or “you spelled my name wrong in your query letter.”

But who are the most beloved children’s book authors? The ones that were different! The ones who pushed the boundaries! The ones who changed children’s book writing forever! Roald Dahl’s The Twits is about a disgusting pair of hateful adults. Dr. Seuss’s books are full of nonsensical gibberish! Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is only ten sentences long! Mo Willems’ Pigeon character started off as a gag for friends! And we love those classics.

Even this past year’s Caldecott Medal winning book (an award given for illustration, I know) is about a fish who stole a hat from a shark and (possibly) gets eaten at the end. This book has no arc, no tension, no lesson! It’s just a bunch of things happening (and not even that many things). It’s terrifically illustrated, of course, but it breaks every rule. It’s possible there’s a lesson – don’t steal a hat from a shark or it might (or might not) eat you – or don’t steal, if you want to really get into it, but I wonder how many kids are picking that up, let alone adults, let alone the author/illustrator who wrote the book.

I’m not saying I want to write a noir murder mystery picture book for toddlers (although that might be kind of cool). But I would like to write a picture book where a bunch of fun stuff happens, that would be cool for an illustrator to illustrate. One that would entertain kids over and over again. Sans arc, tension, lesson and traditional formula. If the idea is entertaining enough, none of that should be necessary.

And that’s what I plan on doing. Formula-free. Pushing the boundary. Possibly unpublishable (hopefully not).

That’s what Papa J Runk is all about!