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Monday, January 31, 2011

The REAL Truth about Picture Books

Despite my A in college Calculus (yeah....I like to throw that in from time to time....even though it was probably a grade calculation error on the part of the professor.....but it makes me feel smarter if only for a moment....) I am not really a math person. However, I am about to do the impossible. I am going to attempt to numerically quantify that odd beast known as the Writing of the Picture Book.

I come up with about 4 REALLY GOOD picture book ideas a month. Really, really good ones. Ones I wish were already on the shelves so I could grab them and read them to my students over and over and over again. And again. (I mean, these are great ideas.)

Do the math: 4 ideas x 12 months = 48 ideas per year.

However, I am really only able to actually write about 1/4 of them. (Not due to lack of trying!!!) I mean, some of these ideas are just too rascally to get a grip on. The image of a greased pig comes to mind. I try and write most of them, but due to wrong voice, loss of initial excitement, inability to make it all come together and did I mention wrong voice, (for often I am not the right writer for the idea I have hatched) I come up with a fraction of manuscripts based upon my ideas.

Do the math: 48 ideas divided by 4 = 12 semi-viable manuscripts.

Not bad, you are saying. 12 manuscripts a year is not bad at all. But remember, my friends, these are picture book manuscripts. PBs. Yeah, I saw that grin slowly leave your face. Because this is where all of the laws of mathematics no longer apply.

Enter the variables. (Cue menacing music)

Timing-Timing is everything in PB publishing. Maybe you have the shiniest most perfect manuscript, but it is just the wrong time for it....or you walk into your local bookstore and see another one almost like it was just published....or it takes so long for the publishing process that by the time your idea even gets read, the idea is no longer current.

Preference- Just because I think my 12 mss are viable, doesn't mean my agent thinks they are all equally salable. (Some are more equal than others.) And it doesn't mean that she can go out and try to schlep all 12 at once. People will get tired of seeing my stuff....I mean even Mo Willems isn't coming out with 12 new books every year. You have to make some choices and prioritize.

And editors have their preferences, too. I got a rejection for Good Night, Good Knight from an editor saying that dragons had been done. But then Lucia Monfried at Dutton really, really liked the idea, and that is how my first easy reader came into being.

Luck- Nobody controls luck, and this is perhaps the mosts encouraging thing I can think to say about picture books. Luck is some wild cowboy riding an untamed stallion that shows up late, if he even shows up at all, but when he does, smiling his cowboy smile and tipping his hat, IT IS WORTH IT.

Do the math: 12 manuscripts + Timing +Preference + Luck = Maybe Something Wonderful. Sometimes.

Now, don't get discouraged!! Keep your chin up!! I am not telling you aspiring picture book writers to throw in the towel. Quite the opposite. Keep writing and write some more. If you want to stack the odds in your favor, then start stacking up some more manuscripts! The more chances you give yourself to get lucky, the luckier you will be.

Success comes to those who never give up.

hrh

P.S. These are some books I had a similar idea for, but wasn't lucky enough to get a decent draft done and well, I probably wasn't the right writer for them anyway. But look....my loss is their gain!!

Check this out here. (Except I called mine The Adventures of Stick Boy...and I never finished but two chapters. Curses!)

And check this out here. (Except mine was called Ballerhino....but the gist was similar, giant animal takes ballet with kids.....sigh.)
I could go on, but the reality is that when a great idea comes to you and you put it on the back burner, somebody else is probably already frying it up into breakfast.


15 comments:

Myrna Foster said...

Thanks for this post, Shelley! Writing PBs is both fun and frustrating. Sometimes I think I edit mine so much that I edit myself right out of them. And yet, they have to be perfect.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

That last line is hilarious (and scary cuz it's true)!

Rebecca said...

So many truths! And laughs!

I have way too much fun (usually) writing picture books to throw in the towel.

Kelly said...

I love the idea of Ballerhino!
I had written a chapter book called Frankie Stein (never submitted it, it was one of my very first stories I wrote). Then I saw it on the shelves the next year. Darn it! I missed my chance.
So true about timing. I'm trying my hand at picture books next. I miss writing them. That's what I started trying but then gravitated towards the middle grade novel.
Oh! After I read my kids your Somewhere Today book and I read the last page, my 6 yr old yelled so proudly, "Me! Me! She's talking about me!" Thanks again for the book. I loved sharing it with the family!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post and too true. I'm working on a PB right now. Ugh! :-)

storyqueen said...

Myrna-I know what you mean! But what else can you do if you know it's not quite right? Keep on editing. In the end, it will either work or it won't.

Tricia-Too true...and I guess this could apply to 16th century love interests as well.

Rebecca-Never surrender! Never throw in the towel!

Kelly-I know...Ballerhino was an awesome idea. I just didn't execute it well enough to sell it ten years ago. Too bad about the Frankie Stein!!!

(And thank you for liking my little book!)

Shannon-Yay! Welcome to the world of greased pig riding!

Christie Wright Wild said...

And I just read a post today about how 1 out of every 10 picture books (by the same author) even gets sold. Don't you just love math?

Carla said...

This is a fun and encouraging post! Math can be so 2-faced sometimes!

~Carla
carla-jansen.blogspot.com

Lydia K said...

I have to give it to you--writing picture books sound so hard to do well!

BTW, I'm not a math person either, and I also got an A in calculus. We rock!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I'm so glad you found an editor who loves dragons since me and my kids love your books. :D

erica and christy said...

The world (mom/preschool teachers ESPECIALLY) needs more good picture books.

I'm sorry about the stupid math. :(
erica

Hardygirl said...

So true!!

Luck is such a big one--but you've got to do all that work beforehand or you won't be ready when luck slaps you in the face.

Oh, and I, too, made an "A" in Calculus. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to state that publicly.

sf

Karen Akins said...

Ooh, such a good post. A little daunting, but good. :)

Christina Lee said...

This is such a great post about what it's really like (psst, I still am impressed by your number 12)!

Kristin said...

Great post, thank you! :)