Thursday, November 20, 2014


How a Multi-Published Author Became a Debut Author

Blame it on SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). When I joined SCBWI over two decades ago, I’d already sold a middle-grade and was interested in writing young adult books, too. Yet most of my writer friends wrote picture books. Whenever I went to SCBWI conferences, I attended many presentations by talented PB authors and illustrators. I listened to so many PB talks that I joked I could teach a picture book writing class myself. But write a picture book? Nope. Not interested.

2009 was the year I sold my 37th book, BURIED/YA mystery (Flux)—and the year I wrote a picture book. This PB idea struck with no warning—like summer rain or falling in love. I was driving to a SCBWI retreat with authors Verla Kay, Danna K. Smith and Linda Whalen when my thoughts jumped to the childhood photo Verla had showed me of a snow dog. A word storm of Inspiration flooded my head. When we stopped for lunch, I grabbed a napkin and wrote a story that began: More than anything, Ally wanted a dog—but dogs made her ACHOO. So Ally drew pictures of dogs….

Jump five years and that napkin-scribbled book is now my debut picture book, SNOW DOG, SAND DOG (Albert Whitman). And my box of author copies arrived this week (YAY!). But it’s not like I stopped writing MG/YA. I still do that, too.

How did this genre hopping happen? Thinking it over, it’s more of a surprise that I resisted writing PBs for so long. Whether I’m writing for big or little kids, I love the rhythm of lyrical, active and funny words. Studying the art of picture book writing has actually strengthened my novel writing. Sentences roll and sway like songs from thoughts to finger-tips.

For example (from a MG work-in-progress):
I’m squashed like a human pretzel and struggling not to sneeze at dog hair or freak out as I imagine creepy crawlies creeping and crawling all over me.
This is a sentence from a middle-grade book yet fun words like sneeze, creepy and crawling create a rhythm like when I’m writing pictures books.

They heated popcorn and played fetch with straw brooms. They napped with a scarecrow then danced to the music of wind chimes.

I love the craft of word play; molding words like clay until they’re shaped into sentences that make children smile. Writing words for children brings out the child in all of us—and it’s fun.

But it’s hard work, too. I consider picture books the hardest format to write. There’s no room for even one sloppy word. Every word counts and the story arc should rise and fall with character growth like a novel.

It took five years for SNOW DOG, SAND DOG to become a published book. It went through editors, agents, rejections and rewrites. I rode a roller coaster of disappointments and hopes. The day it sold, my agent told me, “You’re now a picture book author.”

And this MG/YA author is very proud to be a picture book author.

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