Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Does this Mean to Me and My Writing?

Week of October 23—What We Can Learn from Horn Book Reviews

Wednesday, October 26—What Does this Mean to Me and My Writing?

I’m a so-what kind of person? After I hear something or learn something, I always say, “So what?” What I take away from the negative book reviews I wrote about yesterday can be summed up in a four categories: plot, pacing, word choice, and character development.

At its simplest, plot is the beginning, middle, end of a story. But as picture book writers, we know that plot is so much more. It’s a problem, rising action, a dark moment, a climax, falling action, a resolution, and often a denouement. When you read (or hear in critique groups) comments such as—feels forced, I can’t follow the story line, falls flat, there’s not much here, feels trite, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on, lacks cohesion, the narrative is unexciting, I’m confused, this seems to move too quickly, this seems overly long, or seems too sentimental—there's a plotting problem. Questions like the following can also indicate plot problems: What’s the problem in the story? Who’s the main character? Why do we care about this character? How does the character attempt to solve the problem? Where’s the ending?

Plotting is essential to any book, but I contend it may be even more important in a picture book than in a novel.  In theory, a novelist has pages he/she might be able to devote to setting description, back story, chasing rabbits, and the like. But picture book writers have only 36 pages (and not all of those will be used for text) and around 500 words to tell the entire story, the entire plot.

I am a nut about pacing. To me, pacing is such an essential ingredient to picture books. Have you ever read a picture book aloud and gotten lost or felt the momentum of the book slow? That’s a pacing problem. On the other hand, have you ever felt a story pull you through the action as you read? Perhaps it helps speed up your pace, slow down, tick off details, then speed up again. That’s good pacing.

Some indicators of pacing problems can be found in comments such as: the story line is too jumpy to follow, plodding, moves to quickly, moves to slowly, wordy, laborious. Would you rather hear: lyrical, snappy, well-paced, nothing interrupts the forward momentum?

Word choice is another thing the Horn Book reviewers kept coming back to. I used to work in a field of publishing where we paid authors by the word and had word counts for columns, chapters, etc. If you have limited word count you make each word count. Picture book authors DO have limited word count. Right now the suggested count is around 500 words. (Yes, I’ve fought that concept, too. It’s time to give up your fight and start writing what the industry is asking for! J) Picture book authors must choose each word carefully and precisely. The review comments that indicated weak word choice include: bland and stumbling rhymed text, word choice seems gimmicky and disjointed, the text is trite, witless rhyme, stilted prose, lackluster rhyme, plodding text. On the other hand, consider these raves about good word choice: witty dialogue, lyrical laconic lilt, rollicking read-aloud, plays with words, witty narrative, authentic dialogue, sly humor and light touch, and witty text. (Please note the many negative comments about rhymed text. Unless you were born a rhymer or have studied rhyme extensively, it’s best to leave it alone.)

Finally, the importance of character. Just because you have an idea of a charming chicken or a sweet little girl or a dinosaur with a problem, doesn’t mean you have a well-developed character. In the negative comments in the reviews we discussed, dialogue is usually the thing that gave away the weakness of the character. In another review I read a comment that went something like this, “There were so many characters and they were so much alike I could not keep them apart.” Conversely, look at the descriptions of characters in the positive reviews: cheerfully upbeat character, a narrator who incorporates Spanish words naturally, and cheerfully upbeat character. What a difference.

As you continue to read reviews, look for these four common threads: plot, pacing, word choice, and character development. Also note other common threads you notice in reviews . . . there may be lessons to be learned.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Do a Google search for “picture book reviews,” then read and make notes of what you find. Do you see the “big four” mentioned in this post? What else do you notice?


Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Everything you're saying makes sense, but I find myself wondering, how do I know if the plot is moving along and makes sense? How do I make sure my character is strong enough? It's one thing to recognize the problem - and even that is hard in your own work - but it's a whole other thing to fix it!

Rob Sanders said...

Susanna, that is the million dollar question, of course. Critique groups and professional critiques are the first answer. Most writers don't ever recognize the issues, thus can't fix them. So knowing and recognizing the problems in our own writing is the next step. We have dealt with many of these topics (pacing, character development, etc.) on Picture This! And I'll keep at it--promise!