Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Novelist and the Picture Book Writer

I’m often asked, “Why don’t you write a novel?”

And the answer is, I’ve attempted it many times. I’ve started dozens of novels, but I don’t seem to have the endurance to finish them. Every time I make this attempt and fizzle, I become more and more impressed with Stephenie Meyer, Shannon Hale, Mette Ivie Harrison, and other authors whose books I love. I have a couple of novel manuscripts that I secretly believe might have real promise, if they were ever finished. I’m starting to worry that writing a novel is a marathon, and I’m a short-sprint runner. Not that picture book manuscripts are written quickly. But I can shuffle them around like cards in a deck. When I get tired of one, I can put it aside and work on another. That way I’ve entered an entirely different world, with different characters and rules--one I haven’t seen for a while and have missed. It gives me a renewed excitement for the piece which drives me along.

I’ve often wondered how a novelist does his/her shuffling, which I feel is essential to keeping the writing fresh. Does s/he shuffle chapters? Whole novels? That’s like shuffling whole packs of cards instead of individual ones. Do novelists start from the beginning and just write all the way to the end? The trouble I have with writing novels is that I get bored with what’s going on with my characters (the kiss of death). Then there’s an agony in the realization that I’ve got to start from the beginning and add a brand new character or event—a revision which will change the placement of the hundreds of dominoes I’ve already set up. And, sigh, they look so pretty the way they are, do I dare knock them all down?

Cards and dominoes. I must be in the mood for a good game.

If I could speak to Mette, Shannon, or Stephenie, I think that’s what I’d want to know. I’d ask them how they keep their endurance up. I’d want to know how they keep their characters from getting dull, and how they weave a story together so brilliantly and keep the reader enchanted. Oh, to know, to know.

Last year, I met author Dean Hughes, and he congratulated me on my books. He told me that picture books were the one genre of writing he hadn’t been able to break into. “It’s too hard,” he said. And I thought, Hurray! A real expert acknowledgement that picture book writing is tough. Saying as much as possible with as few words as possible is no easy task.

I’ve also known other successful novelists who’ve tried picture book writing without luck. So I wonder—in the writing world, do marathon runners become so skilled at the long haul that a 50-yard-dash becomes awkward? And do the sprinters get conditioned to these shorter bursts and fizzle out in the lengthier races?

If I train for a marathon, then, will I lose my sprinting technique?

Thoughts for a Thursday night.

P.S. I'm still missing the "P" on my keyboard. It's there but dead. Blasted thing. I've found this nifty way to compensate...using control "c" and control "v." Utter pain in the rump.

4 comments:

Mette Ivie Harrison said...

As both a marathoner and a novelist, I think that the hardest part is that long section in the middle, after mile two (or chapter two), when you've set up everything, but you just don't know how it's going to turn out.

You keep going and you hope, but the truth is, after all the work, there's no guarantee that this one is going to be good. You might have to start all over at the beginning next month and try it again. And it will be really painful, so you really don't want that to happen. But the parts you like might turn out to be awful and the parts you hate might actually turn out good. You don't until you get to the end and look back. And sometimes not even then.

I agree with Dean, though. I don't think I can do picture books. And I was a lousy athlete in high school, mostly because I'm a distance girl and there's no distance there. I'm also bad at poetry.

Kristyn Crow said...

Mette! So cool you took the time to write.

I have to say, I admire you greatly on both counts--the marathon running and the marathon writing. Honestly, I'm in awe. And I totally agree with you that it's the middle part that is the worst. I'm able to set-up interesting characters and build unique environments for them to live in. But then it's like that SIMS game, with my SIM characters walking around aimlessly and going to the bathroom on the floor.

Heh heh. Not really, but close. And see, I'm talking about games again.

Today I was speaking to author Brandon Sanderson and I almost asked him about this, but we got carried away on another topic. (And Mette, I'm still not sure you answered it exactly--is there even a way to answer it?) But I'm wondering how you stay interested in your characters during a year or more of writing. I mean, the readers need to love your character for the duration of their read (and then forever after) but the author has to love the character during a year of grueling work, and stay in love. I fall out of love with my characters too easily, I think.

Kaylie said...

I haven't yet been published, and I'm currently writing YA novel #2. Your blog made me smile because I feel the same way when I write novels. You have great insight.
For me, it's terribly scary. For the first novel, I couldn't even think about it becoming a book. I just set out to write a chapter, then one more, then I thought maybe if I can get to page 100, then I could make it into a book. I just set small goals for myself, like two or three pages per day, and then see where it takes me. I don't dare do an outline because I know the book will turn out differently than I'd planned.

Some people love to write. They feel compelled to do it. I have to force myself to get my butt in the chair, and to get off the Internet. Once I'm there, I can get a rhythm going sometimes (sometimes not). And sometimes I hate what I've written. I hate the characters, the prose, the plot, and it's all so boring to me after living with it so long that I swear I'm an idiot for writing so long when it's so bad. But I just keep writing and I tell myself I can always go back and fix it later. I like what Nora Roberts said: "I can fix a bad page, but I can't fix a blank page."

Kristyn Crow said...

Kaylie,

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I find this topic so interesting...how different writers work, in the mechanical sense. I'm especially interested in what you said about not being compelled to write but instead disciplining yourself to do it. What is the purpose that drives you, then? The dream of publication? The need to be heard? Or are your characters crying out to you, begging to exist?

I like your method of goal-setting. I guess that goes along well with the endurance part I was talking about. If you are a marathon runner, like Mette, you must set goals as you train. I think Mette said that she used to start on her treadmill, building up her endurance in small increments. That self-mastery--that inner strength required to push yourself forward when you don't feel like it, is really impressive to me. Novelists have that. As a picture book writer, I still see myself as a short distance sprinter, who would burn out in a long race and needs to start each run in a new location in order to stay interested. I've got to create fun new worlds, and lots of them, even though ninety percent of them are thrown out.

The "fixing it later" part is what's daunting to me, on a novel-scale. How do you deal with the realization that you've made a major plot error, and have to start over?

Still, I long to write a novel and hope someday I will.