The Making of a Picture Book Part One: PLOT

This is part one of a series called ‘The Making of a Picture Book’. Over the course of one week (five posts) I will attempt to break the creative process down into its constituent parts – plot, characters, language, illustration, and a magic ingredient which I’m going to call synergy. Today we shall have a look at plot.

Manny, Fran and Bernard Black - the characters in the sitcom Black Books

Have you ever seen Black Books, the quirky British sitcom set in a bookshop? In my favourite episode, ELEPHANTS AND HENS, the foul-tempered bookshop owner Bernard Black and his assistant Manny set themselves to write a bestselling children’s book in a weekend. Their first draft is a weighty tome set in Stalinist Russia. Manny feels the manuscript is not quite right, and he offers a couple of suggestions:

MANNY: Instead of the, um, academic and the journalist’s daughter, um, perhaps it could be about an elephant.
BERNARD: An elephant?
MANNY: That’s right.
BERNARD: I see. What’s your other suggestion?
MANNY: Well, um, instead of the Stalinist purges and the divorce and the investigation, um, it could be about losing a balloon.
BERNARD: An elephant who loses his balloon?
MANNY: That’s it.
BERNARD: But, but it would still be my story in essence?
MANNY: Oh, yeah.
BERNARD: My vision?
MANNY: Completely.
BERNARD: Yes, all right! Let’s do that, then!

And they do. Several hours of hard work later, they have in their hands the following gem of a book:

There’s the elephant.
He’s happy with his balloon.
OH NO! It’s gone!
Where is it? It’s not behind the rhino.
Look in the alligator’s mouth.
It’s not there either!
OH! The monkey’s got in the tree!
He brings it back. They all drink lemonade.
THE END

The fantastic Youtube clip of Manny and Bernard proudly reading their finished oeuvre is followed by dozens of comments hailing THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON as the best picture book ever!

Classic.

Some children’s authors will tell you that writing a picture book is just as hard as writing a novel. I wonder to what extent this is a knee jerk response to people like Bernard and Manny who are convinced (until they try it) that writing a picture book is the easiest thing in the world.

In refuting Bernard and Manny, let’s not overstate our case. The truth, in my experience, is that writing a picture book is much easier than writing a novel. It’s true that finding a Good Idea for a PB can take time, and that you will need to do several drafts and that all the words need to be just right. But all those things are true of novel-writing as well, even if you’re not Flaubert. So let’s face it, the main difference between writing a novel and writing a picture book is that the picture book is a hundred times shorter, which in turn means that you can do your first draft in a day rather than in three months.

It’s easier to write a picture book than a novel. I’m sorry, but it just is. Okay, rant over.

My favourite picture book as a child was THE SLIMTAILS’ NEW HOUSE by Mary Chell. It was about a family of mice moving home. If I remember correctly, the mice had a pet weevil called Edwin who appeared on almost every page. There were great pictures, simple text and a dash of surrealist humour courtesy of Edwin. I loved it.

I remember liking THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle as well. My favourite bit was the surprise of Saturday’s menu after those five fruitarian weekdays.

On Saturday he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon. That night he had a stomach ache!

Josh Lacey, in his excellent article The Perfect Picture Book, selects THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA as his all-time favourite PB, and has this to say:

What makes a great picture book? It should have wonderful pictures, of course, and an immaculate fusion of images and text. A memorable narrative, an interesting theme and some good jokes all help too. But the real sign of a great picture book is that you can read it again and again (and again and again) without going nuts.

How do you come up with a memorable narrative? I know I have raved before about Christopher Booker’s masterpiece THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS. And since this post is supposed to be about plot, I think the time has come to rave again.

There are a limited number of plot ‘types’ in human storytelling, and this applies to picture books as much as any other genre. THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR is a classic ‘Rebirth’ story. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT are both ‘Voyage and Return’. WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT and THE GRUFFALO are ‘Quest’.

the Goggle-Eyed Goats by Stephen Davies and Chris Corr picture book PB
Click to enlarge

In Booker’s terms, my first picture book THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS would be classed as ‘Comedy’ because it is fundamentally about loss and reunion. This puts it in the same category as ARE YOU MY MUMMY? and a thousand books with titles like THE LOST TEDDY (And also, come to think of it, as THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON. In a sense, Bernard was absolutely right: insofar as THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON follows the same loss/reunion arc as his epic novel about the academic and the journalist’s daughter and the Stalinist purges, it can indeed be the same story, the same vision!)

In THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS, the bones of the story are as follows. The beloved (but chronically naughty) goats are taken to market to be sold (loss) and some children mount a rescue effort to get them back (reunion). If you are writing a picture book, make sure that you can sum up the plot in one sentence like that. If you understand the guts of your story, you are more likely to tell it well.

Christopher Booker demonstrates how each of the seven basic plots consists of a ‘Dream’ stage followed by a ‘Frustration’ stage, followed by a resolution. (Usually the resolution is good, but in the case of one of the basic plots – ‘Tragedy’ – the resolution is unpleasant. I have been racking my brains for an example of a tragic picture book, but with no success! I suppose HUMPTY-DUMPTY would count if it were a standalone picture book. Wait, here you go: ORANGE PEAR APPLE BEAR by Emily Gravett is a Tragedy. It follows an unswervingly tragic story arc, with three of the characters ending up being eaten by the fourth. Anyway, this is all tangential. My main point is that tragedy is an unpopular plot type for the under-fives!)

In THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR the ‘dream stage’ is a wonderful week of constant eating. The ‘frustration stage’ is stomach ache. The resolution is the caterpillar’s exquisite rebirth. In THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS, the dream stage is the pastoral idyll in the first spread, but the dream is short-lived. The Frustration stage encompasses the outrageous naughtiness of the goats, the fateful decision ‘The goats have got to go’, and the children’s epic journey to Mopti market to make their plea on behalf of the naughty goats. The resolution? Dad doesn’t sell the goats after all. (But that’s not all – there is a twist in the tale).

Once you have the germ of a picture book idea (Balloon lost, balloon found; or Goats lost, goats found), you need some good characters. And that means names, character tags and catchphrases. Good characters are the subject of Part Two.

Some questions for you to ponder and to comment on:

1. What are some of your favourite picture books, past and present?
2. Do you agree with the Black Books Youtube Crowd that THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON is the greatest children’s book of all time?
3. Can you think of any tragic picture books?

Continue to The Making of a Picture Book Part Two: Character

The Goggle-Eyed Goats

the Goggle-Eyed Goats by Stephen Davies and Chris Corr picture book PB

I thought it would be interesting to do a blog series entitled The Making of a Picture Book, detailing the process we went through to create The Goggle-Eyed Goats. Here are the links:

The Making of a Picture Book Part One: Plot
The Making of a Picture Book Part Two: Character
The Making of a Picture Book Part Three: Language
The Making of a Picture Book Part Four: Illustration
The Making of a Picture Book Part Five: Synergy

Top 5 writing books – one writer’s recommendations

Whether you are an aspiring writer or a serial Newbery medal winner, the chances are that you are no stranger to the ‘How to Write’ manuals at your local library. ‘How to Write Fantastic Fiction’, ‘The Writer’s Life’, ‘The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing’, ‘How to Write a Thriller’, ‘How to Write for Children’, ‘Writing the Breakout Novel’, ‘This is the Year you Write your Novel’, ‘A Dummies Guide to Writing Dialogue’, these and other titles whisper seductively at you from the Writing shelf. And when you pick them up, you find their back cover blurbs simply bursting with promises. Follow the advice within and you will be churning out bestsellers before you know it.

Hardly any of the ‘How to write’ books on the library shelves are downright bad, although they often give me the impression that I’ve read them before – that is to say, they are useful precisely because they are recycling or rephrasing age-old advice.

A few, however, are both original and brilliant, and when people ask me for writing advice, I always end up scribbling the same five recommendations on the back of an envelope. They are all excellent books on the subject of writing, they are all uniquely helpful in some way and they are all widely quoted by teachers of creative writing.

Don’t waste time borrowing these five books from the library. Take it from me, once you’ve read them you’re going to want to buy them, so why not save yourself the time and bother? Borrow other writing books by all means. Borrow ‘This is the Year You Write Your Novel’ if you feel in need of a pep talk. Borrow ‘The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing’ if you like IKEA assembly guides. Borrow ‘How to Write a Thriller’ if you must (although reading five good thrillers will be just as helpful). But the five recommendations below are books you’re going to want to own.

Here they are, in no particular order

1. BECOMING A WRITER by Dorothea Brande

This was written in 1934 and is as relevant now as it was then. It is about the psychology of writing and it has changed the way I write forever. When it came to writing, I used to be my own worst enemy. I would write a sentence and immediately narrow my eyes and analyse it for flaws. I would write a chapter and then obsess over making it perfect. I dithered and procrastinated and head-butted doors. Thanks to Dorothea Brande, I do things differently now. I give my blithe bouncing creative self free rein to gibber out a first draft at the speed of knots, then pull the paper from the typewriter and fling it high into the air in imitation of Stephen J Cannell’s famous vanity plate. Only then do I take the padlock off the iron cage and release my slavering, red-fanged, red-pen-wielding pernickety editorial self.

Best advice:

“Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer-the craftsman and the critic in him- are actually hostile to the good of the artist’s side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.”

2. HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL by James Frey

This is not the James Frey who got into trouble over his fake ‘misery memoir’ A MILLION LITTLE PIECES. This is a much nobler James Frey, and his book is exactly what it says in the subtitle: a step-by-step no-nonsense guide to dramatic storytelling. It has great tips on how to define the premise of your novel, how to create three-dimensional characters and how to write sparkling dialogue. I read it in one sitting (or in one bath, if I remember correctly) and have gone back to it many times since. Frey’s writing voice is bolshy and funny but also sage.

Best advice: (This phrase might not be original to Frey, but it’s a good’un)

Chase your main character up a tree and then throw stones at him

By the way, James Frey wrote a sequel to this book (same title, volume 2), but it’s not as good.

3. THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS: WHY WE TELL STORIES by Christopher Booker

This book has a permanent place on the bedside table and I love it. It took Christopher Booker 35 years to do the research, but in my opinion the result is a masterpiece. From Job to ET, from Romeo and Juliet to Neighbours, from Peter Rabbit to Peer Gynt, Booker makes the most unusual and delightful connections between seemingly disparate stories. Who would have thought that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is fundamentally the same story as Beowolf, or that Doctor No is basically a James Bond retelling of The Epic of Gilgamesh? What does the Rime of the Ancient Mariner have in common with the parable of the Prodigal Son? What does Pilgrim’s Progress have in common with Watership Down? Antony and Cleopatra with Star Wars?

This is an ambitious work, not just in its scope (essentially every story in the history of the world), but also in its depth. Booker gleefully pulls apart one story after another to reveal the nuts and bolts, and to trace the plot arcs through five well-defined stages. This book is for readers and movie-goers and anyone who likes a good yarn. It helps us understand what kinds of stories we tell ourselves and why. But its particular interest to writers is probably obvious by now. After all, the mechanics of good stories is what keeps writers awake at night.

Best bit: It seems unfair to pull one soundbite out of a work that was 35 years in the writing. So I’ll just say that the whole of part one (The Seven Gateways to the Underworld) is amazing.

4. ON WRITING by Stephen King

Half memoir, half how-to book, this is a great insight into a writer’s life. I admit I have never read a Stephen King novel – horror is not my thing – but I was deeply impressed by the clarity, cleverness and sheer good advice in this book. I’m not the only one, it seems. ON WRITING has for a long time been number one on Amazon in the ‘Authorship’ section.

Best bit: the muse in the basement – dispelling the romantic myth of the writer’s muse:

There is a muse but he is not going to come fluttering into writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He is a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretend to ignore you… He may not be much to look at that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he is on duty), but he’s got the inspiration.

5. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White

This book was given to me by some missionaries in Sebba in the north of Burkina Faso (Thanks, George and Kathy!) and is without doubt the best book on writing style I have ever met. Thirty-eight pages of terse, opinionated, brilliant advice – pure gold.

Best advice: EB White recounts in his introduction how Gordon Strunk used to pace up and down the classroom repeating the following timeless advice:

“Omit needless words!”

That mantra is the single best piece of writing advice I have ever heard or read, as well as the most concise.

So there you have them – the five best writing books of all time. Brackets in my opinion Close-brackets. And here’s a bonus, for when your manuscript is finished:

Bonus book: THE WRITERS AND ARTISTS YEARBOOK (A & C Black)

JK Rowling famously used the 1998 version of this book when she was trying to take Harry Potter to market. And authors great and small before and since have relied on it for the priceless insights it gives into the world of publishing, and for answers to questions like “Do I need a literary agent?” and “Should I approach publishers one at a time or all together?” Most importantly, this tome contains the addresses, telephone numbers and websites of every publisher, agent, book packager, magazine and newspaper you are ever likely to need.

Best bit: For me, the most wonderful entries turned out to be the ones for Klaus Flugge at Andersen Press and Julia Churchill at The Greenhouse Literary Agency.

You doubtless have your own list of recommended writing books. Why not take a moment to share your top 5 in the comments section below?