Jenny, why do you write picture books?
I truly believe that anyone passionate about this field is not writing solely “to get published" but has a genuine love of the process. I enjoy the challenge of getting every word right in a story or poem because we have a tough audience to please---not the editor or agent but the child reading the book. I try to never underestimate this sophisticated reader! They can sense when a story is confusing or dull, an ending is flat or a rhyme seems “off.” If they lose interest, they’ll simply close the book and find another one. It’s our job as writers to create stories that draw a reader in and stay. To write something that even my toughest critic will love, remember, memorize and pass on motivates me more than anything.
On a side note---for me, the love of writing doesn’t come from wrestling words on a computer or a pad of paper for several hours. It’s the collection of story parts and characters and dialogue I pick up from everyday life. I’ll jot down unusual names I hear at the doctor’s office or notice fun-to-say words on a menu. I look for story characters passing by me on the street. It’s a great way to keep the writing fresh and colorful and the writer’s-life only a scrap of scratch paper away.
What keeps you writing through it all?
I just can’t let it go! I often think to myself how much easier it would be to focus only on my part-time preschool job, free-lance illustration and family…maybe have a little extra time to read books for people older than five. But I can’t give up the feeling I get when I settle into my spot on the couch with my laptop and story notes or the poem I struggled to resolve the night before. I know I’m in my element and for the next three to four hours I will get lost in the words.
It’s taken me twenty years to get four books published with Christy Ottaviano at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers (she is the most patient and talented editor ever!) and selling at book stores. Fortunately, my entire body of work incorporates much more than those four books. First, there are the 35 poems I wrote twenty years ago “to learn my craft” as my brother advised me to do before sending anything out. I have written 140 poems for both Lunch Box Mail and Holiday Stew in addition to dozens more in my file just for fun or self-expression or experimentation. I have one picture book story published and 8 more manuscripts in the files, as well as a half-written chapter book and a close-to-completed middle grade novel.
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And then there are the 1000 ideas and story concepts jotted down in my journals and notebooks and Word Documents. Do I only feel successful because I’ve published four books? No. I feel successful because I kept writing regardless of whether something was bought or turned down. I kept going to SCBWI conferences and workshops. I kept doing school talks, hopefully inspiring kids to love writing. But this very uneven success rate can be frustrating at times without a doubt. But true writers keep writing because they are called to do it. Amateurs go to a critique group, get defensive about their work instead of motivated to fix it, mail it into a publisher and give up after the first rejection. I’ve seen it over and over again.
What keeps me going is learning more and more about my craft. It’s seeking out the counsel of those who know more than I do. It’s being open to critiques that are honest and constructive. It’s considering all feedback with the confidence that ultimately it is my work and I can make the final call about its content and structure. It’s writing smart. It’s writing creative. It’s writing that surprises and delights even myself sometimes.
What is your revision process?
When writing a rhyming poem, I add the rhyme words LAST and not as I go. Otherwise, it dictates the way a poem unfolds.
If you iron out the poem’s content and story arc first, then rhyme and meter bring the poem to a whole new level by enhancing the language and flow. Adding rhyme too early only flowers-up a flat and/or predictable poem.
If you can predict what rhyme word comes next in most of your text, it’s time to get the Rhyming Dictionary out and come up with some unexpected solutions:
- i.e. mix up syllables---lean, mean, gasoline, big green bean
- throw in a name---instead, Fred, gingerbread, big bunk bed (alliteration)
My friend, Laurie Keller (author of Scrambled States of America and Arnie the Donut will often ask me (and vice versa) during a writing session “are you having fun?”. It’s a great way to remind me that if it feels like a chore, than the writing is going to feel labored, too. Switching that small gear to “having fun” lightens the mood and helps me address plot problems or poetry structure in a new and clever way…worth trying!
I prefer to figure out a middle grade book or chapter book story structure before I begin (others figure it out as they go). If I know where I’m heading with the story and feel reasonably secure that a solid plot solution exists, I can jump around and write the chapters I’m most in the mood to write. (It’s sort of like filming a movie out of sequence but still following a storyboard.) Working out the sub plots, the character development changes, the foreshadowing elements in advance chapter by chapter (with notes and diagrams on a large board in my studio), I can then let my left brain rest while my right brain has fun with the material.
Reading your work out loud to someone else will instantly show you what is awkward or redundant or needs reworking. If you have to explain your work in any way while you read it….it ain’t done!
What is your favorite revision tip?
Think of a poem like a math problem---shift words and phrases around or substitute better words until the meter flows flawlessly. There is always another way to say the same thing.
Any other thoughts for fellow writers?
There is a whole range of solutions when crafting a story so developing something really original doesn't happen until you are "half-way up the pencil". Most people go with the first thing that pops in their head. It’s usually something that’s been done before. I like to go with the stand-out idea…something different and unexpected. It takes more work to think harder and longer but it gives your story a stronger foundation on which to build.
Thank you Jenny!
Jenny Whitehead is an author/illustrator who is published with Christy Ottaviano at Henry Holt Inc. (a subsidiary of MacMillan). Her newest book, You're A Crab, is on sale now! She majored in art at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She has a husband who is an illustrator and two daughters, Bailey and Chelsea. Besides making books, Jenny also freelances artwork for cards and magazines and designs jewelry. She especially enjoys visiting schools to talk about creative thinking, writing poetry and stories, and illustrating. She uses a unique approach to her illustration style by combining tissue paper, paint and Photoshop. jennywhitehead.com www.facebook.com/youreacrab