Write! (You Know You Wanna) by Dev Petty
It took quite a while for me to identify myself as a writer. Until only recently, and despite enough picture book manuscripts to wallpaper the moon, I would gloss over my writer-ness, opting instead for “former visual effects artist,” “mom,” or “sandwich maker” which I’d throw in just to see the reaction. I waited until my first book was published as if it was some sort of balloon drop complete with an official “I’m a Writer” hat.
So now, with one book out and a couple on the way, I do tell people I’m a writer and I get a rich variety of reactions. They usually go as follows:
Reaction #1: “I’m sorry.” Which is accompanied by the expression one gives to an orphaned kitten.
Reaction #2: To my husband “I’m sorry.”
Reaction #3: “I’m a writer, too! Let’s talk about how many projects we’ve left unfinished.”
Reaction #4: “I’ve thought about writing picture books, too. You know, I have this idea for a story…you should write it!”
As much fun as it would be to talk about numbers 1-3, this piece happens to be about #4.
Which brings me to this: YOU should write your picture book idea. In fact, composite-person-in-reaction-#4, you’re already ahead of the game…you have a story idea! Finding an idea worth honoring with words is the hardest part, so you’re halfway home.
What’s that you say, you’re not a writer? You actually probably know more about writing than you think. You probably have kids and have read a gazillion picture books. You probably have opinions about picture books; whether you like them long or short, dead pan, in dialect, with speech bubbles or wordless. You know things…admit it!
So you write your book. Does it mean you’ll get published? Probably not, but you never know. Publishing is a little like a slot machine where the tumblers have to line up just so (right story, right season, right editor), in a way, you have as decent a chance as anyone. But if you don’t get published or don’t even wish to get published, is there still a value in turning your idea into a picture book? Heck yes! Here’s why:
First, you owe it to your characters and your idea and yourself to give it a go and see what comes out. Even if no one ever reads it, you will enjoy finding out what happens to the little notions that got you thinking in the first place, sometimes they will do things you don’t expect.
You may end up discovering you enjoy writing. That the art of envisioning a story idea in characters, page turns, action, dialogue, jokes and twists has an intrinsic value. You may find it fun and satisfying or at least challenging. It may serve as a sort of therapy, of sorting out issues of childhood or friendship.
You may discover that the art of writing dovetails nicely with your professional life – you’ll tell fancy anecdotes at company parties or your long, verbose email memos will start to have the peppy energy you’ve been hoping for. In fact, you may get a giant promotion, just because you write with economy and shamelessly use puns! Everybody loves puns. Everybody.
You may be saying, “Well sure, Dev, you make a good case, and you sound loosely intelligent (at least more than I expected you would), but I don’t really know how to write picture books.” I knew you were going to say that, so I’m prepared. There is so much great information in books and blogs and conferences and critique groups about how to improve the craft of picture book writing, and writing in general, that a new writer stands a good chance of writing a good story. And writing a good story is about all any of us can hope for. The rest of it, in a way, is noise…writing a good story is wonderful goal in itself. And it’s not like you need a lot of equipment to write. You don’t need to go buy a kiln or anything.
This may seem like a silly move here, for me to encourage MORE picture book writers. I mean, what if you end up writing funny books about bears with existential crises and YOU actually get them published? Well, these are the perils of telling people you’re a writer and then giving them a long, unsolicited pep-talk as they back out of the dog park and drive off in their Smartcar. In all seriousness, the more the merrier, really. Good books inspire me to try to write better books. Good books make kids want to read more books. Good books make my kids smile. Good writing elevates us all.
And what if you write a terrible story? Well then…what a glorious thing you’ve failed at. It’s certainly a lovely thing to fail at writing instead of faux finishing or card counting. And the next time you write a story, as Samuel Beckett said in of my favorite quotes, you will “fail better.”
I’ll try not to get too mystical here, but life is short and weird and unpredictable. If there’s some little part of you that has thought about writing, give it a go. It may not lead to drinking out of solid gold stilettos on your yachts like it has for me, but it will still be worthwhile. Your kids will find it magical and if you’re brave enough to share it with family and friends, they will get a little insight into you. Remember Piet Hein said “Art is the solution of a problem which cannot be expressed explicitly until it is solved.” As such, we’re all artists and we are all, all the time, creating art. Go solve some problems and create some art, what a wonderful way to pass the time.
Great, you’re at the end of this post. Stop reading and go write. I can’t hang out anyway, I dropped one of my very, very tiny yachts under the couch and I’m trying to get it out with a piece of Play Doh stuck to a broom handle. And if that isn’t a story idea, I don’t know what is.
Dev Petty is the author of I Don’t Want to be a Frog (Doubleday ’15), I Don’t Want to be Big (DD ’16). She is former Visual Effects Artist, mom of two, and California native who writes picture books for kids and immature adults. Find more information at http://www.devpetty.com.