breaking the moral away
Sometimes I’ll get an idea for a picture book, and that initial germ of an idea will be, on its face, a moralistic nightmare. As we know from the Picture Book Manifesto, “the line between moral and meaning is paramount,” and I’ll confess that in some of my early drafts, moral shows up with its heavy cudgel and starts whacking everything on the head.
I know why this happens. It’s because my final drafts do have that meaning (though not a moral), and I like the layers of meaning that end up in the finished book. I like how Rick the Rock of Room 214 is about friendship, but also about adventure and longing, and about comparing yourself to others who might be like you on one hand, but very different on the other. I like how Yours in Books is about finding your community slowly as you open up through the magic of the mail, and also about the power of an indie bookseller.
None of that was in the early drafts, though. In the beginning, it was a story about a rock, and a story about a grumpy owl.
But still I find myself starting with an idea and immediately thinking, “what’s this about?” in a way that is trying to race forward to the final book with layered meaning before working through the drafts to get me to that place. I’m like the main character in George Saunders’s great short story “The Mom of Bold Action,” who is trying to write about everything from dog treats to ice cream truck tires, and always leaping right to morals.
When I get stuck in this cycle, the best way I know to get out of it is to start breaking the story into tiny pieces. Because if it’s in fragments, I know it’s not ready for any kind of meaning. Then, when I find a piece that seems strong, I can start to build the story back up again.
Let’s say, for instance, that I see the word “unhinged” and that makes me think (somewhat, I’ll admit, like the mom in the Saunders story) “what if a door hinge was the main character?”
Immediately the “what’s this story about?” part of my brain rolls in with a wheelbarrow of meaning, and says, “Right, and this hinge is sick of always doing so much. The hinge has to hold it all together. Works so hard. Unappreciated. Is this about being a parent? Does the hinge go unhinged? Is this about mental illness? Is that too much? Do I have the right to tell a story about mental illness? Is this hinge ok?”
Whoa. Get a hold of yourself, lady.
Ok, let’s break it down. We only have the hinge. Hinges are kind of cute. They’ve got wings. And they do work hard. The door gets all the credit, but without the hinge, it’d be a slab of wood. Without the hinge and the doorknob. Hinge and doorknob go on strike? With strike plate? How many technical door terms are too many for a picture book?
Whoops. Went too far again.
A hinge is a bird. A doorknob is an orange. A door is a wall that’s wiggly.
What can we do with a wiggly wall? That door, it moves, but not much. If the door was unhinged it could go wherever it pleased. It could lie flat and float on the sea. It could stand on sawhorses and be a table. It could be a door, not only here, but also here, and here.
And I don’t know what that might become, but a door with wanderlust resonates more with me than a hinge who feels unappreciated. They might work together. But it’s more about the characters now, and less about any sort of lesson.
This doesn’t always work (I’ll admit, sometimes the idea that comes to me is just not workable), but it’s a way of figuring out a workaround from something pedantic. Break down a story about a dog with separation anxiety, and maybe he really wants to have his own cooking show, and is grateful for the time alone. Hack apart an idea about a little monster who is nervous on the first day of school, and maybe it’s about a bunch of creatures who all want to lose a dance contest. (I don’t know! I am making these up right now!)
The problem comes from trying to do everything at once with a story, and the solution is to slow way down. Rushing the story doesn’t do the story any good. But I get it, because I do it too. I write “octopus who plays saxophone???” in my idea notebook and before I even write the first sentence I’m imagining awards and royalty checks. So there’s a part of me that wants to rush ahead and get there quickly. But rushing is not the way to write a good book. The book only blooms into what it can and should be when I give it all the time it needs, and sometimes that’s a relatively short time (like three months) and sometimes it’s much, much longer. So this exercise of breaking the book down into its parts so I can figure out what elements are working is one that forces me to slow down, and forces me to investigate what makes a story good. I’m less likely to pick up this tiny shard of a story and say “this will be a best seller!” because even my delusional inner optimist knows better than to call one worried door hinge a best seller.
Break it down. Take the time. Let the story tell you what it’s supposed to be. Write one sentence a day if that stops you from getting ahead of it.
I’ll also say this: if you want to write a picture book that’s full of morals, go right ahead. Lots of people do. But if you think part of a picture book’s reason for existence is to teach children the wonders of story when told through the magical form that is text and illustrations working together, often read aloud, then slow down, and take the time to make it good.
Behind the Paywall
This marks just over a month since I moved my newsletter from Mailchimp to Substack, and so far it has been a great move. Part of the Substack experiment has been playing with the ability to include more kinds of posts, plus posts that only paid subscribers can access. This past month there were a bunch of posts that went up behind the paywall. I decided not to send everyone free previews to the paid posts so I wasn’t clogging your inboxes. That’s still my plan. I’m not going to send free previews (unless you all tell me you want them??), but will update you monthly in the newsletter on what the paid subscribers saw, so you can decide whether you want to change your subscription. I've enabled the free 7-day trial in the Substack settings, if you want to read some of the paid stuff before you decide.
I’ve had weekly Q&As, which you can view on the Q&A page on the Do the Work homepage. This month: How do I prepare for a book festival? How do I ask for a blurb? Do you get rejected still? Should I quit Twitter? And a very lengthy answer to How do I get from idea to published book?
There is also a form for asking questions if you have one (or you can reply to this email!). If you’re not a paying subscriber, let me know, and I’ll email you the answer to your question.
I have done weekly photo story prompts, which are all on the Story Prompts page. My goal with these is not necessarily to inspire a story (although that would be amazing!) but to remind us all that there are lots of weird story ideas floating around in the world, if we pay attention. Things like suburban yard ducks and auto daredevils. Decaying pumpkins and wandering candy bowls. The Dancemore Eatmore and the Donut Tree. And a grumpy bunny who must live under a box of his own hair.
Finally, there was an essay, about realizing I didn’t feel like an adult, and what I did to fix that. The answer involves posture, quiet, Anjelica Huston, and stoking my inner fire.
So I have completed my “launch month,” where I did a lot of posts, posting four times a week if you count the stuff behind the paywall. What happens now? Good question. My plan is to keep posting all of the ideas I have to write up, while ensuring I have time for my fiction projects too. My goal is one big free essay a month, and one paid essay a month, plus video pep talks, Q&A, and story prompts. Some months there may be more.
Thoughts and Links
Thank you to Mark Dykeman at How About This for recommending my newsletter. Go subscribe to his newsletter out if you’re interested in notebooks and how to use them, well-written essays, tidbits about Atlantic Canada, and profiles of cool people.
Thanks to The Book Mommy for including Rick the Rock of Room 214 in her annual year-end gift guide.
Thank you to KJ Dell’Antonia at Box of Chocolates for posting about Woobles, which are adorable crochet kits. My crafty 12-year-old, Ramona, has never crocheted before, but had no trouble making Pierre the Purple Penguin and his Pumpkin Costume, thanks to the easy directions and videos. There is also a tiny cup of coffee. That seems important.
Did I buy a can of cheese for my husband for Christmas? Yes, I did. This article convinced me.
We got my 14-year-old a Keurig for her room last year (it was an incentive, she likes to pretend she’s living in a hotel room, look, sometimes you do what you have to do as a parent) and the coolest coffee she’s gotten is from Bones Coffee. She puts the boxes on her wall when she’s done. Skeletons + coffee + cool design + The Godfather is an intersection of many of her interests.
Two weeks ago I talked about my new love of Notion, and how not since Scrivener have I tried software that seemed like it was designed for the way I think. I definitely needed help after I started using Scrivener all those years ago, and I took a class from Gwen Hernandez (who wrote the book on Scrivener), which was so good that I haven’t had to take any classes since. Right now, she is offering Scrivener webinars for Mac or Windows that are shorter than her full classes but just as helpful, I’m guessing.
I love the Noted newsletter by, all about note-taking and notebooks, and her recent post about Mark Twain’s notebooks is so cool. He invented self-adhesive scrapbooks! And designed his own notebooks!
- of Might Could wrote about how her art changed when she quit social media.
Books I read recently and loved
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