It has been a while since I have written actual poetry, but not long ago I fell into an emotional mess and poetry found its way back into my life. It is not because sadness or depression is becoming of poetry, but because I found myself in a position that I haven’t been in for a long time: absolutely alone with only my thoughts and feelings. I stopped working for a few days, I put my phone away, there was no tv or music, I didn't read, I found space away from everything but my emotions. I spent so much time with them that they found a voice of their own.
“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” -Robert Frost
Learn to Find Ideas in Many Different Ways
As an illustrator, you are comfortable finding ideas through art. This is a skill that may benefit you. However, to write a winning picture book you must pull from many different sources of inspiration.
Become a Student of Writing
Once upon a time, I was a martial arts instructor. It was common to receive students from other schools or styles, some of which had completed high ranks.
Teaching these students presented a unique challenge because they were comfortable with their old ways and found the greatest success using tried and true techniques.
It is extremely difficult to teach a student new things in this position. That is why Bruce Lee said, “In order to taste my cup of water you must first empty your cup."
“In order to taste my cup of water you must first empty your cup.”
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Write In Scenes
To eat an elephant, they say, you must take one bite at a time. Similarly, to write a picture book, a chapter book, or a novel, you must take one step after the other.
Chapters are an arbitrary demarcation of pauses in a story. Scenes, on the other hand, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They are complete stories. Mini stories.
It is much simpler to draft, review, and revise manuscripts that have clear scene breaks. They are less overwhelming, particularly if you are writing something long.
Writers Write a Lot: Rewrite and Revise
Don’t be satisfied with your first idea, your first draft, or your first completed manuscript.
Come up with 50 ideas, write from 3 different points of view, review with a critique group 5 times or more depending on length, revise 10 times. Or don’t. What I am trying to say is, become a writer.
Keep it Simple and Brief
Everyone, especially writers, can benefit from this advice. Use short sentences. Use short paragraphs. Use concise language. Cut out the garbage.
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
Write Non-Fiction, like this:
Forgo Text Altogether, like this:
Writers can't write wordless picture books. So you are in a unique position to flex your storytelling ability through pictures. Some of my favorite picture books are wordless!
Find a Critique Group for your Manuscript
One of the steps of Deliberate Practice is input from outside sources. You need other people to help you improve.
I wish you the best on your writing journey, and I sincerely hope you succeed in finding your place as a writer and illustrator!
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Shawna J. C. Tenney is an author and illustrator with a passion for picture books. Shawna graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Illustration from Brigham Young University and loves telling stories through color, composition, and whimsical characters. She is the author and illustrator of Brunhilda's Backwards Day.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
“We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time…” -Neil Gaiman
One of the best ways to teach a child to read well is to teach them to read expressively. And the best way to teach them is to read expressively is to lead by example.
And it does not stop there.
Tips For Reading Out Loud
- Look at the book flaps or read about the author. Ask Predictive Questions such as: What do you think the story will be? What other books have you read by the same author?
- Take moments during the story to ask Attention Questions. These are usually specific to the book but could include counting objects, clarifying pictures, asking your child what might happen, or what has happened.
- Answer questions. Undoubtedly your child will have questions throughout the story too. Pause and answer. Questions should be encouraged!
- Enunciate each word and speak clearly.
- Don't read too quickly. Pause slightly for commas, periods and to add emphasis.
- Read expressively. You can find an outstanding, detailed article on expressive reading and the importance of prosody here.
- Show enthusiasm and exaggerate emotions. People, especially children, respond best to exaggeration.
- Display emotions through facial expressions, actions, and tone; be a good actor/actress.
- Read together. Even if your child can't read, they can usually pick up on patterns and remember parts of stories that you read frequently. They can contribute as little as one word, supplying animal noises or names.
- Follow up with discussion. Talk about what happened, what might happen next, and what stories are similar that you've read together.
- Ask Predictive Questions.
- Ask Attention Questions.
- Answer Questions.
- Don't Read too Quickly.
- Read Expressively.
- Show Enthusiasm and Exaggerate.
- Display Emotion.
- Read Together.
- Follow Up With Discussion.
This is also one of my steps in How To Be Original.
My mother introduced me to poetry in middle school when she gave me access to her library. There I discovered a book called An Introduction to Poetry by X.J. Kennedy. It is a much friendlier introduction than Sound and Sense by Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson, which was the standard textbook at my High School.
“A frequent objection to a book such as is this is that poetry ought not to be studied at all. In this view, a poem is either a series of gorgeous noises to be funneled through one ear and out the other without being allowed to trouble the mind or an experience so holy that to analyze it in a classroom is as cruel and mechanical as dissecting a hummingbird.”
At first, it is enough to learn about the devices, such as figurative speech, imagery, allusion, sound, and pattern. To learn to spot them is next. Then “We have to be willing to offer it responses besides logical understanding.” Or learn to experience poetry logically and emotionally. Only then can it be truly evaluated for its purpose.
When you learn to study poetry this way you are also learning to study all sorts of texts, picture books, novels, songs, the strategies are all similar. And when you understand why, your creation process will be richer for it.
“Writers are often the worst judges of what they have written.” -Stephen King
One of the simplest ways to discover originality is through collaboration. A good critique group can help weed out cliches, spot similarities, and help develop a story outside of your sources.
Lastly, critique groups can help you grow. Face the criticism before publication and avoid pain later.
Not all critique groups are created equally.
Here is how to spot a good critique group:
- They are diverse. If you find yourself in a group where everyone has the same taste you will get one-sided critiques. Imagine being the odd one in a group of similar tastes! You will be picked apart for no good reason. Diversity can help create balance.
They are your friends. This does not happen at first, it takes time, but it does mean you need to stick with a group for the long run. This could be a blog topic by itself.
- Friends understand you, love you, and they want you to succeed. There is no place for competition in a critique group.
- Honest friends are better judges of your work than strangers because strangers are often too focused on formulas, styles, and can get caught up in their agendas. This is my biggest pet peeve with online critique groups. Avoid online critique groups at all costs.
- Fresh eyes are not always best. You need people familiar with past chapters, characters, etc.
- They need to spend time reading longer works outside of group time. Critique groups won’t catch bigger picture problems like pacing and plot, you need dedicated readers for that.
- They read out loud. Reading out loud will help you “hear” the language, tone, and problems that you miss reading silently.
- They are disciplined. They stay on task, bring work in regularly, and attend even when they have nothing to share but their critiques.
- Individuals that like to dominate the conversation should be at a ratio of 1 to 5. That sounds oddly specific, but it seems to take four people to keep one person from “over-critiquing.”
- They are open to disagreements.
- They offer emotional support. Some people attend critiques for validation. It is important to know before a critique if your peer is looking for validation so you can respond appropriately.
- They limit the time for each critique. This is important because some critiques or individuals can monopolize the time making an unsatisfying experience for everyone.
- They encourage several positive messages for every negative one. I think it is best if people are encouraged to regularly give two positives before every negative. I understand this is hard because you are looking for ways to help them improve, not stroke their ego. Positive comments are not helpful, right? However, some people just want validation (point 7) and everyone needs to leave feeling motivated, not discouraged.
- Despite point 9, your critique group should challenge you. If you are getting nothing but praise, then you may need to find a new group.
- They have thick skins. The most useful critiques I have ever received were also the hardest to hear. In high school, I was an active poet and I regularly received praise from my peers and teachers. Until an AP English teacher called me over to her desk to say, “Your poems are very pretty, but they mean absolutely nothing. Why are you even breaking lines? There is no purpose.” She was criticizing free verse, really, but from then on I added meaning, function, intent, and structure to my mental checklist when I wrote a poem. Over time it made me better.
- They share industry knowledge, relate events or opportunities around town, and celebrate victories.
You are just as important to your critique group as everyone else.
- When you are receiving a critique, treat your peers like they are better than you. Their feelings are valid. You will never find a critique group that you have nothing to learn from. No kidding, it won’t happen.
- When you are giving a critique, treat your peers like you want them to improve and succeed. The stronger your critique group is, the better you will become. No revenge, no competition, no discouragement.
“No man was ever great by imitation.”- Samuel Johnson
How To Be Original
- Keep notes on reference material in your sketchbook or notepad. Use One Note or similar software if it helps to save links to the original material. If you do not, you will forget the source or that you used a reference. If you don’t know whether or not the material is original don’t use it. After so many times of abandoning material because you don’t remember where it came from, you will start to keep better notes.
- Do not import reference material into new material. It can become confused with the original or result in a 1 to 1 copy.
- Collect your references, review them and then put them away.
- Do not use art as source material for art. This is a tricky one, but it is so hard to develop your style when you are constantly trying to mimic someone else’s, or you are regularly concerned about a billion other styles online.
- Sketch your references twice, once going off the source material and once again going off your sketch.
- Use your work as a style reference. Pick something from your work that you can use as a reminder of what you want to be.
Ask yourself, why me? Am I the right person to present this material? Is it a part of me? Of my experience, my expertise, or my character? If not, don’t do it.
- If it is not part of you where did it come from?
- If it is not part of you, then you probably don’t understand the material well enough to present it properly.
- If it is not part of you, then you likely cannot offer unique material or perspective.
- If you cannot offer anything unique, then you need to stop and think about whether or not it is necessary to reiterate it.
- Leave room for voices who have a relationship with the material.
- Draft a lot and draft quick.
- Get feedback on all your work from many different people.
- Don’t put all your faith in one piece. Writers write many books and artists paint many paintings.
Investing In Your Style
We can talk all day about originality, but in the end ,"If you try to be original you are probably going to plagiarize the heck out of somebody." The window for what is original is teeny tiny, so small we can even debate its existence. Is it there, is it not there? My guess is as good as yours.
“Originality is the art of concealing your source.” -Franklin P. Jones
All genuine creativity is the development of ideas that already exist.
This isn't just a concept in art. The smart phone was not an original idea, there were cell phones before that, and bean cans before that, and face to face conversations before that.
"What a good artist understands it that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original." -Austin Kleon
"The Reason that most people don't possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn't because they don't have the capacity for them, but rather because they are satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of "good enough." The same thing is true for all mental activities we engage in."
I often find myself drawing similar things over and over again because I am comfortable with them and I know they get likes on social media. However, my goal is to improve, particularly to grow into stories that I want to illustrate.
Those that stand by Deliberate Practice define it as a practice with purpose and intent to improve. Here are some ways you can make it apart of your learning and take your skill to the next level:
Make clear goals
Improve specific areas
“Don’t try to reinvent the wheel”
Always be working just beyond your ability
Traveling the same route does not contribute to growth
A teacher or mentor can help you get incrementally better
"It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations."
-Winston S. Churchill
I am also reminded of the wise Zen saying that one cannot fill a full cup. You must first "empty your cup." So, a creative person is someone who regularly fills and empties their cup.
Quotes are succinct and powerful, so reading them can sometimes feel like reading an entire novel. They are very filling. The inspiration that some quotes bring can last a lifetime and inspire many different creative projects along the way.
I am still very fond of my collection of quotes, and I return to it often. Here is one:
"A fine quotation is a diamond in the hand of a man of wit and a pebble in the hand of a fool."
“If the animal is small, they can easily tag along and participate in fights without solving the hero’s problems for them. As long as they help out, it’s okay if they cause trouble or need rescuing occasionally. A good animal companion has a distinctive personality that plays well with the hero and creates fun or touching scenes for the audience to enjoy.”
Small companions are also "underpowered." There is room for small things to grow, to succeed despite terrible odds, and also to fail.
"Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of."
Hi, my name is Cory Shaw. I am an author and illustrator of books and book covers for children.
Picture Book Creation