Over the weekend, I attended a webinar about writing humorous picture books by Frances Gilbert, author and editor at Penguin Randomhouse.
I had a great time, but I was sorry that I could not connect with other attendees and Frances in person. I praise the organizers for their conscientious decision to plan an event online and the effort it took to put it together.
The key message of Frances's webinar was to carefully hone and craft every word. This is perhaps the best advice for writing any picture book, as they are short and receive careful scrutiny. Every word counts, which means every word must help you land the punchline. Frances spoke briefly about a few common missteps, such as failure to grab the reader at the opening sentence and wordiness. She guided attendees through a few picture books and pointed out formulaic devices , such as:
Despite the list, Frances quickly disillusioned anyone who might think there was a formula for “funny.” Such formulas are often searched for, but never truly found.
"If the writing is not funny, no formula will help." -Frances Gilbert
As a student, I recall hearing something along the lines of, "Faulkner breaks all the rules." And the usual response is something like, "He can break the rules because he mastered them." I don't know if Faulkner mastered them or not, but one thing is clear: People love his work to this day, with or without punctuation. The best writers and illustrators have a good ear or eye for their work. No one can explain exactly what makes a humorous picture book funny. No one knows why an educated person can read “Sound and Fury” with no problem, but when a tweeter forgets the apostrophe in “you’re” everybody freaks out. No one can explain the success of a writer or illustrator with a formula.
I love that Frances touched on that, but I am also not surprised she felt she had to because everyone is looking for “10 Ways to Become The Best Writer.” And I have read thousands of them to no avail.
I could not stop thinking about something Frances said. It was very simple and she probably did not think much of it. It was so simple that I almost feel bad bringing it up, but it made me think for a long time afterward which is the point of this blog. Specifically, she gave a client a pass on one of her suggestions because of “genius.”
In grade school, an English teacher told us not to rhyme in poetry because we couldn't possibly do it right and rhyming could only make a poem worse. When we pointed out famous poets and poems that rhymed, the answer was, "Well, they were geniuses." The root of this statement is related to Frances’s previous point, that success really can't be explained formulaically, which suggests a general problem for people trying to teach others to write successfully. Can you teach genius? Or can you only teach those who are not geniuses to avoid the difficult skills? Which one should you teach, especially if there is no formula?
One more story. I think this is folklore, but it is interesting anyway. A student asked Beethoven to teach him to compose music as beautiful as “Moonlight Sonata.” So Beethoven said, "Let's start with the scales." When the student remarked, "Did you learn to compose from scales?" Beethoven replied, "No, but I also didn't ask anyone for help."
Perhaps for those of us who are not geniuses, there is a much longer road to success. Personally, I think we can focus on developing an ear and eye for good writing and illustrations by studying picture books as Frances showed by example in her webinar.