I have a pile of brand new picture books on my coffee table waiting to be reviewed for mybookcorner.com. My YA thriller The Truth About Lies has just been published by Stripes and I’m cracking on with the next one. It may seem a big leap from a 350 word picture book to a 65,000 word Young Adult novel but there are many lessons in picture books for writing a novel:
Characters to care about
We have to care whether the mouse gets eaten by the Gruffalo, don’t we? Caring about the characters in YA doesn’t mean they have to be likeable. Jess in The Truth About Lies is difficult and mean at times but shows vulnerability too. I enjoy writing characters where you have to read between the lines to see what they’re really like.
Keeping it tight
Hone the text until every single word has earned its place. Cut, cut and cut again. So much more obvious in a picture book, but don’t think you can pad the text or waffle on in a YA to get the word count. Is there a better, shorter way for what you’re trying to say? Do you need to cut some adverbs? What can be left unsaid for the reader to infer?
I like a novel which allows me to fill in the gaps. National treasure Allan Ahlberg said in an interview that “it’s a mistake to think that a book for little children has to be like a glass of water so that every single element in it is accessible and clear and understood by a three-year-old”. So too for very big kids and adults. Let the reader ‘join the dots’.
A picture book definitely has to work read aloud as a bedtime story. YA novels not usually BUT I always read aloud my writing when I’m editing it. This picks up any clunky dialogue or words that the tongue will trip over. And it helps to develop the ‘voice’ of a piece.
We’re story-telling animals from a young age, understanding quickly the form of a story. A three-year-old may not be able to articulate the five-act structure, the hero’s journey or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet but they certainly can tell when a story disappoints them. Picture book or YA, both have to work. They need an arc or shape to the story, a character to change from the beginning to the end and a problem to be resolved with complications along the way. They don’t work just as a series of incidents. And they both need a satisfying resolution.
The blasted hook
If you ever have a book on submission, at some point you will hear that the hook isn’t strong enough (unless of course you are extremely talented and lucky). You will come to hate the blasted hook which stands between you and an acquisitions meeting. If it takes you five minutes to ramble through an explanation of your work-in-progress, immediately check out some picture books. Think about what their hook is? How would a child describe that book? What would be on the press release about it? What makes this picture book stand out from other ones? What makes you read beyond the first page? Then try to apply to your own WIP.
Tom Fletcher’s There’s A Dragon In Your Book may seem a strange parallel for YA fiction but it’s an ordinary picture book – by which I mean no lift-the-flaps or gizmos – but has interactivity with words to pull in the reader. From a direct “Why don’t you tickle her little nose…” to an indirect “If only we could think of a way to put out this fire…”, the reader engages with problem-solving in the same way that I hope to do on a bigger scale. I raise questions about the nature of memory; “What would it be like to remember everything like Jess?” “How can Jess get herself out of this?” I have some memory games as chapter headings too. I don’t want the reader to feel a passive detachment from what’s going on in the book.
The Truth About Lies is a thriller. I’d love readers to keep on to the next chapter and the next. Classic tricks in picture books to get the page turned are “whatever you do don’t turn the page…” or an unfinished sentence. And they’re full of ellipses … in a way that I would never get past my editor, Rachel Boden. But similar techniques are used in a thriller. I need to add complications, pile on the challenges for the characters and make the reader fear for a character so that they must find out what happens next. Why shouldn’t we let the pigeon drive the bus in a picture book comes from the same place as who’s trying to spook my character Jess with secret messages. Suspense and tension keep those pages turning – and the occasional surprise!
So I hope I’ve convinced you to read a few picture books. You really will pick up some skills to apply to your novel writing.