FROM PICTURE BOOKS TO MG NOVELS: Tips on Switching Gears
If you're a picture book writer, what do you do if one day you get a story idea and realize it's too "big" to fit into a picture book format? Well, that's what happened to me and I had to switch gears.
It was a process and it was scary at first. But don't panic if it happens to you, too. From my experience, I can tell you that if you follow certain steps and use a few of my tips, you might get more confident in the transition.
But first, let's backtrack a little. I'd been happily writing a variety of picture books when all of a sudden, a refrain popped into my head. It was something like that:
"If I need to be specific –
this is super funterrific!"
Or maybe something like that (it's been a while):
"But I'd say, to be specific,
this is super funterrific!"
I knew the story was about a girl who loved to pull pranks. And she wasn't trying to be mean or anything, she just didn't really understand why people weren't amused by her practical jokes. But there was something deeper behind her behavior. The more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed that her story would fit into 5oo-or-so words, plus a couple of subplots. That was not how picture books worked. No way! A complicated story and in rhyme?! Absolutely not.
So I started drafting . . . chapters! Oh, my! That was so different from writing a picture book: long paragraphs, different vocabulary, no pictures to consider, a BIG picture to consider for both the character arc and the story arc, and so much more. It made me dizzy just thinking about it. I was about 5,000 words in when I realized I had no idea what I'd gotten myself into and did not really know how to pull off a novel-length book. I had to pause and consider my options: shove the manuscript in the virtual drawer or learn how to write a novel. Option number one was not an option – I loved how the story was going and I was so curious to know what happened to my heroine. Plus, how can I ignore the challenge? Can I actually finish a novel? I had to try.
And so for the five months that followed, I read a few books on novel writing. All this new information was so intriguing and I tried to soak it all up, creating a mental map for my novel. Around the same time, I joined my very first critique group and got some plot points figured out. I remember how excited I was to be able to talk to someone about writing and get some help. I kept reading craft books and slowly became more confident in my ability to figure out how a novel worked. But I still had a looong way to go.
Next, I sought out writing workshops and attended Writer's Digest Chuck Sambuchino's seminar in Dallas, where I lived. I watched Martha Alderson's instructional videos on YouTube and learned a great deal from her. I joined the SCBWI and then another critique group. After my five-month long pause from writing while educating myself, I returned to my novel. I was lucky enough to have the support of my new critique group and the motivation to move forward, paired with accountability. I was committed to bringing a new chapter every time at our weekly meetings.
Inconveniently, my fulltime day job didn't leave much time for writing, but I needed to make the time. Even if it meant a 5 a.m. writing session while the house was quiet and no interruptions were expected. And that's what I did.
Including the five months of learning how to write a novel, it took me eighteen months to finish the book, but I did. I had a first draft and it felt amazing to write THE END of novel-length story! That was only the beginning, of course, for what would lead to a published book many years later. But that's another story.
So here are the things I've learned and the tips I wanted to share:
1. Read craft books on writing novels.
I've assembled a list on my website under Resources to get you started. While you read them, take notes, create a map for your story and start an outline. Even if you're a pantster, I highly recommend outlining your first novel. It was very helpful to me to know the starting point and inciting incident as well as the ending so I can figure out how my character would change and what would need to happen in order for that change to be possible.
2. Read recently published books in the same genre your novel is.
The craft books gave me the technical knowledge, but it wasn't enough. I still didn't completely get how to apply everything in the actual writing of the novel. That's where the fiction reading comes into place. But read those novels through the eyes of a writer – dissecting, analyzing, extracting the "juice" of good writing.
3. Join a second critique group with middle grade writers.
Your picture book buddies might not be able to help you with useful feedback on your novel – don't expect them to, either. Novel writing is different – not harder or easier – just different.
But join a group in which your critique partners will motivate you to keep going chapter after chapter until you finish your first draft, and not suffocate you with revision notes that will be so overwhelming, it gets you stuck. At the first draft stage, you'll need accountability in order to get to the end. At times, it will becomes very tempting to just back out. Don't struggle alone, but seek the support of your critique partners.
4. Remember that you tell the whole story.
There will be no pictures to complement your words and so your writing needs to evoke the images in the reader's mind. Every scene needs to ground the reader in place and time, make it clear who the characters in the scene are, and avoid info dump at the same time. Your dialogue should be mixed with action so you don't give the impression of "talking heads", your pace should be just right, and the tension should escalate. Oh, and don't forget the stakes!
*Sigh* That's a tall order. Take a deep breath. Take a short break. Then keep going.
5. Consider the big picture and keep track of things.
As mentioned above, there are no pictures, but there's a BIG picture. Are you clear on your character's arc? How about your plot – from beginning to middle to end? Can you keep your characters straight or do you forget important details mid-story? Create a journal and make a small portfolio for each character. Use character interviews to get to know these people as if they're real people (they should feel real to readers). Did you add subplots? Not enough or too many? Are they the right ones? The subplots should either support the main plot in some way or be in contrast with it. They can't be random lines of events with no other purpose but to populate your story world. Choose strategically. Don't forget to tie them all in at the end in a satisfying (maybe surprising) way.
I hope these tips are helpful and I wish you an enjoyable novel writing!
About the author:
Rosie J. Pova is a children's author, poet, wife and a mama bear of three. She's originally from Bulgaria, now living in Texas with her family. Ever since childhood, Rosie has been fascinated with the power of words. Her passion for writing took her on a long journey of discoveries, learning and growth through the ups and downs, but she is grateful for all experiences. With her books, Rosie dreams of inviting many readers into her make-believe worlds, hoping to touch them with her words. Visit her at www.rosiejpova.com.
Rosie's Books Include:
If I Weren't With You
Spork, Picture Book
Hailey Queen Pranking Makes Perfect: The Alien Encounter
2017 Spork, Middle Grade novel for ages 8-12 yrs
Fall 2017, Spork, Picture Book