Earlier in the year I wrote about the Master of Arts in Creative Writing course I am undertaking this year. I am currently on a five week break between semesters, hardly enough time to catch my breath. My main interest in writing is books for children, in particular picture books. Over the duration of the course so far I have been regularly reading vast numbers of picture books, just to get a feel for what is being published these days.
There are other benefits too. Writers are readers, first and foremost. If you are not a reader you will struggle to be an effective writer. Period. The picture book genre is a particularly demanding one. A very restricted word count means that every word is important. There has to be balance between the text and the illustrations. Some publishers require a strictly limited vocabulary while others have restricted themes or topics. It is a very competitive field and one that is hard to break into.
Half way through the first semester I had to write and submit the text of a 700 word picture book to the lecturer. The title changed several times during the editing period but it eventually became “Brave Alice,” the story of a little lamb who pretended not to be afraid. The idea came from seeing a flock of lambs frolicking in a paddock in the mid-north of our state (South Australia) about four years ago. The concept simmered away happily until crunch time came; I had to submit a text as an assignment. Would it be good enough? The lecturer – and my fellow students – were a part of the development process, all giving valuable feedback as I developed the text.
The final day came and I submitted the manuscript to the lecturer. A few weeks later I received it back: Distinction. I should not have worried. While that result was very satisfying for all the work put into the text, it counts for very little. The big test is to submit it to a publisher. The frightening prospect of the manuscript being returned still awaits me.
Perhaps I should be like Alice in my story: Be Brave!
One of the units I am studying at present is called Writing for children. Our lecturer is award winning author Rosanne Hawke. In our early lectures and workshops we looked closely at how to write picture book texts. Writing this kind of book is a passion for me; I love reading them and sharing them with children – and adults.
One of the things that Rosanne impressed upon us from the very beginning was the importance of reading picture books – as many as we can get our hands on. I’ve always read plenty of picture books, first when I was a teacher librarian, and then as a classroom teacher.
When I retired from teaching four years ago I drifted away from reading picture books as regularly as I used to do. Rosanne has given me the impetus and reason for getting back into this exciting and enjoyable area of books. So once again I’ve reactivated the use of my library card and I am borrowing ten or fifteen a week to read. And I’m thoroughly enjoying the activity.
There is another incentive: we need to keep a reading log of what we are reading, as well as write some short reviews of the books we read. This is a required, assessable component of the course. It is a very enjoyable part of the course I might add.
Today is the last day of the first term of my time back at university. To refresh your memory, I’m doing my Master of Arts in Creative Writing. It has been 33 years since I’ve studied at this intensive level.
We have a two week mid-semester break from lectures. It might be just enough time to catch my breath – and to catch up on a little reading, not to mention starting on that essential planning for assignments due at the end of the semester. Whoever called it holiday has to be kidding.
Several weeks ago I presented my first tutorial paper. I was a little apprehensive about whether I had addressed the question adequately. I need not have worried. A Distinction was a little higher than I had expected. It is very encouraging and gives me the courage to keep on studying hard. This week I handed up two more major assignments.
The first was a major work in poetry. Normally I write little more than 15 to 30 lines for most of my poems; many are shorter than that. This poem had to be between 50 and 100 lines, the longest poem I had ever attempted. I even managed to write it in iambic pentameter. I also wrote it in blank verse; I didn’t have the mental capacity to make it all rhyme. I was very happy with the result.
The second assignment handed up this week was the text of a picture book for children. At about 700 words it may seem easy. Wrong. It went through six intensive drafts over quite a period of time. Every word has to count. It is a very delicate and demanding art. Again, I was quite pleased with the result.
“There is no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” Robert Graves.
I have heard that there are some countries where poets are highly regarded and appreciated, even revered and some even make a living from writing poetry. Australia is not one of those countries. Probably only two or three poets in Australia actually make any decent income from their works.
Publication of poetry is having something of a resurgence in recent years here. More magazines are publishing poetry and individual poets are getting their works into book form. Sadly, most of these books can only be published with government grants and most volumes are bought either by other poets or a few libraries.
I am generally an optimist. One thing I am hopeful about is that one day I will make some money from some of my poems. I have a number of poems written for children. I believe that they would make excellent picture books for young children. This is going to be tough. My lecturer at college advises not to write picture book texts in verse because very few ever get published.
That is just a challenge to me to prove everyone wrong.
“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Writing that is easy to read is certainly hard to write.
Many misinformed people think they will start their writing career by writing picture book texts for children “because they are so simple they must be easy.” This assumption is totally wrong.
Have you ever tried to write a very simple text for four and five year olds with the following criteria?
- Have a limited vocabulary
- Write within a strict word count
- Tell an interesting story
- Be relevant to the needs and interests of children
- Be age relevant
- Be sparkling text
- Be socially inclusive, non-sexist, non-racist and non-everything
- Be innovative.
If you have, and been successful, then you don’t need to be reading this post.
In the early 1990s I wrote a series of texts for a publisher. These were for three to five year olds, and I know how difficult, challenging, exhausting and demanding it can be. Throw a publisher’s deadline into the mix and you will appreciate how hard it really can be.
With much practice in the art of writing you can make your writing appear easy.
It may appear easy, but the process is very hard.