Picture books and pop songs are pretty similar things.
Sure, the format is different. You process one through your eyes and the other through your ears.
But, they both have the same goal.
To convey a story or emotion using a very limited number of words in a very specific format in a way that is catchy enough that people will want to read or listen to it again and again and again.
They both also suffer from the same misconception.
That good ones are easy to write.
Anyone can scan the shelves of a bookstore or surf their car’s radio settings and then declare, “There’s nothing good out there. I could write something better than this drivel.”
But anyone who’s ever tried putting pen to paper or fingers to guitar strings to actually come up with something that works knows writing something as memorable as Hanson’s “MMMBop” or Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is way harder than it seems. So is coming up with picture book classics like Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day or Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny. It’s easy, as Joshua McCune pointed out in his last blog post, to get lost in the weeds.
How do you get unstuck?
You have to ask yourself …
What’s going to get into someone’s head and stay there, so that years later, some words or notes will flip a switch and make the whole thing comes flooding back?
I recently saw some comments from the the band Hot Chelle Rae about songwriting that I think really apply to picture book writing too. Hot Chelle Rae is a newer band — and, yes, I do have three of its songs on my iPod — but I admired one of its singles from the first time I heard it.
“Tonight, Tonight” has well-written lyrics (which include a rhyming reference to actor Zach Galifianakis) and a very catchy hook of a refrain. (“La, la, la. Whatever. La, la, la. It doesn’t matter. La, la, la. Oh well …”) Check it out here. You know you want to.
Here’s what lead singer Ryan “RK” Follese, who’s the son of Nashville songwriters Keith and Adrienne Follese, says.
“My dad told me early on that writing hit songs is just like your batting average,” Follese says. “He reminded me that Barry Bonds hits 70 homeruns a year, but he doesn’t hit a homerun every time — it’s maybe one out of ten. So if you want to write hit songs, you’re going to have to write 50 songs for your first record, which is what we did. We threw out loads of songs.”
Every picture book writer I know has the same story. Lots of attempts. Lots of times they thought they might have gotten it right only to find out it still wasn’t there. Lots of setting manuscripts aside or abandoning them altogether as they learned more, got better and became better judges of their own work.
The hard part can be knowing when to throw something away.
But Follese says it’s easy.
All the members of Hot Chelle Rae write, and the band also works with other non-band-member songwriters. As Follese notes, “We have a rule: The best song wins.”
That’s a good rule for picture book writers to follow as well. It’s easy to get caught up in something you have an emotional attachment to, when what you really should be asking yourself is, “Of all my works in progress, which is really the strongest?” And, “What can I write next that will be even better?”
I find that I sometimes listen to pop songs for picture book writing inspiration. Not in subject matter, but in structure. How did they handle that rhyme scheme? What makes that refrain so memorable? And I know some authors come up with playlists for the book they’re currently writing featuring music that supports their characters, mood or theme.
As I said, the link between pop songs and picture books is a pet theory of mine.
But, I did think there was one glaring exception.
Despite these similarities, I thought you’d never see a picture book where the author inserted him or herself blatantly into the book.
It happens all the time in pop songs whether it’s Usher chanting his name rhythmically in the background of “Scream,” Nicki Minaj telling everyone exactly who she is in “Super Bass” or all the references to Chaka Khan in “I Feel for You.”
“Ha,” I used to laugh. “It’s not like you’d ever see me insert a paragraph of text in my next manuscript that simply says ‘Pat Miller. Pat Miller. Pat Miller.’ It just wouldn’t work. Besides, I’m not famous like Usher, Nicki and Chaka. Who would even care?”
But then I saw Chloe and the Lion (Hyperion Books, 2012) by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex, and my theory was shot to smithereens. (If you don’t have the book handy, this video gives you an idea of what’s going on.)
So, I was wrong.
But, that’s OK. I guess I can just quote Taylor Swift’s recent Top 40 hit and say, “Never say never …”