Give me a blank piece of paper, say “Write a Story,” and I will sigh and make a grocery list. A blank page is too much wiggle room for me. I get lost in a forest of words, and neither I, nor my characters, can find a way out.
If, on the other hand, you were to say “Write a story in fewer than three hundred words, and the words need to be mostly one syllable, and the sentences can’t be more than six words long—and you can have illustrations,” I’d perk up. My brain seems wired for this particular challenge.
I might start sketching animals. I’m partial to mice.
What if this little mouse I’m sketching, a wisp of a girl, has on a sheath, kind of a mini dress, with vertical stripes. She needs go-go boots to go with that.
There! She reminds of someone. Who? Twiggy. If you are less than fifty years old, you may not remember Twiggy, an English model whose signature look was mini dresses and boots. I need a one syllable name. Let’s try Twig.
Twig needs a friend. Another mouse? There might be more comic and dramatic possibilities if the friend is drastically different in appearance and temperament. Twig. Fig. Sprig. Big. Pig. I can draw pigs! Let’s try a pig friend named….Pig. (Rhyme is helpful to beginning readers.)
Now I need a title. I often start with titles. They can capture the essence of the plot, and if they do, they stand a better chance of piqueing the interest of potential readers. Cat Traps. Hot Dog. Big Egg. Rat Attack. Wet Hen.
Twig and Pig. That’d be an okay title, but it doesn’t tell you enough to draw you in. What is the dilemna facing Pig and Twig? Pig is big, yes, but that’s not a problem—unless it implies a larger than life personality. Maybe Pig is bossy. Bossy Pig. That’s not endearing. I want my characters to be likable, even the villains. I sketch Pig next to Twig. What are they doing? Twig likes to dress up; maybe Pig does too. They are both four-year old girls, after all. What is Pig putting on? Poofy skirt. Pointy hat with dangling scarf. She is a princess. Princess Pig.
I reach for a large sketchpad and draw a grid with twenty rectangles. Each rectangle corresponds to one spread of a forty-page book. (Thirty-two pages are standard for an Early Reader. I like forty pages because it allows a bit more room for the story to develop.) I start the story on page five. (Before that comes the front matter—title pages, dedication, copyright.) I jot a few words on each page. Most likely they are not the words that will appear in the final text. They’re shorthand. This is a storyboarding exercise. It will show me if I can develop a dilemna for Princess Pig and Twig, one with a fresh and surprising solution, in forty pages.
Pig and Twig are playing Princess.
I sketch a Pig with an oversized gown. What is Twig putting on over her sheath? She might be a little sister princess, a dragon, a prince, a fairy godmother? I love the idea of little wings and a wand on my tiny Twig. I sketch them in.
“Make three wishes,” says Twig.
I’m off and running. There will be three wishes. Then something will happen that builds tension, turns the narrative in an unexpected direction. I already know Princess Pig is bossy, self-centered. Would she be satisfied with three wishes? She would not. I giggle. This could work.