What Feelings Arise When You Look at an Empty Page?

I signed up for the 30th Birthday Program through SCBWI Carolinas this year, a 9-month program designed to walk participants through thirty steps together to create work in spring and summer in time for critique and submission by conference time in the fall.

One of the writing prompts/exercises…well, let’s just say…it brought up some stuff for me!

Mind exploration exercise from SCBWI Carolinas Birthday Program 2022:

Let your mind wander for 20 minutes. (Seriously. Schedule this.) Breathe deeply. It’s ok if your Inner Critic arrives. Invite your Critic to wander around, too. Open a blank journal. What feelings arise when you look at an empty page? Write them down. Start with the sentence, “This blank page makes me feel….”

“This blank page makes me feel…I mean, not all that much. I guess it’s not the blank page I’ve ever been afraid of. I’m nothing if not ideas. If there’s anything that haunts me (so dramatic–LOL), page-wise, it’s the thing I’m happy with but is not connecting with others. I mean, writers always say (well, not just writers, creatives in general) that the finished piece is its own reward. But when is something truly finished? For picture book writers, an unillustrated (even if otherwise delicious) picture book manuscript is, by its own name/admission, unfinished. What is a picture book, without pictures? Many things, of course–but none of them are in any way what you’d call “complete” or even “satisfying”-not entirely. Look (haha) even at B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures.” Sure, it’s funny–and clever–but an anti-picture-book is not what most of us are going for. In some ways, writing as-yet-illustrated picture books is like writing a symphony. If you write it, you can enjoy–LOVE–it! But is it finished if you never hear a symphony play it? Yet, here we are, writing these bits of our hearts onto paper, and hoping they, someday are chosen by an editor/conductor for their chance to shine before an audience. I mean, that is the dream. There’s a reason why people pay good money to see a symphony that they would never pay to read or play the sheet music themselves. It’s the collective virtuosity–the sum that’s much bigger than the parts–that is transformative. That brings people to tears–happy or otherwise. That creates an experience. A picture book–without the art–without the reader–I quake. Show me a person scared of this, and I will show my community of kindreds. Yet…we toil. We march on. We write, revise and submit. If we had a choice, we would’ve quit…forever ago. Back when the page was truly blank. So, no, I’m not scared of a blank page. It should be scared of me.”

I’m sharing the result here because I feel like this doesn’t get talked about enough in the picture book community, and if any of you are feeling this, you aren’t alone. In addition to the usual publishing/writer angst, the acute sense of creative incompleteness that pre-published picture book writers may feel–because our stories rely on a second partner we do not yet have before they are truly “share-able”–can be rough. But it’s also okay to acknowledge that weird limbo, even as we strive to overcome it.

Anyhow, highly recommend the exercise. Try it yourself and see what comes of it. You might just be surprised, as I was.

The Gruffalo Goes Orkney Scots aka Translating Picture Book Rhyme

Quick, picture book writers: what’s the one thing you’ve learned to avoid as much as possible from your countless webinars?

Did you say rhyme*?

Unless it’s excellent*–and also, it barely ever is*. Except for the rhyming books that we all know and love, which are the greatest*. And also it’s hard to translate*. Also, don’t send it to agents because it will scare them off*. Or editors, because they don’t want to have to edit that craziness*. Unless, you know…it’s excellent*–and also, it barely ever is.*…

Confused, yet? Understandable! It’s…complicated.

So…here’s what I’ve gleaned from my countless webinars/conferences/crying out into the sky, shaking my fists.

ACTUALLY, agents and editors adore rhyme…so long as it is:

  • impeccable
  • inventive
  • perfect for the kind of story the story is meant to be (meaning: not sing-songy without purpose).

But…there’s the rub. They typically don’t get that with their rhyming submissions. And it hurts their hearts.

It’s like bad rhymers are such bad manuscript-reading dates that they make even the most rhyme-positive editors and agents wonder if they should swear off rhyming altogether.

But what about the editing? What about the translation?? Well…editors love to edit! BUT it has to be something worth their time. Again, there lies the rub. They don’t want to essentially re-write a rhyming picture book for you. Suggesting improvements to something already stellar? I mean, that’s LITERALLY (hardy har har!) their superpower.

So that leaves (for a stellar rhyming picture book)–just the translation issue.

Well, it turns out, even though translating rhyme takes a deft mind, it can be done. And it can be done beautifully! And it WILL be done if the market demands it–if you’ve written such a fabulous book.

Case in point: Let’s all welcome, “The Orkney Gruffalo” the official-Julia-Donaldson-and-Axel-Scheffler-picture book as translated into Orcadian Scots by Simon W. Hall.

Okay, okay, I know both English and Orkney Scots is based on the same language. Still, for English speakers, it’s a great way to see how much work a great translator does–especially when they are keeping rhyme and meter going. Take a look!

American English on the left; Orkney Scots on the left.
American English spread.
Orkney Scot version of the same spread.
See how the meter is the same and the meaning…but how different the ending sounds.
It’s so great to see how flexible language is!

Also…the obvious work and love that goes into translating poetry and rhyme…well, let’s just say, this is why translators deserve to have their names on the front cover of the book, too.

Well done, Simon W. Hall!

So, I guess here is one way to gauge if you think your rhyming picture book is ready to submit. Would this–could this possibly?–be financially worth translating into Orkney Scots? If it is–you’ve got yourself a winner of a rhyming picture book. Because that means it’s a universal tale told in a wonderful way.

You can do it! It’s…just going to take a lot of work and one heckuva idea.

But you already knew that. 🙂 Go get it, friend!

(Side note: The Orkney Scots version this was given as a gift to my boys some time ago…and we actually all PREFER it to the original, it has become so beloved! Shhh! Please don’t tell Julia!)