I've been writing fiction and poetry since childhood and I can certainly condense the thought into less than 500 words. But somehow my skills as a poet eluded me when it came to writing picture books.
Here's one of my new poems inspired by becoming a grandma for the first time last year.
Siti, bibi, mimsy, popo,
babushka, oma, yaya, mumps.
Grootmoeder, nonna, tita, bubbe,
grossmami, jadda, nkuku, Savta.
Neema, nooni, Queenie, gwanma,
amona, grandmere, Big Grams, mamabear.
Pittypat, tootsy, gan gan, mammy,
nana, bomma –
© Miriam Halahmy
However, with a new child in the family I've gone back to reading picture books and have become enchanted all over again. One of my favourites of the modern era must be Owl Babies. It has everything; strong story, great characters, familiar dilemma, excellent resolution. And all in less than 500 words.
So I decided it was time to give it a try. Friends suggested I go and sit in a bookshop and read loads of picture books. I did that and loved some of them and thought others were quite boring. But I did get an idea and went home and wrote a story which featured penguins and two continents - in under 500 words. Had I written a picture book? Honestly I had no idea. So I asked my friend, the writer, Sue Eves, author of the best selling, The Quiet Woman and the Noisy Dog. Sue's critique was great and really helped me to look at character creation and story plot in - um - 500 words.
Quite a big thing to get your head round when you're used to writing 60,000 word novels every year.
But I loved writing about my penguins so I wrote another book called Oliver's Headphones - about a baby who has to wear those headphones they put on babies when they take them to rock concerts. Nope- I'd never heard of them either before the grandbaby came along.
I sent both texts off to my agent thinking, she'll tell me to get back to the day job.
But actually she said, "I love the voice Miriam - and all in under 500 words!" - Like, wow!
There are issues about the plotting, but I'd got started and after that ideas just seem to flow.
My next step was to go and talk to fellow Sassies, Charlotte and Adam Guillain, whom I had met on the SAS retreat in Charney last year. Walking and talking in the Oxfordshire countryside is definitely a must if you want to write picture books - well, it works for me anyway ( with the Gullains as companions - a bit like Wordsworth and Coleridge in Grasmere - or so I like to think).
Actually that's Jo Friedman on the left - I don't have a pic of Adam - and then me in the middle and Charlotte clutching a cheeky glass of wine.
See what I mean by inspiring countryside. Adam and Charlotte have written over 50 picture books and are in huge demand. They really understand how to plot, plan, structure and develop their stories.
And they write wonderful books. The grandbaby loved this one.
Adam also talked to me about 'briefing the art work'. I went dashing home brimming with new ideas and have now written a whole new text. For the first time I feel my poetic experience is coming into play. Here's a little taste :-
We build a rocket in the bedroom
Doggy Dear jumps on board
As the engine roars we count down
when Mum calls
TEA BATH BED
© Miriam Halahmy
There's speech bubbles and all sorts and this is the first text where I've written all my artwork notes in a different coloured text. Makes me feel jolly professional.
Now I'm working on a story which rhymes and I feel I'm beginning to arrive.
I've been writing great big novels for years. Discovering the joy of writing picture book texts is like finding a whole shiny new toy to play with. I'm absolutely loving it and you never know, one day my agent might actually say, Yes - I think we could submit this one. But meanwhile, I'mplaying with words and rhythm and pictures and giants and dragons and all sorts.
When you write a story it doesn't matter if it is a 300 word story or a 60,000 word story, the principles remain the same. Just as Henry Moore created maquettes before he built his monumental sculptures, so I'm building my short texts on the same principles as my long novels.