Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Writing Long or Short

I’ve written picture book biographies and chapter book biographies for middle grades and young adults, and the research required is virtually identical. For my middle grade biography Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, I read biographies, histories, scholarly articles, and primary sources. That book weighed in at over 21,000 words.

For a forthcoming picture book biography, I did the same amount of reading. I visited my subject’s hometown and the town where she lived most of her married life. I ordered microfilms of her papers from her state historical society and had them delivered to a nearby public library where I squinted and printed decades of her handwriting. My first draft of the book came in at 7100 words. Draft #2 was 2400 words. Draft #6, the one I sold, had slimmed down to 1232 words. Just like losing those last five pounds, the last draft was hardest to write.

What happened between 7100 words and 1232 words?

• I figured out what my story was about.

• I decided which parts of her life illustrated what I wanted to say about her.

• I ruthlessly expunged all kinds of wonderful details that didn’t enhance that story.

• I did all that again and again, in each draft.

The advantages of writing longer is, of course, that I could include more of those wonderful details. I could bring in a larger cast of characters. I could quote more of a vitriolic tirade between my subject and a longtime friend. I could talk about her brilliant brother and how he went mad. I could discuss and quote more of her writings. I could talk more about her children and their tragedies and her grief. I could discuss her friendships with women and what that showed about her era.

What did I gain by choosing to write a shorter picture book? I could use a livelier voice and more colloquial language. This works better in a short form than it would in a more detailed and documented treatment of her life. And of course, I’ll have pictures to help me tell the story, describe the setting, and create an atmosphere.

Writing long, writing short – each has its charms and challenges.

11 comments:

jama said...

Love this post. Thanks for the helpful insight into your process. :)

CC said...

I love this post because its always comforting to hear other another picturebook biographer talk
about their work process.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Boy do I agree with you about the fact that a short book of nonfiction requires as much research as a long one. I've done both kinds too, and I really think that writing a juicy and substantive short book is much harder than writing a long one. Not a single word can be wasted.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Boy do I agree with you about the fact that a short book of nonfiction requires as much research as a long one. I've done both kinds too, and I really think that writing a juicy and substantive short book is much harder than writing a long one. Not a single word can be wasted.

Mark Herr said...

Excellent post, and wise words whether your subject is non-ficiton or ficiton. Less is more and less is also more difficult.

Andrew Karre said...

Excellent post! Should be required reading for aspiring NF picture book authors.

Melissa Stewart said...

Great post, Gretchen. You've done a fantastic job descriving the excrutiating, exciting process of creating a PB bio.

Vicki Cobb said...

Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, physicist (1623 - 1662) once said:I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.
From, "Lettres provinciales", letter 16, 1657

Linda Zajac said...

Wow! I read this, but just now quantified that your manuscript shrunk by more than 82%. It makes the recent 1/3 reduction in the size of an article I wrote pale in comparison. Thanks for putting this in perspective.

Barbara Kerley said...

Hi Gretchen,

Great post! I'm curious if you approached each project already having decided whether to go long or short (when you began researching) or if you did some research and then decided on the genre. Finding the right subject/person for a picture book biography seems to be one of the hardest things about writing short. Some stories just don't work in that shorter format. Any thoughts on how you decide?

Barb Kerley

Gretchen Woelfle said...

First, I'm thrilled to have elicited so many comments from fellow bloggers and readers alike. I love to read about others' creative process as much as you do.

Second, I apologize about the formatting -- no spaces. That's not how it looked when I posted the message and looked at the "preview."

Finally, to answer your question about choosing whether to go long or short. I start with the subject, not the genre. I look to see if there are other biographies on the subject. If so, I probably won't duplicate that genre.

I see how much material there is - some of my subjects don't have enough historical material to support a long book, so that's a picture book Sometimes they do, but I want to focus on just one part of their life -- and that's also a picture book.

It's usually clear to me, fairly early in the research phase, what form the book is going to take.