Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Writing jokes, songs and picture books

Ballet dancers can make floating in the air look easy, make balancing en pointe look effortless. But the only reason they only can do that is because they have spent hours and hours training, putting their body through torture. They can do it only through sacrifice and suffering.


Behind all that ease lies hard work. Maybe tears. Certainly pain.

Mastery it seems to me is making something incredibly hard look incredibly easy. Mastery hides the craft and the skill and the hours and hours that went into making it look that easy, so that all you see is the grace and the ease.

It's also true of writing. One thing I know about picture books is: if it looks easy, you’ve probably done your job. (Is that why so many people think anyone can write one?) If someone looks at your picture book and says: “WOW! That must have been SO HARD!” you've missed it. It should look easy. It should look as if anyone could do it.

In fact, if it looks like you worked on it, you probably need to work on it some more.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the master picture book writers themselves:

"I never spent less than two years on the text of one of my picture books, even though each of them is approximately 380 words long. Only when the text is finished ... do I begin the pictures." Maurice Sendak

"I know my stuff all looks like it was rattled off in twenty-three seconds, but every word is a struggle—every sentence is like pangs of birth. THE CAT IN THE HAT ended up taking well over a year." Dr Seuss

Years and years on a short picture book text?

Here’s a great clip from Jerry Seinfeld on how to write a joke. This one took him 2 years.

Two years on a joke?

Yup. Working on this joke Seinfeld compares to writing a song. He could just as well have been talking about writing a picture book.

Blaise Pascal apologized for writing a long letter: “I made this so long only because I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

It takes hard work—to be simple. It takes longer—to be concise. 

Short is not the same as quick.


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