THE 52 FIRST DRAFTS PROJECT
Leap and the net will appear. So I leapt.
One year ago, I quit my job, sold everything I owned, and headed for Asia. I spread my arms into full swan-dive position and began the plunge.
My plan was to write. I’d been writing for years, but something always kept me from taking the next step. Oh yes, it’s called … life.
With so much at stake, I needed to find a way to give myself every opportunity to build that net: something challenging, realistic, and powerful. This is how The 52 First Drafts Project was born.
The project? I decided to write 52 picture books in one year. In my time as an SCBWI member, one message kept leaping out at me: to become a better writer, you need to write. Simple. Write bad, write sloppy, write tired, write grumpy. And writing well is acceptable too. It doesn’t matter, just write. Every piece will inform the next.
My strategy was straightforward. Write all week, and finish by a deadline. I chose Tuesdays, no excuses. I was not concerned about the length, genre, or quality. Where would I get the ideas? Where would I find the energy? Would I make it to the end?
Earlier this month, on a hot, Tuesday morning in Merida, Mexico (I’ve moved on since Asia); I completed my 52nd picture book. Hurray! Toot, toot. That would be my own horn.
Those were 52 opportunities to learn, and 52 opportunities to grow. Did I? I did.
Growth happens quicker when you are proactive, so I read blogs and books about the craft and the publishing industry. I studied hundreds of picture books. I listened to podcasts, attended conferences and classes, and worked with my fantastic critique group. I also blogged about my journey. I gave myself every opportunity to succeed.
It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes I struggled through weeks when I floundered with every word. But as I flipped the pages in my calendar, things changed. Writing became easier. I became more daring. I was willing to try new styles and write with more abandon.
In the end, I couldn’t believe the variety that came out of my pencil: from fables to LGBTQ, quirky to bedtime, holiday to concept. My experiences in places like Indonesia and the Philippines inspired me to create multicultural offerings. I even wrote a song … it was terrible, but I did it. My characters were human, animal, inanimate, mythical and monster. Stories revealed themselves in first and third person, past and present tense, rhyme and prose, with word counts from 24 to 1600.
My takeaways are many. Here are the highlights.
-The importance of each word. When working with so few words, each needs to be perfect. I look now at every word and consider its syllables, sounds, meaning, descriptiveness, difficulty and necessity. Say them aloud: individually, in groups, and from beginning to end.
-The importance of page turns. Page turns affect everything in a picture book: rhythm, pauses, scene changes, pacing, flow, readability, anticipation, and tension. The greatest joy of reading a picture book is discovering what is on the next page.
-Writing for illustrations. When I started, this idea scared me. I couldn’t see how an editor would understand my story if I didn’t lay everything out for her. I’ve changed. Now I ask myself these questions. Do I need to say this, or will the illustrations show it? Will this story be interesting to look at? Will it be fun for an illustrator to work on? Am I giving the illustrator freedom to be creative?
-Generating ideas. I didn’t think I could possibly come up with 52 good stories until I did. Coming up with ideas is a skill that needs to be developed and I had lots of time to practice. Over the year’s time, I conceived hundreds of ideas. It has become habit; I now find myself jotting down fresh ideas every day.
Now for the big picture. Two lessons stand out that will serve me throughout the rest of my career as an author.
First is control. It is so easy to feel as if you have no control in this business. Standing between you and a published book are agents, publishers and dozens of others. Though they are our allies, we give them control over our literary lives. The 52 First Drafts Project was my way of taking back that control. Do I still need agents and publishers? Of course I do, but now I’m not just sitting and waiting. I’m doing everything I can to be ready for them when they are ready for me.
Second is confidence. After writing 52 books in a year, I know I can do anything I put my mind to. The children’s literature community is the most encouraging and welcoming group I know. But even so, when you are a pre-published author, it’s easy to feel like you’re tagging along. This project makes me feel like I belong at the party—not because of what I have done, but because of what I know I am capable of.
Has this year been a success? Yes, YES, and some synonym for yes that means so much more than simply yes. The 52 First Drafts Project has gifted me with stronger craft skills, control over my career, and confidence. And how could I forget … dozens of terrific stories. For now, I’m happy with that.
This project was all about improvement. I encourage everyone to set goals and seek your own success. Big or small, start today. If you need a cheerleader, I’m here.
Did my net appear? Yes, and I landed squarely in the middle. To my delight, writing is a series of adventurous leaps, and I find myself tumbling through the air once again.
You can find out more about David by visiting his website here.