“My book is fantastic!” he said. “And it’s unique! There’s no way anyone has ever written anything like it.”
I rolled my eyes, which was okay, because no one can hear you roll your eyes over the telephone. I think.
This was a friend of my husband, and he needed to talk to me because he had just written a children’s book, and he wanted someone to publish it.
Unlike me, he didn’t have a literature degree and he wasn’t published even once in some local magazine, forget about having years of experience as a newspaper and magazine writer and illustrator. He was just a dad who had made up a story that entertained his kid. But in his heart he knew it was the best thing since The Cat in the Hat, only better.
Too bad he wasn’t a celebrity. Then maybe his story would have had a shot.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “How many picture books have you read?”
“I don’t need to read any picture books,” he said. “I just need to you to tell me how you get a publisher.”
“It doesn’t work like that.” I sighed. “You have to read children’s books to make sure it hasn’t been done before.”
“I know it hasn’t, because it’s unique.” There he went again.
I wasn’t about to ask him what made it unique. The way he skirted the subject, I could tell he was afraid that I was going to steal his fantastic and unique idea.
Yeah, it doesn’t work like that, either. Real writers like me have more ideas than we know what to do with. We don’t go around stealing them.
Eventually, I gave up and told him to buy a copy of the latest Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market guide. I felt bad about helping someone add to the world’s slush piles. Stuff like that gives the rest of us a bad name. It makes publishers close their doors to submissions, which makes everything harder for those of us who know what we’re doing. Sometimes we even give up on the submission process, which means the slush piles get worse and worse, and the door openings get narrower and narrower.
But there wasn’t anything else I could do. In his eyes, his story was amazing. He said so, so it had to be true! Why couldn’t I just take his word for it? And why was I standing in the way of his obviously brilliant idea? So I didn’t. I gave in. I wasn’t about to destroy his day-old dream of publishing a picture book and becoming richer than J.K. Rowling all because of his brilliant and unique idea that took him all of five minutes to come up with. I left that up to the publishers.
So I how do I know his story wasn’t all that he thought it was?
Because he made it clear that he didn’t read children’s books.
That means his story had either been written a hundred times before, or it actually WAS unique—but only because there was something so horrible wrong with it that no decent editor would allow it to be published.
This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to write something unique and worthy of publication. It certainly IS possible, and it’s something every writer should aim for.
But the way to get there isn’t by refusing to read the books that already exist in your intended genre.
No, the way to get there is by reading and reading and reading some more in your chosen genre. It’s by analyzing those books to figure out what works and what doesn’t and why. It’s by reading nonfiction books that show you how to analyze and understand your chosen genre. It’s by reading until you discover there’s a book you need to read in that genre but can’t because it hasn’t been written yet. Only once you’ve made that discovery, will you have truly found the seed of something unique.
But that’s just the seed.
To help it grow into a beautiful and unique flower, you’re going to have to plant it in good soil, water it, feed it, and nurture it.
Because a story isn’t just an idea. That’s why you can’t copyright an idea. A story is an idea expressed in a unique way. Only the way the idea is expressed can be copyrighted.
J.K. Rowling wasn’t the first person to write a kids’ book about a school of wizardry, but she was the first person to create Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley and all the things that make Harry Potter one of the most popular series of all time.
So how do you come up with a unique way of expressing a story idea?
It starts by reading and reading and reading some more. By analyzing those books to figure out what works and what doesn’t and why. By looking for the things you can say that no one else has said—not because they’re horribly wrong, but because no one with your unique way of looking at the world and expressing what you see has ever tried it before.
That’s how you develop the one thing every editor and every agent says he or she is looking for: a unique voice.
All of this takes time. If you just decided to be a children’s book writer yesterday, trust me, you’re nowhere close. Pick up a bunch of children’s books are start reading. Analyze what you read. How many pages are there? How many words are on a page? How much of the story is told through the text, and how much through the illustrations? Is there dialogue? Who’s the main character? What age? Is there something on the right-hand page that makes you want to turn the page to find out what happens next? To quote Mem Fox, “Writing a picture book is like writing War and Peace in haiku.” This job is a lot harder than it looks.
Or as Pablo Picasso put it, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
You first need to learn what a voice is before you can develop one that’s unique to you. You need to understand the rules before you can break them, or at least make them your own.
So what exactly is a writer’s voice? More on that in my next blog post.