New Voice: Stephanie Watson on Psyching Yourself Up to Write, the Craft of Picture Books & The Wee Hours

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Stephanie Watson is the first-time author of The Wee Hours, illustrated by Mary GrandPré (Disney-Hyperion, 2013). From the promotional copy:

What if the wee, small hours of the morning weren’t just hours, but playful creatures instead? 

And what if those creatures came out in the early-morning hours, to make mischief while you sleep? 

The Wee Hours, this new brand-new picture book, imagines just that.

How do you psyche yourself up to write and to keep writing?

I use lots of tricks to keep on keepin’ on with the writing. Here are five of my current favorites:

  1. Drink pots and pots of highly caffeinated green tea. It gives me courage and stamina. 
  2. Blast “I Am Superman” by R.E.M. before I sit down to write. I do a jumpy-spinny-punchy dance in my office and get all pumped up to do the day’s work. 
  3. Watch YouTube interviews with writers and artists that inspire me (see: Quentin Blake, Lynda Barry, Daniel Handler, Mo Willems and Kate DiCamillo). 
  4. Make other kinds of art. I draw and paint and knit and collage and hot glue things to other things. Crafty projects are great palate cleansers to writing, especially when they’re not particularly fancy or difficult. Right now, I’m really into making things with Perler beads. 
  5. Go for quantity, not quality. Daily word count goals are easier to meet than objectives like “Write something awesome.” If I sit in my chair and work with 1000 words each day, I’m golden, I win, I pat myself on the back. The less pressure I put on the quality, the better the writing seems to go. Funny how that works.

The thing about tricks is that they eventually wear out. Like, the magic of “I Am Superman” will fade soon, and then I’ll have to pick another power anthem to jump and spin and kick to. Always developing new ways to con myself into being courageous enough to write—this is just part of the job.

Stephanie & “I Am Superman”

How did you learn the craft of picture book writing? What are your strengths? What has been your greatest challenge?

I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to my writing teachers over the years, but I’ve learned the most about writing picture books by reading them. I love to sit at the library and consume 20 picture books in a sitting.

By reading lots of this type of book, you quickly get a sense of what works, what’s funny, what falls flat, what a strong page turn feels like, what a satisfying ending feels like.

I love re-reading the classics, like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963) as much as I love looking at new stuff, like Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem (Disney-Hyperion, 2009).

I think one of my strengths as a picture book writer is that I’m always up for following a strange idea to see where it might lead. In an early draft of The Wee Hours, the creatures that came out to play started pulling things from the sleeping child’s dream. I wasn’t sure if that could work, but I was intrigued.

I played with the idea and gave it some space to either grow into something cool or explode into a horrific mess. I got it to work, and it added a nice dimension to the story.

Challenges? Well, it can be hard to muster the endurance necessary to rewrite a piece over and over. I did 15+ drafts of The Wee Hours, and it’s only 375 words long. I put both of my 35,000-word novels through ten rewrites apiece.

For me, writing is a marathon. Sitting down day after day to work on something you are not sure will ever see the light of day: That can be hard. But hey, that’s what I Am Superman and green tea are for, right?

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