Rhymer extraordinaire Rebecca Gardyn Levington is here this #FirstDraftFriday to share about her debut picture book and how she "plays" rather than "drafts." Read below, then play with some words yourself! I can't be online today, but guest host Margaret Aitken is filing in on Twitter to cheer you on. You've got this!
Rebecca is generously offering a manuscript critique as a prize for someone who completes a draft today! Details at the end of this post.
Rebecca Gardyn Levington is a children’s book author, poet, and journalist with a particular penchant for penning both playful and poignant picture books and poems – primarily in rhyme. Her debut picture book, BRAINSTORM!, illustrated by Kate Kronreif, (Sleeping Bear Press), hits bookshelves this month! She has four more rhyming picture books being published in the next two years, including WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (Barefoot Books, 2023) and I WILL ALWAYS BE…(HarperCollins, 2024). Rebecca’s award-winning poems and articles have appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. She lives in the suburban jungles of New Jersey with her husband and two boisterous boys.
Rebecca, can you tell us a little about your book and what inspired you to sit down and write the first draft of it?
My debut, BRAINSTORM!, is a concept rhyming picture book that begins with a girl, sitting in her classroom, distraught because she has NO idea what to write about.
One rainy day, much like my protagonist, I had a terrible case of writer’s block. My brain felt like the weather — cloudy, gloomy and gray. To avoid staring at the blank page, I turned my attention to the brewing storm outside my window when — kerplink! — I felt the tiniest drop of an idea:
What if IDEAS poured down from the sky?
Like a rainstorm?…
I immediately began writing a poem, which later became my first draft.
What was your drafting process like? Any hiccups with getting the first draft done?
Weirdly, no. Once I had the idea, it kind of poured out of me (pun intended!)
How did the manuscript change from that draft to what it is today?
The first “draft” of BRAINSTORM! (which I wrote in October 2019) began, as I said, as a short poem. Just six couplets. I really thought that’s all it would be, but after a few days, I kept coming back to tinker and expand it. I thought: what if it wasn’t just IDEAS that fell from the sky, but VERBS and NOUNS, and PHRASES and SENTENCES and CHARACTERS and PLOTS…. Suddenly, I found myself deluged in this amazing world where stories drizzled down and swirled all around us. I loved watching my MC play in the puddles! I had 15 drafts of this story, so it definitely changed and grew over the months, but those initial six couplets are – with slight tweaks – all still in the final version.
Are you a pantser or a plotter? And how does that affect your drafting of a story?
Oh, a pantser all the way! In fact, something I’ve discovered over the years is that I not only hate plotting, but I hate PLOT! For years, I’ve tried (really tried) to write stories with traditional story arcs, but I’ve realized over time that the stories I truly love to write (and read!) are lyrical concept and poem picture books. I have sold five books (so far!) and only one of them has a traditional narrative arc (and even that one is pretty loose). The other three began as conceptual poems, like BRAINSTORM!, and were later expanded into picture books.
Do you ever find yourself putting off drafting a story?
Absolutely! Like, daily. As much as I hate plot, I hate first drafts even more. Because of that, and because so many of my stories seem to grow from the seeds of a poem, I’ve decided that from now on, I will NOT write “drafts” but only “poems with possible picture book potential.”
What is the hardest part of drafting a story for you? And how do you deal with that?
When I think “I’m going to write a draft,” I immediately get writer’s block. It’s too much pressure. But a poem… it’s small. It’s manageable. It can be completed in an hour or two. Maybe it will be amazing. Maybe it will stink. Maybe it will turn into a picture book “draft,” maybe it won’t. Either way, I’ll have created something new and that, in and of itself, feels like productivity and a step forward. So, now when I sit down to write, I tell myself, “I’m going to write a poem…” and I give myself the freedom and permission to just play.
What are your tips and tricks for getting that first draft committed to the page?
Oh, I think I answered this above! Oops! But I’ll just reiterate. Don’t force it. In my opinion, the worst thing you can say is: “I HAVE to get this draft done!” Instead, allow yourself PLAY with words. Have fun. Write what you love and what moves you. Think about who you were as a child. What would you say to that little person? What would they be interested in? When I’m writing, I generally am at my computer, but I also keep a personal journal in which I write only by hand. Sometimes that’s a great way to unlock my creative juices and allow my ideas and feelings to flow more freely. Many of my ideas start there before I move them over to the computer.
On this #FirstDraftFriday, I urge you all to pull on your rain boots and head out into your own BRAINSTORM! Let the stories soak through your skin and enjoy playing in all the puddles of possibility!
Yes! Enjoy playing because #FirstDraftFriday has begun!
To enter for a chance at a free critique of a picture book manuscript from Rebecca (500 words or less, rhyme or prose, fiction or nonfiction), do the following by 8 pm ET today (July 1, 2022):
Complete a full picture book draft
Return to this blog post and comment that you’ve completed your draft and provide your Twitter handle. You will need to Sign Up/Log In to leave a comment (it’s easy - just an email and password).
You don’t need to send in your draft or provide proof - we’re all about the honor system here! The lucky winner will be randomly drawn from the comments and announced on Twitter shortly after 8 pm ET tonight by guest host Margaret Aitken. I'll be in touch with the winner upon my return next week.