We are thrilled to welcome Dev Petty to Writing with the Stars. Dev is the author of the hilarious I Don’t Want to be a Frog series and Claymates. She’s also a former visual effects artist and worked on The Matrix; how cool is that? She’s one of the top funny ladies in picture book writing circles and runs a critique service—so humor writers, take note!
You had a pretty awesome job as a visual effects artist on The Matrix. Do you think that has helped you as a writer?
Totally. Though it’s not as much because of any art skills. Those are handy since I understand a lot about composition and can develop my own marketing materials (bookmarks, trailers, etc.). What really informs my writing is having developed a sense of how a story comes together and what matters in a story and what you can strip out. VFX is really front-to-back—you sit in dailies and judge how the shot looks front-to-back. If there’s some wee thing in the way back that is wrong, you sometimes have to let that go and remind yourself that if the viewer is focused on that and not the big thing up front, you’ve failed. It’s a good lesson to focus on your characters and what matters. Picture books are really similar to movies in that they are entirely their own art form. Beginning, middle, and end through pictures and words.
You gave some advice to writers to “read more than you write.” What do you read that fires up your creative spirit?
I like to sit down once in a while with just a giant stack of picture books at the library and read one after another. From different eras, styles, you name it. You get a sense of how many different, interesting ways there are to tell a story, and it can get you out of a rut. I’m a ’70s kid and love that era of books—Silverstein, Charlip, Sendak, Steig, Pinkwater. So creative and funky!
I noticed that all your released picture books are all dialogue. I know that a lot of new writers are told that manuscripts consisting of only dialogue are hard to sell. How have you made it work for you?
Yes, it’s funny that everything out is all dialogue, since the next two are not. Dialogue is all timing and rhythm and using an authentic voice. I suppose my books in dialogue work because they mirror how I actually talk to some degree (which may not be such a good thing). Mostly, all dialogue really works for books that are somewhat less traditional and where the humor is the star of the show. It’s a great way to depict relationships but less suited for depicting elaborate plots and story points.
Claymates is a fun story and a collaboration with you and the illustrator Lauren Eldridge. How did that all come about?
That whole experience is a great reminder that creativity can bridge distances and differences. We became sort of “Twitter friends”, but didn’t know each other so well. She worked with clay and would make funny characters, and we decided we might like to work together. I couldn’t really think of a story of mine that would work illustrated dimensionally in clay, but the idea of the story being about the characters being clay was really interesting. It was fun to do something where the characters could be anything at all and totally elastic. I shared the idea with her and wrote it up. We realized the only way to pitch it to anyone would be to just do it …I mean, how do you explain CLAYMATES? So we did a full photographic dummy, all the while with her in Wisconsin and me in California. Once it was acquired, we did the WHOLE thing again, with lots of changes and lots more silliness. Now we’re the greatest of friends.
You write funny books. Why do you think women don’t get the credit they deserve for writing humorous PBs?
What an interesting and tricky question. I dig it! Well, the elephant in that particular room is that men are often perceived as being more funny. I think that perception is mostly so in most business, and in life, and certainly in media. But I think the greater issue, and the one that’s a little trickier to talk about in publishing, is about RISK. Flat out…men are given a longer leash to bend and break the rules and to take risks in their work than women are—especially in picture books. I may get some angry mail for that one, but I’ll live with it. And adding humor into the mix further complicates matters. I think the industry as a whole, even with so many women agents, editors, reviewers, etc., supports this inequity. BUT I think some recent discussions on this subject have been fruitful and give me hope—and I know SO many sharp, bold, funny women writers who are doing amazing work.
Was I Don’t Want to be a Frog written as a stand-alone, or did you have all three sequels in mind when you wrote it?
Honestly, FROG was one of the first picture books I ever wrote. I had no idea what I was doing at all and probably didn’t even know a series was possible. I just sat down one day, wrote it in an afternoon, and there it was. I’d love to say I had some elaborate plan, but I didn’t at all. I kind of built this plane (this career) in the air.
You also offer a critique service. If you could give a blanket critique, based on common mistakes you see, what would you say?
I do offer critiques, and I enjoy doing them very much. When I’m in a dry spell of my own writing, it keeps me engaged and my skills up. I would say the most common mistakes are writers not having a strong, punchy voice, especially in the opening. Sometimes writers forget that they’re spinning a yarn, telling a story and they—as the writer—play an important role in how that story is told. You get to have fun, be original, make an impression. There are SO many interesting ways to tell a story, and sometimes writers forget to do something original. I don’t mean weird for weird’s sake, but to take risks and be bold. A picture book can be rejected for a thousand different reasons and being sort of “meh” shouldn’t be one of them. Go out swinging!
As for finer points I see a lot: Too many dialogue tags or tags that aren’t just “said”—e.g., remarked, chortled, etc. Too long. Saggy middles. Muddy ideas. A lack of a takeaway/thread that is the central idea of the story. It needn’t be pedantic, but it should be present.
When do you know you’ve got an idea you want to turn into a picture book?
I have a LOT of ideas…too many, really. I keep various idea files here and there, and I know one is ready to write when it’s the one nagging me at night and it keeps coming back around in my head. But, that’s not really enough. For me to choose an idea, it really has to have legs—I have to have been able to really suss out what I’m after and the takeaway and the vibe before I get going.
Can you tell us about your upcoming book Moth and Butterfly?
Well, that’s actually not going to be coming out until 2021. It’s a really lovely book about a moth and a butterfly who become friends as caterpillars and naturally change in big ways after they go through metamorphosis. It’s about how friendships change and stay the same. The amazing Ana Aranda (THE CHUPACABRA ATE THE CANDELABRA) is illustrating. She lives near me and we’ve been able to connect a couple of times. I’m thrilled! In 2020, I have THE BEAR MUST GO ON coming from Philomel. I was a theater kid and my own kids loved to put on shows when they were little. This book is about a group of forest critters who put on an elaborate show, but forget one very important thing…to write an actual show. The bear has to save the day.
Do you have any writing/creative routines?
Besides reading more than I write, I think more than I do anything. I knock an idea around for a long, long time in my head before I put any words on the page. I play with ideas for the story, tense, POV, and don’t begin writing until I really have it sorted in my head…and I can almost hear it. I do a lot of this sort of thinking in the sun on my deck. I also almost always start with a storyboard/dummy and not in a document. I use Debbie Ohi’s templates and have a big stack on my desk at all times. When I’m ready to write, I start there…I do the first few spreads and see if it’s working, and if it isn’t, I crumple it up and start again. Working via a dummy allows for a lot more connection between the turns and the words.
Thank you, Dev, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.