Retain the Spark

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You come up with a great idea and you draft a new picture book manuscript. You revise and polish and take it to your critique group.

They give you feedback and you rewrite. Then you have someone else critique it. They too give you feedback and you rewrite again.

Many of us will keep up this critique and rewrite process for months or even years on a given manuscript. We tinker with the vocabulary. Don’t make it too hard! Four year-olds won’t know that word. We add descriptions and strengthen verbs and . . .

We revise the heart right of our manuscripts.

Last week, I viewed a webinar with Frances Gilbert, the Editor-in-Chief of Doubleday Books for Young Readers. The webinar was about the rules that aren’t really rules that so many writers try to abide by. But she also spoke about the angst and anxiety that comes with multiple revisions. She’s had writers tell her that they feel stressed and just aren’t having fun with the picture book manuscripts. And, according to Gilbert, it shows. Their work lacks the spark found in early drafts.

The reality is that our critique groups want to help us write better manuscripts. But many of us focus on minor details. When we critique picture book manuscripts, we should be looking at pacing. Does it move along well or does it drag? Is there something for the adult and the child? What about the illustrator? Is this a manuscript that will give the illustrator something to do or is it all in the text? I’ve also come to suspect that our critique groups believe that it is their sworn duty to help us find something to fix.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t revise and I absolutely adore my critique group. But you need to keep your goal in sight. Why did you want to write a particular manuscript? What is it that you want to accomplish?

Me? I always strive to remember my child reader. What is it that this child wants from this book? What will they discover? And what will bring them back?

It is my job to make certain that that spark remains.


Themed Word Lists for your Picture Book

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Yesterday I blogged about how to make your picture book a fun read aloud. I’m embarrassed to admit that I forgot to write about themed word lists!

A themed word list is any word list full of words that focus on your picture book’s topic or theme. Maybe you are writing a book about dogs and you use terms like dig, dug, or dogged. Your characters might bark their responses, wag, romp or fetch.

As you can tell, you aren’t necessarily going to be using typical words or even using common words in typical ways. But you are going to create a sense of fun. It is a great way to guarantee a second read as listeners keep their ears open for “dog” words or whatever your particular theme is.

One of the picture books that I’ve been working on has been problematic in terms of making it a fun read aloud. It has a chorus but I’ve yet to manage any fun word play. But a themed list? I could do that.

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What kind of words will I be looking for? My main character is a cat.

Hmm. I just realized how fake that may seem since my earlier examples revolved around a dog theme. In reality, it was a doggy picture book manuscript that reminded me of themed lists and prompted this post. Rita, if you are reading this, I still love all of the doggy words in your story.

My story, on the other hand, is all about a cat who as a tiny kitten finds a home. As a full grown cat, he is rough and tumble and various people encourage his family to get rid of him. Obviously, I’m going to need a collection of cat words. I could use yowl and prowl, stalk and leap, slink and stealth. But because he’s a big cat, I can also use words that you might use in describing a giant or an elephant. Possibilities include lumber and loom, massive and vast.

It will take time to come up with a suitably cat-like list, but I’m confident that this will help give me story read-aloud appeal.


Should You Write in Rhyme?

Creating a good read aloud can be a lot of work.
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One of the most common pieces of advice given to new picture book writers is not to write in rhyme. “But why?” they say. “We see published picture books written in rhyme. Obviously these manuscripts sell.”

And that’s true. But to sell, rhyme has got to be spot on and flawless. And that means that it has to work when I read it aloud, when you read it aloud, and when that guy over there reads it aloud. Here are some things to remember:

Make the story work.

First things first, get your story down. Don’t worry about creating spot on rhyme until you’ve created a plot and characters that work. Otherwise the temptation is to put the rhyme first. And really? It doesn’t matter how good the rhyme is if your story stinks.

Don’t play with word order.

Once you started working with the rhyme, be careful not to force your word order. What do I mean by that?

The other day I met a fellow.

He wore a hat that was yellow.

Never mind that the rhythm is wrong. First things first, you would say “he wore a yellow hat.” Don’t goof with the word order just to make your line rhyme.

Avoid near rhyme.

If you are going to write a rhyming text, you have use rhyming words. That seems like an obvious thing to say but a lot of people substitute near rhyme. Sometimes the words look like they should rhyme but they don’t went read aloud. Examples include love and move, rough and plough, or lead (led) and seed.

You don’t have to make a story rhyme for it to be a fun read aloud. I like to play with internal rhyme – green, steam, and trees. I’ll use alliteration, using words that start with the same sound – cat and caught, mountain and meadow, hill and holly.

Admittedly, this is easier with some stories than with others. Some stories are lyrical and sweet to read aloud from the start. Others are clunky and it is a struggle to make them work. But when you do? The struggle was well worth the effort.


World Building: Build It Like an Onion

According to Gabriela Pereira, your world should be built layer by layer, like an onion.

Earlier this week I was listening to an interview that Gabriela Pereira did with author Dana Alison Levy. Pereira mentioned that world building needed to center on the character. As she talked, she discussed that if you worked out from your character, you will layer your world building like an onion, adding scenes and details. By the time you reach the end of your story, your reader will have a good idea how the world works but they will have acquired this knowledge little by little.

I’ve been getting ready to jump into a rewrite on my middle grade science fiction novel, Airstream. One of the things that I’ve been concerned with is the world building. This is science fiction. Space and space travel play a big part in the first half of the book. Only later do you find out what is happening on Earth.

I had worried whether or not this would work but as I listened to Pereira, I realized that I had instinctively started in the right place. I started where my character is. The reader knows what my character knows. Yes, it will be a bit frustrating for the reader but it is also frustrating for the character so it only seems fair.

As my character figures out what is happening, it will be relayed to the reader. Obviously, I am going to have too much information in some places and not enough in others but that is the beauty of the first draft. There is no expectation that it will be right from the start. During my various rewrites I will have a chance to fix various setting issues.

And that’s a good thing. Because I’ve been doing more reading. I’m almost done with a great memoire by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. Based on what he had to say, I’ve got some serious reworking to do. I’m going to have to change the look of my space station and how my characters respond to various crisis.

But I’m getting a better feel for my setting and that is going to contribute to the tone I want to set in my novel. I’ll have to see what setting details I’ve included, remove what is unnecessary, and then make sure that I’ve built it layer by layer, just like an onion.


How to Create a Picture Book Dummy

Snip, tape, edit and sketch. Yesterday I dummied a picture book. If you write picture books but have never dummies your work before, you really should. I dummy allows you to test out your work. You check to see if you have enough story to fill every spread. You may also discover that you story is far too complicated.

A dummy also helps you to see if you’ve made use of page turns. A page turn helps you conceal a surprise from the reader. Page turns are really useful when something is funny or shocking. A dummy really helps you make use of the picture book’s unique structure.

Each spread needs to be a unique scene. There has to be something for the illustrator to depict.

But what if you’ve never created a dummy? Here is how I do it.

Staple together 16 pieces of paper.  

Wait a minute. Isn’t a picture book 32 pages long. Yes, it is. But 16 pages stapled together gives you 32 pages front and back. You can use half pages or quarter pages. Whatever works for you. For this one I used half pages.

Mark off title page, etc.

End papers and the title page don’t contain any of your actual story.  There are generally three such pages at the beginning of a picture book. Sometimes the copyright info is on a page at the back of the book.

If this ambiguity makes you uncomfortable, look at some picture books from your dream publisher. Do it how they do it.

Cut my text into blocks.  

Next, cut your text into blocks. These blocks of text will become spreads. Some will be one page spreads. A one page spread is a single page with text and an illustration. It stands independent of the preceding and following pages. Some text blocks will become two page spreads. Two page spreads are one block of text and the accompanying illustration that takes up two facing pages.  

One page spreads are often detailed. They are close ups.

Two page spreads are panoramic. They slow down the pace of the story.

Tape the spreads into the dummy.

I’d love to say that this step is easy peasy. That would be a lie.

Sometimes I have more blocks of text than I have dummy pages. I have to ask myself if each scene is essential. Or is there a scene that can be cut?

Sometimes I run out of blocks of text before I reach the end of the dummy. Have I left scenes out? Or it might be that there isn’t enough story for a picture books. Or I might need to add another attempt to solve my story problem.

This time around, I was trying to figure out how to squeeze it all in (all I needed was one more two page spread) when I realized that two pages of my dummy had stuck together. Also, remember that it is natural for this step to take multiple attempts.

Once you’ve got your text in place, look at each spread. Think of it as a scene. You may need to change a word or two. There may be something you can cut. This might also be where you note that something doesn’t flow or that your verbs or your action needs to be more dramatic.

It is far better to figure these things out for yourself then to have someone else point it out to you. Now off to make my story sound more like a picture book.


Gestures, Movements, and Pointless Beats

Avoid meaningless expressions, including eye rolls.

Don’t use dialogue tags. Instead, use beats of action.

This was the common wisdom when I entered the world of writing. Dialogue tags were unnecessary and cluttered up the narrative. Instead, include beats of action, movement, and expressions.

I’d love to say that I nailed this but it is probably a really good thing that I ran into Nathan Bransford’s blog post, “Avoid Aimless Stage Direction.” I write tight so there are some things that I’m really good at avoiding.

My characters don’t stand up. They stand.

Sitting down? Nope. They sit.

I also try to avoid speaking up or speaking out. Shouting loudly and whispering quietly are both no-nos. So are extended one’s arm to point. Really? When was the last time someone retracted their arm to point? Can you even do that? Retract your arm? Just point.

Instead, as Bransford points out, gestures, expressions and movements need to be meaningful. Don’t take us step-by-step through your character’s wake-up routine or meal preparation unless it is meaningful in some way. Think for a moment about the TV series Monk. Watching Monk count the individual peas for his pot pie and pour boiling water over his toothbrush revealed more than a little about this character.

Other potentially pointless actions include stepping forward and stepping back, sweeping one’s arms, and nodding. Detailed depictions of starting a car, gathering up a backpack and jacket, and more are just ho hum and every day. Only detail things that are revealing. Does your character hot wire his own car because he is too cheap to replace lost car keys? That’s important. So is a character that reassures someone over the phone that all is well while measuring out a vial of poison.

I have to admit that I appreciated Bransford’s take on expressions and gestures. Does your character sigh? Then she can do it two times in the course of an entire novel. I suspect this also goes for biting her lip, rolling her eyes, and shrugging. Unless something like this is a vital tell, do not overuse it.

Use tags when needed. When you use expressions and gestures or create beats of action, make them count.


Beginning at the End

Sometimes it helps to start at the tail end.

Last week, I roughed out a new picture book manuscript. Before I started actually writing, I knew the main character inside and out. I also knew the last two lines of the manuscript. They are so fun that they are actually what drove me to move this up my to-do list and get it drafted.

But, as so often happens, draft #1 was so-so. It just didn’t sing until I got to those last two lines.

So I rewrote it.

Draft #2 was less bad then draft #1 but not significantly so. I added another stellar line. That meant that I had three really strong lines and a whole lot more that were still so-so.

Sunday I had an epiphany. Read a stack of picture books. Find stories that you love. Then work back from the ending. Fortunately I had new-to-me picture books from the library. I read and read and read.

While I liked the ending, none of them really worked as a mentor text. Where had I just read something about endings? About how endings set up your beginning?

I sat down at my computer to work and immediately found a blog post from Jane Friedman that I had marked. In “To Nail Your Memoir’s Beginning, Stop Looking in the Wrong Direction,” she wrote “Your book’s ending must reveal the story’s resolution. Once you know what your resolving, you can establish a clear path for getting there.”

I took another look at those two amazing lines that started it all. They told me who the character was as well as what his story problem had to be. With this in mind, I went back to the beginning. With just minor tweaking and an addition, I had a beginning that set this up perfectly. I worked through the manuscript, creating the perfect set up for the line to follow. Set up and delivery. Wind up and the pitch. Again and again until I reached the end.

I’m not going to say that the manuscript is perfect but it is so much stronger than it was because now I’ve got the scaffolding on which I can build the rest of the story. All it took was a recognition of where those last two lines were taking me.


Four Worlds to Include in Your Story

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I hope you are already reading K.M. Weiland’s blog, Helping Writers Become Authors. Often I read one of her posts and realize that she is talking about something I have been working on articulating but hadn’t quite gotten there on my own.

Most recently this happened when I read her post “Understanding the Normal World of Your Story’s First Act.” It wasn’t the focus of the blog post but she quickly ran through the four story worlds. And, yes, this means that your story should most likely include these four worlds. They are, as listed by Weiland:

  1. The Normal World of the First Act
  2. The Adventure World of the Second Act
  3. The Underworld of the Third Act
  4. The New Normal World of the Resolution

Hmm. I had 1, 2, and 4 down but had never considered #3 but it immediately made sense. I’ll go through each of these in order just in case the concept of one or more is new to you.

The Normal World of the First Act

This is your POV character’s every day life and world. In Harry Potter, we meet him at the Dursley’s. Katniss is hunting for food in District 12.

The reader gets to know your character as they live. They see what is good about this world and what is not. Then something happens that pulls the character into . . .

The Adventure World of the Second Act

Once the character is convinced, or driven into the adventure, they enter a whole new world. Harry Potter is whisked to Hogwarts, a world of mystery and magic. Katniss goes off to train with the other tributes, entering a world of technology and wealth. Things are far from perfect but the POV character starts to get a feel for things and then they drop into . . .

The Underworld of the Third Act

In the third act, the reader wonders if the POV character is going to succeed. Will Harry and his friends succeed in defeating Voldemort? Will Katniss find a way that both she and Peta survive as Victors? There are failures, losses, and tragedies. The POV character loses allies and there is every indication that they might fail.

I had never thought of this as the Underworld but it is a world of reversal and it feels like “all is lost.” What a perfect term?

The New Normal World of the Resolution

During the resolution, the POV character returns home. But this a new normal because they have changed and can’t entirely go back to their old situation. Katniss may be back in District 12 but she is not living in the Victor’s Village. People, ranging from her neighbors to President Snow, treat her differently. Win or lose, there is no going back.

What about your story? Have you included all four of these worlds in your story? If not, you may have some work to do.


Traveling is like Starting a New Manuscript

My family recently returned from a trip and I realized that traveling is like starting a new manuscript. You think you know what you are going to do. You plan and you pack and then you make the best of it.

When you travel, there are always things that you back that you don’t need. Not needing some of these things is a blessing – the gas can that accompanied us across the desert. We made it to town just as the Jeep dinged to tell us to fuel up.

There are also the things that you aren’t sure you will need but were a really good idea. For us, these included a drying rack, rain jackets, and spf 45 lip balm. We managed to experience two extremes – a dust storm and a down pour.

Then there are the things that we wish we had remembered. First up on this list – Sudafed. When I was a kid, allergies weren’t a problem. I don’t know if the issue was that I had never been there in May or if new residential patterns mean new planting patterns and new pollen. It would also have been nice to have a scarf to cover my hair with during all the wind!

What does this have to do with writing? At the beginning, you make a plan. Some of us outline. Others create a mind map. However you organize, the idea is that this will take you through a completed manuscript.

No matter how carefully I plan, there is always something that doesn’t quite work out. One section feels too much like another and one of them has to go. Of I’ve got two great scenes but there’s a blank spot in the middle. How do my characters get from one to the other?

Ninety percent of the time, I push my way through. Once I reach the end I have a much better idea what worked, what didn’t and what I should actually have included. Fortunately, rewrites make it all attainable!


Writing for Younger Readers

When I agreed to write Investigating Fossil Fuel Pollution, I said yes because I welcome the opportunity to write STEM for younger readers. But I hadn’t considered what it would mean to write on a science topic for readers in second and third grade.

The majority of books that I write for the school library market are for tweens and teens. The Ancient Maya, Cancel Culture, and The Assassination of John F. Kennedy are just three of the books that I’ve worked on for readers in 8th grade and older. These books are 15,000 words long and from eight to ten chapters. That sounds like a fairly significant word count but I always make certain to pack in as much information as possible

Fossil Fuel Pollution was only 2,200 words. It is only five chapters long but includes information on oil spills, solid waste, water pollution, air pollution, and what readers can do to help. That doesn’t seem like much but the book is 17 manuscript pages long.

As always, I made a list of everything wanted to include. At this point, I was mentally thinking about it as everything I needed to include. When I started drafting the manuscript, I immediately realized that most chapters were running long and not just a little bit long. Some where over twice as long as I could make them.

This meant that I had to quit thinking about what I wanted to include. Instead, I had to contemplate what I could not, under any circumstances, leave out. What would I fight tooth and nail to keep in that book?

For the most part, I wasn’t cutting a word or two hear and a sentence there. I was removing paragraphs at a time. In part, this is why I don’t get into “slaying my precious words.” Sometimes something has to go to reach the target word count. That’s just that.

But the easiest way to bring myself to do this is to cut it and paste it into a file. Each book I work on is sorted into a separate Word folder. Many of these folders include a document called “stuff.” If I cut something that I later need, there it is. If my editor wants me to replace a sidebar and leaves the topic up to me, I go into this folder.

Once I got the hang of what I could fit into a chapter, rewriting went quickly. Younger readers are just as curious as older readers. Where a teen is ready to dig in, a second grader is only ready for a sample. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to write for this age group again in the future.