4 Reasons to Draw Your First Picture Book Draft

About three weeks ago, I wrote a post about drafting your picture book. Among the things I discussed was Marla Frazee’s technique for writers. She recommends that we draw our first draft.

Yesterday I was feeling antsy in spite of a monstrous to-do list. I just didn’t want to do any of that. I wanted to write something new. I’d been noodling over an idea for a board book so I decided to use Frazee’s technique again.

As I drew I realized several things.

Page Turns Matter

I’ve known for ages that page turns matter but sketching a sheet of thumbnails made me more aware of page turns. I caught myself thinking that yes I could go from X spread to Y spread but . . . I really needed to make use of that page turn. I needed a surprise.

It completely altered the way I was thinking about this manuscript.

Pacing Problems

As I worked, I was also noting a few things about the pacing. What I currently have, doesn’t build. It is all over the place. I’m going to have to come up with pacing that not only builds from spread to spread but makes logical sense.

This is going to require another draft.

Disinterest Is a Sign

As I thought about how I could change things up in the next draft, I realized that I never got past this point on the last manuscript I drafted as thumbnails. Apparently drafting it and noodling about the problems had gotten it out of my system.

That’s not a good sign. A story that I can so easily “get over” isn’t a story that is going to grab the attention of an editor or agent. Maybe I can rework it to fix that but . . . do I really want to? I’ll have to think about it.

Parallel Stories

As I created my thumbnails, I realized that I was thinking of text and illustrations almost as parallel stories. One story is told by the text. Another is told by the illustrations and this one expands on the first.

That’s the way that picture books are supposed to work so I have hope that this technique is going to help me create successful picture book manuscripts. Do I dare try it for my graphic novel?

–SueBE

4 Tips When You Need to “Kill Your Darlings”

Kill your darlings isn’t an invitation to crime. It simply means to cut text from your work.
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This week, I had to get two chapters out to my critique group. We generally only share 10 pages at a time so that we can fit in work from everyone. My two chapters came in at 12 pages. Time to tighten things up!

Some writers refer to this as “killing their darlings.” The idea is that their words are precious and cutting anything is like killing a loved one.

Generally, it doesn’t bother me to tighten my work. But part of the reason can be explained in Tip #1.

Create a “Stuff” File

When the time comes to cut a paragraph and I find myself hesitating, I open a new document and drop in the cut paragraph. Then I save the document as “Stuff.” Most of my book-length projects contain a stuff file.

This way if I find that I’ve cut something that the manuscript really needs, I can easily recover it. I have to say that this happens less than 25% of the time. But the safety net allows me to snip, snip and snip some more. Try this and see if it helps. But what do you cut?

Dialogue that Runs On and On and On

When my characters starts talking, they tend to go on for quite a while. Individual characters give speeches. Conversations continue for a page or more. And while both of these things can be okay, often it just means that we need to tighten things up. Written dialogue doesn’t correspond to real dialogue. Cut out filler words and sounds – uh, wait a minute, and um can all go. I find that I can often cut full lines of dialogue to create conversations that move faster and thus carry more tension. Snip, snip, snip.

Setting and Description

Sometimes we spend far too much time with description. Generally, there’s no need to describe the ordinary. If your character sets the table with a plate, spoon, fork, and knife for each person, you can simply say that your character set the table.

If, on the other hand, this is a posh setting with multiple plates, glasses, forks and spoons, then it might be worth devoting some time to if it matters to your story. Setting details that get several lines of text need to be vital to the story.

Stuck on Repeat

Some things may need to be said more than once. After all, we may have to summarize a previous event at the beginning of a new chapter, but look out for things that you say again and again and again. You might think that you are creating emphasis. But more often than not, you need to cut.

Sometimes this isn’t even intentional. When I’m rereading my manuscript, I’ll find things that I’ve said two or three times. I look over each instance and save the most vital.

We each have our own wordy-bits. When the time comes to tighten your work, it helps to know what yours are. Then you’ll have a good idea what to delete and drop into the “stuff” document.

–SueBE

When Do You Revise?

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Not everyone writes the same way. My friend Pat likes to work in the library. I prefer writing in my home office. But another way we all differ is when we revise.

As You Write

Some of us revise our work as we write. When I use this technique, I sometimes go over what I wrote the day before, tightening and adjusting the previous days work. Only then do I begin to write something new.

This helps me to see where I left off before I try adding to the manuscript.

Still I know that I don’t catch everything because I don’t have the big picture in mind. I need to know what happens in scene 6 to set up scene 1. That’s why I also revise . . .

After I’ve Completed a Full Draft

The best way for my to revise the manuscirpt as a whole is after I’ve completed a full draft. In fact, that’s what I have to have when I rework things using Darcy Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis. To use Darcy’s techniques to study pacing, character and balance you have to have the full manuscript down.

And really? How else are you going to envision the whole? You need to have a full draft! But to do this best you need . . .

A Lengthy Absence

I try to set a manuscript aside for a month before I come back to it. This isn’t generally possible for my work-for-hire projects, but I do it when I can.

An absence of a month or more means that everything isn’t fresh in my mind. When I reread the manuscript after a lengthy absence, it is easier to see what I laid down in the manuscript vs what I planned to write. The two are generally somewhat different from each other.

When I make notes on my manuscript, I first read it through in a single sitting. No comments. No notes. To enable myself to do this, I will keep a pad of post-its and stick one on a page where I spot something I want to address. But no notes! I need to see the whole.

When I’ve read the whole thing, I take notes. Fix this. Do that. Add this in. Take that out. Then I reread it all again. Now is when I mark things up. When I think I’ve got it close to perfect, that’s when I need to go through it with Darcy’s book. She and I approach our writing differently so her techniques reveal things I wouldn’t catch on my own.

So – when do you revise? Do it do it one time and then submit your work? Or do you do it several times before you give it to your critique group?

–SueBE

3 Tips on How to Start Your Nonfiction Manuscript

It may have been a dark and stormy night but that doesn’t mean you need to start your manuscript with that line.
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I love writing nonfiction. I’ve written about archaeology (The Ancient Maya), American history (Hidden Computers and The Assassination of John F. Kennedy), science (Evolution of Reptiles and Evolution of Mammals), and even current events (The Dakota Access Pipeline and The Impeachment of Donald Trump).

No matter what type of nonfiction book I am given to write, I need to find an interesting way to hook my reader. Here are five tipes on how to start your nonfiction manuscript.

Create a Scene

Every one of the books listed above starts with a narrative nonfiction scene. This means that I create a scene nonfiction scene complete with a setting, tension and characters. Because this is nonfiction, every detail in my scene has to be based on research and fact.

Choose the right scene and you not only hook your reader but you also leave them wanting to know more. They turn the page and read on.

Beware the Question

Do you know something? It can be tempting to start with a question as I did in this paragraph. But that sort of start is hard to pull off. If your reader can answer “no,” they may very well stop reading. In this care, the risk is that the reader will simply think “I know lots of things” and that is the end of their reading experience at least with this paragraph.

Did you know . . . what about . . . and have you considered are other ill-advised story-starts.

You have to make your reader think or surprise them in some way to make a question work.

Beware Time and Temperature

It was a sunny 4th of July.

That’s nice, but it isn’t a very effective begining. Unless the time and weather are unique or surprising or set up a contrast, you can probably come up with a more effective beginning. What do I mean by contrast? Keep in mind that I’m making all of these examples up, but . . .

“In spite of the frigid temperatures, sweat ran down the faces of the crew . . .”

“The birds chirped and the sun shone on this beautiful spring day as the workers put the finishing touches on the gallow that was to be used later that day.”

“The streets were dark although it was dawn as everyone headed to work . . .”

You may discover several different ways to start your manuscript. The one that you ultimately select may depend on your themes, what you choose to emphasize, or how the story ends. This isn’t the first thing you need to figure out but it is something you need to consider before submitting your work to an agent or an editor.

–SueBE

Creating a Rough Draft is a lot like Building with Lego Bricks

I don’t normally open with my graphic alone but this one pretty much nails what it is like to create a rough draft without actually discussing writing. Here are four ways that building with Lego is like creating a rough draft.

You Start with a Plan

Every manuscript starts with some kind of idea or plan. And it is always A-MAZ-ING. Truly amazing.

But somewhere along the way, and if you are like me it doesn’t take all that long, you realize that something is missing. With Lego, it might be the wheels. With your story, it might be character motiviation, obstacles or consequences if she should fail to win. Whatever it is that is missing, you have to rethink your plan.

Strange Things Show Up

Once you start writing again, strange things show up. I’m writing a middle grade science fiction novel about space travel and so much more. Where the heck did this whale come from? I don’t know why but one of my characters has a fascination with whales which in a real person would be no big deal. But how does it tie into the story?

And my main character’s science fair project was about . . . gene sequencing? How is that going to help in space? In short, it is not. Some of the strange things may enrich your story but others are going to have to go. They are a lot like the Barbie shoe and the marbles that show up in the Lego box.

Missing Items

Finally your draft is chugging along – I have yet to reach this point – but then you realize that you can’t find any more red bricks. Where did they all go! They were just here a minute ago.

Maybe you are trying to stretch your beats too far. Or you need to add more conflict. Or one of your characters is going to have to grow a previously non-existent third arm to make the plot work. Whatever it is, at some point you are going to realize that you need to add something more to the story.

At Least It Is Done

In the end, your draft resembles has almost no resemblance to your original glorious plan. You thought you would build a futuristic car or a striking castle. What you built more closely resembles an out building, quite possibly an outhouse.

But that’s okay. Once you’ve drafted your story, you can always rework it. But there is no way to rework it until you get something on paper.

As they say, an awful lot of writing is rewriting just as a lot of building Lego is rethinking your original plan.

–SueBE

Cutting Excess Words to Streamline Action and Clarify Your Story

What words can you cut?
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When the time comes to rewrite, one of the things I focus on is getting rid of any excess. Early on, one of my mentors encouraged me to cut 30% from everything I write. I don’t always manage to do this, but trying to do it means that my writing is lean and specific.

Often I find myself looking for more specific verbs or more exact phrasing to streamline action. For example:

Cut Begin or Start

Whenever my characters begin to walk away or start to do their homework, I know my writing is slowing things down. Why not just have them “walk away” or “do their homework”?

In reality, I think that using start or begin is a clumsy attempt at a transition. Get rid these clutter words and let your character get to it.

Bye-Bye Try

This is one that I just read about in Fiction University. Many writers use over use try. Their characters “try to open the locked door” or “try to look brave.”

Unfortunately, this phrasing leaves the reader unsure. Does the character do whatever or not?

Instead of using this construction, look at why you chose to use it. Maybe your character is making a clumsy attempt, if so change the phrase to indicate it. Clarissa grasped the lock but it didn’t turn. Instead her cold fingers slipped. Instead of using try, paint a more specific scene that will pull your reader in.

Other Words and Phrases that Pad Your Prose

These aren’t the only words and phrases you should avoid. Here are a few more that I sometimes find lurking in my own writing.

  • Standing up or sitting down. Cut the excess words and have your character stand or sit.
  • Speak up or speak out. Again, simplify things by having your character speak.
  • Think to herself. If your character is thinking something, you don’t have to say that she is thinking it to herself. Unless she has telepathy, she isn’t going to be projecting her thoughts to anyone else.

Keep things concise to create clear, concise prose. It will keep your reader reading.

–SueBE

3 Tips on Foreshadowing What Is to Come

Fairy tales are great at foreshadowing.

As I get back into my middle grade science fiction novel, Air Stream, I’m reworking the three chapters that I had already written. The first scene? Let’s just say that I did a great job on that one and then proceeded to goof things up later on.

I was trying to work in the theme. Foreshadowing is not my strength and I was trying not to be too heavy handed. Not only did I fail to work my theme into the scene, the scene was so sketchy and light weight that my critique group didn’t know why it was in the book.

Sigh. Then I read a blog post by Nathan Bransford, Don’t Step on Your Surprises. After reading this, I have a much better idea what I did wrong. Follow these three tips and you’ll do a better job than I did.

Connect the Dots

One of the things that Bransford warned his readers not to do is to fail to lay things out. In trying not to be heavy handed, we often don’t do enough. We create slight scenes without working in the information that will lay things out for the reader. What is this information? It could be specifying the character’s desire. It could clarification of the consequences or stakes – what will happen if the character fails to get what they want? It might be an obstacle or other delay. Each scene, even scenes that foreshadow, need to have something critical to the story.

Avoid the Heavy Hand

I was too worried about being heavy handed. I was afraid that I would give too many information away too early.

As described by Bransford, being heavy handed is often a matter of telling the reader what is going to happen and then having it happen. They get a double dose of the same story segments.

Seek Balance

As with so many writing elements, the best way to do this is to achieve balance. Create a scene that serves a purpose in the story. Then slip in a little something.

This is what I didn’t succeed in doing. My scene should matter, but, like I said before, it is too slight. I’m going to have to expand it. Once I do that, two of my secondary characters will have the space needed to discuss the theme without it seeming strange or out of place.

What can I say? It is time to try, try again. Connect the dots while not being heavy handed. It make take another try or three but I’m going to make this work.

–SueBE

Rewriting, Revising, and Polishing

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The first draft of my cozy has been waiting and waiting and . . . yawn . . . waiting for me to get back to it. But I haven’t felt compelled. Fortunately, I’m in a mystery writer’s group with several other accomplished writers. Or perhaps I should said several other writers who are all accomplished. They have completed and published mysteries.

Today I talked with one of them about my manuscript. It finally hit me. I’m not looking at a revision. I’m facing a rewrite. What’s the difference?

Rewrite

When you rewrite a manuscript, you make substantial changes to the story. In my case, two secondary character’s are changing professions. One of my subplots is being completely discarded. This is going to impact my entire story.

But that’s okay.

I didn’t like my character. She seemed weak and whiney. And there wasn’t any way to fix this as the story stood. I’m not saying that every character needs to be an MMA fighter but I had to question whether or not my character would even have the get-up-and-go to solve they mystery.

How to solve this? By changing her backstory, what brought her to town, and the circumstances of her arrival. From start to finish, I’ll be reworking characters, how they relate to each other, and the plot. This is definitely a rewrite.

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Revision

In a revision, the story works. Your characters are three dimensional. The plot works. You’ve got a good setting. Your working on how you tell the story but that is not going to change in a substantial way.

Sure, you might be adding some transitions. And there could be clues to lay out in earlier chapters. You might even be taking out some things that aren’t necessary. There are sentences that repeat information relayed earlier. There could be a chapter that just doesn’t move the story forward. And you might be able to combine two characters into one. But the story? That doesn’t change.

Me? My story is changing.

Polishing

Last but not least, you polish your story. This is when you review individual work choice. You might go for a more imaginative verb or a more specific noun, but nothing massive is changing.

This is also when I read the story aloud. I want to hear the sounds of the words. I want to get a feel for how they interact.

Admittedly, I’m more comfortable revising than I am rewriting, but that’s okay. Fiction is still fairly new to me and I’m enjoying the learning process. Like I said, thank goodness I have a group of talented writers to help me along my way.

–SueBE

What Writers Can Learn from the I Spy Series

Yesterday I stumbled across the video on how photographer Walter Wick creates the images for the I Spy book series. I have a confession to make. My son had so many of these books! I’m fairly certain that he didn’t enjoy them nearly as much as I did. First, there was the challenge of finding the various items. But I also loved the complexity and the beauty of the individual images.

The video discusses not only how Wick came to work on this particular series, but also the effort that goes into them. Some images come together in a matter of hours.

Others take weeks. Sometimes Wick and his assistants have to build various elements from scratch. Making that paricular photograph takes more work than some of the others that may be in the same book. But Wick knows that he and his crew have to keep at it to get the result they want.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like writing? Some manuscripts come together relatively quickly. Maybe not in hours but quickly compared to other manuscripts of the same type. Everything flows and it just works.

Other manuscripts take a lot more effort. I know that often as I draft I have to go back and do more research. Why? Because there is a detail that I need in the manuscript that somehow I missed finding during my initial research.

Still other manuscripts may not take more research but finding the right opening scene takes multiple tries. Sometimes it doesn’t come together until the closing scene has been created. Only then do I know where I need to start.

For your current project you may still be looking for the right POV. Or working to bring the setting to life. Or the voice of the story isn’t quite right.

I hope that like Wick and his crew you will keep at it. It often takes a lot of effort to create a story that just works without reflecting the labor and multiple attempts that went into it.

–SueBE

2 Reasons to Be Specific

The right word can make a huge difference.

As writers we spend a lot of time trying to find just the right word. We need something that says what we want. But we also need to select words that are specific, and here is why.

Word Count

Whether you write picture books or novels, there is a limit to your word count. When you overshoot what is acceptable, you find yourself having to remove words from the page. The first round is fairly easy. At that point most of us can tighten our work by removing sentences or paragraphs. We weed out what feels repetitive.

But once that has been done, a lot of writers freeze up. “Everything that is here is essential!” But is it.

Now is the time that you need to make each individual word count. When you do this, you find what I call filler words. Words that I can often remove from my own text include that, have, and start. Whenever I see these words in my text, I know that I can often come up with a tighter construction that avoids these terms.

To succeed at this, you have to study each sentence. Your goal? To find something to remove. Sunday, I discussed this with a writer friend who suggested rereading and cutting one paragraph at a time. And start from the end of the piece and work forwards. That keeps you from falling into the flow and simply reading along.

Meaning

In addition to word count, using a specific word is often a matter of using a more meaningful word. If your character carries in a “really big fruit,” think again. She could be carrying in a watermelon. Is this a picnic? Or it could be a pumpkin. Is it autumn. Or she might have a durian. That might shift her location from the US to Malaysia.

Is your character studying science? Why not biology? Or anatomy?

Select the right word for the job. It can reduce your word count and also paint a specific picture. Use the specifics to draw your reader into a carefully crafted story.

–SueBE