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Dialogue is an essential part of fiction, the way an author shows a character through what s/he says. And it’s so easy to get it wrong. Here are some ways dialogue goes wrong and what to do about it.
Trivial. When character talk to each other, the reader doesn’t need to listen to the trivial, or unimportant, things we all say to each other. We ask about the weather, chat about the inconsequential details of our days, or just generally avoid talking about anything of substance. That type of dialogue clogs your storytelling and drags down the pace. Cut the trivial and only leave the meat of the discussion. Boring. Even once you’ve cut the trivial junk, dialogue can still be boring. Deep philosophical discussions, complicated explanations, and dry, technical explanations all bore the reader. Instead, enliven the discussions with conflict, disagreements, or something that leaves the reader wondering what happens next. Think of each bit of dialogue as conflict brought to the surface of the story. Build a tiny narrative arc into each set of dialogue.
Unbelievable. After eliminating trivial and boring dialogue, you’ve still got to make sure it’s believable. Would the characters actually SAY that? When a character is too foolish, too opinionated, too extreme, then you have to wonder if it rings true to the reader. It’s a fine line to walk: you want the characters to be bold and bigger-than-life, but you must make those huge characters believable.
Too formal. Another thing that can go wrong is the wrong level of formality. While the principal of a school may talk formally, probably your characters voice will come through in a more informal way. Use contractions. Shorten sentences and use sentence fragments. Leave out the fancy words and let your characters loosen the ties and corsets.
Dialogue is crucial and you can easily get it right. Cut the trivial and boring, make sure the dialogue is believable, and let the characters relax. Don’t let a reader close a book after one chapter just because you blew the dialogue. Fix it now.
Everyone knows that you can’t defeat a black hole. Right?
But what if you’re writing a science fiction story and you NEED your characters to defeat the black hole.
Um. Hard. Your readers won’t go there with you, unless. . .
That’s exactly the situation I found myself in. I had set up a science fiction story with an impossible scenario because it was an exciting options. But then, I found myself being sucked (metaphorically) into a black hole. How could my characters defeat the undefeatable.
Fortunately, I had an expert in the family. My brother is a physics whiz and I asked him some simple questions that set him off on a path of speculation. In the end, he came up with something that he said “graduate students would seriously discuss the possibility.” That’s good enough for me! The results make the story more believable. You can read it next year when my sff novel, tentatively called BLUE MARBLES, comes out.
Another example is my October release, NEFERTITI, THE SPIDERNAUT: The Jumping Spider Who Learned to Hunt in Space. This is a nonfiction children’s picture book, the true story of a spider who went up to the International Space Station (ISS). Experts who helped included the scientist who actually set up and monitored the experiment, the astronaut who cared for the spider while on the ISS, and an arachnologist who made sure the spider info was correct.
And a final example: In Kell and the Horse Apple Parade, an alien named Kell and his BFF, Bree, must plan a Friends of Police parade. I wanted kids to dress up like a super-hero(ine)s, but of course, I can’t rip off Marvel. Instead, I needed to create my own super-hero(ine)s. I turned to my nephew, who is the ultimate collector of everything HULK. He teaches sixth grade history and one semester he taught a special class on American Mythology; all the kids did was read from his collection of comics. (Wouldn’t you have LOVED him as a sixth grade teacher?) He suggested several unique super-hero(ine)s and that made a huge difference in the story.
From checking facts in a non-fiction to creating super-hero(ine)s to speculation on how to defeat a black hole, I’ve used experts in both fiction and nonfiction. They help me create a more coherent and more interesting world.
Find Your Expert
Where will you find your expert?
Family. In my case, I turned to my brother and my nephew first because they were both truly experts on something I needed. If you do this, be sure they are really the right person to ask and not just convenient.
Recommendations. Ask around for recommendations. The scientist involved in the spider project recommended the arachnologist. I often see writers asking their Facebook or Twitter followers for suggestions.
University, Museum, and More. Another source of information can be a college professor who is considered an expert in their field. The arachnologist works at a science museum. Sometimes googling can help you find the right information; but I also like to search google.com/scholar for scientific papers on a topic. When you find a name repeated or cited often, that could be a person to use. Then, do a search on google.com and choose Search Tools/Any Time/Past Year. That limits the search to only hits from the last 365 days. In other words, it’s current and recent information. Usually, you can find the current university where the person works and then use the university site to find contact info.
It’s Still Your Story
Of course, one danger of asking experts to make comments or suggestions is that they will make comments and suggestions. On everything!
You’ve asked them to comment from their perspective as an expert in a certain field. But that usually means they are very intelligent people and have an opinion on many other related things. You must thank them, both privately and in an acknowledgment in your book. However, you do not have to change everything they mention. Certainly, you must listen to everything and evaluate if it’s right for your book. But always remember that it’s your book. Only do what works for your story.
Experts can add credibility, accuracy and fun to your story. Use them wisely.
The infamous Show-Don’t-Tell mantra fails to take into account the importance of character thoughts. If you purely do action, dialogue and description, you have few tools to let the reader know the character’s inner life. Instead, you need to include thoughts at some point.
Direct Interior Monologue
When a character is thinking about something you can give the reader direct access to those thoughts.
“I like the blue dress best, she thought.”
Sometimes, you can even leave off the “she thought” part and give it as if the reader is inside the character’s head. These thoughts are in the character’s language and diction, not the narrator’s.
Indirect Interior Monologue
Direct thoughts become indirect thoughts when you do two things: change from present to past tense, and change from 1st person to 3rd person.
“She liked the blue dress best, she thought.”
The “she thought” part is still correct, even though it’s an indirect thought. And the language is still in the character’s voice.
These two methods of bringing a character’s thoughts to the reader have an important distinction: for direct thoughts, the character isn’t consciously narrating. Instead, s/he is just thinking. This isn’t a stream-of-consciousness because this isn’t just impressions and ideas as they come to the character. For a stream-of-consciousness, you might get this:
“It’s blue. Nice fabric. The red feels rougher. Blue matches my eye color, too.”
The reader still understands that the character likes blue best, but the thoughts are more immediate and show the chain of thoughts. Indirect interior monologue reflects the character’s thoughts, but it still maintains a distance because it’s still narrated, even if it’s narrated by the character. Direct interior monologue delves deeper into a character because the thoughts are presented directly.
Should You Use Direct or Indirect Character Thoughts
That is, both techniques are common and are often intermixed within a narrative. It’s not a question of which technique is appropriate. Rather, where do you want the reader to go deeper into the character’s thoughts and emotions?
When something painful happens, do you want the reader to experience it fully with direct access to the character’s interior life? Or do you want to shield the reader a bit, and therefore, you’ll create some narrative distance with the indirect method?
Do editors often tell you that your characters aren’t coming to life? It may be that you are using the Show-Don’t-Tell strategy too strictly and never present thoughts and emotions of your character. Yes! You need to Show-Don’t-Tell, but if that’s all you use the results are more subtle and it’s easy for a reader to misread thoughts or misunderstand emotion.
Indirect and direct interior monologue allow the reader access to those emotions in a deep or deeper way. Let the reader FEEL with your character and the reader will stay with you!
This week I met six amazing novelist and had the pleasure of leading discussions on the craft of writing at the Master Novel Class retreat at the Highlights Foundation. Wow! It was fun.
I’ve taught the Novel Revision Retreat since 1999 and I still have passion and energy to teach it and see how it impacts people. In fact, there are still a couple openings in this retreat in September!
But I wanted to teach a class that went beyond the scope of the usual things I teach. This one gave ME a chance to stretch.
I’ve studied POV before from the perspective given by David Jauss‘s article, in his book, On Writing Fiction: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About Craft. And I wrote three blog posts analyzing The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate in light of Jauss’s explanations of POV. But still, I didn’t feel like I had a handle on POV. I asked the authors to read the article and one night we discussed it in detail, which finally helped me understand it. I also did a POV chart, which really helped. Apparently, arranging ideas on some sort of chart helps me understand things better. The rest of the time, they experimented with when and where to use the ideas, such as moving from direct interior thoughts to indirect interior thoughts or vice versa.
Hero’s Journey and Beyond
We started the discussion of plot by looking at basic plot structures, then moving on to the Hero’s Journey. Although some had used the Hero’s Journey, they might not have used it on their current WIP. They found places to add scenes, take out scenes and focus their plots.
Sensory Details and Dramatic POV
Other discussions centered on the importance of the sensory details to a dramatic POV. One writer found a new voice with the addition of details, while another jump-started a new voice with this technique.
For me, as usual, one of the “highlights” was to be in such a lovely surrounding with an amazing support staff. If you’ve not been, the Highlights Foundation has one goal: to make a writer’s life easy while they work on their craft. Amazing facility and staff. And, of course, it was a great pleasure to visit with Kent Brown who keeps everything shipshape. Thanks, Kent! It’s an amazing place.
The writers represented all levels from raw beginners to those on the cusp of selling something. Our job was to help them move along the journey of being a children’s book author.
The first night was intense: we spent three hours talking about the basics of picture books from length of printed book to the length of manuscripts that sell well. Character, plot, language–basic topics took most of the night’s material.
Some participants said that within the first hour, they were mentally rewriting their picture books!
Focusing Statement: Start Your Picture Book with a Bang
One helpful exercise was the Focusing Statement:
This is a story about ________________
Who more than anything else wants ___________________,
But can’t because:
When you get an idea for a picture book, it’s helpful to focus it by working on the narrative arc like this. If you have the focusing statement right, it shapes the story as you write.
Picture Book Language
On Saturday, discussion turned to the language used in picture books. Because they are read aloud, it’s not necessary to strictly limit your vocabulary choices. However, there’s a delicate balance of interesting words and maintaining clarity for the reader and audience.
My B.A. is in Speech Pathology and my M.A. is in Audiology. My favorite college class was phonics, or how the mouth changes shape to create various sounds. This knowledge of phonics has been extremely helpful in writing children’s books because the rhythm, voice and meaning are all affected by the sounds we choose. For example, if you are writing a lullaby, you don’t want to use harsh sounds such as d, t, k, g. Instead, choose words with liquid sounds such as l, w, r. At the PB&J retreat, we spent a session exploring how phonics affects the success of a picture book manuscript.
Picture Book Dummies
I love the process of cutting up a manuscript and pasting it into a dummy book. It’s easy to see if you have enough action images for an illustrator, or if you only have talking heads. When you read the manuscript as it will be laid out in a 32-page book, you suddenly see that this section is too long, that one is too short, and this one just doesn’t advance the story. Page turns become crucial. It’s a fun part of the process.
Picture Book Round Table Critiques
One fun part of the retreat is digging into the manuscripts. Participants were divided into three groups and assigned a table chaired by Kelly, Leslie, or myself. We read through each manuscript and talked about what was working, and then turned to the author’s next step in revising. The most common recommendation was the cut or tighten the prose. Some manuscripts went from 1000 to 350 words over the course of the weekend and the three critique sessions.
First Pages with Editor
As the weekend progressed, excitement built because on Sunday afternoon, we held a First Pages session with visiting editor Kelsey Murphy of Balzer & Bray (Harpercollins). This is a common session in writing conferences wherein the editor listens to someone read aloud the first page of a manuscript. Then she makes comments. Kelsey was generous with her comments pointing out what worked, why it might or might not work for her company, and generally encouraging the writer.
That wasn’t enough excitement, though, because while Balzer & Bray is usually closed to unsolicited submissions, Kelsey will take submissions for a month from this group. That kept the excitement high as writers worked to incorporate her comments in their next revision.
This is the third year that Leslie and I have taught the PB&J session at Highlights and it was exciting for us. The enthusiasm was high, writers bonded and created critique groups and everyone made great strides in their writing. A career isn’t built on a single book; instead it takes a concentrated effort over a long period of time. But the foundation laid this weekend for writers was amazing. Look out! These writers are going to do fantastic things!
Yes, we’ll be offering PB&J next summer at Highlights again. I’ll announce it on my blog when registration is open.
HELLO! (Echo: Hello!)
As I child, I lived near the Continental Divide in New Mexico and we often played, “Echo!” Throwing words at a mountain is a great children’s game, but echoes can ruin your story.
Repeating prose elements
There are a couple major offending prose elements to be on your guard against as you write.
The subject verbed. The simple declarative sentence is a sturdy workhorse of narrative prose, but if used too often, it becomes boring. The problem often arises when an author attempts to replace weak “to be” verbs with more appropriate verbs.
Not: The sun was hot.
Instead: The sunlight sparkled.
Nothing wrong with that revision, and in fact, there’s a lot right with it. The “to be” construction just sits there, but the verb “sparkled” shows the scene with more clarity and detail. But if you repeat that over and over, it’s too repetitive.
The sunlight sparkled. The lake glittered. The mountain tops gleamed.
Those are great verbs, but the repeating prose elements are annoying.
Adjective, adjective noun. Another echoing sentence structure is the repetition of adjectives and a noun.
The deep, blue lake
The tall, immense mountain
The deep, dark woods
Besides being cliches, it’s the echoing structure that is boring. Watch for this and other echoing sentence structures.
Headwords. The beginnings of sentences are also ripe for repetition. I tend to overuse, “For example.” Other options might be “for instance,” “In one case,” and so on. The repetition of “The” at the beginning of the last two sentences might be tolerated as long as I don’t repeat it a third time. The echoing headwords problem is annoying!
Galloping “I”. I love the description of the use of the pronoun “I” as galloping. Often I see it in first person stories, but I know it can also creep into third person dialogue. The narcissism becomes annoying when you see the story rush past. I know my prose will never get lost in the “I” problem!
Verbal Tics. What words do you tend to repeat over and over? I have to watch for characters who “whirl” around and little “bits” of things. I’ve no idea why those words show up too often in my early drafts. I just make sure my tics don’t annoy you! (Have I said “annoy” too often? Are you annoyed yet?)
Leave the echoes to child’s play! Right? RIGHT. Right (right) ((right))
Narrators come in different shapes and sizes, and levels of trust.
Katherine Patterson said that the everything the narrator said in Jacob Have I Loved was “tinged with green.” In other words, her unreliable narrator was jealous of her sister. Nothing she said could be taken as truth, especially when talking about her sister. The title didn’t come from anything in the book. Rather, it is a Biblical reference to the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, sons of Isaac. At the end of his life, Issac blesses Jacob and fails to give Esau any blessing. Isaac is quoted as saying, “Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated.” (Romans 9:13). The title of the story gives away the type of narrator we should expect.
So, when I came to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s stunning book, The War That Saved My Life, it was interesting to watch the naive narrator. The book was named a 2016 Newbery Honor book, and Winner of the 2016 Schneider Family Book Award. The main character, Ada has never been out of the one-room London apartment where she lives with her mother and brother. Enter World War II, and the evacuation of children to the surrounding countryside. Ada was born with a club foot which her mother never allowed to be fixed because she was ashamed of having a cripple. The result is an eleven-year old who is naive.
Ada reports on events, such as her mother’s treatment of herself and her brother, Jamie, with a naive outlook. She doesn’t know how cruelly she has been treated. She doesn’t realize she’s been raised in great poverty. She doesn’t realize. . . many things.
But the narration explains things clearly enough that the reader knows. The author skillfully develops a deep sympathy for Ada and Jamie, as they are moved to a middle-class home in the country, where Ada discovers that she isn’t daft or dotty or crazy. She discovers that her brain is a long ways from her foot and being “crippled” doesn’t mean she’s stupid.
The story works because of the naive narrator. If the child narrating understood the depth of the mother’s cruelty, the story wouldn’t have worked. Bradley accomplishes this by using straight-forward descriptions without tinging the words with negative emotions. At least not till very late in the story.
If you want to use a naive narrator, or just study a different type of narrator, read this amazing book.
Reader confusion is a common problem with first drafts. Prose is ambiguous, and scene details leave conflicting ideas of the time line or the physical location of the characters.
Reader Confusion: Clarify Your Prose
The problem of ambiguous prose lies in the writing itself. Let’s look at some common problems and how to solve them. Fuzzy thinking. OK, you were knocking off a draft of a chapter at midnight and, well, you got fuzzy in your thinking. It happens. But you can’t leave prose that is garbled. As you read through your draft, mark places where your sentence structure got complex in an effort to explain something. To revise, first get the thought straight in your own head. Then, write it in simple sentences because it will force you to clarify your thoughts. Then, if appropriate for your audience, combine those sentences into a prose that flows better.
Technical explanations. When I have technical explanations — in my WIP, I have to explain a complicated process to defeat a black hole — I often find a new or naive reader. I want to know where they got confused or what they still had questions about. Then I’ll rewrite and repeat until the naive reader understands. Try to make even technical explanations simple enough for a child to understand.
Pronoun Antecedent. A good command of language means that sometimes you use pronouns to avoid repeating a noun over and over. But too often, it’s not clear who/what the pronoun is referring to. The rule is that a pronoun refers back to the noun closest to it.
When Jack and Bob decided to eat out, he decided they should go to a Mexican restaurant.
Who decided? Jack or Bob? The noun immediately before “he” is Bob. When there are multiple people involved, it’s usually best to repeat the person’s name.
When Jack and Bob decided to eat out, Bob decided they should go to a Mexican restaurant.
This one is a pet peeve of mine, and I’m always aggravated when the pronoun’s antecedent is confusing. If repeated often, it can make me close the book and move on to something else.
Word Choices. When I was teaching Freshman Composition, I laughed at the confusion created in an essay by the use of the wrong homophone word. Homophones are words that sound alike, but are spelled differently. They are confusing to poor spellers! And spell-check won’t catch these errors because the alternate spelling is a correct word. Here’s the poor freshman’s sentence; he’s talking about cheerleaders at a basketball game.
With her enthusiasm and loud cheering, she was the hart of the team.
Of course, he meant “heart.” But I still have visions of a deer with big antlers cheering for a slam dunk.
If you’re one of those poor spellers, you MUST have someone else read through your story before sending it out. Spell-check alone isn’t enough for you.
Other word choices can be confusing, too. One that I see frequently is “S/he yelled, “xxx xxx xxx!”
It’s confusing because I didn’t see any reason for that character to be yelling. The author obviously wants to signal that the character speaking is upset. But merely “yelling” doesn’t do that. Instead, I’m confused about why this character is acting so weird. Be careful that your choices accurately reflect the emotional state of your character. You can’t have any unearned emotional moments. If there is truly a reason to yell, take the time to explain the reasons.
Reader Confusion: Clarify the Scene Details
Another confusing story element is the setting, which includes both time and physical location.
Where? Stories are grounded in a particular place. When a story presents a talking head, it fails to take advantage of the full range of storytelling techniques. The place or setting of a story should be revealed in enough detail to make it come alive, without intruding on the story line or pacing. Most people err on the side of too little detail, whether worrying about dragging down the story with “unnecessary description” or a failure to imagine the scene in enough detail. That’s akin to a bare stage and a solo performer. That works. But not in a novel.
Time. The story’s descriptions should locate the story in a particular historical period or a specific year, a season of the year or a specific day/month, a rough time of day or a specific minute/hour. A friend once wrote a story that was set in December in the U.S., but lacked any Christmas decorations. It didn’t take much, but the bits added were essential to ground the story as a December story.
Map of Scene. It may also be necessary for you to draw a map of where a scene takes place, whether that’s a single room or a neighborhood or a city. It’s helpful to put a finger on the map and tell the story as you move your finger from place to place. Let’s say you wanted to write a fight scene in a living room. You start by describing the child’s rocking horse in the middle of the rug. But when the two men start to fight, they never trip over that rocking horse. The exact details should be clear in your mind as you describe characters moving across the scenery. If they aren’t, go back and get your map straight.
When? Here are some friendly time words:
at the present time
from time to time
sooner or later
at the same time
up to the present time
to begin with
in due time
as soon as
as long as
in the meantime
in a moment
in the first place
all of a sudden
at this instant
by the time
You’ve likely heard the advice not to use adverbs. Here’s a big exception. Time words help ground the scene and create the narrative sequencing of details. Don’t leave your reader confused about the “When” of the story.
As you work through your draft, clear up all confusions possible, especially prose and scene details. Otherwise, your reader may not stay with you!
Character reactions to an event, comment or action are often complex. For instance, what if Jill slaps Jack.
So what? The physical action alone isn’t enough to determine meaning in the story. Instead, the writer must give the reader some kind of clues as to what is really happening and what Jack and Jill think about it.
Character Reactions in 3 Easy Steps
Basically, there are three things you can use: a physical action, an internal emotion or thought, and dialogue.
You’ll see this recommended in a couple of conflicting ways. Some say the sequence should be Physical action – Emotion/thought – dialogue. Others say the inner reaction should come first, as in Emotion/thought – physical action – dialogue. Either works for me. Let’s try it.
Physical action: Jill stared at her stinging hand. Emotion/thought: She’d been wanting to do that for days now, but had been too scared. She should be scared now! Dialogue: “I’m sorry,” her voice quavered.
Or, switch it up.
Emotion/thought: Jack deserved that! But he wouldn’t leave it there. Fear suddenly gripped her.
Physical action: Jill turned and ran.
Dialogue: “You’ll never catch me.”
The point is that the reader needs more than a simple action. We too often get this wrong when we talk about the rule to Show, Don’t Tell. There was a time when I interpreted the rule so strictly that I was left with actions that floated ambiguously within the story and didn’t add up to anything.
The Complex-Reaction formula of action-thought-dialogue will help pull you back to a specific place and time.
The chapter on 13-year-old girls begins like this:
“Montclair, New Jersey
The boy sent the message in the middle of the day, when she was walking home from school. He sent it via direct message on Instagram, in the same shaky, childlike font as the new Drake album (“IF YOU’RE READING THIS ITS TOO LATE”)
Sophia stared at her phone.
“Wait What???” she responded.
It’s an example of what’s happening to girls as young as 13. Boys ask them via social media channels for nude photos. Sophia eventually asked the boy why he wanted the photo. She was starting to feel warm and mushy inside because maybe the boy really liked her and she just hadn’t known it. Surely, that was why he wanted her photo.
Turns out, the boy just wanted her photo to win a bet. And, if he passed it along to an older guy that he thought was a senior, he could get some “lq.” Liquor. Booze.
There was no love interest here, just playing around with social media to get what he needed. A photo to trade for some lq.
YA Writers, Listen Up! You MUST Read This Book
you’re writing YA books, you really need to read this book. It tells the story of multiple girls from ages 13-19 and how the social media climate has affected their lives.
It’s a tale of double-standards: if a girl gives up a nude photo, she’s a slut, but the transaction says nothing about the boys.
It’s a tale of bullying and cyber-bullying: the use of social media, especially photos, has ruined many a teenage life. Read the range of problems this causes.
It’s a tale of fake-personas: girls are increasingly pressured to put up sexy selfies, even when they see themselves as something different.
Every decade or so, we need a book like this where a journalist goes out into the street to talk with kids today. How will these detailed stories affect your next novel?
Soon after 9/11, I was sitting at the table with my son, his friend, and my daughter. We talked about the 9/11 tragedy and then hoped for better times.
I asked, “What should I write about next?”
My son said, “Pigs at sea.”
That was the working title for this story for a long time. It’s a story of leaving home and finding your way in the world. What is that like to leave behind everything you know and go strange and wonderful new places?
Penelope and Santiago find their way to the Wider World, a place where an intelligent human or animal can get ahead in this world. The pigs do find their way to the sea and discover a rich and interesting life. Throwing in the sea serpents and the Ice King, well, that just made it more fun. As we move along in life, we will inevitably find friends and enemies.
Interestingly, when I read this to a sixth grade classroom, I asked them, “What do you think will happen at the end?”
Almost everyone said, “They’ll go home.”
Even in sixth grade, it’s hard to face the Wider World with an attitude of adventure and confidence. I think kids absorb such things from stories like this.
The story is now available for preorders.
Liberty – A ROUSING TALE OF DANGER ON THE HIGH SEAS —
When Santiago is thrust into the farm’s pigsty, Penelope is captivated by Santiago Talbert’s boast, “I plan to sail the Seven Seas.” Together, these extraordinary pigs escape the farm and cross into the land of Liberty, a parallel world where an intelligent human or animal can get ahead. They follow their dream to Boston Harbor, where they try to convince sea captains that pigs can sail. First, though, Santiago learns mapmaking, while Penelope works on the docks loading ships. Eventually Penelope signs onto the Ice King’s crew as he cuts and packs ice to ship to the far-flung corners of the world.
When the fleet of ice ships sails, Penelope and Santiago join the crew of the flagship, captained by Captain Kingsley, the Ice King himself. A massive polar bear, he harbors dark secrets, and the pigs face the shocking truth: they alone can save the friendly sea serpents from the Ice King’s clutches.
From the fascinating world of tall ships comes this unlikely tale of humble pigs who follow their dream. Come and join the Talberts on their journey.
ROWDY: The Pirate Who Could Not Sleep comes out on June 1. One week away!
To celebrate, we’ve set up a Goodreads Giveaway that will end – appropriately – on Father’s Day. The giveaway ends on Father’s Day.
Rowdy: Father-Daughter Bedtime Story
A rowdy heart doesn’t know what it wants or needs! When a rowdy pirate captain returns to port, she can’t settle down and sleep. She sends her crew in search of a lullaby. This is a great gift for fathers to read to their daughters. Here’s a video showing a father reading to his daughter.
One of the hardest things to find is a great critique of the overall structure of a novel. You’ll get great feedback on a scene or line edits of paragraphs. But the overall structure of a novel is hard. Enter, the Shrunken Manuscript.
I’ve taught the Novel Revison Retreat since 1999 and a mainstay has been the Shrunken Manuscript, a technique that makes a novel structure visible by shrinking the manuscript to a size that fits into your field of vision.
Because I’m teaching a master novel class at Highlights Foundation this summer, they asked me to do a webinar and they recorded it. Watch this webinar for a full explanation of how to shrink a manuscript, how an ideal manuscript would look when shrunk, common mistakes, and an example of lessons from my work-in-progress using the Shrunken Manuscript.
I’m in a fallow period. I have finished a draft of a novel, Book 2 of the sff trilogy I’m writing. While life has taken me off in crazy directions, it’s okay. Sometimes, stories need to rest a while. You need time to forget what you wrote so you can come back with fresh eyes.
One problem with just-finished novel manuscripts is that it has become a coherent story; unfortunately, it’s not the story you meant to write. It’s likely close to what you envisioned, but it’s never a perfect version of the story. There are two manuscripts: the one in your head and the one on paper. If you try to polish and revise immediately, it’s too easy to say to yourself that you DID include such and so. It’s in your head, surely it must be on paper. Alas. It’s not so.
Allowing a manuscript to rest means that when you come back, your memory has less of an opportunity to trip you up. You must see the story you put on paper! You must take it as the starting point for any revisions. Here are some things you may discover.
Not on the page. You may discover that there are things in your head that still haven’t been written. You meant to write it later. Sometimes, you unconsciously put in a “place holder,” or a scene that is just bare-boned and full of cliches. The story may be complete, but the actual writing has been done quickly, and without enough thought.
Jumbled. When I write action scenes, I have to be very careful about the time line. What action came first and what came second? In the melee of writing, I’m throwing punches right and left. I have to be very methodical about sequencing a string of actions.
Repetition. I also tend to repeat things. Perhaps it’s a bit of philosophy or advice to the main character. Or, I repeat one word endlessly. This is line-editing stuff, and I’ve found that I can’t SEE the words unless I’m taken a break from the story.
There are times, though, when you must read and revise immediately. Then you need to turn to tricks to help you see what you wrote.
Reading from the last page. One proofreading strategy is to start from the last page and go forward from there. It’s like artists who turn a picture upside down to draw it. Right-side up, the drawing says, “I’m a dog.” But upside down, the drawing says, “I’m a straight line that extends this far, followed by a squiggly line that crosses that other line and . . .” In other words, removing the context allows artists to see the drawing as a series of marks on the page.
Likewise, editing from the last page forward removes the context of the story and allows an author to see the words and sentences.
You may also want to revise using handy tools provided by the computer. On your word processor, you can change the font, the size of text, the spacing and so on. As in the shrunken manuscript, I’ve found that these manipulations change the context and allow me to see what’s on the page.
I’ve tried an online word counter, TextFixer, with some luck. It tells me how many times I’ve repeated a certain word. I tried this blog post up to this point, about 500 words and found these words were repeated lot.
Primary Keywords Frequency
What do you think? Should I try to find alternatives for story, page, strong and see? Even if I’m including keywords a lot for Search Engine Optimization standards, those four are repeated a lot. (I didn’t change them, so you can see where they are and decide if you’d change some or not.)
To try out the TextFixer, I’ve embedded a form here (You must be on the website, this won’t work from an email.)
In agriculture, fields are left fallow so they can rest and rebuild the necessary minerals and such needed by plants to grow well. In our case, a manuscript goes fallow so that whey we come back to it, we can do a better job of revision.
In 1999, I started teaching the Novel Revision Retreat. In order to come to the retreat, you must have a completed draft of a novel. We spend the weekend talking about how to revise your novel. Many break-through or debut novels have resulted. The workbook that accompanies the retreat is Novel Metamorphosis: UnCommon Ways to Revise. Since it was published in 2008, it’s only been a paperback book – till now.
This is an excerpt from Novel Metamorphosis: UnCommon Ways to Revise, the “Appendix A: I Don’t Want an Honest Critique.” It’s one of the most popular essays I’ve written because it’s an deeply personal and emotional response to the whole process of letting others read your novel. Writing is personal because it reveals who you are. And when that is critiqued – it is disheartening!
No, don’t tell me what’s wrong with this novel. I don’t want to hear it. Minor problems? OK, I’ll fix those. But major structural, plot or character problems? Don’t tell me.
Cynthia Ozick says, “Writing is essentially an act of courage.” When I get an honest critique, my courage fails me.
I fear the revision needed: I won’t ever be able to “get it right.” Obviously, I thought that I had communicated my intentions well in the first draft, or I would have changed it before you read it. But you say that you don’t understand, or that I’m inconsistent, or that I’m unfocused. How could that be? I see it so clearly. And if my vision of my story is so skewed, then how will I ever get it right?
I fear that you’re right and I’m wrong. But how can I be sure? This is my story and it comes from my psychological leanings, my background, my research. How can you tell me what is right for my story? If the story doesn’t communicate what I want, then, yes, I need to revise. I repeat: Obviously, I thought it did communicate what I wanted, or I would have revised it before you saw it. Do you just have a different vision of the story because of your psychological leanings, your background? Are you trying to envision what I intended, or are you envisioning what you would have written? Where does your ego slam up against my ego? And where does your objective appraisal need to push my ego back into line with what it really wants to do anyway? Perspective is hard to achieve.
I fear that all my hard work, all the months spent thinking and rewriting, will be wasted.
As a novelist, time haunts me. To write a novel isn’t the work of a week or a month. It takes many months, a year, a year and a half. More. It’s a long, long process. Your revision notes mean that the time is extended, and that without any guarantee of being finished even then. Meanwhile, that means that I’m a year older, that it’s a year in which I couldn’t write anything new (even if I could find the courage to begin again).
I fear your honesty; I need your approval (or someone’s approval; if not yours, then whose?). Will it crush me emotionally if you don’t “like” my story? I gloss over the approval part of critiques and agonize over the “needs work” assessment. Is there a way for you to only show approval, yet open my eyes, so that I recognize what needs work? I’d rather recognize it for myself than have it pointed out.
I fear that my standards are too lax. I want to be finished, I want to have this story out there. I want to have written, but in the throes of writing, I want the end of the process long before the story is really finished. Submission comes too early and then I get rejections. Then, it’s harder than ever to revise. But waiting is excruciating. Typical advice: Put the manuscript in a drawer for three months and then pull it out and read it with a fresh eye. What? Waste three more months? Never. It’s done and ready to send out. (Ok, maybe it isn’t, but I can’t stand looking at it one more time and in three months, my editor could read it and buy it. OK, maybe they won’t buy it until I revise, but three months? Isn’t there any other way?)
Critiques, especially honest and on-target critiques, are fearful things. I know that I need them; but they are painful, emotionally draining, and confidence shaking.
But I need them. OK, can you give me a minute? Let me find my mask of courage. There. I have it on. Now bring on your best critique!
Other thoughts on critique of an artist and humility. Art and Fear: One of my favorite books on the psychology of making art. It deals with fears about our unworthiness, fears of critiques, fears of displaying our art and much more.
Top 10 Ways to Stop the Sting of Critiques
Here are my slightly tongue-in-cheek Top 10 Ways to take the Sting out of Critiques
Avoidance: Have someone else read the critique for you and only highlight the good comments. Read only the highlighted comments.
Revenge: Give the creep back an ever harsher critique than you just got.
Denial: Write out the reasons why the critiquer is totally off base. Ignore all suggestions.
Excitement: Fake excitement about the critique and tell everyone you know exactly what’s wrong with the story and how you plan to fix it.
Suspicion: Read each comment with the suspicion that the critiquer is trying to get your manuscript out of the running, so their own manuscript will do well. Therefore, you can safely ignore any comments you want to.
Surprise: Allow each comment to be a revelation at how far off base this critiquer is.
Pride: Take pride in your ability to “take it” from the tough ones.
Loneliness: Understand that you and you alone are in the situation of receiving harsh critiques; such things have never been written about any manuscript and will never be written again.
Forgiveness: Realize that the critiquer has sinned by so harshly criticizing your story and at some point they will have to come and ask for forgiveness; be ready to give it gracefully.
Hope: Find hope in the good things the critiquer noticed, and Hope in the process of revision.
“I found many books useful, but I found your Novel Metamorphosis absolutely the best for a workshop. For the first time in 18 years of doing The Manuscript Workshop in Vermont, I offered one this year for novels – for those who had a first draft or more that needed revision. The most interesting session was the one where we dealt with the Shrunken Manuscript, and we were all really impressed about how much we learned from this hands on activity.”
—Barbara Seuling, Director
The Manuscript Workshop in Vermont
“Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript technique for analyzing the overall flow and pacing of my novel was the single most helpful tip I have ever picked up at a workshop. Highly recommended!”
—Carole Estby Dagg
The Year We Were Famous, Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
2011. Would you walk over four thousand miles to save your family’s home?
“My initial reaction after finishing a first draft is to ask myself “Now What?” That question is answered and then some in Darcy’s novel revision retreats (I’ve done two so far). The large group sessions where Darcy discusses things like character, plot, setting and word choice help you wrap your brain around where your novel needs work. The break-out sessions with your critique group help you apply Darcy’s revision principles to your specific story. In the end, you walk away with a clear picture of how to take your novel apart and put it back together in a way that will make it a much stronger story. Hanging out with Darcy and other writers (at a retreat) who are in your shoes is a big bonus too!”
The Sweetest Thing, Egmont USA, 2011
“Darcy gets you to see through your own words to find the heart and bones of your story, then gives you strategies that help you cut the fat away from that heart and keep it singing while you rearrange the bones and sinew to make the structure strong.”
You Will Call Me Drog, Carolrhoda, 2011.
A debut middle-grade novel and a cleverly framed story of self-determination and family relationships. Fresh, funny, unexpected and, at times, just a little dark. “I revised a manuscript for an editor at Scholastic before it was accepted. His offer letter said, “The ability to have such insight about one’s own work is as rare as the talent to generate a fun and meaningful story.” Darcy Pattison taught me how to look at my own work with a powerful set of tools for considering voice, structure, action, sensory detail, and more. “It always feels magical to make a story better, but it’s not magic. It’s a matter of understanding and using the tools we writers have. Darcy built the toolbox for us with her blog, her workshops, and her book, Novel Metamorphosis. We still have to do the heavy lifting, but we’re not doing it alone.”
Devine Inspiration, Arthur Levine/Scholastic, 2012
Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript technique pushed me to see my book in its entirety — what was working and what needed to change. On the micro level, I appreciated Darcy’s emphasis on imagery and the senses — particularly taste, touch, and smell — which bring to a story texture and depth.
—Caroline Starr Rose
May B., Schwartz and Wade/Random House Children’s Books, 2012
“I’ve used the techniques that Darcy lays forth in Novel Metamorphosis, and my guess is you will copy, dogear, highlight, flag, and write all over this book. And while you’re marking up this text, your own novel will emerge cleaner, sharper, and more publishable.”
—Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, author of middle-grade historical novel,
Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different (Delacorte 2008), which was accepted by the first editor who read it after Tubb revised it at Darcy Pattison’s workshop. Class of 2k8. www.kristintubb.com
“Writers know we must revise, but few know how. Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis
offers focused questions and inviting worksheets to help you reimagine
your novel and develop the heart that will take it out of the slush pile and into
—Elaine Marie Alphin,
Edgar-winning Counterfeit Son
“There are a lot of books out there on revision, but this is the only one I’ve
found that takes you by the hand and leads you step-by-step through the process.
With Darcy, it’s actually FUN!”
If you’ve been writing or illustrating chidlren’s books (picture books or novels) for long, you’ll hear this comment and question: I’ve got a great idea for a children’s book. How can I get it published? Here’s some answers to get you started.
Write a Great Book
The first thing to do is write a great book. OK, you say. That’s easy.
When you fail at the rest of the stuff below and decide to circle back around to this one, here are some resources.
Another big hint: Spend a couple hours in a bookstore studying current children’s books. Read 100 children’s books this month, making sure the copyright is within the last year or so. After that immersion in the current children’s publishing market, do you still think your story stacks up? Great. Move on.
Get the Great Book Published
Now that you have your Great Book, let’s talk about how to get it published.
Ah, this is where most people want me to wave a magic wand. Unfortunately, I can’t. Children’s publishing is an industry like any other, with its own best practices, fads that come and go, and a network of professionals who look askance at outsiders.
To break into the publishing world, you need to send your Great Book to someone for evaluation. This could be a publishing house or an agent.
Then comes the big question: WHERE do you send Great Book?
The annual Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market (CWIM) is like a big telephone directory of children’s publishers. It lists contact information, what types of books this company publishes and specific information on how to contact them. The CWIM also lists agents who represent children’s books, so you’ll want to study those listings, too. For members, the SCBWI also has listings of publishers and agents that are helpful.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you where to send YOUR mss. You’ll have to study the market and find the best fit for you and your story. There are five mega-publishing houses, but each has multiple imprints that often operate as a separate company in many ways. For editorial purposes, you can usually submit to each imprint. So, would you be happier with one of the mega-publishers or a small, local or independent publisher? Does your book have widespread appeal for the bookstore (or trade) market? Or do you anticipate a niche market audience, such as 2nd grade teachers? Are you only writing for a religious market or an education market? Who is your audience and where would you expect them to buy this book?
In other words, there’s no free ride on this question. You must research your options and the best I can do is to say get started. Use the market guies as a starting point, but then move online. For example, today, it’s easy to find an editor or agent on Twitter and follow them for a while to see if they’ll be a good fit. Are they encouraging or contemptuous of authors? Do you like their approach to problems? And so on. Follow a local publisher’s Facebook page or sign up for their newsletter. Research on the market is key to getting published.
Whether you decide to submit to an agent or a publisher, there are some common tips:
The waiting game. Major publishers can receive up to 10,000 manuscripts a year. Of those, they might publish 200. Of those 200, maybe three or four are from new authors. Why should they pick up your story and read it? As for agents, they are also bombarded with manuscripts and are taking on few new clients. To wade through the tsunami of manuscripts, each company (publisher or agent) has developed certain strategies. Be sure to follow their instructions. But even then, it can easily be 3-6 months before they respond. Often, they won’t respond unless they are interested.
The personal touch. If that sounded depressing and like you’re fighting an uphill battle, you’re right. In business they say that people do business with people they know. It’s a cliche that holds true in children’s publishing! In other words, you can shortcut some of the waiting by meeting an editor or agent at a conference. The SCBWI national summer conference is now open for registration. But also check out the SCBWI chapters for local or regional conferences.
People do break into children’s publishing every day. The industry needs newcomers with fresh ideas and amazing stories told in amazing ways. They need illustrations that capture a child’s imagination. But this is an industry with a rich history, career professionals and dedicated creative writers and artists. If your interest is casual and by-the-way, you won’t have much of a chance. If you’re ready to dig in and devote a career to children’s literature, welcome! Take that next step and submit your story!
Guest Post by Cynthia Reeg
Revisions can hurt; but revisions are good. In this guest post, Cynthia discusses the revision of her forthcoming debut novel. From the Grave is due out on October 18, 2016 from Jolly Fish Press.
Cover Reveal for From the Grave
Okay, I know I’m totally dating myself with this musical reference, but for me the revision process can be summed up in this lyrical one-liner from John Mellencamp, “It’s hurts so good!”
After I’ve created my first draft (or subsequent 2nd, 3rd, 4th,… drafts), I allow some down time. After the first draft, this is necessary because I’m too love in with what I’ve written to notice many of its faults. And after the following revisions, I’m probably too weary of what I’ve written to notice what’s truly good. By this time, it most likely seems rather tired. FROM THE GRAVE has been a work in progress over a number of years.
In an effort to be somewhat analytic about my revision process (which is the painful part for me), I draw up a spreadsheet and break down each chapter. I note the characters and emotions, setting, plot elements, theme, time, action. This helps me see if I’m maintaining my theme, keeping things moving, involving characters across the board, and being consistent with the time frame. This is similar to what Darcy discusses in her NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS, which I learned at a workshop she conducted.
Darcy’s workshop also highlighted the importance of pacing. Noting the amount of white space on each page can help give an indication of this. Although there are times when exposition is necessary, I try to be vigilant (especially in writing for middle grade readers) about keeping the story moving with dialogue and action. In my revision process, I study the pacing. I use a middle grade plot points guide to see if I’ve stayed on track for a Three Act structure.
With my monsters story, I also made a notebook on Rules, Food, Language, Setting, and Character, writing down specifics from each chapter. This was to help me analyze the monster world I’d created. I love writing fantasy because I can make most anything happen, but I have to stay within the boundaries I’ve created for the story to work. When I’m writing on the fly, my muse may throw out an astounding new creature, event, or setting that I didn’t plan for. I need to document all these for future reference and see if there is a conflict.
After the general shape-up of the manuscript is done, the line edits come next. This part of the revision I truly enjoy. Although when it comes to deleting 10,000 words from a story, this can be extremely painful. Writing a manuscript that is as tight as possible is absolutely essential for middle grade. It’s a challenge to keep the story engaging and the voice strong, while pairing down the word count. At this stage, I’m choosing words carefully, making phrases sing, trying to plug in more dialogue and delete lengthy exposition. I pay particular attention to sensory details. But I also focus on story emotions. I can’t afford to lose the impact of my tale in the edits. Most likely, you’ve heard this before: read your story out loud. Especially at this stage of revisions, the lines beg to be read. You’ll quickly hear jumble that slows the pace. You’ll notice words that don’t quite work. You’ll cringe at flat dialogue.
I just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC: Creative Living Beyond Fear. In it she asks the question, “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures within?” She stresses that fear is always part of the creative process, but you can’t let it take control. Courage is certainly an important part of the revision process. You have to believe you can make your story stronger. You have to believe you can address all your editor’s challenges. And you have to believe that the finished product is going to make a difference in some young reader’s life.
So fight through the fear—and the pain! Be courageous and steadfast! Take up your pen and REVISE!
Anna Olswanger’s middle grade novel, GREENHORN (See Review), was made into an indie film. It’s a dream that many of us have, to see our story on the big screen. I asked her to tell us about the process.
Anna’s introduction to the story
In 2014 I co-produced a short indie film adaptation of the novel. The film premiered at the Landmark NuArt Theatre in L.A. and at The Museum of Tolerance in New York. It was named the 2015 Audience Award Winner for Best Short Film Drama at the Morris and Mollye Fogelman International Jewish Film Festival in Memphis, and subsequently aired on public television in Memphis and Kentucky. In February, 2016, it was part of the Festival Internacional De Cine Judio en Mexico and will screen on March 27, 2016 at the International Children’s Film Festival at L.A.’s WonderCon.
TMW Media has just started distributing the film so that libraries and schools can purchase the DVD with public performance rights and show the film in classrooms. TMW is also distributing the film on Amazon to individual viewers. The film could be a tie-in to Holocaust Remembrance Day in May and International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January. The discussion guide for the film is online at the distributor’s site:
When did you decide that this book would make a good film?
I think every author hopes that her book will be optioned for film, and as a literary agent, I am used to getting my clients’ books into the hands of film producers. In the case of Greenhorn, I thought that the story had conflict, a strong climax, and a poignant resolution, the right elements for a good film. I just didn’t know how I would interest a producer in such a short book.
How did you find the contact to adapt it to film?
A potential client, who is a screenwriter, submitted a children’s book manuscript to me. It wasn’t a manuscript I could successfully represent, but we began a conversation about her work and she suggested that I show Greenhorn to a director she had worked with. I did contact him, and he liked the book. He asked me if I would like to co-produce the film with him.
As the author, what involvement did you have in the script? Did you have rights of approval/disapproval?
Because I was the co-producer, I was able to read the script and comment on it. My main concern was authenticity. I wanted to make sure that anyone familiar with that era of history during the 1940s would be convinced by the film.
Once the book goes to film, who is in charge? Where does the buck stop? When the book is adapted for film what is the author’s role? Nothing? Or do you have veto rights on decisions? For example, Ella Enchanted became a farce almost in movie format, a far cry from the book itself. Authors worry. What if their “baby” is misunderstood?
As a literary agent, I can confirm that the interpretation of the producer and screenwriter is of concern to authors. But unless you’re a big name author, you have to let go of your book when you option it. You’ve been paid money by someone who is excited by your story and has a vision of it as a film, and you have to trust that this person’s vision will enhance your book. If you don’t trust the producer, then don’t option the book. I think the situation is similar to being the author of a picture book text and having to let go when the illustrator comes on board. The picture book author has to let the illustrator have her own vision of the story. You can’t control what the illustrator sees. However, I was in the unique position of being both the author of the book and the co-producer of the film, so I was able to read the script and make suggestions for changes.
As the author, what surprised you about the film adaptation?
I remember from my days as a college theatre major how quickly and deeply friendships are formed among cast members, but it surprised me to see similar friendships develop among the boys who were in the cast of this film. It was fun to watch them play around during the times when we weren’t filming. See the wonderful photo of them after we filmed a scene.
The director/screenwriter, who happens not to be Jewish, recently told me he wants to develop a feature-length version of the story to flesh out the backstory of the children and their lives outside the yeshiva. It constantly surprises me how this story resonates with people, especially people who have no connection to the Holocaust or even Jewish history.
Will the process change how you write your next book?
I don’t think so, but the process has made me see how satisfying it is to see work in one medium take on a life in another medium.
Is there any money in all of this for you, the author?
Greenhorn is a small indie film, and as the co-producer I had to raise the funds to pay the actors, the production staff, the travel and hotel expenses for the crew during filming, props, hair dresser, catering, music, post sound design, and insurance. We didn’t budget in fees for the director or producers, or for me as the author, so there isn’t money in this for me. Even so, I would do it again.
Darcy’s note about developing your own PR package:
For publicity purposes, Anna presented me with a complete package. She quickly answered some key questions about the process of creating a film from a novel. When she sent me the answers, she included interesting photos, details about where the film had aired, how to buy the movie on Amazon, links to a free discussion guide, suggestions on when it might be appropriate to view the film in an education setting, and a great movie trailer easily available on YouTube. If you’re doing publicity for a book or movie, this is a case study in how to do it right!
One of the most puzzling, yet exciting formats for writers is the graphic novel. That’s the new name for comic books, or telling stories in a set of illustrated panels. In some writing a graphic novel is like writing a movie script, except the images are still instead of moving.
Writing a graphic novel comes with lots of questions.
What’s the standard format for a graphic novel manuscript?
Do you have to provide the illustrations?
How do you decide how many panels per page?
How do you pace a story across a couple pages?
Many of these questions relate also to writing children’s picture books, which are a combination of text and illustrations.
NOTE: I didn’t receive a review copy on this book. I just found it at my local library and was captivated.
Kneece has taught comic book writing at the Savannah College of Design for over two decades and his expertise and experience shows. He has created eight graphic novel adaptations of The Twilight Zone, and has published numerous graphic novels and comics, including work for Hellraiser, Verdilak, Alien Encounters, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, and The Spirit.
Comics Tell Great Stories
Kneece begins with an emphasis on the story that you want to tell with hints on how to develop a story past a gag. You’ll see actual examples of a formatted script. Next comes a detailed look at a single page and how a story flows across the page. Templates for a 5-panel, 6-panel, 9-panel and 12-panel bring the page to life. Rough sketches illustrate Kneece’s points about how a story flows across these different panels.
With the basics out of the way, the book gets really interesting digging into dialogue, text, characters, pacing and more. This is a fantastic book for those writing picture books because everything he says here applies to both comics and children’s picture books.
I LOVE the pacing chapters.
In Part 1, pp125-127, there’s a great example of revising for pacing, emphasis and impact. The question is where to expand the story with more details and where to compress the story for impact. This is one of the best illustrations of pacing an illustrated story that I’ve seen.
And then, in Part 2, there’s a great example of a story with a boy hears an ice cream truck. The top row is 4 panels.
Panel 1: A boy is playing with a toy rocket. A few musical notes intrude into the frame.
Panel 2: grass and musical notes
Panel 3: grass and musical notes that are trending upward
Panel 4: musical notes dance past the trunk of a large tree.
In other words the 4 panels operate more like one large panel that spans four panels. But the choice to create four panels – a quad-tych, if you will – adds energy to the story. It’s brilliant.
If you’re an illustrator of children’s books, you need to study this book. If you write children’s picture books, you need to study this book. Comic books writers and illustrators, it’s definitely the best text I’ve seen on the topic. Highly recommended.
I’m working on a revision of my book, How to Write a Picture Book (Look for the new version in September). One section goes through various genres with tips on writing an ABC book, a narrative nonfiction, a picture book mystery, etc. One genre that I neglected in the first draft was metafiction picture books.
A Revealing Conversation between DH and Me
Me: I need to write a blog post about metafiction picture books.
Darling Husband (DH): What’s that?
Me: You know. Postmodern stuff.
Me: They are books that refer to themselves in some way. They break the concept of “book” in the story itself.
DH: Oh. Faux books.
Metafiction picture books are those that break the mold by making the reader aware that they are reading a book. Often fiction writers talk about the immersive book, and value stories that transport a reader to a story world and immerse them totally in the story. The reader’s surroundings disappear and they are deeply involved with the story.
Metafiction breaks that immersive experience. Why? In the theater, this is referred to as breaking the fourth wall. The stage has a back wall and two wings; the fourth wall is invisible wall that separates the audience from the stage. When an actor turns to the audience and makes comments, it’s breaking the fourth wall. The technique can be used to add information, set up irony, create humor or other purposes.
While metafiction isn’t new, it’s been more prevalent in the last few decades. Some say that it’s related to the postmodern philosophy. Read more about postmodernism here.
So, what is a metafiction picture book? Let’s look at some characteristics typical of this genre. Of course, you won’t use all of these in any given book. You can mix and match techniques to tell your story (or un-story). The best way to understand these is to read through a variety of the books suggested below.
Characteristics of a Metafiction Picture Book
Me: One reason I need to write this is because I’ve been trying to critique some manuscripts and having a hard time.
DH: You expect them to be a certain way and they aren’t.
Me: Well. Yes. There are rules about writing picture books.
DH: Are there?
Parody or irony.
Some metafiction picture books refer to folk or fairy tales, often with irony or parody. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book? By Lauren Child
Pastiche. Copying a certain style of art to create something very different, these are usually author-illustrator stories. Willy the Dreamer by Anthony Browne.
Story gaps. Sometimes the text has gaps that require readers to make decisions about the story and its meaning. Academics call this interdeterminancy. The Three Little Pigs by David Wiesner.
Multiple narrators or characters. The story includes multiple point-of-view characters, often with multiple story arcs. In Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex, the author, illustrator and main character each tell separate stories and talk to each other. The complex interaction has three separate endings.See also:
Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
Black and White by David Macauley
Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne
Direct address to reader. When you use second person point-of-view and talk to the reader, the story can fall into the metafiction category.In a quick review of different points-of-view, you can usually figure out the story’s POV by looking at the pronouns.
1st person: I, me, my
2nd person: You, yours
3rd person: he, she, it, his, hersIn Warning! Do Not Open This Book, by Adam Lehrhaupt, the reader is warned against opening the book. When—of course—the child does open the book, the text provides other warnings.
See also: Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, by Laurie Halse Anderson,
Non-linear, non-sequential. Most narratives follow a certain time sequence. This happens first, and then that happens. There’s a beginning, middle and end. However, metafiction picturebooks create stories without a clear reference to time order. In Black and White by David Macaulay, each page is divided into four sections which tell different stories and it’s up to the reader to connect them. Or not.
Narrator becomes a character. The author or narrator of the story steps into the story and participates. In Chester, by Melanie Watts, a simple story devolves into an argument between a cat and the author about what story to tell.
Unusual book design or layout. Some metaficiton picture books have unusual typography, while others use a layout that breaks the story out of the page or book. Three Little Pigs by David Wiesner, has illustrations showing the pigs folding up a page and climbing out of the story onto a blank page. Or, they fold up a page into a paper airplane and take a ride.
Stories within Stories. No Bears by Meg McKinlay, Ella writes a book within the book.
Characters and narrators speak directly to the reader.
Sandra Boynton’s board book, Moo, Baa, La, La, La.
The text says,
“The pigs say, ‘la, la, la.’
‘No, no,’ you say, that isn’t right.
The pigs say, ‘Oink,’ all day and night.”
Characters who comment about their own or other stories. In Chester by Melanie Watt, the author and cat character go back and forth about the story. Among other shenanigans, the cat crosses out the author’s name on the cover and puts his own name.
Disruption of time and space relationships. Redwoods by Jason Chin. A boy picks up a nonfiction book about redwood forests and enters the forest.
Something makes the readers aware of what makes up a story. In Help! We Need a Title! By Herve Tullet, characters realize someone is watching them (that’s YOU, the reader) and decide to make up a story. In the end, they invite the author to help finish the story.
Mixing of Genres.
In A Book by Mordecai Gerstein, a girl runs into characters from different genres in a search for her own story. This allows the reader to learn about elements of different genres.
Metafiction + Creative nonfiction. Can you write a metafiction nonfiction picture book? Yes. These stories often mix informational text with fiction. No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young features a couple of worms who make funny comments while the narrator explains where chocolate comes from.
Writing a Metafiction Picture Book
DH: Actually, I do metaficiton.
Me: What? When?
Flashback to memory of DH telling bedtime stories to our kids:
“Once upon a time, there were three bears. Flopsy, Mospy and Peter Bear.”
Me: (Slapping forehead) Oh, my goodness. You’re a metafiction storyteller!
At least, there’s one in the family.
Know the Rules – Break the Rules
If you’ve read my book, How to Write a Children’s Picture Book, you’ll know most of the “rules” of writing a picture book. Break any rule that’s reasonable for the story, but have a reason to break it. You may want to inject humor, parody, information, or yourself into the story for a good reason. Do it. And do it boldly.
While you can write about anything, often the topic of a metafiction picture book is to explain a book or some element of fiction or writing. That’s reflected in titles such as It’s a Book, There are No Cats in This Book, and Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book. Of course, if you try this, remember that you’ll have lots of competition.
Good Read Alouds
Make sure these are good read alouds because youngest readers may read these with adults to make sure it’s understood. Read more about how to make your story a good read aloud here.
One of the main reasons to write a metafiction picture book is to have fun, to play with the genre. Do something unexpected, disrespectful, funny.
Critiquing Metafiction Picture Books
DH: Actually, I like a lot of the books you’re calling metafiction.
DH: They’re unexpected. A surprise. They make me laugh. Kids love them.
An aside: In my household, it’s understood that I don’t have a sense of humor.
Slap stick? No, it’s not funny.
Potty jokes? Absolutely not.
Metafiction? I’m not laughing.
DH: Of course, it’s hard for you to critique metafiction manuscripts.
Me: (Groan. Why is he always right?)
DH: (Wisely, DH refrains from saying anything else.)
Authors, give your group (or editor) a heads up.
When I approach a critique of a picture book, I am always expecting a traditional story. So, it’s helpful if the author is aware of the type picture book they are writing and can tell the critique group, “This is a metafiction picture book.”
Readers, read the story in front of you.
I often read movie or book reviews and get aggravated because the review is more about the reader than the text. The reviewer talks about what they wanted or predicted and how those preconceptions were disappointed. That’s the danger in critiquing this special type of picture book. Especially for metafiction picture books, you must read the text in front of you. Be open to a new way of telling a story for kids.
Ahlberg, Allen. The Pencil
Barnett, Mac. Chloe and the Lion
Bingham, Kelly. Z is for Moose
Boynton, Sandra. Moo, Baa, La, La, La
Browne, Anthony. Willy the Dreamer
Child, Lauren. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?
Chin, Jason. Redwoods
Freedman, Deborah. Scribble
Gerstein, Mordecai. A Book
Gravett, Emily. Wolves
Hopkinson, Deborah. Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek
Lehman, Barbara. The Red Book
Macauley, David. Black and White
Schwarz, Viviane. There are No Cats in this Book
Scieszka, Jon and Lane Smith. Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales
Smith, Lane. It’s a Book
Spiegelman, Art. Open Me. . .I’m a Dog!
Stewart, Melissa. No Monkeys, No Chocolate
Tullet, Herve. Help! We Need a Title!
Watt, Mélanie. Chester
Willems, Mo. We Are in a Book
I once asked an editor if she regretted passing on the opportunity to become the publisher of the Harry Potter series.
The editor said, “In the publishing world, you live or die by your opinion. In spite of Harry Potter’s success, it still wouldn’t have been the right book for me to publish.”
In Your Opinion, What is Good Writing?
The first place you need to draw a line in the sand is one the question of quality. The quality of the story, the plotting, the characterization, the storytelling and so on is crucial to the success of a writing and publishing project. You need to listen tot he “still, small voice” that tells you this story needs another revision or that story measures up to the highest standard.
A sense of great stories is important to develop and most agree that a wide knowledge of the genre in which you write. If you want to write a picture book, you should read 100 picture books published within the last five years. If you want to write a YA novel, you should be familiar with the popular writers of the day. Of course, you can’t read 4000 novels in a year, so you’ll have to pick and choose. But notice what you like, enjoy, discard after a few chapters and so on. Develop a sense of what you like or don’t like. In short develop an appreciation of great writing. Give yourself something solid on which to base your opinion. Because you’ll live or die by it.
When I see really bad self-published children’s books, it’s most often from a person who doesn’t read children’s books. They just had a “great idea” and with no research or background in children’s literature, push through an awful book. I’ve actually had people tell me, “I’m not a writer. I just wanted to do this book.” That person’s project will die an early death because they didn’t educate their opinion.
In Your Opinion, Is this the BEST Writing You Can Do?
After writing a great story or novel, have you taken the time to let it cool off, to get feedback from trusted readers, and to take time to revise it to the best of your ability? Have you held anything back, or did you spend it all?
Author Annie Dillard, in her great essays, Write Till You Drop, wrote: One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ”Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”
In your opinion, have to done your best? Then, send it out.
If not, fix it. But write, authors, write.
BUT, you say. . .
My boy/girl friend didn’t like it.
My Significant Other didn’t like it.
My kid didn’t like it.
My agent didn’t like it.
My editor didn’t like it.
This genre isn’t selling right now.
No one buys books by authors from XXX.
I don’t have a HUGE social media following.
Blah, blah, blah.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Do YOU like what you wrote?
You live or die by your opinion.
If it’s not the best you can write, then fix it. Revise. Do whatever it takes to make it live up to your opinion.
If YOU like it, then send it out, and keep sending it out, until you find an editor who agrees with you.
It’s usually read in the spring and one activity that students often do is to send a laminated paper version of Oliver on a trip to visit folks. Download the 2016 Lesson Plan pack, which includes Sample Chapters from five novels.(24 MB, zip file from Dropbox).
The Lesson Plan pack includes a simple paper pattern for Oliver. This is an example or case study of an easy ongoing promotion. First, I’ll explain what happened, and then we’ll look at how you can do the same for your book.
Interact with Readers
This year, Cynthia Wells, a teacher from Quitman, AR, contacted me and said that Kailin, her student, would like to send me her Oliver for a week’s visit. Of course, I can’t always do this, but this was a good year to say, “Yes!”
When a student sends an Oliver around, they ask people to take photos of Oliver in different places. See the Oliver Pinterest board.
Oliver Sees the Sights
Here are some things Oliver did with me.
Oliver Meets Rowdy
Of course, Oliver couldn’t leave without reading Rowdy, which is my Summer, 2016 book. The pirate captain, Miss Whitney Black McKee, and Oliver had a nice chat and compared adventures and travels.
Preorder ROWDY now and it will be delivered on May 25
When we develop characters, we know the drill. You must know what your character wants. But as I’ve worked on my current novel, I wasn’t getting to the heart of the character the way I wanted. So, I switched up the wording and asked, “What does this character yearn for?”
The idea of yearning goes deeper for me than just asking, “What does your character want?”
Yearning is a deep-seated emotional vacuum that needs to be filled. It’s more compelling because it permeates the character’s life. Also, it implies change and that’s crucial. If a character years to be more respected, then we can see that he progresses along the continuum somehow from NO RESPECT to WIDELY RESPECTED. The idea of “wanting” didn’t give me the character arc in the same way that “yearning” did.
We could say that a mystery is about a yearning for answers. But that’s not personal enough for a yearning. Answers fill a character’s want or need, but it’s hard to see it as fulfilling a yearning. A wish/need for excitement — as in a thriller or action/adventure — doesn’t feel quite personal enough to be called a yearning either. Yearnings are for character stories or subplots, places where raw emotions surface and are thwarted in the service of the story, so that the yearning becomes even deeper. Yearnings are personal.
Yearnings to Write By
Yearn for Each Other – Romance. The hero and heroine yearn for each other. When characters fall in love, it’s not enough just that they want each other. On some level, their relationship must be tested, thwarted, or put on a side burner. But underneath the yearning smolders. The continuum goes from NO RELATIONSHIP to INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP.
Yearn for Growth – Coming of Age. Maturation comes with deep yearnings to be more than you are at this point in time. Yearnings to become worthy, proud, skilled, competent, or loved. The continuum goes from NAIVE to EXPERIENCED.
Yearn for Change – Quest or Journey. Quests and journeys take characters on a journey from point A to point B. The most successful quest/journey stories, though, let the inner journey shape the path and the complications. In other words, the character’s yearning for change is a major plot driver. The continuum goes from STATUS QUO to MAJOR CHANGE.
Yearn for Connection – Relationships. . This can cover many types of stories: revenge, rivalry, underdog, love, forbidden love, sacrifice, discovery and ambition. When the story centers on positive relationships, the yearning is for connection. When it’s a negative relationship, the yearning is to dissolve the connections. The continuum goes from ISOLATED to CONNECTED.
By exploring my character’s deepest yearnings, I’ve easily created a character arc, which puts me a long way toward a plot, as well.
My working method in the before Scrivener days was a mixture of outlining and pantster. I outlined the story, wrote about half of it, stopped to re-outline and then wrote some more. Sometimes, I had to re-outline several times before I made it through a full draft.
For a while, the same process carried on. But my current WIP has been different.
Scrivener is a complicated, multi-faceted program. It’s such a different program from writing in a word processor like MSWord, and so complex, that when I bought the program, I immediately took an online class with Gwen Hernandez (NOT an affiliate link, just a satisfied customer!). She takes you through the many elements that are possible when you use Scrivener.
One of the best things that Gwen said to me was to keep an open mind about how to use the program. She said don’t decide how to use some element of Scrivener. Instead, just work. As you’re working, when you need something – THEN decide how to accomplish what you want, using one of the available options.
The program has so many possibilities, for example, on how to mark up a file so you can find it later: file name, synopsis or summary of the contents, color-coding, notes and so on. You can look at it as if the chapter were file cards, or look at each discrete file, or look at them as a continuous text. What makes sense to one person would confuse another.
It reminds me of my daughter in Algebra class in high school. Her teacher required the dreaded notebook check. My daughter was required to keep every piece of paper given as notes or homework and organize them interleaved in a daily fashion. However, to her, it made more sense to keep the notes in one section by date, and the homework in another section by date. When she turned in her notebook–even though she had every single piece of paper required and organized in a logical way–she was given a zero. She refused the opportunity to reorganize it because, to her, it didn’t make sense.
That’s the beauty of Scrivener. You can organize it YOUR WAY!
How Scrivener is Changing My Writing Process
The biggest change is working in the Scrivener Binder. This time, it feels like I’m sculpting a story. Using the binder, I created 4 acts and set up files with names of what I expected to happen. Using either the Hero’s Journey or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat outline method–sometimes a combination of both–I knew that at a certain point in the story, the main character had to face the villain. In another place, he could relax a bit and enjoy the new world into which he’d traveled. And so on.
That means the binder was a sort of loose outline for what should happen in a well-plotted story.
For a couple chapters (or maybe they’ll be scenes and be combined into a chapter–everything is loose right now), I wrote. But then, I started working all over the binder. I’d write a scrap of dialogue in one place, then jump down to another section and write a reaction to that dialogue. Exciting descriptions were added in appropriate places, then revised to fit the action that was added later.
Without Scrivener’s Binder, I’d be totally lost! With it, I’m able to walk around the story and look at its shape. It feels rather like a sculptor who takes a wire frame and adds clay to rough out a figure. Then, the sculptor refines a bit on the hands, skips to shape of the head, and approximates the way the clothing drapes the body. All the while, I”m walking all around the story, looking at it from different angles and seeing where things connect. Taking off bits here and adding bits there.
For example, an important plot point at one spot was that a supporting character was sick because of anemia. There was an Ah-Ha! moment when I realized that the anemia would get worse. In fact, it could get so bad that she’d need a blood transfusion. Who would be available for that? Since the main character is an alien, he couldn’t donate blood! Her estranged mother, of course, would be the poignant choice. But it had to all happen in the midst of a hand-to-hand combat. Can you see the scene? The doctor–under less than ideal conditions–is trying to put a needle in the mother’s arm to collect blood and as soon as there’s a full bag, well–you know that in fiction, everything has to get WORSE for the main character, right–so the fight gets too close and the bag of blood is split open and they have to start over again. Because the girl is so sick that she needs the blood NOW, or else.
That connection was amazing. The choice of anemia as the illness was a spur of the moment choice, in the midst of trying out some ideas about illnesses. Then, when the anemia needed to worsen (or she needed a different symptom of the illness), it made sense to take it to the extreme and to plop it down in the midst of an action scene to make it more urgent. The estranged mother made it more poignant.
Ah, but where did the estranged mother come from. In other words, I had to track her throughline in the story and account for her movements in every scene. Or else her presence in this crucial scene would feel wrong. How could she contribute to the ongoing scenes I had planned. Obviously, she’s a supporting character and not the main character. When and how would her presence make the story stronger? The question sent me skipping around the scenes in the Scrivener binder again.
The point is that this process is leading me to see things afresh and find unexpected options, which make perfect sense in the context of the story. Had I been writing chronologically, the connection may or may not have happened. I think not.
This method of working is fascinating.
It’s been hard to give myself permission to skip around like this. I’m really enjoying writing this story and hopefully, one day, you’ll enjoy reading it.
Lately, I’ve taken to roughing out a scene before I start writing.
Rough Out a Scene: Goals
I want to be excited to write the scene. I’m looking for the sparks, the exciting bits of this particular scene. Finding this early is helpful because I don’t waste time slogging through extraneous stuff. Instead, I can decide on smart scene cuts so I stay interested, which means the audience will stay interested!
I want the scene setting and action beats to be roughed out. Beats are the small units of action of a story: he stopped, rubbed his nose, sneezed, grabbed a tissue, and then wheezed out an answer. They are intimately tied to the setting because the action moves in, out and through the scenery. In the theater, this would be blocking out a scene and deciding where the actor stands on the stage and how they move across the stage. I may also work on deciding when to zoom, pan or scan.
I want to know the characters’ emotional responses. When an action beat occurs, I want to know the responses of the characters. Why was it important to write this action beat? If it doesn’t evoke an emotional response, maybe it’s not important enough to include in the final draft.
Rough out a scene: Don’ts
I don’t worry about perfection. I give myself permission to produce what kids call “sloppy copy.” It’s OK. I just want something on the page so that it’s easier to get the scene right later.
Don’t worry about verb tense, present or past. Sometimes, I bounce around like crazy. It’s OK. I’ll fix it when I actually write the scene.
Don’t worry about POV. It’s OK. I’ll often change POV during this rough-in stage. One advantage of this is that I’ll know the character’s emotion response. If it’s the POV character, I may be able to use the info as their thoughts. If it’s not the POV character, I’ll have to change the response into a physical action or perhaps signal it with body language. In the roughing out stage, I just need to know the emotions. I’ll follow conventions later.
Don’t worry about punctuation. It’s OK. I don’t worry about quotation marks around speech, or any other punctuation marks at this stage.
Don’t worry about details (unless you can’t stand not to!). In my current WIP novel, for example, my characters are at the bottom of the North Sea and should be seeing several species of fish. What fish would they see? Sometimes, I can just put in a placeholider, such as XXX. Then, research it before I do the final draft and include details then. But sometimes, I am compelled to stop and figure that out during the rough-in stage. When I do, it’s likely to be a long list and for the final draft, I’ll have to choose the best of the list.
Rough out a scene: DOs
Do worry about finding the heart of the scene. Where is the pivot point, the emotional fulcrum upon which the scene rests. I must find that emotional heart during this stage, or I won’t have the excitement needed to write it well.
Do worry about details. OK, I just said above do NOT worry about details. So, it just depends. Sometimes a scene doesn’t come alive for me with the details and sometimes it does. Scenes with lots of dialogue and not much action need dialogue details, but not scene details. Action-heavy scenes need the action bits in detail, but maybe it’s fine to skimp on the dialogue. You must decide what you need for each scene.
Rough out a scene: When to stop and write.
How much time do I spend on this stage? It varies.
When do I stop roughing it out and write the thing? It varies. Sometimes, I only need a sketchy, minimal rough to write from. But in my current WIP novel, I’m doing a lot of world-building as I go. That means I have to figure out the scenery, name anything important like buildings or landscape features, think of a history of the area, and then put my characters in that setting. For science fiction and fantasy then, it takes longer to rough out a scene. For romance or contemporary novels, this stage of writing may go quicker.
I know that I need to write the actual scene when I’ve roughed it out enough that I’m excited to write it. Instead of holding back any longer, the words just flow. Sometimes, I’ll print out the rough and just glance at it while I write. Sometimes, I’ll work directly in the file and just revise the rough into the finished draft.
In other words, this is one more tool to put in your writer’s toolkit. Rough out your scene until you can approach the actual writing with great enthusiasm and passion!