Guest Post by Kim Chaffee
Warrior is my word of the year. I love how it makes me feel just thinking about it. Strong. Courageous. Unbreakable. Warriors do hard things like train for marathons and write books. You heard me correctly. I am likening training for a marathon to writing books. I am currently doing both of those things so I can say that with some authority.
If you write books, then you my friend are a warrior. Here are five reasons why:
1. Getting started is sometimes the hardest part.
I saw a shirt on Etsy the other day that read, “Kinda want to go for a run…kinda want to stay in bed.” Ummm, yes. I simultaneously thought, who is reading my mind and I’ll take a dozen please. Procrastinate, overthink, overanalyze: This is what I do before stepping out for the day’s training run. Why do I do this? Because I know that I have 4 miles or 8 miles or 10 miles to run that day. That’s far when you haven’t even walked to the kitchen for your morning cup of joe.
The same is true in writing. Staring at the blank page or screen in front of you is daunting. I have to create a whole story from nothing? People who tell you writing is easy are liars. Straight up. Writing is hard. But that’s okay because you can do hard things. If you’re a pantser then let the words start flowing. If you’re a plotter, then build your character or your plot or your title. Just start! Once you get going, you’ll be closer to that finished first draft then you ever have been.
2. It’s a huge mental game.
I can’t do this. This is too hard. You should just stop here…no one would fault you for stopping here…the shame of giving up will go away eventually. So many times, thoughts like these have tried to get me to throw in the towel, to quit on my goal. The mental struggle is real.
The same is true in writing. I’ll never publish as many books as X. This story is total garbage. Sure, I have one book published but I got lucky…everyone will know it was a fluke…I am a terrible writer. These are thoughts that all writers have. There’s even a word for it- imposter syndrome. And there are very successful authors that still battle with it despite success. But you can’t give in. Instead, try changing your mindset. Realize that you are thinking and feeling these things because you are pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. Congratulations! You are now in the space where you are growing as a writer! You’re doing exactly what you need to do to make your dreams happen! So keep going.
3. You won’t be ready overnight and that’s okay.
As I write this, I’m at the point in my training where I just started to run distances I’ve never run before. Last weekend was my first 15-mile run ever. I won’t lie. It was hard. So hard that instead of rejoicing that I had just run 15 miles, I worried about the 11 miles that I would eventually need to tack on. Yikes. Maybe I can’t do this. That thought actually entered my brain. It took a good twenty-four hours before I had my Oprah like, lightbulb moment…the marathon isn’t tomorrow. It’s not next week or even next month (at this point). I don’t need to add on those 11 miles for another two months. I’ll do it slowly and gradually. It’s okay that I’m not there yet.
The same is true in writing. The very first story you write probably won’t be the first story you sell. And that’s okay. No one wakes up, writes a story and sells it in “a very good deal” right out of the gate. Take classes, expand your knowledge of the genre you write, put in the time to write lots and lots of stories. Your book doesn’t have to sell tomorrow or next week or even next month. Be gracious with yourself if you are not yet where you want to be on your publishing journey. Just keep putting one word after another.
4. It takes a village.
On race day, it’s true that I, alone, will be the one at the start line. I, alone, will be the one running from Hopkinton to Boston. But there’s no way I will even make it that far without the support of so many. The family members that check in to see how far I ran today. The running friends that join me for some miles to keep me going and cheer me on. The loved ones that gently remind me that refueling your body with cookies and little chocolate candies (again) probably isn’t the best choice. I’m grateful for them all.
The same is true in writing. You, alone, will query the agents and editors. You, alone, will field “the call” when the moment arrives. But a critique group of fellow writers to share your work with, an agent who helps submit your story to closed publishing houses, an editor who molds and polishes your story, an illustrator who brings your words to life. They truly are the village behind every published book. Find yours.
5. There will be bad days.
Sometimes there are days when my legs feel like lead and it takes everything in me to get through the miles. Those days are hard. But I try to remind myself of that beautiful truth revealed in the ever-insightful movie, Inside Out. In order to feel joy, we must understand what it feels like to experience sadness. I fight through hard days so I know how amazing it is to have great ones.
The same is true in writing. Rejections happen. Writer’s block happens. Opening up the Publisher’s Weekly Right’s Report and learning that your book has already been written and sold… in a multi-house auction, happens. It hurts. Lean in to the hurt. Don’t shove it aside and pretend it’s not there. Feel it. But don’t wallow there. Feel it and move forward. That is where warriors are born. And you are a warrior.
Kim Chaffee is the author of Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer's Historic Boston Marathon, illustrated by Ellen Rooney (Page Street Kids, April, 2019) and Nothing Wee About Me!, illustrated by Laura Bobbiesi (Page Street Kids, November 2019). Kim is an avid runner and former second grade teacher. To learn more about Kim, visit her website at www.kimchaffee.com/.
Use the links below to order the Kirkus starred, Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer's Historic Boston Marathon.
You can also visit Goodreads to put Nothing Wee About Me! on your "want to read" shelf. www.goodreads.com/book/show/41150313-nothing-wee-about-me?from_search=true
~by Amanda Smith
Over the last two weeks we have looked at linear and circular story structures, and ways in which we can jazz up these basic structures. In some books, though, structure transcends itself. It becomes more that the skeleton on which the story hangs. Structure becomes meaning.
In these kinds of books, the author adds an extra layer that lies, like some magical being, just beneath the surface of the story. It piques the curiosity in advanced readers to dig deeper. And once it is uncovered, it contributes to a deeper understanding of the text and a more exciting read.
This “form has meaning” internal structure is most evident in novels in verse, such as Solo by Kwame Alexander or The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. The Poet X is written in three parts that distinctly highlights sections of the main character's struggle to find her voice. Xiomara’s way to her voice takes on an internal journey (circular) structure, but each part is titled by a quote from scripture that applies to Xiomara’s experiences, awareness, and growth within that part, thus structure equals meaning. Examples where form echoes meaning are the poems in which she argues with her mother, where the two voices are in two languages, or where her mother argues with biblical quotes that she answers with her poetry, as well as the assignment pieces Xiomara writes for her English class. She writes “What I wanted to say” – her true voice – in poetry. But “What I actually said” is in prose, an symbol of her constricted voice.
Structure as meaning is not exclusively reserved for novels in verse. In Still a Work in Progress, by Jo Knowles, the chapter headings are requests found in the school’s suggestion box. They provide comic relief, shines a light on the setting and characters, and acts as the backbone of the story. Initially the headings are silly and lighthearted, but towards the end of the novel, they become sincere and encouraging, telling their own story of growth and development within the student body, and also highlighting the emotional arc of the main character. Two chapters do not have headings. These chapters take place when the main character is not at school, and therefore wouldn’t have known the suggestions placed in the box. This detailed attention to structure lets the reader know that the headings are not just there, but should be further inspected to find the underlying treasure.
Gary Schmidt builds Wednesday’s Wars around the plays of Shakespeare, and Okay for Now around Audubon’s Book of Birds. Neither one of these topics are at the core of the story, but the plays and the bird images help reveal character growth, add levels of symbolism, and provide a solid structure around which the plot is shaped.
In Okay for Now the metaphor of Audubon’s birds is used as an organizing thematic pattern. Not only does the reader have images of the birds at the beginning of each chapter that create a circle structure beginning and ending with the Arctic Tern, but also the book is saturated with imagery. The author uses the bird imagery in structure and story arc. The main character recognizes the imagery in the bird pictures and keeps drawing metaphors from his study of these paintings. Thus, the reader enjoys layers of metaphors, created both by narrative and structure, which leads to multiple levels of understanding and immense depth of meaning.
Mary’s Monster, Lita Judge’s biography of Mary Shelley, is one of those books where, at first glance, the structure seems like a purely practical choice, but once a reader looks deeper, the structure adds meaning to the content. Using three distinct voices in three different fonts, Judge mirrored the three voices in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster. Judge’s book is also presented in nine parts, echoing the nine months it took Shelley to write her novel. At the beginning of each part, Judge uses quotes that is relevant to that section, and her artwork at the end of each of the nine parts acts as a full stop. It is a snapshot of that moment in Shelley’s life, a moment for the reader to take a breath, and an indication that something is about to change. Lita Judge’s novel invites curious readers to investigate, and they will not be disappointed at the layers of meaning and symbolism buried in the structure.
The structure of The Inquisitor’s Tale (Or Three Children and Their Holy Dog) by Adam Gidwitz mirrors medieval texts, such as Canterbury Tales. In this book the structure supports the medieval setting, educates readers about medieval texts, but also provides opportunity for multiple narrators in a way that is accessible to young children.
Meaning in structure is also attainable in picture books. In 2015 Caldecott Medal winner Beekle, author-illustrator Dan Santat uses the whole book’s physical structure to deliver the full message. On the front end-papers the reader sees many children with their imaginary friends. Each child-imaginary friend duo has their thing they do together – their purpose. But Beekle, centered on the right-hand page, stands alone. When we get to the last full-spread of the book, we find Alice and Beekle surrounded by drawings of their adventures. These drawings are images from the book we are holding in our hands. On the back end-papers, Beekle and Alice appear together in the center between all the other children and their imaginary friends, holding the book Beekle. Making this book was their purpose. The structure of the book echoes the meaning of the book that is about the making of this book.
2018 Caldecott winner Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell has a mirroring circular structure. The wolves’ journey mirrors the girl’s. This mirroring reflects the theme that we are the same, and have the same basic needs, regardless our appearance. The story structure is echoed in the circle motif of some of the illustrations.
In Drawn Together, written by Minh Lê and illustrated by Dan Santat, structure contributes to the readers understanding of the relationship between grandfather and grandson. Initially the illustrations are in frames, like a comic book, alluding to the boxed-in, restricted relationship between the two characters.
As they find common ground, the frames disappear and the images are full of detail, color and movement. When the distance between them resurfaces, they are back in the frames, until they use their new tools to break out together in spectacular fashion, revealing the spread with the most movement and color.
As a graphic memoir, Hey Kiddo, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, has a chronological, linear structure. The art is the simple line drawings we’ve come to love in books like Lunch Lady or Jedi Academy, but the muted color palette communicates to the reader that the subject matter is not light. Each chapter kicks off with a spread that uses Jarrett’s grandmother’s kitchen wallpaper as a background. Collaged on this pineapple wallpaper are mementos from his youth: letters from his mother, invitations, photographs and artwork from his childhood. The juxtaposition between the comic-style drawings and the real-life artifacts is a powerful reminder that what the reader encounters, really happened, and that one can overcome hardship with perseverance, humor and love.
When I encounter books like these, I often wonder about the author’s process. At what point in the writing did structure become meaning? I have had the privilege to ask both Kate Messner and Gary Schmidt this question. For both of them, the focus on meaningful structure happens after the first draft. Gary said that once he has the story on paper, he looks for the recurring themes, or objects, and then delves deep into that to make the most of it. Kate said, “ Mostly, those kinds of threads appear as I’m writing, and then I go back and strengthen them during the revision process.”
As you read mentor texts for research, pay attention to the internal structure. Is it simply a skeleton? Or does the structure contribute to meaning? And as you plot your own work, take some time to consider the backbone of your story, and whether your structure can be purposeful in more than one way. What suits your story best? What can you tease out or build upon to give your WIP an additional layer of meaning for those analytical readers?
In books with a circular structure, the characters find themselves in the same space, whether externally or internally, in the end of the story as in the beginning. Circular structure is satisfying to readers. It offers complete closure and provides opportunity for the reader to compare, contrast, and consider the growth and change that happened within the full circle.
A picture book example of circular structure is The Dot by Peter Reynolds. When Vashti’s own words are spoken back to her, her response drives home her growth. In A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass (MG), the circular structure is evident in the main character’s synesthesia being present, being lost, being regained; the coming and going of cats; and a full-circle moment with her grandfather’s painting. I like to think of circular structure as a book hug. All the story elements are gathered together and complete, leaving the reader feeling fulfilled and loved.
Quest or journey books traditionally have circular structures. Characters are home, they voyage, they return home. Jessie Sima’s charming picture book Love, Z, is an excellent introduction to a quest book, where the main character undergoes both a physical and internal quest. Series such as Beyonders by Brandon Mull and Brotherband by John Flannigan, and stand-alones such as The Emperor’s Ostrich by Julie Berry are examples of MG and YA quest books.
Circular structure comes in many variations, preventing these types of books from becoming predictable.
In Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller the circle expands to the universal, but contracts back to the main character in end.
Sometimes the circle is ascending, almost like a loop-de-loop on a roller coaster. The character meets his full circle face on, and shoots past it, in a display of tremendous character growth and victory. After the Fall by Dan Santat and Drawn Together by Minh Lê are examples of this kind of uplifting, feel-good structure.
Mystery or suspense novels have a spiral structure where each clue or fact circles the main character closer to the solution.
A book can also contain multiple smaller circles within a bigger linear or circular structure, where subplots form mini-circles, or the main character has several circle-moments.
Ways to enhance simple structures:
Other structural elements can be added to basic linear and circular structures to provide interest.
Younger readers, and picture book audiences, find comfort in repetition. Repetition gives readers some control over the text, the ability to make informed predictions, and a sense of what is important. Repetition can be bold, like an echoing phrase, a similar pattern repeated, or in dialogue. But it can also be subtle, hidden within the way a series of actions repeat, or within lists that progress in similar fashion, or even within the rhythm of words. All these known elements in different circumstances, are familiar, comfortable places for young readers - places to rest and gather thoughts before the next intense moment.
Before You Sleep by Annie Cronin Romano, walks through the five senses in a linear way (and the illustrations show the four seasons), but the chorus repeating at the end of each sense’s section gives readers and listeners a clue that they are transitioning.
In picture books, repetition can also be present in the illustrations. In But the Bear Came Back by Tammi Sauer, images of and allusions to the bear are present throughout the book, even when the bear is absent.
In longer works repetition can appear in the form of themes, objects, or games, and sometimes a character has a saying or mantra that repeats. Even though the structure in The Seventh Wish (MG) is linear, Messner enhances the structure, and builds tension, with the Serenity Prayer repeatedly appearing in snippets and in full throughout the novel. It acts like a little red flag to readers, saying, “Pay attention!” and contributes to the main character’s development.
Cumulative structure, where the narrative builds upon itself, adds silliness or tension. Classic examples of stories with cumulative structure are There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly or The House that Jack Built, and more current examples are You must Bring a Hat by Simon Phillip, Stuck by Oliver Jeffreys and The Red Sled by Lita Judge. Cause and effect books (If you give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff) also fall under this umbrella.
The Epic Adventures of Huggie and Stick (PB) by Drew Daywalt is a parallel journey, told by two narrators with very different points of view, creating two parallel circles. With parallel linear structure, like in Dear Dragon by Josh Funk, the same timeline is followed independently by two characters.
Both the above-mentioned picture books also employ different types of text. Dear Dragon is epistolary, while The Epic Adventures of Huggie and Stick is conveyed through diary entries. Unconventional texts such as letters, sticky notes and emails (Everything, Everything (YA) by Nicola Yoon), text messages, letters, newspaper articles, and poems (Breakout (MG) by Kate Messner), are all ways to jazz up basic linear or circular structures.
Bodies need strong frameworks to function properly. In the same way an author has to construct a story around a solid structure to keep readers anchored. Once the structure is sound, the other elements do not distract, but rather contribute to the structure.
What type of basic structure suits your WIP the best? Once you have settled on a basic structure, can you use one or more of the other elements to add texture?
Be sure to come back next week when we will look at books where structure also denotes meaning.
~ by Amanda Smith
When I taught elementary and middle school science there would always be a place in the school-year where I would ask something like this: What is the function of the skeletal system? What would you look like if you had no bones? Inevitably, there would always be one student who said, “Like a blob.” Just as our skeletal system provides structural support for the entire body, and, along with muscles, enables movement, stories also need bones in order to not be “blobs” of words.
Over the next three weeks we will take a deep delve into story structure. We’ll look at basic story structures, ways to use structure to add interest, and ways in which structure itself can create meaning. In The Magic Words, Cheryl B. Klein states, “Plot is simply the selection of events and structure in which these events unfold to create the desired emotional effects.” My hope is that by the end of this series, we will all have a better understanding of structure, and will give our story skeletons as much thought as we give plot development or character building.
Basic story structures include linear and circular. There are elements that can be incorporated to both these structures to add depth, teach concepts, or reassure readers. As those who write for emerging readers, we should also be aware that internal structure provides “coat hooks” or place markers for students to gather their thoughts and make necessary connections. When our stories have well-built structures, they offer support for young readers to navigate a text.
Let’s take a look at linear structure. Linear structure is the most common internal structure used by story tellers. It is how we teach young writers to write. A story must have a beginning, middle, and end; and as writers mature, we teach them the story arc.
Usually linear structure is connected to a timeline. The passage of time in a story can be brief, like in most picture books. However, a short timeline doesn’t necessarily imply a short text. The action in the middle grade novel Miss Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson mostly takes place over the course of one day. Periodic time stamps and other time references help establish the structure. The YA novel Read Between the Lines by Jo Knowles is also set in a single day, with time stamps at the start of each chapter.
The internal structure of Wonder by R.J. Palacio is stretched over the school year. References to holidays and typical school calendar activities provide the skeleton for the story. Books with a linear structure can also be built around specific holidays, sporting events, competitions, or life-events. The autobiographical graphic novel Smile by Reina Telgemeier takes place over many years, yet its linear structure follows the author’s childhood dental injury and recovery.
Sequence of events or lists are also ways to create linear internal structure. In The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner (MG) the title reveals that the reader can expect a series of wishes and consequences. In a novel that deals with heavy subject matter, as well as multiple subplots, the rhythm of the seven wishes creates order. The BFF Bucket List by Dee Romito (MG) is another book where a list is provided early on in the narration. The reader has the expectation that everything on the list will be covered in the novel, and that structure helps the reader make predictions and eases the reader through the story.
Romance novels also typically follow a linear structure. There is the introduction of the main characters and growing friendship, the fall-out, and the happily ever after (or not).
In concept books, linear structure often helps to teach the reader something specific. Alphabet books such as Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, number books like There’s a Dinosaur on the Thirteenth Floor by Wade Bradford, days of the week books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and season books, like Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn by Kenard Pak are linear by nature of their subject.
Retellings, fractured fairy tales and nursery rhymes typically have linear structure. As the new story is based on the structure of the old, familiarity with the original texts help readers navigate the new. Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood (PB) and Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail (MG, based on Cyrano De Bergerac) are examples.
Linear structure is helpful, especially to emerging readers, because it connects text with familiar timelines and provides them road markers as they experience a story. In picture books, linear structure can also help reinforce concepts under the cover of a fun story.
Next week we will look at circular structure as well as ways in which linear and circular structures can be made more interesting. As you read this week, consider the internal structure of your reading material. What provides shape under the surface to help you make sense of the story, characters and emotions?
Peruse blogs for advice and tips from KidLit creatives.
Click to set custom HTML
Click on the RSS Feed button above to receive notifications of new posts on this blog.