By Annie Cronin Romano
If you’ve ever taken a workshop on novel revision, there’s a good chance you’ve heard your fellow writers mention doing frequency checks on words that are often overused. These “weed words” are words or phrases that pop up over and over in your manuscript without adding texture to your narrative.
Using the “find” feature, you type in the word you want to check and then edit accordingly. But did you know the exercise of a frequency check can and should go beyond merely deleting or changing an overused word? It can help you catch stereotyped phrasing and increase your awareness of varying descriptions and vocabulary.
Recently, I was completing frequency word checks while editing my middle grade novel. When I first started the revisions, I kept a running log of words I noticed I was using frequently. Rather than interrupt my flow when writing, I'd simply jot down the word in my log to check later. However, it was while doing the common words frequency check that I discovered my own personal “weed words.” For instance, I never realized how frequently I used the words “hand” "reached," and “turned” in this particular manuscript until I started the frequency check. They kept showing up! I was astounded at how often I used certain words I didn’t think of as overly-common. In finding those words, I also picked up on similarities in many of my descriptions. (Didn't she "roll her eyes" three paragraphs ago?) As I edited, my weed word list grew from about 40 words on my running list to over 100 words (i.e., adding "roll" and "eyes"), and the task at hand became much more than a find-and-replace drill. I delved deeper into my writing, examining my voice and style as I edited. Questions I began asking included, “How can I convey that feeling differently?” "Is this truly how the character would say this?" “What else can my character do to show that reaction?” and “Is this line essential/moving the story forward?” What started as a basic editing drill led me to reexamine my overall writing technique and how it impacted my story as a whole. The result was a significantly stronger manuscript.
I have included a frequency words list below, which includes words I discovered I use too often (my own personal "weed words") as well as some of the usual suspects ("very," "really," "seems," etc.). Your list may look quite different, but this will give you a place to start. Sometimes your weed words may be project-specific (i.e., if you're working on a book that takes place in the desert, check for words like "sand," "dry," and "arid"). You don't have to eliminate every instance of these words; use the list as a tool to ensure you vary your vocabulary and minimize common phrasing and descriptions.
The next time you’re editing your work, consider going beyond the find-and-replace approach to thinning out your weed words, and dig down further to bring out the best in every line. Weeding, when paired with conscientious revision, will make every word sing!
Guest Blog by Rob Justus
Hey there beautiful reader!
This is author, illustrator, nice guy, Rob Justus. The lovely people at 24 Carrot Writing have asked if I could contribute a couple points on how to begin your journey into the world of creating graphic novels.
Now I know, I know, who the heck is this guy? I don’t even have a graphic novel published!....But I will.
Right now, I’m the author/illustrator of the amazing KID COACH picture book, but come Fall 2021 my first graphic novel series, DEATH AND SPARKLES, will be flying off bookshelves!
So how did I get here? How did I go from picture books to middle grade graphic novels?
Well, I was told by a few people that middle-grade graphic novels are a booming segment of the book market, and that my humor and storytelling might be a could match. That’s when I saw dollar signs dancing in my eyes! Muh-ha-ha!
Everyone thinks that writing a picture book is easy. It is really freakin’ hard!!! You’re generally constrained to 32 cohesive pages, where every single word is scrutinized over and over. With graphic novels, there’s a little more room for my ideas to run around. And run around I did!
It starts with character
When I start a story, it starts with a character that I’ve sketched. These characters tend to have something that stands out from all the other things I’ve sketch. They have a life to them.
For DEATH AND SPARKLES, it started with me drawing random skulls. Those skulls evolved into this:
It was a fun, simple, easy to draw character, but if I was going to make Death the central part of an ongoing narrative he probably needed a little more visual emotional depth...which translates to: Dude should at least have a mouth.
From there, and really just goofing around with some friends, we gave this serious looking character a buddy. Something that was the exact opposite of the grim reaper. A pudgy little unicorn!
Originally, I planned on aiming these characters at younger kids, and having the graphic novel set up as a simple sitcom with each chapter being a funny situation. I pitched this to my agent and she politely told me it was a steaming pile of poo-poo caca.
Then she gave me the most important piece of advice I’ve gotten in this crazy journey I’ve taken to become a real author...
WORLD BUILDING changed everything. My agent told me to write lists of personality traits for each character. How they react to certain situations. How they feel. Sometimes I just wrote lists of random questions: How does Death feel about swimming? Why would Sparkles want to be friends with Death? How does Death feel about death? How can I include cupcakes? Would Death have a pet?
Once I had an idea of who Death and Sparkles are as characters, I began to define the world they live in. Where does Death live? How does he travel around? Does Sparkles do anything for himself? Who’s in his entourage? Are unicorns descendants of dragons? From there I could start to populate this world with other secondary characters and antagonists.
Because I spent so much time defining and building this world it became SO easy to write. I knew how the characters would react to different situations, how they’d deal with conflict and how Death and Sparkles would grow to become best buds. I even know how their friendship is going to evolve over the next six books! That said, my agent was worried I’d struggle writing something longer than 32 pages, with our goal to have a nice arc over hopefully 120 pages. All the work beforehand let me run wild! Just a mere 275 pages later we had a fully sketched out dummy ready for submission. DEATH AND SPARKLES is easily one of my proudest achievements as a writer and illustrator.
I’m a firm believer in just doing your thing. As long as you’ve got a pencil and paper you’re good to start creating anything you want, but I will plug one little thing that helped me immensely. A little program called Scrivener. It’s a writing program that let me keep all my notes in one place, while having a great outlining/cork board/cue card thingy. Go check it out. Best $20 I ever spent.
I grew up reading and wanting to draw comics when I was a kid, but “chose” the safer options in life and got a comfy job as a consultant. When I decided to leave all that behind and switch to a creative career, it felt like things were coming full circle. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I can’t wait to show the world I built for DEATH AND SPARKLES in Fall 2021, but in the meantime feel free to check out my picture book KID COACH.
I’m author, illustrator, nice guy Rob Justus, and hopefully you found this ramblin’ insightful. Shine on, people!
To learn more about Rob please visit his website at https://robjustus.com/ or find him on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/robjustus/. Rob is a member of The Soaring '20s High Flying Picture Book Debuts. Find all The Soaring '20s authors and illustrators at https://www.soaring20spb.com/.
You can order a copy of KID COACH here.
by Annie Cronin Romano
Most writers keep a pen and paper handy to record story ideas when inspiration strikes. You see something that captures your imagination or overhear a phrase that causes your writing detector to go on high alert, and you quickly scribble it down. Perhaps you write it a in a small notepad, or maybe you jot it down on a napkin or placement. You may even write it on your hand if there’s no paper available. I have done all of those things. Sometimes I tear out a newspaper article that has sparked a story idea or print out a news story or photograph that made my writing radar start beeping. Eventually, most writers have a folder or notebook stuffed with scraps of paper—a collection of golden story nuggets waiting to be mined for their potential.
But when you finally cull through those ideas, it can be a daunting task. I recently decided to take on my “idea folder.” I took it out of my file cabinet and placed it on my desk. Where it sat. Staring at me. Cruelly. Mockingly, even.
Then one day I was out browsing in a home store and spotted a display of home office supplies. As a writer, desk and stationary supplies are like candy to me, so I walked over to explore. There, on top of the pile of journals, was a hard cover spiral notebook with the words “BIG IDEAS” (typed in extremely small print, ironically) on the cover. It was fate.
I bought the notebook and took it home to introduce it to my idea folder. Big Ideas notebook, meet Idea Folder. Idea Folder, I love you, but you’re a mess. Meet Big Ideas notebook.
I went through my scraps of idea notes and, one by one, began writing those sparks at the top of each notebook page. I left the rest of the page blank. One idea per page with the blank page below for brainstorming. As I have time, I open to a page, read the idea at the top, and brainstorm story thoughts, plots, characters...anything that comes to mind. Sometimes it’s a doodle. Sometimes it’s a list. Sometimes it’s a diagram or several sentences. Whatever it takes to play with the idea and see what potential stories I can tease out of it. This notebook system keeps my ideas in one space, like a folder, but organized for easy access with blank space for development. It has become the garden where I plant my story seeds and then tend to them to see what sprouts.
So go buy yourself a notebook for your Big Ideas--you know you love shopping for office supplies! Maybe even get some colorful pens to add to the joy! Then organize those randomly scattered idea gems into the notebook. Remember, just one per page. And let the brainstorming begin! Who knows where those sparks will take you. You may get a new story blazing before you know it!
Guest blog by Ileana Soon
Hello! My name is Ileana, and I am the illustrator behind Annie Cronin Romano's book, Night Train: A Journey From Dusk to Dawn. I was invited by 24 Carrot Writing to contribute some of my thoughts and share my experience bringing Night Train to life. There were a lot of things I learnt along the way. I'll touch on my process here as well as walk you through some of my thoughts behind my visual decisions. This will be fun!
Getting the manuscript, thoughts and ideas
I was really excited when I got the manuscript as I had felt like the story was right up my alley. It had travel, a train journey, and a great sense of adventure. Whilst reading the script, the feelings it evoked popped a few visual references into my mind, such as the movie A River Runs Through It (directed by Robert Redford) as it seemed to capture the same feeling. Seeing as it was a period setting, other visual references soon followed that were also period pieces; movies like Testament of Youth (directed by James Kent) and The Painted Veil (directed by John Curran). Below are some screenshots taken from the movies mentioned.
As an illustrator, I think it is important to always bring something personal to every project worked on, the theory being that sharing a personal experience through art will somehow invite an emotional connection from the viewer, even if it's something that can't quite be explained. I find that throughout my life I have been attracted to paintings only to find that it, too, was very personal to the artist. Reading Annie's script brought back a lot of my memories travelling as a student throughout Europe and the UK. To save on accommodations, there were many nights spent at train stations and on trains, enroute to the next destination. It was the perfect experience to borrow from as I remember some nights staring out the window from my train, and watching the sun rise as the train moved into a new station and country the following morning. It was exhilarating. Below are some pictures taken during my travels that served as reference.
To begin, it was important to lay out the pacing of the text. What would be the rhythm of this book? Using Photoshop, the words were cut and pasted onto each page until the pacing felt right.
Next, I wanted to come up with a visual vocabulary for this world. As you may now realise, cinema is something I really love, and borrowing from this, the art direction for this world could be set in screen direction, and colour.
Visually, it's a challenging task to illustrate a train making a journey through the night. If you think about it, how many truly different ways are there to paint a night sky? How many night skies can there be in a book without boring the reader? (Surely not 32 pages!) To vary and make it visually interesting, I wanted to bring variation to this journey through colour temperature as you can see in the swatches below. I will also touch more on colour later.
Screen direction (or page direction in this case) seemed important to show continuity in the train's journey from dusk to dawn. It's vocabulary that some films use to show progress for a character throughout a plot. It's a subtle thing, but throughout the book the train always moves from the left of the page to the right. Every single page. Included below is this thought laid out in a page sent to the publisher.
So to recap, here is a summation for the visual vocabulary of Night Train. Inspired by the aforementioned films, the story was set in the 1920/30s. Inspired by my travels in Europe and the UK and a train journey that I took from a big city to a small town by the sea in the UK, I thought mapping a similar route would help to capture the same sense of wonder in these illustrations I felt on that journey. The colours would change from warm in the beginning to cool by the end. The screen direction for the train would always move from left to right. Annie also shared her thoughts of how it would be great to set the train journey in the Pacific Northwest. Great! More specificity — always a good thing.
Ideations, thumbnails, sketches and revisions
Since pacing is very important, it was important for me to ideate the entire book in one go, instead of focusing on a page at a time. This meant jotting (drawing) ideas out on posits whilst laying out the entire book. This is all done by hand, sticking post-its to a wall. This was a habit my director and I used to do, whilst previously working at an agency as a lead designer, doing different storybeats for commercials and laying it all out in sequence on a glass window. Below are the rough notes ideating for Night Train in sequence.
Please forgive the roughness of this; this is not something I would ever show to anyone and it's done for my reference only when beginning a project. They are just thoughts. Doing this provides an opportunity to see the story as a whole and choose compositions that work sequentially to match the pacing in relation to each other, rather than picking the best composition for every page, which would make the book tonally flat (imagine a loud note for every page — not fun to listen to surely). I sometimes imagine sequential images as a song: the notes (images) have to flow together nicely, the volume (light vs dark) has to modulate as well, and all in one key! That's where visual vocabulary comes in.
From these thoughts, images are chosen to put together thumbnails to deliver to the publisher:
After the thumbnails are delivered, the team at Page Street gave me a green light to move toward sketches. Sketches are refined drawings from the thumbnails presented. From these sketches, my Artistic Directors give feedback, and these sketches go back to the drawing board until they are approved. The team at Page Street had the fine idea of introducing a family as characters that we could follow throughout the book, instead of the separate individuals I had previously sketched out. Great idea! Some sketches are approved straight away, but some go through several iterations. Included herein is a sample of the evolution of a sketch from presentation to approval:
After all the sketches were approved, I was asked to bring a spread to finish, and somehow in the back and forth with the team at Page Street, I proposed the idea of doing a colour script so they could see at a glance how to book would look like as a whole. Included herein is the colour script that was sent to Page Street:
Challenges with colour
One of the great challenges of this project was to find a way to have words sit on a page against the night sky whilst still being legible. Blue, or black for that matter, is dark in value, and black words against a dark blue sky is very hard to read. The publisher specified at some point that most of the type printed would be black, so on my end I felt it was important to structure the pages so that the words could be read against the painted backgrounds. Additionally, there was also the extra challenge as previously mentioned to make the pages more exciting, as 32 pages of purely dark blue skies would make the book tonally flat.
Thus, if you notice, less than 50% of the book (about 41%) is actually set against a dark blue sky, whilst the rest is set against the backdrop of the sun setting, and the sun rising, which gives a lot of opportunity for the black type to sit against lighter backgrounds, making it more legible.
This opportunity also opened up a pocket of time in terms of the hours that the train started and ended its journey. If its journey started at say 5pm, and ended at say 7am, the different variations of light that it would see during its journey would naturally vary a lot, bringing with it many exciting ways to introduce changes in colour temperatures as the pages turned.
Sticking to the visual vocabulary of moving generally from a warm palette to a cool palette from beginning to end, the frames have been aligned in sequence here so it may be easier to see what my thought process was like in doing this colour script.
Race to the finish
After the colour script was approved, everything from there on out was very straightforward. It was really a matter of just refining the pages from the colour scripts to a bigger final, finessing the final details, and adjusting colours as needed. Since it was set in a very specific time period, and also in a very specific geographic region, it really is important to make sure that all the references were right, from the costumes to the shapes of trees and smaller details surrounding all the pages. Below are some costume references sourced from that time period. These references were sourced from books at the library, archived film footage, as well as Pinterest.
The final few weeks working on this really did feel like a race to the finish! Below is an example of the evolution of a page from the colour script to the final.
Delivering the pages to my AD was a great feeling, and she has to be thanked for really being there at every step of this journey with me. I sincerely believe that all the feedback given made the pages better, and the visual ideas stronger. Hopefully, this translates over to the reader when they pick up this book.
Thank you for letting me share my process of bringing Night Train to life with you, and thank you to 24 Carrot Writing for inviting me to do so. I hope it was helpful and am looking forward to reading all the different approaches/processes other illustrators have here in the future.
About the Illustrator
Ileana Soon is an illustrator/vis dev artist who grew up in a small seaside town in Borneo, before making her way to Los Angeles where she currently lives and works. Her clients include The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Oprah Magazine. She has also won multiple awards, including a Silver Medal from 3x3, as well as recognition from American Illustration and The World Illustration Awards. Learn more about Ileana and see more of her work at http://ileanasoon.com/, on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/ileanadraws/, and on Behance at https://www.behance.net/ileanasoon.
~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?
~Guest blog by Jen Malone and Kristine Asselin
Thank you so much for having us as part of Trick or Treat month, a theme that matches well with the overall question we get asked most often about our co-authoring experience (spoiler alert: definitely a treat). We’re thrilled to discuss some of the nuts and bolts of our experience to help illuminate a process that many writers express interest in trying (and to offer reassurances that it’s worth doing so).
To give you an opportunity to hear from each of us without trying to determine who wrote which section (though always a fun game with co-authored anything), we decided we’d interview one another, answering some of the questions on this topic we hear from fellow authors which we haven’t seen widely addressed.
Jen: Okay, Kris, you’re up first because, well, I simply decided it would be so in this case. The question is: How do you decide who will write which parts?
Kris: Ha! If you know Jen and I, you can totally figure out who wrote which piece. I don’t want to spoil it (but scroll to the end if you want to know!)
I think for us, in this situation, it came really naturally. Our natural middle grade voices really informed who would write each piece. I don’t even think it was something we consciously talked about...we just each knew who we would write.
Kris: *rubs hands together* My turn. Jen, tell our readers what tools we used to draft and revise?
Jen: Okay, here’s where we got lazy. We both knew that Scrivener offered a feature that allows for project sharing, but neither of us could figure out how to use it cohesively and we were too darn eager to get started. So we used Google Docs. The creepiest thing with Docs is that you can both be in the manuscript at the same time and if inclined, could literally watch the other type each word into a chapter. Much as I love and trust Kris, I definitely can’t write with anyone looking over my shoulder, so I would usually compose my chapters in Scrivener and then copy and paste them into Google Docs. However, Docs worked great in most other respects—it’s very easy to leave each other notes (and even have conversations) in comment bubbles as we went, we created a folder that also held our outline along with research pictures and sources for easy reference, there was no confusion about whether we were each working in the most up-to-date version because we weren’t emailing the manuscript back and forth, and we could easily check to see if the other had added new pages. We both found it really lovely to go to bed with one word count and to wake up to thousands more words added to our story, as if by magic! Google Docs proved more exasperating during revisions because we’re both accustomed to being able to jump around our manuscripts so easily in Scrivener and all the endless scrolling frayed the nerves… but we made it work.
Kris: Just to add my $.02. I wrote my sections in Word, and then pasted into Google. Google was a little slow and got a little cumbersome, but it was AWESOME to use a live document and see it updated every few days. A great thing about working with another person is that the word count goes up exponentially!
Jen: Okay Kris, speaking of frayed nerves, what were some challenges to marrying two distinct voices and two distinct viewpoints, if any?
Kris: The way we structured this book made this easier than it could have been. Each of our characters has her own distinct character arc. You could conceivably read each character’s story by itself--this made it a bit easier for each of us to tell our own character’s story. Of course there are a few times when the girls speak to each other through the portal, and whoever was writing that dialogue had to be sure to get the voice right.
There were definitely times when Jen had suggestions for me and vice versa, and some of the best scenes came out of those suggestions to make something bigger or crazier.
Kris: Jen, maybe you can explain how we approached our agents with this idea?
Jen: Sure! We’re represented by different agents, so once we determined we wanted to go for this, we reached out to our respective agents and pitched the concept. Both were enthusiastic, so our next step was getting their take on how they wanted to divvy up the agent tasks (such as submitting to publisher(s) and managing ongoing accounting for the title). Since we planned from the start to offer this to my existing editor at Simon & Schuster, rather than going on wide submission, that task was less of an issue. We were also able to have S&S split accounting on the title in-house and issue us separate (but equal) advances and royalty statements reflecting only our individual halves of the pot. Both agents collaborated on contract points—discussing negotiation strategies and specific terms together. While mine took the lead as point person in contract communications with our editor, Kris’s agent then stepped up later in the process when we had an offer for stage rights that needed negotiating… so overall the balance was kept even. Most agencies have clients who are co-authoring and I’ve found most are quite open to working with other agents to best serve their authors’ careers. In fact, this wasn’t my first time to the co-authoring rodeo, and my lovely and accommodating agent worked with six other agents on my title Best. Night. Ever., which was co-authored by seven of us. In that instance, she suggested a structure typical of anthologies, where the project’s editor (me, in this case) is the person of record with the publishing house (with respect to name on the contract and person receiving advance/royalty statements). Then each of the other authors signed contracts (through my agent’s agency) with me directly, laying out terms of their specific contribution and indicating how monies coming in from the book would be distributed from me, via her agency. (Note: in most anthologies contributors are issued a one-time flat fee, but since our case was a different in that we were all equal participants in the storytelling, we share equally in any royalties/rights sales in perpetuity. This means I forward royalty statements I receive for the title to each author, who then passes it along to her agent for review. An extra step, yes, but hardly a logistical challenge.)
Kris: I’ll pick up from here and explain what the publication process was like… how we sold the book and how we worked with our editor on it. Our experience working with the amazing Amy Cloud was wonderful. Jen had worked with her before, but every book is different. Amy was a champion of our concept from the beginning. She brought the book to acquisitions in early September 2015 and Simon & Schuster bought it with only about 50 pages written--though we had a very thorough synopsis, so she knew the entire story from the outset. We had a very brief celebration and then had to finish the book, which ended up taking longer than we expected.
One of the most unexpected things was having turned in the final version to Amy just before the election of 2016. We’d included a minor subplot of having a female president in Hannah’s present day. It was heartbreaking for us to have to change that thread, and for a millisecond we thought about not changing it. In the end, we feel like the book is stronger for the change, alluding to more work still to come in changing hearts and minds about women’s roles in leadership.
Jen: Okay, we’re getting wordy here, so before we write a tome posing as a blog post, let’s wrap up by each listing our least favorite and our favorite part about co-authoring. I’ll start:
Least favorite: Worries about not pulling equal weight at all times. I went through some life events right around our book’s release and wasn’t quite feeling in full-on extroverted promotion mode. It was a source of guilt (but also such a blessing) to have a co-author who picked up any slack with grace and care.
Favorite: Having another deeply invested person (even better because it’s a friend) to ride the ups and downs with and to share the excitement with (oh, and also the workload), especially when you balance out each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Least favorite: When Jen had fabulous ideas that resulted in more work for me! LOL. Not really, but case in point. The soccer match that Maggie plays was not part of the original story. In writing a believable soccer game, I did a lot of research and even consulted with an expert to get it right. I’m so glad I did, but man, it was hard. (And now you know which character is mine!)
Favorite: Having someone to share the success with--I love the things we’ve been able to do together, like go on a Girl Scout trip to Newport to visit the mansion with girls. I’m so proud of this book, and working with Jen made it so much better than doing it alone!
Thank you again for hosting us here. We hope this helped demystify the process of co-writing a bit and that we convinced you to give it a try yourselves!
Click here for a review of THE ART OF THE SWAP in Book Picks.
Kristine Asselin is the author of several works of children’s nonfiction as well as the YA novel Any Way You Slice It. She loves being a Girl Scout leader and volunteering with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She is a sucker for a good love song (preferably from the 80s), and can’t resist an invitation for Chinese food or ice cream (but not at the same time!). She lives in Central Massachusetts with her teen daughter and husband, and spends part of everyday looking for a TARDIS to borrow. You can learn more about Kris at www.kristineasselin.com.
Jen Malone writes young adult novels with HarperCollins and middle grade adventures with Simon & Schuster. Jen’s published titles include The Art of the Swap (with Kristine Asselin), Changes in Latitudes, Best Night Ever, The Sleepover, the You’re Invited series (with Gail Nall), At Your Service, Map to the Stars, Wanderlost, and Follow Your Art (a collaboration with Dreamworks Animation and Penguin Random House on a companion story to the animated film Trolls). Her next YA, The Arrival of Someday, releases in Summer 2019. Jen once spent a year traveling the world solo, met her husband on the highway (literally), and went into labor with her identical twins while on a rock star's tour bus. These days she saves the drama for her books. You can learn more about Jen and her books at www.jenmalonewrites.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @jenmalonewrites.
By Francine Puckly
While summertime can be filled with creative restoration, it can also be a time when many of us struggle to capture enough writing time. For those of us who work on larger projects, the summer holidays often disrupt our usual writing schedules. Visitors, vacations, and “bored” children requiring care and entertainment make focusing on larger projects practically impossible. But the summer months don’t necessarily mean we have to put our imaginations on hold. We just have to figure out how to create differently.
Carving out a few minutes each morning or evening to put pen to paper can keep the creative juices flowing throughout the summer. If you’d like to keep your writing going this summer but not sure your current project can handle the inevitable interruptions, here are 25 summer-y prompts to help you persevere! Pour a glass of lemonade (or sangria!), steal away to the back porch, and write as fast as you can. You might get a new idea, but at the very least you’ll keep the brain (and pen) moving!
25 Summer Writing Prompts
By Annie Cronin Romano
As writers, we push ourselves to keep learning and improving. Writing workshops. Courses. Conferences. Critiques. We jot down ideas. Write the outline. Finish the draft.
But when do we pause? After all that craft work…after all that writing…do we ever take a few moments to sit and take in all we’ve learned? Do we check to see if it’s working for us? Because with all that effort put into our craft, we must be getting better at it, right?
Not taking time on a regular basis to process all we’ve absorbed through honing our craft—be it from a workshop or a critique—is one of the foremost disservices we writers do to ourselves. Yes, we certainly try applying what we learn, but it’s just as vital to stop for a bit and review all those writing suggestions and strategies we’ve gathered. Take some time—whether it’s once a month or after you finish a draft—and dive into your folders and file drawers. Pull out those notes you’re taken and handouts you’ve received from conferences and workshops. What suggestions have you implemented? Which ones have you avoided? Then look at your writing. Have the tips you’ve implemented strengthened your work? Perhaps you prefer your original version. And what about those strategies you haven’t tried? Maybe they seemed too difficult, or too time consuming, or maybe they’re not a good fit for your writing process. What if you use a style or suggestion that’s out of your comfort zone to rewrite a paragraph, a page, or a chapter?
Sometimes all the information we take in while honing our craft can be overwhelming. And we can’t possibly apply it all. But remember to stop. Take a breath. Then pull out those handouts and notes and read through them. Pick a few strategies you want to try. Review your writing based on what you’ve learned. And get your money’s worth out of all those enrichment opportunities you gave yourself.
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