Lessons from a Dummy

It’s a fact, the dummy changed my life.  Dramatic as that may sound, from the perspective of a picture book writer who felt stuck in her own revision process, it’s completely true.   I’ve known about the concept of dummy picture books for months now, and I’ve heard (or read) tons of people talk about what a necessary step it is.  I must be a slow learner because I’ve been avoiding it until this week.  But I did it, and I love it and I can’t wait to talk about it.

I used scrapbook paper because I like the weight of the paper in my hands.  After I cut them in half, stapled them together and numbered them 1-32, I pasted in my text.  I started on page 5. (And if anyone has a different opinion on this, please share.) For this dummy, which will be the first of many, I just separated my sentences into what I thought would work best.  You have to start somewhere, right?  It blew my mind what a different feel the story had, now that it’s not in paragraph form on 8.5 x 11” sheets of paper, and instead actually resembles a book.  Many of my hiccups became clear, as did clumsy wording and soft spots in my story.  There are a few of my sentences that need to be tightened up, and for probably one-third of those, I could easily see how to do so. I’m going to keep chipping away at the edits that are surfacing from this experience.  Of course, I’m going to make another, if not more after that, touching things up along the way. How crazy that I was leaving out this incredibly crucial step!

As I’m still digesting the revelation that I talked about in my last post, and coming off my ‘dummy’ high, I know what wrinkles need to be ironed out now… Read Aloud Potential.  It’s the obvious next step and is exactly what the dummy is helping me to discover.  I don’t just want to write a picture book; I want to write some kid’s favorite picture book.  On top of that, I want to write one that parents love to read to their children.  (aka Panda Cake!)  That’s where the magic happens in this corner of the market, and it’s completely unique to picture books.  I know my opinion of the book I’m reading affects the quality of my reading and the tone of my voice.  I know the pain of being asked to read a story to one of my kids that I REAAALLLYYYY don’t like, or when I suggest one that’s not a favorite of my kids. On the other hand, I know the joy and delight that comes when I read a story that we all love, and what a richer experience it makes.  I want to write one of those, and I need its real aloud potential to be off the charts.  (Mary Kole just posted a great video blog on this exact thing, you can find it here if you want more info)

So, the moral of this story… make a dummy of your picture book manuscript, in fact, make a dozen.  I’m going to the store tomorrow, stacking up on paper and glue sticks, and will turn my sweet little writing desk into a dummy factory.

 

In somewhat unrelated news… Kid Lit College is having a Board Book contest, with two categories (standard & novelty) going on now through May 31.  There’s also a chapter book contest going at the same time.  I’m going to enter the board book contest with a blend of one of my NaPiBoWriWee stories and a previous project!  The winner gets their manuscript critiqued by five editors, what a great opportunity.

Also, my daughter finished and submitted her #50PreciousWordsforKids entry.  We had a blast working on her story together.  This was one she had previously written but was way above the word limit, so we talked and walked through a bit of editing together.  Mother-Daughter editing; it did get as dicey as it sounds, but that was short-lived, and she was very proud of her finished product.  You can read Mia the Cat and all of the entries here. The contest received entries from 15 states and 6 different countries.  It was a wonderful lesson for my seven-year-old on just how small the world is while at the same time expanding her view beyond the city limits of our small town.  Whew, I think that’s all I have for today.

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

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Show, Don’t Tell

This afternoon, somewhere in the midst of end-of-school-year mayhem and baseball season fatigue, I had an epiphany.  I’m not even quite sure what to do with it yet, and honestly, it scares me a little.  Writing picture books is very VERY different than telling stories.  We tell stories all the time in my house.  There’s a series about ‘Bob the silly dragon’ that’s five years running. These get told every nap time or in the event of an extended potty stay. (Parents of current or former toddlers know exactly what I’m talking about.)  There’s a game we play often at the supper table, putting ourselves into our favorite fairy tales and telling them from a different perspective.  Sometimes on road trips, we take turns adding sentences to a story that becomes a family affair.  To be clear, I did not get into picture book writing because I thought it would be easy, or I thought that our silly little dragon would make me rich and famous.  But I did think that the two were similar, and though they are in some ways, they are not in many more.

The concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ confuses me.  I thought I knew what it meant. I thought I understood the concept, but with every critique I receive, I’m realizing how wrong I was.  As I try to find the balance between using great words, but only a few of them, I realize that I need to figure out how to tell a story without ‘showing’ much of it.  I’ve learned that adverbs should be used carefully, and prepositional phrases are almost never needed. I know that I shouldn’t say anything that can be shown in illustrations, except that this is such a vague and hypothetical concept for me, and therefore a struggle.  I have a good story.  I know how to tell my story using my spoken words and do it justice.  I’m struggling with how to tell it in written words, and as few as possible to boot.  I’m struggling to hang on to my voice and untangle the knot of words I’m hanging on to.  I think I’m on the cusp of something really good, and for lack of any other obvious, next-step options, it’s time to make a dummy.

Here’s my homework from a long forgotten webinar:

  1. Use 8 pieces of paper, cut in half and staple
  2. Number 1-32, and starting on page 5 or 6 (different schools of thought here) put your words on the page.

That’s it.  I’ve been avoiding it like a stack of unpaid bills.  You know, the kind of things you know better than to procrastinate on, but for some reason NOT doing it seems easier.  I could do it now, but I also have real work I could do too… or laundry… hell, it’s 9:30 pm, I could also sleep…

…I did it. I walked away from my computer and started on my dummy, slept a bit and now I’m back.  Honestly, I’m a little obsessed and outdone with myself for allowing my manuscript to stall for so long.  I can see things in the dummy that I couldn’t in a Word document. One thing many people don’t know is that I almost always carry one of my WIPs with me.  In my purse, or in my car you’re certain to find a manuscript or two.  Now that I have a dummy, you may find Him buckled into the passenger seat. Stay tuned for more of my ‘lessons from a dummy’.

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

The Clean Up

My husband works in the construction industry.  His job is to supply contractors, large and small, with the equipment they need for their respective projects.  Sometimes it’s an air compressor, or a welder or any number of things that are hard for me distinguish.  But according to my boys, he has the cool stuff too, like bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks.  Over the years, those projects have ranged from hospitals, university dormitories, and even a grocery store or two. From time to time, the projects are also demolitions.  How convenient! See where I’m going with this?  I can stick with my theme.  (Because I do not have my own home renovation to have learned from… and I’m not sad about that!)  If you missed last week, or any week for that matter, I’m in the process of a major revision of my picture book manuscript.  I’m tearing it down and going to build my story back together.  Like any remodel, I’m hoping it resembles the original with a noticeable facelift.  I want to keep the emotional core of my story, I want to keep the main character, and I’m pretty set on the support staff too. At this point, it looks like every other aspect is on the chopping block.

From my crash course in demolition, I learned that as soon as the tear-down phase is complete, the clean-up begins.  This is when the contractor sorts through the rubble, determining what’s trash and what’s not.  Perfect!  That’s exactly where I’m headed.  I used the following questions to help guide me through my manuscript cleanup.  (These were also picked up in a recent webinar I attended called How To Be A Better Critique Partner by Heather Alexander.  I figured it would be wise to turn them on myself.)

  • Who is the protagonist? Well, this one was easy, I created him after all.  I elaborated in my Knots post, that I talk to him, asking questions and trying to learn more about him.  I do need to know ALL about him; the good, the bad and the whiney.  (He does whine a little in my story.  Which breaks cardinal rule number one in the house I grew up in… thankfully my parents have softened a bit as grandparents.  I wonder if imaginary grandkids count too?)
  • What does he want? He desperately needs (in the way five-year old’s do) a solution to the enormous problem staring him in the face. He’s Bored.  I’m talking painfully bored, the kind that makes you restless and irritable.  He wants to have fun but is having trouble finding someone to help him.
  • What is his ultimate goal? To salvage his day, which seems to be spiraling, if you ask me. It’s going to take something BIG to get his day back on track.
  • How will he achieve it? He starts with all the usual suspects; friends and family… even daring to broach the topic with his mom. He strikes out. I don’t want to give away too much, he does ultimately come up with a solution but not before striking out a couple of times.
  • What will happen if he doesn’t? As a mom, a bored kid is a ticking time bomb of the worst sorts.  They (at least my own) get whiney, emotional and utterly distraught.  Boredom, once it sinks in is terribly difficult to shake off, especially when your five.  He needs to figure something out, or there’s likely big trouble looming in the distance.

So, I think all of this is my ‘good stuff’, the salvageable parts of this story that I’ve been toiling and tinkering with for the better part of a year.  What didn’t make the cut? Well, the first thing to go was the rhyme.  I’m feeling good with that decision and looking forward to getting to know this new side of my writing self.   Many of my word choices, I would imagine, are also holding the story back.  For some reason, the ‘less is more’ philosophy I ascribe to doesn’t translate into my words.  I almost often use too many words to explain myself, both in speaking and in writing.  I know I have at least 200 words to shave off from where my manuscript stands now.  I also need to keep the emotional theme of my story securely in my cross-hairs, and any parts that contradict, or deviate from the emotions I’m trying to convey, need to go. Regardless of how attached I am to them.  I do know that I need to learn more about ‘pacing’ so that my story can efficiently move in the direction it needs to.  I see another webinar in my future.

If I can be honest, some days my ‘trash’ pile feels tall, and my ‘keep’ pile feels small.   The good news is that one the rubble has been sorted, the next part is the dirt work.  If I can be thorough in what I’m doing now, I will have the space and the tools that I need to build a brilliant foundation for this story.  Plus, I know where I can get a bulldozer if I need one

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Demolition

Two things happened recently, that have greatly altered the course of this little writing journey I’m on.  First, I watched a fantastic webinar on ‘How to Be a Better Critique Partner’ given by Heather Alexander.  I learned a great deal, and I’m still unpacking much of what she said, but one part resonated with me (and it actually had nothing to do with critiquing).  During her presentation, she made a comparison between that the revision process and a home renovation.  She made it clear, not the kind of remodel that involves slapping on a coat of paint and changing the light fixtures; what she was referring to was ‘knocking down walls kind of stuff’.   I’m a very visual person, and I appreciated the analogy, I even went so far as to write her words in large print on the bottom of my notes page.  But kids got home, life moved on, I slept and somehow lost track of it.

Fast forward a couple of days, and I received feedback from someone who graciously agreed to beta read for me.  I could’ve pinched myself when she agreed to do so. She’s previously published (with more picture books on the way) and comes from a similar background (healthcare turned writer) with much more experience.  I heard back from her sooner than I expected, and her feedback was all too familiar.  For the third time now, someone with industry experience told me, “Drop the Rhyme.” All three times it was said with much more tact, but I like to cut through the fluff when possible.  Three different times, each one separated by months and miles, but the advice didn’t change and this time I heard it.  If I can be honest, I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me.

I am terrified at the thought of not writing in rhyme.  It’s all I know.  In my family, rhyming is my ‘thing’.  Just ask my parents to see old Anniversary cards or Christmas picture books, and you’ll see that my history of rhyming goes back a long way.  Heck, I won a poetry contest in the eighth grade… I RHYME…IT’S WHAT I DO.  I know I’ve talked about writing versions of my story that don’t rhyme, and I promise I did.  I just I never did so with the intention of putting all my eggs in that basket.  I don’t know if I’m even any good.  But I believe, with every ounce of my ‘wanna-be’ writer self, that fear should never be the reason to hit the brakes.  At least not in situations like this.  Sure, it feels foreign, a little scary and like I’m starting from scratch, but the boy at the center of my story deserves for me to try.  (As an aside, I recently read “… if you write, then you are a writer” so I’m trying to settle in with the title.)

I think I’m starting to understand what Heather was talking about now.  Not that I hadn’t done major revisions before, because some those had been painful, but this is taking “kill your darlings’ to a whole new level.  (For my non-writer friends, don’t panic… the ‘darlings’ in this case are words, favorite words even, that need to be cut from a story.  William Faulkner said it, so you know its good advice.)  One of the first things I did was go back to my main character and ask for his help.  He did not disappoint.  What he did do, however, is throw the entire sequence of my stories about him in a tailspin.  I have three stories written about this boy and they landed in different pieces and different places than I had ever previously considered.  I think he may be on to something, but to get there will take a few more swings with a sledgehammer.  Words are starting to flow, but I’m not taking off my hard hat yet.

Sure I loved my ‘house’ before the renovation, it was filled with first words and early lessons, but I can already see I’m going to like the changes. It’ll make a mess in the process, but I feel energized and I’m eager to see where this takes me.  So here I go, in the middle of a self-induced rhyming fast (library books included) and venturing into foreign lands.  I’m also halfway through the Picture Book Page Turns webinar (kidlitcollege.org), I think I’ll be making a dummy with my WIP this week.  I’ll share what I learn soon. Wish me luck!

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP