Archives for category: Writing Tips

Voice as Character

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For many, one of the challenges of writing is making sure each character has his own unique voice. Who hasn’t received a rejection that referred to our “puppet” or “cardboard” characters? Attending to the body and physicality of our characters can help.

An improv theater exercise has each student walk across the room with a different part of his body leading the way. Try it. Walk across the room with your chin leading the way. Then, with your right shoulder leading the way. By the time the student gets to the other side of the room the way he carries his body has begun to create a particular voice that is not the author’s own.

How does a four-year-old walk across the room? How does an exhausted father walk across the room? Body contributes to voice.

Another way to explore voices is to sink into images (even caricatures) of different people. William Steig’s drawings done long before he thought of SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE can help our minds play and discover.

Given their body posture and facial expression, how does each of the following characters express their reaction to the scene next to them?

The differences in each character’s response is what makes them unique and interesting.

Bibliography

THE STEIG ALBUM by William Steig. Duel, Sloan and Pearce, 1953.

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Voice as Character

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In many ways voice comes down to character whether we are referring to characters in a story or the author/narrator telling the story. Voice is communication and the desire for connection between people. This connection may be face-to-face or leap over years and miles through reading.

A character’s dialogue and action are guided by back-story, but primarily by her immediate wants or needs of the other characters. If a character has no needs or wants why is she in the story? So…what do we, as writers, want or need from our readers? What does our narrator’s voice reveal about us?

As writers and storytellers our primary “want” is capturing and keeping the attention and emotions of our audience. Even if our desire is to do something supposedly more important than keeping their attention such as teaching them something we need answer this reality: How can you teach or inform anyone unless you have their attention? The vital next question is: What are we doing to achieve that “want” of keeping their attention? Volume? Tone? Attitude?

If we encounter resistance to achieving our want in life, we eventually learn that the best tactic is to try another approach. Then another and another. As picture book writers we want the same toolbox of approaches. And, to always being aware of what our storyteller’s voice reveals about us. Warm? Comical? Demanding? Bossy? Scolding? Condescending? Playful? Challenging? Most of all, is it a voice eager to share an experience with an equal?

The Right Word

As writers we know the power of the right word. It is a significant part of writing and revising. Still, many of us feel a resistance toward revising or a sense of failure that must be repaired.

Once again the right word can make all the difference. I was at the Bonn International School in Germany last week to help students with their writing. During a visit to Jen Whitman’s second grade class I learned a new right word. Her students do not revise a manuscript. They revisit a manuscript. What a generous difference and shift in perspective that change of word creates.

When we revisit a place we know what we want to see again, what spots or activities weren’t as engaging as expected, and also what new things we’d like to explore. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to revise a manuscript, and enjoy revisiting it instead.

Illustrators: Responding to the Text

Kevan Atteberry

#1. What elements of a manuscript first capture your attentions? Plot? Language? Imagery? Tone? Sound? Theme?

Kevan

Obviously, all of those things play a part in choosing to accept a manuscript, with a light edge given to Plot and Tone.  The story has to engage me. It must be fun, hopefully funny, and when you finish it feels complete. (And as a note, if the tone is odd or bordering on irreverent, I jump at the opportunity. But even above the elements you list, I think a strong, likable character is the thing that most often says, “Do this!” Though I love most genres of picture books, the ones that stand out for me, the kind I like to illustrate are character-driven. I want characters that endear themselves to the reader. Characters with strong established personalities in the text alone, but that I get to flesh out visually. Maybe add my own traits or peculiarities to.

#2. What elements of a manuscript inspire your choice of style, line, and palette? For example, your illustrations in FRANKIE STEIN, LOTS OF LETTERS, and BOOGIE MONSTER are at once related, yet still different from one another.

Kevan

To be honest, when I am offered a book, the art director or editor has chosen me because of a style they have already seen of mine. In discussion with them, they will reference a sample illustration and let me know that that is why they’ve asked me to illustrate the book. I’ve had editors and art directors make suggestions on both line AND palette. In TICKLE MONSTER, we changed the palette a couple of times because the publisher had a particular vision. I did so reluctantly, but in the end I was certain that they had made the right choice. I LOVE the palette in TICKLE MONSTER and BOOGIE MONSTER—as do others—and give all the credit to the publisher for that decision.

#3. Is there a picture book text that you would love to re-illustrate? What about the text excites you?

Kevan

If you are talking about a picture book text by anyone, hmmm…let me think. The first book that comes to mind in Mercer Mayer’s, ONE MONSTER AFTER ANOTHER. A charming story with lovely, fun illustrations and characters. There is no way I could improve on what Mayer did, but I could have the best time creating my own spin on it. GEORGE by Robert Bright would be fun, too. A sweet story with an endearing protagonist. Jose Arugeo’s LOOK WHAT I CAN DO is a wonderful illustration-dependent picture book that would be hilarious to interpret.  The text is nearly non-existent so I don’t know if this is a good example of what about the text excites me. It really is just the inanity of the two characters and their one-upmanship. And then I’d really love to illustrate a collection. Where the illustrations weren’t linear but rather vignettes. Each illustration standing on it’s own, not linked to the previous or the next illustration—like a collection of nursery rhymes, i.e. Mother Goose.

#4. As an illustrator, what is it that you most want writers to understand about your creative process?

Kevan

Probably that ‘I know what I’m doing.’ And to trust me. I will not ruin their story. I will bring it to life and I will treat it with great respect. But the illustration part is mine. It is my half of our collaboration. I am open to any illustration note that is imperative to the story otherwise it is all up to me. And the editor. I don’t want that to sound standoff-ish, I just want to feel comfortable—have them feel comfortable with me—interpreting their story visually.

 THANK YOU, Kevan, for sharing your thoughts. You can find out more about Kevan’s books and illustrations at:  www.oddisgood.com

Illus. by Kevan Atteberry

Picture Books Referenced Above

FRANKIE STEIN by Lola M. Schaefer. Illus. by Kevan Atteberry. Marshall Cavendish, 2009.

LOTS OF LETTERS by Tish Rabe. Illus. by Kevan Atteberry. Innovative Kids, 2006.

TICKLE MONSTER by Josie Bissett.  Illus. by Kevan Atteberry. Compendium, 2008.

Are You a Good Date?

Edward Lear

One of my favorite quotes about writing refers to two elements we rarely associate with picture books, but I believe they are vital to our writing. #1 Kurt Vonnegut. #2 Dating.  The quote comes via John Casey who reports,

“Kurt Vonnegut used to say to his class at Iowa, ‘You’ve got to be a good date for the reader.”

What’s a good date? An equal. Someone engaged in the moment and conversational. Someone who fosters a give and take. Sparks interest. Someone who is open and able to reveal what they have in common. Honest. Gently flirtatious.

Are you a good date for your reader? Are you making sure to work toward keeping his interest and attention?  Are you being honest, or pretending to be something you’re not?

Like fish in the sea, there are plenty of books. If we want to make sure our reader wants to see us again we’re wise to capture both their head and heart.

Interview

Dawn Simon interviews George Shannon

23 October 2011

I recently had the pleasure of answering questions from Dawn Simon for her blog, PLOTTING AND SCHEMING, at

dawnvandermeer.blogspot.com

Dawn had great questions, and I hope you’ll visit her blog soon. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy writing and rewriting…

Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

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“The journalist tries to give you the facts. The narrative writer tries not to. Part of telling a story well is keeping information back and letting it escape when the time is right.”  Nancy Willard in Telling Time

Releasing information at the “right time” is an essential part of storytelling for all ages. Even when characters discover the perfect solution or experience an epiphany, the reader does NOT want to be told. The reader, like the character, wants to experience the discovery.

Two picture books published over 25 years apart make excellent use of delay and discovery. Both do so in such natural and quiet ways that readers may not even realize the delay. However, rewriting either with a bland and didactic voice demonstrates how much there is to lose by not waiting for the “right time.”

In Julia Donaldson’s wonderful WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD timing becomes everything. We are introduced to the farm animals and all their sounds. This information may seem benign, but he becomes vital to the finale. Readers also learn that Ladybug never says a word. That is, until she hears two robbers plan to steal the prize cow. When Ladybug speaks it is to report the robbers’ plan aloud, but she whispers “her plan into every ear.” This builds both hope and suspense.

Both of these emotions would be dashed, not to mention intrigue, if Donaldson had her Ladybug proclaim her plan aloud. “You will all imitate one another which will confuse the robbers.” Once the reader knows what’s going to happen there’s little reason to continue. There is nothing left to experience.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Felicia Bond’s THE HALLOWEEN PLAY might have become a didactic bore. Bond identifies her main character, Roger, but at the same time begins her narrative with the equivalent of a wide movie shot. This establishes that Roger is very much part of a group. Once the play begins Roger waits back stage for his cue. When that cue arrives the reader witnesses Roger’s appearance on stage as the giant pumpkin around which his classmates sing and dance.

It is a moment of pure joy for both Roger and the reader. “Before he went to bed that night, Roger’s father took a picture of him (as the pumpkin). But Roger didn’t need a picture to remember.” And, neither does the reader because the joy was experienced.

In contrast, feel the joy and inclusion evaporate if the narrative began with a close-up of Roger.

It was three days before Halloween, and Roger’s class was giving a play in honor of the event. Every day the class practiced, but Roger wasn’t very good. His classmates laughed and rolled their eyes. “Don’t worry,” said the teacher. “We’ll find something you can do.”

Farewell curiosity, joy, and inclusion.

As we can see through experience the difference between revealing information and reveal that same information at THE right time is as vital as Mark Twain’s comparison of the word and THE right word—lightning bug to lighting.

 Picture Books Discussed

 THE HALLOWEEN PLAY by Felicia Bond. Harper, 1983.

WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia Monks. Holt, 2010.

Go!

“You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London

 As in childhood most of us tend to approach games and new endeavors with “Get ready. Get set. Go!”  But when it comes to writing “getting ready” and “getting set” can easily become a quagmire of avoidance that brings us to a stop.

 Just Go!

“One never knows what one is going to do. One starts a painting and then it becomes something quite different.” Picasso

Write. Doodle with words and ideas. Write without clinging to previous ideas. Write to discover what the writing reveals. Write without fearing a finish line. Write with the playful flow of Bidemmi in Vera Williams’ CHERRIES AND CHERRY PITS. How many stories can grow from a single cherry pit? More and more and more and more.

 

 And Keep Going…

At the “Go!” stage of writing picture books there are no mistakes. Surprises and frustrations, yes. But these offer more opportunities. REGINA’S BIG MISTAKE by Marissa Moss shares this truth as a picture book. The class assignment is to draw a picture of the jungle. As she draws the sun Regina’s crayon slips. It’s ruined! Not true. Her ability to keep going, to keep imagining allows her to created something unique. Everyone else draws the jungle in daylight. Regina’s ruined sun becomes the perfect moon for her distinctive picture of the jungle at night.

Illus. by Marissa Moss

Just like Aesop’s tortoise wins the race through ongoing action, picture books are created in the “Go!” of writing.

 Books Discussed

CHERRIES AND CHERRY PITS by Vera Williams. Greenwillow, 1986.

REGINA’S BIG MISTAKE by Marissa Moss. Houghton, 1990.

Didactic Picture Books:

The Importance of Not Being Earnest

Illus. by Gelett Burgess

Our role as adults working with children is a weave of caretaker, roll model, teacher, and docent. As writers, we are wise to also be entertainers. If we want to be effective teachers and docents, we must keep our young audience engaged. We must keep their minds entertained by new information.

The word didactic is often used as a derogatory term as if it is synonymous with boring, bad, turgid or trite. However, didactic writing is simply a form of writing like mimetic is another form. The goal of mimetic stories, plays and books is to reflect the human condition. The goal of didactic stories, plays and books is persuasion, to change thinking and behavior.

We all know from both ends of the experience that a wagging finger is the quickest path to losing an audience of any age. In order to persuade we must be engaging and interesting.

A book for any age about manners is clearly didactic. But in no way does this condemn such books to being boring, bad, turgid or trite. Exploring a range of picture books on manners reveals various ways we can keep the reader engaged while we hope to change behavior.

As every court jester who kept his head knew, humor and the fable’s sense of distance were vital. As a child of the 1950s, I loved and laughed at Gelett Burgess’ ill-mannered Goops. At school we had fun drawing replicas of Munro Leaf’s playful cartoons from MANNERS CAN BE FUN.

Illus. by Munro Leaf

Like the talking animals in fables, anthropomorphism allows the child a chance to view and laugh at his own behavior, yet still not feel like he is laughing at himself. Long before Jane Yolen combined dinosaurs, humor, and Emily Post in HOW DO DINOSAURS EAT THEIR FOOD? (and others in that series), Marc Brown and Stephen Krensky engaged a cast of pigs in cartoon panels to teach good manners. In addition to talking animals and humor, Brown and Krensky’s PERFECT PIGS: AN INTRODUCTION TO MANNERS includes a comical commentator whose naïve voice plays against the serious content of the text.

Illus. by Marc Brown

Aliki employs similar light-hearted commentators in her MANNERS. This, along with her chosen style of panels and simple line drawings, keeps the book afloat even though she depicts children instead of talking animals. Imagine Aliki’s text illustrated with photographs of real children and the book would immediately gain 50 pounds of earnest weight.

IT’S A SPOON, NOT A SHOVEL by Caralyn Buehner adds an interactive element to her text on manners. Children select which of three possible answers is the correct one. Though it might sound like a quiz her use of hyperbolic humor and Mark Buehner’s equally humorous talking animals make the book a playful game show.

IT'S A SPOON, NOT A SHOVEL

Humor isn’t the only way to make a book engaging as it attempts to persuade and change a child’s thinking or behavior. But it is certainly one of the best and most enjoyable.

Illus. by Mark Teague

 Picture Books Discus

 GOOPS AND HOW TO BE THEM: A MANUAL OF MANNERS FOR POLITE INFANTS, WITH 90 DRAWINGS by Gelett Burgess.  Dover, 1968 (1900).

HOW DO DINOSAURS EAT THEIR FOOD? byJane Yolen. Illus. by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press, 2005.

IT’S A SPOON, NOT A SHOVEL by Caralyn Buehner. Illus. by Mark Buehner. Dial, 1995.

MANNERS by Aliki. Greenwillow, 1990.

MANNERS CAN BE FUN by Munro Leaf. Universe, 2004 (1936).

PERFECT PIGS: AN INTRODUCTION TO MANNERS by Marc Brown and Stephen Krensky. Little, Brown & Co., 1983.

Picture Books and Good Manners

YOU’RE FINALLY HERE!

Teaching manners and being taught manners are both tedious experiences. So, what to do? Take a cue from the fabulists stretching from Aesop to Melanie Watt. Humor and a bit of distance can work wonders. People of any age can learn from Aesop’s fable “The Dog and the Bone” because it allows them to chuckle at a foolish dog. Yet that dog’s behavior also registers as human behavior and, thanks to the relaxing nature of humor, may spark a new understanding within the reader.

Such is the case with Melanie Watt’s latest picture book, You’re Finally Here! Like Ferris Bueller in his namesake movie, Watt’s Rabbit protagonist speaks directly to the audience. And, as audience, we quickly realize we are each the second character in this story.

 Rabbit, like most young children and an increasing percentage of adults, is all ego. He’s been waiting, and demands an explanation for the reader’s tardiness. Doesn’t the reader know how he feels to be left waiting? Doesn’t the reader know how rude that is?  Rabbit makes attempts at being less demanding. Then…welcome to 2011…he gets a cell phone call while he is chastising the reader. He takes the call. Of course! Then he puts that caller on hold while he takes a second call and totally ignores the reader/me/you who is actually in the book with him. As this fun and pithy book ends, Rabbit is shocked that the reader is leaving even though he has ignored the reader/me/you for the last third of the book.

While the majority of children ages 4 to 8 do not yet have their own cell phones, they have certainly experienced the frustrations of waiting and feeling ignored. You’re Finally Here humorously introduces them to their own rude behavior of expecting everything to center on them. For the savvy, self-satisfied modern adult, Watt’s book may bring a humbling glance in the mirror. The cell phone has created a culture of egocentric rabbits. I’m needed. I’m important. I must be reachable. And, you can wait while I prove my importance again by taking this call.

With YOU’RE FINALLY HERE, Melanie Watts goes a step beyond “show not tell.” She engages readers of all ages in “experience not lecture.”

Illus. by Melanie Watts

YOU’RE FINALLY HERE! by Melanie Watt. Hyperion, 2011.

P.S. This book is also a fable for writers. If you want your reader to pay attention to you, you had better make sure you keep them engaged and attend to them.