Writing

10 ways the writer’s journey resembles a Save the Cat beat sheet

Blake Snyder's STC beat sheet chart
Image from Reedsy.com

If you’ve ever written a screenplay, novel, or picture book with a narrative arc, chances are, you’ve run across Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet from his book, SAVE THE CAT. It’s my go-to book for plotting.

A couple of weeks ago, I hit a moment of real despair on a picture book manuscript I’d been working on for at least two years. Some critique group feedback had me feeling like a total hack. (Note: This was not my critique partners’ fault. They are lovely. This was my own frustration with myself and my inability to get what was in my head on the page.) In that moment, I questioned whether I was a “real writer.” I pounded my fists and wondered why it never gets easier. In short, I felt like giving up. It felt a lot like the “all is lost/dark night of the soul” moment of every hero’s journey in a book or movie.

And then it hit me, I’ve been here before. Many times. In fact, I always have a dark night of the soul with every manuscript. And it’s normally before I get some kind of big breakthrough. Sure enough, a couple of days later, I opened a blank page, and wrote something very different from what I had, much shorter and more visually driven. And now it feels “right.”

So what’s the takeaway? Writing a book is a series of ups and downs, trials and failures, moments of triumph and despair, just like those we put our characters through. If we can recognize where we are on the journey, we can find the courage to keep going until we hit “the end.”

Let’s look at some of the key writer’s journey beats using Blake Snyder’s beat sheet as our guide.

  1. Opening Image – Fade in, an ordinary day, a writer (me) going about her everyday business (probably chauffeuring children, walking the dog, etc.)
  2. Catalyst – I overhear something, read something, watch something on TV, and lightning strikes. A story spark!
  3. Debate – Is this MY story to tell? How strongly do I feel about this story idea? Do I think it’s marketable? Can I get my hands on the research materials I need to write it?
  4. Break Into 2/ B Story – I commit to the journey. One of the first steps is to find some mentor texts. For those who know Save the Cat, the B story (or “love story”) is where mentors are found.
  5. Fun and Games – What’s the most fun part of writing nonfiction? Research, of course! Lots of reading, watching documentaries, interviews. Plus early drafting, those moments of writing before expectations set in, can be fun too.
  6. Midpoint – This is where it gets real, and the stakes are raised. Normally, this means I show the manuscript to critique partners and get feedback. Or discuss it with my agent. Now there are expectations. It feels like the manuscript has to be something. And then I have to revise over and over again based on the feedback I’m getting. This is where the journey starts to get difficult.
  7. Bad Guys Close In – Self doubt is the real “bad guy” here, as expectations grow for the manuscript. When what I want to say isn’t coming across on the page, self doubt rears its ugly head until…
  8. All Is Lost/Dark Night of the Soul – This is the lowest moment of any book journey, aka the pit of despair. Something sends me over the edge, and I feel like I’ve totally forgotten how to do this. I’ll never sell a book again. My career as an author is over. (Blake Snyder talks about the “whiff of death” during this beat. I’ll tell you what’s dying here — my career.)
  9. Break Into Three – Normally, after I’ve given up all expectations and attachments to the manuscript, I get some kind of breakthrough. This normally requires opening a clean sheet of paper and being willing to throw out everything I’ve written to date.
  10. Final Image – The now-ecstatic writer (ME!) sends the manuscript to her agent, feeling like she’s finally told the story she wanted to tell. And there’s a chance this one could sell! The writer toasts her success with coffee. Fade to black.

Does your writing journey have these kinds of ups and downs? How do you find the courage and confidence to push through at those “all is lost” moments and make it to “the end?”

Books, News

Sign up for my newsletter by 9/13 for a cover reveal plus 2-book giveaway

Next week I’ll be unveiling the cover for THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Sibert-honoree Katherine Roy (Chronicle Books, 2/28/23). Be the first to see the cover AND be entered to win signed copies of both WOOD, WIRE, WINGS and A TRUE WONDER, but only if you sign up for my monthly newsletter. (NOTE: If you are getting this by email, it’s because you’ve signed up to follow my blog via email. You may not be on my newsletter list.)

You can scan the QR code above or click here to sign up.

What do you get when you sign up? A promise that I’ll send you an email newsletter (only once a month) with a roundup of writing tips and educational activities, plus bookish news and events, giveaway opportunities, and more. I hope you’ll join me! My newsletter is truly the best way to stay in touch.

Education, Homeschool, Reading, research

A WONDER-ful ELA Nonfiction Reading and Research Activity

Each month, I’ll spotlight a book-based educational activity teachers and homeschooling parents can use with their students. These activities are pulled from the educators’ guides developed for my books by author and former educator Marcie Colleen. You can download the full A TRUE WONDER educator’s guide here.

Reading Nonfiction

While reading A True Wonder: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything aloud to the class, have students take notes in two columns.

  • Things we learned
  • Questions we have


Pause before each page turn to add notes to the columns. These columns can either be worked on individually or put on the smartboard and worked on as a class.

Once the story is read, discuss the Questions We Have column.

  • Were any of these questions answered as the story went along?
  • If so, ask students to find the answer within the text.
  • Record the answer next to the question in a third column labeled Answers We Found.

For all remaining questions in the Questions We Have column, that have yet to be answered, students will need to take the steps to find answers, either through Internet or book research.

Assign students to specific questions to help them focus. Record all answers in the Answers We Found column.

After the answers have been shared with the class, engage in a discussion on research practices.

  • What was the most difficult part about finding answers?
  • Was it easier to find answers on the Internet or in a book?
  • Which source is more reliable, the Internet or a printed book? Why? 
  • How can you determine whether to trust a source?
  • What tips would you give someone who is about to do research?

Read the Author’s Note (The Origin Story…of This Book) and The Women of Wonder Woman at the back of the book.

  • Create an additional chart to document what information in the back matter was included in the story and what information was not included.
  • Why do you think Kirsten Larson chose to include certain information in the main text and leave other information to the back matter?
  • Choose three facts from the back matter and explain why you think each was not included in the story.

Extension: Design and illustrate posters representing each Fact, Question, and researched Answer based on A True Wonder: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything and display them within the classroom.

Writing

Scripting the Scene in Nonfiction

One of the best techniques for breathing life into your nonfiction is through carefully crafted scenes. Scene writing is especially useful for pictures book biographies, where you want the reader to identify with your main character and to have an emotional response to their journey.

So what’s a scene? In one of my favorite books, SCENE & STRUCTURE, Jack M. Bickham defines the scene this way: “It’s a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented on-stage in the story ‘now.'” (p. 23)

In picture books, scenes are by necessity very short, sometimes just a few sentences. Let’s look at one from my first book, WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, to see how the scene works.

What do you notice?

Do you see how I’m narrating the action, almost like I’m telling you what’s happening in a movie? This narration includes specific physical actions (rescuing toys, snatching the ball, trimming and twisting, filing and fitting). I use vivid verbs and onomatopoeia, which I like to think of as the sound of “being there.”

I also give the reader a peek into Lilian’s mind with the rhetorical question: “Would the weather vane work?” It asks the reader to consider the same questions that are likely running through Lilian’s head, those feeling of apprehension and self doubt.

And then when the weather vane does work, we have “Success!” That single-word exclamation reflects Lilian’s feeling of victory.

Now, imagine how this would read if I had simply summarized the events.:

“When she was a little girl, Lilian Todd built a working weather vane out of broken toys and trash. “

What do you notice now?

First off, there’s absolutely zero tension. The reader doesn’t wonder whether Lilian will succeed. They don’t cheer her on or celebrate her victory. In fact, we aren’t in Lilian’s point of view at all. Summaries put a lot of distance between us and the main character. And that’s not what we want. We want our reader to identify with Lilian. She’s their avatar in the book.

Also, the scene takes up several more sentences than the summary — seven sentences versus just one. Because scenes run longer, we can’t write every single part of our story in scene. But for important moments in a character’s journey, we can write in scene to increase tension and emotional resonance.

Here is one important distinction between fiction and nonfiction: because this is nonfiction, I can’t make up the details of this scene. All of this information comes from newspaper interviews Lilian Todd gave later as an adult. From these historic newspapers, I know the materials she picked. I know how she worked on her inventions from the time she was a little girl. I know the location (Washington, D.C., a city) and time of year (winter), which is reflected in the illustrations. I also have a sense of how she handled failure and success. I can document all those details. That’s what makes it nonfiction.

Are you ready to breathe life into your own nonfiction manuscript? I challenge you to take an important moment in your story that’s currently written as a summary and transform it into a short scene. Use some of the techniques above: vivid verbs, onomatopoeia, rhetorical questions, exclamations. What do you think of the result?

Are you ready to take the next step in revising your nonfiction manuscript? Contact me for a coaching session, and we’ll polish up your picture book until it shines. And don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter to be notified the next time I’m offering my nonfiction picture book revision class at The Writing Barn.

Books

Sneak Peek Into a Glittery New Title

Illustrator Katherine Roy and I can’t yet share the cover for our February 2023 book together, THE FIRE OF STARS, but look at these jacket proofs with glittery gold foil. This parallel story of star formation told alongside the formation of astrophysicist Cecilia Payne is really going to SHINE. Chronicle Kids Books is going all out. 🤩💫
–Coming 2/28/23
#STEMforKids #nonfiction #picturebooks
Writing

New Class: Getting Into Graphic Nonfiction

Graphic for Getting Into Graphic Nonfiction Webinar

Calling all writers!

Graphic nonfiction is a growing market with new publishing imprints and book series springing up all the time. This webinar will introduce both seasoned nonfiction writers and nonfiction novices to the exciting world of graphic nonfiction for all ages.

I hope you can join me for this 90-minute webinar through The Writing Barn. It’s only $25, and recordings are available. Learn more and sign up here.

Writing

Writing Ratios: How many stories become books?

I just moved two picture book projects into my “Dead Projects” file. These are books I’m no longer revising. (Note: Any book with a shred of hope, stays in my “active” file. There are several I’m not working on currently, but think have some promise.)

For fun, I counted my “Dead Projects”: 24 over 10 years. For reference, these are only picture books and don’t include two abandoned novels, a shelved graphic novel, a chapter book, and a handful of early readers.

Most of these “dead” picture books are from my pre-agented days. They include one I submitted to publishers on my own before I had an agent. But another five my agent has seen, or we discussed the concept, but for various reasons, we chose not to send them out on submission.

In the meantime, we’ve sold four picture books, and I have six in the active file that may turn into something.

So, let’s do the math. 34 picture books written. Four are (or will be) books. That’s a 12% success rate. I’m hopeful for another six (17%). All told, if I’m SUPER lucky, about 25-30% of my total drafts will become books.

Even when I narrow the field to drafts I’ve worked on ONLY since getting an agent in 2016, I’m still batting only 25% .

What’s the lesson? We have to write A LOT. Not everything we write will result in a sale. We can get better with time and improve our ratios. But I still write projects I abandon all the time. It’s all part of the process.

I remind myself daily that no writing is a waste of time. These “dead projects” inform my stories in many different ways. I may explore a theme or structure in an abandoned book that makes its way into a successful book. It’s all productive.

Happy writing!

research, Writing

Taming the rabbit hole of research: Keeping a research journal

A spread from my research journal for WOOD, WIRE WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane

As nonfiction authors, we often talk about “falling down the rabbit hole of research” to describe how engrossing and time consuming the research process can be.

For me research is less a rabbit hole and more a labyrinth. It’s easy to lose the road I’m on as I chase tangents that splinter off from the main trail.

One thing that makes the research process easier for me is keeping a research journal. Here’s how I use mine to tame the research tangents.

First, when I’m trying to locate specific articles, I keep track of databases I’ve searched. Is that article I needed in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database? On Newspapers.com? At Fultonhistory.com? Where have I already checked? Where do I still need to look? Sometimes I make a simple “to do list” and check things off.

I use this same technique when it comes to contacting experts. Have I contacted that expert yet? When I do, I check off their name, note the date I reached out to them and how (via email, for example).

Sometimes I keep records of what search terms I’ve used in databases. When I studied Lilian Todd for WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, I quickly realized Lilian Todd’s name was often misspelled, and she was frequently referred to as “Miss Todd” or even “E. L. Todd” in the news. Knowing this, I ran searches multiple times using different search combinations, and keeping track of what terms I’d tried.

As I read secondary and primary sources, I also jot down new items I need to look into, whether it’s Lilian Todd’s patents (requiring a separate search in the U.S. Patent Office database) or the Junior Aero Club Show at Madison Square Garden (necessitating another dive into the newspaper archives). Making note of a new research topic allows me to put a pin in it, so I can finish reading the chapter or article without getting distracted. Then I can get started on my new tangent.

What hints do you have for wrangling your research? What tips have you found helpful?

Writing

5 Writer Strategies for Welcoming 2022

We’re three weeks into 2022, and in many ways, it feels like 2020 all over again. Boo! Still, I’m not despairing. I’m using this time of “hunkering down” to recharge for the year ahead using these five strategies.

  • Celebrate successes – Every December/January, I do Julie Hedlund’s 12 Days of Christmas for Authors. Part of the process involves celebrating every small success over the last year, from finishing a draft to sending it to a critique partner. I have made a habit of keeping a list in the back of my journal of all my little milestones. This makes celebrating them much easier. And guess what? Brain science tells us that celebrating our success is good for us!
  • Plan for the year ahead – I don’t do traditional New Year’s resolutions, but I do like to plan for the coming year. This year, my goals are to research and draft a new picture book, draft a middle grade graphic novel, and work on a middle grade fantasy as my “just for fun” project. And I’ll track each milestone along the way and celebrate it. (Of course!)
  • Binge on Brainstorming – For picture book writers, January is Tara Lazar’s StoryStorm, a month-long challenge where we brainstorm a new picture book idea each day. This year, I was a guest blogger and got to share about my brainstorming process. You can read the post here. I find generating ideas to be like a muscle: the more you do it, the easier it is.
  • Commit to lifelong learning – Each year I recommit to learning my craft through webinars, classes, reading craft and creativity books, and, of course, writing. A book I reread frequently, especially when I’m casting about for my next project and experiencing self doubt, is Liz Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC. It’s always so inspiring.
  • Read – For me, the best way to study the craft of writing (and to get ideas for new books) is to read, read, read, and not just in the genre I’m writing. I find everything I read has something to teach me if I just pay attention. Plus, all this study costs is the price of a library card — FREE!

What are you doing in 2022 to improve your craft and creativity? I’d love to hear from you!

Kirsten