Writing

Creating luminous, lyrical nonfiction voice

THE FIRE OF STARS, written by me, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle Books) releases in just 18 days, and I’m getting excited. It’s hard to believe it’s been 8 and a half years since I wrote my first draft of this (now) lyrical nonfiction book. It certainly didn’t start out that way.

Here’s the opening of the book, which I’ve transcribed below:

This is the opening spread of THE FIRE OF STARS


Wrapped in a blanket of sparkling space, 
an unformed star waits for its bright future to begin.
Cecilia kicks and cries.
Until her mother
sets her down
so Cecilia can feel with her own tiny toes
the cold and crackly snow,
which isn’t soft and warm like she expected.
It’s the first time Cecilia learns things aren’t always as they seem.

–THE FIRE OF STARS

An earlier draft my agent saw read much differently. Here it is:

“[Cecilia] was full of surprises and driven by a curiosity as wide as the universe. Young Cecilia spent hours outside watching slimy slugs slink through her garden, picking out constellations in the night sky, and counting trees among her best friends.”

What changed? Aside from starting with one, concrete scene, I learned to write lyrically thanks to Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab. That class was transformative for my writing, and today I want to focus on one thing I learned in that class, the use of sound devices. Sound devices add musicality to our writing, helping us set a specific mood.

Sound Devices

Renee discusses sound devices in this video on her Lyrical Language Lab YouTube channel. Some of the elements she covers include:

  • alliteration
  • assonance
  • consonance
  • rhyme

Let’s look at each sound device in turn with examples to see how it adds to the lyrical voice I’ve chosen.

Alliteration

Alliteration is when words that are close together start with the same letter or sound. For example, “Wrapped in a blanket of sparkling space,/ an unformed star waits for its bright future to begin./Cecilia kicks and cries.”

In this passage, I’ve started many word with the soft “s” sound, giving the first couple of lines a hushed sound, like a baby sleeping. Then I pivot to a sharp “k” sound for “kicks and cries” and “cold and crackly snow” mimicking the sharp cries of a baby (and the harsh snow). That’s alliteration, and I’ve used it to create a specific effect.

Assonance

This phrases above also have examples of assonance, including bright/cries and own/toes/snow. You might also notice that I picked a lot of long vowel sounds, which add the overall soft/hushed tone of the opening.

Consonance

Consonance is when words close to each other have the same consonant sound anywhere in the words. A good example of this is in the very first line, which is peppered with “p” sounds: “Wrapped in a blanket of sparkling space…” Again, these are soft consonant sounds adding to quiet mood of snow-covered stillness and of wonder.

Rhyme

In prose picture books, we don’t usually use end rhyme, but we can use internal rhyme. Internal rhyme is when words in the middle of a line rhyme. Later in the book, I have a line that reads :”Cecilia is forced to say hello to city streets full of strangers/ and good-bye to the company of trees and bees.” Trees rhymes with bees, a good example of internal rhyme.

Your Turn

Ready to apply some of these sound devices to your own work?

Think about your draft and the mood you are trying to create. Is it quiet and soothing filled with soft consonants and long vowel sounds? Or is it active and playful, with hard consonants and short vowels?

Once you’ve decided your approach, you can use tools like Thesaurus.com (for help with alliteration and consonance) and Rhymezone.com (for assonance and internal rhyme). How could you transform a sentence like “The kite flies through the air?” using the thesaurus and Rhymezone?

You could try, “The kite glides through the sky” for extra assonance. Or “The kite swoops through the sky” for alliteration. What else can you come up with? Do any of these alter the mood?

Adding musicality isn’t hard. The key with sound devices is not to overdo them. Too much alliteration, for example, can cause the reader to stumble over the words. Always read your work out loud to make sure it’s both clear and musical.

To read THE FIRE OF STARS, ask your library to order a copy or order your own. THE FIRE OF STARS is still available for preorder wherever books are sold! You can buy signed copies (with a preorder bonus postcard) through Once Upon a Time (scroll down my FIRE OF STARS page for the link.)

Education, History, Homeschool, Writing

Real Life Wonders 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.

This is an image of a female volunteer

Every day we are surrounded by people who quietly fight for the common good or stand up for what they believe is right. These outstanding individuals show what the power one person has to impact our neighborhoods and communities.

Who are the superheroes in your community? Interview and write a report or make a presentation about someone in your own community who you think makes a positive impact. This can be done as a whole class, in groups, or as individuals. Here are some things you can discuss:

  • Why you believe this person to be a hero to the neighborhood and community.
  • Describe the person activity/activities that significantly benefitted their neighborhood.
  • How long has the hero contributed to the neighborhood? What was their most recent activity?
  • Describe the creative and innovative methods used by the hero to benefit their neighborhood.
  • Include any other interesting information relevant to the hero’s activities.
  • What is this hero’s impact to the neighborhood and/or community at large? Include documentation such as pamphlets, articles, presentations, photographs, newsclippings, letters of support, etc. if applicable.

Present these reports to the class. Invite the heroes for a “Real Life Wonder” celebration.

Writing

The Plot Power of “Because of That”

For me, one of the most difficult parts of writing nonfiction (or any narrative, really) is choosing what fascinating parts of the story to include and what to delete because it doesn’t fit the focus of the book. One of my most valuable tools for figuring out what belongs is three simple words: “because of that.”

The story spine

I first learned about linking plot points with the phrase “because of that” in this Pixar/Khan Academy video about story spines, pictured below. Once the main character sets off to pursue her big goal in Act 2, her choices should drive the action. “Because of that” ensures that each action and each choice in the second act leads directly to the next. If you can fit “because of that” between your plot points, then your main character has agency.

But what if “because of that” doesn’t fit? What if your plot is more like, “This happened, and then that happened, and then that happened.” If you are using “and then” to link your plot points, that’s a strong indicator that your plot is a random collection of events happening to your protagonist. You need to reevaluate. Who is driving the action? Does each scene have a connection to the protagonist’s big goal?

An example

Let’s look at THE FIRE OF STARS as an example. Cecilia Payne was such a fascinating woman, and there was so much I wanted to include in the book. At one time, the book included all kinds of tidbits, including the fact that when Cecilia won a prize at school and could pick any book she wanted, she selected a textbook about fungi. Though this fact was interesting, it didn’t have real bearing on the Cecilia’s lifelong quest to discover something new, so I ultimately discarded it. In a novel, I might have had the space to keep the scene to illuminate Cecilia’s character, but in a picture book I had to be ruthless.

Let’s look at a plot outline for THE FIRE OF STARS, and you’ll see what I mean.

  1. Once upon a time there was a young girl, Cecilia Payne, who was captivated by the natural world.
  2. Everyday she studied trees and flowers.
  3. Until one day, she discovered on her own why a bee orchid looked like a bee, and her whole body hummed with that discovery. In that moment, she decided she wanted to feel like that her whole life.
  4. But Cecilia’s family moved to London to find a better school for her brother, and because of that, Cecilia went to a new school with no space for a curious girl like her.
  5. Because of that, she hid out in a secret place — a dusty science lab for older girls.
  6. Because of that, she taught herself about science, and soon required a science tutor who gave Cecilia her first book on astronomy.
  7. Because of that, Cecilia was accepted to Cambridge University to study botany (because girls couldn’t study astronomy).
  8. Because of that, she took science classes where teachers wanted her to learn facts, not learn anything new.
  9. Because of that, she jumped at the chance to hear astronomer Arthur Eddington talk about his new discoveries at a lecture.
  10. Because of that, she switched her studies to physics where she was the only woman and teased by the men.
  11. Because of that, when she graduated and learned there was no place for women in astronomy at Cambridge, she moved to America to work at Harvard College Observatory.
  12. Because of that, she was surrounded by glass plates capturing the essence of stars and women who cataloged them.
  13. Because of that, Cecilia studied the star ingredients for her thesis, but grew frustrated when she couldn’t make out their meaning. But she stuck with it.
  14. Until finally, she made her groundbreaking discovery about what makes the stars — and our universe.
  15. And ever since that day, other astrophysicists have used Cecilia’s discovery to ask new questions and make more amazing discoveries about our universe.
  16. And the moral of the story is that what makes a scientist is curiosity, passion, hard work, and belief in oneself.

By using “because of that” I’ve made sure Cecilia is driving her own story and that every action has a consequence that forces Cecilia to make another choice in a smooth chain of cause and effect.

Your turn

Grab a narrative draft (nonfiction or fiction) and outline your plot using the story spine. Are you able to use the words “because of that” between your plot points? Or is it a bunch of “and then this?” What adjustments do you need to make to your plot a series of causes and effects?

One more thing

If you want to study THE FIRE OF STARS, illus. Katherine Roy, more closely, the book will release Feb. 7, 2023 from Chronicle Books. It’s a lyrical, double read aloud with Cecilia’s story told alongside the story of star formation. You can preorder it now wherever books are sold. You’ll find all the buy links here. Or ask your local library to purchase a copy.

Writing

Writing Tips: Writing More With NaNoWriMo

If you’re a writer or a writing teacher, you’ve probably heard of National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. Every November, writers around the world attempt the big, audacious goal of writing a 50,000-word novel in a month. These drafts are not meant to be New York Times best sellers, but rather messy drafts full of plot holes and gaps that will be filled in and shaped later. In other words, these drafts are a starting point.

I’ll be honest. I’ve never “won” NaNoWriMo by hitting 50K words. But when I commit to to the process (as I am this year in an attempt to finish a middle grade historical fantasy), I always write more than I would otherwise. A lot of writing is overcoming resistance and excuses that keep us from getting started. For me, those excuses are things like “but I haven’t done all the research,” or “I haven’t finished my plot outline.” Honestly, I could ALWAYS spend more time researching or outlining and never put a single word on the page. Who’s with me there?

Yet once I overcome my internal resistance and start writing, I know it’s easier to keep writing. For me, that’s what NaNoWriMo is about — finding that inertia (a writer in motion stays in motion). Maybe it’s just for a month, but sometimes that inertia carries me into December or at least until I run into a big fat editorial deadline.

Bottom line, NaNo is about finding the motivation and the time to get the words down on the page so you have something to work with later. And it can be incredibly useful even if you aren’t writing a novel.

So here’s your challenge…Find a length of time — a month or even just a week — grab a few writing friends, and commit to writing something every day. Here are some ideas to get you started.:

  • Set a timer and write something (anything) for 15 minutes a day. Put an x on your calendar each day you do.
  • If you’re a picture book writer or illustrator, work on one two-page spread each day.
  • Write a poem every day, just to flex your writing muscles.
  • If you’re at the revision stage, why not commit to revising a chapter a day for a month?
  • OR hit whatever your daily word count goal is (for me, it’s 1,000 a day each weekday).

Anything you do is progress.

The NaNoWriMo website has some wonderful resources for preparing to write a novel, which you can use all year long. You’ll find them here.

And if you are a teacher working with young writers, NaNo has a Young Writers Program with writing challenges throughout the year. Learn more and sign your class up here.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, please let me know. I’ll be cheering you on!

Homeschool, Writing

Creativity is Messy…

If I could share one thing with young writers of all ages, it’s that creativity is never a linear process. It’s always full of detours, rabbit holes, and dead ends. And that’s frustrating, but it’s also wonderful! There’s magic in that messiness.

For example, I’ve recently become reacquainted with my notebook pages from when I was first noodling around with a new structure for THE FIRE OF STARS (five years ago now!). Below are my messy and illegible notes. Don’t worry. I’ve included captions to help with the translation.

Before I got to this point with THE FIRE OF STARS, I’d been researching and working on various drafts for almost three years, trying to find just the right way to tell the story of astrophysicist Cecilia Payne. But nothing had come together in quite the right way — yet.

Creating these messy scraps in my notebook through scribbling , experimenting with words, and (badly) sketching led to my eventual creative breakthrough with the book.

The process is a lot like star formation. It stars start with tiny “bits” — dust and hydrogen atoms. Soon the tiny pieces start to clump together, slowly growing until they explode in a breathtaking show of light.

This is also the way Cecilia Payne worked. She tried different things, hit obstacles, and needed a lot of patience before everything came together in her final, ground-breaking discovery.

Creativity — whether writing or science — is messy … and that’s a beautiful thing. So grab your notebook and collect scraps of words, snatches of an idea, and all your swirly scribbles.

Education, Homeschool, Writing

ELA Activity: Piloting Lilian’s Plane

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 complete WOOD, WIRE, WINGS educator’s guide here.

Piloting Lilian’s Plane ~ creative story

Imagine that you have been chosen to pilot Lilian Todd’s airplane as she observed and took notes. Write about your experience.

  • Who are you? Where do you live?
  • How were you chosen to be the pilot? What experience do you already havewith flight?
  • What was it like when you saw the airplane for the first time?
  • Once aboard, how did you feel? Were you nervous?
  • How did Lilian react? What did she say to you before and after the flight?
  • What was the best part? Would you pilot a plane again? Is there anything youwould do differently? Research photographs from 1910 to aid students in placing themselves in the time period. Photographs can be found through the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum website and the Library of Congress. Have students share their stories of piloting the airplane with the class.
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?”

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 picture 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.

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!