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

9 Books Celebrating Comic Creators for #NationalComicBookDay

It’s National Comic Book Day! Today we celebrate comic books and all the writers and artists, who create them.

According to the National Day Calendar, the first hardcover comic book was The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, which was published in 1842. The first modern-day comic book didn’t appear until 1933, Famous Funnies, a reprint of several comic strips. Of course, comic books really came into their own during World War II, with superheroes like Superman, Batman, and my favorite, Wonder Woman. To learn more about the history of comic books, check out this post from Book Riot.

Today, I’m celebrating National Comic Book Day with a nine books highlighting the accomplishments of comic book creators.

Picture Books

A True Wonder Book Cover

A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything by Kirsten W. Larson, illustrated by Katy Wu

With Great Power Book

WITH GREAT POWER: The Marvelous Stan Lee by Annie Hunter Eriksen, illustrated by Lee Gatlin

Boys of Steel Book Cover

BOYS OF STEEL: The Creators of Superman by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ross Macdonald

Bill: The Boy Wonder cover

BILL: The Boy Wonder by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ty Templeton

Jack Kirby book cover

JACK KIRBY: Creator & Artist by Sue Hamilton

Independent Readers

The Story of Stan Lee cover

THE STORY OF STAN LEE: A Biography for New Readers by Frank J. Berrios

Who Was Stan Lee? cover

WHO WAS STAN LEE? by Geoff Edgers

What Is the Story of Batman? cover

WHAT IS THE STORY OF BATMAN? by Michael Burgan

What is the Story of Wonder Woman? cover

WHAT IS THE STORY OF WONDER WOMAN? by Steve Korte

Books

12 Books to Celebrate #NationalAviationDay

Happy #NationalAviationDay. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned the anniversary of Orville Wright’s birthday into this U.S. National Holiday.

This year, I’m celebrating this annual event with a book list for young readers.

Inspiring True Stories in Aeronautics

Aviation Pioneer book covers

Airplane Books

Airplane book covers

Books, Education, Homeschool, Nature, Science/Math

Perfect Picture Book Friday: FROM SEED TO PLANT

Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Book Fridays are back. I missed the boat last week, but I wrote my post early this week so I wouldn’t forget.

TITLE: From Seed to Plant

AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR: Gail Gibbons

PUBLICATION INFO: Holiday House, 1991

ISBN: 978-0823410255

SOURCE:  library

INTENDED AUDIENCE: ages 5 and up

GENRE: nonfiction

OPENING and SYNOPSIS:

“Most plants make seeds. A seed contains the beginning of a new plant.”

Gibbons moves through a plant’s life cycle, showing children how seeds are formed through pollination, how they are dispersed, and how they grow into new plants.

THEMES/TOPICS: nonfiction, educational, nature, science

WHY I LIKE THIS BOOK: Cooper was working on a plant life cycle project for school this week, and we checked this book out from the library. Gail Gibbons is a nonfiction favorite in our house. She uses beautiful drawings and simple writing to explain science concepts in a way young children can understand.

RESOURCES/ACTIVITIES:

  • The book has a “Seed to Plant” activity in the back using bean seeds. It’s a different take on the classic bean sprout in a baggie activity used in many preschool classrooms.
  • We’ve also done seed collections before to spark discussion about the different types of seeds and how they are scattered. You’ll find that activity…here.
  • Finally, for older students, you can try the plant life cycle project that Cooper’s class did. Students had to collect five different types of seeds and draw or collect pictures that showed the seedling, mature plant, flower and fruit. They had to label each stage, and I had Cooper draw arrows so he could see that the whole cycle is a circle. I’ll blog about our project next week.

Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.

Writing

Magazines: Just Starting Out

Antique Writer's Friends

I’ve been feeling really blessed lately. Today I received an assignment from a new (to me) magazine market, meaning I’ll have at least six articles coming out between December 2013 and March 2014 in three different children’s magazines, provided all goes well. Wahoowa!

I’ve received so much help along the way in my burgeoning writing career, and I finally feel like I have something I can offer to other writers. I’ve been inspired by Nancy Sanders’ recent series about her efforts to break into HIGHLIGHTS FOR CHILDREN with a nonfiction article, as well as some questions I’ve received from a fellow writer. So, I’ve decided it’s time to share some tips and tricks for breaking into children’s magazines with nonfiction articles.

I’ll admit, I floundered around for a year before my freelance career got off the ground. I wrote a pretty terrible article about capybaras and sent it to a number of children’s publications. I came up with recipes and crafts and flung them far and wide. I tried to submit to nonpaying markets and parenting magazines, which people advised were easier to break into. I amassed more than a dozen rejections before I figured out what worked for me.

What works. The first thing I would suggest is to play to your strengths. Are you a master gardener? A former teacher? Were you a lawyer in your past life? If you are trying to break into children’s nonfiction, you have a better chance if you write about something that you’re an expert in.

I spent six years doing public relations for NASA. Aviation and space are my areas of expertise. My interests, however,  are pretty wide-ranging. The first articles I wrote were NOT about aviation and space. And those articles were roundly rejected. I’m sure it had a lot to do with my writing and my knowledge of the magazine markets, but I also didn’t have the credibility to back up the articles.

The bottom line is that having some knowledge of a subject makes it more likely your article will be picked up, especially if you are submitting a query instead of a full article. Your expertise doesn’t have to be work experience. If you’ve quilted for 20 years, you’re an expert. If you’ve taken courses in a subject or had a volunteer position in a field, that qualifies you as someone who knows what they are talking about.

I would encourage you to write about something you know for your first submission. Once you’ve had one success, you can build upon it and write about other subjects. As a mini homework assignment, make a list of your hobbies, education and work experience. What kinds of related articles might you write?

Books, Food, History

Review: THERE’S A RAT IN MY SOUP

TITLE: THERE’S A RAT IN MY SOUP: COULD YOU SURVIVE MEDIEVAL FOOD? (Ye Yucky Middle Ages series)

AUTHOR: Chana Stiefel

ILLUSTRATOR: Gerald Kelly

PUBLICATION INFO: Enslow, 2012 (Paperback)

ISBN: 978-0-7660-3785-4

SOURCE: Publisher-provided copy

INTENDED AUDIENCE: Grades 3-5 (Amazon), Grades 5 – 9 (publisher); I think Amazon’s grade-level designation is more appropriate.

GENRE: nonfiction

OPENING and SYNOPSIS:

“Turning a long metal skewer, the cook roasts a whole swan over a blazing fire. For gravy, he mixes the bird’s blood with its heart, liver, and guts. He stirs in pieces of bread and adds some broth. The swan’s skin and feathers are then stuck back onto its body to make it look alive. Dinner is served!”

Enjoy reading about mouth-watering “delicacies” like this roast swan, pottage (think gruel), blackbird-filled pies and more in this delightful romp through medieval cooking. In 48 pages, Stiefel covers royal food and feasts, as well as the peasants’ plight. She also looks at the constant threat of starvation that plagued the people of the Middle Ages.

THEMES/TOPICS: history (European), cookery

WHY I LIKE THIS BOOK: This gross-out books is gobs of fun. Stiefel’s prose is delightfully descriptive. Her conversational and humorous voice truly put the “story” in this history. Yet, at the same time, it’s clear this is a well-researched text. Stiefel includes quotes from people who lived in the Middle Ages, as well as other tidbits, like the shopping list for a 6,000-person feast. Gerald Kelley’s lively illustrations are a perfect match for the text, keeping the book fun and engaging for young readers. You’ll find it hard to put down.

RESOURCES/ACTIVITIES:

Books, Nature, Uncategorized

Review: Can You Find These Butterflies?

Author: Carmen Bredeson
Illustrator: Lindsey Cousins
Publication Info: Enslow Elementary, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-7660-3980-3
Source: publisher-provided complimentary copy
Intended audience: PreK through first grade
Genre: nonfiction, picture book (24 pages)
Themes/topics: butterflies, nature
Opening and synopsis: “A butterfly starts out as an egg. A tiny caterpillar hatches from the egg. It eats and grows.” Using simple language, Bredeson describes how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. Then she challenges young readers to learn about nine different types of butterflies and spot them in nature.
Why I like this book: This book invites children to become butterfly experts. Rather than just feeding them facts about butterflies, it encourages them to explore their own backyards, parks and open spaces and see if they can tell a Monarch from a Viceroy. Stunning time-lapse photography shows a caterpillar forming a chrysalis and emerging as a butterfly. Additional, close up photographs show primary features of each butterfly. Simple language geared towards first-grade readers make this a wonderful book for progressing readers.
Resources/activities: Raising butterflies is always a favorite for small children. You can order caterpillars through Insect Lore. Also, if you are on the migration path for monarch butterflies, you can record your sightings online.
Books, Science/Math

Perfect Picture Book Friday: Seeing Symmetry


Author/Illustrator: Loreen Leedy
Publication Info: Holiday House, 2012
Intended audience: Grades 1-3  (NOTE: Meets Common Core math standards for Grade 4.)
Genre: nonfiction picture book
Themes/topics: math
Opening and synopsis:
“Butterfly wings have it. Triceratops had it. The word MOM has it.When you know what to look for, it’s easy to start…seeing symmetry.”
Symmetry is all around us: on our bodies and in plants, animals, the alphabet, art and more. Leedy’s dynamic illustrations make it easy for students to “see symmetry” on the page and in their world. Check out her book trailer:
Why I like this book: Symmetry is a math concept you have to see to believe. Leedy’s images clearly show both line and rotational symmetry and help students understand key concepts like “line of symmetry” and “asymmetrical.” Her backmatter is extensive and includes notes, activities, a glossary and an explanation of why symmetry is something students should know.
Resources: Seeing Symmetry includes two activities in the backmatter. There are instructions for making a Symme-TREE by folding paper in half and drawing a tree along the fold line. Students can cut out and decorate their tree for an example of line symmetry. She also has instructions for making a paint blot picture by putting blobs of paint on a sheet of paper. Children fold the paper in half one way and then the other to complete the picture. Leedy also has a wealth of resources (many free) on her TeachersPayTeachers Web site.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.
Nature

Perfect Picture Book Friday: Swirl by Swirl

Author: Joyce Sidman
Illustrator: Beth Krommes
Publication Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children, 2011
Intended audience: Ages 4 and 8
Genre: nonfiction, picture book
Themes/topics: science, nature
Opening and synopsis: “A spiral is a snuggling shape. It fits neatly in small places. Coiled tight, warm and safe, it waits…”
Spirals snuggle, grow, protect, grasp, move, stretch and reach out to explore the world. In her lyrical book, Sidman shows how this shape appears repeatedly in nature, from calla lilies to shells and galaxies. Her notes in the back explain the strengths of the shapely spiral. Krommes’s bright wood engravings are a perfect complement to the text.
Why I like this book: Melissa Stewart recommended this book on her blog as an example of creative nonfiction that doesn’t necessarily have a narrative. This much-lauded book is a must-read for anyone aspiring to write children’s nonfiction. Sidman is a master of free verse, which makes this book appealing for young readers. And there’s much to learn about this mysterious and fascinating shape. Older readers will enjoy learning about Fibonacci spirals, DNA helix and spiderwebs in the back matter.
Resources: The fantastic blog, The Classroom Bookshelf, has a comprehensive list of activities and further resources for Swirl by Swirl. One of my favorite suggestions is to arm your child with a digital camera and seek out spirals in nature. Sidman’s Teachers page includes a Teacher’s Guide for the book, as well as a poetry kit for use in the classroom.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.
Books, Geography, Science/Math

Perfect Picture Book Friday: Me on the Map

Author: Joan Sweeney
Illustrator: Annette Cable
Publication Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1996
Intended audience: 3 and up
Genre: nonfiction, picture book (32 pages)
Themes/topics: cartography, maps, geography, nonfiction
Opening and synopsis: “This is me. This is me in my room. This is a map of my room. This is me on the map of my room.” Step-by-step, this young girl shows the reader her room, her home, her street, her city, her state, her country and her planet and how each would appear on a map. This book is a wonderful way for children to learn about their place in the world and how it’s represented in two dimension.
Resources/activities: Taking a cue from the book, children can learn about scale and dimensions by drawing a map of their bedroom or home. For older children, you could use graph paper to teach scale, allowing the child to measure his or her room and pieces of furniture and plotting them on graph paper. You could also challenge a child to draw a map of a location from a favorite book using clues found in the text.
Why I like this book: This book is immensely popular. I had it on hold at the library forever. My five-year-old wanted to renew it as the due date approached, but someone else had already placed a hold on it. Simple language and strong visuals make this an excellent introduction to cartography.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.