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

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

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!

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

Writing

New Writing Barn class: Rethinking Your Nonfiction Picture Book: A Revision Workshop

Rethinking Your Nonfiction Picture Book: A Revision Workshop at the Writing Barn

I had such a blast teaching nonfiction picture book structures at The Writing Barn. Now I’ve created an entire six-week course focused on rethinking your nonfiction picture book from voice and hook to structure, illustration potential, and page turns. Learn more and register here. I hope you’ll join me.

News

September News: Critiques, creativity tips and more

Mega Soaring 20s Critique Giveaway

a2e071a3-b955-4fb1-ad7c-3579fcada8ddGif by Isabella Kung

Authors and Illustrators! The Soaring 20s (including yours truly) are giving away 20 (plus six more) critiques of picture book text or illustration/book dummies. Full details on how to enter on our newly launched website. There are many more giveaways and a lot of great content to come, so follow our blog, check us out on Twitter, and sign up for our newsletter.


In case you missed it…

e01658cc-3c44-412e-ac21-8f83066b6d72TEACHERS: What do good writing and our pets’ senses have in common? Find out in my first #STEMTuesday post with an exercise for writers of all ages. Click here to read.

WRITERS: Get creativity tips! Recently I discussed my creative process on NFReads.com. For me assembling facts and shaping them into a story is much like solving jigsaw puzzles.

COVER REVEAL: While, YOU very special people saw the cover of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS ages ago, industry insider Kathy Temean just featured the cover on her blog. Also, she’ll be hosting a giveaway of the book in February.


26abbd2c-8871-4cde-868e-83287fc33e28

This month I launched a yearlong partnership with Ms. Nolan’s fourth-grade class at Roosevelt School in Tulare, California. I’ll be sharing books, writing tips, and so much more with these students throughout the school year. Learn more about #KidsNeedMentors here.


New book trailer: A big thank you!

Thanks to YOU, my amazing newsletter subscribers, I was able to finalize my book trailer for WOOD, WIRE, WINGS. Want to preview the book? Click on the image above to view the trailer. And THANK YOU for providing such helpful input and feedback.

Books, Writing

#PBParty

Yes, I’ve been MIA. I’m still working on 10 nonfiction books in various stages. I did get some fun news on the fiction front today, though. One of my picture books made it to the agent round of the #PBParty. If you are interested, hop on over to Michelle Hauck’s blog and look for number 9 — OPERATION BREAKFAST IS SERVED. You can Tweet about your favorite entries at #PBParty.

Writing

Office Space

Office Space

My husband converted our guest room into my office space just in the nick of time. A few days after the redo, I received a slew of short-turnaround writing assignments. I have five articles due within the next eight days. I guess it’s a good think I love my new digs. (Note: Post pic we added a bookshelf with all my writing resources and a printer. Now I don’t have to run back and forth to the shared wireless.)  Bring on the muse.

Holidays, Writing

Turning to 2013

Celebrating New YearNow that you have survived the end of the world, I’m sure you’ve given some thought to what’s ahead for 2013. I don’t do resolutions, per se, but I do like to set goals for myself each year, so I can measure my progress. This seems to come naturally at the end of the year when I’m getting my planner organized, transferring over birthdays, appointments and more. (Have I mentioned how much I love Levenger’s Circa system?)

2012 marked my real return to writing, after I joined Julie Hedlund’s 12 x 12 in 2012 Picture Book Writing Challenge. You can learn about my progress here. About halfway into the year, I learned that I probably wouldn’t be satisfied with the process of writing and revising picture books, submitting them to editors, and waiting six months or more for a yay or nay. It can take established authors 5 years or more to sell manuscripts this way, not to mention the challenges a new writer faces.

While I will still shop the picture book manuscripts I have and write those I feel passionate about, my goal for 2013 is to break into the work for hire market. Essentially, I want to develop a relationship with publishers, primarily in the education market, so I can get assignments. I’ve set my sites on a couple of SCBWI events that will introduce me to educational publishers. I’m also going to focus on submitting articles to paying and nonpaying markets in an effort to build up my writers’ resume and increase my chances. Again, I am sure this process will take a long time, but at least I’ve narrowed my focus.

I’ve also realized that I need a writing workshop to brush up on my writing skills. I took two half-day workshops this summer on creative nonfiction and writing leveled readers, but I definitely crave more. Finding the right workshop has proved tricky, since many children’s writing workshops are focused on fiction. However, I now have a few leads thanks to a discussion group I recently joined focused solely on children’s nonfiction.

On the personal front, I did run my first 10K in 2012, as well as a couple of 5Ks, including one with my Dad. I have more races lined up for 2013, including another 10K. And a few girlfriends and I have set our sights on Disney’s Tinkerbell Half Marathon for January 2014. We’re looking at some training programs and have stepped up our strength training workouts and run schedules. Oh, and we’ve already planned our wardrobe inspired by the picture below.

Have a blessed 2013 everyone!