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.)

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

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

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