SPIDER WEBS: Thoughts on Weaving Stories

IMG_2366Lately, I’ve been noticing an abundance of spider webs dazzling in the early morning light as the first rays catch their dewy threads. Their strength and structure amaze me. Each spider web I notice follows the same basic pattern. First the spider established her outermost framework and then worked her way inward in concentric spirals until she reached the heart of the web.

There’s no doubt that there is a universality to spider webs.  But look closely and you will see that even though they share many common characteristics, each web is also a unique creation.  Each web’s shape and size varies depending on where it was woven and on the delicate dance the spinning spider performed as she leapt from anchor point to anchor point. One web I saw was spun snuggly between two slender stems of Queen Anne’s lace, stretched oblong by early fall breezes.  Another was hung high among prickly pine boughs, round and tight, so as not to get prickled, yet big enough to capture a passing fly.

As writers, it sometimes seems that every story has already been spun and that there couldn’t possibly be a new way to tell anything. Yes, it’s true, like spider webs, most stories fit into plot types and there are common structures.  There are also universal themes.  And like spiders, who all use liquid silk to build their webs, our stories too, are created using the same building blocks – words.

But does this mean originality is impossible? Not at all. Like webs, the best stories do have a universal quality about them.  But, if we listen to our inner creative spirit, something unique will unfold within that universal framework.  A spider web’s uniqueness emerges as she weaves in response to the specific setting and conditions surrounding that creation.  She also leaps and dances in a way that only she can.  Another spider spinning her web in the same spot would create a different web altogether.

So take heart as you write and listen to your deepest inner voice, the one that expresses itself in a way only you can. If you do, then I am convinced that, like a spider weaving uniquely concentric circles, you’ll weave the story as only you can.

Happy spinning all!

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STORY LEVEL versus SENTENCE LEVEL: Thoughts on Revising

IMG_2191One of my trusted critique partners asked if I had time to look at her story. She was having trouble working out some plot issues and asked if I could read it at the story level, rather than the sentence level. I hadn’t heard that distinction before, but it really hit home.

To my way of thinking, revising at the sentence level is sort of like decorating a house. By the time you get to this stage, you’re interested in really making your house, er, story, stand out with the perfect paint colors and amenities (think imagery and symbolism).  You’re aiming for stunning crown moulding and countertops (think delectable phrasing and wordplay)! At this stage, you might also check to make sure your new curtains are hung straight and your carpets are laid out smoothly (think punctuation and grammar). Indeed, it’s these little final touches that will give your house its sparkle and charm. If you love playing with words as much as I do, you probably LOVE revising at the sentence level.

The problem is, as writers, we sometimes get impatient and rush to sentence level revision, without first checking to make sure the  story is structurally sound. But if the manuscript isn’t yet working at the story level, all that lovely decorating is labor in vain. What we need to do first is get out our hammers and saws and check to see that the story frame is solid. This is hard work. Sometimes it requires sawing off whole sections and re-hammering them in new angles or locations.  Sometimes it means ripping out and totally ditching certain beams, and replacing them with new wood altogether.  This is story level revision and it’s not for the weak-hearted. But take heart, because it builds muscle and, if you’ve got the stamina and patience, it will transform your stories into masterpieces that shine on every level.

So this week, why not pick a story from your draft collection, and revise it at the story level.  Happy hammering and sawing, er, I mean revising!

Picture Books with P.U.N.C.H.: Parallel Story Structure

IMG_0286When I was little, Robert McCloskey’s BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL was my all-time favorite read-aloud book. Like little Sal, not only did I love blueberries, but I thought my mother and I looked a lot like Sal and her mother. I never tired of hearing how Sal and her mother got mixed-up with a bear cub and her mother while picking blueberries on Blueberry Hill.  Re-reading this old favorite as an adult, I realize the magic behind that story is its parallel structure.

In parallel story structure two story lines run side by side within the text by means of alternating page spreads and/or alternating texts. Unlike true parallel lines, however, the story lines in these books always intersect at some point. The parallel structure picture books I read shared some, or all, of the following characteristics.

PARALLEL DESIRE/PROBLEM  Giving the characters in the parallel stories a common problem or desire is the first, and most important, ingredient in good parallel storytelling.  It’s the key that links the two story lines and gives the story its heart.  In BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL, both mother/child pairs want to gather blueberries for winter.  In SNOW GLOBE FAMILY, by Jane O’Connor, both families desire a big, exciting snowstorm.  In THE DOG WHO BELONGED TO NO ONE, by Amy Hest, both the girl and the dog are lonely. This shared desire/problem provides the author a wonderful, and natural, way to instill empathy in young readers or simply to instill an awareness of “other” versus “self” and the idea that others have thoughts/feelings just like we do.

PARALLEL WORD CUES  One way to facilitate parallel storytelling is to use transition words such as “meanwhile”, “also”, and “too” to indicate each time the tale switches. This strategy had a particularly humorous effect in MEANWHILE BACK AT THR RANCH, by Trinka Hakes Noble, because it highlighted, in an almost dead-pan way, the hilarious contrast between what was happening at the ranch with what was not happening elsewhere.

PARALLEL SENTENCE STRUCTURE  Using similar sentence structure is another effective, and very poetic-feeling, way to create a sense of connectedness between the parallel story lines. The opening of Jane O’Connor’s SNOW GLOBE FAMILY is a perfect example.  Spread one reads: “In a big house on a hill lives a family – a mama, a papa, a boy, a girl and Baby.”  Then, with similar structure, spread two reads: “”Inside the snow globe lives another family. A very little family – a mama, a papa, a boy…etc.” This echoing continues throughout the text.

PARALLEL ILLUSTRATIONS  Parallel illustrations are another way to convey contrasting yet, connected, story lines. In the books I read, this was done the most beautifully in Debi Gliori’s THE SNOW LAMBS, a heartwarming story about a little boy waiting at home, wondering if his sheepdog is safe in the storm.  With no parallel text, the sheepdog’s story is told exclusively through the illustrations, which parallel perfectly what the boy is worrying about in each spread.

YOUR TURN!

Having pondered the intricacies of parallel structured stories, I now challenge you to brainstorm plots that might be enhanced by a parallel form. Then get writing!

And if you have any parallel structure picture book titles to add to my list (which is posted above under the tab STORY STRUCTURE INDEX), please let me know.

Picture Books with P.U.N.C.H.: ABC Stories

IMG_1940ABC picture books seem like such an old standby – ever popular, yet so seemingly “done” – that I wondered as I embarked on this month’s story structure, if it was even worth examining them.  After all, just how many new twists can there be on alphabet books?  To answer that question and to crack the code on ABC story structure I read as many ABC picture books as I could, striving for a diverse sampling including old classics, as well as newer publications. In case you are interested, I’ve posted the ABC titles I read under the tab Story Structure Index.

ABC picture books use the alphabet in several ways.

ABC Primers:

The goal of many ABC picture books is simply to teach preschoolers the alphabet in a fun, colorful format. These ABC picture books lack a traditional story arc, instead relying on some fun theme to keep young letter learners engaged. Tasha Tudor’s now classic A IS FOR ANNABELLE, in which two girls dress their grandmother’s doll using items that begin with each letter of the alphabet, is my childhood favorite of this type. For a more contemporary example, I enjoyed Denise Fleming’s ALPHABET UNDER CONSTRUCTION (Henry Holt and Co., 2002) in which a mouse constructs a new letter of the alphabet on each page from  “found” materials.

ABC Topical Texts

Though there is some overlap with this and the primers above, the main difference with most ABC books of this type is that the primary goal is not to teach the alphabet.  Instead, they use the alphabet as an organizational tool. These books are geared to slightly older readers, who already know the alphabet, and are ready to dig into high interest topics broken into 26 related subtopics delivered in alphabetical order. Nancy I. Sanders D IS FOR DRINKING GOURD: AN AFRICAN AMERICAN ALPHABET (Sleeping Bear Press, 2009) is a top-notch example of this type, as is Liz Murphy’s ABC DOCTOR: STAYING HEALTHY FROM A TO Z (Blue Apple Books, 2007).

Plot-Based ABC’s 

My favorite ABC stories, however, cleverly incorporate the alphabet within a traditional story arc. The plots of these picture books stand alone, independent of the alphabet.  The letters, however, add a fun extra layer to the story, teaching kids their letters by clever immersion within the text. My favorite example of this ABC type is Michael Rosen’s AVALANCHE (Candlewick, 1998), in which a rolling snowball wreaks hilarious havoc as it rolls ever bigger through town.  In addition to being an ABC text, Rosen’s story is also cumulative which gives it yet another layer of reading appeal. I also enjoyed Susan Heyboer O’Keefe’s HUNGRY MONSTER ABC (Little, Brown and Company, 2007), a delightful rhymer in which hungry monsters interfere when a boy attempts to teach them the alphabet. Finally, check out Kelly Bingham’s Z IS FOR MOOSE (Greenwillow Books, 2012) for a clever spoof on the traditional ABC primer in which Moose keeps wondering when his part is.

YOUR TURN! 

Now that I’ve investigated the ABC structure, I happily conclude that it is still possible to write and sell an ABC picture book.  What you need, however, more than ever, is a fresh take. Want to give it a try?  If so, I challenge you to pick an ABC style that appeals to you and write your own ABC picture book.  That’s my plan! Enjoy!

Picture Books with P.U.N.C.H.: Cumulative Stories

IMG_1915Last summer in my “Picture Books with P.U.N.C.H.” post, I reflected on five characteristics essential to good picture book writing. In response, illustrator Julie Rowan- Zoch  kindly designed a badge for me that conveys those five characteristics visually (See sidebar). Now, as an extension, I’ll be delving into different picture book structures. This month I’m focusing on one my favorites – cumulative stories.

To crack the code on cumulative story structure I first gathered as many picture books as I could, striving for a diverse sampling including old classics, as well as newer publications. I read over 20 cumulative stories and have posted the titles separately above. I’ll be adding structures and titles to that list as the year progresses, so keep checking back.

In cumulative picture books, the plot builds on itself, sort of like a rolling snowball, until it either explodes into a hilarious finale, or quietly comes to rest with a cozy conclusion. The stories I read accomplish this in two basic ways.

Cumulative Structure A:  Repeat and Rhyme

One way to create a cumulative story is to build upon a growing set of repeated phrases. Classic examples of this structure include “The House that Jack Built”, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, and “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly”. Because the plot thickens via repeated phrases, this structure lends itself well to rhyme and if executed in perfect meter, the words practically sing off the page. Jean Reidy’s LIGHT UP THE MOON (Disney Hyperion, 2011) is a poetically perfect example of a cumulative text executed in the style of “The House that Jack Built”.  Two other stand-out examples of modern variations of traditional “repeat and rhyme” stories are  THERE WAS AN OLD MONSTER! by Rebecca, Adrian, and Ed Emberley (Orchard Books, 2009) and Cindy Szekeres’ adorable THE MOUSE JACK BUILT (Scholastic, 1997).

The challenge with the “repeat and rhyme” structure is that the repeated phrases risk becoming cumbersome, thus dragging the pace. The secret is to keep your text lean and light, perhaps varying the wording just a bit as the list builds.  Another strategy is to break the list pattern midway so that the cumulative effect continues, without having to repeat the entire list.  Shirley Neitzel’s THE JACKET I WEAR IN THE SNOW (Greenwillow, 1998) and Cindy Szekeres’ THE MOUSE JACK BUILT both use this strategy effectively.

Cumulative Structure B: Just Plain Build 

A second cumulative story structure is to build a plot that compounds without the use of a repeating list.  This economizes on words, thus giving the writer more room within the word count to intensify the plot. This is typically done with fast paced cause and effect scenes that rely on humor and/or increasingly hilarious ridiculousness as they build towards a spectacular finale.  “Just plain built” cumulative stories can rhyme or not.  Either way, they are characterized by their omission of a growing written list.  That list is simply understood.

My favorite recent example of a non-rhyming “just plain built” cumulative story  is STUCK, by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel Books, 2011), in which a boy’s kite gets stuck in a tree. To extract the kite, he tosses up ever bigger/ more ridiculous items which get stuck too.  For a “just plain built” cumulative example that rhymes, I enjoyed Karma Wilson’s WHOPPER CAKE (Simon and Schuster, 2007), in which Grandpa bakes Grandma a ridiculously enormous birthday cake.

YOUR TURN!

Now that we’ve cracked the code on cumulative story structure, I challenge you to pick a cumulative style that appeals to you and write your own cumulative picture book.  Have fun!

And, if you’d like to suggest any other cumulative picture book titles, I’ll add them to my reading list and my index. Thanks!

Walking the Dog: Puppy Strolls and Story Structure

IMG_1811One of the joys of my day- rain or shine, snowstorm or heatwave – is walking our little dog, Sophie.  She comes running the minute she hears the jingle of her leash and even though we walk the same route almost every time, she greets each stroll with fresh excitement, knowingly turning each corner with puppy confidence, and quickening her pace, like clockwork, for the final jaunt back to our comfy house.

Youngest readers are a lot puppies. Like stroll-loving Sophie, they love reading the same stories over and over again. And just as Sophie never tires of sniffing the same fence posts and greeting the same old friends, my children, when young, giggled in delightful anticipation at each beloved page turn. They also found security in knowing the structure of the story. After all, there’s a sense of empowerment and comfort that comes from being able to predict what will happen and in seeing how the story fits together.

Though each picture book is a unique creation of the author and illustrator, most picture books fit into one of several common structures. Popular story structures include cumulative, circular, alphabet, mirror, question and answer, parallel, flip-flop, reversal, rule of three, and more. Though the structures are simple, using them effectively is an art, for the plot and language must flow seamlessly and naturally within the given framework.

This year, in conjunction with my goal to read at least 300 picture books and to stretch myself writing-wise, I’ll be running a monthly Picture Books with P.U.N.C.H. series in which I’ll take an in-depth look at picture book structure. Each month I’ll read as many picture books as I can find that use a given structure and then assess what makes them work (or not) and why.  Finally, I’ll try my hand at writing at least one picture book per structure. Join me back here this Friday as I look at cumulative picture books.