Stealing, Tweaking, Voice

Recently, I had a fabulous conference critique on a new picture book biography. It left me smiling for days, mostly because of two words: “great voice.” It’s taken a long time nail the concept of voice.  If you’ve been writing as long as I have, you know how ambiguous the subject of voice is. I mean, how do you define it? Good luck explaining the term to a ten year old, to your spouse, to a new writer.  It’s like describing a new flavor. Usually, you just know a good one when you taste it. As a picture book writer, it is the ultimate compliment. It doesn’t come easily. And writers aren’t the only ones who struggle with it.

The day after our ASCBWI conference, I was fortunate to spend a workshop morning with famed illustrator E.B. Lewis. He spoke about the relationship between words and images. He addressed the illustrators in the room by encouraging everyone to “steal” from other works. Not, in a plagiarism way. He meant by copying the color of the sky in one painting, the shape of a shoulder in another, the shadows, hands, flow in yet another painting, and on, and on. By extracting ideas from established works, artists can create something fresh and unique to them.  In fact, this is how music has been composed for centuries, too. And it’s how my wedding dress came to be.

I know, you’re now asking what a wedding dress has to do with voice. Well, maybe you remember being a bride-to-be, shuffling through racks of puffy white gowns, pouring over the thick wedding magazines, clipping pictures of dresses, and veils, and glittery things. I certainly did that, but I never found THE perfect dress. I liked the sleeves of one dress, the bodice of another, the neckline or beadwork of another, the scalloped train of yet another, and so on. I took images of these disparate pieces to a seamstress, tweaked the whole with my own personal tastes, then voila!  I walked down the aisle in a dress that was uniquely me. My own style. If my wedding could be defined in terms of voice, that dress was it. Though each piece was inspired by others’ creations, it came together as my own original design.

Back to writing. I think there are two kinds of voice. There’s the overall voice set up by the narrative style, and there’s each character’s individual voice. They can’t be forced. Voice to a writer comes from reading, reading, reading, and writing, writing, writing. Though we may not always physically clip phrases, words, sentences from pages, our readers’ mind somehow records it. First, maybe we imitate a writer we admire. In time, like my wedding dress, we process component parts, add our own personal spin and voila! Our written voice comes more naturally.

I’m still smiley about this editor’s kind words about the voice of my manuscript. It reminds me of how very far I’ve come as a writer.  I have a whole lot of established authors and their fine books to thank for it. And there’s so much more to learn. Which means it’s time to hit the books again.


Donna’s Dummy for Dummies

I’m currently polishing a p.b. biography and a fiction picture book that I’ve been whittling away at for a couple of years. Before I attempt to submit the manuscripts, I want to work them each into a picture book dummy to test the pacing, illustratable scenes, and page turns. Obviously, a publisher’s art director would have final say over such details, but if I, as the writer, haven’t visualized the books as a whole, my work may never see the light of day.
My experience with picture book dummies has left me feeling a bit guilty about the number of trees that have been sacrificed in the name of a mock-up. I imagined the perfect alternative. A dummy that could be reused and repurposed. One that would offer the flexibility that different projects demand. And it had to be low-tech.
But, first things first. Once I’ve re-re-re-revised my manuscript (while consuming oodles of chocolate,) I story-board to get an overall view of the layout.  The storyboard is the first dummy. It’s also handy as a planning tool, especially if you’re an outliner. You can create your own storyboard pages, of course, but here are a few sites with samples and more details about picture book construction. Cheryl Klein’s Words, Wisdom, Art, and Heart, Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Construction, Editorial Anonymous’ Basic Book Construction, Uri Shulevitz’s How to Make a Storyboard,  Drawn’s idiot proof picture book dummy.
Now, it’s time to test the page turns. The aim is always to keep a reader interested enough to turn the page again and again. The best way to visualize the story as a book is to break it up into actual pages and read aloud. That’s where my own dummy for dummies will come into play. It’s a humble new tool, but it’s become mighty handy.
Donna’s Picture Book Dummy for Dummies.
An inexpensive three-ring binder will allow me to move pages around as needed.


Twenty-four laminated sheets of white paper will represent a 32 or 48 page book. I chose white paper to avoid color-vibe that might distort the underlying emotion of my text as I read. (I know, geeky, huh?) I had the lamination done at my local office supply store and it was ready within thirty minutes. (Note to self: next time, watch for store coupons.) Note the use of dry erase or wet erase markers. I can make easy text changes with the aid of the ten little erasers attached to my hands.



The particular organization of front matter in picture books varies. I wanted to create the actual page-turn feel of the book so I dedicated pages one, two, and three to the title, copyright, dedication, acknowledgements, and other front matter. I’ll ignore these mock pages, of course.


There is no set-in-stone rule about where the printed text begins. Most often, it begins with a hook on page 3 or with a double page spread on 4-5. I can rearrange my pages as the story dictates. I can write out the text on the page with my fine-tip markers, cut and paste from my manuscript and tape onto these pages, or use the old standby sticky notes if the order is still in question.



Thanks to my multi-colored  dry/wet erase markers, I can even doodle some very bad illustrations that nobody else will see. Once the story is dummied onto these shiny pages, I can read the text aloud to gauge the cadence, the flow, the rhythm of the story.Best of all, I’ll re-use these pages over and over again. Mother nature will thank me.


Blank Pages and a new Muse

There it is in all its blank glory. The only gift I asked Santa for. Well, that and a new car. Santa’s budget clearly looks alot like mine.

There’s something exciting, and invigorating, and, yes, a bit scary about having a stack of giant blank pages in front of me, ready for scribbles, and plots, and voices, and magic to spill forth like seeds in a garden. It’s bound to get messy, dirty, downright muddy at times. But, for 2012, my muse resolves to reveal white space as opportunity.  I’m confident that, if I tend to the words every day, something marvelous will blossom.


My Herb Garden Fairy by Mark Roberts

And, speaking of my muse, my sweet hubby surprised me with this Herb Fairy on Christmas day. We had recently spotted this little guy in a designer store and I was immediately smitten. He’s sparkly, whimsical, and cheery. But, don’t let his fairiness fool you. His eyes watch me with expectation. Though I’m not a “stuff” kind of gal, this cutie pie was destined for my desk.

I know the obvious name for the little guy would be Herb, but I don’t know if that fits him. What do you think? Any other ideas?

Happy 2012 to you all. May your own blank pages be filled with life, joy, and art.

Life Cycle of a Book

Ever wonder how a manuscript becomes a published book? Publishing Trendsetter, a site dedicated to publishing professionals,  not only put the process to a flow chart, they include video clips from professionals at every stage; writer, agent, editorial, production, digital, design, marketing, publicity, sales, distribution, and book buyer. They call it Life Cycle of a Book.  It’s worth a peek.

Then, for a bit of motivation, pop over to read my previous blog interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Happy writing!

From Befuddled to Eureka- Clarifying my narrator’s lens-P.B. Biography

My currrent work-in-progress has had me befuddled. That’s a good word, isn’t it? Befuddled. My Webster’s Dictionary defines the word as, “To confuse or stupefy.” Yep, that sums it up.

Said manuscript is complete and it’s not half bad. Yay!  I’ve got a compelling story with suspenseful scenes and historical significance. But, my inner-editor has been nagging that something’s not working. My basic dilemma is varying the action of multiple scenes to avoid redundancy. I can’t disclose the specific subject of this picture book biography, but suffice it to say that the man’s claims to fame were earned in a grand, but physically limiting setting. So, now that I’m in polish mode, I realize I have too many scenes depicting my character somewhat like a bendable Gumby. Ugh!

After a great deal of therapeutic chocolate consumption, it occurred to me that the real problem isn’t my character’s limited setting. The issue is my narrator’s limited lens. Currently, there’s too much looking AT, and telling ABOUT my character. That can be boring, especially for young readers. Maybe it’s okay that his physical locale doesn’t change drastically, if the text propels the story forward. It turns out the nagging voice is telling me to get closer to the character, to walk in his shoes, and get into his head. Instead of the text and illustrations looking AT him, I’ll reposition my narrator lens to look through him. After all, I want my readers to see what my character sees, and feel what he feels. And, though it’s tricky, I want to show my character as others of the day saw him, too.

I’m reminded of the reality TV show, Survivor Man. He’s presumably all alone in some frighteningly remote place, simply surviving day to day. Sometimes the camera is aimed at him. When he eats those nasty bugs, we see the wince on his face. When he builds the temporary shelter, we watch him struggle and sweat.

Other times, he activates the small camera attached to his hat so that we see what he sees, as if we’re laced right into his hiking boots. When he climbs the tree, we hear the branches snap. When he crosses the river on a rickety bridge, we feel the danger in the tremors of the ropes, and his own breath as it catches. His view is sometimes close and sometimes distant, but it always adds texture to the story.

So, here’s my new word. Eureka!  Webster’s defines the term as, “used to express triumphant achievement.” I think it’s the perfect word for my new sense of clarity.