Making Lists: A Writing Strategy to Improve Your Focus
By Miranda Paul
5, 4, 3, 2, 1...Happy Resolution-Making Day!
The end of the year / beginning of a new year is always a busy time for me. My most productive days are list-making, checkmark-making days. Having a clear idea of what needs to get done combined with the art of slashing lines through those tasks is a winning combo.
Beyond making lists for the busywork of my days, I make different kinds of lists when I’m developing or polishing a manuscript. One of the most helpful types of lists is called a Comparative List.
A comparative list includes books that share a common topic, style, or other characteristic. In picture books, the most common comparative lists I see are by subject matter or topic. (Susanna Leonard Hill has a great list on her PPBF page.)
When I was struggling through a manuscript in which a boy’s grandfather passes away, for example, I made a list of picture books that dealt with grief/loss. This was eye-opening because I easily came up with 24 good books (plus a dozen mediocre ones). Almost instantaneously, I realized that:
List-making was also a key factor in writing my debut book, One Plastic Bag. It’s a book about a woman very few people in the US have heard of, set in the smallest country on the African continent. Obviously, there was nothing just like it to compare. But I scoured the picture book market for successful books featuring grassroots activists from developing countries. Eventually, my editor used some of those comparative titles in the acquisitions meeting.
You can make lists of books have something in common besides topic, too. If you’re long-winded, make a list of books that go over the average word count for your genre. If your manuscript is all dialogue, make a list of similar books. If you’re unpublished, make a list of recently-published debut titles.
You only have to find one commonality to make a list. I once made a list of picture books that use good pacing techniques. Other than good rhythm or pacing, these books are very different!
Comparative lists can help you tremendously when your manuscript is a rule-breaker. There are TONS of articles out there that spell out the rules of writing for kids, especially picture book writing. Yet...one can make lists of books that have talking inanimate objects, go over the 500-word limit, or feature grown-ups as main characters.
It’s important to be aware, though, that a list of comparable titles isn’t proof that your book should or will be published. The list is a starting point for research or a tool for helping you hone your own craft and style. It’s your job to read each title and de-construct the elements that make the book work (or fail).
Essentially, list-making is a tool to get you to focus on some aspect of writing or a topic you're exploring. After evaluating books on a list, you can go back to your own manuscript and have a better sense of how it fits in, stands out, or breaks rules (in a good or bad way).
Speaking of breaking rules, I'm going to break one of my own and shift focus quickly. In January, I'm going to be talking a lot about rule breaking in a webinar. Since almost every manuscript I’ve sold breaks one or more rules, I have a lot to share with you on this topic—plus lists of totally fantabulous rule-breaking books! The webinar will be on Saturday, January 24th, from 10 a.m. - 1 p.m. PST (1 p.m. - 4 p.m. EST). Very soon, you’ll be able to sign up for the webinar right through the Children’s Book Academy website so watch for details.
Ok, back to list-making and New Year's productivity. Let’s count down the hours and make a plan to check new things off our lists in 2015. Happy New Year, everyone!
Miranda Paul is passionate about creating stories for young readers that inspire, entertain, and broaden horizons. In addition to more than 50 short stories for magazines and digital markets, Miranda is the author of several forthcoming picture books from imprints of Lerner, Macmillan, and Random House. Her debut, One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, was named a Junior Library Guild Selection and received a starred SLJ review. Her second book, Water is Water, illustrated by Jason Chin, releases in May. She is the Executive Vice President of Outreach for We Need Diverse Books™ and the administrator of RateYourStory.org, a site for aspiring writers. Miranda believes in working hard, breaking rules, and being kind. Learn more at www.mirandapaul.com.
So much of writing is viewed this way. Beginning, middle, end. Action, reaction, result. Problem, conflict, resolution. Goal, obstacle, outcome. Mission, evil overlord, right makes might. And very occasionally, we have a story ending on a note more like the one enacted in my kitchen last night: fruitfly, a tiny spider about three times larger, small lump incorporated into the web.
All of these are ways of saying something changed.
Three part structure isn’t something the average reader thinks about. It’s a strategy writers use to make sure they don’t come to a fruit fly’s end, and we all have, as beginning writer’s, found ourselves battling the sticky tendrils of story that simply won’t be woven into place.
I taught myself how to use this strategy by writing scenes. Just single scenes inspired by a moment in the day. I don’t think it’s coincidental that editors tend to comment gratefully that a lot of my stories are delivered in scenes, placing the reader right in the midst of the action, as opposed to descriptions of what happened, which is more like listening to a friend tell us about a bad date. We get it, but it isn’t quite the same as being there.
There are necessary parts to a scene: 1) action, as in gesture and mannerism, some activity that ranges from making tea (we’re always warned against that) to jumping through a plate glass window like Bruce Willis (now see, I would thought that was what to avoid). 2) in most scenes, there’s dialogue, 3) there will be observations made and imparted to us, perhaps as thoughts that a character keeps to himself, and 4) there will be descriptions of the action, exposition. I like to think of that as dipping the teabag. Include setting details as needed. Do as little description as possible, but don’t leave it out.
Perhaps you don’t yet know what your scene will mean, you don’t know what point it will make. That’s okay. Actually it’s great if your starting point is one of those “what I should have said” humiliations, you’re full of energy. Just write the dialogue, fill in whatever else seems to arrive as a detail. Write fast. Ignore nothing, throw nothing away. Scribble it all down.
Then go back and add whatever parts you feel you skipped over in the rush of writing quickly.
Audrey Couloumbis is busily writing at this very moment, can’t come to the phone. Check out her website, audreycouloumbisbooks.com or look for her on youtube, being interviewed by the lovely Olivia.
And of course, you can find her here once a month, writing for you. Leave a message and she’ll get back to you.
My husband, kids, and I are heading north for the holidays. We’re flying to Toronto, Canada on Christmas Eve to spend the holidays with my family. It has become our family tradition to travel to my hometown during the holiday season. A white Christmas in Canada is truly a wonderland. Blankets of sparkling snow tinsel rooftops, streets, fields, and majestic evergreens.
There’s something especially magical about flying north on Christmas Eve. My kids (ages 6 and 9) are convinced that they’re going to see Santa on his sleigh up close and personal. I’m going to have a hard time convincing them that red light on airplane wing is actually a red light on the airplane wing and not Rudolph’s nose.
As an adult writing for children, I’ve found it helpful to reconnect to my childhood memories and motivations as a way of creating authenticity in my stories. I don’t always have the luxury of traveling home, but every so often I need to find my way back to a time where everything was vivid and pure. Looking at a photo of a meaningful place from my childhood or talking with a childhood friend can and do transport me.
I hope my kids enjoy the trip! I don’t think I’ll say a word about the red flashing lights on the airplane wings. I’ll let them believe it’s Rudolph and I’ll believe once more.
Carol Higgins-Lawrence wrote her first story at the age of five. Her father paid her a quarter for it and she’s been writing ever since. She’s taken a variety of courses in writing for children. Multicultural perspectives are of particular interest to her. Carol is of Jamaican descent and was born and raised in Canada. She has a BA in Communications and Sociology and she has completed coursework towards a MA in TESOL. She has worked as a literacy educator for the past 15 years. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two young children.
I love libraries. I love the smell of books and being surrounded by words and worlds of possibility. Library visits have always been the highlight of my week. And now, when I need to recharge, I curl up with a good book and I’m happy.
I wasn’t surprised when she told me her homeschooling project plan. She researched and found The African Library Project. For only 500 dollars and 1,000 books Naomi could help create an entire library in Africa. Naomi started an Etsy shop where she’s selling original art and jewelry and bags; 20% of her proceeds go to libraries in Africa!
This holiday season is the perfect time to think about sharing the best gift ever...book love.
Kirsti Call is a homeschooling mom of five. Her debut picture book, The Raindrop Who Couldn't Fall, came out last December. Her family band, Calling Out, plays songs written by her children. She contributes to Writer's Rumpus, and Kids are Writers. If you visit her house, you’ll likely find her reading a book. You can find out more about her at www.kirsticall.com.
If you’re like me, you can hardly believe another year has rolled by. Where did the time go, anyway? As I've pursued my writing goals over the past year, it would be easy to stay focused on those writing goals that are still out of reach and dangling in front of my nose like the proverbial carrot.
However, if I kept my blinders on and focused solely on those carrots, I would miss an opportunity indeed if I didn't reflect on all the successes, big and small, that occurred during the last twelve months and give myself a celebratory pat on the back. To me, there’s nothing more motivational and encouraging than taking a moment and enjoying the warm glow of what I did accomplish versus what I'm still struggling to achieve. When I appreciate my successes, those writing carrots seem closer than ever, and I’m absolutely certain success is within my grasp.
When I look back at 2014, I see it was a grand mixture of connecting with cherished writing friends, teaching picture book writing classes for Sacramento’s Learning Exchange, presenting my own day-long SCBWI picture book workshop in Sacramento, signing books, and selling two picture book manuscripts. The first, Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, resulted from the success of Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg (Clarion 2013). It had been so successful, my editor at Clarion requested a sequel--my first! (It even reached #1 at Amazon!)
When those unexpected successes come along, I capture them in a screen shot if I can. It's a nice morale boost when rejections inevitably come.
The other manuscript, a picture book biography called Away with Words - The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, was a different story. I wrote the original manuscript about a Victorian traveler four years ago. I knew someone would snap it up. They had to!
Or not, as it turned out.
At the time, my agent thought it was promising and asked for revisions. I revised, revised, and revised. Would it ever be right? (I thought it was!) Rejections followed. Eventually, I parted ways with my agent and put the manuscript away. When I took it out again, I wasn’t trying to please my agent or an editor, and a new way of telling Isabella’s story came to mind. I knew it was better than ever and I began sending it out on my own.
Nearly two years passed.
Then an email. An editor at Peachtree found the manuscript on the desk of an editor who’d left. Was it still available?
Why, yes, it was. J (Whoot! Whoot!)
So enjoy the holidays and give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back for all you've accomplished. When you do, it'll be just what you need when you're bounding after those dangling carrots in 2015.
You'll be certain success is within reach.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles. A member of SCBWI, Lori speaks at schools, SCBWI conferences, and has worked as a writing instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature for the past eight years. Recent picture book titles include Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg, (Clarion, 2013), Cindy Moo (HarperCollins, 2012), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault (Random House, 2010), and In the Trees, Honey Bees! (Dawn, 2009). To learn more about Lori and her four upcoming titles, visit her website at www.lorimortensen.com, or read her blog at http://lorimortensen.blogspot.com.
Meet the Wednesday Blogateers
First Wednesdays will feature Orel Protopopescu, multi-published award -winning author and poet.
Follow our Blogs!
Join our Tribe
and receive 7 Steps to Creative Happiness, access to free webinars, and lots more!
Your email addresses are always safe and respected with us.