Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Storysleuths is delighted to welcome back poet Julie Larios, to help us wind up Poetry month with a close look at the Caldecott honor book All the World. Julie previously contributed an insightful Storysleuths post focused on Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors. In addition to being an award winning poet and author of four poetry books for children, Julie, like our previous guest blogger Susan Fletcher, is a fabulous teacher and is on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaching in their Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children program.

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, wondrously illustrated by Marla Frazee, represents the kind of picture book I call irresistible – a fine-tuned, upbeat, read-aloud collaboration between author, illustrator, editor and art director. In fact, my basic question about this book is, “What’s not to love?”

The narrative of the book-length poem takes us through the day with one family (eventually opening out to grandparents and friends and neighbors) from beach to farmers’ market, and on to a cloud burst, a roadside diner, and an evening spent with songs, piano, harp, fiddle, babies – a “family” in the widest sense of the word. For any skeptics out there who think it might be too sweet for them, I say read this with a four-year-old and it will win you over. It is not over-sentimentalized. The rhythms are jazzy and the pictures are lively, and its read-aloud-ability is definite. I suspect quite a few parents are already into their hundredth go-around with reading this book aloud and yet not tired of it – for that reason alone, it has the potential to become a classic.

The real miracle of its read-aloud quality is that Scanlon wrote this poem in couplets, and (as anyone who has ever tried knows) it’s not easy to get away with a book full of couplets. Usually, the sing-song quality becomes irritating, predictable doggerel. But not with All the World. It starts

Rock, stone, pebble, sand
Body, shoulder, arm, hand
A moat, to dig, a shell to keep
All the world is wide and deep.

What seems to be working, for me, is the unpredictability of what comes next in each stanza. There’s no real reason that “Body, shoulder, arm, hand” should follow “Rock, stone, pebble, sand” – a lesser poet might have said something more defined about the setting of the story, making sure that the reader understood it from the text, something like “Beach shovels in our hands….” Doing that would have pushed the illustrator towards an illustration. But Scanlon resists the temptation to explain the connection (leaving it to be made by the illustrator) and that is masterful. I often tell my picture book students to trust their illustrators and to remove whatever text tries too hard to paint the picture. Scanlon knows how to do this.

So a couplet structure can work if the lines which follow each other are not overly predictable and do not push reader and illustrator one direction – if they open up the imagination rather than close it down. Another example of unpredictability, from the double-page spread near the end of the book where friends and family have come together for a night of shared music and song, is

Nanas, papas, cousins, kin
Piano, harp and violin
Babies passed from neck to knee
All the world is you and me.

Not only does Scanlon know how to follow one line with an unpredictable line (she doesn’t say “Someone plays the violin” – she simply implies it, and the illustrator runs with it) but she knows how to find unpredictable images within a line – moving a baby “from neck to knee” – that’s the kind of fresh image and lilting alliteration any good poet for kids would love to have written, because it’s a line that will stick in kids’ heads.

Scanlon makes sure that each stanza contains the title of the book, and a list of natural and man-made elements that move the story forward chronologically.

Tree, trunk, branch, crown
Climbing up and sitting down
Morning sun becomes noon-blue
All the world is old and new.

And so a reader (or a reader with a listener on his or her knee) moves gently through the day. So do many peripheral characters in the book – for example, two ladies on a bike-built-for-two. They show up in one of the last spreads, on the page that shows all kinds of couples – mom and baby, Gram and Gramp, brother and sister, husband and wife.

This is a thoroughly satisfying book to read, to look at, to hear. It’s oversize and gorgeous, suitable both for the non-reader on someone’s lap and for an older child looking carefully at the detail –filled illustrations. I can’t wait to read it to my grandson, who (at two years old) already knows what how much fun a trip to the beach is (and who knows a thing or two about cloudbursts, too!).

Thank you, Julie. I can’t wait to read All the World to my 3 year old nephews when I visit them next month! To read more by and about Julie check out her blog, The Drift Record, which currently displays stunning photographs and a powerful poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins in celebration of Earth Day. Scroll down to read a poem in which Julie uses only the vowel “o.” Lots of juicy word inspiration drifts in over there.

StorySleuths Tip #67: When writing poetry, Julie Larios says, “Avoid sing-song doggerel by opening up the imagination of readers, rather than by closing it down. Delight and engage readers by making your words, images, couplets, and stanzas unpredictable.”

Monday, April 26, 2010


We asked one of our favorite fantasy writers, Susan Fletcher, to wind up our month of Blackbringer analysis--and what a stupendous post she wrote for us. She not only clarified how to make fantasy believable, and demonstrated how Laini Taylor accomplished it, but she also shared some of the "inside story" about her own fantasy writing. Susan is the author of ten books for children and young adults, including the Dragon Chronicles, to be re-released next month, and a new fantasy novel out from Atheneum this fall: Ancient, Strange and Lovely. Susan is the author of one of my favorite novels of all time: Shadow Spinner. I'll share just one quote from that: "If we don't share our stories...we will all be strangers forever" (p. 132). Susan is also a gifted writing teacher and will re-join the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts this summer, teaching in their Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children program.

Lending Fantasy “a Semblance of Truth”
By Susan Fletcher

Nowadays, we use the term “willing suspension of disbelief” to talk about all kinds of storytelling. In the hands of a skillful writer, readers are willing, for a while, to forget that the events they’re reading about never actually happened--and, in the case of fantasy, couldn’t possibly have happened. For the moment, we are willing to believe.

I had forgotten, until just a second ago, when I looked up the source quote by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that “suspension of disbelief” originally referred to the supernatural in particular. I’m glad for the reminder. Because, while it’s hard enough to persuade readers to believe in our realistic stories, persuading them to believe in our faeries and vampires and dragons can take every ounce of craft that we can muster.

Here’s the original quotation, maybe a bit of a slog for 21st century readers, but I think it’s worth the trouble:
…it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural…yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.
–Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

So how do we invite belief in our fantasy characters, our fantasy worlds, our “shadows of imagination?”

There are many ways. To name a few: creating rounded characters and penetrating their hearts; refining our fictional magic so that it has rules, limits, and a price; and the skillful use of concrete detail. Way too much to go into in a single post. So I’ll focus on the last one: detail.

Flannery O’Connor wrote:
...when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it...I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein--because the greater the story’s strain on the credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be. (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, p. 97)
Hear, hear!

Laini Taylor’s use of detail absolutely knocks me out. Blackbringer is fecund with luscious detail; she revels, frolics, delights in it. I’m going to check out a few examples now to suss out why they work so well. Because it’s trickier than just laying on one detail after another. It’s using the right details, in the most effective ways.

Fuzzing the Boundaries

Here’s an example from Blackbringer:
He … turned slowly, surveying the array of shining eyes that peered out at him from the encircling woods. Imps, nightjars, weasels, dryads, toads, all staring in awed silence at the spectacle of the caravans. (p. 56)
Okay, you’ve got your fantasy animals – imps and dryads – cozily cheek-by-jowl with your real ones – nightjars, weasels, and toads – as if they utterly belong together in the world. When you put the real animals in there among the fantasy ones without the slightest hint of distinction, the reader tends to accept the whole kit and caboodle. “Nightjars” is an inspired touch. I actually had to look it up. It sounds like a fantasy thing, but it’s not.

Here, Taylor does it again:
Most of Magpie’s knots were like that. She had saved such glyphs as footprint magic, scrying, fire husbandry, and hypnosis, to name but a handful. She had even rescued the sixth glyph for flight from oblivion, which had resulted in a funny little spell involving eggshells and rain. (p. 254)
I had to look up “scrying.” It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. I couldn’t find it in my Webster’s Unabridged, but I did find it online. And is “fire husbandry” something the U.S. Forest Service does, or is it something way bizarre? “Footprint magic” has to be a fantasy thing. Did Taylor make it up? No – I found a reference to it on a website about the mystical arcane. I do know that hypnosis is real. But somehow, the melding of the familiar and the magical and the things I’m not exactly sure about…knocks me off balance. Fuzzes the boundaries between the real and the unreal. I feel myself losing my foothold in my familiar, daily world and slipping sideways into the faerie realm of Taylor’s fantasy.

There’s something else happening here, too: “…involving eggshells and rain.” Delicious! Eggshells and rain are both real, vivid and particular. But they’re so seldom associated with each other that, by their juxtaposition, they make the real seem otherworldly.

One more example in this vein:
As she greeted the others, her eyes kept returning to it. Chestnut pudding, corn bread, ripe red tomatoes, custard in fig syrup, soft blue beetlemilk cheeses wrapped in leaves, steaming stew, crispy fried squash blossoms… (p. 354)
Do people make pudding out of chestnuts? I googled it; yes, they do. Do they fry squash blossoms and eat them? Googled them: yes, they do. Corn bread, check. Ripe red tomatoes, check. Custard in fig syrup, why not? Stew, check. Soft blue beetlemilk cheeses wrapped in leaves? I dunno. They’re blue, they’re soft, they’re wrapped in leaves. I can see them. They’re surrounded by all that other real though sometimes unusual and whimsical food… Didn’t I just see them on the menu at Chez The-Next-Hot-Thing? Sign me up: I’m willing to believe.

A Tripwire of Smell

On to something new: sensory detail. Here’s a supernatural cake Magpie takes to the Magruwen:
Into his sulfurous cavern this small faerie had carried the scent of honey, tears, and lightning, of thirsty roots in future soil, of wind through wings, a fragrance long absent, but well remembered.” (p. 154)
Lovely! Again, we have the incongruous juxtaposition of familiar yet seldom-combined details. And the sense of smell.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman says,
Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the seedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth. (p. 5)
Using the sense of smell in fiction is the closest thing I know to actual sorcery. Evoking smell can override the rational and strike deep in the limbic brain, giving us emotional experience unfettered by analysis. Which comes in handy in the extreme when you’re trying to seduce your reader into believing in your “shadows of imagination.”

More smells in Blackbringer:
And yet here was an imp, smelling of graveyards and drains. (p. 40)
Graveyards and drains are like eggshells and rain. Particular. Vivid. Familiar. But, though graveyards and drains both hint at decay, they’re felicitously odd in combination.

Not to neglect the other senses, here is the sense of touch, when Magpie is magically transported to the Moonlit Gardens:
The sensation was not unpleasant. Like a swirl of moths, the brief curious touch of many soft wings, then it was over and Magpie was standing beside a river, her hands still clasped in Snoshti’s paws. (p. 226)
And the sense of sound from an enchanted knife:
She could hear a sound like the pure ring of crystal against crystal, a fluid and melodious chime that seemed to surround her. (p. 139)
Semblance of Truth

In the case of the supernatural cake, the imp, the magical transportation, and the enchanted knife, Taylor is not merely piling on great details. She’s doing something more: describing the fantastic in terms of the real. Another way to put it: assigning real-world attributes to things that never were.

I have done this a few times, myself. In Dragon’s Milk, I described a young dragon’s scales as “like a baby’s fingernails.” My upcoming fantasy novel, Ancient, Strange, and Lovely, takes place in an alternate near-future, so I was free to cast a wider net for detail without the risk of anachronism. The baby dragon’s molting skin is “microfiberish,” an ancient dragon’s thrum is “a Fender bass vibration,” and a baby dragon’s newly-erupted wings are “like, decorative. Not quite functional. Like a fancy hood ornament.” Anytime you can apply a specific, real-world detail to something fantastic, you nudge your readers a little way along the path to suspending their disbelief.

A final example from Blackbringer:
For a long time he held the crow immobile with one small finger of his mind and studied the Tapestry with the rest of it. (p. 161)
How do you describe in concrete terms something as amorphous as a paranormal psychic ability? Taylor’s “one small finger of his mind” is perfect.

Stealing from the World

When I began writing fantasy many years ago, I felt bad that I wasn’t one of those writers who could make up entire worlds from whole cloth. My imagination wasn’t up to it. Still isn’t. For that reason, I do lots of research and use whole great chunks of the real world in my fantasies. Elythia in my Dragon Chronicles is based loosely on medieval Wales. Kragrom is medieval Scandinavia. Eric Kimmel loaned me a beautiful coffee table book on the Vikings; some of my best details came from that: Wadmal and reindeer pelts. Combs made of walrus tusk. Buildings roofed with growing grass. There are three caves in my dragon books, the details of which I borrowed from three actual caves I’ve visited. Dragon’s Milk’s cave is a lava tube in central Oregon. Flight of the Dragon Kyn’s cave is Oregon Caves National Monument in southern Oregon. Sign of the Dove’s cave is Sea Lion Caves on the Oregon coast. The draclings (not coincidentally) resemble my old cat Nimbus, the way they thrum in their throats and knead Kaeldra’s legs with their talons.

I began stealing details from the real world because my imagination wasn’t up to the task of creating a whole world all by itself. But I refuse to feel bad about it anymore. Because O’Connor was right: Reality is the proper basis of fantasy—and to giving those “shadows of your imagination” a “semblance of truth.”
Thank you so much, Susan. You can read more about Susan at her website:

StorySleuths Tip #66: Support fantasy writing with carefully selected details. Susan Fletcher suggests:
1. Setting natural details cheek-by-jowl with supernatural or made-up ones.
2. Sprinkling in whimsical details, or details that seem fantastical but are real.
3. Juxtaposing real and vivid details that don’t usually go together.
4. Using plenty of sensory detail (especially smell!)
5. Assigning real-world attributes to your fantasy creations.
6. If you can’t come up with great details on your own, research other times and places.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

MIDPOINT: Blackbringer, Post #4

Dear Allyson and Meg,
As you said in your last posting, Allyson, Laini Taylor has crafted a page turner, with lots of action and story questions that keep propelling us forward. Here we are now in the middle of Blackbringer.
The middle can be a daunting stretch to write, which Taylor acknowledged during a talk on plotting at the Western Washington SCBWI Conference. (The full text from the speech is available on Grow Wings, Laini Taylor’s blog.) The middle, Taylor said, is the “drafthorse” of the story. It does all the heavy pulling: it must build tension, send the protagonist deeper into conflict, develop themes, deepen relationships, and set up the climax.
So how does Taylor accomplish these goals in the middle of Blackbringer?

The Midpoint

All of the action and suspense you described, Allyson, lead up to a big scene that takes place in Chapters 20 and 21, the scene where Magpie and her friends see the Blackbringer for the first time. This scene culminates in a battle that is sudden, fierce, and devastating. Magpie barely escapes—and she loses two friends to the darkness.
These chapters constitute the literal midpoint of the novel. They are the pivot point, the moment when everything changes. Robert Ray and Bret Noris say that the “Midpoint is the point of no return. From here, there is no going back” (The Weekend Novelist, p. 175).
Up until now, Magpie has only heard about the Blackbringer. Now she meets him face-to-face. Now she sees his power. Now she experiences his destruction. From a reader perspective, we’re hooked. We must know how Magpie will overcome such a tremendous foe.

All Roads Lead to the Midpoint

The midpoint can be a useful scene to identify when plotting where a novel might go. In The Weekend Novelist, Ray and Noris explain that the midpoint will “stabilize the structure of your novel” (p. 175). It gives you something to write toward.
The scene with the Blackbringer is the scene with the highest level of action and tension so far in the novel. The key players are present for the battle. And Magpie experiences what happens inside the darkness, for just a moment.
If you know the midpoint, then you can plot backwards to identify the steps that lead to that moment, as well as information or details that could be foreshadowed earlier. (By the way, go back through the earlier chapters to see how Taylor plants clues about important details like the Blackbringer’s tongue. She does a great job of foreshadowing.)
Likewise, the midpoint provides a pathway to the scenes that must follow. “Midpoint anchors two chains of events: one leading up to the midpoint action; the other leading away from it” (The Weekend Novelist, p. 180). Before the battle, Mapgie was a brash character who charged after her quarry without regard for danger. She had no sense of limitations. After the battle, Magpie changes. She is injured, emotionally and physically. She must deal with the loss of her two friends as well as the reality that the Blackbringer is fiercer than she imagined.

The Action Ebbs

Taylor uses the sequence of scenes in Chapters 22 through 28 to show Magpie’s emotional reaction to the battle. Magpie is in shock, and she has lost her confidence. The pacing slows way down. Just as Magpie needs to recuperate, so do we, the readers. As Taylor explained during her plotting session at the conference, pacing is a critical craft element to consider. Pacing that is too slow results in a plot that lags. Too fast, and the reader grows desensitized to action. 
At this point in the novel, Taylor has hooked us as readers. There’s no turning back for us. She’s accomplished her first goals (building tension and sending the protagonist deeper into conflict). Now she has the opportunity to deepen character and develop theme while setting up for the climax.
The slower pace of Chapters 22 through 28 let Taylor reveal critical information to Magpie, which helps us to understand who she is and why she is the only person who can save her world. Ray and Noris say, “By midpoint, your reader is hooked into the story, and you can use the midpoint to reveal important details from the past” (p. 178). Taylor whisks Magpie off to the Moonlit Gardens where she meets her hero, Bellatrix, and learns critical information she will need for the next time she encounters the Blackbringer. 

Wave Action

Although the action slows down in these chapters, Magpie becomes a deeper, wiser character. She learns what she needs to know about her foe and her mission. She is gathering the strength and intelligence she will need for the next battle. Like ebbing water that rises as it goes out, she will be caught up in the next wave, the big wave… the climax.
This section of Blackbringer provides a great example of how to build up to a critical scene and then slow the pace to show the protagonist rebuilding strength in preparation for the climax.

StorySleuths Tip #65: Identify a midpoint scene that you can use as an “anchor” to help in plotting through the middle section of the novel, providing opportunities for developing tension as well as deepening character.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

SUSPENSE: Blackbringer, Post #3

Dear Heather and Meg,

First, I need to congratulate you, Heather, on finding the time and brain-power to post about Blackbringer following a busy day at the Western Washington SCBWI Conference! Here it is a week later and I am still sifting through things in my mind, thinking about lectures I attended and how the tidbits I picked up apply to my own writing. Of course, I also heard some things that apply to our current book, and today will revisit Jay Asher’s session “No Bookmarks Allowed” as I look at Chapters 15 - 17 in Blackbringer.

The gist of Asher’s lecture was that if you keep your reader always wondering what’s next, they will never be tempted to slip a bookmark in place and close the book; they will be forever compelled to keep reading. Asher went on to explain how one achieves this, and it has to do with keeping lots of balls in the air. Lots going on. If you introduce a question in chapter one and resolve it in chapter three, you had better get another question going in chapter two so that when the first question is answered, the reader is dying to know the answer to the second one. The writer’s job is to create a series of overlapping questions so that the reader is always wondering about something.

Laini Taylor does a terrific job of this, overlapping questions, mysteries and riddles throughout the book. Reading her novel with this in mind, I am able to see clear examples of what Asher was speaking about.

In Chapter 15 Poppy shares with Magpie the whisperings of the trees: “The trees say the age of unweaving has begun.”
Magpie responds, “Unweaving? Unweaving what?” (p.148-149). Poppy has no idea. Neither does the reader. Hence, the reader has something to wonder about. Also, in this chapter, Poppy assigns a name to the creature Magpie pursues—Blackbringer. While the reader still doesn’t know exactly what the creature is, Poppy is answering a question that was started before the reader turned the first page—the question posed by the book’s title—Who or What is Blackbringer?

By the end of this chapter, then, the reader has had one question partially answered, and a new question asked.
 (A quick aside here about chapter endings. During his lecture Jay Asher spoke about importance of writing chapter endings that beg the reader to continue. Notice how Magpie, at the end of Chapter 15, “slipped beyond her senses and lay still in a world of hot white light and knew no more” (p. 158). Am I going to keep reading? You bet I am!)

Moving on to Chapter 16, Taylor takes nearly three pages to answer the question asked in the previous chapter as we learn, from the Magruwen’s perspective, the definition and history of the Tapestry, and its Unweaving, which has been taking place over a period of many centuries.

There is yet another mystery solved in this chapter. First, let me hop back to Chapter 3 for a moment, where Magpie finds a knife buried in a skeleton’s spine. The blade is embellished with ancient glyphs and letters, “As for the graceful letters that spelled out Skuldraig, they were writ in the alphabet of a forgotten time and to her eyes seemed only an elegant design” (p.35). Here, in Chapter 16, the Magruwen explains to Magpie the meaning and history of the blade: “Skuldraig means ‘backbiter. That is its way” (p. 164). He goes on to explain that the blade which Magpie found thirteen chapters earlier is in fact the blade that the Magruwen himself forged so many years ago for his champion—Bellatrix.

Thus in Chapter 16 there are questions answered and mysteries solved, but there are new questions posed. For instance, when the Magruwen comes to learn that Magpie has successfully wielded the blade Skuldraig he asks of her, “Nay, but who are you? Who made you?” (p. 165). 

It turns out to be a good question, and one that is not answered until until much later in the book.

Moving on to Chapter 17—what a suspenseful opening! Poppy is about to have her wings ripped off by Batch Hangnail who is suffering from a serious case of wing envy. The scene ends thus: “His fingers curled lovingly around her wing joints, and he began to pull” (p. 171). Right there Taylor cuts to a scene of Magpie and her crows flying to deliver to Poppy an acorn for her to plant. No way am I putting a bookmark to use! I need to read on and see if Batch Hangnail succeeded, and in turning the page I find my answer--Hooray! Poppy will fly another day.

Question asked—Does she lose her wings? Question answered—no she does not.

At the end of Chapter 17 a new mystery is opened when Queen Vesper’s lackey shows up with the message that Vesper requires Poppy’s assistance. Taylor writes,
Batch laughed and a vicious smile transformed his face. All traces of the woebegone sniveler were gone in an instant and he became, again, the predator that would have torn Poppy’s wings from her back without a thought. ‘Tell Queen Vesper that Batch Hangnail sends his regards.’ (p. 179)

Do I put in a bookmark? Nope. I want to read on and find out about the connection between Batch Hangnail and Queen Vesper.

Heather and Meg, I could go on, looking at this leap-frogging of questions and resolutions, but I will stop here. It occurs to me that what I need to do now is apply this to my own writing. I suspect that in places where my story seems to turn into a yawn-fest I might discover that, among other things, the reader is left without anything to wonder about.

StorySleuths Tip #64: Never answer a question for a reader without being sure to ask another. Keep them wondering!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

INTERVIEW WITH PETER BROWN: The Curious Garden - Second Post

Peter Brown's inspiring keynote at the Western Washington SCBWI Regional Conference last weekend was titled "Questions (Not Answers)." The questions he focused on were:
  1. What am I good at?
  2. What are my goals?
  3. How can I do my best work? and
  4. What's my strategy?
By sharing his answers to these questions, he modeled for the 350 authors and illustrators who attended some of the ways he focuses on, and reaches, his goals.

So we StorySleuths decided to ask him our own questions, focused on the craft of writing, which he graciously answered. His responses are below.

StorySleuths: On your website, you posted an intriguing page of starts, all but one crossed out, for Flight of the Dodo. We're wondering if those are from real first drafts, or if they are created to make your point that picture books are tough to write (we're not expecting you to reveal any trade secrets!). We're wondering if you have a similar set of openings for The Curious Garden, and if so, what they were. How did you develop that important opening paragraph?

PB: The page of starts on my website was created specifically to illustrate my point that from many bad ideas came one good idea for the opening of Flight of the Dodo. The Curious Garden took such a long time to develop that there was never a page of starts. Mostly I tinkered with big story concepts in my workbook, and typing on my computer, until I had the major story arc resolved. Then I went back-and-forth between writing and sketching and gradually shaped the wording for each page.

StorySleuths: You say, "I usually do a lot of bad writing before I figure out how best to tell my story." Do you have previous drafts of The Curious Garden? We'd be interested in what changes you made as you revised the text.

PB: I'd rather not reveal the early drafts of TCG simply because the process took so long, and the story evolved so much over time, that the early drafts feel more like a different story entirely...a story I may end up developing into a new book some day.

StorySleuths: We've heard Maurice Sendak say that he completes the text for his picture books before starting the illustrations. Do you work this way too, or do you work on text and illustrations together?

PB: I work on the text and illustrations simultaneously. I usually begin by working through the text, and make notes for how I envision the illustrations that might accompany the words of each page. But eventually I hit a wall in that writing process and need to work through some of the sketches before deciding how to proceed with the writing.

StorySleuths: The Curious Garden is a very visual concept. Your Author's Note indicates that you were inspired to write the story by the lush garden that has developed on the abandoned elevated railway on the west side of Manhattan. Did the idea for the story emerge more from images you wanted to paint, or from a story you wanted to tell?

PB: It started visually, with me imagining beautiful, whimsical scenes of a boy in his own private city wilderness. But eventually I realized that I hadn't created much of a conflict, and so I began to figure out what was at the heart of the story I was trying to tell. After I worked out the big story arc I got into my usual pattern of back-and-forth between writing and sketching.

StorySleuths: What changes and revisions in the text did your editor suggest? Were there changes that your editor suggested that you both decided, after considering them, not to make in the final text?

PB: I worked on this book for about 3 years before signing it up with Little, Brown and Co., and then spent over a year working on it with my editor, Alvina Ling. It was such a long, strange process, that I can't quite remember all the changes that the story went through. But at one point, the book wasn't focused as much on the community theme, and in the pages where the garden was transforming the city we didn't really see many other people. The effect was that it looked like the plants were INVADING the city, which obviously wasn't the story I wanted to tell. So I decided that instead of just having Liam be the lone gardener, it would be much more powerful if he created a gardening movement, which in turn would better explain how the city could go through such dramatic changes.

StorySleuths: You can see from our post PASSAGE OF TIME: The Curious Garden that we were fascinated by the way you handled the passage of time in the story. At what point in writing the story did you decide to move the story so far back in the past and so far forward into the future (from the predominant action in the story)?

PB: I wanted to make this story seem as believable as possible. Nobody would believe that a city could go through such a dramatic transformation in a short period of time, so I really had no choice but to draw the story out over a couple of decades. But that passage of time also worked to show that Liam stuck with his gardening for the long term, which reinforced some of the other themes in the book.

StorySleuths: Could you share one Writing Tip that you learned in the process of writing The Curious Garden?

PB: I learned the power of wordless pages. TCG has four of them, and I think they were very effective in creating a peaceful, quiet, dreamlike setting. Wordless pages might not work for every story, but authors should remember that it is possible for them to write a wordless picture book (that could be illustrated by someone else). I think the exercise of writing a WORDLESS picture book could do wonders to improve an author's understanding of the medium.

Thank you, Peter Brown. Thank you for your memorable website, your stunning books (note StorySleuths readers: click on the sheep to hear them baaaaa), and especially for sharing your wisdom, experience, and insightful writing tip with us.

StorySleuths' Tip #63: Peter Brown says, "Remember that it is possible to write a wordless picture book (that could be illustrated by someone else). The exercise of writing a WORDLESS picture book could do wonders to improve an author's understanding of the medium."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

WORD CHOICE & LANGUAGE: Blackbringer - Second Post

Dear Allyson and Meg,
Like you, I read through Blackbringer without taking a single note. When I reviewed chapters eight through fourteen, several areas of craft popped into mind. I had just seen an interesting blog post by writer Alexandra Solokoff about Plants and Payoffs, so my first notion was to write about how Laini Taylor planted important details and information in these early chapters that payoff later on in the book.
However, having heard Taylor’s keynote speech yesterday at the Western Washington SCBWI Conference, I decided instead to look at word choice and language. In her speech, Taylor said that one of her goals is for the reader to get caught up in the story so that “the words melt away” and “the page disappears.” At the same time, she spends a lot of time thinking about word choice, because the words themselves build the connection between her view as the writer and the fictional world conjured up in the reader’s head.
One of the things I love about Taylor’s writing, both in Blackbringiner and in Lips Touch: Three Times, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, is the richness of her writing. She has a lyrical style, filled with descriptive passages, distinctive dialogue, and unusual metaphors. It’s clear, as she stated yesterday, that she loves words.
Let’s take a look at elements of language and word choice in chapters eight through fourteen.


How someone speaks reveals much about character, background, and geographical location. Of course, it’s challenging to replicate sounds in spoken words. However, when I read lines of dialogue in Blackbringer, I can practically hear the words in my head. Here’s a line from Calypso, the crow that watches over Magpie: 
“Aye, worms. Shivered herself some, I ken. The lass has got magic in her she don’t know what to with” (p. 92). 
Calpyso sounds British or Scottish, doesn’t he? His accent and diction come through word choice (aye, lass, ken) as well as sentence structure.
In fact, the way the characters speak helps to reinforce the geographical location of Dreamdark, which appears to be in Scotland, according to the map at the beginning of the book.

Swearing and Exclamations

In addition to conveying geography, language and dialogue also reveals something about the characters’ social class and education level. Lady Vesper, the fairy who recently moved into the Never Nigh castle as queen, speaks in calmed, measured tones when she first meets Magpie, the heroine.
Magpie, on the other hand, has lived the life of a gypsy, and she talks and swears just like the crows. When she grumbles about putting on a play, she says, “Let’s do this skiving thing so we can get on with what we came for” (p. 78).
Taylor creates an entire vocabulary of curses and exclamations: skiving, jacksmoke, skiffle, piff, flummox me, and irkmeat. While I don’t know exactly what these words mean, I understand the emotions they convey. After all, it wouldn’t do for the fairies and crows to use slang words from our own contemporary society.
Since I don’t know how “bad” some of these words are (after all, every child knows that there’s a progression of badness to our own swear words), Taylor helps me to understand how uncouth these words are. For example, on pages 105 and 106, Magpie brings her old friend Poppy to the caravan she shares with the crows. There, she realizes that someone has disrupted her bedding. 
“What the skive?" she growled, flying to it [her bed] and not seeing how Poppy’s eyes widened in shock to hear her curse.
Clearly, skive is not the kind of word a young fairy normally uses, which we see through Poppy’s reaction—an excellent example of “show, don’t tell.”


Fantasy writers set their works in fantasy worlds, complete with their own histories, geographies, vocabularies, and cultures. One way they build and reinforce those worlds is through names for places and characters. Here are just a couple place names that appear in these chapters: Issrin Ev, Dreamdark, Ismoroth, Pickle’s Gander, and West Mirth. The names are unusual and distinctive, and yet, readable. They tell me this is outside my normal world.
Taylor also provides her characters with distinctive names: Vesper, Talon, Nettle, Orchidspike, Calypso. The names seem to have some sense of order: many of the fairies in Magpie’s and Talon’s families have bird names (Robin, Kite, Covus, Shrike). Other fairies have plant related names, such as Poppy. The imps’ names are strange (Snoshti and Batch), while the crows’ names somehow reflect their gypsy-like existence (Calypso, Maniac, Pup, and Mingus).
I love the fact that I can pronounce these names easily—I find it frustrating to meet characters with seemingly unreadable names—and I also love the way some of the names—Magruwen and Bellatrix, for example—roll off the tongue.
It’s also interesting that the protagonist, Magpie, has a name that feels both of our own world and unusual, especially since the name gets shortened to “Mags.” I wonder if this was a deliberate choice on Taylor’s part to help the reader connect to the character. Maybe, since she doesn’t have a completely strange name, she feels more like someone I can identify with.


The last area I want to address is in descriptive language. As I mentioned earlier, Taylor has a lyrical style, which provides an enjoyable reading experience. Take this passage describing two fops hovering around the Lady Vesper: "The gents, both frocked in frippery to rival the lady’s, their hair fragrant with pomade, gaped at Magpie (p. 78)."
On page 88, we see Magpie reacting to Vesper’s accusation that she smells like a crow. Magpie sniffs the feathers on her skirt: 
They did smell like cigars, she had to admit, just like the crows did themselves. They also held a hint of wood smoke from their campfires, and the tang of rainy skies, and the strong coffee they favored in the morning. 
Smell is difficult to describe. These two sentences evoke smell as well as memory and imagery.
The pages of Blackbringer are filled with many more passages of lyrical language. As a reader, I enter Gardner’s “fictional dream” where the “words melt away” paradoxically because Laini Taylor pays such close attention to word choice and language.

StorySleuths Tip #62: Help the reader slip into a fictional dream through word choice in dialogue, names, and descriptions. 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

POINT OF VIEW: Blackbringer - First Post


Dear Heather and Meg,

That is me patting us on our collective back for choosing Blackbringer as our April noveI, as I found it to be overflowing with lessons for writers, and I am not alone in this finding. Consider this little nugget from Betsy Bird’s Fuse #8 blog:

Laini Taylor’s balancing act with this novel should be studied intensely by those wannabes that want to break into the world of fantasy writing for kids. It’s one-of-a-kind and worth a taste. I meant what I said and I said what I meant. If you read only one fantasy book this year, read this one.

But what about if you are not a fantasy writer? Are there still any lessons to be learned from Blackbringer? Again, Betsy Bird:
Okay, but what’s the most important thing in any fantasy novel? The quality of writing, duckies.

And the quality of writing in this novel is superb—so much so that I read the whole thing making scarcely a note because I didn’t want to take time to stop, I was that absorbed in the story, that caught up in the mystery and the adventure and the world. Thank-you, Laini Taylor, for making my recent flight to Mexico feel like a cross-town bus ride. Blink. We were there!

When we agreed on Blackbringer as our April novel we chose to analyze it in seven-chapter segments, taking turns looking at some aspect of writing that really spoke to us in that portion of the book. Choosing what to discuss in these first seven chapters is like being given a gift certificate to the Secret Garden Bookshop and being forced to choose just one book. Do I discuss the excellent way she intersperses scene and summary, with scene being used to propel the action and summary to build the world (see the StorySleuths discussion on summary and scene)? Or do I spend time analyzing the distinct and consistent voice? The well-rounded characters? Ah well, in the end, I have chosen to talk about point of view.

My boys (ages 10 and 13) are familiar with point of view from video games. When asked how he would define first person my ten-year-old, Eli, said this, “First person is when you see everything through that guy's eyes. It’s good because you feel like the guy, but you miss a lot of stuff.” A great definition, I think, and very much like writing in first person from the “I” perspective where, because everything is seen through the protagonist's eyes, you are only able to see what she sees. About third person Eli says, “Third person is like you’re still seeing what your guy sees, but from farther away. It’s easier to skewer a guy on your lance from third person.”

Well, there you have it! It’s easier to skewer a guy from third person!

Generally in writing we speak about a third person limited, or objective, POV meaning our view is limited to how the world is perceived through the eyes of a particular character. Here, the story is told by a narrator instead of the character herself, which allows for the camera to be pulled back a bit, allowing the reader to potentially see things from a broader and potentially more reliable perspective. I didn’t ask my kids about third person unlimited, or the omniscient point of view, but to make sure we are all on the same page here—this POV is less commonly used in novels and is more of a storyteller voice—the omniscient narrator knows and sees things the characters cannot possibly see and know.

So which POV is used in Blackbringer? Well, here in the first seven chapters Taylor starts with omniscient narration, switches to a third person limited POV, changing the viewpoint character no less than six times, and tosses in a little first person POV for good measure.

But wait a minute—is that even legal? In Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, Janet Burroway says this:

Once you have chosen a point of view, you have in effect made a ‘contract’ with the reader, and it will be difficult to break the contract gracefully. If you restricted yourself to the mind of Sally Anne for five pages, as she longingly watches Chuck and his R&B band, you will violate the contract by suddenly dipping into Chuck’s mind to let us know what he thinks of groupies. We are likely to feel misused—and likely to cancel the contract altogether, if you suddenly give us an omniscient lecture on the failings of the young. (p. 54)

I believe that the contract will not be broken by a POV shift as long as it is done well, and with intent. Let’s take a peek at how Laini Taylor does just that.

Prelude: An omniscient narrator opens the story. This narrator stands in the distance, and knows things none of the characters present in the scene can possibly know, seeing well into the future: “For the rest of her life, when this child grew into a faerie with bright eyes and a laugh as loud and unladylike as a crow’s, that spot on her head would never lie flat,” and “Many of these creatures would be long dead by the time this babe had grown up and taken her place in the world.”

By opening with the omniscient POV Taylor is not only giving us important background information, she is setting the tone of the story. Imagine a movie opening when the camera is pulled way back, allowing the viewer to get a large-scale sense of the world in which the story takes place. This is an excellent use of the omniscient narrator POV.

Chapter One: Here, the camera moves in and the POV is a third person limited with Magpie as the viewpoint character: “Magpie Windwitch didn’t know many words, but she knew this one.” Magpie is the “she” about whom the narrator speaks. Using this POV the narrator is able to tell us things about Magpie that would be awkward to describe from a first person POV, like, “Magpie had a hunter’s respect for fear: it sharpened the senses,” and “Her own dragonfly wings were sleek as blades, many-paned like stained glass and as swift as any wings under the sun or moon.”

Taylor wants us to have a sense of the splendor of Magpie Windwitch. Using a first person POV it would be very hard to pull this off without causing Magpie to sound arrogant. Also, her choice of third person narrative allows Taylor to use language in a poetic way that would be impossible in first person as it would completely change the nature of the viewpoint character. For example, Magpie would never say, “Usually pity was the last emotion humans inspired in me, but something about those empty shoes tugged at my heart.” Stepping outside of Magpie’s skin, Taylor can describe Magpie’s emotional state in a way that feels true to both Magpie and the story.

Chapter Two: This chapter starts with an omniscient story teller voice. The camera is pulled way back as the narrator describes the scene, “Across the water in the hidden places beneath a vast city, a new thing was taking possession of the darkness.” As the chapter progresses the camera moves in closer, closer, and finally we are in a third person limited POV, this time from the perspective of the villain about whom we still know very little: “He savored the moment. As soon as he commanded the wind to expend its final fury in snuffing that dim ember, a new age would begin, and age of unweaving. An age of endings. The hungry one laughed, and began to speak.”

Chapter Three finds us back in a limited POV, again with Magpie as the perspective character.

Chapter Four: Again, we are in a third person objective POV, but this time the perspective character is an imp called Batch Hangnail. Consider this description: “Batch moved on, a pendulum of drool swinging from his lower lip.” Lovely! And just the sort of outside, reliable perspective you could not achieve were this being told from Batch’s first person POV. Toward the end of the chapter look at how Taylor expertly pulls the camera back as she describes the Magruwen’s long arms of smoke:

They grew longer and longer until they disappeared through the ceiling of the cave. Up they reached, across strata of earth and rock and root, through the bleached ribs of a dragon and a dark spring swum by water elementals and their imps, through layers of rabbit warrens and forgotten plague cemeteries, finally reaching the school vegetable garden.

Because Taylor opened her book with the omniscient narrator, we as the reader are perfectly comfortable when she temporarily steps outside of the viewpoint character’s perspective to broaden our view of the scene as she has done here, and does sporadically throughout the novel.

Chapter Five: We return to a third person POV with Magpie as the objective character. But then, we have a chance to pop directly into Magpie’s head when she takes out her bottle of ink and writes in her journal, thus giving us a quick blip of first person POV, “How I wish there was someone I could talk to about it!” I love this! It allows me to hear, in Magpie’s own words, about a deeper need. Yes, she wants to catch the snag. But here, because Taylor has allowed Magpie the chance to speak for herself in a first person POV, I as the reader have a sudden and deep connection with her. Up until now I have seen her as a warrior. Here, I see her as a troubled kid longing for someone to talk to who could really understand what she is going through. An excellent use of the first person POV.

The chapter progresses and we get to see a letter from Magpie’s parents which offers us yet another perspective, and then Taylor closes the chapter dipping into the head of the crow Calypso, “Calypso noticed a raven who lingered longer than most.” This demonstrates again the beauty of a third person perspective--it allows the author to show the reader things that that the main protagonist would have no way of seeing.

Chapter Six: We are back in Magpie’s third person POV, “Magpie heard the thunk of the ebony peg leg she’d carved for him. . .”

Chapter Seven: Hold on to your hats! All the while in a third person POV we start with the perspective of Batch Hangnail, shift into Poppy Manygreen’s POV, move into the perspective of Snoshti, drop into the perspective of a new character, Talon Rathersting, and finish with the camera pulled way back as Taylor closes the chapter with her omniscient narrator, “His father wasn’t coming back, and neither were his cousins.”

Phew! Omniscient narration, third person limited/objective, first person—Laini Taylor does it all, and she gets away with it because she does it well, and with intent. First person pulls us in close and gives us a sense of Magpie’s emotional truth. Third-person allows us to see things that Magpie has no way of seeing. Omniscient narration sets the story's tone and gives us glimpses into the future.

StorySleuths Tip 61#: Switch POV in a story only if you have a very specific reason to do so or you will violate your contract with your reader.

Monday, April 5, 2010

PASSAGE OF TIME: The Curious Garden

How many times have you fallen in love with a book just from hearing its title? From the get-go I was curious: What could a "Curious Garden" be? The cover image intrigued me as well--what was this redheaded kid sitting on top of a tree doing, with an open book, looking straight out at me, surrounded by topiary birds and butterflies in addition to the real ones? Then when I opened the book, the endpapers posed more questions. Huh? Rocks? No garden here. But the title page foreshadows the whimsical garden, as the boy, having abandoned his book, now actively trims the luxuriant hedge. The title, the cover, the front endpapers, and the title page all led me straight into the story.

Mem Fox says,

At the start of a story we need to be as direct as possible. It’s a common sin to beat about the bush, and waffle on for too long. We should attempt to say who, when, and where in the first two sentences, and then begin to state the problem. We have to solve a problem during a story otherwise we have no trouble. Without trouble we have no plot. Only trouble is interesting.
Many picture books introduce the problem on the first page, then solve the problem in a short time frame. Such diverse books as Where the Wild Things Are, Ella Sarah Gets Dressed, and The Snow Day, for example, take place during the course of a day. A day, or two, is a reasonable and understandable time frame for a young child. But the problem introduced in the first spread (pages 2-3) of The Curious Garden is a big problem--it's the problem of a whole dreary city. And the boy is only a tiny little person--the only person visible--in the drab, smoggy city.

It's clearly going to take a long time for this little boy to solve the problem--and I wondered how Peter Brown would solve his problem of the passage of time--lots and lots of time--in the text of a picture book for young children. So as I read the story I focused on how Brown dealt with the passage of time. Of course the lush illustrations portray the passage of time, sometimes even in wordless two-page spreads, but I was also curious about how Brown clarifies the passage of time in the text.

Sometimes the time reference is in the beginning of a sentence. At the outset, Brown moves us way back in time, setting the story in a time of long ago with the very beginning of the first sentence: "There was once a city...." (p. 3) And when the story action begins, Brown identifies one particular day at the beginning of the sentence: "It was on one such morning...." (p. 4)

Sometimes the time reference is in the middle of a sentence: "So he returned to the railway the very next day and got to work." (p. 8)

And sometimes the time reference is at the end of a sentence: "Liam's time on the railway was finally interrupted by winter. " (p. 16)

Gail Carson Levine, in Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly, says,

In most cases, your story or book should end when its problem is solved, for good or for ill. (p. 75)
It takes a long time for the problem of The Curious Garden to be solved. On the last page, Brown clarifies how long: "Many years later, the entire city had blossomed. But of all the new gardens, Liam's favorite was where it all began." (p. 30) Many years--only 556 words--and Liam's children enjoy the garden as he prunes the gigundo tree that has grown from the dried up little seedling he discovered so many years before.

The days, the seasons, the years flow through this gem of a story--and the passage of time flows through the text, never clunky, never showy, but clear and steady so we never lose track of where, or rather when, the story action takes place.

StorySleuths Tip #60 : Hide references to the passage of time in different locations--not only at the beginnings of sentences or paragraphs. Try integrating them into the middle of sentences and paragraphs, or even at the end.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Interview with Deborah Heiligman

When we selected Charles and Emma as one of our March books, I zoomed straight to author Deborah Heiligman's website and found there a gold mine of information about the background research she had done, all with primary sources, including her own travel to relevant sites in England. As I read Charles and Emma I had questions lurking which she graciously agreed to answer, along with sharing a StorySleuths Tip focused on the craft of writing. Thank you, Deborah!

Here are her responses:
DH: First of all, let me say that I am really so very impressed with your blog posts. Your analysis of writing is just terrific. I must admit that I think you know more about my writing than I do. However, I will do my best to answer your questions!

StorySleuths: It's clear from your website, from the Source Notes following each chapter, and from your Selected Bibliography (as well as from the text itself!) how much research you did. How did you decide when to stop researching and begin writing?
DH: Nothing like a deadline....I had a gun pointed at my head because the publisher really wanted to bring the book out before the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday. I had a pretty tight deadline for the first draft. Just thinking about it makes me sweat. But I do work best when I have a deadline. It was the all Charles and Emma Channel all the time for eight months, and then for a year and a half total.

StorySleuths: Starting from your original idea of focusing on the relationship between Charles and Emma, did any of the research you did change the story as you envisioned it, and if so, how?
DH: If I look at the proposal, I see that I was thinking of a much less narrative approach. More straight biography, with digressions to "tell" about the time period, the role of religion in English society, etc. But once I started researching, which meant reading primary sources, Charles and Emma just started talking to me and it became their story. The more I read the more I knew I wanted very much to let them and their lives tell it, and I wanted to stay out of the way as much as possible. Of course as you probably can tell, I fell madly in love with each of them, and with their marriage.

StorySleuths: On your blog you talk about "working through fear." Can you elaborate on this and share some of your strategies for working through fear?
DH: You're making me sweat again. Just remembering... O.K., I can do this. Breathe, breathe. YES, that was one of things I did. I learned to breathe.
Seriously, I had a lot of fear about this book. In fact, I had the idea for the book years before, and when I sent out the proposal and it got rejected (either once or twice, I'm not even sure), I was pretty relieved. I thought oh good, I don't have to do it. My main fear was: who was I to write about Charles Darwin? There are so many people who have spent their whole lives writing about Darwin... And Darwin was really my husband's "beat." But the story kept pulling at me, and when I told my soon to be agent about it, his eyes lit up and he said, "Let me see your proposal!" Then he kicked my butt to do it. So that was one way that I worked through the fear--I got a contract, and had a deadline, and I had that kicking my butt to Get It Done.
I also worked through the fear by talking about it with my husband and some really good writing buddies.
My husband was a HUGE support. He's a writer, too, (I'm not sure if you already know that) and he knew so well how I was feeling, so his support was priceless. But of course when you're a writer, you are really alone. (Sweat pouring down face.) I, however, HATE to be alone, so I manage not to be much of the time--. I am not afraid to reach out. The day I had to send in my first draft I was terrified. TERRIFIED. (Truth be told my editor had seen some of it already, and was very encouraging, but this was a whole draft and I was scared, really scared.) So I called my agent on his cell phone, and when he said "hello," I said, without preamble, "Will you hold my hand while I press send?" And he said, "Deborah, I'm at the doctor, I am on the examining table, I don't have any clothes on." And I said, "O.K., but could you hold my hand while I press send?" Now you know why he is completely worth the commission!
I also exercised. A lot.
StorySleuths: We read that one of your questions was where to begin the story. Did you face other challenges in writing the story?
DH: One of the biggest challenges was to have it be their story, keep it a STORY and still explain the science. And gosh, there was so much to explain! And Darwin did so much. That was huge--how could I not include this, that or the other thing? There was so much science and history, but I didn't want it to take over. So I had a mantra and that was that everything I wrote had to be "in service to the love story."
StorySleuths: Could you share one writing tip that you learned in the process of writing Charles and Emma?
DH: I learned so much about writing during the many drafts of this book. I really stretched myself in all ways, from the beginning of the process (reading only primary sources for the longest time) to the end (trimming away unneeded scenes, words, fat...). To give just one tip is hard, but I think it would be that when you are starting a new project, keep an open mind, and let your characters--be they real or fictional--dictate the form the story will take. Let content dictate form. I am starting a new project now, and it is going to be very different from C & E because my heroine is such a different person. I'm letting her tell me how to do the book.
We're eager to read your new project when it's published, Deborah, and we're so excited to learn that as of yesterday, you were able to get in touch with your next subject's great grandchildren! How exciting is that!
StorySleuths Tip #59: To quote Deborah Heiligman, when "starting a new project, keep an open mind, and let your characters--be they real or fictional--dictate the form the story will take. Let content dictate form."