Monday, September 1, 2014

The Shortcut that Changed My Writing Process: AKA Duh! by Pat Miller

As a novice writer, I thought if I had one or two pieces of the story puzzle, I could write my way into the rest. And I did--over months and months of fruitless writing. It was a long, daunting process. Here’s my former process, and the shortcut that changed everything.

Substitute Groundhog cover1. First strategy: Start with the ending. When I asked my kindergarteners what animal popped out of its hole on February 2, they were stumped until one blurted, “It’s the armadillo!”

His answer inspired my first book. But all I had was an unexpected character. WHY was an armadillo the forecaster? I thought of numerous scenarios. They were rejected 32 times. Each time the ms. returned, I revised. Once I finally got the beginning locked in, the middle perked up, and manuscript #33, Substitute Groundhog, was accepted by Albert Whitman.

Squirrel's New Year's Resolution cover
2. Second strategy: Start with the characters. Albert Whitman was looking for holiday books. I flailed around, brainstorming a number of ideas, none of which had any substance. When I thought of the characters from my first book, I knew what they would say and how they would interact. But I still spent months coming up with a variety of unsatisfactory holiday stories in which they starred. Eventually, I got it right, and Squirrel’s New Year’s Resolution was purchased by Albert Whitman.



We're Going on a Book Hunt cover3. Third strategy: Piggyback on a traditional tale. This one worked because the original tale provided the beginning, middle, and end. Early in the semester, I shared We’re Going on a Bear Hunt with my students, and it donged (as my husband says) on me that this was the perfect pattern for my book on library orientation. It was just a matter of altering the traditional tale to fit the library content. It sold within a week to Upstart Press. I was getting closer to the shortcut.




Library Monkeys cover4. The shortcut! Get all the pieces in place first. I was doing 
some things right, but not consistently or efficiently. I studied my first three books to determine how I could shortcut this ineffectual process. Call me a slow learner, but I made a list of the key story elements. Then I filled them in with my ideas. This time, I wanted to write a fun story about book care. Here’s my plan:
  • Characters: Five mischievous monkeys à la Curious George
  • Problem: Big sis discovers that her sibs have damaged their books
  • Beginning: The five little monkeys are in bed reading together
  • Middle: One by one, big sister discovers that her sibs have damaged their books (I listed four common problems)
  • Solution/Resolution: Don’t worry, you can…. (book care solutions with Ms. Booker)
  • Ending: All is well, with books repaired, lessons learned, until they discover that Big Sis has an overdue book!
After brainstorming all these sections, I was able to use the bouncy rhythm of "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" to frame the story. Upstart bought the ms. and published it as story cards.

Knowing ALL the key elements first made the difference. My writing was more targeted. I knew where I was going, who was coming along, and what problems and solutions we would encounter. The actual trip was much easier than my previous strategy of setting out with hope but no map and only a sketchy plan. 

Examine some of your favorite children’s picture books, using this outline. Do you see how everything else falls into place? Sure, this is Writing 101.  But if you didn’t take that class, you may be floundering around like I did. Focus, plan, then write once you have all the elements worked out. Bon voyage!



27 comments:

  1. Thanks for taking us on the winding journey to your "shortcut" revelation. I always enjoy insights from others into the writing process and your books sound engaging and fun.

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  2. I have always been a seat-of-the-pants writer. This planning thing is new for me, but I'm learning and then learning more. Great tips!

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    1. Some are very good at seat of the pants. For me, I discovered that a plan gave me a framework to play in. I can still be creative, but don't get as discouraged.

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  3. Pat, love your tips and outline! I'm trying to piggy back a story right now! Thanks for sharing your writing process!

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    1. Good luck with that piggy back--it's great technique!

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  4. Pat, your word "flailing" describes many of my fiction efforts! Thanks for the tips. Much continued success to you!

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  5. Pat - I love this.... because I been there & done that.

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    1. You and I both--here's to more success via shortcut!

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    1. Glad to share with you. Hopefully it will save you some flailing. :-)

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  7. This is really useful. Thanks for this post.

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    1. You're welcome, Rosi. Thanks for responding!

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  8. Pat, so fantastic! I don't even yet know how I write what I write completely, so I obviously need a plan! I really am gonna try yours! Great post!

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    1. It does seem pretty obvious now--hopefully I can cut some wasted time from your process. Good luck!

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  9. What a great post Pat! Wonderful advice! Loved your first 2 books - and all the more special because you signed them at the retreat!

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    1. And you were such a peach for buying them and enjoying them--it makes the work worthwhile!

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  10. It is so neat to share your process. Also wondering about after the submission, the process with editors. And thanks for the book hunt title, I know a young librarian who is in his first year of teaching library skills to kindergartners at the school, who you especially wrote that book for - although you didn't realize it! Happy New School Year, everyone!

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    1. As a school librarian, it was wonderful for me to be able to write the books I needed with my students, get them published, and find they help others as well. Wish your friend well for me!

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  11. These are very helpful tips, Pat. Thank you!

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    1. You're welcome, Kirsten--thanks for responding!

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  12. Great tips. We all learn from each other. Cute books!

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  13. You might even find yourself saying it--makes more sense than "dawned on me" as if the sun rises on one's thinking.

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  14. We DO learn from each other. That's one of the reasons I love this GLOG group!

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  15. Thanks for sharing! I like learning about your process!

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  16. Love your technique! Used to use english proofreading services to boost my essay but I guess I'll start with trading my TV time for writing time.

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