Author Beth Anderson is no stranger to the Grog Blog. In celebration of her latest picture book, Tad Lincoln's Restless Wriggle, that published October 5th from Calkins Creek, she's here with more expertise about writing narrative nonfiction.
Take it away, Beth!
Last year I did a presentation at an SCBWI conference about navigating the author’s journey. It focused on being intentional in one’s choices, and to do that you have to self-reflect, identify your needs, seek opportunities, and choose the path that will move you forward. As I write and revise new manuscripts, learning more with each one, I find a similar intentional process creates a story journey for the reader.
I write historical fiction or narrative nonfiction, so I’m working with pieces of a puzzle. I seek out my “heart” thread first, choose scenes that will build an arc, attempt to craft an opening that invites and an ending that resonates. All very intentional. Yes, I’m a “plotter.” But there are also “pantser” elements as the story flows onto the page. Well, actually it’s more herky-jerky and a very long process of revising and crafting. Eventually, if I’m lucky, revisions smooth it into a story that looks and sounds pretty good, maybe even submittable. But wait! This is the make or break point.
From critiquing others and myself, I’ve learned that most of us tend to focus on the physical plot. The physical plot is interesting. But it’s the emotional arc that’s compelling and resonates in the end—the reader connection. Because the emotion runs beneath the surface and isn’t as explicit as the physical conflict, it helps to be intentional to ensure that we provide the depth needed for a reader to become invested in the story, to feel the pull, and to go vicariously on the journey.
As I get closer to final revisions, I print off the manuscript, lay it across my desk, and attack it with colored highlighters. Here are some of the elements I’ve learned to look for in the emotional arc and a few examples from TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE: PANDEMONIUM AND PATIENCE IN THE PRESIDENT’S HOUSE.
First and foremost is my “heart” thread, also referred to as the “so what?” or vital idea (Thank you, Barb Rosenstock and Candace Fleming!). It’s not theme, but my unique take, why I had to write the story. Every scene, every action has to serve and support that idea. This creates a tight, meaningful focus.
Tad and Abraham Lincoln each provided what the other desperately needed. I loved that a boy sustained a president! One way I threaded this through was the twinkle in Abe’s eyes when he’s lifted by Tad’s joy. I made sure that the twinkle appeared in key spots to help carry that idea.
Motivation is key to understanding characters. [And…besides character motivation, what’s the writer’s motivation for each scene?]
Tad’s learning difficulties motivate him to seek positive experiences, like a hug from Papa. “But letters didn’t make sense to Tad. Lessons launched him down the hall and out the door.”
Abe’s twinkle also serves as a motivating factor for Tad. “But Tad had seen the twinkle in Papa’s eyes…”
For every action, there’s a reaction. Reactions keep the main character front and center, and connect to motivation.
Tad is very reactive throughout, but in one of the beginning spreads where Papa is the active character, “Tad watched and listened and learned.”
Stakes are huge and provide the pull for the reader. Unique traits or issues of the main character can be used to enhance stakes.
From the start, with Tad’s unintelligible speech and learning difficulties, he is faced with failure and rejection. His ability to be a child and the comfort of “home” are at stake. Towards the end, his pet turkey’s life is on the line.
I sharpened a few spots to show how his disabilities further threatened his success and also show his strengths. “Though numbers on a slate confused him, Tad understood business.”
Enhance turning points. These are the height of inner conflict that steer the story. Slow the pace a bit and dig in.
“Papa’s shoulders slumped lower, and his face sagged sadder” is motivation for Tad and also a turning point where he takes action.
Another turning point where Tad uses his voice came through loud and clear when I finally found the right words. “When the cook protested—this was the President’s House!—Tad persisted. But this was his home!”
After discussing editorial revisions for my latest manuscript under contract, it’s clear that this is a learning process, that each story presents unique challenges, and I have a long way to go! :) Intentional crafting of the emotional journey allows the reader to experience the bumps and potholes, the depth of conflict, the pull around the curves, and the intersections where choices must be made. So let’s get out our highlighters and sharpen the heart thread, motivation, reactions, stakes, and turning points. Take the reader for a ride on an emotional roller coaster!
Thank you, Beth!
Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. With linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and a penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, ponders, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. She’s the award-winning author of TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE, “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES, LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT!, and AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. Beth has more coming in 2022: REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT: LEADING THE MINUTE WOMEN IN THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE, illustrated by Susan Reagan; FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE, illustrated by Caroline Hamel, and CLOAKED IN COURAGE: THE STORY OF DEBORAH SAMPSON, PATRIOT SOLDIER, illustrated by Anne Lambelet.