When in Doubt, Draw It Out

If you’re in the habit of watching the behind-the-scenes features of animated movies, TV shows, or special effects-laden movies like The Hobbit (I’m obsessed with those features), then you’ve probably seen the preproduction team discussing how they storyboarded the film/TV show or a visual effects sequence. The storyboards helped them plan each shot of the movie or show. Taking the time to storyboard also helped the team to gauge where problems might arise.

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Storyboarding is not just for animators. Many novelists and picture book writers use storyboarding or some variation of it as well. During my grad program, some of the faculty encouraged us students to use this technique to plan scenes in our novels or picture books.

Sometimes, when I’m stuck in the middle of a scene or having trouble transferring what I see in my mind to the page, I grab a pack of Post-it notes and a pencil. Starting with the first image that comes to mind, even if it’s vague, I work through the scene as if I’m planning a mini-movie.

Below is one of my attempts at storyboarding an action scene in a forest. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. These sketches make no sense. Maybe to you they seem like squiggly lines and cryptic phrases, rather than a tense action sequence. Yet when I started slapping notes on the board—even sketchy ones—the sequence order became clear. I already knew the inciting incident in the scene. I just needed to know what would happen next, and then after that, and after that, and so on. The good thing is, I don’t have to pretend to be Picasso as I storyboard.

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My storyboard and a closeup of one of the Post-its—not a pretty sight

How do you plan your scenes? If you have Scrivener, perhaps you use the corkboard to storyboard or outline. Or, maybe you get out the sketch pad and draw until the words come, or you use Pinterest to pin photos that inspire you. (Or Instagram, like Lyn Miller-Lachmann does with her graphic novel.) Perhaps there’s another way inspiration hits. Maybe a music playlist helps you set the scene. Or, a brisk walk or a run might be your way of working out issues. Nature is your canvas. You rearrange scenes based on what you see outside or how your body feels. Life is your storyboard.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m stressed about a scene, drawing brings me back to a restful state. It also takes me back to childhood, when drawing was a form of problem solving or escaping from problems. Sadly, like many other things, I stopped doing it regularly as I grew older. I regret that now.

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But like a good friend, I can return to it when I need to work things out.

Sometimes a picture truly is worth a thousand words. If you need a storyboard template check this out:

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Tips for storyboarding a picture book (Uri Shulevitz): http://www.mightyartdemos.com/mightyartdemos-shulevitz.html
Tips for storyboard a video (GoAnimate): http://goanimate.com/video-maker-tips/what-is-a-storyboard-and-why-do-you-need-one/
Tips for storyboarding a novel (eHow): http://www.ehow.com/how_2179092_storyboard-tween-book.html

Storyboard template from raydillonrandom.blogspot.com. Futurama storyboard mage from laboiteverte.fr. Sketches by L. Marie.

A Writer’s Process (4)

You’re just in time for another scintillating discussion of a writer’s process. Please help yourself to a bagel as we begin.

If you’re the kind of writer who works on more than one project at a time, this discussion has your name all over it. It certainly has mine! With me is—say it with me—another friend from VCFA—the awesome and wonderful Lori Steel!

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El Space: Welcome, Lori. Please tell the folks out there about yourself.
Lori: Well, let’s see. Most don’t know that I’ve worked as a: dishwasher, waitress, bartender, sub-delivery girl, secretary, hotel room service supervisor, nanny, egg-picker and deer-checker (yes, you read the last two right). I eventually ended up as a teacher and children’s library specialist. I “retired” from the classroom last year after completing my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

El Space: Woot!
Lori: Now I teach creative writing classes at Politics & Prose Bookstore and online for Johns Hopkins University. And, of course, I write.

The UK was home for about seven years. It started as a one-year study-abroad stint at Liverpool University. There, I joined the rowing team, went clubbing, sometimes studied. (My teenagers won’t read this, will they?) and met my husband. We eventually married, moved to Oxford, raised two children, and bought our first home. I continued rowing for Wolfson College—even won the “bumps” race when three months pregnant. Rather apt, don’t you think? Here’s a picture of my oar to prove it. Oh, and I took my first writing class. The rest is history.

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El Space: Impressive! So, what projects are you working on now?
Lori: I’ve recently completed a middle grade historical novel, Finding Lost River. Set in 1960s Appalachia, it’s about 13-year-old Catherine O’Flynn who channels her idol, Johnny Cash, by wearing black to bring some music and light into the dreary town of Dowstan.

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She never expects her Easter break to start with a secret. Instead, Cat finds River, a runaway boy, squatting in her chicken house. She soon becomes caught in the undertow of his story—one of abuse and survival—as River seeps into her skin. Cat’s story is about recognizing the redemptive power of truth and the comfort of family.

At the moment I’m writing a YA verse novel, still untitled. I chose the free-verse structure for this project, because it’s a story that deals with difficult themes. But I’m keeping mum about that one for the time being. It’s still marinating . . . too many cooks, and all that!

I’ve also just finished revisions on two picture books. In Murmur, a starling alights on the bow of a rowboat during a paddle on the loch before flying skyward—and turning into something quite extraordinary.

european-starlingThe bossy Sergeant in my concept picture book, Sandpiper School, gives orders to his Fledges until the GBC (Giant Blue Crab) arrives unexpectedly and his Fledges need to use their newfound skills to save him. I’m also wrapping up revisions for a picture book poetry collection titled Me, Tree, where the varying forms of poetry are all told from a tree’s perspective.

El Space: Sounds great! What do you find helpful as you juggle projects?
Lori: For me, writing picture books, early readers, and poetry is more akin to solving a puzzle. Working at the micro-level needed for these forms—where efficiency of language is paramount—helps me appreciate the value of each syllable, each word, each line. It’s not unusual for me to unlock issues I’m having in my larger WiP when I’m puzzling out a poem or a line of picture book text. Often when I’ve finished one set of novel revisions or find myself at an impasse, I switch gears and pull out smaller pieces. Having said all that, once I’m in the story, that’s it. It’s chocolate fueled, sleepless weeks of drafting and revising . . . until the next impasse!

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El Space: I’m always chocolate fueled, even when I’m not at an impasse! So, what authors inspire you? Why?
Lori: I always find this a tough question! Each author I read inspires me in different ways. But since we’re talking about writing in various forms and genres, how about Katherine Paterson? Her ability to craft picture books, early readers, and middle grade stories with finesse, honesty, and heart is remarkable. Jacob I Have Loved is one of my all-time favorites.

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Kate DiCamillo for sure—every time I reread Because of Winn-Dixie, I glean something new. And just to throw an adult author out there, Ian McEwan because his prose makes my brain tingle.

El Space: What advice do you have for someone working on more than one book project?
Lori: I’ve recently converted to Scrivener to keep track of my writing projects, and wonder how I ever managed without it! The program allows me to go in and out of projects at the scene level, so it’s easy to find where I’ve left off.

Consider joining critique groups that vary in focus. I belong to two different critique groups—one for picture books and one geared more towards MG and YA. Both keep me on regular deadlines, challenging me to produce more work than if I were going it alone. They also force me to write for different audiences. Choose colleagues who will encourage you to break outside your comfort barriers.

Finally, the great thing about working on more than one book project is that it allows you to experiment. Give yourself a challenge: Write a small piece in a genre you’ve never tried before. If you normally write YA, craft a picture book. Read widely and deeply across audiences and genres. Be fearless. The worst that can happen is that you to write something completely unexpected—and that’s not such a bad thing, is it?

Thanks, Lori! Great advice! Now it’s your turn to ask Lori questions about her books and process by commenting below. Thanks for stopping by!

Juggling image from honorcraft.com. Jacob Have I Loved cover from Wikipedia. Starling from cruciality.wordpress.com.

A Writer’s Process (3a)

Greetings! Jonesing for books about time travel? (I sure am.) With me on the blog today is another friend from VCFA who has written a book about—you guessed it—time travel. (Huzzah!) Put your hands together for the erudite and elegant Nicole Valentine!

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El Space: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Nicole: I’m a writer and techno geek with a deep and abiding love for all things literary. My day job has always been in technology. I’ve been the Chief Technology Officer to Internet startups since the mid-1990s. My first job leading a tech team was at CNN where my official title was Webmistress. Yes, my business card actually had that printed under my name. It was a great icebreaker at parties.

El Space: I’ll bet!
Nicole: Many who follow me on Twitter (@nicoleva) know me for my work at Figment.com, a community for lovers of YA fiction to meet and share their own writing. This was, by far, one of my favorite online communities I’ve had the pleasure of creating. All good things must come to an end though. I have since taken a much needed break to concentrate on my writing. I needed to give some time to the insistent voices in my head.

Most of my work is middle grade. I do have one YA novel waiting patiently on my desktop, and a short story for adults published in the Oermead Press anthology, Chester County Fiction. In 2012, I earned my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. This makes me a Secret Gardener.

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El Space: Holla!
Nicole: I live with my caring husband, brilliant daughter, and two maniacal cats just outside of Philadelphia.

El Space: Cool! I’d love to stop by there at some point! But for now, I’m dying to hear a synopsis of your WiP.
Nicole: The Idle Tree is the story of Finn, who is about to turn thirteen in his sleepy Vermont town. It’s the kind of town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Everybody knows Finn’s twin sister drowned when they were only three, and that his mother abandoned him and his father four months ago. It turns out they don’t know everything.

Finn’s Gran, right before she dies, reveals the family secret to him. All the women in his family are born with the ability to time travel. His mother had been battling The Others, a shadowy group intent on changing the timeline, when she disappeared. She didn’t abandon him. She was taken. Now, he must find a way to save her, even though boys can’t time travel. If only his sister were the one who had lived. It would all be so much easier, but no, it’s up to Finn and his best friend, Holly. They have to put together answers from what his mom left behind. He’ll need to find out who is leading The Others in order to save his mother and the world as we know it.

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El Space: That description gave me serious chills. I love a good time travel story. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Please walk me through your process.
Nicole: I was just reading the Donald Maass book on craft, The Breakout Novelist, which had a bit on the whole pantser vs. plotter thing. My first thought when reading it, was that the term pantser makes me uncomfortable. I immediately think of pulling a mean prank on someone in front of the entire cafeteria. I would say I probably begin most projects as a pantser, but would like to call it something more benign.

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My novels begin as characters and scenes written in notebooks. After awhile of doing this, they begin to form full narratives. The next thing I do is start the outlining, which I suppose isn’t very pantser-like at all. I’m a bit of both really. This particular novel has required a ton of plotting. You can’t write time travel without a lot of charts and timelines. Well, maybe some people can. I need charts.

El Space: I admire you for taking on the challenge. How has your process evolved as a writer? What tools have been helpful?
Nicole: My process has changed a lot over the last few years. I think an MFA will do that to you. Before the program, I found myself holding back my best ideas, thinking they needed to be delivered in some big reveal later on in the work. I’ve realized that a novel is made up of a constant reveal of brilliant ideas, and you should never hoard them. New ones will always keep coming along. Trust your inner genius.

The single best tool out there is Scrivener. I’ve been working with it for over three years now, and it’s truly indispensable to my process. I take my scenes from my journals, type them in, and begin to play around with them. I mold them, look at them in different ways, and move them around. Having different ways to view your novel is key for me. When I switch to corkboard mode, I inevitably think of something new. I also love having a repository for all my research in the same file. I keep images that inspire me, information on my setting, time periods, etc.

If I find myself stuck on a scene, I’ll leave Scrivener and open up OmmWriter. It has a zen feel that usually zaps me out of any writer’s block. I’ll write one or two scenes in it, and then copy and paste back into Scrivener.

Finally, if you’re a café writer like me, go to simplynoise.com to drown out the incessant background music and loud talkers. It’s white noise, so it works like a charm.

And judging by the music, that’s all we have time for today. But Nicole will be back tomorrow to chat, so please stop by. If you have questions for Nicole about her book or her process, please comment below.

Key and clock photos from eastonclass1.bltnorthants.net and cloudcentrics.com respectively.

A Writer’s Process

I think of this blog as a talk show, which means I should have a mug of coffee in front of me. Wait. I do. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin. With me today is another friend from VCFA and a fellow blogger—the always delightful and lively Laura Sibson. Welcome, Laura!

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If you read the “Check It Out!” post, you read about her participation in the Next Big Thing Blog Hop and her contemporary young adult novel, Edie in Between. You can also read it here from her blog. For those of you who don’t know Laura, here’s a brief bio. Drumroll, please.

After years spent counseling undergrads on career issues, Laura discovered a passion for writing novels geared toward teens. This passion led to obtaining a MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2012. When she’s not writing, counseling, or drinking impossibly strong coffee, you might find her running miles around her home in suburban Philadelphia, talking books with her writing friends or ingesting pop culture (along with great take-out) with her hubby and two teen sons.

Since I love hearing about a writer’s process, I asked Laura a few questions about hers.

El Space: Are you a plotter or a pantser? How did you discover this?
Laura: You know, I’m not really sure. Maybe you can tell me. After an initial idea presents itself, I think hard on the main character’s external and internal needs, which can also allow me to consider obstacles and a general sense of how things will end. Does that make me a plotter? But I write as scenes come to me—completely out of order. Does that make me a pantser? I think maybe I’m an evolutionist because it seems that as I write scenes and develop a sense of the main character’s desire lines, the story inevitably evolves into something else entirely.

El Space: You sound like a blend of both. What tools do you find helpful as you write?
Laura: I firmly believe that I would not have been able to create a novel-length manuscript without Scrivener. Did you ever hear the story of the five blind men and the elephant? The five blind men come upon an elephant, and each experiences the elephant as something completely different, because each is only touching one part of him. One thinks the elephant is like a wall (side), another a pillar (leg), a third a snake (trunk), and so on. That’s how I felt before I started using Scrivener. I would get lost in the sheer size of a novel in progress and become either lost in it or overwhelmed by it. Scrivener organizes my scenes in a visual way that makes sense to my wacky brain.

El Space: I’ve heard the elephant analogy before. And I tried Scrivener on a trial basis. Now, tell me this: some writers write at home; some write at the coffee shop. What’s your best environment for writing?
Laura: I’m noticing that it depends quite a bit on where I am in the process. When I’m in the early stages of drafting a new story and the scenes are coming fast and furious, I can write pretty much anytime, anywhere, and I won’t become distracted. But when the going gets tough and doing four loads of laundry seems preferable to figuring out a secondary character’s emotional arc, I either take myself to a coffee shop (where I’m less likely to do laundry), or I plan a writing date. Virtual dates with you have been great! Being held accountable by another writer for a specific period of time helps me to focus, and I’ve found that when I stay in the seat long enough—miracles happen.

El Space: The virtual dates have really helped me too, Laura. You mentioned to me once that you don’t use chapter breaks when you write. Please tell me how this has been helpful for you.
Laura: Well, I’m not sure it’s helpful exactly, it just seems to be the way it goes for me. Awhile ago, Sandra Nickel, a fellow Secret Gardener at VCFA, suggested that I read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream.

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To say that it revolutionized my approach to writing would not be an understatement. Rather than force myself to write whatever logically comes next in the story, I write scenes as they come to me, which is usually in the form of dialogue between two characters.

This approach seems to have helped me avoid some measure of exposition and another pitfall I used to fall into: walking X across the room and out the door. But, the mind, at least mine, is not a tidy thing, so those scenes are rarely in the same order that the story takes place. When they start to pile up, I’ll loosely organize them—usually by the timeline of the story. Now that I’m in the homestretch for Edie in Between, I’ve gone back to read the scenes and evaluate where the chapter breaks make the most sense in terms of pacing.

El Space: When you’re working on a project, do you stick with it, or do you stray to others? Why?
Laura: When I’m in that drafting phase, I stay with the one story I’m working on, because I want to figure out the voice. But that doesn’t stop new ideas from popping in my head. I have a lot of trouble ignoring the shiny allure of a fresh idea, so when that happens, I open a new document and write down a page or two to hold the idea or voice and then return to the main project.

Thanks, Laura, for sharing your process! If you have any questions for Laura, or want to share your own process, please comment below. And be sure to visit Laura’s blog: Laura Sibson—A journey toward writing dangerously!