You can only imagine how excited I was in January when Emma Walton Hamilton contacted me to see if she could support the 12 x 12 in 2012 challenge. Luckily our discussions were conducted by email so she couldn’t see me jumping up and down! Emma, as you probably know, has co-authored over twenty children’s books with her mother, Julie Andrews. She is also a huge champion of children’s literacy, and much of her wisdom on the subject is contained in the fabulous book, Raising Bookworms. She teaches children’s literature at Stony Brook Southampton University’s MFA program and is also the Executive Director of the annual Southampton Children’s Literature Conference. The deadline to register for this top-notch event is TODAY, June 1. With Peter Reynolds, Kate McMullan and Cynthia Leitich Smith on faculty this year, it’s well worth attending.
I’ve come to know Emma best through The Children’s Book Hub, where she provides information, resources and support to children’s writers of all genres and experience. Because I know first hand the quality of information she provides, I am more than a little envious of the 12 x 12 participant who is going to win Emma’s extremely generous prize this month – a gift certificate to take her 8-week online picture book writing class – Just Write 4 Kids – for FREE! Yes, you read that correctly – for FREE! Now, sit back down and enjoy Emma’s post. 🙂
The Mucky Middle
When Julie and I discussed what topic would be most valuable to address in this guest post, she suggested “the mucky middle” of writing picture books. “It seems appropriate, since by the end of June we’ll be halfway through the year,” she said, adding, “I’ve noticed with my critique group partners (and therefore probably with my own writing) that drafts often start to lose focus in the middle and ramble on longer than they need to. Could you give pointers on how to keep the pacing and the language tight throughout the story?“
Little did she know that the “mucky middle” is just what I’m wrestling with myself this month, as my mother and I strive to work out the next
installment in our Very Fairy Princess picture book series. Here, then, are my thoughts about mucky middles – and perhaps, in the sharing of them, the picture book gods will see fit to help me solve my own mucky middle challenge…
Of course, we can’t really talk about middles without talking about beginnings and endings. Middles exist as a result – and in the context – of the other two. So, let’s revisit – briefly – the beginning-middle-end (also known as “three-act”) plot structure. Bear in mind that we’re exploring story-driven picture books, not concept books, or even “a day in the life of…” picture books (although many of the same rules may still apply.)
Act 1: Set-Up – We meet our hero, learn what he or she wants or needs, and the nature of the problem, or thing(s) standing in the way of achieving that goal.
Act 2: Conflict/Crisis – The hero pursues the goal, but obstacles arise and the problem gets compounded. As the obstacles are overcome, new obstacles arise that raise the stakes. The dramatic tension increases, until the problem peaks or reaches a crisis point. It seems as though all is lost… our hero may never achieve the goal or solve the problem.
Act 3: Resolution – Some realization or lesson learned helps our hero overcome the final obstacle, or problem, and arrive at a resolution. While perhaps different than originally intended, the resolution provides redemption – and satisfyingly addresses the need established at the beginning of the story.
OK, now let’s look at Act 2 a little more closely. And in honor of one of the greatest contributors to 20th century children’s literature, let’s use Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are as an example before considering the same questions relative to our own manuscripts.
Let’s begin by positing that what Max wants is to be wild, or more specifically, to be master of his own destiny… and that the problem is that his mother is still the boss, and therefore his wildness has resulted in his getting sent to bed without supper.
So, in Act 2:
- The hero tries to pursue his goal. Max conjures up a forest in his room, then an ocean and a boat, and sails off to join other wild things where the wild things are.
How does your hero try to pursue his/her goal? What actions does he or she take? How many different ways or strategies does he or she try, and why do they fail?
- Obstacles arise and the problem gets compounded. At first the wild things are scary. They roar their terrible roars, gnash their terrible teeth and show their terrible claws. It seems Max is as unwelcome here as is he is at home.
What obstacles arise for your hero? How do they compound his/her problem?
- As the obstacles are overcome, new obstacles arise that raise the stakes. Max tames the wild things with a staring contest. They are so impressed that they make him King. Now there’s even more pressure to be wild – so Max orchestrates a ‘wild rumpus.’ But even that doesn’t really satisfy… Max may be King of the wild things, but he’s still not the master of his mother.
Notice the plural here in reference to obstacles. Ideally there is more than one failed attempt to achieve the goal. In fact, a series of obstacles, each one building upon, or generated by, the previous – and further raising the stakes – is the ideal.
- The dramatic tension increases. Max steps into his mother’s shoes and sends the wild things to bed without their supper. That’ll show ‘em!
How does the dramatic tension build in your Act 2? Are there any twists, turns or surprises you can incorporate?
- The problem peaks, or reaches a crisis point. Now that the wild things are asleep, Max feels… lonely. It’s a hollow victory, and it suddenly seems as though none of his wildness has been worth the effort. Max realizes that what he really wants is “to be where someone loves him best of all.”
How does the problem peak for your hero? What is the realization or lesson learned? It doesn’t have to be epic – remember that something seemingly minor to an adult can feel like a crisis to a child.
Max’s realization brings him home. There, he finds his supper waiting for him (still hot!) and we – and Max – infer that all is forgiven, and that he does, in fact, have some sway over his mother after all (if only that her resolve has been softened by her affection for him).
If the muck in your middle has less to do with plotting and more to do with pacing, here are a few things to attend to:
Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Be mindful of what the illustrations will show, and focus more on verbs than adjectives whenever possible. Also watch out for adverbs that are being used to prop up weak verbs. Find a better verb!
Telling versus showing – Show through dialogue and behavior rather than telling through narrative description.
Unnecessary Modifiers – such as “really,” “very,” or “just.” For instance, instead of describing someone as “very tall,” try “towering.” Strong adjectives don’t need modifying.
Redundancies – For example, “Suddenly, the door flew open” is redundant. The door flying open implies that it was sudden.
One last tool that may be useful: The Rule of 3.
Things that come in threes are inherently more satisfying and/or more effective than any other number. A series of three mirrors the sequence in which tension is created, built up, and released – or, the beginning, middle and end. There is even a Latin phrase – omne trium perfectum – which means “everything in threes is perfect.” So, when coming up with obstacles to your hero’s goal, aim for three of them. Then, hasten your way to the end – or, Act 3.
But that’s another blog post…
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON is a best-selling children’s book author, editor, educator and arts and literacy advocate. She has co-authored over twenty children’s books with her mother, Julie Andrews, six of which have been on the New York Times best-seller list, including The Very Fairy Princess series (#1 NY Times Bestseller), Julie Andrews’ Collection Of Poems, Songs And Lullabies(illustrated by James McMullan); the Dumpy The Dump Truck series; Simeon’s Gift; The Great American Mousical and THANKS TO YOU – Wisdom From Mother And Child (#1 New York Times Bestseller).
As the creator and host of the “Children’s Book Hub” membership site, Emma provides resources, information and support for children’s book authors and illustrators world-wide. She is also the creator of “Just Write for Kids!“, an online course in writing picture books.
Emma serves as the Editorial Director for The Julie Andrews Collection publishing program, dedicated to quality books for young readers that nurture the imagination and celebrate a sense of wonder, and works as a freelance children’s book editor, providing editorial evaluations, line-editing services and one-to-one mentoring. Her blog about writing for children, Emmasaries, can be found athttp://www.emmawaltonhamilton.com/blog.Categories: 12 x 12 Featured Author, 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Giveaway, Goals, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: 12 x 12 Featured Author, 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Children's Book Hub, Editing, Emma Walton Hamilton, Julie Hedlund, Rule of Three, Three-Act Structure, Works in Progress, Writer, Writing