By Pat Miller
Writers often say theirs is a lonely job.
It’s true that when it comes to putting words on the screen or paper, it’s just you. But before that, accomplished authors will visit your home, stay for weeks, and show you exactly how it is done.
No need to feed them or put fresh sheets on the guest beds. You will invite them through their published works. Their books have successfully survived the journey you want to send yours on.
You can take theirs apart and figure out how they did it. Then you have a recipe for your own work. This process is called using mentor texts. The work of another is going to be your teacher.
Mentor texts have long been used in elementary classrooms to teach writing. Familiar books are used as exemplars of everything from using capitals in kindergarten to using humor in fifth grade.
Adult authors quickly caught on to how deconstructing a successful children’s book could be a private course in writing. Mentor texts can reveal how to build suspense, how to rhyme deftly, ways to pull on the readers’ heartstrings, and much more. Likely, this isn’t the first time you’ve heard the term. You may even have lists of mentor texts. But if you’re like me, you could use a demo on how to take one apart.
So, let’s do that now. I’d like to show you how I would take apart a 2019 Caldecott Honor book, The Rough Patch, written and illustrated by Brian Lies (Greenwillow Books, 2018).
THE POWER OF THREE + A KEYBOARD
For picture book mentor texts, I read them three times. The first time is before I even know it will be a mentor. Not every book will meet your writing needs. This is another reason why writers read hundreds of children’s books. But you’ll know it when something about the story resonates.
The first reading is simply to enjoy the story. In The Rough Patch, Brian Lies tells the story of a fox whose beloved dog dies. It portrays his anger and grief in dealing with the loss of his best friend. It ends with hope.
The second reading is to savor the illustration. It’s a good lesson on how an illustrator can add to the richness of our text if we give them room. If you’re an illustrator, studying Brian’s book will show you how he brings the deceptively simple text to life.
Third, I read to dissect it (Spoiler alert: You might want to read the book before continuing.) Before the third reading, I type the book in a Word document exactly as it is on the page, double spacing between spreads. The beginning of The Rough Patch would look like this:
Evan and his dog did everything together.
They played games
and enjoyed sweet treats.
They shared music
Doing so allowed me to see the rhythm of the story, where the author wanted the reader to pause. In this short excerpt, I saw that Brian used no adjectives or literary devices. Short and sweet. The illustrations show their personalities.
ANALYZING THE STRUCTURE
The Rough Patch only has 365 words, but it delivers a powerful story. I wanted to see how Brian structured his story to do that.
The traditional three-act structure has a beginning, a middle divided into two halves, and an end. Each act ends with a change.
The job of Act One is to introduce the characters and let us know the problem or what the MC wants. Brian creates an idyllic world in which the friends exist happily, and we settle in. What they want is unspoken—they want to keep enjoying one another’s companionship.
Then comes the inciting incident. It changes everything. On page 8-9, a double spread has just six words, But one day, the unthinkable happened. The dog is curled in his bed away from the reader. Fox kneels beside him with his paw on his friend’s shoulder. His ears and tail droop, his eyes are closed in sorrow, and the background on both pages is the empty white of shock.
Act Two, Part One, begins with the first plot point after the big change. Evan lays his dog to rest in the garden they both loved “and nothing was the same.” Those who’ve lost a loved one will understand the illustration’s background of various shades of scratchy blacks and browns. Evan grieves. Then comes the pinch point, the change that amps it up. Without forethought, Evan takes a hoe and slashes his garden to the ground. We see that grief can wreck you. Weeds take over the garden.
Act Two, Part Two, begins when a pumpkin vine crawls under the fence from his neighbor’s garden. “He let it be.”
Evan begrudgingly begins to care for the vine. A new normal begins as tentatively as a seedling. Evan eventually discovers a pumpkin beneath the vine’s leaves, and nurtures it for Fair Week.
The final act begins with another change that makes the resolution possible. Evan takes the pumpkin into town and ends up hanging out with other fox friends and enjoying the fair. “It felt good to be out again, even if it wasn’t quite the same”. Hope peeks through for Fox and for the reader.
Evan’s pumpkin wins third place and Evan can choose between $10 or a puppy in a box. He chooses the cash but can’t resist taking just a little peek into the box.
The last page turn is hugely satisfying and filled with hope and promise for the future. The reader lingers on this illustration, adding all their own emotion to the ending.
OTHER TEACHING POINTS
Story structure isn’t the only thing I can imitate from Brian Lies.
EMOTION: I also noticed how he pares down the story to its essentials without removing the emotion—a true gift. He does not use manipulation to make you feel sad. Nowhere in the story will you read sentences that tell about his feelings. None of these appear:
Evan was lonely without his dog. (telling)
Never again would he see his dog’s wide-faced grin or his liquid brown eyes. (manipulating the audience’s feelings)
I used a highlighter to go through the story and color the lines that elicited emotion from me. Like this one: If Evan’s garden couldn’t be a happy place, then it was going to be the saddest and most desolate spot he could make it.
Then I went through my own story looking for emotional resonance. Using highlighters makes it evident that I needed more.
ADJECTIVES: Using another color, I highlighted all the adjectives in Brian’s story. There were few of them. Like this sparse but powerful sentence: Evan laid his dog to rest in a corner of the garden…” Brian didn’t get out the thesaurus and try to fancy up the nouns or verbs. He chose his simple words deliberately. I went back to my own MS and highlighted the adjectives.
ILLUSTRATOR NOTES: Granted, Brian doesn’t have to write notes for his illustrator. Much of the richness of the story is in the illustrations. What can writers learn from this?
Note the simplicity of the text and the complexity of the illustrations. I discovered that Brian Lies’ sentences were crafted so artfully that they gave lots of possibilities and freedom to the illustrator, even if it hadn’t been himself. The beginning, shared above, contains just 19 words. Yet they gave the illustrator much to illustrate in a double spread and four art spots. Does my text do the same? Rarely does the writer need to give direction, but the text has got to be alive with visual possibilities.
The next time you feel stuck as you write your picture book, or wonder how to improve your manuscript, head for the library. A habit of reading books similar to what you write will provide you with lots of mentors to inspire, exemplify, and instruct.
Thanks to willing mentors like Brian Lies, writing no longer has to be a lonely business.
By Susie Kralovasky
there are so many mysteries in writing, whether you're on your first book or your hundredth. This month, I decided to collect the biggest surprise in the publishing process from the Nonfiction Ninjas.
I was surprised that editors/agents have a different concept of "time" than writers do. To me, "soon" is about 2 weeks. To them, it can mean 2 weeks to 6 months. Or longer! And when they ask how long it will take me to complete a project, I'm thinking 8-12 months. And they ask if 12 weeks is enough time. And I say yes. And do it. How do you cope while you wait for a reply? You just keep writing.
Wendy Hinote Lanier
I never dreamed it would be so hard to find your GROUP. We all recognize the need for a good critique group, but finding one is another matter altogether. I am eternally grateful to Pat Miller and Christine Liu Perkins for sending out a call to nonfiction writers several years ago. From our first meeting, I knew I'd found IT...that elusive blend of people who encourage you, inspire you, and provide the honest feedback you need. The Nonfiction Ninjas have been the one thing that keeps me writing. Without them, I'm fairly certain I would have given up by now.
Christine Liu Perkins
Michelle Medlock Adams
I think my biggest surprise was the difference in going through the publishing process with various publishers. Some that I’ve worked with have been very good to include me in the process from beginning to end. For instance, I am currently working with Endgame Press on a Christmas picture book, “Dachshund Through the Snow” and the publisher has allowed me to be involved at every turn. I was even allowed to see the storyboards and offer art suggestions. Yet, when I have worked with some of the very large publishing houses, I never saw anything after I turned in my manuscript. In fact, in a few cases, I didn’t even see the cover art or any of the artwork until my author copies arrived. I just never realized when I began this journey over 20 years and 100 books ago that my involvement in the whole book publishing process could be so different depending on the publisher.
My biggest surprise was how much patience It requires. Coming from the world of journalism where everything is fast, faster, fastest, and needed yesterday, it has been an adjustment to live in a world where people expect you to wait, deliberate, and take time planning for tomorrow. What I have learned to love about the slower pace is how it helps us carefully and collaboratively craft books that last.
My biggest surprise has been the insecurity of the business. I thought that once I had several books published I would feel like my career was established. But in reality each book is a separate project and is evaluated on it's own merit. It's like applying for a job over and over again. And it's always a job I want!
Susan Holt Kralovansky
I was also surprised by everything my fellow Ninjas said, but marketing was my biggest surprise. I thought that when I signed the contract, I was free to move on to another project. I had no idea that I was an important element of the marketing team. And, another surprise, after that initial shock, I realized that I love marketing – and this is from a girl who hated selling anything, even her Girl Scout cookies!
Susan Kralovansky is the author of We Really, Really Want a Dog! (Pelican Publishing, 2021)
"But what do I write about?!"
That was the whiny lament I often heard from my fourth grade students. And sometimes it’s what I hear in my own head as I stare at my blank computer screen.
Unlike writing fiction, where you must create everything in your own head, nonfiction ideas are everywhere. You simply have to be tune your mental radar to find them.
Here are five places that NF ideas pinged my mental radar.
1. Television. Your best bet are channels devoted to documentaries like A&E, Animal Planet, Discovery, The History Channel, and National Geographic. On Pacific Warriors, men and women were out fishing in the Pacific in kayaks, catching fish as big as their boats. The narrator mentioned that the swordfish is the fastest in the ocean, and that the ono is the most vicious fish pound per pound. Ping!
CBS Sunday Morning yields several pings each episode. In the most recent, I was curious to learn more about Nick Benson, the slowest writer in the world. Nick is a third-generation stone carver whose family has engraved many of the monuments and markers at famous tombs and memorials. Their shop was built in 1705—they are the second owners. You can view episodes online--be sure to have paper or keyboard ready.
2. Magazines. One I like is The Smithsonian. They have an online version. How can you resist an article about how “thousands of dead bugs became a mesmerizing work of extraordinary beauty?” In September, there was a short article about another fish that intrigued me. It's warm-blooded! The October, 2015 issue has an article about Armstrong Custer—not as hero but as horse thief. Ping!
3. Read newspapers. Read with an eye for something that makes you think, "Say what?" For example, in one of my local papers, an article mentioned there had been a German POW camp right here in my small Texas town. Ping!
4. Travel. I found the subject of a current project in a Texas museum that's smaller than my house. A recent trip to New Orleans yielded ideas garnered from a sugar plantation, a cemetery, a paddle wheeler, and a church. Your radar will be busy if you are aware and focused!
5. Wonder. Catch yourself every time you wonder--write it down. Waiting at a traffic light, I wondered how the mechanism worked that allowed longer green lights during peak traffic and skipped the turn light when no car was in the lane. Hmmmm... Yesterday I wondered how mosquitoes could find me even on a sunny day with a breeze in a wide open space. They bit me through my clothes! BONUS: If you are around children, their questions can be inspirations.
Once you get yourself attuned, the pings will become so frequent you might feel like a xylophone. You will need to use the note function on your phone, or keep a number of small notebooks stashed in your car, near the shower, in your purse or briefcase, and in the kitchen. Your pile of pings could lead to an essay, an article, a book. Or possibly, a blog post!
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.