Saturday, January 25, 2014

Analyzing Picture Books—THIS IS NOT MY HAT

THIS IS NOT MY HAT by Jon Klassen, published by Candlewick Press, 2012, is approximately 200 words and spread over 32 pages, 18 with first-person text (and illus.) and 14 with pictures only. Out of the pages with text, 14 have only a single line; some just a clause rather than a complete sentence.
There is no dialogue throughout the book, but using first-person narration, it feels and sounds like dialogue.

The book opens with an illustration of a tiny fish swimming in a large stretch of dark water,  wearing a hat. It’s easy to wonder what’s up with this cute little guy. The first page with text (Pg. 2) grabs the audience because it’s an admission of doing something wrong—stealing a hat.

The next spread with text doesn’t bear the load of winning over the reader alone, even though we already know the little fish did something underhanded. The illustration takes a bow, showing a humongous fish who is the hat’s true owner. It isn’t hard to empathize with the little fish, knowing there’s a chance he may get caught by such a big opponent.
But the little fish is cocky and thinks he won’t get caught. The rationale is adorable because it’s that of a child—the idea that if you do something wrong, the person you wronged won’t know you did it.

Klassen uses more childlike logic when the little fish explains that even if the hat owner knows who stole his hat, he’ll never find the culprit. 
The story increases in tension because Klassen ups the probability of the little fish getting caught. Remembering the size of the huge fish, readers can’t help but feel for the little one when a witness sees him and promises not to give his whereabouts. After that, through illustrations, we see the double-crossing witness direct the big fish to the hiding place. Talk about tension—yikes!

One way Klassen keeps the mind-frame of a child while increasing tension is through repetition of specific words or ideas. The first line is, This hat is not mine. The next sentence—I just stole it—reemphasizes the fact the hat doesn’t belong to the narrator, while simultaneously giving us more information: how did he get the hat?
The word “stole” is used again in the only sentence on the next page: I stole it from a big fish. So again, the fact the hat doesn’t belong to the narrator is reemphasized (reminding us what’s at stake—getting caught by a BIG fish), and again the reader is getting more information: stole it from whom?

Moving along, the little fish narrates that the big fish was asleep when it happened. The page that follows this reemphasizes it by stating: And he probably won’t wake up for a long time.
On the next two pages, along with illustrations, repetition is used again when the narrator says, And even if he does wake up, he probably won’t notice that it’s gone.

So, in this spread, the words “wake up” are purposefully echoed along with the reminder that the little fish has someone else’s hat. And here we have no doubt that the narrator thinks he’s going to get away with this little misdeed. It’s cute and realistic, but because of the reminder, readers suspect the little fish will most certainly get caught, despite his confidence.
What could happen when angering such a big fish? This is a question that will haunt the reader until the end of the story.

Klassen furthers the tale with another statement of the little fish’s rationalization. The little fish decides the hat was too small for the big fish anyway, and it fits the little fish so it should be his.
What is not told in the end is shown in the illustrations. A double-page spread gives a visual of the little fish entering a cluster of thick weeds, but he’s not seen coming back out. Then the big fish’s tail is swimming into the thicket of weeds, and the last picture is the big fish swimming away, wearing his hat.

I admire the absence of text on those last few pages, because it enlists the listener to examine how the story ends by following the sequence of illustrations and drawing conclusions.
Who could not love this book? The story not only beautifully portrays the heart of a child, rationalizing a misdeed, but I t speaks to all of us. Everyone has, at some point, tried to justify doing something they probably shouldn’t have done. It’s human nature. And when a writer can capture human nature so precisely while maintaining a child’s world, he’s got a successful picture book.

Happy writing!


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Stamping Out Writer’s Block the Rainy-Day Way!

Have you ever heard of saving for a rainy day? The idea works for more than just money. It’s a great method to make sure you are never stuck staring at an empty screen. You may not always be able to pump out ideas on a specific subject on a specific date, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get any writing done.

At least three times a week, jumpstart your creativity by focusing only on different ideas for a handful of story premises. A story premise is the central idea of a story. Every story has to be about something, and that something defines its premise.
Put this document on your desktop in a folder titled Rainy-day Premises.

Don’t worry about who the major players will be, or where the story will take place, or when. Who cares if it’s going to be a rainy day or a sunny day in your future story? Right now, all you need to focus on is creating new premises. Don’t strive to make them word-for-word perfect. Just get them down.


1.      Only one item survives a fire, and that item brings clarity to a misconception about another person’s life

2.      A person tries to find the owner of a lost dog but finds something else instead.

3.      On a dare, kids enter an abandoned house and, after finding nothing even mildly scary inside, they go home—where they meet up with an evil they didn’t expect.

Never leave your idea without unanswered questions hanging in it. Those questions are what will lead you back into the story on another day.

1.       Who found the item? What is his/her relationship to the item’s owner?

2.      Where did the character find the dog? What was he or she doing there?

3.      What did they find in the house? How does the evil they discover when they get home tie into their expectations of what they didn’t find in the house?

Keeping a list of story premises also works as a warm-up session to get your juices flowing to use on other projects, like the one with the deadline weighing you down.

Take advantage of the days your brain is full and write down a slew of premises. Then, should the day ever come that you’re stricken with a bad case of writer’s block, guess what? It’s raining.

When you dip into the premises you’ve been gathering, find the one that speaks the loudest to you that day. Again, it may not be the perfect idea, but if it’s the loudest at the moment, just start writing. Let the premise speak to you.

You’ll be surprised to discover that ideas you came up with a week ago somehow rode in the back of your mind, even if you weren’t aware of it. They’ve crept into the crevices of your creative self, and without realizing you’d given a certain premise any more thought, you probably already know who the character to lead this story needs to be. You might even have an inkling as to what this character has been up to.

Give the character a name, a purpose, and most importantly an attitude (whether good or bad, so you’ll get to know him or her right away through voice.) Put your character on the page and see how he or she lives through the premise you’ve created.

Then, whether you continue to work on this story the next day or that big project you’ve been putting off, don’t forget to also write a few more premises, just in case you have another rainy day.

Be aware that while having this bank of ideas waiting to be fleshed out, it’s likely you’ll never endure enough rainy days to use them all. This can be a bit depressing because you’ll be excited about your new ideas and want to try them on, but don’t fret. At least you’re ready if you’re ever faced with a blank screen.

Happy writing!

Friday, January 10, 2014

When Are Echoes Okay in Your Writing?

Anyone who has ever had a story or article critiqued by me knows that I slash through echoes like weeds in Eden. Repeated words, for the most part, create a distracting noise in a reader’s head, like a song that goes on one note too long, ruining the otherwise beautiful rhythm. I don’t like echoes.

Unless they are purposeful and wise.

So when is that?

Anytime someone asks me this question, my first thought for an example usually is John Milton’s works – PARADISE LOST, PARADISE REGAINED, ON EDUCATION, among others. Back in college, woefully accepted by most students, the professor assigned the reading and analytical studying of Milton’s prose and essays. Personally, I was in awe at his work. Through careful observation—in hopes of getting an A—I noted that he used a lot of repetition in his work, but he used it in a specific way.

For instance the word light, symbolic not only in a religious sense, but also in meaning knowledge, appeared in more than one sentence in a single paragraph. Synonyms were used too, but he did not shy away from pulling out the exact same word he’d already used. Why did he do this?

I can’t be sure, but I can explain the effect it had on my reading. As I read a second, third, or even later sentence, I realized it couldn’t be done (reading further) without your brain retracing what was already said, a little echo reminding you of what had been read in the first sentence. Not in a way of beating you over the head with an idea, but in a way where each new sentence reinforced a previous notion or image, while at the same time introducing some new element toward a larger idea, or going deeper into the concept of the idea. Reading his work was like watching a drip land in a puddle, and then watching each ripple as it expands.

Now for those of you reluctant to go back and read something centuries old, here’s a newer masterpiece that also uses repetition in a wonderful way: THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher, published in 2007 by Razorbill, a young adult imprint of Penguin.

Does it echo? Yes, in the most satisfying rippling effect an author or reader could want. (No noise, just beautiful music that’s as enlightening as it is enticing.) It brings to mind the idea that you cannot go forward, without also bringing with you a little of the past. For instance, when you consider an education, your knowledge (everything you’ve learned in the past), has an effect on how you interpret what you are learning today.

So to bring this idea to your writing with intentional repetition brings a deeper meaning that readers may not recognize right off, but it will tease their subconscious into another level of understanding. At least, I think it will.

Asher shows an effective use of repetition on Page 178: (Note, the italics indicate a different character speaking—Hannah.)

(Clay, the narrator.) “… But the headlights don’t gradually fade away, which they should if he kept backing up or turned away. Instead, they just stop.

As if turned off.

(Hannah’s voice.) Looking back, I stopped writing in my notebook when I stopped wanting to know myself anymore.

(Clay) Is he out there, sitting in his car, waiting? Why?

(Hannah) If you hear a song that makes you cry and you don’t want to cry anymore, you don’t listen to that song anymore.

But you can’t get away from yourself. You can’t decide not to see yourself anymore. You can’t decide to turn off the noise in your head.

Notice the repetition of the words turned—used with away and with offaway, stop, and back. In addition to repeating exact words, ideas are reemphasized, such as turned off and stopped. So, when you read a third or fourth sentence, it echoes with the previous sentence. Then it ripples and when you read forward again, you are bringing a little of the past with you.

Considering the fact that this novel is based on the thirteen reasons a young girl committed suicide, and the narrator’s struggle to face and accept it, and then move forward, the repetition is very powerful. Naturally, there will be no movement forward for the narrator or the reader in a novel like this without bringing some of the past along. Asher’s writing style, then, parallels his theme.

We see this technique used again on page 250:                                      

“I want to look back. To look over my shoulder and see the Stop sign with huge reflective letters, pleading with Hannah. Stop!

But I keep facing forward, refusing to see it as more than it is. It’s a sign. A stop sign on a street corner. Nothing more.”

Here the author comes right out and gives us the word forward, “facing forward” and follows it with the word refusing, which is a type of not moving forward. He parallels that, reinforcing it, with stopping. So we see this back and forth motion, two steps forward, and one step back, and then forward again, symbolically laying out how a person moves through life.

If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it.

Now for your own studies, look at the story, “As I Walk Out One Evening,” written by HC Hsu and published by the online literary journal, TOASTED CHEESE. Study the repetition and analyze the purpose for it. Notice how repeated words don’t read like a distracting echo, but a way of somehow restating a truth, further clarifying an idea, giving it a ripple.

In your own writing, if you are not sure whether using the same word again will distract the reader like a screaming echo, or if it will be read as an intelligent choice in going forward, then backward and forward again, don’t use it. Don’t use it until you are confident that repeating a specific word in close proximity to a previous instance of the word, is exactly what you should do.

In the meantime, you can always find a similar word which can do the same work; and sometimes that’s what you want. Something to bring a previous notion forward again, but not as strongly as when you use the exact word a second or third time.  

Before you begin, you might be wondering how you can know if a specific word was repeated intentionally, or if it was an oversight the editor missed.

1.      If you consider the numerous echoes in the short section of Asher’s book quoted above, you can safely assume no editor would miss that many repetitions. Yes, most novels get published with a typo or two, but it’s always obvious that they are simply that, typos. Even then, it’s unlikely you’d find this many in a short space.

2.      Elsewhere, the book is not littered with needless and annoying echoes. So, the logical conclusion is the repetition was planted specifically for a specific reason. It is your job, as the reader, to let that reason resonate in your mind.

3.      When the effect is astounding rather than annoying. My tongue didn’t trip when I read Asher’s paragraphs.

Happy reading and writing!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Good read for young adults (and old): Book Review on SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick

SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR, published by Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, 2010 

With a voice tuned with precision to that of a teen girl, using just the right dose of kick-ass sass, Quick grabs the reader from page one, which is expected but not always delivered.  

Who can resist a kid who in the first paragraph says, “You won’t believe the bull I had to endure today.” And only a few pages later, “I’m a holy teenager of God, sucka! (Page 5), and describes a “flaming ball in the sky. (That’s the sun, sucka!) (Page 43.) If you learn nothing else from this book, it’s the best lesson on voice I could recommend.

The plot is enticing, too. Quick starts his story right off telling intimate details most teen girls would shy away from revealing, so readers feel like a best friend sharing the ins and outs of their everyday lives with someone just like them. Though not an edge-of-your-seat action thriller, this novel runs the bases around nearly every tragedy a teen could bear, yet not once does Quick fall into a cesspool of sentimentality.

As I was reading, I found one or two parts my youngest daughter would probably skim through–she’s always been one to race right to the action, never allowing herself a minute to sit idle. But her sisters would read this book two or three times, slowly, to avoid missing anything. They like to get a deeper sense of character, to dwell inside a character’s head awhile, and they don’t necessarily have to be running out of breath at every turn of a chapter.

I’m not suggesting the book has a slow pace–it might for someone who’s used to reading high-stakes adventures–but don’t be fooled into thinking there are no high-stakes in this novel.

Amber Appleton is a character easy to root for from the first time she asks someone for a hug (heart wrenching the way she craves love) until the last. She makes you want to reach into the novel and give her the tightest hug imaginable. But I think most of the power of this novel comes from Amber’s voice, one that shines through the worst of times and keeps the reader hinged to the page with her promise of hope, no matter the stakes.

That’s a powerful thing to do, to create a world where skies seem gray and life appears dismal, and yet we get to skip along with somebody who can see hope through it all. What a lesson in life this book has turned out to be.

I did have a small problem with one of the major characters, but I don’t want to spoil your read by letting you know what happens. Let it suffice to say I didn’t understand one adult, knowing enough of Amber’s circumstances, who did not then investigate a little sooner–yet I can’t say that I don’t know people like that. It just made me lose a little respect for this specific character early on. I would’ve expected her to have a less than enchanting chat with Amber’s mother to find out what’s going on, but that’s me. Probably too nosy for my own good.

But it’s okay not to like a character. Amber’s voice kept me with her every step of the way anyhow, and my heart sank for her and leaped for her often. If you’re looking for a single book that can evoke tears, smiles, laughter, this is the one to read.