Layering theme and metaphor in your memoir can take your story from being good to great. The challenge is...well...figuring out what exactly your theme is. The good news? You don’t need to know it before you start writing. In fact, you don’t need to figure it out while you’re drafting either. When you sit down to write your memoir, just get your story down on the page.
Finished? Now look over your piece as a whole, whether it is a short memoir or a longer work. Part of your writing journey will be the self-discovery you have when drafting and then stepping back and seeing what came out.
Finding Theme in Memoir
While reviewing your work, look for patterns in the following things:
When I drafted my award-winning short memoir “Learning to Kick,” I detailed my experience with postpartum depression and identity loss. After reading through what I had gotten down, I noticed a pattern involving my expectations at that point in my life: I kept thinking things would get better and month after month they didn’t. It went on for most of a year until I finally realized I needed to do something, to be proactive in my happiness. I realized this would be the theme of my piece.
Using Metaphor to Integrate Theme in Memoir
Then it was time to show the readers my theme instead of telling it to them. What was this feeling of things not improving month after month similar to? My mind went immediately to something dark, thinking of light fading away and me drifting further and further from happiness. I also thought about cold and feeling a crushing sensation of sadness. I realized a good parallel would be sinking in cold ocean water.
I wove this metaphor into my storyline in different places throughout: a giant wave knocking me into the water when I found out I was pregnant, dipping just under the surface on my first day alone with the baby, sinking further and further into the cold water as the months progressed. And the moment I realized I needed to fight for my happiness? That’s when I learned to kick, which gave me the title of the piece.
Once you see the pattern in your work, think about what it reminds you of in the world. Then integrate this metaphor at key points in your story, including your opening and closing, as well as your title. It will give unity and depth to your piece. It will also do what every writer wants...get your readers more engaged in your story.
Revision can be an intimidating, often daunting task, especially if you have a messy draft. It can be hard to tell where to begin. You know you need to fix things, but you aren’t exactly sure how to get started. That’s where a revision plan comes in. This post will tell three steps to getting a chapter-by-chapter revision plan.
Step 1: Evaluate Your Manuscript
Reread your novel from start to finish without making any changes. That’s right. Resist the urge to tweak as you read and just go through the entire thing. Why? The first thing you need to do is take stock of what you have. There is no sense in making little changes on something that may end up being cut later. So just read.
As you are reading, take notes in a notebook or type them up in a doc about things you think need revision or parts you don’t like. I prefer to take notes for each chapter but also keep a running list of things I see overall. For example, I may write a chapter note about the dialogue in a certain scene being flat but also make a note in the overall section about the character as a whole needing more dimension. I like to write my notes in columns, then compile the overall notes separately afterwards.
Step 2: Problem Solve Your Story Issues
Review your notes as a whole and determine what your biggest problems are. Saggy middle? Ending not explosive enough? Characters unlikable? Start by brainstorming one problem at a time. For example, if you noticed you have a saggy middle, do some research and think of every idea you can to solve the problem. Make a big list of possibilities. Now identify which ones are the best solutions to your problem, not the easiest, but the best. What makes sense in your story and for your characters?
Step 3: Make a Revision Plan
Now it is time to implement your solutions chapter by chapter. I find it helpful to start my revision plan by writing down what is currently in my chapter, then what I want to do in the revision next so I can see what specific changes need to be made. I will write in a to-do list addressing the chapter problems I saw during rereading and also what I need to do in this chapter to address the bigger, overall issues I noted. So if I am adding a subplot to help with my saggy middle, I will note which chapters need added scenes.
I often make adjustments and changes to my plan as I am revising. So it’s okay if everything isn’t perfectly fixed before you get started. The important thing is to GET STARTED! Sometimes writers can get lost in planning and delay beginning the actual work of revision. Don’t spend more than a month evaluating, problem solving, and planning. Some solutions will come to you as you work. Now it’s time to roll up those sleeves and get started!
Want more revision posts? Check out some others I've written:
Let's start with a doozy of a sentence: The short-legged, fluffy, orange Pomeranian walked down the dirty sidewalk, past the shady green trees, and into her large square yard with the tulips, daisies, and daffodils next to the two story blue house with the wrap-around porch.
While this does give you quite a visual, it's pretty exhausting to read and a bit long for the attention of a three-year-old. Visual description is often a place where a picture book author can make deep cuts, or not include it all. Here are three reasons why you can toss those adjectives out the door.
Written Description Is Redundant
One great thing about picture books is they have pictures! The pictures do the work of showing the visuals so the words don't have to. Why tell the reader and listener the pig is wearing a red rain jacket with yellow buttons when they can look at the page and see it? Or that the park has a swing and a slide and a bench and a...you get the idea. The park will be there on the page.
Let's go back to the sentence with the Pomeranian. Reread it and think of everything written there that would be shown in pictures. The short-legged, fluffy, orange Pomeranian walked down the dirty sidewalk, past the shady green trees, and into her large square yard with the tulips, daisies, and daffodils next to the two story blue house with the wrap-around porch. Most of the words in this sentence can be cut out.
Illustrators Don't Like It
When an illustrator gets a manuscript, they develop their own vision for the story. They don't want to be told what every tiny detail looks like. That would leave no room for them to experience and interpret the story with their own creativity. Think about it. Before you wrote a story, would you want someone telling you every single detail to write?
You may want to cling to the idea that the pig must be in a red raincoat with yellow buttons. After all, that's how you pictured it as you wrote. But is that really the most important part of the story? Will the story not be the same if the pig is in a blue raincoat, or gasp!, no raincoat at all? Giving the illustrator that creative freedom results in a better product because they use their expert artistic and visual skills to come up with things that are often even better than what you imagined.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't include a visual detail that is essential to the story. But you should leave room for creative interpretation by the illustrator as much as possible.
It Inflates Word Count
Getting the word count down is often one of the biggest challenges of revising picture book manuscripts. Traditional publishers want manuscripts to be around 500 words or less. There is more wiggle room for indies, but it should be below 1,000. (See this post on word count for more info.)
You have to chop, chop, chop as much as you can. Visual description can take up a lot of those precious words and like I said earlier, it's redundant with the pictures. Trim it wherever you can and don't let it inflate your word count. (See this post for other ways to cut word count.)
A picture book needs to use concise yet enticing language that lends itself well to being read aloud. The challenge? Doing all that in less than a thousand words, in fact, as close to 500 words as possible. First drafts are often too long since all you are doing is capturing your ideas and putting them on the page. Then it is time to revise, trim the fat, slice and dice...whatever you like to call it.
A picture book manuscript is already fairly short, so what exactly can you cut? Here are five tricks to trim down those words:
This is the first place to start. Take a close look at your sentence structures. Do you have sentences with several clauses strung together? Long compound sentences? Search your manuscript for lengthy sentences and see where you can chop.
Become a hound on the hunt for any extra words. Look for adverbs and adjectives and determine if they are truly necessary. The word “that” is often a filler word when not specifying an object. (If you are looking for more tips at the sentence level, see Tighten Up! Seven Tips for Decluttering Your Sentences, an article I wrote for the Florida Writers Association.)
Cut Out Visual Description
Visual description, such as describing the setting or what the character looks like, is usually left out of picture books. Most obviously because the pictures show the visuals and it would be superfluous.
The second reason is that illustrators do not want to be told how things look. There needs to be room for creative interpretation. (More on this in another post.) So look through your story and see if there are any lines that tell what something looks like and ask yourself if they are really necessary or if the pictures will show it.
A common mistake is to assume kids need tons of action in a picture book in order to keep their interest, making it more like a TV show. Characters are here then there then up then down then karate chop! Big action isn’t a bad thing, but too much action is. The first problem is that it’s hard for children to follow. Adults, too.
Second, an illustrator doesn’t create an individual scene for every single little action in the book. (Think about transitions like opening doors and entering rooms.) So if you have too much action, an illustrator won’t be able to draw it all anyway. Limit your action to what is essential to your plot. Ask yourself what *must* the character do and limit the number of obstacles to what will fit within the word count. Which leads to the next tip…
Reduce the Number of Events
Oftentimes writers get excited about the idea behind a picture book and add in too many events. My very first picture book attempt involved a tough-guy Easter bunny and his peppy sidekick. While I was developing the story, I planned a kooky system for how they traveled around the world. The first few events in the book where all about glitches in the system before they got to where the story actually started. It was exciting and fun and I loved it. It was also totally unnecessary. My word count was a shocking 2,000 words. It broke my heart but those events had to be cut.
A good trick to help focus your events is to write your logline: one sentence saying what your book is about. Events need to be directly related to the direction of the book. How many events should there be for a picture book? It depends on the structure of the book. I tend to use a simplified version of the three act structure, so three events or event groups. Examine the structure of your book and determine if there are any events that can be left out and the end result would be the same. That may be an indicator they can be cut.
It’s not always necessary to show every setting in a book. A character may come home from school and have to walk through the foyer, then the living room, then the hallway before getting to her bedroom. Save yourself some words and jump straight to where she needs to be.
Limiting settings also goes hand-in-hand with simplifying action. If you stick to only the necessary scenes that involve the obstacles and the character’s goal, then you will see which settings are integral and which can be cut. Once again, the structure of the book will determine the number of settings.
Keep Working On It
It takes me several months to work over a manuscript and get it where it’s ready to publish. I revise over and over and over, getting lots of feedback from other picture book authors. Keep coming back to your manuscript and asking yourself what is essential to your story. With time and effort, you’ll be able to cut out the excess and highlight what is truly important.
Getting the word count correct is a very important skill for anyone looking to publish picture books. Agents and publishers won’t accept manuscripts with high words counts. Distributors won’t select them for sales representation either.
Why? Long picture books don’t sell very well anymore.
Why Long Picture Book Manuscripts Don’t Work
Small Press United, an indie book distributor, has this in their Reasons for Declining information: “a children's picture book with pages that have large amounts of text no longer works as a picture book.”
Recent market surveys show that children age out of picture books at six, earlier than previous generations. Kids are moving up to early readers and chapter books younger than before. This in and of itself is a great thing. We have better readers! But it does raise a problem for picture book authors and publishers. We need to adjust our standards to match what children need and ultimately, what sells.
Authors also need to keep in mind the dual audience of picture books: the children hearing the story and the parent who reads it. Parents are the ones purchasing the books and reading them aloud until the child is old enough to read on their own. If there is one thing that drives me crazy during story time at night, it is a picture book that goes on and on and on. Those books often mysteriously disappear under the bed or at the very bottom of the book bin. As a parent, I won’t buy a picture book with a lot of text.
Picture Book Word Count: Here’s the Magic Number
For fiction or creative nonfiction picture books (not informational), the current word count goal is 500 words. Yup, that’s it.
If you are planning to traditionally publish, it is significantly more likely you will be successful if you stick to this word count. Yes, you can go to Barnes and Noble and likely find a longer picture book on the shelf. This book is probably either a classic or written by an established author. Stick to 500 words to increase your chances of acceptance.
If you are self-publishing, you do have some leeway but remember that you want to be competitive in the market with all the other picture books. You also don’t want your adorable-but-wiggly audience getting bored. Keep it under 1,000 but try to get closer to 500.
A Quick Way to Practice
If you write adult fiction, one of the best activities you can do to get comfortable with the 500 word format is to practice flash fiction. It teaches you to squeeze your entire story in a low word count and helps you focus on every single word, cutting anything extra.
If you are new to writing or are only interested in writing picture books, look for my next blog post: Five Tricks for Trimming Word Count in Picture Book Manuscripts.
Leo the cat likes his happy place at home, no matter how much Daisy the dog pesters him to go on adventures. But when a mischievous cricket hops in his path, Leo can’t resist the urge to chase, even if it takes him on a terrifying journey with Daisy. When Leo confronts something he detests more than adventures, he must choose whether he wants to stay miserable or try and find happiness where he is. Joyride is a story of taking risks and learning how to find happiness wherever you are.
I am thrilled to share our second picture book, Joyride, will be out November 1, 2019.
The picture above is the inspiration image from the illustrator, Becky McKinness, at FayBecca Designs. We loved the fun and excitement of the ride but changed one of the characters to a grouchy cat named Leo. Becky was thrilled to recently have her work featured on the cover of The New Barker. She has a full article in the magazine on how she became an artist here.
Daisy the dog is based off her real pup, Daisy, who is also a fun-loving adventurer. We are excited about collaborating on this project and bringing the story to life. Stay tuned for more updates about Joyride!
I’m so excited to share the cover of How I Met My Other: True Stories, True Love with everyone. Red Raven Book Design did a wonderful job interpreting the theme of the book and turning it into a beautiful “love is in the air” visual.
From the Back Cover:
Learn about all the twists, turns, and fun of falling in love with this unforgettable true story anthology.
People find the warmth of love in Antarctica. An obsession with blondes lands the big one. Squashing a guitar case leads to a blanket fort date. A soldier works to snag a sassy WWII nurse. Spaghetti reels someone in and they never go home again. A revenge date gets serious. And much, much more!
Love can come at the most surprising times and in the most unexpected places. In this short story collection, fifteen authors share their incredible, heart-warming, and often hilarious true tales of how they met their other.
Featuring Stories By:
Melody Groves • Paige Lavoie • Robert Bellam • Michelle Tweed • Racquel Henry • Chelsea Fuchs • Cheryl Dougherty • Tim Haughee • Greg Hill • Kerry Evelyn • Fern Goodman • Valerie Willis • John Hope • Jasmine Tritton • Arielle Haughee
I can’t wait to share this book with you all on February 1, 2019! Stay tuned!
Let’s start with the truth. Are you ready? It’s going to take time, dedication, and a lot of hard work. A LOT of hard work.
Great. If you are willing to put in the effort then let’s dive in! Learning how to write fiction professionally is like learning an instrument or a sport. You don't just pick up a basketball and are instantly Kobe Bryant. Everyone starts out as a beginner and works to get better. (So don't put too much pressure on your work when you are at the beginning of your journey.)
And like learning how to play the piano or flute, the more practice you do, the better you get. So writing often, as much as you can, will get some real momentum for your journey. That being said, writing professionally takes dedication and time, as well as some money to learn the craft. If you treat it like a light hobby, it will stay a light hobby. If you want to be a serious author, you have to take it seriously.
So what does that mean?
(1) Write regularly. Every day if you can. Set a manageable word count goal for writing sessions. Start with something you can achieve like 300 words. Don't wait for an idea to hit you. Creativity is a flow, like getting hot water out of a faucet. The ideas will come after you've sat down and started writing. You need to turn the water on first.
Also, silence your inner editor when you write. (You know, that voice that tells you your sentences are all wrong.) It won't be perfect when you write but just get it on the page. Focus on progress. You can fix your writing later but you can't fix a blank page.
(2) READ! Read lots of books in your genre, particularly recently published books as well as the classics. Read outside of your genre to keep yourself fresh and think of new ideas to bring into your writing. But read, read, read. This is essential for learning how to write. Take note of what works and what doesn’t.
(3) Learn craft. This is key. You can write forever but if you don't take the time to learn the skills, your writing won't get better. Watch webinars, read blogs, listen to podcasts...just immerse yourself in learning craft.
Read craft books; there are a TON of them. For picture books, I recommend Ann Whitford Paul's Writing Picture Books. A fun, energizing one for beginning authors interested in novels is Nathan Bransford’s How to Write a Novel. There are books on specific topics like dialogue, plotting, character...try and always have one that you are reading.
Join professional organizations, specifically SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) if you are interesting in children’s writing. You can find local organizations such as FWA (Florida Writers Association) as well as national ones like IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association). Find your local chapter and go to their events. Which leads me to...
(4) Connect with other writers/authors. This was the best thing I did. I joined several local groups and started going to events even though I didn't know anyone. I made friends with authors, editors, publishers...it’s a whole community out there. A fun one. They answer all my questions and we support each other. You can also do this online. There are lots of groups on Facebook for writers. Just make sure the group is nice. Some people make themselves feel better by cutting others down and this is unfortunately true in the writing world, too.
(5) Get feedback. Join a critique group, in person is best but online works, too. Make sure the members know what they are talking about and are experienced writers. Enter contests and submit short stories. Sometimes you get critiques through those but the best feedback is when something gets published, then you know you're on the right track.
(6) Monitor your zen. Writing is a very emotional business and rejection hurts. Having a support system is key. Don't be too hard on yourself or your writing. Remember you shouldn't say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to a fellow writer. So things like "this sucks/you suck" shouldn't be floating around in your head. Negativity can have a big impact on your writing so mind who you have around you and what you are telling yourself. Remember this is a continual journey so have patience with yourself and with the process.
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” -Richard Bach
Lastly, one of the first decisions you will need to make is how you want to be published: traditionally or indie/self-published. There are benefits and drawbacks to both. Do some research and see which is right for you. This will guide your track forward.
It's giveaway time! We are excited to launch our first book giveaway. THREE lucky winners will be chosen to get their pick of either Lost Dreams or The Hunted: Welcome to Whitebridge paperback to be mailed directly to them. Both books feature short stories by Orange Blossom Publishing owner, Arielle Haughee.
How do you get into the drawing? Sign up for our newsletter by Mother's Day, Sunday, May 13, 2018. There is a sign up button at the bottom of this post to make it easy. (Reading this after the giveaway is over? Sign up to learn about our next giveaway!)
A little about each book up for grabs...
Lost Dreams, a collection of firsthand stories, depicts a wide variety of lost dreams. Twenty-three authors reveal their pain confusion, and anger when the path they followed came to an unexpected end. For some contributors, the dream shattered instantly; for others the dream crumbled over decades.
Through real-life stories you will see how others have endured their tribulations. The outcomes are as individual as each person and each experience. Some authors settled into acceptance, while others realized a new life purpose, yet all benefited from introspection that emerged only as a result of a loss.
These stories acknowledge that we all suffer hurt and loss in our lives.
"LOST DREAMS is a short story collection about life after loss. From parents of the murdered to murderers themselves, these tales cover both sides of the cruel coin flip of life’s sudden and unexpected changes that will never be totally reversed."
The Hunted: Welcome to Whitebridge: Hundreds of years ago in the town of Whitebridge, Native and European alike fought evil and won. The result, a town disconnected from our reality except for one day a year, the longest day, the day of the summer solstice.
Unfortunately the evil they thought beaten has just been biding its time. As generations have worked toward reconnecting with our world, some are content with the evil that surfaces once a year. With disappearances and random deaths of both residents and outsiders increasing, factions fight to either free the town or condemn it for all eternity.
Join the TOTH authors as they tell the story of Whitebridge, from Dani Lyons the current town Sheriff who begins to discover the truth of what has been going on, to Ariane Nantuck, one of the towns oldest residents who holds more secrets than anyone knows, to Billy Bane, who always appears crazy as a fox or is he just crazy.
No one person knows the truth, will you?
Which book would you choose? Enter below for a chance to win!
Whenever I meet a new couple, my favorite question to ask them is how they met. People's faces light up as they tell their stories and I hear some of the funniest, craziest tales. This is what inspired How I Met My Other: True Stories, True Love. I want to collect the most interesting, heart-warming, and unbelievable stories.
So what exactly am I looking for with this anthology?
First, I want the story to be as close to the truth as possible. It doesn't have to be the author's own love story, it can be an entertaining anecdote from someone else in his/her family. For example, I will be contributing the tale of how my maternal grandparents came to be together. Obviously, I wasn't there and will have to imagine the dialogue that was said and how the settings appeared, but I will be sticking to the events and how they actually happened as close as I can.
The most important thing to me is that the stories read as a narrative. I want to BE THERE with this person, experiencing every moment as he/she did. Often people slip into telling their love story instead of showing, so it comes across as a sports replay. This is why the word count is 3,000 - 5,000 words. I want to become attached to the people falling in love. Which brings me to my next point...
As with any good story, emotion should play a key role. This is especially true for real life love stories! I want to be excited when the couple finally gets together, laugh at the humorous parts, and wipe away a tear or two if there is something sad.
Last, as I said earlier, I am looking for stories that have something that is interesting or unique or unbelievable. So many times I've heard of tales where things seem to strangely align...the timing was uncanny, a different person showed up when it was always another, the couple were in the same location many times before and never knew it. Or other stories where people met each other in the most unusual circumstances. What I really want is something that makes the reader say, "Wow! I can't believe that happened!"
I am excited to see all the different submissions and learn about real couples and how they got together. These stories are my favorite after all!
**For full submission guidelines, click HERE.