"Haven't you been watching other people drive?" my driver's ed. teacher asked when I inquired which pedal was the brake and which one was the gas. "No," I had to confess. "Was I supposed to?" Before I could barely get down the road, my exasperated teacher told me to get out of the driver's seat. Now! He wasn't ready to die!
My problem was that I didn't know how to put the advice I'd learned in the book into practice. Of course, if I had been watching how good drivers do it, I would have had a clue. Why hadn't I thought of that before I got into the car to drive?
It's not so different with writing. We can read advice all day, but if we don't observe that advice in "drive", flowing through a real-live book, it will be difficult for us to apply that advice in our own writing. No wonder we are told to read, read, read.
So--not wanting to crash my manuscripts--when a book resonates with me, inspires me, works for me, I analyze why the book "drives" so well. This helps me see how to put advice into practice when I take my stories out for a spin.
Take the book Jumpy Jack and Googily, for instance--written by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, and published in 2008 by Henry and Holt. This picture book makes for a wonderful ride. The story's engine purrs. Here's what advice I see in action when I drive with Jumpy Jack and Googily.
ADVICE: Begin with a Problem.
Twenty-one words into the story and the problem is laid out like the plaid on Googily's pants. Jumpy Jack, Googily's friend and roommate, is sporting not only a brown-striped shell, but a crooked frown as well. "I'm nervous," Jumpy Jack confesses to his dear friend. "There could be a monster nearby and I'm scared of monsters."
With this, Meg Rosoff shows us how to begin a story in media res (Latin for "in the midst of things"). No set up. No expository blah-blah-blah. None of that pillow fluff stuff. Jumpy Jack and Googily's first few sentences simply present the reader with the character's problem. That makes the reader want to turn the page to find out how it'll all work out.
ADVICE: "Page" Your Story
Jumpy Jack and Googily slosh and plod toward home on a hilly terrain, encountering little obstacles along the way. Is there a monster behind the tree? Ready to pop out of the paddling pool? Staring through a letterbox? Poor Jumpy Jack. He's a bundle of nerves. But thanks to Googily, when you turn the page, each encounter finds our little slime-trail-leaving friend smiling again.
In this, Meg Rosoff shows us how to structure mini-scenes within a story. For Jumpy Jack and Googily each small episode begins on one page, has a middle on the second, then (turn the page) ends with the third and fourth. Having page turns at such strategic places within the plot builds suspense and keeps the story moving along.
ADVICE: Use Repetition Effectively
Jumpy Jack asks his friend Googily for help over and over again. Each time he does so with the decorum of a finely clad English gentleman. He would be grateful. He would appreciate it. He would feel better. Every time Googily replies patiently, reassuring his friend. "No monsters here," he says. Jumpy Jack sighs a "Phew!" in relief every time.
In this, Meg Rosoff shows us that a thread of repetition woven throughout a story makes the storyline feel like home, the characters feel like family, the setting feel like a view of our own backyard.
ADVICE: Use Humor
Jumpy Jack is afraid of monsters with dreadful smiles, horrible scary hair, and long tongues, right? Yet, our dear Jumpy Jack has no idea--n'er an inkling--that Googily is a monster that possesses these very attributes!
In this, Meg Rosoff shows us that the humor in our stories must be well thought out, fresh, clever.
ADVICE: Visualize the Text
Jumpy Jack's eye-spots twist in every conceivable direction. From beneath his wiry smile on his slug-like body, two buck teeth protrude. Big, blobby, blue Googily is attired in a green bowler hat, a red wristwatch, plaid trousers, pink socks, and pointy shoes. One arm drags behind him while the other totes an umbrella. And those goofy facial expressions as the two friends experience their day together--all make for a visual delight.
In this, we writers are shown that we need to see the possibilities within our text for an illustrator to work his or her magic. This we should do as we are outlining, planning, and writing our story, whether we are an illustrator or not.
ADVICE: End with a Twist
Little do we expect for Googily to be scared of anything. But surprise! As the two friends come to the close of their day, it is our brave Googily that sports a nervous frown. It's Googily that asks Jumpy Jack for help. It's Googily that declares, "I am frightened of socks." As the two of them peer under the bed to see if the frightful apparel is present, another twist is spun! The sock says, "Boo!"
In this, Meg Rosoff demonstrates that a simple, yet clever twist at the end of a story is like an elegant evening of dining ending with a delightful burp!