Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Kate Hannigan's Story-Building Recipe: Today's Wednesday Writing Workout

Today’s Wednesday Writing Workout on how to turn an idea into a satisfying story was cooked up by Chicago debut novelist Kate Hannigan.  The timing is perfect: Kate’s CUPCAKE COUSINS (Disney-Hyperion) releases this Friday, May 9, with an official 2:30 pm cupcakes-included launch at 57th Street Books in Hyde Park in Chicago, if anyone’s in the area (1301 E. 57th St.) J

Kate also blogs at Author Of, interviewing fellow authors of books for young readers of all ages.

Illustrated by Brooke Boynton Hughes, CUPCAKE COUSINS tells the story of almost-10-year-old cousins Willow and Delia who have been asked to be flower girls and wear bright pink dresses for their aunt’s upcoming wedding.  But the cousins would much rather don white aprons and be flour girls, whipping up some culinary magic to share with their entire family.  Scrumptious recipes for whoopee pies, peach pancakes and other tasty treats are included.

Kate’s next release is in April 2015: THE DETECTIVE’S ASSISTANT (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), an historical fiction middle grade novel.

Kate also co-authored with Karen Duncan the community service book THE GOOD FUN! BOOK (Blue Marlin) which offers 12 months of parties kids can throw to help their communities and the world.

Thanks to Kate, for sharing her writer’s recipe for story-building with our TeachingAuthors readers. Her tips are write-on!

Finally I can say, what I knew I'd say some day,
having had the honor of working with Kate on earlier manuscripts:
Hurrah! Hooray! 
Kate's on her way!
Esther Hershenhorn

PS: Reminder from Carmela: If you haven't entered our current giveaway yet, when you're done reading Kate's terrific WWW, be sure to check out Jill Esbaum's post about her most recent publication, Angry Birds Playground: Rain Forest (National Geographic Books), and enter for a chance to win your own autographed copy. 
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Kate Hannigan’s WWW

A hot mess.

Whenever I’m just starting out with an idea, but it’s got no shape or clear direction, I call it a hot mess. It’s a bubbling stew of characters and plot twists and good intentions. But it’s definitely not a story yet.

So how do we take a hot mess of a book idea and turn it into an actual manuscript?

Lots of writers have ideas and techniques that work: You can find sites that offer up tools for outlining or worksheets or even fancy methods with clever names. But you also might benefit from a simpler, broad-based sketch. You’ll know what works best for you as you try them out.

I have a few exercises that help me move from brain hiccups to first drafts, and I’ll share them here. They involve distilling ideas to their essence, literally sketching out the story arcs with little arrows and rainbow curves, and old-school outlining.

When I came up with the idea for Cupcake Cousins, I was driving on the highway between Chicago and Western Michigan, where the book is set, and letting my mind wander. But it wasn’t until I had quiet time to put pencil to paper that I could begin to see an actual story take shape.

You’ll hear plenty of naysayers who distrust the notion of outlining. “It’s too confining,” they complain. “I like to let my characters take me wherever they’re going,” they declare. Sure, but remember that those are the kind of people who run with scissors, who leave the house without a hat and eat high-cholesterol dinners.

Let ’em partake in such risky behavior. Because as they’re enjoying the wind-in-the-hair rush of chasing their unruly characters, you’ll be too busy getting yours lovelies from Point A to Point Z to pay them any notice. And before long, you’ll have a solid first draft of a manuscript while they’re still lost on a literary back road.

I’m a Type A person trapped in a Type B body, so you won’t hear me advocating for a rigid outlining regimen. But I will say that distilling, sketching, and outlining saved me and my stories. And I won’t begin a project without first coming up with the wire hanger on which to hang my story.

Here’s a simple three-part exercise I do when I want to get my middle-grade story started, moving from hot mess of an idea to tangible first draft in hand.

1. Start with one sentence. Distill your book into one simple sentence. Two cousins are tired of being treated like babies, so they try to prove themselves through amazing feats of baking. This helps you focus in on the essence of your book. And simple language can be repeated: imagine your potential book editor walking down the hall to another cubicle and pitching your one-sentence summary to her neighbor.

2. Sketch out your story arcs. Seriously, grab a paper and pencil and start drawing curvy arcs. What does your main character learn over the long journey of your book? She starts out at Point A as what kind of person? And where is she at the story’s end? What about sub-characters? What do they want? How are they changed?

If you’re a visual learner like me, you might benefit from seeing the way these story arcs rise and fall. And if you are setting up a lot of story threads, these sketches can help you make sure when and where you’re going to tie them off.

3. Flesh out your idea with an outline. Going from one-sentence summary to 30,000-word novel is an overwhelming notion. If you’re like me, you might get completely flummoxed at this point and bail on your project entirely. Don’t. Instead, create a simple outline of the book.

And start by giving yourself some parameters, like word count. Early middle-grade books tend to hit about the same length. Let’s say you’re shooting for 28,000 words. Divide that total over 10 chapters, and you’re looking at writing 2, 800 words for each chapter. That’s a manageable target, right? Now you have a daily writing goal.

But what do you want to say? Before you begin doing the writing, you have to do some heavy lifting – think of it as arranging the furniture. What are the 10 touch points you want to hit on in your book? Build your outline by writing down a quick one- or two-sentence summary of what needs to happen in each chapter as you move from the story’s beginning to end.

Chapter 1: Willow stares at the ugly flower girl dress and determines she won’t wear it for the wedding. She and Delia can’t wait to get into the kitchen so they can cook their way out of these dreadful gowns.

Chapter 2: Cat the new caterer appears in the kitchen, and she’s intimidating. But Willow and Delia aren’t convinced Cat knows how to make things as good as they do, so they “fix” her lemonade. The results are disastrous.

And so on.

Be flexible. Say you decide your chapters are too long for the pace you’re setting. So instead of 10 chapters of roughly 2,800 words each, you’re going to write about 20 chapters with 1,400 words per chapter and zip right along.

Go back to your original outline and divide each chapter idea in half:

Chapter 1: Willow stares at hideous pink dress and determines she won’t wear it for the wedding. Family heads off for vacation in Michigan with Willow feeling frustrated.

Chapter 2: Willow and Delia meet up, extended family too. Aunt Rosie is crazy for the pink dresses while Willow and Delia are plotting NOT to wear them. They race off to the kitchen together, where they believe their true talents can flourish.

Chapter 3: Inside the kitchen. The girls hear the screen door open, and they meet the new caterer, Cat. She poses a threat to their plan for cooking their way out of the ugly dresses.

            Chapter 4: The cousins tinker with Cat’s lemonade to disastrous results, getting    
            them off on the wrong foot with her and ousted from her kitchen.

And so on.

Outline as roadmap. Creating a reliable, functional outline doesn’t have to lock you in. There is still the freedom to let your creative voice take you places. But it does help you stay focused on your destination. While we might enjoy a Sunday drive in the country, we eventually need to get to where we’re going, right? Let the outline serve as your roadmap.

Flesh out your ideas even more with each pass. As you refine your outline, flesh out the ideas for each chapter in greater and greater detail, making sure to pace out the tension and conflict as you go. With each pass, your outline details should grow from just a few sentences into a few longer paragraphs.

Almost writing itself. When it comes time to sit down and begin writing your manuscript, you’ll might be surprised how clearly focused your story is. The book could almost right itself! Okay, that’s not true, but you are in good shape because of your outline. You can see where your action peaks and where you provide the reader a rest. You can see where you’ve laid in turning points and tension, and where you’ve set up and then resolved the conflict.

Outline into manuscript. As you keep refining your outline and begin the writing process that makes the chapters hang together, you’ll see your great idea transform into a real story. And that story will soon take the shape of a solid, working draft.

And from there, you can just imagine the book it will soon become. You’re off and running! But not with scissors; you’re too smart for that.


Jill said...

Wow, so very helpful, Kate! And congratulations on your book. :)

Andrea Mack said...

Thanks for these great writing tips! So useful!

jan godown annino said...

Kate, please make my cupcake caramel/orange? Virtually, cause I can't get by 57th Street Books so readily.

And thank you with icing on top for the way out of my own Hot Mess of middle grade story ideas. It will be a lot of hard work but it clears a path.
One Sentence to Arcs to Outline. Got it!

Very excited for your debut with Willow & cousins in the tasty sounding CUPCAKE COUSINS. Brava!

JB said...

Fantastic. Love the run with scissors bit. Wish I could be one of those. Not going to happen. Congratulations on tomorrow, a day early... not to mention on everything else!