After a long hiatus, we return to the subject of writing exercises. As you may recall, I suggested that just a musician continues to do exercises long after achieving mastery of their instrument, we as writers should not overlook the value of writing for the purpose of practicing specific skills.
The first part of today’s exercise also lends itself to the category of “warm-up exercise,” the writer’s equivalent of the scales and flourishes that a pianist runs through at the beginning of a session.
Functionally, we will be exploring the different forms that children’s stories can take. We will be both learning from the masters and developing our own voices.
To begin, choose a favorite narrative picture book. The book should be one you love, as you’re going to be spending a lot of time with it, and one that has a clear plot (Goodnight Moon would not be a good choice!)
First round: transcribe the text of the book in manuscript form. That’s right, just copy it. (If you do your own writing in longhand, copy the book in longhand.) Copying the words changes the way you see them, making you very aware of the choices the author made. Pay attention to word length, sentence length, and paragraph length. Add an extra space for each page turn.
When you are finished, take the “manuscript” and look it over. What does the manuscript look like? How many pages, how many lines to a page and words to a paragraph are there? Chances are, if you have never done this before, that you will be surprised to see how short the complete text is! You may also discover the writer used techniques such as alliteration or internal rhyming that you never noticed when just reading the book.
Now, if you have a picture book manuscript in a drawer somewhere (don’t we all?) take it out and compare it, not in content but in form. You may want to overhaul your picture book, using the copy of the old favorite as a kind of template – at this point your exercise is, of course, no longer just an exercise.
Second round: choose another favorite from different story form. This could be a storybook, a fairy tale, a narrative poem or even a magazine story. If you know of one that has a similar plot line to the picture book you did first, so much the better. Go through the same exercise as you did with the picture book: transcribe the text, then analyze it.
When you have finished, compare the new “manuscript” with the picture book manuscript from the first round. Notice the differences in the shape of the text, the word choices and sentence lengths and those other details. Highlight or circle the ways the author included details which would have been carried by the illustrations in a picture book. Again, if you have written in this form, compare one of your manuscripts with the manuscript you have created from the published book.
Repeat this process several times, until you have created “manuscripts” for three or four different short narrative forms. For the last exercise of this part, transcribe a chapter from a middle-grade or YA novel, or a YA short-story. Do the same analysis of the text that you did for the others – shape, length, word choices, literary devices or techniques.
By now you have created a small collection of “templates” for various narrative forms. You have developed some awareness of how they differ from one another at a very foundational level. Hopefully some of what you have learned is already informing your own work! You can, of course, repeat this process endlessly, working your way through your own shelf of favorite books or authors. No doubt we can always learn something new from each story we dissect.
The next stage of this exercise, should you choose to venture into it, is to re-write your chosen picture book in the various forms you have now explored. Write it as a storybook. Write it as a poem. Write it as an easy-reader, a magazine story, or a play. Write it as a chapter in a middle-grade novel or a scene in a YA. (You will need to add details to replace the pictures, probably add characters and actions and emotions as the age of the reader rises.) This is a lot of work; it makes the most sense to spend your time practicing on the forms of narrative that you actually write.
Reversing this process is the fourth stage of this exercise, and it’s even more challenging – take a favorite middle grade or YA book, choose a chapter and rewrite it as a storybook, then a picture book. What do you have to strip away to make the narrative simple enough for the picture book form? What would you need to trust to the illustrator’s muse?