“Magnetic Poetry” Approach to Writing/Revising

"Magnetic Poetry" Revision

Back in February, I shared this photo on social media with the following comment: “I’ve been trying to wrangle my current project into something resembling a manuscript. So far, I have a bunch of disjointed images and ideas. Today, I typed them up, printed them out, and now I’m moving them around “Magnetic Poetry” style. This approach has worked for me in the past. Hopefully, I’ll discover my narrative arc by doing this. I’ve already had a couple of ideas pop up...”

Later I commented, “Well, that was successful! One hour later, I have a first draft! Yahoo!”

Many people were interested in my process and asked me to describe it in more detail. The following is what I shared. (I’ve been meaning to make this a blog post since then and never managed to get to it).

Basically, here’s what happened with this current project:

• I’ve been thinking about this project and researching intermittently since last summer.

• That means lots of ideas, images, and words come to me at random times- just before bed, while driving, etc.

• I jot those down wherever I can (on a library receipt, in “notes” in my phone, etc.)

• Before I lose track of those ideas, images, and words, I copy them into my project notebook. I write most of my drafts long hand, so I start a regular old composition notebook or spiral notebook for each project. (For those who are interested, I use my own version of this method outlined by Beth Anderson on her blog. I take notes for any research I do that is not on a computer in this notebook. https://bethandersonwriter.com/.../one-writers-journey.../ ).

• From these random notes, I begin to pull together a first draft.

• In this case, my notes were so random and disconnected that I was having trouble making sense of them. I was also bogged down by extraneous but interesting details that confused what I was trying to say.

• So, I typed everything up exactly as written. Some were phrases, some were images, there was even a random list of words I had brainstormed on my topic.

• I made it all 14-point font and printed out the 5 or so pages.

• Then I cut them all apart. I left phrases and sentences together but cut apart that random list of words.

• As I cut, I already started to notice some patterns and to find items I wanted to put together.

• I physically moved things around and clustered things that seemed to go together.

• I quickly noticed a whole bunch of items that did not need to be in there. They were merely part of my scaffolding (stuff I needed to write to get to what I wanted to write).

• I literally threw those items away so I no longer needed to consider them. (When they were in my notebook, I had to look at them over and over again. I kept trying to shoe-horn them into my manuscript.

• At a certain point, I could see the opening and the ending of the narrative, so I went and grabbed 8 sheets of paper to make a dummy book. I marked off pages for the back matter, the title page, and the copyright page.

• I used double-sided removable tape to put things where I felt they belonged. I literally placed the opening and the ending first, then I went back to see what should go in the middle. (I’ve used this “Magnetic Poetry” approach before, but I haven’t skipped to the dummy book at this stage. I did it because it felt right). Because I used removable tape, I could easily move things around. Once I had the opening and closing set, I could easily see how much space I have left to fit everything else in the middle. (Also, I noted where I needed to do more research).

• I threw away all of the slips of paper that no longer felt useful and saved some in an envelope in case I want to use them later.

• I typed up a whole new draft (now it really is a manuscript) using the dummy book. I noted the 4 spreads that need more work.

• Now I’m carrying that version around with me to read and revise. I’ve already cut 4 more lines that I can see are not needed.

One final comment that didn’t seem to fit with my step-by-step summary: This is going to be a book with layered text. There will be a narrative arc in one layer of text and there will be expository text below that digs into the details. (Maybe imagine it as a line of text that goes along the top of the pages with something like sidebars below, where kids can learn more about the science being referenced in the narrative). A kid can read the book from start to finish by reading only the narrative text, or they could read only the facts detailed in the expository text, or some combination of both.

Haying Experiences Turned into a Picture Book Manuscript

Virtually everyone who has ever tried to write a story has been given the advice, "Write what you know." This phrase means different things to different people- for example, some people have literally had an experience they describe in a piece of fiction while others may have experienced the emotion their characters are feeling, if not the same experience.

Lately, I've been immersed in the first scenario. That is to say, I'm writing a fiction picture book with made up farmers who need to bring in hay before a rainstorm, but I have experienced bringing in hay every summer for my entire life. I know what 'bringing in the hay' is like and therefore can write about it with authenticity and authority.

Many years ago, the seed of this idea was planted in my mind. It first came to me in September, so I started by writing from memory. In my mind, I went back to previous summers and recorded sensory details I remembered. Some came from my childhood, some from my adulthood, and some from memories of my children helping.  I have notes in my journal from these first attempts in September of 2006, and then in February of 2007 when I started to consider possible plot points. But the real work didn't come until I did "in the field" research. In June of 2007, 2008, and 2011 I brought my notebook to the hay fields and took notes in real time. I was amazed by the things I didn't include in my notes from memory. Most notably, I didn't include sounds, so I especially focused on those during last summer's research.

I simply recorded facts and details and let them percolate. Finally, after several fits and starts, the basic outline of a story came to me. I wrote it as quickly as I could and then I went back and reviewed all of my notes to see what I had missed. 

I'm now working on draft twelve of this manuscript and it's still not done. And when I say draft, I mean that each version is substantially different than the one that came before. Sometimes I changed the narrator, or the point of view, or I changed it from past tense to present tense. Other times I removed a whole scene or completely changed the ending or beginning. And this is a manuscript that at its longest has never been more than 1,000 words. Very few sentences (if any) are the same as they were when I first drafted this story. It's currently hovering around 650 words, though I need to rework the beginning again.

Some days I've been frustrated, sure, but mostly I've been excited. I LOVE revision because oftentimes that's when I truly find my character's story. And every time, I know I'm making it better. I rely heavily on my critique group and other trusted readers to to tell me when things are working and when they aren't,  but I always look to my characters to tell me if I'm telling their story "true."

Last Saturday my dad let us know he'd be taking in hay on Sunday, so you can be sure I showed up with my camera again. They had plenty of help, so I watched. I didn't take notes this time, rather I played my story in my mind as they worked. I asked myself if Kate (my main character) really could see the things I describe her seeing if she were sitting on her dad's lap driving the tractor. I watched the guys on the wagon stacking bales to be sure my descriptions were accurate. And I listened to the sounds again to see if I had them right. I also took loads of photographs for reference later.

I did all of this because setting is very important to me as a reader and as a writer. In many of my stories, the setting becomes almost another character- that's the naturalist in me coming out. I want readers to really feel like they're out there bringing in hay. 
Lest you think haying is all fun and games...check out those bits of hay heading straight to my son's nose. Hayfever anyone?
To learn more about haying, please read last year's post, Haying Season. In it, I share details of the process and suggest ways you can get involved.

To read about inspiration for a different picture book manuscript, please read Adoption Insensitivity.