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.