April 12, 2016

Friday, December 13, 2013

5 Questions for Kelly Bingham (Part 2)

Happy Poetry Friday, Writerly Friends!

First, some good news. My middle grade novel-in-verse, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, earned a spot in Pitch Wars! What is Pitch Wars? Read this post.

Before you throw that snowball, stop by Tabatha's place,
The Opposite of Indifference. Tabatha is hosting
this week's Poetry Friday party.
I am very excited to be mentored by playwright and MG novelist Joy McCullough-Carranza. I will also get to know the work of my fellow Team #JoyNTriumph (we're working on that team name) mentees, Davy DeGreeff and Lyudmyla Mayorska. You can read Joy's description of all three team projects at her blog.

Speaking of novels-in-verse, Shark Girl author Kelly Bingham returns today for more of our interview. Yesterday, Kelly gave us wonderful insights into how she constructed the plot for her sequel, Shark Girl Returns (find Part 1 here). Today, we'll talk about the visual elements of a verse novel, as well as Kelly's uproarious twist on ABC books, Z is for Moose.

Welcome back, Kelly!

5 Questions for Kelly Bingham (Part 2)

Amok: Although the Shark Girl books are in verse, you also use letters, text conversations, and email threads in the novels. I like the way that these voices contrast with Jane's yet she rarely comments on the letters (many of which are from her Shark Girl "fans"). Can you talk about how these other text features create tension in Jane's story?

Fan-created book trailer for Shark Girl.

Bingham: My goal was to simply break up the sameness of having poem after poem for 300 pages. An instructor at Vermont College suggested it. I had already included some letters in the book, and she urged me to expand the letters, include more of them, and to find other forms of writing as well. That's when Jane's inner conversations with herself were born. Also, newspaper articles and phone conversations. And in the second book, there are texts as well.

I hope that these things give the reader a visual rest from the poetry. As for story, I feel that these "extra" things are the only way we can exit Jane's head and see things from a perspective other than her own. All the poetry in Shark Girl comes through Jane's eyes... her personal filter. The non-poetry parts are there to tell us things Jane wouldn't ordinarily mention. A newspaper article can fill us in on facts, dates, and locations; things that Jane would not include in her own narrative without sounding unnatural. Phone conversations can engage us as readers by having us listen to what's being said, and then reading between the lines and picking up on unspoken emotions. It is my hope that these pieces invite the reader to connect the dots and figure out for themselves what Jane is avoiding, or not saying.

I particularly like the arguments Jane has with herself in her head. Don't we all have that voice? That nagging, "If only" voice? Jane has something in her that wants to dwell on the terrible thing that happened to her, and to magnify and brood on all the ripple effects she now faces. And for a while, Jane listens to that voice and feels victimized and depressed.

I hoped for an uplifting, empowering moment when, near the end of the book, Jane firmly tells that voice to shut up and go away. Of course, she did not get to that point overnight. I tried to show a graduation separation from that "if only" way of thinking she'd been caught up in. Jane takes baby steps, but finally moves on, and hopefully that scene resonates with readers.

That's a long answer, all to say: I use those other elements to break up the story, to lend a different point of view, so the reader can pick up information that Jane doesn't share with us herself, and to show a progression of Jane's healing, a growth of her belief system.

Amok: I just bought copies of your hilarious picture book, Z Is for Moose, for all of the young readers in my family. I'm looking forward to the sequel, which comes out in 2014. Where did you get the idea for this book? What was it like switching from a serious YA novel-in-verse to a light-hearted (and sparely worded) picture book for little guys?

Bingham: Thank you! I got the idea for this book when my son was three and learning his ABCs. I went to the library and got all the ABC books I could find. There weren't many to choose from. We read them over and over. Only a couple were funny. The rest were pretty straightforward. (This was ten years ago!)

When we'd read all the library books, my son said, "I like funny books. Can you get me another funny book?"

I went back to the library, but that was it for ABC books. I couldn't find him a funny one, so I decided to write this for him. I wrote it by sketching it out in comic book form, so we would have a little booklet to look at together at night.

I knew he would like crazy, wacky things happening, so that's what I made happen. I also knew he'd respond to the moose acting up and disrupting things, creating surprises on every page. I had a great time writing it for him, and because it was just for us, I didn't sweat it or worry about what was good or what someone else might think.

So, even though I was switching gears, it was easy. I never wrote this book with the intention of writing a REAL book that I would show anyone else. I felt no pressure and had no expectations from myself. And that was good, because if I had, I'm sure I would have become too frozen in anxiety to write the book at all. I never thought of myself as a picture book writer up until that point, so I also felt I didn't have any business taking the manuscript too seriously.

Later, I showed the book to many friends and they all convinced me to send it to someone. I was shocked, but took their word for it. I wrote the book up in manuscript form and found a wonderful agent who sold the book right away. It was my first sale!

It turned out that it would be eight more years before Moose hit the shelves, and during that time I finished Shark Girl and sold it and made some big changes in my life. By the time Moose cam out, my son was 13 and of course didn't remember the book anymore. But I dedicated the book to him.

Amok:  How does your background as a story artist for Disney help you as a picture book author and as a poet? What can you share with other authors about telling a clear story, but leaving white space -- both for the illustrator and for the reader to participate in the story?

Bingham: Great question!  My advice, as general as it may be, is:  Don't be afraid of white space.

I would like to add, don't be afraid of ANYTHING, period, when drafting.  When you are drafting is the time to explore. I think sometimes we are afraid to experiment with being dramatic, or even being hilarious, because we think we may come off as pretentious or stupid or fall flat on our faces. But drafting is exactly the time to fall on our faces, because it's all entirely private, and because sometimes, the act of falling on our faces leads to something unexepectedly, wonderfully exciting. We need to step outside our boxes from time to time in order to push our writing into growth. That doesn't mean we have to try something drastically different than we feel comfortable with. (Although, we could!) We could take baby steps, and that would be fine. But when you find yourself holding back out of fear of not quite being able to do what you want, then stop yourself. Just try it. Experiment with a thousand different takes and see what happens--you may be wonderfully surprised! Always be open to exploring new territory.

As for white space in particular, consider it one of your tools, just as much as text, spacing, punctuation, italics, and dialogue are tools.  You can use white space for dramatic or comic effect in many ways.  Grab some poetry novels or picture books and flip through, looking to see if the author has used the white space in any meaningful way. If so, analyze it. Learn as much as you can.

When something dramatic is happening in your book and things are getting heavier and heavier, sometimes a page of nearly all white space is a period on the end of a long sentence you would like your reader to absorb and let settle.  Sometimes it's a rest--both visual and mental--until you turn the page and resume your dramatic, grueling journey.

Sometimes white space can indicate (in a novel) thought or reflection on the part of your main character.  It can be used to indicate hopelessness, distance, regrouping, or overwhelming grief. It can indicate a passage of time. It can be used for many things, and maybe you are the person who will use it to brand new effect in your book!

I think white space can also be used in picture books as both aiding the story and the illustrations.  White space can make something pop, to stand out in a very clear way--something you want your reader to pause and really notice.  It can be used as a silent beat, a reason to catch your reader's attention and help them slow down, then wind-up for the surprise that's coming when they turn the page--perhaps a very colorful illustration that pops out at you right at the same time the story climaxes, for example.

As for the first part of your question:  My time at Disney helped me tremendously in ways I can't quite articulate fully.  For one thing, I spent 12 years surrounded by some of the smartest, most talented storytellers you could ever hope to meet. I absorbed a ton of knowledge by watching everyone around me work.  We made mistakes and threw them away every single day. 

And I learned lessons that apply to writing: 

  • Nothing is ever successfully rushed--always take your time. 
  • Everyone has something to contribute. 
  • New ideas often come from unlikely places. 
  • Sometimes starting over is the best path to follow. 
  • When one story area is so problematic that you can't figure it out at all, maybe you need to look at what comes before and after--that may be where the problem lies. 
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. 
  • Don't guard your lovely, wonderful, precious ideas--sometimes being open to new ideas from others will lead to a greater story than you have now.

Love what you do and surround yourself with others who feel the same way.

As for the specifics of storyboarding; the skills used in boarding are skills also used in writing.  In boarding, you block out your action in panel after panel, like a comic book.  You choose lighting, staging, camera angle, expression and action, all to convey a single moment in one sketch.  You string these sketches together, and soon people are able to see how you imagine your story playing out.

Working this way allows you to see sagging areas that need trimming, or areas that are confusing, perhaps areas that rush by too quickly.  Maybe you see that you tend to stick with the same camera angle too much and that you need to spice things up a bit.

I fully believe my complicated "bulletin board" system is an offshoot of this storyboarding system, and I am grateful for it.

You don't have to be an artist to storyboard, either.  For anyone out there who is writing a picture book, I suggest you try either boarding your story out, or making a rough dummy.  You may find the process stimulates other creative parts of your brain and helps you problem-solve or tighten.  Certainly the process of making a dummy will have you think about page turns and how much text goes on each page, and why.

Moose can't wait for the M page.
Art by Paul O. Zelinsky
And again--if you are a writer (not an illustrator) then no one will see these dummies or boards but YOU. So feel free to let your creative self go and explore and see what happens.  No one will laugh at you, I promise!

Thanks for all of the encouragement, Kelly, and for stopping by Author Amok.

 Readers, Moose has taken over my blog! Due to a Blogger glitch, the phrase "Moose can't wait for the M Page" is dancing around my screen. Please excuse Moose if he interrupts the interview. He's just excited about visiting Author Amok.


Veronica Bartles said...

I love that Z IS FOR MOOSE was written just for yourself and your son originally. My debut novel (coming out next year - eep!) was intended to be one of those "just for me" books, and it turned out to be one of the best things I'd ever written up to that point. I think we are more fearless and let ourselves explore creatively when we take away the pressure and write "just for ourselves" first. :)

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Thank you Laura and Kelly for such an interesting and absorbing interview. I've learned a ton, which is saying a lot considering the fact that not many questions were asked! Thank you, Laura, for asking "the right" questions and thank you, Kelly, for providing such depth in your responses. I read Moose some time ago, so it was fun learning the history behind that book, and now I'm eager to read Shark Girl as well!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

PS, So cool to be involved in Pitch Wars, Laura! Sounds like you're going to have a totally awesome experience, and I look forward to al of your updates along the way!

Keri said...

Wonderful questions and terrific interview! I love her advice about not being afraid. Thanks!

Kelly Bingham said...

Thank you, everyone, and Laura too! I enjoyed being part of Poetry Friday!

Tabatha said...

People talk about writing a book they would want to read -- how wonderful that Kelly actually followed through with it!

I like her consideration of white space as a tool -- good point. Kelly is a great interviewee.

Also, congrats on Pitch Wars!

Author Amok said...

I'm grateful to Kelly for her openness during this interview. I also loved the story behind Z Is for Moose and recently found some of the hand-made books I put together when my son was a toddler. Michelle -- thanks for the vote of confidence!

Linda B said...

I went back to read yesterday's too, Laura. Both are wonderful interviews, so much helpful information here, giving me hope for different projects I'm doing. When I said on FB I hadn't seen the 2nd one, I meant the 2nd Shark Girl. I have M Is For Moose-just wonderful, and I loved Shark Girl, thought it very powerful. I had a student once who had an accident and an arm amputated-wish I would have had the book for him then. Thanks for all, Laura and Kelly!

Robyn Hood Black said...

Wow - I just love these two posts. Thank you, Kelly and Laura! I'll be recommending to others as well. Love the toggling back and forth between how the visual elements & white space inform/help tell the story.

And, Go, Moose!
AND, Go, Laura! Congrats and best wishes for your book.

Diane Mayr said...

White space is, for me, supremely important, too. I'm so happy to see Kelly talk about it. (Now, if she can only tell me how not to get too hung up on the looks of a poem on a page, I'd surely appreciate it.)

Kelly Bingham said...

Thanks again, everyone! I'm glad you enjoyed the interview and my stories. Courage and great luck to us all in out writing journey!