Monthly Archives: March 2016

And it was just right… The Rule of Three.

three little pigs

Three blind mice. Three little pigs. Three wishes. Most of us have figured out that three is a magic number in western culture. One theory has it that three is magic to us because that’s the triumvirate of family. That most basic mystery of man and woman equals child.

So we get three coins in a fountain. The three-act play. Three guesses. One-two-three go! Somehow, for whatever the reason,  three feels just right to us.

And it’s a number that you should take full advantage of as a writer, particularly if you write picture books. You can use three to make something feel completed and satisfying. Or you can break the “rule of three” to make something feel snappy or to make something feel prolonged. It creates rhythm in your language and in how your story unfolds.

Let’s look at some examples.

Here are the first few pages of “Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse” by Kevin Henkes. He works with three and variations of three to give his prose just the right rhythms.

lilly

LILLY loved school.

(page turn)

 She loved pointy pencils.

She loved the squeaky chalk.

And she loved the way her boots went clickety-clickety-click down the long, shiny hallways.

 Lilly loved the privacy of her very own desk.

 She loved fish sticks and chocolate milk every Friday in the lunchroom.

 And most of all, she loved her teacher, Mr. Slinger.

(page turn)

 Mr. Slinger was sharp as a tack.

He wore artistic shirts.

He wore glasses on a chain around his neck.

And he wore a different colored tie for each day of the week.

 “Wow,” said Lilly. That was just about all she could say. “Wow.”

 Instead of “Greetings, students” or “Good morning, pupils,” Mr. Slinger winked and said, “Howdy!”

 He thought that desks in a rows were old-fashioned and boring. “Do you rodents think you can handle a semicircle?”

 And he always provided the most tasty snacks—things that were curly and crunch and cheesy.

 “I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” said Lilly.

“Me, too!” said her friends Chester and Wilson and Victor.

 Henkes is all over the Rule of Three here.

His first line is singular and definite. Lilly loved school.

Henke is using the power of one. One subject, one verb, one object. One sentence on the page. And then page turn.

Now he’s going to convince us of that singular declaration. So no paltry two or three examples. He lists six things that Lilly loves about school, ending with the most important: Mr. Slinger. Lilly really, really loves school!

And just how cool is Mr. Slinger. He’s not two or three kinds of cool. First he’s four kinds of cool. Before Henke’s breaks his pattern. At which point, all Lilly can say is “Wow.”

sharp as a tack

Then he’s three distinct kinds of cool. He’s cool in how he says “hi” in the morning. And notice that Henke gives three ways of saying “hi.” Then he goes into a different kind of sentence construction because he’s been playing with numbers a lot and we just get a straightforward declaration about how Mr. Slinger likes his room set up.

But then it’s back to numbers. His snacks are the best in three distinct ways. And Lilly doesn’t have one friend or two friends, but three.

 

It’s important to be aware of the moments in which you break from a pattern. Let’s go back to those pages about how cool Mr. Slinger is. First we get four quick examples. What if Henkes had gone on to five or six quick examples in a row. Maybe it would work, but there’s a good chance it would have gotten tedious and you, the reader, would have stopped absorbing the information.

So he takes a breath. (“Wow,” said Lilly.)

And now he goes into three more examples. Why not two or four here? Because he’s about to end this sequence, this line of thought, and he wants it to feel “just right.”

mr. slinger

You can work with the Rule of Three, not only in how you structure the rhythm of your prose, but in the structure of your story, as well.

I was very aware of the rule of three in my book “A Visitor for Bear” where Bear doesn’t want visitors, but a pesky mouse keeps showing up, pleading to be allowed to stay and join Bear for tea and cheese.

mouse in cupboard

I wanted Bear to really feel the pressure of this persistent Mouse. So, of course, I didn’t have Mouse pop up three times before Bear changes his mind. I didn’t want this to feel “just right.” I wanted it to feel extreme, so I had him show up one way or another five times in a row before Bear cracks.

Why not push it? How about six times? Actually I did have Mouse show up six times in my original draft, but the editor, rightly, felt it was too much. That one extra incident took the story from funny to starting to feel repetitive and tedious.

Many, many picture books or other simple stories (particularly folk and fairy tales) will have the hero (one of three brothers, of course) try to win the princess’s hand or discover Grandma’s true identity three times, before the plot turn. The fourth try being the one that works or that reveals the secret.

If your story is for the particularly young child, the third time might be the charm. Three tries with the third one being the successful one.

three walnut shellsHow exactly to play the numbers game is ultimately a matter of instinct, trial and error, and style. But you have a head start if you work your prose and your story line knowing the magic of three.

 

 

P.S. I’m conducting a picture book workshop, The Secret to Writing Great Picture Books, in Spokane on April 22, 2016 through the local SCBWI. It should be a blast and I think you’ll come away with a great start on your own picture book. Find out more about it here: https://inlandnw.scbwi.org/events/how-to-write-a-successful-picture-book/

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Bumps in the Night

Fairground - Phrenologist

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, phrenology is “the study of the conformation of the skull based on the belief that it is indicative of mental faculties and character.” I love the idea of having bumps on my skull that can be read carefully enough for “character analysis” (i.e., to explain my questionable behavior?) Reading bumps is as good a way as anything to explain the unexplainable, I guess. We love to understand things, even if we invent silly ways to do so.

Palm

As the English writer William Hazlitt once said,”The origin of all science is in the desire to know causes; and the origin of all false science and imposture is in the desire to accept false causes rather than none; or, which is the same thing, in the unwillingness to acknowledge our own ignorance.”

Should these bumps and grooves correspond to the “map” drawn by L.N. Fowler for his famous 19th-century “Phrenology” bust?  It includes Ideality, Sublimity, Cautiousness, Constructiveness, Causality, Hope, Acquisitiveness, Combativeness (hmmm…I can think of a few politicians lately that might have large bumps in particular areas of the skull….)

phrenology_bust_Fowler_107_Fleet_St_LF

As authors, we know how important it is to examine a character’s motivations, so it wouldn’t be satisfying to our readers if we said that someone like Anne of Green Gables had a bump right where the “Friendship” area is. We want a little more than phrenology to explain a character’s personality and actions. Otherwise, a novel would be built only on plots and bumps.

When I put my fingers up there – on my own cranium-  I’m not quite sure what I feel. How tiny or large must a bump be to qualify as a readable bump? Inquiring minds want to know. Let’s see…I think I feel a bump in the area marked “Gesture” and “Mimicry.” Mr. Fowler (first name: Lorenzo!) or the woman in the country-fair tent pictured above (“She will tell you what you want to know”) might suggest that a bump in that area means I have imitative tendencies. Do I lack originality?  Do I imitate? Or do I have an even larger bump within the section marked “Self-Criticism” that makes me believe I’m akin to a parrot?

Close-Up Phrenology

Sigh. I was hoping to find a bump just a little farther back, in the sections marked “Liberality” or “Hope.” A bump in “Wit” would be wonderful. Or maybe a bump by “Wonder.” Now a bump there  would be a good bump.

Sometimes late at night, with my head on the pillow, I feel a bump towards the far back behind my left ear. It’s near an area labeled “Extermination” and “Destructiveness” but that can’t be so. Maybe, maybe, I feel it slightly farther back and up….ah, yes…up past “Evasion” and into “Repose.”  A bump in “Repose” means I can stop worrying about bumps and fall asleep.

xjs-phrenology-web1

Apparently, the silly phrenologists got some things right – the area we now know as the parietal lobe is involved with calculation, the area of the hypothalamus has something to do with appetite, the amygdala goes hand in hand (or bump in bump) with combativeness.  Ambrose Bierce had a less generous approach to advocates of phrenology when he defined it as “The science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with.”

Still, Walt Whitman had his head “read,” as did Mark Twain and Clara Barton. Maybe at the time they did it for goofy fun, the way a group of friends would get Tarot readings now, though Clara was not known to be as goofy as Mark and Walt. Another goofy soul, Steve Martin, inspired his own “map”:

Martin-Phrenology

My sister gave me a ceramic Phrenology-by-Fowler head which I now keep on my desk, just in case I feel a bump when scratching my head in puzzlement about some writing project I’m involved in. I want to feel a huge bump in the area Steve Martin labeled “Author.” No luck so far, but I’m wondering now whether it counts if the bump is self-inflicted…? I’d have to aim it really carefully to hit the right area, otherwise I might just end up being a Human Cannon Ball.

THE SPELLBINDING MOMENT

The first time it happened I was at Girl Scout Day Camp, in the oak ravines of Tuolumne county. Camp Apalu. I was 11. We were standing in the closing circle, baking in the sun, when I noticed how beautiful Mrs. Walsh and her adopted daughter Donna were, right there beside me. I grabbed my trusty Brownie Starlight camera and turned it on the diagonal to capture this mother-and-daughter image bathed in sunlight.

I was careful to conserve my film, so I only took one photo of Mrs. Walsh and Donna. But I knew the love of a mother and her daughter would shine through with the intensity of thestainedglassma&child Madonna and Child in the stained glass window of the Little Red Church where I’d spent a few Sunday mornings daydreaming.

I was shocked when I opened my envelope of developed prints and saw Mrs. Walsh in curlers. daycampphotoNot at all what I had seen when I snapped the picture.

 Making art is about creating a vehicle that transfers the image in your head into someone else’s head — through photography, music, dance, art, story, film, etc. On that day at Camp Apalu, the yawning chasm between what I thought I saw and what the photograph recorded was disconcerting.

So you can imagine my delight when the spellbinding moment of imagination did come true.

In the process of creating artwork for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING, John and I traveled to Yellowstone last September, scouting locations. I had my sketch dummy in hand, based on images in books and Googled.

We watched for wolves in the LaMar valley during the day,jklamarheard them howl across the ridges in the evening, saw the full moon rise.

lamarnight

Then, driving through the park, I saw a ridge that looked just like the place I imagined Little Wolf first howled. How amazing! Luckily, this time the photo was the same as what I imagined I saw.

LW bench

We walked up and looked around, taking photos of the sage and grasses, the snags of dead trees and rocks. The specificity of these photos has informed the final art.

GHOSTYTREE

 

I have stood on the grassy bench where the Little Wolf of my imagination first howled.

I wonder if any of you have experienced this convergence of imagination and art in a life experience?

 

Meandering

GPS has changed my life. With the push of a button I no longer get lost and can find the quickest route anywhere.Paschkis rapid doodleJoe, my husband, dislikes GPS. He doesn’t mind getting lost and isn’t in a hurry. He likes to see what he will see.Paschkis dawdle doodleLately I’ve been trying to disable the GPS in my work. I’ve painted a series of accordion books that are basically long doodles with no destination in mind. Paschkis pencil doodleIn high school I bought a book of sketches by Maurice Sendak. Sendak played music and doodled and let his mind run free.sendak sketchessendak doodle Sendak said that you take other people’s vegetables and make your own soup. Some of the vegetables that went into my doodle soup are Pennsylvania Dutch fraktur,fraktur george speyer copya visit to the Art Brut show at the NY Folk Art Museum where I sketched,art brut inspirationa doodle correspondence with Margaret Chodos-Irvine in London – this is her drawing,chodos irvine doodlea trip to the wonderful Tail of the Yak in Berkeley,tail yak cardMargaret’s toy blog post in December,P1030411My hero Saul Steinberg,steinbergAll of these images and ideas swim around, find their way out of my head, through my hand and onto the paper  – surprising and entertaining me.paschkis crocodoodlepaschkis house doodlepaschkis falling dolls doodleWho knows where they will take me? I just want to enjoy the ride.Paschkis open seasLaura Kvasnosky sent me this poem several years ago:a man lost by a river

Happy Trails!