writers can learn a lot from a dummy

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Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Back in the late 1900s, there was a clever public service announcement encouraging seatbelt use. It featured crash test dummies and the tagline “You can learn a lot from a dummy.”

Fast forward to, well, right this very minute. When I hear the word dummy, I think of a mini mock-up of a picture book, not a badass mannequin.

Some of my friends write picture books exclusively. (If you must know, I admire/loathe them all. Blast their bundles of talent! Promise not to repeat that, okay?) While, I, on the other cramped hand, write picture books illusively. Meaning, I get a won’t-go-away idea. I do my best to puzzle the idea into a manuscript and then tinker with it until it begs for mercy. Then rinse and repeat. It is never easy or pretty. But, Seuss help me,  it brings me a perverse, inexplicable delight when I finally pin that butterfly of an idea to the board. Making a dummy helps me get to that point.

Whether you and picture books are going steady or you only hang out when the mood strikes,  dummy-making may be wise for you too.

Smart dummy pointers . . .

  • Do not waste a nanosecond worrying about your inability to draw. Dummies are designed to be tools, not  objets d’art.
  • Illustrators need a dummy. Writers need a dummy. All God’s children need a dummy (more or less).
  • If your picture book word count needs a serious count down, making a dummy can really help. You can easily see which words are keepers and which are just leftovers. Aim for 500 or less–a whole heap less.
  • Dummies will also tell you if your cute or clever idea is robust and active enough to sustain a 32-page page-turner.
  • For a tip-top primer on how to make a dummy, visit this blog post from picture book author extraordinaire Tara Lazar.
  • At a recent SCBWI event, I picked up this cool trick from masterful picture book author Kelly DiPucchio. Once Kelly has a decent draft, she prints it and cuts out each line, then uses an existing 32-page picture book (any one will do) to check her pacing. She paperclips or lightly tapes her lines into the book to see how well her story fits the format. If not, she can tailor and tighten or expand.

You simply must be convinced of a dummy’s brilliance by now.

And so, my little cummerbund of cuteness, my bon vivant of brilliance, do you dare devise a dummy? Indeed, I hope you do.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. ~ Steve Jobs

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