Mining for Heart: “Start with the Heart!” by Cathy Ballou Mealey

Thank you, Cathy Ballou Mealey, for sharing your process in writing WHEN A TREE GROWS. Besides the quest for heart, Cathy gives us a peek into how she worked out the unique structure for her concept. 

Cathy Mealey headshotAs I began writing WHEN A TREE GROWS, I envisioned a series of calamitous, connected events that would be pure kid entertainment. Initially inspired by the sound of a tree crashing in the forest while hiking with my family, I dreamed up many reasons why that tree had fallen in the first place. Lightning strike? Swarm of woodpeckers? Bigfoot?

Then I imagined what might happen next. I carefully plotted possible outcomes from Inciting Event A to Potential Consequences B1, B2 and B3. It was a fun, rather intensive brainstorming process that utilized lots of sticky notes and probability diagrams.

With a solid draft in hand, my third step was to make a picture book dummy. This helped me ensure the text was divided evenly on each page and that there was plenty of illustration potential in the settings, characters and perspectives. Again, this involved lots of paper, brainstorming and objective analysis.Book cover

After my agent sent the manuscript to the first round of editors, I heard a theme in their feedback that sent me back to square one. The text was funny with clear pacing and rhythm, but it needed a stronger heartbeat. I had to bring the emotional connection between the characters right up to the surface. Why would Squirrel miss Moose after his exciting adventures in the big city? Why does Moose swoop in to find Squirrel once he knew that his friend was unhappy? How would Squirrel express his appreciation?

Was I starring in the classic head-smacking vegetable juice commercial? Instead of thinking I could have had a V-8, I realized I should have been mining for heart! I had focused so intently on the technical aspects that I had overlooked working just as intensely on the emotional resonance.

WATG interior

Trimming, tweaking and revising commenced. I added many illustration notes, because the animal characters in WHEN A TREE GROWS have no dialogue. It was a great exercise in exploring creative show-don’t-tell techniques. The characters had to interact with their settings and each other in ways that demonstrated their relationships and their internal emotional states.

Voice, plot, pacing, kid appeal and all the other picture book “musts” are still integral to my writing process. But when developing new work from this manuscript forward, my motto will always be, start with the heart. I hope that motto will inspire your writing as well!


Come back next week for Perfect Picture Book Friday to learn more about WHEN A TREE GROWS.  


12 thoughts on “Mining for Heart: “Start with the Heart!” by Cathy Ballou Mealey

    1. “Miles ‘n miles n’ miles of heart” according to Eddie Fisher in “Damn Yankees!”

      What would I do without Google Jilanne? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Emotional resonance and emotional response. What I’ve been thinking about and trying to work. How to show it throughout a story.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You can do it Ashley! As I read new books I try to note the ways in which it is done. All different, all interesting! Thank you for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It recently clicked for me reading a book seeing the emotional reponse. I need go back and reread books to focus specifically on that. Thanks for the encouragement!

        Liked by 1 person

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