I absolutely loved Debra Shumaker’s book, FREAKY, FUNKY FISH, so when I learned of her new one, PECULIAR PRIMATES, I invited Debra back in hopes she might share something about it. Her topic in this post is valuable not only for authors, but educators, too! I get stalled way too easily and frequently on imperfect words or phrases in my early drafts.
Debra is also offering a GIVEAWAY—a copy of PECULIAR PRIMATES!! Leave a comment below to enter the drawing.
Congratulations to Ashley Sierra, winner of ALL SHEEP ARE NOT BORING! from illustrator Julie Rowan-Zoch!
Using Placeholder Words and Stanzas until the Lightbulb Moment by Debra Shumaker
I was thrilled when Running Press Kids asked if I was interested in writing about primates as a companion book to FREAKY, FUNKY FISH. Of course I said “Yes!”
I knew I wanted this primate book to have the same “feel” as FREAKY, FUNKY FISH: the same meter and rhyme scheme, starting with common features before focusing on the strange and unusual, and the last set of facts having a nighttime scene to give the book some sort of narrative arc before the conclusion.
So I dove into research and tackled the opening, taking notes on what primates had in common. I wrote:
- hair or fur
- produce milk
- birth live babies
- care for their young
- breathe air
- no paws but hands and feet
- many live in trees
Playing with the various facts and possible rhyme of air/hair, I wrote:
All primates nurse
and breathe in air.
They have big brains
and fur or hair.
I was not comfortable with “nurse” but needed a one syllable verb that all primates had in common. That’s all I could come up with. While “nurse” was accurate, to me it was an awkward beginning for a young audience and my critique group thought the same. Imagining the illustration, I envisioned school visits could be a bit uncomfortable, lol.
But, I decided to use “nurse” as a placeholder so I could move on to the rest of the story. I hoped that, as I delved deeper into the research, another common feature would become apparent.
So I moved on. While researching unique features for the body of the book, I played close attention to options for a nighttime scene. I read that bonobos wove a nest each night, fell asleep on their backs, and held onto a branch with one foot as they slept. Bingo!
So I wrote:
One weaves itself
a nest each night,
then goes to sleep
by holding tight.
It was a nighttime scene, the meter and rhyme worked, but rereading it, I realized I didn’t love it. I typically didn’t use four lines to cover one adaptation. But at least I had something down. It became another placeholder so I could focus on the main part of the book. Hopefully, I would find another primate feature to rhyme with night, but at least I had something.
Through versions 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 those placeholder words and lines bugged me. Every time I sent the story to my critique groups, I always noted “I do not plan on keeping ‘nurse’ and I’m looking for another primate feature to rhyme with night, but what do you think of the rest?”
I started to solidify the body by reviewing/confirming my facts so I could write the back matter. As I got closer and closer to feeling “done”, I began to worry I was going to be stuck with those placeholders. They worked, but I didn’t like them.
Finally, while rereading my notes, a lightbulb moment—all primates climb! A one-syllable verb! One little word and my opening spread was SO much better.
Then, a second lightbulb moment. I reread a line in my notes that stated “Titi monkeys twine their tails together when they sleep.” Hmm, could I use that? Yes! And bonus—nice alliteration to close the story.
My new nighttime spread became:
Some primates build
a nest each night,
while others sleep
with tails twined tight.
I now had a manuscript free of my placeholders. Once I finished the back matter, I sent PECULIAR PRIMATES it off. A few months later I had a contract—and no changes to the text was needed. Success.
Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of PECULIAR PRIMATES. (Continental US addresses only, please. Winner announced 12/9/22)