Behind the Scenes: “Using Placeholder Words and Stanzas until the Lightbulb Moment” by Debra Shumaker

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
  • warm-blooded
  • 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.

Opening spread jpeg

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.

Titi Monkeys

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)

38 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Using Placeholder Words and Stanzas until the Lightbulb Moment” by Debra Shumaker

  1. I love this insight. I love giving yourself permission to have placeholders and to keep researching. It helps demystify how these wonderful stories in rhyme come to be. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love FREAKY, FUNKY FISH and look forward to reading its new companion! I’m also glad to hear I’m not the only one who uses placeholders as they write – they literally work like detours around writer’s block.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This post is so helpful for knowing it’s okay to move on and continue researching and writing while your brain thinks about a solution. Thank you for showing the before and final texts.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kids love primates and this book will win the heart of many. Know my grandson would love this book because he loves animals. Enjoyed learning about Debra’s process and research! And the cover is very lively and inviting.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Debra, I loved Freaky, Funky, Fish. I look forward to reading Peculiar Primates. Thanks for sharing your process. I love your use of alliteration and rhyme to convey facts about primates. Congrats on your latest book.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Greetings from Georgia!
    Came across your post on twitter and I’m glad to have read this reflection. Our school hosts an annual Writing Team for grades 4 – 7 that focuses on narrative writing. We have a children’s author as a “writing coach” who presents writing master classes to our participants. I will definitely file your experience away to bring up to our young authors 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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