Behind the Scenes: “What’s the Big Idea?” by Donna McKinney

In today’s post, Donna McKinney hits one of my favorite topics—structure. I’m fascinated by the way playing with structure can open up your thinking and writing. Her book LIGHTS ON! started with a list of fascinating undersea creatures, but then she needed to find a way to shape the information to be engaging for kids.

“What’s the Big Idea?” – Finding the Story in a List of Bioluminescent Sea Creatures

by Donna McKinney

2022_MackenzieKernPhotography110I did not start to write for children until after I had worked for dozens of years as a science writer for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Somewhere along that science-writer career, I had a conversation with a Navy scientist who described glow-in-the-dark creatures who live in the deepest oceans. I was fascinated and stored that idea away in my weird animal facts file in my brain.

Years later after I had retired from the U.S. Navy and turned my attention toward writing for children, I dusted off that interesting glow-in-the-dark (the proper scientific name is bioluminescence) fact.

I began my research.

I wrote the first drafts of Lights On! in the fall of 2020. By early 2021, my critique partners were reading it and giving me feedback.

In the early drafts, I introduced to the reader all these interesting glow-in-the-dark creatures and all my carefully researched facts. I started sending the book to publishers.

No success.

One key factor was missing.

A critique during a Highlights workshop was the pivotal moment that helped me switch the manuscript onto the right track, to find the missing factor. I needed a story.

I had signed up for Highlights’ multi-week course “Writing Science and Nature for Kids and Teens” led by Heather Montgomery and Miranda Paul in the summer of 2021. This was an online workshop, one of many that Highlights offered during the Covid lockdown restrictions.

I submitted the Lights On! manuscript for the critique element of that workshop. During the critique session, Heather Montgomery told me I needed to figure out “What’s the big idea?” Otherwise all I had was a list of interesting sea creatures. A big idea would help me figure out how to create a framework—a structure— for the story.

The question Heather raised forced me to look at my manuscript differently. What WAS the big idea?

lights on£¡13

As the course continued, in every discussion with the other students and instructors, I kept asking myself “What’s the big idea?” for Lights On!

Finally I decided that even though my book was non-fiction, I could help it with a simple story arc. So I flowed in text that gave the book the feeling of moving through the course of a single day. I also structured the book so that the reader alternates between reading about what’s going on at the ocean’s surface and what is happening with the bioluminescent (glow-in-the-dark) creatures in the deep, dark ocean.

As I considered a story arc I assumed it needed to be complex. That almost froze my thinking. But the single day did it. The story arc didn’t need to be complex; it needed to be definite.

With these seemingly simple changes I had a story structure around which everything happened in one day from sunrise to sunset (showing a progression of time), from ocean floor to ocean surface. I even surprised myself. Answering the What’s the Big Idea? question had moved the manuscript from an “interesting list of sea creatures” to a true story. A page-turner.

lights on! coverPublishers agreed!

I submitted the manuscript to Yeehoo Press in late August 2021. I got an email from them expressing their interest a few days later. By mid-November we had signed a contract for Lights On!

As we worked through the revisions on the manuscript, my Yeehoo editor suggested giving the book an upturned format. I LOVED THIS. This meant the binding was on the top of the book instead of on the usual left side placement. The reader reads lines down the page from top to bottom (vertically) instead of the usual way across the page left to right (horizontally).

This upturned format allowed the wonderful illustrator, Daniella Ferretti, to show what was happening at the ocean’s surface and at the ocean depth – all in a single page spread. My editor noted that we could show the progression of the day from sunrise to sunset mainly through the art lighting. Both of these suggestions strengthened the book.

My editor also suggested flaps children could open to read more. I had written sidebar material in the original manuscript. My editor suggested that the sidebar material be covered with flaps – I loved this added feature—and so do my kid testers!

Lights On! released on April 28. It truly has been a team effort – from my critique partners to the Highlights workshop leaders to my editors at Yeehoo. I’m so proud of our finished product!

Congratulations to Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner, winner of PEW! THE STINKY AND LEGEN-DAIRY GIFT FROM COLONEL THOMAS S. MEACHAM by Cathy Stefanec Ogren from last week’s giveaway!


4 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “What’s the Big Idea?” by Donna McKinney

  1. Oooh, I’ve got to take a look at this one. I love the illustrator’s use of light here. I’ve also seen some really cool books with the upturned format, including Mel Fell and The Dirt Book. Thanks for sharing your process for this book, Donna! Heather’s great teacher.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved reading about your writing and revising process. Having the book published in an upturned format is brilliant. Finding the “big idea” is something I need to look at in my own writing. Congratulations on “Lights On”, Donna.

    Liked by 1 person

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