By Michelle Cusolito
If you haven’t read HeatherMontgomery’s post about picture book dummies, I encourage you to read it before you read mine. Heather went over the basics of making PB dummies. I’m going to dig into how I use dummies to improve my work with the hope that it will give you ideas for revising your nonfiction picture books.
Before I start, I want to say that I am not an illustrator, so I’m not only talking about dummies with sketches included. I don’t even draw simple stick figures as many people suggest. I think that’s a great idea. Do that if it works for you. In my case, it doesn’t feel like the best use of my time. Despite being a writer, I’m a very visual person, so I can visualize what might be on each page as I move my words around. As long as you make sure you have the correct number of pages (typically 32), there is no “right way” to make a picture book dummy. Some people use clip art to indicate what might be there, others drop in photos they find on-line, while others do full out sketches. Do what works for you.
I would like to encourage you to do one thing though: take the time to try out making a physical dummy vs. a digital one, at least once. You might discover that you tap into some creativity when working analog that you can’t access when working digitally. This is definitely true for me. I return to old fashioned paper and scissors and tape often. Check out this post for a detailed description of a method I often use to make sense of my PB ideas before I get to the dummy stage. http://www.michellecusolito.com/blog/2019/7/31/magnetic-poetry-approach-to-writingrevising
I use dummies at various stages in my writing process. Most often, I start making a dummy when I have a reasonably put together draft with a solid beginning, middle, and end. At that point, I’m usually trying to work out the pacing and then I move on to wordsmithing. But I have occasionally used a dummy to work out the structure or flow of the whole book before I have even written a draft. I try to do whatever is best for each book. If I have a fleeting thought that I should dummy it up, even though I don’t have a full draft, I stop and go for it. I figure my intuition knows something.
I’ll share two examples:
I dummied up Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible Alvin, once I had a fully fleshed out (but not very good, yet) manuscript. The structure and POV/voice came to me first. Then, once I had written and revised many drafts, I turned to a dummy.
In these images you can see how my opening pages changed from the first dummy to the later one (and even then, I still did a LOT more revising). Right away, you’ll notice how different these pages are from each other, but I also encourage you to compare these pages to what actually ended up in Flying Deep. Much of the original was ultimately cut, but if you read closely, you’ll notice that some of the things that were once in the opening pages now appear later in the book. Certain things about a dive day must happen in sequence, but there are many details I added that did not have to be shared at a specific time. I moved them when it made sense for comprehension or pacing.
In the case of my second (sold) book, Diving Deep: Using Machines to Explore the Ocean (Charlesbridge 2022), I used a dummy to figure out the structure and pacing before I had a real first draft. I had some opening lines, a general idea of what would be in the middle, and some closing lines. When I made the dummy, I laid out the opening pages, the end pages, and then tried to figure out what would happen in the middle. I encourage you to read the blog post I referenced above. I didn’t name the project when I wrote that post, but I was talking about Diving Deep. This video shows that first dummy in all its messy glory.
One final note about how I use my dummies. First and foremost, they are about big picture items such as structure and pacing, but I also use them to help me wordsmith my work and make sure every word I use is the best possible word. Of course, I also do that when I work with the manuscript format on my computer, but I find that working in a dummy helps me focus on a smaller section of the manuscript at a time and really attend to it. And just like with my magnetic poetry approach, I often notice things in the dummy phase that do not register in the same way when they’re on my computer screen.
And finally, no matter how you dummy up your book, you should read it aloud many times. I read all of my work aloud over and over again. (My family has long since learned I am not talking to them or to myself.) I also ask others to read it aloud to me so I can hear how someone else will read it. Picture books are meant to be read aloud so I need to hear how it sounds.
Dummy up your WIP, no matter what state it’s in. If you already have a full draft with a beginning, middle, and end, pay particular attention to pacing and page turns. Visualize the art that might be on each page or perhaps even sketch in some rough ideas. If it’s not a fully formed draft, see if making a dummy helps you figure out the structure or flow or focus of the book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michelle Cusolito's debut nonfiction picture book, Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible Alvin, was awarded the PEN-NE Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award and was named a “Must Read” at the Massachusetts Book Awards. It was also on the Kirkus Best Books list and the NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Books list. Michelle's second book, titled Diving Deep: Using Machines to Explore the Ocean, will be published in 2022. Her debut middle grade nonfiction, Into the Deep Unknown: Exploring the Ocean Twilight Zone publishes in 2023. Michelle is dedicated to supporting BIPOC authors who write STEM books.
ABOUT THE PRIZE: Michelle is offering a 30-minute Zoom call to discuss whatever you'd like that's NF publishing related. For example, you could review a manuscript, talk about back matter for your WIP, review ways to engage in rigorous research, brainstorm places you could research for your WIP, or talk about working with experts. Whatever will be helpful to you. You'll set a loose agenda before the call so Michelle can prepare a bit.