Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Revising with Help from a Dummy

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.

 

ACTION:

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.

127 comments:

  1. This was a fantastic post, and I really appreciate you including the video showing the book dummy with the empty pages in the middle. Thanks.

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    1. Thank you. I'm glad it was helpful.

      I was surprised to see how much was empty when I pulled it out.

      But I turned a corner on that day and started seeing my book more clearly.

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  2. Another wonderful post from this website. And I agree with this one so much!

    Ever since I went to the Eric Carle Museum & read on his time line wall how he made a dummy, often several, for every book, I came home & learned all about them.

    Making a dummy was a bend in the road in my pb writing, it finally clicked when I saw the "book" in my hand. Now I can't even imagine writing a pb ms without a dummy.

    I have one ms that I've already made 3 dummy books, trying to figure out how to place an onomatopoeia. I highly recommend making a dummy book.

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    1. Yes! I totally agree. Holding something physical is very different than reading it on a screen. You can feel what turning a page might be like for your readers.

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  3. I love this, Michelle! I'm actually working on a dummy this morning! Now I'm off to check out your magnetic-poetry approach...Thanks!

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    1. Aw, thanks, Laura.

      FYI: I'm giving a presentation to my local Rotary club tonight. The focus is on the amount of passion, research, and personal connection NF writers bring to our books. I'm sharing a quotation from you.

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  4. Thanks for underscoring for me the usefulness of dummies!

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  5. Michelle, I have only made a dummy once - with sketches, but I would never be able to illustrate a book on my own (although I sure wish I could). I will take your advice to heart and work on that dummy. I too am a very visual person, seeing what it is that I am writing, so I think that encouragement to not worry about the art is needed. Thank you!

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    1. You're welcome. Let us know how it goes in the FB group!

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  6. I move words around A LOT on the computer but not on paper. I'll have to try it. I loved how your book turned out, Michelle! Congrats on the new ones.

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    1. Let us know how it goes in the FB group.

      Than you so much!

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  7. Thank you so much for sharing this approach. I'm stuck with the pacing in my current WIP. I'm a visual person and can't believe I didn't think to make a book dummy. Thank you for helping me remember that this approach has tremendous value.

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    1. You're welcome!
      I hope you find this approach is helpful for you.

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  8. Loved seeing how your book came together! Thanks for sharing!

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  9. Thanks, Michelle. Great examples. I've been starting to use dummies for every project - even if it's just to get an idea of how it fits into the pages. Dummies are a writer's "manipulatives" - just like my kids used M&Ms when learning math

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  10. Seeing how the drafts changed was illuminating. Thanks for including those photos with the nitty-gritty details!

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  11. Fantastic post, Michelle! I think I’ll make a dummy of my WIP today!

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  12. Thank you, Michelle for your very helpful post! I have not actually dummied up any of my WIPs yet but your post has given me the incentive to do it! I share your love for the ocean. I'm looking forward to your new book!

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  13. You've helped me see from your thorough explanations, pictures and posts how smart a dummy can be -- unnecessary words magically appear, pacing improves, and dramatic page turns are revealed. You really know and show how to dive deep, Michelle! Thank you and can't wait for your new book!

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  14. Your personal examples were so helpful. Thanks for sharing your strategies with us!

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  15. I loved this post. I’m going to try it on the manuscript I’m currently revising.

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    1. Wonderful! Let us know how it goes (Maybe in the FB group?)

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  16. Thanks Michelle! I am so visual that I think in a dummy like way but you are right in that putting down the words and moving them around is a great way to work through all the changes!

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  17. Michelle ~ This was such a beneficial read! Thanks to the blog link, thinking of this as magnetic poetry, sharing the video and reinforcing that there's no right way to do a dummy book. Much appreciated!

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  18. Yep - there's no denying dummies are essential. Great tips Michelle!

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  19. Michelle, thank you SO MUCH for your article and video! I had been thinking that a dummy was for after I got through my research and first draft, but thanks to you, I've done one with research and an idea I've been kicking around for an embarrassingly long time! I now feel like I've got a hands-on approach to my project and with that, increased confidence in a way forward. I also appreciated your reference to Beth Anderson's post about using notebooks. I'd read it before, but it is helping me now as I figure out how I'm going to proceed with the project (analog or digital). I see the advantages of organizing software, but I have a need to craft by hand. Thanks so much for showing the way to do that with your magnetic poetry and book dummy methods!

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    1. Oh, you're very welcome. Every writer works in their own way but I'm pleased to know this resonated with you.

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  20. I always love your words of wisdom, Michelle! So glad you included your magnetic poetry post because I don't think I've seen it before.

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  21. Very helpful. I'm making a dummy this afternoon of my WIP. Thank you!

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    1. Wonderful! Let us know how it goes. (Maybe in the FB group?)

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  22. I have yet to make a successful dummy, so this topic is so helpful!

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    1. Maybe to ease your mind a little bit: Many of my dummies are not successful in the sense that I do not end up with a satisfying manuscript as a result. BUT, that IS a success because it means I learn that the manuscript is not working.

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  23. Michelle, the video showing your first draft dummy is helpful. Thank you.

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  24. Michelle, thank you for your insight into creating a dummy. I've found dummies help me with structure, pacing, scenes, and page turns. My dummies are messy, but I need them. Congratulations on your forthcoming book!

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    1. Oh, most of my dummies are a giant mess. You should see the one I made yesterday. Haha.

      And thank you!

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  25. This is really helpful. I've only been playing a bit with dummies, but now I'll take them more seriously Thank you.

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  26. Thanks for an excellent post, Michelle! I loved seeing your video and other examples - it's so helpful to see your thoughts and process (especially the times when you were still clarifying your ideas)! Can't wait to get your new book!

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  27. Thanks for sharing your ideas on working with a book dummy. Yes, I'm sure it will be helpful finding the big picture and making those little "tweeks."

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  28. Michelle, Thanks for these tips. I've made dummies for my work but usually through PowerPoint. I've found them helpful for page turns and cutting text. But I will try the physical version next. And may I add how much I enjoyed Flying Deep. You brought me to a new world. Thanks again.

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  29. Thanks so much for sharing your advice and for including the video. I'm going to try this with a paper version.

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  30. Dear Michelle, thanks for the excellent suggestion. As I've gone through the NFF activities, I did reformat my WIP into columns. Now without much effort, I can clip and tape those columns into a 32-page dummy. Your comments that you are not an illustrator and your dummy is for your text hit the spot!

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  31. Thank you so much, Michelle! I appreciate learning about your process. After reading this post I immediately went to the notes I'm taking on a current WIP to remind myself to make a dummy and discovered I already had a big post-it reminding me. Now I just have to get to it!

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    1. Haha. I do stuff like that all the time. I think I had a great new idea only to find an earlier note with said idea.

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  32. I have tried to make a book dummy before and now I will be able to do a much better one. Wish I had this information several months ago. SO Valuable! Thank you.

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    1. You're welcome. I hope you find the process helpful.

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  33. Thank you for this extremely useful post, Michelle!

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  34. I've always used dummies but this is a great way to revise and edit. Thank you for the tips!

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  35. I have not made a dummy in a long time but I think I will from now on because it really is a useful tool for pacing and revising. Great to see Michelle’s process - I love FLYING DEEP and look forward to your new books!

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  36. Hi Michelle! I've used your magnetic poetry approach and it's very helpful in re-envisioning a PB. Thanks for sharing!

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  37. I find dummies to be most helpful with pacing. Thanks!

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  38. Thank you for this. Even though I'm an illustrator who has made book dummies, this information is still helpful.

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  39. Thank you so much! I'm going to make a dummy tomorrow!

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    1. YAY! Let us know how it goes. (Maybe in the FB group?)

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  40. I am a huge HUGE fan of making dummies! They really help me figure out where I have too many words, too few. Where page turns are in the wrong place. Where pacing slows, etc. So many good things come from making a dummy. Great post, Michelle!

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  41. I have always typed my manuscripts straight onto Word and not made dummies, but I'm going to accept this challenge as I have a manuscript that I've struggled with for years now and--after reading your post and watching the video--I think making my first physical dummy might be the anecdote. Thanks for a useful and eye-opening post!

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    1. You're welcome. Let us know how it goes. (maybe in the FB group?)

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  42. It seems any time I feel especially stuck on a manuscript, it's because I need to dummy it up to check the pacing, page turns, flow, order, etc. One thing I also recently learned doing a dummy was that too much of my story was happening in one spot, something I hadn't realized until I started to visualize the illustrations for each spread with the text!

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    1. Yes! I've had this happen, too. Or I realizes.... oops... the images on these two spreads would be basically the same.

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  43. Thank-you! While I make dummies as a regular practice, I rarely have the courage to start before I have the middle fleshed out. I can see now that is part of the process (and sometimes part of the solution!) And thanks for the extra links as well. Very helpful!!!

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    1. I used to be the same. But I don't know- something that day made me feel like I needed a dummy. I followed my gut and now I tend to make dummies sooner than ever before.

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  44. I use dummies later on in the process. I'll try using them earlier and see if they help with big picture revision.

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  46. Creating dummies are always helpful whenever I come to a road block. Thank you for the excellent tips, Michelle.

    Suzy Leopold

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  47. Thanks, Michelle, for this informative post with helpful examples. I need to make dummies more often. Love what you said about always reading your work aloud. So important!

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    1. Yes! I read my manuscripts aloud dozens of time before they even reach my agent.

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  48. Loved the post. Went back to read your blog spot and Heather's also. Excellent tips! Thanks for sharing and encouraging us.

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  49. This is one of the best posts I've read about the importance of using a dummy. One sentence in particular stood out to me: 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. Yes! Such a good point.

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  50. I'm visual so at different stages of writing all of my stories I create a dummy or two. I have a reusable chart that I use with post-its and I like the make paper ones and cut and tape my text like you've shown. Besides the visual, I love that feeling that I'm doing arts and crafts! Thanks for your post.

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  51. I feel this "arts and crafts" statement. So true!

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  52. This was wonderful. I almost finished a first draft this week, which for me is quite amazing, and I'm thinking a dummy is what I need to structure that middle. Middle are tough! I really appreciate your candid sharing of process. Thank you, Michelle.

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    1. I'm glad you found it helpful. Let us know how it goes with the dummy!

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  53. This was a wonderful addition to Heather's dummy post. I have been hesitant to make one, but between the both of you and your suggestions I am ready to take it on! Thank you. :)

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  54. Thanks for this informative post. I write primarily MG biographies, but I love learning about writing for children in general. I agree with reading the ms aloud. It's amazing how helpful this practice is. Thank you!

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  55. Great post - I really appreciate the examples! I recently tried doing a dummy with a picture book manuscript and it really helped with pacing. I also like how you said "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." That makes perfect sense and I plan to do this going forward with all of my manuscripts.

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    1. I'm so glad it was helpful.

      I'm often amazed by what I notice in the dummy form that I miss in manuscript form. For example, I have cut entire sentences in the dummy that seemed good in the manuscript.

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  56. Lots of great tips. I especially love the video. Thanks for sharing, Michelle!

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  57. What a great follow-up to Heather’s post. Thank you! Love to do my writing long-hand, too. I feel more connected to the page making marks with pencil or pen. Plus I do not need to worry about any hotspot or WiFi. Just pick up my notebook and meander to wherever I feel like setting up to write.

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    1. Yes. Totally true for me.

      The first two versions of my WIP that is nearly ready to go out on submission were written in bed. I woke up with the story in my head. I grabbed my notebook and wrote the first draft before getting up. I knew it was not lyrical enough (and this subject needed to be lyrical). I planned to work on it "at some point." The next day, I woke up and had some clear ideas of how to do it. I wrote an entirely new second draft before getting out of bed. If I had been at my computer, I would not have been as successful.

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  58. I do believe in the power of the dummy. Your magnetic poetry approach is a new twist for me to try.

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  59. Making dummies appeals to my "non-illustrator" artistic side. I need to try making them at an earlier point in the drafting. It sounds interesting to use one to find the middle of the story. Thank you, Michelle for a great post and wonderful examples.

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  60. Michelle, I did this yesterday and it helped me to see and hear my text in a whole new way, and it led to some great revisions. Thank you!

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  61. I recently went through some lessons through Storyteller Academy about creating dummies. Your article support the idea I need to start creating dummies.

    Great post!

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  62. Thanks for a great post! I am also very visual and enjoy doing dummies…when I'm done, I let my young son have fun and illustrate them. :)

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  63. Very helpful post. Thanks! In order for me to compile a dummy book, I had to put together a very preliminary small hand written/hand sketched version to compile to larger version. Love it!

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  64. Thank you for the info on creating dummies! This is something I haven't done before but know I need to do.

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