Friday, July 7, 2017

Using an Outline as a Safety Net: Michael Stearns, Upstart Crow Literary

Michael Stearns is the founder of Upstart Crow Literary, an agency specializing in children's literature. A former editorial director for HarperCollins, he has edited hundreds of best-selling, award-winning novels and picture books for children, including A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly; Gone and Hunger by Michael Grant; Whales on Stilts! By M.T. Anderson; the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane; the Chet Gecko mysteries by Bruce Hale; and a whole slew of books by Bruce Coville, Jane Yolen, and others. He also runs a book packager called the Inkhouse, where he co-created the #1 best-selling series Fallen, the international best-selling Bliss bakery trilogy, as well as a dozen other titles. Under the pen name Carter Roy, he is the author of the award-winning middle grade fantasy adventure trilogy the Blood Guard.

Are you a "pantser" or an Outliner?

Michael Stearns says authors tend to identify as one or the other -- writing by the seat-of-his-pants, or the kind of writer who doesn't write a word until the entire story is mapped and structured. He equates creating an outline to building a house, but not decorating it or filling it with your stuff. He argues that an outline can allow you to solve problems before you begin. Paraphrasing his words: "You *will* wrestle with story problems, and it's easier to look at those when you have it structured over a couple pages rather than at the scale of a full book."

I think this logic applies to both picture books and longer form writing: planning what you're trying to accomplish for the reader can make it easier to decide *how* you're going to accomplish it.

Michael suggested -- after you have your characters, premise, and snippets of dialogue and personality -- try breaking your book into chapters, and plot the arc, dilemmas, and character growth of your book starting at the end with your tidy conclusion.

He suggested drafting on a whiteboard so chapters and moments can be moved around to be cohesive and fluid, and demonstrated this by taping a possible way to play with your outline on the wall!

I took a lot of notes. (see below)

I was thinking, even if you're not an author, this kind of panel -- although not specifically annotated for illustrators -- could also be used to map an evolution of the mood of your images as the book progresses.

So, are you a pantser? I might not be in the future!

Michael's a "former editor and editorial director, agency head, book packager, writer of novels for middle grade and Other Things" -- His approach seems useful across industry to look at our storytelling from a different angle.

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