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Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Puzzle of Books

This article by Caroline Arnold was published in the L.A.S.C.B.W.I.'s newsletter, Kite Tales (Summer 2008). It's a great insight into how a nonfiction author works. Thank you, Caroline.

I am fond of doing crosswords. Nothing is quite like the burst of satisfaction I get after filling in that last square to make the puzzle complete. I particularly like the Sunday crosswords, which not only have a theme, but usually employ some sort of word play to “get” the theme-related answers. In many ways, writing a nonfiction book is like doing a crossword puzzle. There is a topic or theme that threads its way through the manuscript; there is the network of clues used to create the skeleton, or support, for the theme; and often there is a twist at the end, which creates the “aha” moment, providing the reader with fresh insight.

Just as book writers always have their antennae up for possible book topics, puzzle creators need to come up with potential topics for their theme clues. These can be common phrases whose meanings change with the addition or subtraction of a letter; famous names that can be turned into puns; switched word orders, and so on. When one of these lists gets long enough, they make a puzzle.

In the same way, after I choose a topic for a book, I begin to collect information. Some of that information never gets used. It may be tangential to my main theme, for another age group, or, if the book is short, it may not fit. Some may get saved for another book. But when I think I have enough information, I take what I have and sort it into its various main topics or chapters. My next step is always an outline. I plan my book, page spread by page spread. This provides me with the overall structure of my book. Nothing is ever set in stone. As I work, the details of the plan may change, and I may rearrange parts if it makes sense to do so.

One thing I like about crossword puzzles is the symmetry of the grids. Each puzzle has an overall pattern made by the black and white squares. Usually, one half of the puzzle is a mirror image of the other. One of the challenges for the puzzle creator is finding pairs of theme answers that have an equal number of letters so that they can be placed opposite one another on the grid. In the same way, the structure of a book has to be balanced. It doesn’t have to be exactly symmetrical, but it needs to feel as if each part has relatively equal weight. And just as there are many grids for the puzzle creator to choose from, depending on the requirements of the theme answers, the structure of a book can take many forms as well.

In solving crossword puzzles, everyone has his or her own technique. I start in the upper left and work my way to the lower right. One of my friends answers all the theme clues first and then fills in the other squares. I would like to do this, but generally I need a few hints, so I wait until I’ve filled in enough squares with the regular clues to figure out the key to the week’s theme. The puzzle title helps, but usually involves another level of word play.

When I write my books, I work like my friend, and start with the main themes and gradually add the smaller details. Just like working a puzzle, the completion of the manuscript goes bit by bit, with periods when I surge forward, and other periods when I sit stumped, until suddenly I see how a missing piece pulls everything together.

I am sometimes asked when I do school visits, “What is your favorite part of the writing process?” My answer is always the same: “When I am finished!” Just as I breathe a sigh of satisfaction as I fill in the last square of a crossword puzzle, I have that same sense of accomplishment when the last word is written in the manuscript. Then I know that everything is in its proper place and, hopefully, will cause my readers to say “Aha! I’ve learned something new.”

Caroline Arnold is the author of many books for young readers, including these from Charlesbridge: Wiggle and Waggle, Birds: Natures Magnificent Flying Machines, Did You Hear That? Animals with Super Hearing, Shockers of the Sea and Other Electric Animals, Super Swimmers, Who Has More? Who Has Fewer, and Who Is Bigger? Who Is Smaller?

1 comment:

Alexis said...

Nice analogy, Caroline! I enjoyed this piece. Lots to think about.
-- ALEXIS