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Showing Through Heart, Sensory Details, and Wordplay: Featuring Gabi Snyder

When writing for a variety of ages, showing looks different. For younger audiences, often simple language is used while for older audiences more detailed language is selected. The reader’s experience is shaped depending on the topic. Sit back and enjoy this marvelous interview with the very talented and experienced Gabi Snyder who has two beautiful picture books that do just this! Talk about Best In Show! Tails are wagging everywhere over her debut picture book:

TS: We are so thrilled to have you with us today. I really enjoyed your virtual launch with Robin Rosenthal. Your audience had a terrific snapshot into what you both contributed in creating TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE. The story is so clever and the wording so precise. Whether drafting or revising, how do you know when it is necessary to show action, scene, and sensory elements?

GS: Great question! I think the answer depends in large part on what type of story you’re writing and who your intended reader is. When writing picture books for the very young, you may want to keep your text super simple and rely on the illustrations to convey most of the action and imagery. For example, the text in my debut picture book TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE, illustrated by Robin Rosenthal and recently out from Abrams Appleseed, is very simple. The first two spreads read:

One dog stands alone.

Two dogs on a trike.

As we move through the story, a new dog is added with each new form of transportation. A sneaky cat follows the dogs, but the cat is not mentioned in the text. So when reading the story with a child, the child might notice something (the cat following) that the adult (the reader), seems unaware of. That can add a fun twist to reading! 

If I’m writing for an older picture book audience, I might add more imagery and strong active verbs, but it will depend on the story I’m trying to tell. In my second picture book, LISTEN (illustrated by Stephanie Graegin and out in spring 2021 from S&S/Wiseman), the focus is on listening and mindfulness. The story begins with the noise of a busy morning and draws the reader closer as it encourages listening to quieter and quieter sounds. So when drafting and revising LISTEN, choosing the perfect sensory details was vital. At the start of the story, I use sound words like “BEEP! WOOF! ERNT-ERNT! VROOM!” to convey the overwhelming noise the child faces when she steps out into the world. In contrast, later in the story, as we move to quieter sounds, I include the more lyrical lines, “brush-rush-hush/Wind through trees/Listen.”

TS: You raise so many great points. And these examples are priceless. As writers, we have to be so present as to what benefits the topic and reader most. Are there specific strategies, tools, or resources you use to incorporate more showing/descriptive language?    

GS: One strategy I like to use is thinking about how the story can appeal to every sense. Often, with a picture book, the illustrations convey many if not all of the visual details. So, unless it’s central to the plot, I’ll probably leave out visual details like the color of shirt a character is wearing. Instead, I’ll focus my text on appealing to other senses. I’ll consider whether I might incorporate sound words, especially onomatopoeia. And I’ll ask, can I add smells, tastes, and sensations? All of those sensory details paint a more vivid picture for the reader and bring them closer to the action. 

TS: You are right! I share this thought process with my students regularly. Would you like to share an example of a before and after where you needed to show more and found the right words to paint the image for the reader?

GS: Here are a few spreads from the first draft of LISTEN:

Listen…

…to learn.

…to understand.

…to feel.

Listen for new words, new sounds, new songs.

I revised to add more specific, vivid imagery. Here’s how those lines read in the final version:

Listen past the crunch of gravel and the scrape of chalk.

Can you hear new words? Listen to each sound.

Some pop, like quick and snappy, while others stretch, like

looong and leisurely.

Listen.

TS: Wow! The language following your revision is gorgeous. The sensory details take the reader on such a great experience! And this is no easy feat! It takes time to revise even just one section. I can’t wait to read LISTEN!!! Writing is about balance. How do you know you’ve got it just right? What tips or suggestions do you have for writers in terms of striving for that balance of showing versus telling?

GS: I recently attended the SCBWI Summer Spectacular (virtual conference), and listening to all the amazing panels, I was struck by how many creatives mentioned the importance of finding the “heart” or “essential truth” in your manuscript. I also noted that a few creatives mentioned the importance of putting yourself back into your child mind and remembering what’s real and true for a child. I think the balance of show versus tell will often be easier to find if you’ve first zoned in on the heart of your story, a heart that is real and true for a child. Further, if you’re writing a picture book, the text should feel incomplete without the illustrations. In other words, you should leave much of the showing to the illustrator. The illustrator is your co-creator and gets to tell at least half of the story! 

I also find that reading my story aloud helps me get the rhythm and pacing right. It can be even more helpful to have someone else read the story aloud to you so you can hear where they stumble over your words or phrasing. Even having your computer read aloud can help! As you ‘relisten to the complete text, think about the continuity of your imagery and language. If, for example, your manuscript is a humorous story about dogs, maybe you’ve included some silly dog-related puns. If so, you might consider whether there’s a way to push the dog wordplay even further. 

And, of course, it can be extremely helpful to gain feedback from trusted critique partners. Finally, if you’re stuck or uncertain about any aspect of your manuscript, put it away for a week – or even a month. Coming back to your manuscript after time away will allow you to approach it with a fresh perspective. Happy revising! 

Gabi’s Bio:

Gabi’s debut picture book, TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE, illustrated by Robin Rosenthal, released May 19, 2020 from Abrams Appleseed. Her second picture book, LISTEN, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin, is due in spring 2021 from Simon & Schuster/Wiseman.

Gabi studied psychology at the University of Washington and creative writing at The University of Texas and is a member of SCBWI. When she’s not writing, she loves taking nature walks, visiting Little Free Libraries, and baking sweet treats. She lives in Oregon with her family. Learn more at gabisnyder.com.

Learn more about Gabi and her latest books at:

Website: gabisnyder.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Gabi_A_Snyder

IG: https://www.instagram.com/gabi_snyder_writer/

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