We hope this blog post finds you all safe and healthy during this very uncertain time. Recently, I had the opportunity and privilege to speak with Jolene Gutiérrez about her two debut books. I first met Jolene in the Children’s Book Academy where we both took Mira Reisberg’s amazing picture book course. For both for us, this class has changed our lives. Jolene’s first release is the adorable picture book entitled Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader, releasing on August 11, 2020, with Clear Fork Publishing. Her second is Bionic Beasts, a middle-grade nonfiction book releasing October 6, 2020, with Lerner/Millbrook Press. What an exciting time for this very hardworking mother and full-time librarian who, by the way, is also remotely teaching at this time.
TS: Welcome Jolene! Thank you for taking the time to share some of your writing strategies. Whether drafting or revising, how do you know when it is necessary to show action, scene and sensory elements?
JG: What a great question! When I’m revising my story, if I can’t visualize a scene or if the story is “sagging” in some way, I look at these elements. Action, scene, and sensory elements might show up in my writing when I’m drafting, but I try to focus on them during my various rounds of revision. With middle-grade fiction where I have the luxury of using more words, I work to make sure scenes are very sensory in order to connect readers to the story—so that students who might struggle to visualize things have some sensory connection that will draw them in. With picture books, though, I think some of the scene and sensory elements can be left to the illustrator.
And action is so important! I’m the school librarian at a school for diverse learners and have a large ADHD population. When I’m writing, I think of the action-packed, information-filled, or funny books that hook my students as readers and try to emulate that style. When I’m revising, I tend to set my manuscript aside a bit and work on other projects. When I come back to my manuscript with fresh eyes, I read chapters aloud to myself and try to ensure that there is a purpose to every character, every setting, and every scene—that they are all working together to move the story forward.
TS: Are there specific strategies, tools, or resources you use to incorporate more descriptive language?
JG: I try to put myself in my character’s shoes even if the story isn’t first-person, I try to involve the senses as much as possible, and I like to use dialogue to put the reader (and myself) in the scene. I also use passive verbs a lot in early drafts and try to catch that in revision and switch to active verbs.
TS: Could you 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?
JG: Sure! Our words are so limited and the story is so dependent on illustrations in picture books, so finding an example was a little challenging, but here’s a scene we can compare:
Early draft of Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader:
During snack time, I sit next to Nina. When I lean close to see what she’s eating, she moves away.
Published version of Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader:
At snack time, I sit next to Nina, squeezing in close, just like Mac and Cheese do. Nina frowns and leans away.
We’re in first person for both of the scenes, but I think the published version is more powerful because language like “squeezing in close” puts the reader in the scene. We’re also reminded that Oliver, our main character, gets close to Nina because squeezing in next to a friend is something classroom guinea pigs Mac and Cheese would do. Also, in the old version, Nina “moves away,” but in the published version, she “frowns and leans away,” which is more descriptive and hints at her emotions.
TS: 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?
JG: I’d say show us as much as possible—put us in that scene so we feel like we’re experiencing the story! But there are some things you just have to tell us or your book will be unnecessarily long. We don’t need to experience every hour of every day with characters, for example, or showing would become tedious. Telling is a great way to quickly impart information to the reader, and sometimes that immediacy is needed to keep the momentum going in a story.
TS: Thank you so much Jolene for sharing your tips and strategies. I love how writers have such a variety of different techniques to convey their stories.
Below is Jolene’s contact information, bio, and links to preorder her terrific new books! Congratulations Jolene!
Bio: Jolene grew up on a farm in northeastern Colorado and now lives in a suburb of Denver, where she’s been a school librarian for 25 years. She spends her days sharing children’s books and her nights writing them. She’s a wife of 21 years and a mama to two teenage humans and three preteen dogs. Jolene is an active member of SCBWI and The Author’s Guild, a We Need Diverse Books mentorship finalist and a Writing with the Stars mentee. She is the author of Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader (Clear Fork, 2020) and Bionic Beasts: Saving Lives with Artificial Flippers, Legs, and Beaks (Lerner, 2020). Learn more at www.jolenegutierrez.com.
Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader: