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Dear fellow kidlit book creators,

A few years ago, my writing partner gave me a challenge. She dared me to write an epistolary book—the entire manuscript could only be letters between characters.

So I gave it a shot. I decided the main character would be a dog—my old dog!

(BACKSTORY: One day, in about second grade, a scruffy mutt showed up in my front yard. He was dirty, and hungry, and stinky—and he was ours. We fed him, cleaned him up, and named him Auggie. I miss that dog, and still dream about him!)

Initially, my book was a series of letters between two characters: a scruffy dog looking for a home, and the cranky guy he was writing to.

But the story quickly evolved. In my second draft, the dog (named Arfy) was writing letters to every house/business on the street. Each person replied, and they all said “no.” For different reasons. Until the end of the book, where Arfy finally DID find a home.

This book ended up becoming a picture book called CAN I BE YOUR DOG?. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but that prompt from my friend was actually an exercise in writing voice.

In the early drafts, each of the letters sounded really same-y. The butcher sounded like the fire chief, who sounded like the junkyard guy. (Really, they all sounded like me. No good!) So I started playing with the letters, to make each character’s voice sound as different as possible.

Here are some of the parameters I tweaked for each character:

  • VOCABULARY/GRAMMAR: The word choices the character makes, and how they string those words together. How does the butcher sound different from the fire chief?
  • VOLUME: Is this character loud or quiet? And HOW are they loud/quiet? Are they boisterous? Overbearing? Timid? Soothing?
  • RHYTHM: Does this character speak in long, flowing singsongy sentences? Or short, clipped bursts? Or a droning monotone? Or some other pattern?
  • HANDWRITING: Do they write in loopy cursive with a purple pen? Or with a scribbly pencil, with crossed-out mistakes? Or do they type their letter? And what kind of paper do they write on? These things are all still part of that character’s “voice.”

I think the great thing about letter-writing is that it’s all about voice. We get to  leave out the narration entirely, and have the entire text focus on the voice of the characters who are speaking. I mean, writing.

So now, I’m going to pass that challenge along to you!

CHALLENGE #1

Write a letter (or series of letters) between two characters. These characters should be as different from one other as possible.

For instance:

  • The giant is writing a letter to Jack about this beanstalk ruining the resale value of his castle. (What’s the giant’s handwriting like? And imagine the size of his postage stamp!)
  • The hare is writing to the tortoise demanding a rematch. (What’s the hare’s writing-rhythm like, vs. the tortoise’s?)
  • A professional baseball coach is writing to the world’s greatest pitcher, who happens to be a second grade little-leaguer. But the second grader is NOT interested.

OR: design two characters of your choice. They can be people, animals, or fairy tale characters, but try to make them as opposite as possible. In the way they look, the way they sound, and their individual “goals.”

CHALLENGE #2 (BONUS!)

If you’re feeling warmed up, repeat the above exercise, but make the two characters as similar as possible. At least, on the surface. Maybe they’re both eighth-graders passing notes in science class. Or they’re two goldfish stuck in the same bowl. They can have the same age, interests, etc. but their voices should still be absolutely distinct.

Your pal,

Troy

P.S. I love postcripts. A cool way to sneak in one last surprise. And in this case, the surprise is a peek at my next book! Here it is:

I FOUND A KITTY! is the follow-up to my NY Times Bestseller CAN I BE YOUR DOG?. This time, Arfy finds a teeny kitten in a drain pipe. He writes letters to more people in town, hoping to find a home for the poor little cat.


As a kid, Troy Cummings spent all his time writing stories, drawing pictures, and keeping an eye out for monsters. As a grown-up, he pretty much does the same thing. Except now his bed time is 9:15.

Troy has written and illustrated more than forty children’s books, including THE NOTEBOOK OF DOOM series, THE BINDER OF DOOM series, CAN I BE YOUR DOG?, and THE EENSY WEENSY SPIDER FREAKS OUT (BIG-TIME!) He was also lucky enough to team up with the amazing, hilarious Tara Lazar on LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD.

Troy Cummings lives in Indiana, where he steals jokes from his wife, kids, cats, and goldfish.

Visit Troy at troycummings.net and follow him on Twitter at @troycummings.


Troy is giving away one copy of I FOUND A KITTY after its release on March 3, 2020.

Leave one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

Good luck!

by Troy Cummings

Designing a picture book cover is like housetraining a puppy: it requires lots of patience, there are papers spread all over the house, and it’ll inevitably lead to fits of howling in the middle of the night.

But if you can sniff out the good ideas and clean up your happy accidents, you’ll hopefully wind up with something you’re proud to cuddle up with on the couch.

When I wrangle my picture book covers, I try to explore as many different ideas as possible. I start by sketching a few pages crazy loose brainstormy concepts, and then distill those into half a dozen thumbnail sketches.

I draw my thumbnail sketches at about 1.5″ tall. It forces me to work quickly, make big, bold shapes, and to _not_ get fussy with details. I think it’s best to work in b/w at this point; we can save the color decisions for later.

Here are the cover sketches I submitted to my editor/art director for CAN I BE YOUR DOG? It’s a story about a dog who writes letters to every house on Butternut street, in search of a home–so I knew I’d want the cover to involve DOG + MAIL.

DVD COMMENTARY TRACK ON THE ABOVE IMAGES:

1. Big letter: This would have been a pretty static/boring cover; the puppy is too small! But I kept it here in case it gave us more ideas for another direction to follow.

2. Arfy mailing: I like how this one shows us the dog actually sending a letter. It’s sort of already getting the story started—like a bonus page zero of the book!

3. Zoomed-in stamp: I was trying to show the title in a cancellation stamp, but it’s too hard to read. (I ended up stealing this idea for my ABOUT THE AUTHOR photo on the flap. (With my portrait on a 3RD CLASS STAMP.)

4. Special delivery: I liked this one, especially Arfy’s floppy ears.

5. Big puppy: We ended up using this one as flap art, too.

6. Peek: I liked the timidness of the puppy peeking around the corner; we ended up using a variant of this on the back cover.

7. Arfy’s head: This was everyone’s favorite. The scruffy mutt is prominently featured, and it was nice to work the title into the illustration.

Once we’d agreed on a direction, my art director Liz (who rocks!) was able to take my sketch and improve it like crazy. Liz zoomed in on the image, made the title bolder, suggested to bend the letter, and moved my byline out to the background space. I loved all of her suggestions, and we ended up with a jacket that reads pretty well across the room or as a tiny thumbnail image on the web.

The best part about sketching multiple ideas is that none of that work was wasted. I was able to reuse some of my sketches on the flaps/interiors of the book, or for promotional materials.


Troy Cummings is the author/illustrator of more than 30 books, including CAN I BE YOUR DOG?, THE NOTEBOOK OF DOOM, and LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD (written by the indefatigable Tara Lazar!) You can follow him on Twitter @troycummings, follow him on Instagram @troxcummings, or follow him to the new ice cream shop that opened next door to his studio. (Shrewd move on their part!)

Troy is giving away a signed copy of CAN I BE YOUR DOG?

Leave one comment below to enter. A winner will be selected next week.

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COMING SOON:


BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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