10 Aug

The Rule of 3: The Flint Heart by Katherine and John Paterson

Posted in Book Reviews, Craft, Kid Lit, Writing

by Katherine and John Paterson, illustrated by John Rocco

“A man, a woman and an emu walk into a bar…”  We’ve all heard that joke before, or at least something along those lines.  They’re always told the same way, with two parts building up to a third that is the punchline.  The Rule of 3.

We hear this pattern in songs too.  “Here an oink, there an oink, everywhere an oink oink.”  But I’m not just talking about children’s songs either; jazz and blues are filled with the Rule of 3.

The best way to illustrate the Rule of 3 in the blues would be to quote the lyrics of the hilarious parody Poppa’s Blues from the musical Starlight Express:



The first line of the blues is always sung a second time.
The first line of the blues is always sung a second time.
So by the time you get to the third line, you’ve had time to think of a rhyme.

The Rule of 3.

Finally, we also see this pattern in stories.  The perfect example, of course, is “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in!”  Not to mention that there were three little pigs, one with a house of straw, one with a house of sticks and one with a house of bricks.  The Rule of 3.

This rule is alive and well in Katherine and John Paterson’s gorgeous book, The Flint Heart, where the evil Flint Heart causes trouble for the woodland community not once, not twice, but a full three times.  This beautifully illustrated novel proves that even today, this age-old technique of grouping things in threes is still quite effective.

So, how does the Rule of 3 work, exactly?  Doesn’t the reader see the punchline coming?  Why is it that even though it’s been around for what seems like forever, the Rule of 3 still holds that element of surprise and satisfaction?  Here’s why:

1) There’s always three.  Not two.  Not four.  Three.  Why three? Because it’s enough to set up a pattern in the reader’s mind, but not so much that the reader gets bored.  If you repeat something only once, it’s not enough for the reader to notice the effect, but if you do it three times, then you’ve got the reader’s attention.

2) There’s a build-up.  Part of the reason why the Rule of 3 is so effective is that when writers use it, they build each piece on the previous one.  The Flint Heart is a perfect example.  The first time the flint heart causes trouble, it is only within the context of one human family.  Next it causes problems within the fairy kingdom.  Finally, the flint heart creates trouble for the entire woodland community, affecting humans, fairies and all the creatures of the forest.  Each iteration is more intense and has higher stakes than the last.

3) Third time’s the variation.  Finally, the Rule of 3 works because the third time is never exactly the same as the first or second.  Think of the three little pigs.  The first two houses get blown to smithereens but the third house of bricks is what does in the Big Bad Wolf.  Think of jokes, where the punchline comes at the end of a chain of three.  Think of the Blues, where the first two lines are often the same, with a variation coming in the third and final line.  Using the first two iterations to establish a pattern, you can then add a variation or twist with the third.  That catches the readers attention and leads to that element of surprise and satisfaction.

Have you used the Rule of 3 in your writing?  How?


14 Jul

Fashioning Fiction: Guest Post by Olivia Bennett

Posted in Book Reviews, Craft, Kid Lit, Reading

Today we have a fabulous guest post from Olivia Bennett, author of Who What Wear: The Allegra Biscotti Collection, just released in June 2011.  This charming book continues the adventures in fashion of Emma Rose, who is also secretly the hip new fashion designer Allegra Biscotti.  I had the pleasure of reading this book, not realizing it was actually the second one of the series.  And unlike many sequels that often lean heavily on the first book, this one holds its own as elegantly as one of Allegra’s designs.  After finishing Who What Wear (and of course, going back to read the first as well!) I knew I had to get Olivia here at the blog to share a few secrets of how to fashion a story for young readers.  For more information on Olivia or The Allegra Biscotti Collection, please visit the Who What Wear webpage.  Now without further ado, here’s Olivia Bennett with FASHIONING FICTION.


“She wore a black cotton cardigan–on which she had replaced the plain plastic buttons with marching band uniform buttons–over a white tank top and black, gray, and white camouflage pants from the Army-Navy store and her favorite silver sneakers.”

With the above description, I introduced Emma Rose to the reader in the first book of THE ALLEGRA BISCOTTI COLLECTION. Because ALLEGRA is fiction with a fashionable twist, I felt it was very important to not only show the fashion but to use the fashion as way to describe the characters via what they chose to wear or not to wear. Emma—who later takes on the double life of fashion designer Allegra Biscotti—is creative above all else. While couture and designers matter very much to her, she thrives on the creative (and so the detail about the DIY buttons), does not aim to stand apart from her middle school peers (thus the tank and under-the-radar colored pants), yet is an individual who embraces a special sense of fun and whimsy (finally, the silver sneakers).

Description is what makes a story real, especially for middle-grade readers. It allows the reader to feel as if she is really in Allegra’s design studio or standing by the racks of gasp-worthy clothes lining Madison’s sleek offices. The question often becomes—how much detail to bring to your descriptions.  Allegra is a fashion series so, knowing my audience, all clothes were described in painstaking detail. However, my readers also have a strong desire to create and too much detail would take this almost- interactive process away from them. The key was to give them just enough and then let their imagination do the rest.  Throughout the first two book in the series, I made sure the juicy colors, the weight of the fabric, and the general shape of the garments were vividly described, but allowed by reader to add the little details—buttons, zippers, and all the trimmings.


Thank you so much Olivia for joining us here at iggi&gabi and sharing your words of wisdom.  Now my questions to all you readers out there: What are your thoughts on giving too much detail vs. not enough?  How do YOU find that balance?  Hint: For an example of how to put this balance into action, check out Who What Wear and The Allegra Biscotti Collection.  Write on!

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16 Feb

How to Survive the Revision Process

Posted in Conferences, Craft, Process, Revision

OK, I’ll admit it.  When I was in school (and college and grad school) I was seriously guilty of turning in work before revising it.  Sure, I would do a quick spell-check and maybe give it a once-over for grammar, but rarely did I ever roll up my sleeves and do serious revision.

Now that I have a draft of my book done, I find myself in the middle of the revision process and I totally realize why I was resistant to revision before: it’s flippin’ scary.  This is why I was so thrilled to hear James Scott Bell speak about the revision process at the Writer’s Digest Conference.  I was particularly excited to attend his talk because I am a huge fan of his book The Art of War for Writers.  Here are some of the sparkly nuggets I took away from this session.

Principles of Revision

1)  Write hot, revise cool.  Revision allows you to add rational choices and strategy to the frantic bursts of creativity that came out in the first draft.  Take at least two weeks (maybe longer) after writing your draft to let it cool down before you revise.

2)  You need to finish first.  Nothing you write is etched in stone… you can always come back and make it better later on.  The only thing you can’t do is revise a blank page.  Finish first.

    3)  Do a first read-through.  Try to recreate a reading experience so that you’re not focused on the fact that you’re reading your own book.  Make minimal notes.  Tip from Gabi:  I put my book on my Kindle and have been reading it there so that it feels more like a “real book” and not just a draft on printed computer pages.  I use the footnote function on the Kindle to make my notes, and since I’m lazy about taking notes on Kindle, it forces me to make my notes short.

    4)  Summarize your changes.  Write a 2000 word summary of your draft with the new adjustments you just noted.  Tip from Gabi: You can also try extracting an outline from the first draft, as a way of getting a handle on what you have written.  Then adjust the outline according to the notes you made in your read-through and implement those changes in the draft.

    Things to Think About in Revision

    Character:  The characters need to jump off the page.  Here are a few exercises to help you with this:

    • Try creating some “off-screen” scenes where you see what the character would do in crazy situations.  
    • Do the “opposite exercise” where you have the character do the opposite of what you’d expect, then figure out why they did that.

    Remember, even at the very beginning, try to give the reader an inkling that the character has the potential for change.

    Opening:  As Bell put it: “Cut out the parts that people skip.”  Start the story where things get interesting.  Also, make trouble for your characters from the start.  Readers become engaged with the characters at the first sign of conflict.

    Dialogue:  Compress the dialogue and extend the action.  Get rid of exposition and ramp up the conflict.  Even if characters are on the “same side” they should still have some kind of conflict between them.

    Take-Home Message

    Ultimately, revision is where you add the strategic element to your story.  Now that you know who the characters are and what’s going to happen, you can plant foreshadowing moments and hint at themes that will be important later on.  You can’t do all this in your first draft because during that stage of the process you don’t know your characters or the story completely.  It’s only once you know the ending and who your characters are at their core that you can manipulate the story in a strategic way.

    Much as my brain understands all the amazing benefits of revision, I still find myself having trouble because I keep psyching myself out. 

    Help!  Do you have any revision tips I can borrow?


    02 Feb

    Where Do Characters Come From?

    Posted in Character, Craft, DIY MFA, Writing

    Some people collect stamps or seashells.  Some collect bottle caps or baseball cards.  Some even collect parking tickets.  I collect characters.  I squash them between the pages of my notebook, the way you might press flowers (or faeries).  I’ll let you in on some of the secret sources I turn to when I need to boost my stash.

    In Real Life:  Basing characters on real people has some major advantages.  For starters, you’ll be able to observe an actual person (or if the real life person is dead, you’ll most likely be able to rely on primary source material).  Not only that, if you’re ever wondering what your character would think or do about something, you can just ask.  That said, there are two drawbacks you’ll need to consider if you decide to base a character on someone from real life:

    1. You could get sued.  You can avoid this problem by doing one of three things.  A) Avoid saying anything that could get you into trouble, which could lead to a very boring story.  B) Change enough of the details so that it’s no longer obvious that you’ve based the character on a specific person.  C) Base the character on someone who can’t sue you… like, say, your cat.
    2. You might get so caught up on being true-to-life that you’ll kill your story.  Remember, fiction is by definition fictional.  It’s not about getting the facts exactly right; it’s about crafting a story that reveals a greater Truth about life, humanity, all that good stuff.  Of course you can base certain elements of a character on a real person but in the end, you may have to discard some details that echo reality in favor of ones that will serve the story.

    Situations:  The place where I discover most of my characters are in the situations themselves.  I often start with a vague idea like: “What if when you die, your job becomes to convince other newly-dead people about the benefits of being dead?”  Then I work on developing a character who would be the worst possible candidate to cope with that situation.  I know this sounds counter-intuitive.  After all, we’re usually taught to develop our character first then throw obstacles at him or her.  But if you think about it, this method accomplishes the same thing.  The only difference is that instead of starting with a character and developing obstacles that will throw him or her for a loop, you think of the situation first and then develop a character who’s most likely to freak out in that scenario.

    Pictures:  I love looking at a picture and trying to figure out the story behind it.  Some of my favorite artists for this exercise are Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, and Edgar Degas.  Photography is also a great resource–especially antique portraits or work that’s photojournalistic in style.  Every time I go to a museum, I’ll get a handful of postcards that I think might spark interesting characters.  These days with the interwebs at our fingertips, we can find inspiration without even leaving the comfort of our office chair.  Here’s one of my favorites:

    Quotes:  One of the great things about living in a big city is that people will say the craziest things in public.  Seriously, it boggles my mind what some people will say while riding the subway or talking on their cell phones.  I used to feel bad about eavesdropping but now I figure, if these people are talking that loud, it’s because they want me to hear and use it in my book.  Whenever I hear a good line, I jot it down right away.  Here’s one I recently rediscovered in an old notebook:  “What do you mean she’s pregnant?  I thought she was just getting fat.”  Even though I just wrote down the quote and made no notes about the speaker, I get a clear mental picture of this character right away.

    What about you: where do you go to find characters?  I showed you my sources, so now you show me yours, k?  Awesome.


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