Debut picture book author Stephen Briseño is today's #FirstDraftFriday guest, and he has an amazing story to share that just proves you never know where inspiration will come from! Check it out, get motivated, and then get writing yourself!
Stephen is generously offering a manuscript critique as a prize for someone who completes a draft today! Details at the end of this post.
Stephen Briseño’s debut picture book, THE NOTEBOOK KEEPER: A STORY OF KINDNESS FROM THE BORDER, illustrated by Magdalena Mora, will be out this month from Random House Studio. Plus, he has a second book out later this year from The Innovation Press entitled QUEEN OF LEAVES: THE STORY OF YNES MEXIA, illustrated by Diana Toledano.
To order, visit:
Stephen, can you tell us a little about your book and what inspired you to sit down and write the first draft of it?
Hi Hollie, of course, and thank you for having me!
I was on the way home from a family member’s funeral on the other side of Texas. I had a long drive ahead of me and to get my mind off of it all, I put on a podcast. The podcast I chose at random was an episode of This American Life, and they were highlighting this bizarre practice at the San Ysidro border checkpoint in Tijuana.
In order to cross, you had to put your name in this unofficial ledger–it wasn’t American or Mexican, it just existed. Each day, the border agents would tell the notebook keeper how many they would see that day. Another layer to it was that the person in charge of the notebook, their name was in the notebook too, and one day their number would be
called. When it was, they’d pass the notebook on to another refugee. This process went on this way for several years.
When I finished hearing this story, I immediately started it over and listened again. It was fascinating and I couldn’t wrap my mind around how I had never heard of it before. Months went by and it rattled me. I couldn’t shake this story and I knew deep down there was something there.
So four months after that drive from the funeral, I wrote down my first draft of the story of a fictional girl and her mother fleeing Mexico and encountering this notebook and the current notebook keeper.
What was your drafting process like? Any hiccups with getting the first draft done?
I researched…a lot! Google was totally my friend during the drafting process. I read articles, watched videos, and got my hands on pretty much anything I could about this notebook at the border. There were very few hiccups actually. Once the idea was there, the story flowed out. By that time, I had been researching and thinking about it for four months.
How did the manuscript change from that draft to what it is today?
It’s actually changed very little. The first few lines and the final lines have always been the same since the very first draft. My agent, Natalie Lakosil, is brilliant and she helped me polish it before we sent it out on submission. My editor, the genius Annie Kelly, also helped with a few rough patches, but the story hasn’t changed all that much from the initial draft.
Are you a pantser or a plotter? And how does that affect your drafting of a story?
I am a TOTAL plotter with some panster tendencies. I have to let an idea steep in my mind for a good while before I start putting words down on a page. A huge part of my process is I ALWAYS, 100%, handwrite my first drafts. My favorite YA author, Neal Shusterman, has been the visiting author at two schools I’ve taught at and I’ll never forget his advice of handwriting the first draft. It forces your brain to slow down and really process each word that’s going down on the page. When I heard that from him, I adopted it as part of my process.
Do you ever find yourself putting off drafting a story?
A thousand times yes! Haha! An idea has to have time to steep for me and at least make some sense in my mind. I have to have a couple of clear hooks too before I write it down. If it’s not ready or isn’t hooky enough (is hooky even a word?), I just leave it on the back burner to get clearer in my head.
What is the hardest part of drafting a story for you? And how do you deal with that?
I’m a perfectionist so the hardest part of me is to lower that voice to a dull roar and just get it done. Sometimes I’ll write a line and can’t go on to the next because something about the line is bothering me. But despite that I’ve been learning to just keep going. As a result, revising is now my favorite part of the process.
What are your tips and tricks for getting that first draft committed to the page?
I don’t know who said it, so I can’t claim this brilliance, but I love the sentiment of “You can’t revise a blank page.” I did a course with the amazing Kirsti Call, author and the co-host of the Picture Book Look podcast, and she helped me by just setting a timer. Once I have a story in my mind, I’ll set a timer for 20 minutes and try to get it done in that time. It’s a fun practice of turning off that inner editor voice and just writing without overthinking it. The next think you know, you’ve got a draft that didn’t exist before and that can be refined during revision. Try it!
Ooooh, now there's a challenge for us! Who's going to set that timer? Who's going to take the whole day? Either works! Just get writing because #FirstDraftFriday has begun!
To enter for a chance at a free critique of a picture book manuscript from Stephen, do the following by 8 pm ET today (June 3, 2022):
Follow both me and Stephen on Twitter: @HollieWolverton and @stephen_briseno
Complete a full picture book draft
Return to this blog post and comment that you’ve completed your draft and provide your Twitter handle. You will need to Sign Up/Log In to leave a comment (it’s easy - just an email and password).
You don’t need to send in your draft or provide proof - we’re all about the honor system here! The lucky winner will be randomly drawn from the comments and announced on Twitter shortly after 8 pm ET tonight.
Now break out those notepads and get (hand)drafting! Or hit the keyboard - your choice!