Nonlinear Narratives: Using Unusual Formats to Tell a Different Kind of Story

The design department here at Ooligan is in charge of two important processes in the production of our books: cover design and interior design. While the cover design process is quite exciting—involving lovely color palettes, gorgeous fonts, and bold ideas—the interior design process is decidedly more technical: it’s concerned with reliable fonts and a clean layout, because good interior design is often invisible to the reader. It’s only when interior designs break from what we are used to that we notice them. This can happen in two vastly different ways: a design that frustrates our ease of reading, or a design that enhances our reading experience through visual elements such as photos, illustrations, or even the creative formatting of different aspects of the text.

There are countless examples of beautifully designed illustrated interiors with varying levels of complexity. The most common types of illustrated interiors include some kind of artwork or photographs to illustrate the text. An interior design might take a more classic approach to incorporating photographs or illustrations—working with the pre-established grid layout of a page spread—or it might spread to the edges of the page, such as in an art or photography book. When it comes to creating photographic or illustrated interiors, publishers’ main concerns are the quality of the printing and the content of the images.

While we typically think of illustrated interiors as belonging to the realm of children’s books and nonfiction categories such as cooking, photography, and art, there is a small category of fiction that utilizes illustration and formatting in a way that is different from the traditional categories above. In children’s books, we use art as entertainment but also as a learning tool—it aids imagination and word association. In nonfiction books, we use it for visual appeal as well, but there is also an informational aspect to it; for example, in cookbooks, we want to know what the recipe will look like before we try it out ourselves. In fiction—including genres like sci-fi, fantasy, literary fiction, and young adult—stories don’t require much imagery beyond the cover art. The reading level of the audience for these genres is higher, and the stories can rely solely on the imagination of the reader because the words tell us everything we need to know.

But sometimes when a story breaks the traditional rules—by, for example, skipping around in time or being told by more than one narrator—the conventional layout of a book interior is not enough: visual design is necessary to help it make sense. This is similar to how we need the layout of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter in order to make sense of the content of a person’s post; we wouldn’t read what was on Twitter if everything was plain text. Thus, books with unconventional narrative elements rely on the interior design to tell part of the story or to add to it in some way. It’s a subtle difference from traditional illustrated interiors, but one that matters immensely—like the difference between labeling a picture of a heart with the word “heart” and labeling it with the word “love.”

Though there are certainly many different examples across genres, some of my favorite illustrated unconventional books include Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s The Illuminae Files—a sci-fi trilogy (Illuminae, Gemina, and Obsidio) that tells its story through a series of found documents, transcripts, and comics by YA author Marie Lu—and Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, a middle-grade title that is told half in pictures and half in words, has two alternating narrators from different time periods, and features Selznick’s breathtaking pencil illustrations.

Ooligan’s upcoming October 2019 title, Odsburg, will follow in the footsteps of these nonlinear narratives, as it is a collection of found documents relating to the fictional town of Odsburg, Washington, compiled by the world’s first and only socio-anthropo-lingui-lore-ologist, one Wallace Jenkins-Ross. In light of various clues—from mysterious audio recordings to curious ephemera provided by the residents that Jenkins-Ross meets around town—it is increasingly clear that something isn’t quite right. From the very first week after we acquired Odsburg, we knew that there was huge potential for this book to bend the traditional conventions of interior book design. And, unlike with our other titles, whose interiors are almost exclusively completed by one designer with oversight from the design manager, the interior of Odsburg has been an immensely collaborative effort on the part of several different designers as we have worked to create a host of peculiar found documents described, recorded, and collected by Jenkins-Ross.

Not only have we been making decisions about how to design many of the found documents, but we have also been figuring out how to portray the physicality of these documents, many of which are crumpled, wet, folded, and torn when Jenkins-Ross finds them. This is where the photographic and illustrated aspect of our interior has come into play. To achieve the right effect, our design team has experimented with photocopying and finding different kinds of materials, paper samples, writing tools, and fonts.

Odsburg will be published in October 2019! We can’t wait for you to experience it for yourself.

7 Tips for Developmental Editing

When most people think of editing, they think of correcting spelling and grammar. To publishing industry professionals, this is known as copyediting. There’s also developmental or content editing, which corrects weaknesses in the story itself. This past year, I’ve had the pleasure of learning how to developmental edit from a professional editor with twenty-plus years of experience: Adam O’Connor Rodriguez, senior editor of Hawthorne Books, freelancer, and adjunct professor in Portland State’s publishing program. Developmental editing is a difficult subject to tackle in the classroom because it’s more art than science—and unlike copyediting, there’s no manual for it. The only way to learn it is through experience. Since developmental editing is such a valuable skill to have in the publishing industry, I’ve collected seven useful tips I learned from Adam to help you get started.

  1. Restrain your inner copyeditor. You can’t get bogged down in fixing line-level edits and pay attention to narrative-level issues at the same time. Instead, a developmental editor must focus on things like:
    • Structure: Does the sequencing work well, or can it be improved? Does the story begin and end in the right places? Do parts of the story seem too long or too brief? Do parts seem too quick or too slow? Should any parts be reordered or cut? Is there anything that needs to be added to the story?
    • Narrative: Are there any weak spots or inconsistencies in the plot? Any plotlines that were never resolved or that should be cut? Anything that doesn’t seem realistic in the context of the story?
    • Language: Are there any quirks of wording or grammar that crop up repeatedly throughout the text? Is there too much or too little description? Are there too many or too few modifiers? Is the passive voice used too often? What are the best elements of the writer’s style?
    • Dialogue: Are there any filler words? Is there any dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward? Are there lines that are predictable or clichéd? Are characters’ voices consistent? Is the writer (unsuccessfully) trying to portray an accent?
    • Characters: Are the characters underdeveloped or overdeveloped in proportion to their roles in the story? Do they think and act consistently throughout the narrative? Are there any unnecessary characters?
  2. Your mission as a developmental editor is to make the story the best it can be. The above list might make it seem like all developmental editors do is tear manuscripts apart, but in truth they also make note of the things that worked well for the story and encourage the author to play to those strengths. Even if the first draft of a manuscript is extremely rough, you should be able to spot the potential within it and help the author make that potential a reality.
  3. You are the editor, not the writer. It’s not your job to take over a story and make the author rewrite it in the way you think it should be told. Your job is to enhance and refine the story as the author envisions it. The line between editing and taking over can sometimes be a fine one, but it helps to remember that you can only offer expert advice, not issue orders—ultimately, the author has final say.
  4. Never tell an author to scrap a story and write something completely different. Period. This doesn’t help the writer to improve and is therefore useless advice.
  5. Establish the right tone in your relationship with the author. This is one of the trickiest aspects of developmental editing—you’re aiming for a delicate balance of expert authority, toughest critic, and staunchest supporter. Again, the best way to learn how to do this is through experience.
  6. Good editing is good writing is good reading. Your skills in developmental editing will improve as you learn to better identify good writing and how to achieve it, and the best way to do this is to read as many examples of high-quality writing as you can. You can find such works through internet discussions or with the help of your friendly neighborhood librarians and English professors.
  7. Leave the literary criticism in the classroom. In developmental editing, you need to understand a story on its own terms and not in the context of a theory or the broader cultural conversation. Remember: your goal is to turn a manuscript into the best version of itself, not try to make it fit with a selection of other books.

Even this helpful list won’t make you an expert overnight. If you’re interested in developmental editing, read lots of high-caliber writing, do some writing exercises, and find opportunities to critique manuscripts. Always remain professional and open to learning something new. Experience will be your best teacher in developmental editing, so in the immortal words of Nike: Just Do It.®