Guest post by Jarrett Lerner
A Work in Progress will be my fifteenth published book. It’s different from anything I’ve ever made, and most likely will always remain something of an outlier in my career. This is because, more so than any other story, A Work in Progress – the story of Will Chambers’ battle with body-shaming, body dysmorphia, and disordered eating – is my story.
I’ve been trying to get this story out of me for more than a decade. My first attempt began during one of my very first creative writing courses in college, and subsequent attempts came every year or so afterwards. But though I tried (and tried and tried), I could never get the story right. What I produced always felt false and incomplete.
So, I’d put the story away. But I could never leave it alone for long. I’d come back eight, nine, ten months later with a bright, shiny new idea – a slightly different approach, one I just knew was going to help me create a more satisfyingly whole and accurate draft. Ultimately, however, it didn’t matter whether I wrote the story in first or third person (or even second! – seriously, I tried), or if I put it in past tense or present. It never felt right.
Looking back, I just don’t think I was ready to tell this story. I didn’t have enough distance from the experiences that informed it. I hadn’t completely wrapped my head around all the issues present within it.
And then, a little over three years ago – just as the pandemic was getting underway – I picked up the story yet again. It must’ve been the dozenth time I’d done this, and so I wasn’t expecting much to come from this attempt. I figured I'd spend a few weeks toying with the thing, only to then once again hit a wall and put it away. But then, when I least expected it . . . I had a breakthrough. Why not, I thought, try to write this story in verse? It made a certain sort of sense, since when I was going through situations similar to what my main character, Will, was going through in the story, I was writing pretty much nothing but poetry. Writing in verse was a great way to tap right back into that place and state I was in back then. Plus, I’d already tried every possible point of view and tense – switching from prose to verse was just about the only thing left to do.
So, I sat down to give it a go – and poems began pouring out of me. It was one of those magical moments you sometimes hear other authors share (though it’s important to remember that it came after a decade of false starts). I started off writing longhand, like I usually do, in case I got the urge to switch back and forth between writing and drawing. And that urge came pretty quickly, and kept coming back again. I wrote and drew and wrote and drew, and after a couple weeks, I took some time to look back at the work I’d done. And I realized: that was what the story needed to be. Not a novel. Or not really. It needed to be a notebook, just like the ones I kept when I was my character’s age – a place for him to privately dump his thoughts and feelings, his hopes and fears. Because Will would never voluntarily tell his story, or even agree to have it told by someone else. Will’s story had to be told incidentally.
As soon as I landed on this idea, I knew it was the only one that would lead to me getting this story out in a way that felt right and complete. And that’s when the real work began. Because, due to the subject matter, this story needed to be crafted with the utmost care. But – this was the particularly tricky part – in order to make the telling of the story seem authentic and true, I had to make it appear as loose, organic, and even messy as a kid’s personal notebook, something they’d never dream would be read by anyone else.
I did this, first, by making the book look like an actual notebook. I ask the reader to engage in this bit of suspended disbelief as soon as they lay their eyes on the book, as the front and back covers are modeled after those of a tape-bound, three-hole notebook. I even added a layer of texture to the cover art to make the jacket look slightly distressed (like it’d spent a lot of time being jostled around in a backpack).
Then, of course, when you open the book, you need to see the “paper” – the lines, plus the three holes along the side, right where you expect to find them thanks to their placement on the cover.
Within the book, I relied a great deal on the artwork to create that “kid’s notebook” feel. For instance, I established a sort of “hierarchy” of drawings. There are three main types: (1) sketchy doodles, rendered in a pencil gray, (2) crisper, cleaner, more deliberate drawings, rendered in black outline, and (3) fully realized, polished art, “inked” in black and “colored” using a variety of shades of gray. Often, the same subject will appear in all these different styles, over the course of many pages in the book. All of this works to create the appearance of Will processing, ruminating – recreating in drawings the way his brain is functioning.
I tried to use this same idea of recursiveness in the writing as well as the art. There aren’t that many actual scenes in the book, and many of them purposely echo others, creating the sense that Will is trapped, making him (and hopefully the reader) feel that he’s doomed to be stuck replaying the same events over and over in real life (just as he continuously replays past events in his head). There’s also a great deal of repetition of certain words in the story, in particular those that most haunt Will. He writes and draws them over and over, adding to this feeling of repeatedly going back and of being stuck.
Will’s story, and therefore A Work in Progress – at least the first two-thirds of it – is not so much a straight line as a series of spirals, mirroring the way in which Will continues to get caught in these swirling eddies of memory, terror, and shame. Or maybe, more than a spiral, it’s actual like Will’s “scribble knots” (that’s what my art director and I came to call them) – the big black splotches that increasingly dominate the pages of Will’s notebook, coinciding with his descent into a darker, more isolated state of mind.
Writing about all this now, it’s obvious that this story had to be shaped and styled in this way. But it was by no means clear to me during the creation of the book. Far from it. After all, it took me more than ten years to land on this idea, and then three more years to complete A Work in Progress.
What have I learned from all this? For one thing: to never give up on a story. That it’s okay to shelve it for the future – for a time when you might be more emotionally and/or creatively prepared to tackle it. And for another: that a drastic change in form might be the key to getting a story out of you in a full, authentic way. In my experience, every lesson I learn during the making of a book has to be relearned during the making of the next one. But here’s hoping I remember these. And I hope reading about them helps you.
Author-illustrator Jarrett Lerner is the award-winning creator of the EngiNerds series of Middle Grade novels, the Geeger the Robot series of early chapter books, the activity books Give This Book a Title and Give This Book a Cover, The Hunger Heroes series of graphic novel chapter books, and the Nat the Cat series of early readers. In addition to writing, drawing, and visiting schools and libraries across the country, Jarrett co-founded and co-organizes the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects, and regularly spearheads fundraisers for various reading- and book-related causes. He is also the founder and operator of Jarrett Lerner’s Creator Club. He can be found at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @Jarrett_Lerner.
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