Guest blog by Carol Gordon Ekster
When rejections pile up for a manuscript, it often gets tucked away in a drawer. But, you should always be ready to pull it out again. That's what happened with TRUCKER KID (Capstone, 2023).
I had written a picture book in 2013 when I visited my daughter and we dined at my favorite restaurant. I couldn't help but overhear a family's conversation at a nearby table. Three-year-old Athena was discussing a trucking trip she took with her daddy. My writing brain ignited, and I immediately had my title, Trucker Girl. I told the family that I was a children's author, how their discussion inspired a title, and I asked for their contact information.
I came home from that trip and took out library books on trucks and trucking. I knew nothing about this topic. One month later I started e-mailing with the dad to ask some questions and about a month after that I brought the manuscript to a critique group.
In the first draft Athena didn't want to go trucking with her dad but came to love it. With wisdom from my critique partners, the manuscript continued to change and improve. I also had professional eyes on it. In 2014, I took Trucker Girl to a one-day workshop at the Eric Carle Museum, "Revising and Re-Imagining Your Picture Book", with Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson. Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple offered some suggestions when I took this manuscript to their Picture Book Boot Camp in 2015. And even though it went through revisions, it gathered close to one hundred rejections.
Then during COVID, I pulled it out again. I had seen for myself the importance of trucks and their drivers during this difficult time. I added in back matter to show how we rely on trucks, tightened the manuscript yet again, and, finally, this ended up being one of three manuscripts that helped me secure my first agent.
That agent had a few small suggestions that made the manuscript even tighter before she sent it out on a small round of submissions. When Capstone editor Chris Harbo acquired it, he requested only minor tweaks. That made my writers' heart incredibly happy. I had been right to bring back this manuscript and not give up on it. Capstone did request a title change from Trucker Girl to Trucker Kid, and of course, I said yes!
It took about ten years from the idea of the story until I held the book in my hand. If you have patience and trust, and are willing to work and revise, you can love and appreciate the magic of a writing life.
Another title, Before I Sleep: I Say Thank You, illustrated by Mary Rojas, started out as a Jewish bedtime picture book. I woke up one day repeating a prayer that starts with, "Before I sleep, it's time to pray…" I wrote it down on a notepad next to my bed. It took a few months to get this idea down as a draft.
It turns out I had to be very flexible with this manuscript. After subbing it to the limited number of Jewish publishers and hearing positive comments but not selling it, I revised it to be secular. I had a publisher request a revise and resubmit with specific suggestions. They didn't take it, but the manuscript was strengthened.
Then one night at a critique group meeting, one member mentioned she spoke with an editor from Pauline Books and Media about their interest in a picture book about forgiveness. I left thinking that if they were interested in forgiveness, they might be interested in gratitude. I tightened the manuscript again and sent it in - to this Catholic press. They acquired it!
So, it went from a Jewish story to a secular story, to a Catholic one. This book, which took thirteen years to hold in my hand and thirty rejections, sold to the right publisher. It is now in its fourth printing and has won two awards. It was a finalist for the ACP Excellence in Publishing Awards 2016 and a third-place winner in the Catholic Press Association awards in the children's book category, 2016.
It's important to keep your ears and eyes open for possibilities and stay current in the publishing world. Check Publishers' Weekly Rights Reports and tune into the interests of editors. That way you'll know when the market might be right for your drawered manuscript. Let your manuscripts percolate if needed, polish them with revisions, but don't forget about them completely. Believe in the process! Believe in your work.
Carol Gordon Ekster grew up in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from Boston University and getting a Master’s degree in reading and language she was a passionate elementary school teacher for 35 years. At the end of her career, she began writing unexpectedly. Her two most recent titles are SOME DADDIES (Beaming Books, 2022) and TRUCKER KID (Capstone, 2023). You can find out more about her books and writing life at https://carolgordonekster.com.
To order a copy of Trucker Kid click here.
by Kristi Mahoney
As writers we can learn any time of year, but it’s no secret that this industry slows down in the summer. Thankfully, as back-to-school time approaches, the crisp air often brings with it new possibilities and renewed inspiration. If you’re feeling ready to replace your beach bag with a book bag and fill it with new pencils, notebooks, and some back-to-school reading devoted exclusively to writers, we have just the list for you. It’s especially suited for those who already know the basics in their genre and are looking for some inspirational advice as they dive back into writing this fall.
Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” So this September, if you feel inspired—welcome back to school.
Dive into our BACK-TO-SCHOOL READING LIST FOR WRITERS:
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert is perhaps most well-known for her bestselling book Eat Pray Love, but in my opinion, this book is her shining star. Through her own personal experiences and theories on inspiration, Gilbert empowers creators everywhere to overcome self-doubt, hindering perfectionism, and something almost all creatives can relate to – the dreaded imposter syndrome. I devoured this book the first time I read it and make it a point to read it again anytime I need a good creative kick. If you ever feel the same way, I urge you to do the same. Because, as creatives, there’s going to come a point you may have to ask yourself some tough questions. Are you brave enough to take that next step? Do you have the courage to put your work out there? Will you take the leap? In the words of Gilbert, “The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.”
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
I grew up loving Stephen King’s books, but although his stories are impeccably written and fascinating, his fiction work tends to steer darker than I can handle these days. Thankfully, I found this book, King’s first book after recovering from a near deadly car accident. It’s equal parts memoir and tangible craft advice, providing insights on everything from how King sold his first manuscript (after throwing it in the trash) to why you should remove almost every adverb in your work. The book is captivating, inspiring, and a great reminder of why King is one of the most well-known storytellers currently on this planet.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
There’s a lot of buzz around Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in the writing community for good reason. You don’t have to look further than the title for the first big lesson in this book. It’s a reference from a piece of life-changing advice that Lamott’s father once told her brother who was panicking about having to finish a big school report on birds— “just take it bird by bird.” This is a simple yet profound reminder on how to tackle so many things we do as writers that might feel overwhelming. Lamott uses her sharp sense of humor and direct approach and expertly packs this short book with lots of candid real-life experiences and no-nonsense advice. Perhaps Lamott’s greatest reminder – we all have the possibility to get so much more out of writing than just a manuscript. We just have to take it day by day, word by word.
Bird by bird.
All three of these books are fantastic additions to the writer’s bookshelf, but if you happen to have the opportunity to listen to the audiobooks, I highly recommend them. Each one is narrated by the authors themselves, breathing added life and a sense of personalization into their already profound words. It’s tough to disagree when Stephen King tells you, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Now that summer vacation is over…
let the work begin!
Puffy stickers on a Trapper Keeper, a smile glistening with strawberry Kissing Potion, and a pencil box filled with scratch-and-sniff markers, and you were off to a great start for the school year. But how do you restart your writing after a summer of listening to the Pretty in Pink soundtrack on your Walkman? This Back-to-School Retro Summer post has the perfect checklist.
~ by Amanda Smith
The luggage is unpacked. The house is put back together. The kids are settled in their back-to-school routines. Which lends me to ask, in the words of our good friend Joey,
As much as we itch to get back to writing, finding our groove after the summer can be challenging. Here are a few strategies that help me focus my writing for the last quarter of the year.
Do you belong to a critique group or book discussion group? Often these groups take a hiatus over Summer. Don’t forget to press reset and get back to your normal routines.
When I was a kid I used to hate the “back to school” commercials that appeared on TV mid-vacation. We used to say “back to jail” or “back into the cage.” Now I view this time of year differently. I love the excitement of new teachers and learning. I appreciate routines clicking into place, like the gears of a well-oiled machine. And I enjoy the quiet house and increased productivity that it brings. This fall, may you find your desk, reset your schedule, go back to school, and set aggressive goals to finish the year strong!
During the dog-days of summer we are time-traveling back to elementary art class. Grab your Crayola Caddy, draw Harry, and while you are adding Pound Puppy features, consider your story's structure and details, just like my first graders taught me back in 2018.
~ by Amanda Smith
As a substitute teacher I often walk into an emergency, with lesson plans drawn up quickly by someone whose mind was in a much more urgent place. On one such a day, the art teacher left me, in her words, “sketchy plans” – most of which involved students finishing current projects followed by open studio. Now, I’m all for open studio and free draw, but first grade had no projects to finish first. That meant 45 minutes of free draw: The definition of chaos.
Thankfully, I had a planning period. And an ally in the school librarian. After thinking for a second or two, she pulled Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion off her shelf.
“You know,” she said, “kids love dogs. And they always enjoy Harry’s adventures.”
Together we studied Margaret Bloy Graham’s illustrations, and a lesson plan was born.
Fast forward to the first-grade class. I read the book. The kids were delighted. Then I held up Harry the Dirty Dog. “We are going to draw Harry,” I said.
Shock and mayhem.
“We can’t draw like that!”
I turned a deaf ear to the protests as I handed out a sheet of paper with a rectangle already drawn on it. I explained that we would have to work together to draw Harry, as it is a step by step process. Then the students and I drew Harry using the parameters of a rectangle.
As their dog drawings took shape, their joy was contagious. And here’s the thing: even though they all followed my instructions, not one of the dogs looked the same. We had skinny, long nosed dachshunds, and pudgy, round nosed puppies. We had droopy eared dogs and shaggy tailed dogs. Boy Harrys with spiky collars and girl Harrys with pink bows. Every student loved their own Harry, and was amazed that they could indeed draw like that.
Here’s what I learned by drawing Harry, and how it pertains to writing:
This week's throwback blog was first posted in 2019 and features a gnarly truth about goals. We know it's summer, but you still want to make progress on your path to publication and that means you can't ignore your goals! So crank up your boombox, grab a handful of Pop Rocks, and enjoy as our RETRO SUMMER continues!
By Kelly Carey
Every month, according to the 24 Carrot Writing philosophy, I dutifully set both writing goals and craft goals. Every month I hit most but not all of my goals. That’s okay! We have warned against using goals as weapons. Goals are there for motivation.
When I miss a goal, I push it over to the next month. Sound strategy right? I thought so, until I took a look back over the past few months and realized that the same goal kept getting pushed. Why?
The truth is a bit embarrassing.
I’m avoiding the hard goal.
Yup. That’s what I’m doing. I’m feeling proud and organized when I sit down to work, but as a scan through my monthly goals, I’m picking off the easy targets and leaving the more challenging tasks to languish and carry over from month to month.
The goals that keep getting moved to another month are ones I’m most unsure of – much like I put off doing house chores I don’t like. Laundry or vacuuming? I’ll choose laundry every time. You’ll always have clean socks to wear in my house, as long as you don’t wear them shoe-less on my very dirty floors! I was applying this same dodge and avoid technique to my 24 Carrot Writing goals.
This has to stop!
I can’t keep clicking off the easy tasks on my goal list. Every month I set a goal to read mentor texts. I love that task and so every month without fail (and sometimes surpassing my objective), I was able to put a nice thick check mark next to that goal. But the monthly intention to draft a new picture book? Pushed! But I’m a writer? I love writing! Writing should come before reading mentor texts! But the blank page, the self-doubt, the internal critic all made reading a lovely book that you all have already written seem like a much nicer (aka easier) task.
Time to address this blatant goal slacking.
This month I’m picking one super writing goal and one super craft goal and I’m going to underline them – maybe star them – perhaps circle them with a gold pen – and I’m not going to attack anything else on my list until I have hit my super goals every month. I’m actually hoping that those easier, friendlier, can’t-wait-to-do-them goals, which will sit lower on my list, will act as extra motivation. I’ll want to get to those happy place goals, but I’ll have to tackle my super goal first (aka my do-not-pass-go, go-directly-to-them goals!).
I’m a little nervous, but I think it will make me more thoughtful when I make out my monthly goals and I’ll be leaning on my 24 Carrot Writing crew to keep me motivated. I bet I’ll feel fantastic when I hit those super goals and that will be worth tackling the hard stuff first!
Take a peek at your own goals. Set solid, measurable, and challenging goals. And make sure that you are not hiding behind the easy targets on your list like me! If you were, consider highlighting a super goal, a must do goal, and don’t let yourself avoid it.
And now I’m off to do some laundry – just kidding! I’m off to vacuum! Hard stuff first! I’ve got this!
This week's throwback blog was first posted in 2018. This rad post recognizes that you may be looking to catch a wave this summer, but offers tips to make sure your don't wipeout on those writing goals! Enjoy as our RETRO SUMMER continues!
By Annie Cronin Romano
Summer is here. It’s a time for sun, sand, and sangria! A time for hanging out with friends and family, relaxing vacations, and outdoor fun. So, my fine writer friends, where does your writing fit into the summertime equation? Because, as most of us know, summer is also notoriously known as a time for slacking.
Don’t be a slacker, my writer friends! This is where those writing goals come in handy. Hopefully you included that “forgiveness clause” into your writing goals (see Set Your Writing Goals With a Little Forgiveness, 1/23/18). But if you didn’t, or if you haven’t set your summer writing goals yet, here are some tips for keeping the ink flowing while enjoying this active time of year.
Tip #1. Going on vacation? Take a journal with you and write in it daily. It doesn’t have to be long. Just a few reflections on your day, or perhaps a description of a scene that you don’t want to forget. Maybe you came up with some story ideas. Jot them down. Keep your writer’s mind active even when you’re not working on an actual story.
Tip #2. Read! What better way to become a better writer than to read consistently. Writers hear it all the time and, naturally, love books, so there’s a good chance you read regularly anyway. But in case time is more elusive for you the rest of the year, take some time this summer to crack the spine on a few books you’ve been wanting to dive into. You may notice some new writing approaches or styles along the way.
Tip #3. Use your phone’s note-taking app. Even if you don’t have time to do much extended writing, sparks of inspiration may strike, and you probably won't have your laptop or notebook available if you’re at the amusement park or on a hike. So pull out your phone and type yourself a brief note. Store that idea or inspiration away for another time.
Tip #4. Take pictures, especially of unusual things. Vacations are full of picture taking opportunities, but step away from the selfies and snapshots of family, and take some random “slice of life” shots. Then use those images later as writing prompts. I know. Brilliant, right? You never know what the lens will capture. Your next story gem could lurk in those precious photos!
Tip #5. Enjoy! After all…it’s summer!
This week's throwback blog was first posted in 2021 as part of our Road to Publication series and is chockablock with information about preparing your work for publication. Welcome to RETRO SUMMER!
~by Amanda Smith
So, you wrote something. And now you wonder what the steps are for getting it published.
First of all, congratulations! Writing on a consistent basis, to the point where you have a book, is a huge accomplishment. (If you want to write children's books and aren't sure where to start, this blog by Kelly is for you.) Writing a book, however, is only the first step. Sending a freshly written manuscript to an agent or publisher would be like asking Paul and Prue to judge a cake after you had only gathered the ingredients.
Here are some basic steps towards publishing:
You need someone else's eyes on your work (not family!). Ideally your critique partners should be up to date on the current market and knowledgeable about writing. They will look at content, structure, plot and character development, language use and, if you need, line editing. It is imperative to have someone else read your work. Sometimes we get so caught up in the excitement of a new project, or have read the same words so many times we don't see the plot holes, unclear details, or glaring mistakes.
Where to find critique partners?
Local writing organizations
Online groups such as Kidlit 411, Storystorm, Children’s Book Authors & Illustrators, 12X12, to name a few.
Craft workshops and courses
If your critique partners are worth their salt, you will receive lots of revision notes. Depending on the depth of the notes, you will have to revise or, in some cases, even rewrite. Regardless of the scope of revisions, you will likely have a couple of critique-revision rounds. Do not skip this step! It is during this phase that your work continues to mature and become the best it can be. It is hugely rewarding to dig deep and polish away the rough edges of your story.
Beta Readers: (Not necessary for picture books)
After critiques and revisions, you need Beta readers, who consist of readers the age of your intended audience or readers deeply familiar with your genre (think teachers, librarians). A beta reader questionnaire is a helpful tool for gathering focused feedback. Another round of revisions will likely follow beta readers.
Once you have completed these steps and you feel that your work is ready to send out, you need to decide whether you want to take the traditional publishing route or explore independent publishing?
The rest of today's post will focus on traditional publishing. Next time we will learn about independent (self) publishing. Make sure you know the pros and cons of each option.
If you choose traditional publishing, you should know that it can take months or even years. Most of the bigger publishers are closed to unsolicited submissions and you need an agent to represent your work.
Some publishing houses however, do accept unagented submissions. Books, such as THE CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET, can provide guidance as to which publishing houses are open to unagented submissions. Always check the publisher’s website for their latest guidelines.
While you can certainly do research online and through publishing trade journals to find publishers who are open to unagented or unsolicited manuscripts, it is very helpful if you have a more personal contact with an editor at the publishing house. One of the best ways to make this connection is to attend a class or workshop taught by the editor. Also, editors who attend writing conferences will often accept unsolicited submissions from conference attendees for a limited time, so be sure to look into this possibility when attending these events. Always do your research to be sure a specific publisher publishes the genre/age level you write.
A good literary agent will help you polish and edit your story, send submissions to publishing houses, negotiate contracts, and handle advances and royalties. They are super knowledgeable about the industry, and know what editors are seeking. Your agent is your ally and business partner. Therefore it is important to carefully research agents, not only for what genres they represent or what their interests are, but also whether they will be a good match for you. Once you have narrowed down agents you would like to approach, you need to query.
Places to research agents:
SCBWI The Book
Manuscript wishlist (www.manuscriptwishlist.com/)
Publishers Marketplace (https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/)
Some writing websites also offer a treasure trove of information in the form of agent interviews and guest blogs. A few to browse are http://www.literaryrambles.com/, https://www.pbspotlight.com/, and The 12x12challenge
Most agents are active on social media
Acknowledgements of books you have read
A query is a letter in which writers pitch their work and introduce themselves to an agent. It is a business letter that follows a specific form. Stay tuned for a guest blog regarding query letters by the Query Godmother, Kris Asselin, later this month.
Queries are used for picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, as well as all other fiction. Nonfiction writers send a cover letter, proposal with outline, and some writing samples.
Each agent or agency has their own rules regarding submissions. It is very important that you read and follow each specific agency's submission guidelines. Not only does it streamline the process for them, but it also reflects well on you, their future client, and your ability to take direction.
Be prepared for several rounds of querying. If an agent would like to represent you, they will contact you and usually schedule a phone call with you to further discuss the details. Remember, not only is the agent interviewing you to see whether they want to take you on as a client, but you are also interviewing the agent to see whether they will be a good match for you.
Once you have received an offer of representation and contracts have been signed, you and your agent may go through another round of revisions before they submit your manuscript to publishers. There might be several rounds of submissions before you receive an offer for your book.
At this point the process is out of your hands. You have baked your cake to perfection. You've trimmed and filled and frosted. You've decorated and delicately flavored. Editors, acquisition boards, and marketing departments are your proverbial judges, and once your delectable offering hits the right palate, you will get your Hollywood-handshake: A published book!
Boogie on down to the other two posts in this series, about Independent Publishing and Writing a Query Letter. Catch you on the flip side!
By Kelly Carey (reposted from December 2018)
Often, when a family member, friend, or acquaintance learns that you are a children’s writer they comment back, “I’ve always wanted to be a children’s writer,” or “I’ve written a children’s book too”. As a seasoned member of the KidLit community you will want to be helpful and encouraging while still providing realistic and practical advice and information.
The following blog is a post that you can share with folks you meet who want to become children’s book writers. Share it as a way to kick-start their writing journey and provide them with the first step information every writer needs to move from thinking about being a children’s writer to becoming a children’s writer.
Becoming a Children’s Author
The dream of becoming a children’s author is a wonderful bubble that floats into the heads and hearts of many creative people. The trick is to take that dream and make it a reality.
There are three key first steps that every dreamer needs to take in order to kick start their writing journey and move it from a thinking about phase to a doing phase.
Step One: Write
The first step to becoming a children’s author is to write.
This may seem like common sense, but this is the point where many writing dreams sit stagnant. Aspiring writers may think about a story, and have a desire to be a writer, but often they will not take the time to sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
To become a published writer you have to sit down and write. It can’t be on a whim or as a hobby. It has to be a real endeavor. Until you decide to make writing a priority, everything and anything - kids, family, chores, appointments, friends - can and will derail your efforts and interrupt your progress. Think of writing as a job that requires your undivided time and attention.
To put true intention into your writing ambition, layer measurable goals into your dream:
For help setting your writing goals check out the posts under the Writing Goals section of the 24 Carrot blog archives.
Step 2: Find Your Tribe
Writing can be a very solitary business. You’re not working for a company. There is no boss or co-worker. It is you alone with a laptop or a notebook. BUT you cannot work in a vacuum. You will need a group of fellow writers on your journey for the following reasons:
There are some practical ways to find your writing tribe. For example:
Engage in the community of writers in order to find valuable critique partners and a support system. For more help finding a writing tribe, check out the posts under the Writing Community section of the 24 Carrot blog archives.
Step 3: Read
There is a difference between reading a book as a reader for enjoyment and entertainment and reading a book as writer. Readers will enjoy a book, while writers will study why a book was enjoyable. In order to become a published writer, you need to read like a writer.
There are three primary reasons why writers read in their genre:
For more help becoming a writer who reads, check out the posts under the Read section of the 24 Carrot blog archives.
If you have been thinking about becoming a children’s writer take these first steps.
Write, Find a Tribe, and Read.
Good Luck on your journey!
Join us this summer as we look back at our favorite posts from the archives. Some will be groovy, many will be far-out, and we know you'll dig 'em! If you missed a stellar post from the past, mellow out and catch them during the 24 Carrot Writing RETRO SUMMER!
We're starting off by reposting our popular June Year's Eve celebration blog!
As we hit the halfway mark of 2023, June Year’s Eve reminds you to assess your annual writing goals. Recommit to your 2023 writing plan, and make sure the schedule shifts of summer don’t derail your progress! Enjoy the holiday, but keep on track with your writing goals!
by Kelly Carey
I love this holiday!
Yes, June Year is a holiday!
When it comes to writing and goals setting this is my favorite holiday. Some like January when you tap out lists of goals and resolutions with the enthusiastic optimism of the diapered New Year’s baby. But June is the month when the mature goal setter emerges to take stock, assess, and for those who really want it, decides to persevere.
Remember those sparkly goals you set six months ago? What? You forgot about them! ACK!
Get them out. Oh good, some of you remember your writing goals for the year. But, what’s that? You sort of lost track? You petered out in March and now you are aimlessly drifting through writing projects?
Remain calm – the June Year holiday has come just in time!
Get out those annual goals. How are you doing so far? Hey, look, you hit a few! Hooray – party with a few carrots!
You missed some? No worries. You still have a full six months left to hit those targets. Use the June Year holiday to celebrate all you have accomplished so far in and reset your goals for the second half of the year. Get ready to finish the year strong – 24 Carrot Writing strong!
Happy June Year everyone!
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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