So I’m sitting in shul yesterday, listening to the prayers and the chanting of the Torah and so on, and I’m thinking, “What’s a verb that either alliterates or rhymes with pancake flipper?” And I’m also thinking, “If I have to be distracted, how great is it that this is the most pressing question on my mind?”
Once upon a time, I was a writer of books for children. I wrote picture books for children who were too young to read (and the people who read to tem), and easy readers for children who were just learning to translate abstract squiggles into stories (and the people who helped them become literate).
Writing for children wasn’t a conscious decision. It came to me naturally, because my own children were little, and I was reading to them constantly. The cadences of books like Blueberries for Sal and Owl Moon and The Stinky Cheese Man got stuck in my head. And when I imagined an audience, the kids who regularly snuggled in my lap to listen automatically came to mind.
Once I started doing it, I fell in love. I loved that I could read the whole story through at once, hold the whole thing in my head, grasp the rhythm and arc. I find my way into a story primary by sound, so being able to hear the whole story at once, like a song, worked well for me.
Writing well in any format means not wasting words, but this is especially true for picture books. For me, this means millions of revisions. Since I love manipulating minutiae, and generally view writing as creating the opportunity to rewrite, picture books’ stingy word-allotment suited my temperament perfectly.
Plus, it was working. Once I’d sold my first picture book, writing and selling more was easier. Or not. In fact, for every story I started, I abandoned a dozen. And for every five I finished and submitted to publishers, I sold one.
Why? Some of my ideas just weren’t developed, and others just weren’t that good. Also, my writing was getting more and more “quiet” as industry tastes moved the other way. Editors became more cautious. Publishers merged or got swallowed up. The imprints that published my first two books disappeared. And I had no one to tell me what to do.
I had had an agent, briefly. I’d sold one of my books through her, and then decided I didn’t need an agent, because I had so many contacts in children’s publishing. Then most of those contacts either left or lost their jobs. And now that my own kids were nearly grown, I was no longer reading children’s books the way I had been.
I was doing other things, like writing newspaper stories, and then editing other people’s newspaper stories. And I started writing a novel. A big one, for grown-ups. After a while, the big novel consumed all my writing energy. When it was finished, all I could think of doing was starting another one. Children’s books were something I remembered fondly, from a former life.
Then, a few weeks ago, I was chatting with my agent, the one whom I signed with to help me sell my big novel for grown-ups. She doesn’t handle picture books. But I didn’t care, because she loves my big novel for grown-ups, and she believes in it, probably even more than I do. She also understands me. When we talk, it’s like we’re old friends who lost touch for a while, and are rediscovering all the things we have in common.
So one day my agent I are chatting, and I happen to mention one of my kids’ books. And she asks, “Why aren’t you writing kids’ books anymore?”
“I have drawers full of kids’ book manuscripts,” I tell her.
And she says something like, “Why don’t you show them to me?”
So I go through all my unpublished children’s books, and I send her the four I consider my best. She hates one of them. Another she’s not sure about. She loves another, but thinks it needs work. But one – my favorite, the one about bees — she thinks just needs a few tweaks, and then should go out on submission to publishers. She reminds me that picture books are not her area of expertise, but says a colleague at her agency who knows all about them is willing to help.
The colleague agrees with my agent’s assessment. He also says that I need to cut 200 words from the bee book.
First I balk, and then I rally. I let the information simmer overnight, and in the morning I get to work. For the next day or two, I cut back and rebuild the text. I shave unneeded helping verbs and prepositions. I delete adverbs and replace them with more descriptive verbs. I eliminate extraneous details and compress scenes to their essence. When I realize that I’ve lost some crucial phrases, I put them back, and remove others that matter less.
In a picture book, the illustrations tell at least as much of the story as the words do. After an artist comes on board (God willing), more of my words will be expendable. But for now, I need to leave in enough so an editor will envision pictures like the ones in my mind.
I keep clicking “recount,” watching my progress, and I keep printing the story out and reading it aloud to myself, pacing from one end of my office to other. When I can’t find anything else to fix, I send it back to my agent. The next day, sitting in shul, I realize I need to make one more change.
“That must be awfully humbling,” a friend commiserates.
Actually not, I tell her. Mostly, what I feel is grateful. The revised, shorter text is much stronger than the original, but I couldn’t see that for myself. I am thrilled to be working with such a supportive agent, and grateful that she has colleagues she can call on for help – and that she recognizes when she needs it. And I’m gratified beyond words to have my old love for children’s books rekindled.
As for the pancake flipper, I ended up rewriting the whole sentence to say slipper fuzz, instead. When I read the new phrasing to my husband, he came up with exactly the right verb. I’m grateful for that, too.