Audience, Purpose, Content

At the moment, I am struggling simultaneously with two picture book manuscripts. This is unusual. Mostly, picture book manuscripts liberate me when I’m feeling defeated by  a novel draft or revision. Mostly, picture books help me to see more readily the bigger landscape of story. They get me disentangled from the words on the page. But not these.

They are both nonfiction. Historical. With multiple layers of story. The question that keeps coming up is whether there is too much here for a picture book. I’ve had fellow writers read both of these at different times. I’m drowning in all the very good critical appraisals I’ve received.

But now the job is mine and mine alone. Because in the 20+ years since I began daring to call myself a writer, here is something I have learned.  At every successive stage, a work in progress differs in its audience and its purpose, and therefore in its content.

Early Drafts: The first draft is for me and me alone. Some people say the first draft is the writer telling herself the story. In my opinion, it’s not even that. The first draft is simply to pin the idea down, to commit to the page my intention to pursue it. No one should ever see that first draft but me. It is too fragile to share even with trusted readers.

imageDeveloping Drafts: Subsequent rounds of drafts can benefit from the opinions of informed readers. Not my family, I hasten to add, but readers who are writers themselves. At this stage I go to craft books as well, or books about books. I might flip through their pages to see if I can pick up on any ideas to help me bridge the gap between intention and outcome.

Drafts Nearing Completion: Back to me, myself, and I. Last rounds to clean up, get rid of extraneous ideas and wishful thinking, self-indulgent prose and unnecessary decorations. Sometimes at this stage, I can’t see the work with any judgment at all.

This is not a bad time to send the work to an agent or an editor. An editor told me long ago that she’d rather get a manuscript with a strong idea, good execution but with work clearly yet to be done, than one that is weak and prematurely polished. Every book begins with an idea that offers many, many possible directions. A writing group or critique partner can tell me all the many paths that my work seems to be pointing toward. But an editor, especially a good, thoughtful, practical, visionary editor (they do exist–really) can point you to a single path. Then you can decide if that’s the one.

 

The Rejection Tug-of-War

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The gods and demons churn the ocean of milk, with Vasuki the serpent as the rope. Angkor Wat, 2016

Writing and rejection go hand in hand. Writers are an odd lot. We spend hours, months, even years of our lives on work that reflects our very souls. Then we send that work out into the world inviting, even seeking, rejection. When it comes, we brood. Was that editor or agent right? Is the work dead? Is is any good? Is there something there worth salvaging? What can I do with it? What next? It’s an endless tug-of-war between yourself and the work.

“No.” “Not right for us.” “Not quite there.” Rejection doesn’t come as often now as it used to, but it still stabs to the heart. The only way you can avoid it is not to send any manuscripts out, and what’s the point of that?

There’s a remarkable bas-relief on one of the walls of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. It shows the Sagar or Samudra Manthan story from Hindu mythology, the churning of the ocean of milk, with the gods and demons pitted against each other. Vasuki the divine serpent serves as the rope that spins the mountain Mandara, which is the churning post. The serpent spits poison. The world is at risk. But the prize is the nectar of immortality.

Is there a better prize in all the universe? In the end, even in some small way, isn’t that what we’re after?

As Marion Dane Bauer says:

What do you do when the answer is “No”? You listen.

You rethink. You re-envision. You revise. You keep on churning. Because maybe, just maybe, the nectar of immortality will rise up from that ocean.

Tolstoy Was not Writing for Me

Is there anyone who shows us better than Toni Morrison how to weather life and keep on singing? Singing fiercely, what’s more. Look at this 2015 Guardian interview.

Admittedly, her forays into children’s books have left me, well, puzzled. Because where is the ferocious beauty of language, the glorious leaping narrative I know from The Bluest Eye or Beloved? Where is the “appetite for truth?”

Never mind. Today I’m breathing in this passage from the interview:

Most writers claim to abhor labels but Morrison has always welcomed the term “black writer”. “I’m writing for black people,” she says, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it” – she refers to the writer James Baldwin talking about “a little white man deep inside of all of us”. Did she exorcise hers? “Well I never really had it. I just never did.”

Today I am returning to a picture book that is not selling. Nothing saps courage more than a manuscript that has not found a home. I’m told there’s too much information in this one. The structure is slight. There’s not enough there there.

I’m setting those comments aside for now. They may be completely on target but addressing objections head-on has never been my style.

Instead I’m going to see if it will help to come at the story another way. To try to zero in on the child reader–a brown kid like the brown kid I used to be, the brown kid I still carry around inside me. Not writing for everyone, the way Tolstoy was not writing for me. Maybe that way I’ll find out if there is in fact a story lurking behind the words.