The amazingly tall Russ Cox invited me to join this Writing Process Blog Tour. Before the babbling commences, let’s take a moment to learn about Russ:
RUSS COX was raised by a pack of crazed hillbillies in the back woods of Tennessee. Without much in the way of modern conveniences, like a television set or running water, he spent his time drawing and whittling away the hours. All of that drawing paid off. He has illustrated the Freddy the Frgocaster series written by Janice Dean (Regnery Kids), Major Manners Nite Nite Soldier by Beth and Mike Hofner (Outhouse Ink), A Merry Moosey Christmas by Lynn Plourde (Islandport Press Fall 2014) and his first book that he wrote and illustrated, Faraway Friends, will be released in April 2015 by Sky Pony.
Enough about Russ. Friends, join me (at 36,000 feet somewhere between San Fransisco and Boston) in a babbling response to four questions about the writing process. Wonder at how my answers begin concisely and rapidly devolve into preachy ramblings and semi-coherent yammerings. This is not some meta-play on my overly loquacious style of picture book prose. This is just how I answer four simple questions while crammed into a tin tube 6 miles in the sky. Join me.
1. What am I working on?
I am currently working on a picture book project called The Stone Man. It is a fantasy story about a girl who is seeking isolation, but ends up finding a connection in an unlikely place, a deserted island.
2. How does my work differ from others of this genre?
The Stone Man, while firmly routed in fantasy and fairy tale traditions, is at its stoney heart, a character piece. It is about the human need for connection. It is about finding things within ourselves that we believe are lost, and putting faith in others to help carry our hearts when they get heavy. That said (stepping down from soap box), if you are looking for a strong female protagonist sharing a story with a fantastical stone giant…well…it’s got that too.
3. Why do I write what I write?
As a teacher, I have had the tremendous opportunity, obligation, and responsibility to learn the complex inner lives of my students. This, for me at least, was the most challenging, important, and rewarding aspect of a challenging, important, and rewarding career. I’ve watched kids grow and rejoice. I’ve shared successes and failures. I’ve seen kids express love and hate (sometimes while feeling the opposite). I’ve also seen kids suffer, and when kids suffer, they sometimes lash out. But it has been my experience that children retreat from pain. They build walls to protect their hearts. They isolate. My hope is that my story can offer a connection to children whether they need one or not. I hope that kids who read my story will feel welcome, will love the characters, and will want to visit them again.
4. How does my writing process work?
Like many writer/illustrators, my writing process began with a sketch. I was drawing somewhat absent-mindedly. A character emerged on the page, and from that seed a story grew. It took me about three years of poking and prodding, playing with character designs, settings, writing and rewriting in my head before I ever put down a word of my story. But once I started, I couldn’t stop.
I had just reread Stephen King’s On Writing for the fourth time, and I was inspired. Mr. King says that if you are a writer, you sit down and you write. You don’t worry about the minutia. You sit at your keyboard and tell your story. Work out the details later. Awesome! AWESOME! So I went to Starbucks (I have a hard time writing at home. Too many distractions.) and I started telling my story. A few days and dozens of iced coffees and mochas later, I had the first draft of my story. I printed it out, marked it up with a colored pencil. I held it in my hand, and boy did that feel good. The only problem was that my picture book manuscript was 6,500 words long. I only overshot by about 6,000 words. What’s 6,000 words between friends anyway?
And so that is how my manuscript sat for many months. Frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I could chop out a scene here or there. Maybe I could do without this secondary character. That might knock out a hundred words here and there, but, really, working like that would be like taking the moon and carving it down to a life sized bust of Russ Cox. It might be beautiful, but it’s still just a chunk of what was the moon. You can’t change it’s nature. I couldn’t transform my short story into a picture book. Maybe you could. I couldn’t figure out how to change the nature of the thing. So, it sat there – the short story I never intended to write.
It was at the NESBWI conference in 2013 that I found the answers I was seeking. I was bemoaning my picture book problem to author/illustrator Teri Weidner. She told me to rewrite my story in an hour. One hour! One cafe mocha! Also, she tole me not to use words. Just make a story board. Figure the important beats and work from there. It doesn’t need to be pretty. It needs to tell the story. Keep the essence, forget the rest. So here is where I cheated. before I sat down in the summer to rewrite my story in one hour with no words, I thought about it for two months. I had to shake away the ghosts of all I had written before I could start again. Once I was left with a girl and a great stone man, I was ready. I sat down on my nana’s porch (oh safest of places), and storyboarded The Stone Man. And it only took me one hour (plus two or three more, sorry Terri).
With my storyboards in place, I redrafted; cutting the story down to about 1,000 words. Once I created more detailed sketched to make a book dummy, I was able to cut out another 300 plus words. As Teri and author/illustrator Marlo Garnsworthy (more on her later, too), if the pictures say it, the words don’t have to. This stage of writing and revision was a lot of fun. To see the synergy between words and illustration take place was really magical.
There will be more work done on The Stone Man, but for now, the dummy is in my agent’s hands as she looks to find the right home for it. I’ll keep you posted.
Thanks Russ, for inviting me to join the Writing Process conversation. Thanks to all who have taken the time to read my ramblings.
I’m happy to tap two friends who have been crucial to my developing The Stone Man into the Writing Process blog tour. Look for there more valuable and surely more concise thoughts on the writing process next week.
Teri Weidner: During my childhood in Fairport, New York, I was always the kid hunched over my desk with a big mess of crayons. The apex of my artistic career came early, when at 9 years, I won both first and third prize in an Easter egg decorating contest judged by my classmates.
I spent four exciting years at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1985. In 1989 I got my first big breaks – my first magazine work, for Cricket magazine, and my first book job, illustrating The Watching Game by Louise Borden, which was published by Scholastic in 1991.
Since then I have illustrated over 20 children’s books, both trade and educational. I have been thrilled to put pictures to words written by such wonderful authors as Jan Karon and Margaret Wise Brown. This year my first book as a writer and illustrator, Always Twins, is being published by Holiday House, and will be coming out in 2015. I am represented by Bernadette Szost at Portfolio Solutions LLC.
I work in watercolor, colored pencil, and a little of whatever else happens to be on my desk at the time … cat fur included.
I now live with my husband Chris Dahlen and our son Nicholas, as well as our cat Phinneas and several fish, who have all served as models at one point or another. We all fit in a blue house in lovely Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Marlo Garnsworthy: Welcome to Wordy Bird Studio, the virtual home of author, illustrator, editor, and writing teacher Marlo Garnsworthy.
I have been editing books, working with authors, and teaching writing since the late 1990’s, and I specialize in children’s books from picture books to YA, including non-fiction and rhyming verse, although I do edit other kinds of material. I am on faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design CE, where I teach “Writing for Children’s Books,” “Writing Chapter Books for Children,” and various writing and revision workshops. I’m a member of Book Editing Associates, the Editorial Freelancers Association, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.
For more about Kevin and his work, continue on to Kevin Barry Illustration.