October 3, 2017
Part 1: Sandy
AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS FINALLY COME
David, you've inspired this exchange of thoughts with your recent comment about finding an old manuscript in your files that seemed to be asking you to come back and work on it. Thank you!
That reunion with an old manuscript really struck a chord. It's something that's happened to me many times over the years. I'll bet it happens to most writers, at least now and then. And yet we hardly ever hear it mentioned in advice articles or courses or workshops. Sure, we're told to put a new manuscript away for a few days or weeks so we can revise it with fresh eyes and renewed energy. But what about manuscripts that have been lying around for years?
They don't get enough respect!
In fact, they're kind of a secret, aren't they? Maybe we're not comfortable admitting there are incomplete or unsuccessful manuscripts languishing on the back burner -- or off the stove altogether?
Well, let's shout it out here: I don't throw anything away! Not even if it seems hopeless and I think I never want to look at the useless thing again, let alone spend another minute of my precious writing time wrestling with it. I hang onto it, anyway.
One just never knows when that idea's time may come. Circumstances change. Markets change. Editors change. But perhaps most importantly, WE change. Sometimes we just have to live a little bit more, learn a little bit more, grow a little bit older and wiser -- or do a whole lot of that stuff -- to solve the puzzle certain pieces present.
Some ideas simply knock on our door too soon, but they'll wait until we're ready to answer. The very first of my successful file-digging finds is probably something of a record holder. It was a story I wrote for a college creative writing course. It earned a respectable grade at that time, but it wasn't until 18 years later that I hauled it out, revised it, and sold it. Yes, you read that right: 18 years!
Fresh out of college, I tried sending it off to what I thought were appropriate publications, but it never found a home. No doubt, that's because I was aiming at literary journals. I just didn't know enough to understand what I'd actually written, or even what kind of writer I was meant to be -- a children's author. After the story collected a depressing number of rejections, it went into my file cabinet and there it stayed, abandoned and, eventually, forgotten.
Some years later, I enrolled in elementary education classes at Drury College (now Drury University) where my husband was teaching. (I've always enjoyed working with kids, I just didn't know I was supposed to be writing for them!) One required class changed everything: Methods of Teaching Children's Literature. It was there that I first read young adult novels. Suddenly, I felt as if I'd been wandering all my life and had finally found home. My whole approach to my work -- and its marketing potential -- shifted.
Not long after that epiphany, I read about an educational publisher looking for stories about teenaged protagonists for a graded reading series. I found my old college story, reread it with new perspective, and sent off the requested query. There was interest. BUT. There were also a few requirements for this series: I had to count not only word length, but average number of syllables, and I had to work in six new vocabulary words twice each. Considerable revision was in order!
The ensuing labor only made the story better. After it was accepted, I enjoyed a long, productive, and profitable relationship with that publisher. Plus, with each story needing to comply with stringent length, reading difficulty, and vocabulary requirements, I honed my revision skills. Big bonus!
So, in 18 years, my focus changed, and my writing improved. I also learned something about patience. Sometimes an idea just has to wait for its time to come.
And, now, David, your time has come!
October 10, 2017
Part 2: David
Well, Sandy, you’re younger than I so I hope you’ll forgive me for having a story that tops your 18 years by three. But my tale is slightly different from yours so we may both claim the title in separate divisions.
I made my first trip to New York City for an editorial visit in 1969, the same year my first children’s book was published. Forty-eight years later I can look back on many such trips, but that first one led me to write THE BOOK OF GIANT STORIES.
From March through April, 1969 I wrote three stories in forty-seven days for the collection: The Secret, Little Boy Soup, and The Giant Who Threw Tantrums. When the stories were sent to the artist, Philippe Fix, he had an idea for his own story to add. I said no to that but agreed to write the story he wanted to illustrate, which I called, The Giant Who was Afraid of Butterflies. I didn’t realize until it was too late that Little Boy Soup had been pulled from the group and replaced by the butterfly story.
I couldn’t complain. I loved my editor, the book was gorgeous, it won a Christopher Medal, and contracts for translations started pouring in – from Denmark, Japan, Italy, Africa, Finland, Germany, and half a dozen others. But what was I to do with the single story, Little Boy Soup? I guess I didn’t know. According to my records, I never sent it anywhere else to see about placing it as a picture book on its own. Maybe my contract prevented me from publishing another giant story at the time. That was long ago and I don’t remember.
In 1988 I finally sent Little Boy Soup to my friend Ronne Peltzman, who had become the children’s editor for Ladybird Press in Loughbourough, England. The picture book was published in 1990, twenty-one years after I wrote it.
As we all know, Sandy, these late bloomers sometimes come with additional rewards. In 1989 my Sandy and I took a trip to England and while we were there I caught a train to Loughbourough to see Ronne. Another U.S. visitor was at Ladybird that day and we were introduced. Christine San Jose explained that she worked with Kent Brown at Highlights. When I told her I’d been focusing on poetry the past three years, she urged me to send my work to Kent because he was starting a book publishing division called Boyds Mills Press and one of the imprints, given entirely to poetry, was Wordsong.
The story of my growth as a poet as Wordsong grew is a tale for another time. The point here is that a story that lingered in my files for nearly as long as it takes an infant to be born, grow up, and graduate from college finally made it into print. Between 1969 and 1990, I left my position as editorial manager at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City to become president of Glenstone Block Company in Springfield, Missouri. In 1969 I had published two books. By 1990 I’d published thirty-nine. In 1969 I had a nine-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. In 1990 my children were college graduates. Sandy and I had our first grandson. Sandy had left her teaching job in Kansas City, earned her master’s degree in guidance and counseling, and become a high school counselor in Springfield.
Could I have written Little Boy Soup in 1990 the same way I did twenty-one years earlier? Impossible. I don’t know if a later version would have been better or worse, but it would certainly have been different as a reflection of all the changes in my life during those years. What I can say for sure is that I’m glad I hung onto the story that got squeezed out of THE BOOK OF GIANT STORIES!
October 17, 2017
Part 3: Sandy
WAIT AND SEE
My story "Who's Ready to Ride?" appeared in the September, 2016, issue of the Highlights magazine for 2 - 5 year olds, HIGH FIVE. Who's ready to ride, indeed! This story took its good old time getting ready to appear in print.
It all began at a child's birthday party in the DC area. My great-nephew, then about six years old, was invited to attend. I happened to be in town, so I accompanied him to the park where the party was being held. As a point of reference, I should mention that this same great-nephew will begin college this fall. So at least a decade passed between inspiration and publication. Not quite the record-setting 18 years I wrote about in my last go-round, but a considerable delay none-the-less.
Back to the party: Much to my great-nephew's delight, pony rides were included in the festivities. A cheerful young woman with a notably patient pony did the honors, and my great-nephew, one of the first to hop on, immediately dashed to the back of the line to wait for another turn. Again and again and again. He was fascinated and fearless.
But what if he hadn't been? What if there were a guest who was not quite ready to mount that pony? Someone just a little bit nervous about the whole situation? A character took over for my great-nephew, far more shy than he, and the hesitant, gently humorous steps toward self-confidence began to take shape in my imagination.
I liked the story a lot. I still do! It's fun, and it has something important to say about new experiences. I thought the children, the park, the party, and the pony would provide ample opportunities for illustration. I sent it off to my agent.
She was not interested. I put the story away.
Time passed, and I found myself temporarily between agents. I sent the story out to book publishers on my own.
They were not interested. I put the story away.
More time passed, and I signed on with a new agent. I sent her the story. She --
Oh, never mind, you know what comes next.
Things you can count on: (1) Time will continue to pass, and (2) I do not give up easily! Faced with a dry patch and a drop in confidence of my own, I signed myself up for a number of on-line writing challenges just to keep writing. My own version of "get back on the horse." (You can read all about this in the July, 2013, WRITERS AT WORK posts called "Making On-Line Challenges Work for You.")
As a response to one of the on-line challenges, the pony story was among those I pulled out of my files to revisit. By that time, I'd discovered a new market for the kind of stories I enjoy writing -- quiet ones, often not "edgy" enough for book publication. No zombies, few dragons. In this case, just a pony and a little boy with "a tickly, tumbly feeling" in his tummy. HIGH FIVE suited me just fine, and in short order, I placed 9 stories and a poem with them, including "Who's Ready to Ride?" One more revision to bring it into compliance with their length preferences, and it finally WAS ready.
Do I wish it had become a picture book? Oh, maybe a little. But I love Robert Dunn's illustrations, and the HIGH FIVE readership is huge. I found a copy in my local library just the other day! So I'm pleased, without complaint or apology, that the story finally found its proper home.
"Time will tell," in writing as in life. You'd think things would cloud over as they fade into the past, but often they snap into focus with astounding clarity. Sometimes when we wait, we truly see.
October 24, 2017
Part 4: David
Today I thought I’d share a couple of experiences in which filed ideas came back to life, one as a book and one as a magazine article. I’ll begin with the book.
In 1979 I wrote a story about a little boy who keeps hearing and seeing things in his bedroom one night when he is trying to go to sleep. His patient father comes in each time he yelps for help and explains that sometimes furnace pipes can make noises and limbs in the wind can scratch against the window and toys left on carpets can indeed resemble a face. I called the story THE SNORING MONSTER and confidently fired it off to an editor right away.
In due course the editor confidently fired it back. My records don’t show why I neglected to send it anywhere else that year or during the entire year that followed. For some reason I didn’t send the story out to a second editor for eighteen months. Not that it made the outcome any different. It was “no” again the second time as well as another five times after that.
The last time I submitted THE SNORING MONSTER was to an editor at Western Publishing on August 15, 1981. She passed on it. I gave up and filed it away. Sixteen months later the same editor sent me a query. She was planning a series of spooky books and wondered if I might want to submit something. Without comment I sent her the story she’d rejected the year before. She loved it. I loved that. The book was published in 1986, almost seven years after I wrote it.
Sandy, this second example may not fit the mold exactly, but I’m going to talk about it anyway because goodness knows when or whether another opportunity will come along! This one started with a phone call. At the time I was the editor for children’s cards at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. The caller identified himself as a psychiatrist whose specialty was working with children. Someone had recommended me to him. He wanted to meet to discuss the potential for publishing some of his experiences in magazines. He wondered if I would be interested in ghost writing the articles.
We met over lunch while he outlined his plan. He would provide me all the information I needed after first deleting or changing names and removing all other clues about true identities. My articles would focus on examples, not on individuals involved. I explained that anything I wrote would include my byline and we would divide the money 50/50. He agreed.
Weeks passed without further word. Eventually we visited a second time and he spoke about the difficulties of treating two or more siblings in the same family alike. No matter how hard parents might try to deal with each child fairly and equally, changing conditions always make it impossible for their children to have the same experiences. Income changes. Health changes. Jobs change. And so on. I jotted some notes and told him that as soon as he provided the specific examples, I could start writing. He wondered how much money we were going to make from this project. When I told him the going rates, he was clearly disappointed.
He also stopped corresponding with me. By now I had invested quite a bit of time and thought in this doctor’s brainchild. His silence became a roadblock. I moved on to other work. Most obsolete materials in my files are stories and proposals I haven’t sold. This was the first time an undeveloped idea for an article had found its way into the never-never file.
Then one night some time later I pulled out my notes and asked myself a pertinent question: How much did it matter if I didn’t have specific case histories to prove the point of the article? After all, the names and other key information would be changed anyway if the doctor ever got around to sending them. Rather than give up on the idea, I would write a draft and send it to him for a response.
Based on common sense, a little research, and a few key points in my notes, I wrote the article and called it, “Are We Treating Our Children Fairly?” I mailed it to the psychiatrist to see if he liked the approach and asked again for some case histories. I figured he would be unhappy that I had gone ahead without him. Low and behold, he liked my effort. He tweaked it a bit and mailed it back within two weeks, still without the promised examples. I submitted the piece to Parents Magazine and it was rejected. I was in too deep to quit now. I sent it to five magazines at once: Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, Redbook, and Woman’s Day. Family Circle published it. That was in 1971. We divided $150 and called it quits.
So this isn’t really about a story that was resuscitated and found a market after all. It’s about a basic idea that almost didn’t get written. And that, friends, is why sometimes we simply have to WAIT FOR IT.