Sweet Little Lies

Years ago, while making the rounds with my very first children’s book manuscript, Easter Tortoise’s Big Idea, I was lucky enough to attract the enthusiastic attention of an editor at Albert Whitman and Company. Though this manuscript was ultimately not accepted, Easter Tortoise did give me a great connection with a wonderful person. From that point forward, whenever I had a story, I would first send it to her – someone who I knew liked my stuff.

At some point this professional relationship moved to the next level. By that I mean the editor would occasionally call or email me with leads. “We’re on the lookout for a new Mother’s Day book,” she’d tell me. Or “We want to publish a book about how a family copes after a parent loses a job.”

Receiving such information gladdened my heart. I wasn’t yet published, but I was in the loop – and it was awesome. I always did my best to take advantage of every tiny kernel of inside knowledge.

On one occasion she called to say that Albert Whitman was now looking for a new Thanksgiving title. “Do you have any Thanksgiving stories?” she asked.

In response to that question two things happened:

1. My mouth said, “Yes I do!”

2. My brain said, “YOU DO NOT!”

My brain was the honest one, but, fortunately, it was also the one that couldn’t be heard outside of my head. So you can imagine my brain’s dismay when my mouth took the fib and ran with it.

“Actually I have two Thanksgiving stories,” I told her. “They both need a little work. One is a silly turkey story and the other is more serious. Which one should I work on?”

“I think the serious one,” the editor said.

And that was that.

Okay, typewriter. Time to make an honest man outta me!

Now let me pause here to emphasize that I really hate lying. I really, really hate it. Lying makes me feel uncomfortable and guilty and immoral. I make a conscious effort to avoid doing it under almost any circumstance.

But there are exceptions, of course. In my case, it’s when someone asks me one of two questions about my writing.

1. Can you write _____?

2. Do you have _____?

Sometimes the honest answer to the first question is “I don’t know.”  Frequently the honest answer to the second question is “No.”

My answer for both, however, is always “Yes!”

I say “yes” without hesitation or discomfort. I say “yes” without guilt. I say “yes” with a smile. I can even say “yes” so convincingly and sincerely that, if it wasn’t for that wet blanket of a brain, I’d even believe it.

Then, after all that yessing, I hang up the phone and, with a new sense of purpose, work like mad to turn my lie into a belated truth. I suspect this is how a lot of books get written. At least it’s how my book was written ­– and I regret nothing. In fact, I would advise every writer to do the same thing.

Experience has shown me that with a bit of effort, I can almost always turn the answer to question number one from an “I don’t know” into a “Yes.” And, if given enough time, I can turn the answer to question number two from a “No” into an “I do now!”

And here’s the best part: not only do these little fibs open up business opportunities, they also allow me to stretch my creative muscles in ways I never would have done otherwise. Saying “Yes” helps me to grow and evolve as a writer.

I recently told an actor friend of mine the above story. In response, he nodded and said in his deep baritone, “Mm. Like improv.”

I had never thought of it that way before, but he’s absolutely right. As any graduate of The Groundlings or Second City can assert, the one Cardinal rule of improvisation is to never ever dismiss anything another improviser tells you – no matter how absurd or ludicrous. Your job is to build on it.

It is called the rule of “Yes, and…”

That was pretty much what I was doing on that phone call. The editor threw something out there and I built upon it, asserting that YES, I had a Thanksgiving book. AND I really have two Thanksgiving books!

See? I wasn’t lying at all, I was acting!

Ahem.

So let me open up the comments section: What are a few of the more memorable whoppers you have told in your day?

Rhyme Time

Did you know that April is National Poetry Month? Neither did I! That’s why I’m writing about it now!

I’m a little bit troubled that I am so late to this particular party. I really should have known. I work at a school and schools live for these kinds of distractions.

Furthermore, my brother-in-law is a pretty famous poet named Philip Memmer who’s won lots of awards and has a new book out and everything. (It’s OK if you’ve never heard of him. I hadn’t heard of him either until I started falling in love with his sister.) His poetry is great, even if it doesn’t rhyme – and it doesn’t, which is still kind of a shame.

I have written a number of picture book manuscripts, but only one of those manuscripts, Donut Run, is in verse. The process was both painful and long. I worked on Donut Run on and off for about two years before I finally considered it good enough to start accumulating rejection letters.

So, to celebrate National Poetry Month while I still can, I thought I’d post the first few stanzas. And, since you know what a comments section is for, consider this an invitation  to have at it.

DONUT RUN

My mom loves to cook, she just doesn’t know how.

She often fries up the wrong parts of the cow,

Or the lamb, or the fish, or whatever’s on hand,

And makes a concoction that no one can stand.

But she hit a new low on one snowy day,

When she piled our plates high with pig snout soufflé.

 

My dad took one look. He then rose from his chair,

And made up a lie just to get out of there.

“A meeting!” he shouted. “Oh, my! And I’m late!”

I’m really so sorry. Those noses look great.”

Then, Dad, with a satisfied smile on his face,

Ran right out the door straight for Ray’s Pizza Place.

 

“More for us,” Mom shrugged, as she reached for a bite,

She nibbled a nostril and then turned chalk white.

“Oh my! This is awful! Don’t eat this, it’s bad.”

Then she gazed at my plate and saw that I had.

Empty! Amazing! The plate was licked clean!

Mom looked, but the dog was nowhere to be seen.

 

“That’s right,” I announced. “I ate every bite.

I deserve a dessert! You know that I’m right!”

For dramatic effect I leapt to my feet.

“The badder the meal then the better the treat!”

My Mom understood. She just nodded and said,

“You’re wanting that donut the size of your head.”

My Rejection Collection

My very first children's book rejection letter. Ah, memories!

A few years back, an aspiring writer acquaintance of mine decided to share his feelings with me. Just that afternoon he had received a rejection letter and he was, to put it mildly, miffed. The editors at the publishing house were stupid, he said. And someday he would show them just how stupid they were. He would keep this rejection letter and file it away. Then he would rub that letter in their stupid, stupid faces when he was a big success.

My first thought upon hearing this monologue was, “Should such an angry, spiteful person really be writing for children?”

I decided not to share that particular thought, though. Instead, I told him that I, too, keep a careful list of every rejection I ever received ­– which is true. (What I didn’t tell him was that my list exists for professional reasons rather than personal ones. I use it to avoid accidentally sending an editor a manuscript she has already rejected.)

On another occasion, I listened to another aspiring writer explain her state of mind upon receiving her own rejection letter. Her emotions ran the gamut from self-pity to self-loathing.

My first reaction to her was, “Why is this person writing at all? It’s killing her.” And, yes, I kept this thought to myself, too.

While both of these writers’ reactions were outwardly quite different, they were similar in two significant ways: First, their responses were strongly emotional, which ­is exhausting. (My philosophy is, if you must to do something to exhaust yourself, at least let it work your core.) Second, both writers found it necessary to understand and articulate the reason why they were rejected.

There can be hundreds of reasons why your story gets rejected, so fretting about why, in my view, is a big ol’ waste of time. That said, if you must have an explanation to put a painful rejection behind you, my advice is to refrain from blaming either the editor or yourself (which, as I mentioned earlier, will prompt strong emotions, is exhausting, and does not count as exercise). Instead, choose a reason that involves math: The odds are against you.

Never forget that thousands of wannabes are vying for maybe a dozen available slots on a publisher’s list. There’s a reasonable chance that you’ll never get the brass ring, no matter how good you are. It stinks, but it’s true. The best part about using this particular rejection explanation is that it is – at least on some level – always correct.

So now that you have your reason, get back to work. ‘Cause there’s no chance you’ll ever get published if you don’t write and send stuff out. Being dogged is the only way to tilt the odds a bit more in your favor.

For the purpose of this post, I did something I had never done before ­– count up all the children’s book rejections on my list. I once heard that Dr. Seuss accumulated as many as 43 rejections before his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published. That’s a good number, but I knew I had it beat. I guessed that my rejection total would be around 75.

I wasn’t even close. It was 114.

But wait, it gets better. I once received a rejection a day for three consecutive days – an event I found so impressive that I had to mention it on Facebook. “Never before,” I wrote, “have I been so successful at failing.” My friends offered me hearty congratulations on my achievement. A few of them even encouraged me to beat this record. (I did not disappoint; a few months later I got three rejections in two days. So WOO!)

Needless to say, if I got upset every time one of those letters arrived, I would have given up this writing thing a long time ago.

This September, I will officially be a Published Author. It is my sincere hope that this fact will help me get my second book accepted a bit faster than the first one. But if it doesn’t, I won’t fret over it; fretting is exhausting and I really should be working on my abs.