The Writing Road

As Yogi Berra once said: “If you come to a fork in the road, wash it before you put it in your mouth.” Good advice if you ask me.

I can’t just sit down and write off the cuff. I need a plan. I need to know who the characters are, where I want to take them, and where they’re going to end up. Only after all that stuff is nailed down am I ready to write.

Almost all of that preliminary work takes place when I’m doing something else – showering, eating, or working at my day job. Much to my wife’s chagrin, it also happens late at night in bed. I scribble notes. I make doodles. I outline. Sometimes it takes a long time to do all this preparation, but luck favors the prepared, so I do it.

When I finally sit down to type, I have a tall-ish stack of notes and doodles and outlines by my side.

But then I type – and  the plan I spent oh so much time crafting is pushed aside and ignored. My carefully constructed characters are no longer the characters I had once envisioned; they say things I never considered, they do things I had never imagined, they shove the story in directions I never contemplated, and I am transfixed and fascinated by it all.

It is at that moment I know that I am on a creative roll. I’m in explore mode. It’s a kind of heaven.

Since I am so eager to abandon my writing plan once I begin writing, one might assume that I don’t need a plan at all. But I do. I’ve tried working without one, and the results have been uniformly terrible.

I’m not exactly sure why this is, but if I was to guess, I think it is because I need something rigid to rebel against. I need something to thumb my nose at and say, “Pfft. I can do better than that.”

The only other time I have ever abandoned my plans with such reckless delight took place years ago when I embarked on a solo cross-country trip. I had my route, and my maps, and knew where I wanted to settle down each night. Once I got in the car and started driving, however, I was all “Oh. My. God. The world’s biggest rocking chair is just 100 miles north of here!” And, in a twinkling, I was off down a potholed two-lane blacktop passing an alarming number of stores that sold both fireworks and alcohol.

I discovered this big guy on one such unscheduled detour. His name is Big Amos and, if you push a button by his knee, he will beg you to try the shoofly pie.

Sure it might be a colossal waste of time to drive hours out of the way to someplace that might as well be called Lickspittle County just to see a ginormous chair, but none of that mattered to me. I was in explore mode. I found joy in the journey.

The Adverbinator

This image courtesy of the fine fellow at merit badger.

During my tenure as a newspaper reporter I worked under three editors.

My third and last editor, Jerry, was an all-around great guy.

I was so devoted to my second editor, an old-timer named Jack, that I would’ve followed him almost to the gates of hell. (I would’ve driven him maybe seven eighths of the way there. That’s pretty much where my devotion to any boss ends, I think.) My point is Jack was the best boss I ever had.

My very first editor, on the other hand, was someone I wanted to shove into oncoming traffic.

Let’s say his name was Dan. He had many failings, but the worst, in my view, was his tone of voice. That voice, accompanied by a cocked eyebrow, made me feel as dumb as dirt. To be fair, I was dumb. I was a journalism greenhorn. But I already knew this without all of Dan’s nasty little reminders. What I needed from my editor was advice and guidance. That was not Dan’s strong suit.

My editor was a lot like this guy – only not as nice.

What really got my dander up, however, was the way Dan hacked away at my prose. One piece I wrote, about a nasty and tempestuous council meeting, was edited to make the proceedings look like an English garden party.

I stormed up to Dan’s desk. “What did you do to this?”

“I got rid of all your editorializing,” he said in that tone of his. “And you’re welcome.”

Ooh, I so wanted to knock those cocked eyebrows off his smug little face. “Editorializing? Where? Where was I editorializing?”

“The adverbs,” he replied. His tone suggested that I was more than welcome to add “stupid” to the end of his quote.

Then he waved me away. Dan had more important things to do now.

I sat at my desk and seethed. What a jerk. I wasn’t editorializing, I was reporting. I am a reporter, right? I was doing my job. That councilman said what he said and he said it “angrily.” I was there. I saw it. The guy was speaking through gritted teeth. His face was beet red. His hands were balled up into little fists. That’s “angrily!” What else could it be?

Then I had an epiphany.

Why, I wondered, didn’t I mention the gritted teeth and the red face and the balled fists in my story? That would’ve communicated angry much better than my “angrily.” And those little physical details really do paint a nice picture, don’t they? They sort of put you there in the room. You can almost see Mr. Councilman frothing at the mouth. My ambiguous, solitary “angrily” didn’t do that at all.

That “angrily” now felt like a pretty lazy way to get my point across.

A typical suburban New Jersey council meeting.

Then I arrived at another sudden realization, and it was a painful one: Dan was right. Adverbs are editorializing. When I wrote “angrily” I was asking the reader to trust my own interpretation of events without providing any evidence to back it up. I wrote that the guy was angry, but I never proved it.

Ugh. Dan, in his jerky, nasty way, mentored me.

My articles became a lot punchier after that. Dan edited less and I began to enjoy my job more. A few short weeks after beginning my self-imposed adverb purge, Dan accepted another job at another newspaper and I never saw him again.

I never did tell Dan how influential he was – but I don’t think I ever could. If I ever saw him again, I think my old urge to smack him upside the head would overcome me. And, just to upset Dan further, I would make sure to smack him happily.

Happy Galley

This is all rather exciting.

The galleys for Sarah Gives Thanks arrived in the mail last week. They are gorgeous. They made me giddy. They also brought into sharp focus that, hey, I have a book coming out.

That should be obvious, but I’ve been living with Sarah for such a long time that, until that delivery, I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the idea that a book with my name on it would actually be sold to people.

My first Sarah draft was sent to Albert Whitman & Co. a couple of days before Thanksgiving 2009. I was asked to expand the story in February 2010 – which is ironic as the bulk of my initial writing labors consisted of trimming the story down to fit the publisher-mandated 600-word picture book limit.

“Don’t worry about length,” my senior editor contact, Wendy, assured me. “For something like this, our usual word count is too skimpy.”

So be it.

I delivered my impeccably researched, knowingly bloated 2,400-word draft on March 31. (“The last day of Women’s History Month!” I crowed in my email to Wendy, hoping to earn brownie points, I suppose, for knowing that the month existed.)

After a period of uncertainty, the manuscript was accepted that July. The plan was for a Thanksgiving 2011 release, but then the freelance editor assigned to my book mysteriously vanished and the illustrator kicked out. So the book got bumped to 2012.

This turned out to be fine, however, for my 2011 was surprisingly busy Sarah-wise. Children’s books go through a lot of editing, apparently. At least mine did; in the end my story shed almost 1,000 words. What surprised me was that this didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it might.

I soon learned to expect an almost-daily communication from Kristin, my editor. Her emails almost always outlined another chore for me to complete, but I liked getting them because they kept me busy and made me feel oddly important.

Furthermore, Kristin’s emails also projected an unwavering chipperness I couldn’t help but enjoy. It was a tone that was soon reflected in my replies: “Hi Kristin!” I’d write. (I am not the type of person who normally uses exclamation points in my salutations, but chipperness is more contagious than swine flu – and thank goodness for that.) It also didn’t hurt that Kristin is an excellent editor who selected an equally excellent illustrator in David Gardner.

So yada-yada-yada I now have the galleys – a tangible sign that the writing of Sarah is, at last, over and that I now must shift gears and get all promote-y. This is both exciting and a bit terrifying as this is new territory for me.

So! Any and all ideas on how to proceed are more than welcome!