I am SO excited to welcome November’s 12 x 12 featured author, Linda Ashman! I’ve met and worked with Linda in person and online several times. She is a phenomenal writer (seriously her rhyme blows my mind it’s SO great!), an equally fantastic mentor and now, she’s sharing her considerable talent with us. The only thing I don’t like about Linda is that she moved from Colorado to North Carolina, so I don’t get to see her in person anymore. 🙁
Linda’s latest step in her distinguished career as a picture book writer was to publish an ebook sharing her extensive knowledge both as a writer and a writing teacher — The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books. Folks, this book MUST go onto your virtual shelves. I’ve read all 150+ pages of it and there is so much juicy goodness in there it will make your head spin (how many more cliches can I use in one intro??). Not since Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books has there been a tome I recommend so highly for picture book authors.
Linda is generously giving away both a picture book critique AND a free copy of Nuts & Bolts. So we’ll have two lucky winners this month! In the meantime, soak up all the knowledge and wisdom contained in her guest post here on bad beginnings and how to fix them. Welcome Linda!
Beyond the Bad Beginning
If you’ve read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (and if you haven’t, I highly recommend it), you know it’s okay to write “shitty first drafts”—that even the best books begin badly. Still, if you’re like me, you’re convinced that no one’s first drafts are as irredeemably drecky as your own.
In today’s post, I plan to prove that (a) my first drafts are, actually, much worse than yours, and (b) even the most pathetic beginnings can be turned into compelling—and salable—manuscripts. To do that, I’ll share some of my own unlovely work, then offer ten tips for getting beyond the bad beginning.
In The Nuts and Bolts Guide I talk about how I struggled with the rhyme pattern for my book Creaky Old House—so much so that I wound up writing three versions, each in a different meter. While I share the first stanzas of each version in the Guide, I don’t share the inauspicious beginning that preceded them.
The idea for the story—then called “Rickety House”—was pretty skimpy: a wacky family lives in an old house that’s well-loved but needs lots of repairs, with one repair leading to another and another. Because my son—like many 4 year olds at the time—was a Bob the Builder devotee, I wanted to include some tools and construction action as well. With those basic ideas in mind, I grabbed a pad and scribbled the following:
Aunt — came to visit.
But the doorknob came off in her hand.
My word! Huffed Aunt Rita
Oh these old houses! Aunt Rita complained
They’re nothing but trouble
No trouble at all, my Papa exclaimed.
I just need a . . . screw. / thingamajig.
We went to the basement.
To the basement!
We searched through
Through piles of nails and
And . .
We found rusty old nails
And —- pails
Buckets and screwdrivers, hammers and —
Sandpaper, saws and – and –
But no screw.
No problem, said Dad.
The hardware store
And find a new knob.
Does the word “gibberish” come to mind? There’s little evidence of a story here, much less a rhyming one. A pretty flimsy platform to build on, but I had a strategy—or at least a next step. Since the family was headed to the hardware store, I brainstormed construction and renovation-related terms and jotted them on the same page, figuring this might give me some direction and generate phrases with rhyme potential (you can see the actual draft here: Creaky First Draft). Then I sat at my computer and started typing, hoping to clarify—or at least add to—the story in the process. Here’s the next iteration:
Aunt Bess came by to say hello
But the doorknob came off in her hand.
And the doorknob came right off.
“No problem, Bess,” my dad
just a little screw is all we need
I’ll get one from my workbench/workshop
To the basement
We cleared the cobwebs, wiped the dust
Found – and an ancient sandwich crust
Searched through buckets, bins and pails
Through nuts and bolts and – and nails
And then—at last!—we found a screw.
“aha!” said Dad. “this one should do.”
I’ll fix that doorknob lickety split.
Too bad. The — — didn’t fit.
Brackets, pliers, wrenches, clamps
Trowels, vises, mallets,
Tacks, drills, drill bits, scrapers,
Found brackets, trowels, pliers, tacks
Rags and workbooks, stacks and stacks!
Papa scratched his head.
Mama heaved a sigh.
“seems this screw won’t do the job.
We’ll buy ourselves a brand new knob.
Hmm. Not much better, is it? The story, such as it is, doesn’t make sense, and has blank spots and unfinished sentences. My rhymes are minimal and mostly bad (and hint at the struggles with meter to come). Oh, and Aunt Rita is now Aunt Bess.
Bad as it was, I felt encouraged by this draft because I could see the barest outline of a story—an old house, a goofy family, and an escalating misadventure as they came up with increasingly elaborate solutions to address a minor problem (a broken doorknob). Plus it had good illustration potential and gave me the opportunity to use plenty of construction words.
Still, I had a long way to go just to make the story comprehensible, much less worthy of submission. So I wrote many, many dozens of drafts, and—as noted earlier—experimented with three different rhyme patterns. Nothing seemed to work. At several points I nearly threw in the towel, convinced that my struggles were a sure sign the manuscript was unpublishable. But I liked the idea, and liked a few of the stanzas, so I kept at it. And—eventually—the rhyme pattern clicked, the story fell into place, and I finished (for the time being; I did more revising after the story was acquired).
Although Creaky Old House required more work than most, all my manuscripts start out just as scraggly and unpromising. And many of them—actually, most of them—never get beyond that stage. So how do you know if your bad beginning has the potential to be a viable manuscript?
Well . . . you don’t. That’s the frustrating part. Few of us want to invest time in a story that’s not going anywhere, but it’s a necessary part of the process. You have to be willing to play around with an idea—to flesh out those early, scrawny drafts—to get a sense of where the story’s taking you. And you have to be willing to do the painstaking—and, yes, sometimes tedious—work of revising (and revising . . . and revising). This is where a lot of us get stuck—and discouraged. So here are a few suggestions to get you past the bad beginning toward that final, fabulous—and salable—manuscript:
1. Imagine your ending. Often, I know what’s on page 32 before I have any idea of what’s in the middle of my story. Having at least a vague sense of your destination makes it easier to get there.
2. Think incrementally. Yes, it’s good to keep your ending in mind, but you don’t have to have the entire story mapped out from the get-go. Just let the beginning lead you to the next step, then the next one, and the next one. Stuck? Then . . .
3. Brainstorm. If you look at my Creaky Old House early draft (Find it here: Creaky Early Draft), you’ll see lists of tools, doors, doorknobs, and hardware stuff along with strings of rhyming words. Similarly, my To the Beach drafts include long lists of beach paraphernalia. Do I use all these terms? No. But words beget ideas, and free-associating can stimulate creativity and lead your story in new directions.
4. Let it flow. As you probably noticed, my earliest drafts are barely coherent, filled with partial sentences and dashes when I couldn’t think of the right word. Don’t be nit-picky early in your writing process—just get your ideas on paper. Later, when you’ve got your story figured out, you can obsess about clarity, word choice, grammar and punctuation.
5. Experiment. Your story’s written in third person? Change it to first. The little girl is narrating the story? Try letting the goldfish tell it. It’s written in rhyme? Change the meter, or write it in prose. Switch things up and see what happens.
6. Visualize your story. Sometimes I can “see” the story before I can write it. For my book Rain!, for example, I made a rough (very rough) storyboard to map out the action, then figured out the text later (you can see just how rough my storyboard is here: http://www.howtowritepicturebooks.com/1/post/2013/10/the-wisdom-of-making-dummies.html).
7. Change your scenery. I often read my drafts while walking around my neighborhood, pen in hand. Or I go to a coffee shop. Being in a different environment can give you a fresh perspective.
8. Let it go. Occasionally I start off with some self-imposed requirement that trips me up down the road. For example, after reading somewhere that repetition was a good thing in picture books, I decided To the Beach would be a “Story with Repetition.” So, as I wrote it, I repeated the same phrase over and over again (The car is packed. We’re on our way. We’re going to the beach today). Yes, repetition can be good. Sometimes. And other times it can be annoying. Once I let go of the repetition idea (admittedly, at an editor’s suggestion), I wrote a much stronger story.
9. Be open to serendipity. I’ve started several poetry collections that never quite came to fruition. But I expanded a few of the poems I’d written into manuscripts that eventually became picture books. Don’t be afraid to let your story take you in a different direction.
10. Be patient. Sometimes ideas aren’t ready to be hatched. If you can’t seem to get beyond your bad beginning, put your manuscript away for a while. Do not throw it away. I wrote Rub-a-Dub Sub in a week—two years after I’d relegated it to my file drawer as a nonstarter. Sometimes timing is everything.
Above all, don’t be discouraged. Your drafts are likely to look bad—really bad—before they start looking good. If you forget this, just remember Aunt Rita and Aunt Bess—neither of whom, by the way, made it to the final version of Creaky Old House. (See the final text here: Creaky Old House Final Text)
It’s always a pleasure to visit your blog, Julie. Thanks for having me!
ONE MORE THING FOLKS! Linda is teaming up with another of our fabulous 12 x 12 members — Susanna Hill — to offer a rhyme clinic on December 2nd. I HIGHLY encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity. Submissions are open until mid-November and all of the details are here.
Linda Ashman is the author of many critically acclaimed books for children, as well as The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books, a “how to” handbook for picture book writers. Her children’s books have been included on the “Best of the Year” lists of the New York Times, Parenting, Child, and Cookie magazines, Bank Street College of Education, the New York Public Library, and others. As a children’s poet, she’s been compared to Mary Ann Hoberman, Douglas Florian, and Jack Prelutsky; Kirkus called her poetry “as pithy and clever as Ogden Nash at his best.” You can learn more about Linda on her website: http://www.lindaashman.comCategories: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Authors, Children's Books, Picture Books, Rhyming, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Author, Authors, Children's Books, Linda Ashman, Picture Books, Rhyming, Works in Progress, Writer, Writing