Two weeks ago I wrote about a picture book I have been working on for months, both researching and writing.
Since it’s not a text that has come easily I have shown it repeatedly to three of my fellow writers as I worked. They each responded to my multiple requests with thoughtful and candid critiques. “This is what’s working. This is what isn’t.”
My friends were not consulting one another and didn’t always agree about what they saw, what they wanted from the piece, but that didn’t matter. In fact, the places where one loved something that another thought I should take out became easy reentry points for me. Clearly I had to find my own place to stand in what was, after all, my manuscript.
Finally I felt close enough to completion to show the manuscript to my agent. But that was the best I could say. It was close.
While he and I were discussing strategy, a delayed comment came in from one of my critics. For her, the new ending didn’t work. If the ending of any piece doesn’t work, the whole thing collapses. But that is especially true for the delicate construction of a picture book
“Put it on hold,” I told my agent, and I went back to considering the ending. That it worked for only two out of three readers wasn’t good enough.
I went back to the ending and back to pounding my head against my keyboard . . . or at least that’s what I felt like doing.
And then this morning on a walk with my dog—that’s when I often get my best ideas, when walking my dog—I remembered something I hadn’t thought about for a long time. When I first began writing, I had no critics to turn to for help. I had never met an editor, and I knew no other writers either. I knew no one even interested in writing for children. So needing some perspective beyond my own too-close one, I turned to Mary, a friend and a longtime teacher.
From time to time, Mary would stop by my house on her way home from school, settle on the couch in my study and read the pages I handed her. I sat a few feet away, watching, waiting, holding my breath. Mary wasn’t an experienced critic, but she was a thoughtful reader and willing. She would read and read until suddenly she would look up and said, “I don’t know why exactly, but at this point I’m beginning to itch.”
I would take the manuscript back, look to see where she was, and ponder. After some time, I began to realize that Mary’s “itch” developed because my story was getting too talky, too teachy. I soon discovered, too, however, that the problem didn’t begin at the point her discomfort surfaced. It began earlier and became cumulative. So instead of fixing the text where she named the problem, I learned to go back to find the place where the problem began and to rework from that point on.
“Ah!” I said to myself on this morning’s dog walk, suddenly remembering Mary and those long-ago reading sessions. “Maybe it’s not just the ending. Maybe the problem begins farther back.”
So here I am, ready to revise again, this time examining language that feels so solidly in place as to be untouchable, looking for a point of reentry, the point of reentry where the direction for my ending is set.
This is where I allow myself a bit of a sigh. Which is what you’re reading today, a bit of a sigh.
When I’m through sighing I’ll go back to work.