WRITERS AT WORK: Rule 1: Show Up, Part 1

Hi everyone,

If you follow my blog fairly often, you’re aware of an ongoing series of essays by Sandy Asher and me called WRITERS AT WORK. These are informal chats about various aspects of being a writer or illustrator of children’s books. We post on each Tuesday of the month so in this case you can expect our exchanges on February 6, 13, 20, and 27. We’re calling this set, RULE 1: SHOW UP. I lead off so here we go.

February 6, 2018
Writers at Work
Rule 1: Show Up
Part 1: David

Talent — being capable of producing a publishable manuscript — is the basic ingredient for writing and illustrating success. Sandy Asher and I have talked about numerous other topics in past series of WRITERS AT WORK. But in this set, which we’ll post each Tuesday this month, we want to talk about “Rule 1: Show Up.” Another title for this topic might be, “Help Make Your Own Breaks.” Either way, we’re talking about the merits of taking positive action. We never know what might happen when we place ourselves in “fate’s way,” but odds of something good happening in our careers improve when we do.

My first picture book, THE BOY WITH A DRUM, was published in 1969 by Western Publishing in Racine, Wisconsin. My editor was Betty Ren Wright. Not long after that I decided I wanted to meet my editor so I flew from Kansas City (our home at the time) to Racine for a visit with Betty Ren and other Golden Book and Wee Wisdom editors, one of whom was Dorothy (Dee) Haas.

When Dee moved to Chicago to become a Childcraft editor at Rand McNally, she stayed in touch. I flew to Chicago on Hallmark business but made a date with Dee while I was in town and left with an assignment to write the first 95 pages of the annual issue called, ABOUT ME; which led to CHILDREN EVERYWHERE (1973), a 62-page nonfiction book about children growing up in twelve countries; which led to writing two stories for THE WITCH BOOK anthology (1976); which led to WHAT DO YOU KNOW? (1981) a 255 page book of questions and answers about questions asked by upper elementary students.

Another editor I met in Racine was Kathleen Daly, who subsequently moved to American Heritage Press in New York City. Within a few months of my trip to Chicago I was in NYC to negotiate a contract and interview writers for Hallmark so I made an appointment with Kathleen. I left her office with an agreement that I would send her some ideas for stories about giants. I did. She liked them. THE BOOK OF GIANT STORIES (1972) won a Christopher Award.

Sandy, these books all came about the same way. I had previous publishing experiences with each of the editors. And in each instance I took advantage of a trip already planned for other reasons to “show up.” But there are other ways of applying Rule 1.

On a vacation trip up the Amazon River in Peru, I took hundreds of notes. Not because I meant to write a book but because writers take notes and fill journals. We never know when something might develop. Three years after that trip, sure enough I began thinking about a book of poetry. I fished out my notes, which ran 86 pages when typed, and eventually SOUNDS OF RAIN was published. Seventeen years after the trip the same thorough notes produced material for another story, a middle grade novel. Who knew that showing up on a river in the rain forest would result in two new projects?

Sandy, at times there may be a fine line between “showing up” and “finding ideas,” but to me, Rule 1 involves some sort of action on the part of the writer or illustrator that goes beyond the norm. It means an act we do on purpose that may lead serendipitously to something positive we don’t anticipate. Whether we “show up” metaphorically or with suitcase in hand, it pays to place ourselves in fate’s way. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about Rule 1.