WRITERS AT WORK: Rule 1: Show Up, Part 2

Hi everyone,

Here is Sandy Asher with Part 2 of this month’s issue of WRITERS AT WORK: Rule 1: Show Up. Thanks, Sandy. The floor is yours.

Rule 1: Show Up
Part 2: Sandy

All kinds of ways to show up, David, and, yes, I’ve managed more than a few: I attend, present at, and often develop workshops and conferences. I do programs at bookstores, libraries, and festivals. I submit work to contests and publishers. I visit schools occasionally as a guest author and weekly as the nearly invisible human being at the other end of Gracie the Reading Dog’s leash. I adjudicate contests. I started and maintained for years the American Alliance for Theatre and Education’s Directory of Award-winning Plays and its New Plays by Members List. I speak up at professional meetings and in discussions even when I’m not on the panel. And, on March 1 of this year, I helped launch American Theatre for the Very Young: A Digital Festival as founder and co-chair, showcasing children’s plays coast-to-coast, including my own. Oh, yeah, and you and I have done reading-focused TV spots, David, and we ran the America Writes for Kids and USA Plays for Kids websites together. Oh, and we co-write this blog.

Though it doesn’t always lead to publication, all of this showing up is related to career development, even being the largely ignored observer as first graders regale Gracie with their favorite books. Some of it is hard work; much of it is undeniably great fun. And every once in a while, it does lead to new ideas, a flurry of writing, and publication.

More often than not, such opportunities happen in ways that are totally unexpected, ways I could never even have imagined. “Life,” John Lennon is said to have observed, “is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.” Indeed.

One example: While serving on the faculty of an SCBWI workshop some years ago, I was sitting in the audience with the other participants listening to editors talk about what they were looking for. It’s always a good idea to show up at SCBWI workshops and listen to editors, agents, authors, and illustrators, but in this case, what one of the editors had to say really ticked me off. She raved on about how picture books used to run 1000-1500 words in length, but how nowadays 500 words is really the preferred limit, and 250 words would be even better.

That triggered a concern of mine: I think we are systematically depriving children of language at the very age — 0 – 5 or so — when they are programmed to soak up as much language as possible. They need it to think! They need it to speak! They need it to understand! They need it to read and write and reason! I could go on. I have gone on, in presentations and posts elsewhere. But for now, I’ll just say that there was steam coming out of my ears as I listened. But I decided to use my fury as fuel. Okay, fine, I thought, you want books with very few words? I’ll write a book with as few words as I can. With that impetus — can I call it inspiration? — CHICKEN STORY TIME happened, a process of elimination almost as much as it was a process of creation. The manuscript sold quickly, the book got published, and, since then, I’ve written a stage adaptation that’s being performed around the country. Go figure!

Showing up is important, but it can be a bit of a challenge. Rising to the challenge — ah, that makes all the difference.


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.

WRITERS AT WORK: Wait for It, Part 4

Hi everyone,

Here we are at the fourth installment in this month’s series of WRITERS AT WORK. My turn.
Please send us, in care of me (davidlharrison1@att.net) any of your own experiences with delayed successes so I can include you in next Tuesday’s final post of the group. Here’s the link again for the collected series of WRITERS AT WORK. http://usawrites4kids.blogspot.com

October 24, 2017
Writers at Work: Wait for It
Part 4: David

Today I thought I’d share a couple of experiences in which filed ideas came back to life, one as a book and one as a magazine article. I’ll begin with the book.

In 1979 I wrote a story about a little boy who keeps hearing and seeing things in his bedroom one night when he is trying to go to sleep. His patient father comes in each time he yelps for help and explains that sometimes furnace pipes can make noises and limbs in the wind can scratch against the window and toys left on carpets can indeed resemble a face. I called the story THE SNORING MONSTER and confidently fired it off to an editor right away.

In due course the editor confidently fired it back. My records don’t show why I neglected to send it anywhere else that year or during the entire year that followed. For some reason I didn’t send the story out to a second editor for eighteen months. Not that it made the outcome any different. It was “no” again the second time as well as another five times after that.

The last time I submitted THE SNORING MONSTER was to an editor at Western Publishing on August 15, 1981. She passed on it. I gave up and filed it away. Sixteen months later the same editor sent me a query. She was planning a series of spooky books and wondered if I might want to submit something. Without comment I sent her the story she’d rejected the year before. She loved it. I loved that. The book was published in 1986, almost seven years after I wrote it.

Sandy, this second example may not fit the mold exactly, but I’m going to talk about it anyway because goodness knows when or whether another opportunity will come along! This one started with a phone call. At the time I was the editor for children’s cards at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. The caller identified himself as a psychiatrist whose specialty was working with children. Someone had recommended me to him. He wanted to meet to discuss the potential for publishing some of his experiences in magazines. He wondered if I would be interested in ghost writing the articles.

We met over lunch while he outlined his plan. He would provide me all the information I needed after first deleting or changing names and removing all other clues about true identities. My articles would focus on examples, not on individuals involved. I explained that anything I wrote would include my byline and we would divide the money 50/50. He agreed.

Weeks passed without further word. Eventually we visited a second time and he spoke about the difficulties of treating two or more siblings in the same family alike. No matter how hard parents might try to deal with each child fairly and equally, changing conditions always make it impossible for their children to have the same experiences. Income changes. Health changes. Jobs change. And so on. I jotted some notes and told him that as soon as he provided the specific examples, I could start writing. He wondered how much money we were going to make from this project. When I told him the going rates, he was clearly disappointed.

He also stopped corresponding with me. By now I had invested quite a bit of time and thought in this doctor’s brainchild. His silence became a roadblock. I moved on to other work. Most obsolete materials in my files are stories and proposals I haven’t sold. This was the first time an undeveloped idea for an article had found its way into the never-never file.

Then one night some time later I pulled out my notes and asked myself a pertinent question: How much did it matter if I didn’t have specific case histories to prove the point of the article? After all, the names and other key information would be changed anyway if the doctor ever got around to sending them. Rather than give up on the idea, I would write a draft and send it to him for a response.

Based on common sense, a little research, and a few key points in my notes, I wrote the article and called it, “Are We Treating Our Children Fairly?” I mailed it to the psychiatrist to see if he liked the approach and asked again for some case histories. I figured he would be unhappy that I had gone ahead without him. Low and behold, he liked my effort. He tweaked it a bit and mailed it back within two weeks, still without the promised examples. I submitted the piece to Parents Magazine and it was rejected. I was in too deep to quit now. I sent it to five magazines at once: Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, Redbook, and Woman’s Day. Family Circle published it. That was in 1971. We divided $150 and called it quits.

So this isn’t really about a story that was resuscitated and found a market after all. It’s about a basic idea that almost didn’t get written. And that, friends, is why sometimes we simply have to WAIT FOR IT.

Remember that Part 5 will appear on the last Tuesday of this month and will be anecdotes you have shared with us by then. Again, my e-mail is davidlharrison1@att.net.

Writers at Work: Wait for It, Part 3

Hi everyone,

Sandy Asher is back today with Part 3 of WRITERS AT WORK: WAIT FOR IT! Please remember to e-mail me any similar experiences you’ve had with resuscitating an oldie in your files and finding a home for it after all. We’ll share as many as we can on the final Tuesday of this Month. Here’s the link again for the collected series of WRITERS AT WORK. http://usawrites4kids.blogspot.com

October 17, 2017
Writers at Work: Wait for It
Part 3: Sandy


My story “Who’s Ready to Ride?” appeared in the September, 2016, issue of the Highlights magazine for 2 – 5 year olds, HIGH FIVE. Who’s ready to ride, indeed! This story took its good old time getting ready to appear in print.

It all began at a child’s birthday party in the DC area. My great-nephew, then about six years old, was invited to attend. I happened to be in town, so I accompanied him to the park where the party was being held. As a point of reference, I should mention that this same great-nephew will begin college this fall. So at least a decade passed between inspiration and publication. Not quite the record-setting 18 years I wrote about in my last go-round, but a considerable delay none-the-less.

Back to the party: Much to my great-nephew’s delight, pony rides were included in the festivities. A cheerful young woman with a notably patient pony did the honors, and my great-nephew, one of the first to hop on, immediately dashed to the back of the line to wait for another turn. Again and again and again. He was fascinated and fearless.

But what if he hadn’t been? What if there were a guest who was not quite ready to mount that pony? Someone just a little bit nervous about the whole situation? A character took over for my great-nephew, far more shy than he, and the hesitant, gently humorous steps toward self-confidence began to take shape in my imagination.

I liked the story a lot. I still do! It’s fun, and it has something important to say about new experiences. I thought the children, the park, the party, and the pony would provide ample opportunities for illustration. I sent it off to my agent.

She was not interested. I put the story away.

Time passed, and I found myself temporarily between agents. I sent the story out to book publishers on my own.

They were not interested. I put the story away.

More time passed, and I signed on with a new agent. I sent her the story. She —

Oh, never mind, you know what comes next.

Things you can count on: (1) Time will continue to pass, and (2) I do not give up easily! Faced with a dry patch and a drop in confidence of my own, I signed myself up for a number of on-line writing challenges just to keep writing. My own version of “get back on the horse.” (You can read all about this in the July, 2013, WRITERS AT WORK posts called “Making On-Line Challenges Work for You.”)

As a response to one of the on-line challenges, the pony story was among those I pulled out of my files to revisit. By that time, I’d discovered a new market for the kind of stories I enjoy writing — quiet ones, often not “edgy” enough for book publication. No zombies, few dragons. In this case, just a pony and a little boy with “a tickly, tumbly feeling” in his tummy. HIGH FIVE suited me just fine, and in short order, I placed 9 stories and a poem with them, including “Who’s Ready to Ride?” One more revision to bring it into compliance with their length preferences, and it finally WAS ready.

Do I wish it had become a picture book? Oh, maybe a little. But I love Robert Dunn’s illustrations, and the HIGH FIVE readership is huge. I found a copy in my local library just the other day! So I’m pleased, without complaint or apology, that the story finally found its proper home.

“Time will tell,” in writing as in life. You’d think things would cloud over as they fade into the past, but often they snap into focus with astounding clarity. Sometimes when we wait, we truly see.

Writers at Work: Wait for It, Part 2

Hi everyone,

It’s my turn today with Part 2 of WRITERS AT WORK: WAIT FOR IT! Please remember to share with either of us via e-mail any similar experiences you’ve had with resuscitating an oldie in your files and finding a home for it after all. We’ll share as many as we can on the final Tuesday of this Month. Here’s the link again for the collected series of WRITERS AT WORK. http://usawrites4kids.blogspot.com

October 10, 2017
Writers at Work: Wait for It
Part 2: David

Well, Sandy, you’re younger than I so I hope you’ll forgive me for having a story that tops your 18 years by three. But my tale is slightly different from yours so we may both claim the title in separate divisions.

I made my first trip to New York City for an editorial visit in 1969, the same year my first children’s book was published. Forty-eight years later I can look back on many such trips, but that first one led me to write THE BOOK OF GIANT STORIES.

From March through April, 1969 I wrote three stories in forty-seven days for the collection: The Secret, Little Boy Soup, and The Giant Who Threw Tantrums. When the stories were sent to the artist, Philippe Fix, he had an idea for his own story to add. I said no to that but agreed to write the story he wanted to illustrate, which I called, The Giant Who was Afraid of Butterflies. I didn’t realize until it was too late that Little Boy Soup had been pulled from the group and replaced by the butterfly story.

I couldn’t complain. I loved my editor, the book was gorgeous, it won a Christopher Medal, and contracts for translations started pouring in – from Denmark, Japan, Italy, Africa, Finland, Germany, and half a dozen others. But what was I to do with the single story, Little Boy Soup? I guess I didn’t know. According to my records, I never sent it anywhere else to see about placing it as a picture book on its own. Maybe my contract prevented me from publishing another giant story at the time. That was long ago and I don’t remember.

In 1988 I finally sent Little Boy Soup to my friend Ronne Peltzman, who had become the children’s editor for Ladybird Press in Loughbourough, England. The picture book was published in 1990, twenty-one years after I wrote it.

As we all know, Sandy, these late bloomers sometimes come with additional rewards. In 1989 my Sandy and I took a trip to England and while we were there I caught a train to Loughbourough to see Ronne. Another U.S. visitor was at Ladybird that day and we were introduced. Christine San Jose explained that she worked with Kent Brown at Highlights. When I told her I’d been focusing on poetry the past three years, she urged me to send my work to Kent because he was starting a book publishing division called Boyds Mills Press and one of the imprints, given entirely to poetry, was Wordsong.

The story of my growth as a poet as Wordsong grew is a tale for another time. The point here is that a story that lingered in my files for nearly as long as it takes an infant to be born, grow up, and graduate from college finally made it into print. Between 1969 and 1990, I left my position as editorial manager at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City to become president of Glenstone Block Company in Springfield, Missouri. In 1969 I had published two books. By 1990 I’d published thirty-nine. In 1969 I had a nine-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. In 1990 my children were college graduates. Sandy and I had our first grandson. Sandy had left her teaching job in Kansas City, earned her master’s degree in guidance and counseling, and become a high school counselor in Springfield.

Could I have written Little Boy Soup in 1990 the same way I did twenty-one years earlier? Impossible. I don’t know if a later version would have been better or worse, but it would certainly have been different as a reflection of all the changes in my life during those years. What I can say for sure is that I’m glad I hung onto the story that got squeezed out of THE BOOK OF GIANT STORIES!