We writers know well the lessons of perseverance.
Neil Gaiman said: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy. And that hard.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe said: “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”
And Ray Bradbury said: “You fail only if you stop writing.”
But we also know this: we can read all the quotes in the world and tape them above our desks, but sometimes, we just can’t get it together.
Four years ago, I got an idea for a middle grade novel. A fidgety, energetic kid protests the long hours of constant sitting in class (he gets school-comas) then attempts to do something out of his comfort zone to invent a solution.
Decent idea, I thought. Had potential. I got to work, adding in a cast of supporting characters, a setting, and fleshing out the plot.
I’d published two middle grade novels already – Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb, 2011) and The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb, 2014) – writing each of them in about six months. Why was this idea so problematic?
I tried all sorts of fixes during the three years. Everything writers are “supposed” to do. I put the manuscript away for a while. I went back to it with what I thought was a new perspective. I hiked, because I’d read that can help work through story issues.
|Retreat at The Writing Barn|
But draft after draft, it wasn’t coming together, and deep down, I knew it before my agent read each one and told me sadly that, no, I still wasn’t there.
I admit I wanted to quit writing entirely at this point.
But something kept nagging at me. It might’ve been personal – one of my kids had trouble sitting for long hours in school – but I think it was more than that.
In one of the drafts, I’d written a line of dialogue from my main character, Ethan, where he said: “The thing is, you gotta believe, you know? If you don’t, what’s the point?”
What was the point, indeed? I thought about that line for a while.
Then! (Yes, thankfully, there’s a then.) I was cleaning out the bookcase in our family room, weeding out some books my kids had outgrown and I could donate, when I stumbled upon a worn, well-read copy of The Carrot Seed (by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson (Harper 1945)).
Same message of perseverance as the writing quotes, but it was coming from a little boy. That’s when I realized Ethan was a lot like the kid in the book, laid-back but determined. Why didn’t I tune everything else out and listen to him?
I abandoned every single one of the ten drafts I’d written and started fresh. Instead of Ethan narrating the story on his own, which is what I’d been doing over and over, I added in the viewpoints of Ethan’s sister, a couple of their friends, and a tough, outcast kid.
I listened to not only Ethan, but the message in The Carrot Seed, and I even wove the book into Ethan’s arc. He, too, becomes inspired by the story. And as I wrote, a strange thing happened: Ethan’s perseverance in his plotline became mine as well.
I wrote draft #11 in one month. It sold to Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin imprint two months later, and Ethan Marcus Stands Up was published in September.
How gratifying it was to receive this email from a reader last week: “I get school-comas a lot! You definitely get kids. Thanks!”
And – the icing on top – Ethan told me, as I was typing The End, that he wasn’t done. Plant another carrot seed, he said. Inspired by his doggedness and persistence, I wrote up a sequel proposal.
My editor loved it. Book 2, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, comes out in September 2018.
A little fictional magic between character and author, and out came a book. Then a second one. Next time, I’ll listen right from the opening line.