I remember the call. It was a (212) prefix, one I’d usually ignore, since it means there’s someone on the other end asking me for money, or selling insurance — which I guess is the same thing, so I don’t know what made me pick up the phone. The caller said, “Is this Julie Anne Peters?” I sighed and said, “Yes.” She said, “This is Megan Tingley from Little, Brown Books. I have your manuscript here and I really like it. I think it has a lot of kid appeal and I was wondering if you’d be willing to work on it with me to possibly bring it to publication.”
I’m sure I choked. I know I jumped through the roof because we had to fix the hole. “Sure,” I said in a bright, calm, and cheery voice while trying to suck air into my lungs. ”That’d be great.” I had no idea what book she was even talking about, since I’d been submitting manuscripts to every publisher in the universe for more than a year. Once she started telling me how much she liked Earl and his relationship with Damian, it clicked: The Stinky Sneakers Contest. A book for beginning readers, ages six to nine.
It surprised me. I didn’t feel my books for younger readers were my strongest. In fact, my dream had always been to write for young adults. But, as they say, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth or he may never open it again.
Megan had a few suggestions for the book. She wanted me to cut it down from 64 pages to 32 to fit into their new Joy Street Books imprint. ”No problem,” I said. How hard could it be to delete half the story and most of the characters? I took her suggestions and sent in a revision a week later. She called and said, “Well, it’s short enough now, but the story doesn’t work as well and I really liked a lot of those characters you removed.”
Geesh. We talked about how to strengthen the book, leaving the shorter length intact, adding back a couple of Earl’s siblings, and I gave it another go. After my next revision, she called and said, “This one is better, but I still have concerns. Why don’t I write them down and you can work on them. And you don’t have to send back your revision in a week. Take your time.”
Why? I figured she was sitting there doodling, waiting for me to hurry it up.
We went on like this for nearly a year. Back and forth. Calls and emails. Writing and rewriting. Reworking the beginning, the middle, the end. Finally, I got the call I didn’t even know I’d been waiting for. Megan said, “I’ve taken the book to our acquisitions meeting and everyone loved it. We’d like to offer you a contract.”
I reopened the hole in the roof. At this point I figured I’d passed the test and the revising was done. ”How long will it be before I get the books?” I asked.
It was a bit of an evil laugh, now that I think about it. The work on The Stinky Sneakers Contest had just begun. We’d go through 18 more months of revisions before the book was deemed publishable. In total, three years for a 32-page easy reader.
This marks my 23rd year as a writer, and Megan Tingley is still my editor. She also has her own imprint, and holds the title of Senior Vice President & Publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. I remind her as often as possible how far I’ve brought her.
Currently, I have eighteen books under my belt, and I did finally manage to write my way into young adult literature, which I love. But that’s not why I’m telling you this story.
You’d think after working for as long as I have under the same editor that every book would be easier, right? That I’d have fewer revisions, know what I’m doing, catch my mistakes prior to submission. Wrong, wrong, and doubly wrong. The process of creating a novel is a tortuous one.
After the first few books, I felt I needed a process. If I had to do this many revisions for every book, I’d never make it as a writer. I wouldn’t live that long. So I read up on how other writers approach their work. I tried their methods. I did outlines. Extensive ones. Short ones. I worked on scenes. Transitioned them together. I wrote chronologically. Linearly. Nonlinearly. I wrote all the dialogue first, then filled in with narrative. But it seemed with each new novel, the process changed.
That’s when I decided I’d been looking at methodology all wrong. The book dictates the process and not the other way around. Duh. Once I abandoned my goal to find a plug-in process for every book, writing became less stressful. But along the way, something else happened. I lost my enthusiasm for writing.
That was a scary realization. I didn’t want not to write. By now it was my livelihood and I had a merry band of loyal readers who were always asking when my next book would be out. I knew from past job and school experience that when I’m not creatively or intellectually challenged, I tend to lose interest. Fast.
Process itself connotes formula or repetition, and even though we need processes in factories and nature to produce Cheez Whiz and bunnies, I knew it’d never be enough for me. So I changed my mindset to think of myself not as a writer, but as an artist. An artist must continually rise above his or her last work of art. To reach and grow, she must creatively challenge herself. I decided that with each book, I would try a new storytelling technique. For example, I’d never written flashbacks, so I included them in Luna. Writing in second person was something I’d always wanted to try, so I combined that technique with flashbacks in She Loves You, She Loves You Not… I learned my craft writing short stories, so I put together a collection of my own in grl2grl: short fictions.
Between Mom and Jo was a story that had been percolating in my mind for more than ten years. I wanted readers to grow up with the main character, Nick, who has two moms, and feel what it’s like when he’s put in the position of having to choose between them. For me, it was a personal story of divorce, since I’m a child of divorce. Over that ten year period I’d written scenes of Nick with his bio mom, Nick with his other mom, Nick with both moms, but I couldn’t figure out how to weave it all together into a cohesive whole. So one day I spread all the scenes on the living room floor and let my imagination wander. My eye began to arrange the scenes in natural, chronological order, beginning when Nick was four. Then older, and older. When I was done, I circled around the entire story and said, ”Aha! I know exactly what this is. It’s a scrapbook of Nick’s life.” The storytelling process had created itself.
For my new book, It’s Our Prom (So Deal With It), I decided to try using multiple narrators. I’ve always enjoyed books where two or more voices play off one another. I began with three narrators whose stories were intertwined, but Megan called and said, “You know what? We all think this will work better without the third narrator.” Crud. Double crud. It meant I’d have to start over. The third narrator’s story would need to be unbraided from the other two.
My need to grow myself as an artist may not always realize the full potential for a book, but I wouldn’t be writing at all if it wasn’t fun. And it always makes me smile when I receive a letter from a reader who says, “I’m an aspiring writer and I’ve hit a wall. Do you ever get writer’s block? What is your writing process?”
My response: I don’t get writer’s block because I make it a point to stay out of factories. I’m not an automaton who can crank out books on demand. For me there is no “process.” (Well, maybe one. I always write the ending first. But that’s the subject for another blog.) Let the story dictate the process.