Right story, wrong format. Why it’s important to be true to the story.

Today in my morning pages I had an ah-ha moment. Man, it had been a long time coming. Sometimes I’m astonished by how blinkered I can be. But once I had the realisation, I thought, I have to share this with the duckettes! And while we’re at it, for those of you who haven’t heard me quack about morning pages a quick explanation. The idea for morning pages comes from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. You write three foolscap pages, stream of consciousness, every morning before you doing anything else. (Except make a cup of tea. Ahem.)  It is NOT ‘writing’. There is nothing formalised about it except that you have to do three pages. Two will never do. I’ve been doing morning pages for years. I’ll talk more about the benefits in another post. For now though, back to the story.

Today (apart from whinging about my sore neck and angsting about the new Q&Q video) this is what I scribbled about.

I have this picture book manuscript that I wrote years ago. Every now and then it resurfaces and I play with it. Sadly however it’s never fruitful. I always end up tucking it away, downhearted and frustrated. I’ve never been able to make this one work.

Meanwhile, over the past few years I’ve been drawing a certain character in my sketchbook. Over and over he keeps popping up. I love him but I cannot access his story. This little guy is a phantom. He’s just a drawing, a few words, a frosty setting and that’s it. He talks to the moon. He rides a horse. It’s not much to go on…

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He’s losing patience with me.

Today during my morning pages I was thinking about Aussie Bites. This was a wonderful series of illustrated chapter books that Penguin Australia produced for years. Many Australian authors and illustrators cut their teeth on Aussie Bites (Unfortunate metaphor. Sorry). In any case,  I had three published and one (stinker) rejected. When the series ended many of us shed a tear. Stand alone chapter books are difficult to market and rarely see the light of day. The Aussie Bites series was the best and most successful vehicle for such stories. All the books were lovingly produced and of high quality (it was competitive, oh yes, a coveted gig).

So, this week someone wrote to tell me how much they were enjoying Haggis McGregor and the Night of the Skull Moon. This was a Bite I did with Gus Gordon years ago. We had a wonderful time. I still remember discussing the skeleton bride’s dress with Gus. He wanted short sleeves. I wanted long. He won. I’m glad.

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The  book was even shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, a rare thing indeed for a ‘series book’ (for some reason they are often dismissed as having no literary merit, which is sad, and not true). Spurred on by the enthusiastic letter, I pulled out Haggis McGregor and re-read it. I was shocked. I really enjoyed it. I laughed out loud repeatedly.

Haggis made me remember just how much fun it was to plot and plan and write this kind of book. And it was this that eventually lead to the ah-ha moment.

Finally! Are you glancing at your wristwatch?

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Get to the point, Jen.

This is it: The picture book I’ve been wrestling with for years is NOT a picture book! And the little boy who keeps popping up in my sketchbook? He’s from the world of that picture book that is not a picture book. But he’s been waiting for dodo brain (yours truly) to get it. Do you see where I’m headed? What I have to do is merge it all— the fraudulent picture book, the sketchbook boy, the frosty world—and write an illustrated chapter book! OMG! I have to forget there is no market for these books and just get moving and write the story. Why should the market ever, EVER limit our creative expression?

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Stephen King says stories exist like dinosaur skeletons in the ground. Buried in their entirety. Seamus Heaney uses a similar metaphor in one of his glorious poems. Either way, what authors  have to do is find stories and gently excavate them.

This story, the one I’ve been trying to squish into 500 words, doesn’t exist in that format. I need the HUGE playing field of 7,000 words. The scope and air that a dear old Aussie Bite would have given me. I might  find that I need more words. And if I do, I’ll use the buggers!

What a revelation. I’ve started excavating already. It’s so exciting!

Perhaps you’re grappling with a story that’s problematic? That won’t cooperate. That seems to have good bones (couldn’t resist) but is nonetheless stuck or clunky. One of the privileges of writing for children is that we have a huge array of formats to play with. We mustn’t forget this. When we get inspired, when we meet a character or stumble into an exhilarating setting, we mustn’t lock ourselves into one vision—the one we think SHOULD work. Or worse still, the one we think will pay the most.

We need to be more respectful of what’s coming through. We need to have the patience to find the real story, then go about honouring that truth. That’s when we find authenticity and originality and flow. All the best stuff. That’s when we become true storytellers. 😉