Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Torrible Zone: Authors Talk About Writing Obstacles

TC &TF dedicates this post to Edward Lear, master of magical nonsense verse, who was born on this day in 1812.

In one of his poems, Lear sings of the blue headed Jumblies, who improbably sailed the sea in a sieve,

And in twenty years they all came back,
In twenty years or more,

And every one said, `How tall they've grown!
For they've been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
And the hills of the Chankly Bore!'

So in honor of Edward, this post is about the time authors spend in the Torrible Zone. Sometimes, during the writing process, the sky is dark and the voyage is long. I asked my fellow writers in CAN (The Children's Authors Network) “Which of your stories was most difficult to write? What did you learn from the process?”

Alexis O'Neill: It took me seven years to write my shortest story, The Recess Queen (586 words). What I learned is that some stories can't be rushed. You have to find the right mix of conflict and characters to pull off a satisfying read. I also learned that, even when your story is hidden away in a filing cabinet, you have to keep your antennae up for creative solutions to a story's problems.

Jeri Chase Ferris: The story most difficult for me to write was my historical fiction set during the Siege of Leningrad. Difficult because of my passion for the people and grief at the unimaginable suffering they experienced. Also difficult because it has been in progress for fifteen years! (the writing, that is). I learned to push on anyway, and to put all that emotion right into my characters. If you are passionate about your story, then YOU are the one to tell it. No one else will do it as well as you, so keep writing!

Janet Wong: The easiest story for me to write was Me and Rolly Maloo-the picture book version. The idea for it came from nowhere. While I was writing it, I found myself thinking that Judy O'Malley at Houghton Mifflin would be the perfect editor. Judy bought it in a week. When Judy left for Charlesbridge, she negotiated to take our project with her. Charlesbridge asked me to revise the book. Ordinarily I have no problem with revision--even substantial changes and many of them--but Charlesbridge's editorial team thought the book would read better as a novel. From this picture a novel? Their point was reasonable: the book is about cheating on a math test, and cheating really isn't an issue until 3rd grade or so, when they're reading novels.

I struggled for the next two years with making it twenty times longer. I had a strong vision of its illustrations, and I couldn't figure out how to reconcile those images with the format of a novel.

During that time, Judy O'Malley fell into a coma and I thought both the book and my beloved editor Judy were gone. Now, over six years after selling it, Me and Rolly Maloo is finally a hardcover book that I can knock my knuckles on. The project has inherited a second editor, Emily Mitchell, whose attention to detail is magnificent--but the book is still Judy's, and I dedicated it to her.

Joan Graham: Splish Splash, while challenging to write, was more difficult to market as it was concrete poetry, and not everyone knew what that was. I had not seen a full book of shape poems since Robert Froman's Seeing Things and Street Poems in the 70s, and those were in black and white. Once I did find a home for my manuscript in 1993 with Houghton Mifflin (Hooray for them for seeing the possibilities!), there were just a few very minor tweaks, and it was ready to go to an artist. I believe Splish Splash was one of the first books to be illustrated by computer; it was published in 1994 and is now celebrating its Sweet Sixteen Birthday. After Splish Splash came out, a friend called to say she had been to NYC and saw my book at the Museum of Modern Art! Well, it is word art, and I learned to be persistent and stay true to my vision.

April Halprin Wayland: The novel I'm writing now. It's been 14+ years.

Why is it difficult?

Because it's been 14 + years!

Me: Dreamer From the Village was a tough self-taught class in how to write a picture book biography. After months of research I was drowning in a sea of vivid anecdotes. Several revisions went by before I realized I had to narrow the story down to the sources of Chagall’s inspiration, how he learned his craft, and the distinguishing characteristics of his art. I kept re-reading Jonah Winter's Diego to get a sense of simplicity. One editor helped me distill the material, but ultimately passed on the project. The whole process must have taken over a year, but the manuscript ended up where it belonged- in the hands of Marc Aronson, who was named after the artist! (his father, a scenic designer, knew Chagall and wrote a monograph about him).

So if you're struggling with a story, take heart. Writing is not always smooth sailing. Be one of the select few who takes risks and toughs it out.

Like the Jumblies. They are initially discouraged from taking their adventure. But they don't care a button, they don't care a fig! And upon their return, everyone

..... drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And every one said, 'If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,---
To the hills of the Chankly Bore!

Write on.


  1. Thanks Michelle - this is terrific!

  2. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  3. Your experience with your book is very inpsiring, MM. Thank you, thank you.

  4. I love Edward Lear - and nonsense in general - but the personal experiences shared by these authors about their detours through the Torrble Zone are full of sense. This gives me great comfort as I navigate torrible patches in my own WIPs. Delighted to discover your blog.