It’s a rather surreal experience. Here I am, going through a bunch of my writing archives looking for a book proposal template, and I stumble upon an old proposal from 2005. I remember coming up with the book idea. I remember doing the research and sending out proposals. What I didn’t remember was actually writing a few chapters of the book to include in those proposals.
Sometimes, looking at my old work is exciting. I found a 20-year-old magazine with one of my articles in it, read the article, and thought, “Hey, I’m good!” Other times, it’s the opposite. I was looking for some clips on a particular topic and came across one of my old articles. I actually cringed. I couldn’t believe someone actually paid me for that and published it.
Today’s experience is different. The proposal I found was for a book about the mathematical side of poker. As I read through these sample chapters, I honestly don’t remember writing them. But I like them! I have two other projects in the works right now (the Myths & Legends of Tea and another Who Pooped in the Park? book that I’m not talking about yet), but I do believe I’m going to come back to this idea.
The advantage of being a packrat
Everywhere you turn for advice these days, people are telling you not to be a packrat. Simplify your life! Throw away your old junk! If you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it!
It’s different when you’re an author. You never know when that old idea that went nowhere might be exactly what an editor is looking for. Having a book or article turned down repeatedly can sap your enthusiasm. That’s what happened to me with this book on the mathematics of poker. After having it shot down a few times, I gave up and filed it. Now that I go back through my notes (you do keep notes on your old projects, right?) I feel my enthusiasm returning. I’m going to finish up what I’m working on while this percolates in the back of my head and then blast it back out in a different format.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Once upon a time, I wrote an opinion piece about computer hacking. I didn’t find a market for it and this was before the days of blogs, so I stuck the article on my website. Lo and behold, it became the most popular page on the site, by a pretty hefty margin. The more emails I got about it, the more I thought I should turn it into a book about hacking and phreaking. I put quite a bit of time into the book, but I had a full time job and I ended up shelving it for a while.
Technology inexorably marches onward. While the partially-completed book sat untouched, it became swiftly more obsolete. When I came back to it, I just couldn’t bring myself to start my research over from scratch. But re-reading it showed me that the history section was still relevant and still interesting. When a computer hacking magazine called Blacklisted! 411 contacted me and asked to reprint the essay from my website, I made them a deal: I would turn that history section into two feature articles. If they paid their going rate for those two features, they could have reprint rights on the essay for free. They jumped at the offer, and I ended up making $1,125 from that “useless” manuscript.
The moral of the story
It’s not enough just to keep your old notes, articles, essays, manuscripts, poems, proposals, and ponderings. You need to go back and look at them every now and then. Think about whether any of it has suddenly become relevant. Perhaps that magazine you just wrote an article for might be interested in one of your old unsold pieces. Perhaps that editor who sent the “we don’t want this but keep trying” rejection might like one of your old ideas better.
Don’t just archive your old stuff on a CD, either. You will never get around to loading that CD back up and looking at it. You also might lose it. The dog might eat it. Keep those files on your hard drive where searches will pull them up. You might be surprised at how you end up finding one.
Most writers don’t like to talk about their work in process. I guess I’m not most writers, because I like to talk about pretty much everything. I do usually hold back, though, until I’m really sure the book is going somewhere. At this point, I’m far enough along that I’m ready to let the cat out of the bag.
As anyone who has visited my tea bar knows, I am as much in love with the stories of different tea styles as I am with the tea itself. Thus far, I have mostly told the tales as they were told to me — or as I found them in the course of reading about tea. Many of these wondrous stories are far too short. The poor farmer who cleaned up a temple and was given Tieguanyin oolong as his reward by the goddess. The mandarin who added bergamot oil to an English earl’s tea to compensate for the calcium in the water and created one of the western world’s most popular teas. The tea master who performed one last tea ceremony after he was ordered by his daimyo to commit seppuku.
In Myths & Legends of Tea, my goal is to create the Grimm’s Fairy Tales of tea.
I am taking each of these tales and retelling it in my own style, most of them somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 words long. Each is accompanied by a profile of the tea featured in the story. Some of the stories are entirely legend, their origins lost in the mists of time. Some are based heavily on fact. Some will be familiar to any tea aficionado. Some are purely the product of my own imagination. In all of them, I am focusing on building a sense of the time, the setting, and the characters, and bringing the stories of tea to life.
I know what you’re thinking. At least I hope I know what you’re thinking. “When will I be able to buy this wondrous book?” (If that’s not what you’re thinking, please don’t tell me). If all goes according to plan, sometime in the autumn of 2013. I’ll keep you all up to date!
Since I split off Tea With Gary as its own blog in 2011, I have tried to keep the two separate. In this particular case, however, this post is both about my writing and about tea, so I am placing it on both blogs. Henceforth, I will place my updates about the book here and specific tea stories on Tea With Gary, although I’ll probably do some cross-linking. Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll do a lot of cross-linking, because that’s the way blogs roll!
A quick update:
We are having some illustrator issues right now, and we’re not sure what the release date will be for my 18th poop book: Who Pooped in the Cascades? Personally, I’m still hoping for this fall, but there is no official date at this point, and I’m not setting up any events yet.
Update to the update [August, 2013]:
The book is out now! I added the link to the paragraph above and a picture to this post.
I’ve finally finished reading the book that I won at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles a couple of months ago. Well, technically I didn’t win the book; I won a gift certificate to the SCBWI store for having one of the funniest tweets at the conference, but that’s another story.
After looking through the rich selection, I settled on Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books, by Uri Shulevitz. As my editors and illustrators will tell you, I’m not much of an illustrator, although I learned to draw veiltail guppies pretty well back when I was breeding them for pocket money in high school. They’re my “go-to” critter when little kids want a picture. But I digress.
Since the first word in the title is “writing” and the subtitle begins with “how to write,” I figured the book would be slanted toward authors rather than illustrators. As I stood there holding the book, an announcement came over the PA saying that the next session was preparing to start and the store was closing. I was running out of time to pick a book, so I grabbed this one.
First impressions after a quick scan of the book:
- Mr. Shulevitz is a talented and versatile illustrator.
- I should have looked more closely at the title and realized that “writing with pictures” can be interpreted to mean “writing with pictures instead of words.”
- The book was published in 1985, but the majority of the illustration is in a style that would have been more fitting quite a few decades earlier than that.
- Most of the book is black and white, and the color section is hopelessly outdated in a world of InDesign and Quark.
I waffled back and forth on whether to actually read the book and decided to go for it. It’s good to branch out. Although I figured it wouldn’t do much for my writing skills, I’ve worked with a lot of illustrators over the years and the book might help me to understand them better. All in all, I think that was a good decision.
Writing with Pictures spends very little time addressing the writer’s craft. It doesn’t tell you how to fit your words to your target age group, how to structure a story, how to write dialog for kids, or any of the other things that make us good children’s writers. It does, however, talk a lot about layout.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I don’t work like many children’s authors do. When I write books like my Who Pooped in the Park? series, I visualize pages and plan the text to fit them. Mr. Shulevitz’ book addresses page layout well. He talks about it from an artistic point of view, but also looks at how the layout of the pages affects the flow of the story. Part Two (“Planning the Book”) is an excellent guide to the structure of an illustrated children’s book, and I think any children’s author would benefit from reading it. I had to slog through many parts of the book, but that one definitely held my attention.
My first impression was right as far as parts of the book being out-of-date. The final section had a good basic description of the printing process, but then went into great detail on color separations. Artists and designers today don’t have to think “30% yellow”; just pick a color from the palette, tweak until you’re happy with it, and use it. As long as you’re designing in the correct color space (make sure it’s CMYK, not RGB!), the software will take care of everything automatically.
Please don’t take this to mean that I think Uri Shulevitz is out of date. Heavens, no! He’s still winning Caldecott awards, and that puts him way ahead of me. But the techniques for manual illustration, layout, color separations, and so forth have changed. Younger illustrators who grew up in the digital age don’t work the same way.
I won’t even try to judge the usefulness of this book to an illustrator. That’s outside my field. If you write children’s books, however, I’d recommend reading it — even if all you read is Part Two.