This Writing Life
By Linda Boyden
In the 1990s after I had retired from teaching and was unpublished, my writing rules were simple: write everyday. Write about what you know and especially read in the genre in which you hope to be published. The only issue: I wanted to be published in all of them, so I spent my days reading and writing and pretty much playing in a sandbox of words.
When I had a number of picture book manuscripts ready (oh, silly me), I began the tedious process of submitting them to publishers/editors. While waiting for two or three contracts, possibly more, to wing their way to my mailbox, I decided to get serious about a middle grade novel.
Did I know how to do this? No, so back I went to my local library to start reading as many middle grade novels as possible. I attended SCBWI (Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators) and Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers’ conferences, and listened and learned. Armed with all this knowledge, I considered the plot of my soon-to-be-best seller.
If it’s true to write from your heart, then the choice for me was a no-brainer: as a child I devoured fairy tales. Loved the magic of them, the promises, the evil wickedness, and the heroic rescues. Naturally, I didn’t want to do anything that had been done before so mine would need a twist. I imagined a middle grade, modern fairy tale complete with a sassy fairy godmother that needed to borrow a misfit eleven-year-old human boy to be the champion of her fanciful world.
I had the most marvelous time creating that world, making my own kind of magic with my own twist. When I finally had it pieced together enough to share with a writing friend, I suggested we meet at a local bookstore and coffee shop. She could read a section and I would pay her with coffee and a muffin. After she finished, she smiled and beckoned me over to the children’s books section. Pulling one from the shelf, she asked, “Have you read this yet?” I shook my head. |
”Well, maybe you should,” she said. I trusted this friend so I bought it.
Later that evening, I fell into the most delicious modern fairy tale, about a boy named Harry, the boy who lived, albeit with a scar on his forehead. When I finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I screamed for a long time.
Not out of of jealousy or envy, but because of the many coincidences that occurred between our two stories, i.e. things like my protagonist’s best friends were the Beasley family who were red-headed and rambunctious while Rowling’s character, Ron Weasley was also red-headed and had a rambunctious family. Next, the Grindylow Sea surrounded my villain’s castle while Rowling had grindylows, a type of water demon, in one of her books, too. Seriously, who else has ever heard of grindylows? I never submitted that manuscript.
After much thinking I came to the conclusion that Rowling and I had both done extensive research on Celtic mythology and had used it in our stories.
Later, a different idea began tickling my brain and wouldn’t leave me alone. I had been itching to get back to illustrating. While listening to a CD of songs for young children, I was intrigued to discover that the popular and well known Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star song had a number of obscure verses. So off I went researching. First, I made sure it was in public domain so I could use it for the text. I then envisioned the illustrations that I’d make from cut paper collage. I scurried about cleaning off the art area of my office when boom: there was an announcement that a well known author/illustrator, Jerry Pinkey’s latest book, “Twinkle, Twinkle” was in the running for a Caldecott Award…and yes, it was a retelling of the familiar song and of course, simply breathtaking.
Seriously, I cannot be the only writer that this stuff happens to, can I? On one hand, it means I’m in good company and headed down the right track. On the other, I might just smack every new idea with a sledgehammer from now on.
Later on, I remembered when I do school visits and talk to students about the writing process, I always answer their inevitable Where Do You Get Story Ideas From question with, “From the Cosmic Goo, an imaginary place where ideas stay and wait for artists to grab one.” Could many authors access those ideas simultaneously? It’s one of the better answers I’ve come up with, and could be true.
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