This is the second in a new series I hope to grow – about what goes on “behind the scenes” in writing for children.
If you put together all the writing that’s done for a picture book, it would be enough for a novel. All the revisions. All the cuts. Ideas tried and dumped. Information added and eliminated. Ending after ending. Beginning after beginning.
It’s interesting to look back and see the evolution of a manuscript, so I thought I’d share a few of the “out-takes” from An Inconvenient Alphabet. The first few drafts were messy, pitiful, a bit haphazard. But, when the goal is to just get something on the screen to work with, you just have to go with it.
Beginnings are soooooo difficult – finding the minimum number of words that draw readers in and entice them to stay long enough to become engaged in the story. Here is an early opening that hung around for a few months…
The American Revolution was over. King George’s taxes, laws, and armies were gone. But something very English remained.
The English language.
That had the basic setting, a hint of a problem, but no characters. In reality, you can’t write a decent beginning until you have an ending.
As I got into the writing, I began playing with the kid connection concept that initially hit me – “invented spelling.” And I also started to hear a “meta” voice. (Not to worry. I’m told many writers hear voices.)
Their war on words would make “bad” spelling “gud” spelling,
“rong” spelling “rite” spelling,
“hard” words “eezee.”
[Meta voice: Oh! I like this! It’s starting to make sense!]
Three words from this made it to the finish.
Here’s another piece of text that eventually transformed into the flier in the book. (Writing this was a tad inconvenient with spellcheck trolling me!)
Ben and Noah beleev’d spelling reeform wud bild the karacter of a new naashun. It wud be a langwaj redy to aksept new wurds frum immigrants, Naativ Amerikans and siyentifik advansez. After a few years, reeding and writing wud improov and wurds wud be eezeeyer to spel.
Of course when I connected to kids with the invented spelling, traditional spelling rules (that don’t always work) came to mind.
No old spelling rules for the new nation.
[“I before E except after C or when sounded as A as in neighbor and weigh.” beleev, reseev]
[“When 2 vowels go walking the first one does the talking.” neer, speek]
Do you remember these?
This idea was reduced to “unreliable rules.” Just too much distracting content to work with. And another issue that was developing was too many illustration notes. Waaaaaaay too much info inserted. Some of that TMI found its way into the text, some into back matter, and some was cut completely.
When I research, I widen the scope to take in more context about the times. This results in a lot of information that underlies the story and impacts the telling but may not make it into the final cut for various reasons.
Just a few of the fascinating tidbits on old words and where they came from ended up in back matter.
Throughout the writing the meta voice morphed and became a meta character I called “Alpha.” This was the voice of the child reader in my head with a running commentary on the story as it unfolded. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was cut in the end due to the distraction it caused.
He [Ben] added aw, uh, edh, ing, ish and eth.
[Ish? Uh? Eth? Really? I doubt they’ll fit in.]
Each letter had its very own sound.
[You got rid of J and now use two letters to make the J sound!]
He put them in a new, more natural sequence—no more ABC.
[No more ABC? But that’s who I am! What about my song?]
I have to admit, he had a bit of a ‘tude. Another problem with Alpha was that I already had the voices of the public interjecting. When you have to color code all the voices in your head, it’s a sign there are too many.
A new alphabet for a new nation!
[alpha: I think this is going to be a problem.”]
[“I don’t want to learn it all again.” (adult)]
Adults can read the old. Children will learn the new.
[“What about the old books? They’ll be useless.” (bookseller/librarian)]
New books will be published in America!
[“We’ll need new print blocks. Too expensive. So inconvenient.” (printers)]
Ben knew printing new books would be a problem. He had waited eleven years for print blocks of his six new letters.
Some of this historical information also was cut. Including the ironic line about books being published in America. Now, though the publishing businesses are in the U.S., most books are printed overseas.
The idea of using spelling tests for Ben and Noah played around in my mind for months, but I never found a way to effectively use it.
And one of the ideas I enjoyed most, the revolutionary quotes, turned out to be just too much to include. So they don’t go to waste, I’ll share my favorites with you here.
For Ben’s rejected letters: These are the letters that try men’s souls. (Paine)
On silent letters: No representation without pronunciation.
On vowels: One if it’s short. Two if it’s long. (Revere)
General call to arms: I have not yet begun to spell! (Jones)
These are some of the pieces of An Inconvenient Alphabet that ended up on the virtual “cutting room floor.” There’s quite a pile actually, but that’s the nature of writing a picture book. Sometimes it’s really hard to let go of a string of snappy words, snippets of fascinating history, and the morsels that get stuck in your heart. But it’s all part of the process.
This is just one reason why critique partners and editors are so vital to the process of writing a children’s book. Many thanks to all who help me hone and trim!