Sunday, 19 January 2014

Birth of a children's author, part 2

This is part 2 in a 2-part post:
People often ask me: how do you become a children’s author?
Everyone’s journey is different, of course (my usual answer). But I’m pretty sure the journey is seldom straightforward, or what people expect.
For one thing, a writer’s life is lonely, there’s no other word for it. You have to be able to sit for hours and hours, with only your imagination and your computer for company. You have to be able to lose yourself in your head, so a penchant for daydreaming is important. I sometimes wonder what I must look like, sitting at my desk (or on my couch, or at my dining room table), staring at a laptop.
Distant, self-absorbed and pretty dull, no doubt.
Reading a lot is important, too. And maybe a degree in something like English, or communications, or even writing (not an option when I was in university), but even those things probably aren’t essential.
More important than any of that, I’d say the most crucial element in becoming a children’s author is an absolute belief that stories matter.  You have to care.
Can you teach that? Can you learn it? I’m not sure.
I guess you either feel it, or you don’t.
When my children arrived in the mid- and late-nineties, I was still a full-time gainfully employed copywriter. Then in 2000, I went freelance (there was a buyout offer, with a monthly retainer from my ex-employer, and with two little kids at home, it seemed perfect).
For the next five years, I did continue to write copy, lots of it (I still do write copy by the way, for my clients when they ask, I love it and always will). Like every other parent who decides to go freelance and work from home, I knew the family bank account would take a hit. It did. I knew I’d miss the daily connection with other adults. I did, at least a little. I also expected it to get harder and harder to find new copywriting clients once I was working full time at home. It was.
All pretty forseeable. But what I didn’t expect, what I couldn’t have known, was how much I was going to absolutely LOVE reading to my kids. Or how much fantastic children’s literature had been written in the two decades that had passed since I’d stopped reading kids’ books. 
Like most writers I imagine, I read everything I could as a child. The Narnia series (dozens of times), the Hobbit, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, John Christopher and John Wyndham, then later, Lord of the Rings, I read it all again and again.
But there was no Robert Munsch, no McHale, Rowling or Riordan. It was all to come.
Wow. Reading children’s books to my kids was like discovering a new planet. We were lucky enough to inherit an older cousin’s huge children’s library, and we had hundreds of the finest books (my sister-in-law spared no expense) from the 80s and 90s, filling the shelves. Picture books (Corduroy Bear, what a delight!), early readers (25 Magic Treehouses, all of the Berenstein Bears, Franklin the turtle, dozens of Goosebumps), then middle grade books (Tuck Everlasting, the Bobby Pendragon books, Jacob two-two and so on and so on). Then like some special gift, along came Harry Potter.
I have a confession: I read each Harry Potter book in the entire franchise before my children did. When the last book came out, my children (who were tweens by then) couldn’t find me. I locked myself in my bedroom, and spent a twenty-hour read-a-thon, finishing the series. I didn’t feed anyone, or cook anything, or answer the door or the phone, or make eye contact with the outside world.
I just read.
Thanks to Emma Dolan for the drawing of Gargoth
It mattered to me, deeply, what happened to Harry and Hermione and Ron. I really, really cared. Just like my willingness to read Franklin’s Blanket ten thousand times, or Dinosaur in the Park (a weird little picture book that my son and I adored, about a dinosaur-shaped garbage can that comes to life), or any of the other books we read together for years, I deeply, passionately loved them all. I believed in the story.
Then it happened. My future came calling.

On Christmas Eve of 2004, my children, husband and I were walking through a snowy downtown Toronto, on Queen Street’s east end. We ducked into a small antique shop. My family wandered around, and I was drawn, like something was calling me, to the back of the store. A funny glow was coming from a stairway, beckoning me.

I was drawn to the staircase, and there … on each step, lit by a candle … were dozens of gargoyles.
Yes, gargoyles! I watched the little statues in the flickering candlelight, and was struck by how … alive they looked. One of my children called me, and I looked away. When I looked back at the staircase, I gasped: I was sure that the gargoyles had all switched places while my back was turned!
That night, I put my children to bed with sugarplums and gargoyles. I started a bedtime story about a little gargoyle in our backyard. He was lost, scared, sad, and naughty. He got the little girl who lived in the house in trouble, but the adults couldn’t see him. After a few nights, my children were asking for more stories about the gargoyle. Where did he come from? Why was he there? Why was he sad?
He had a huge backstory, and what amazed me was that it was all there, waiting to be told.
After a week of gargoyle bedtime stories, my daughter said one night, “You know, that’s good, Mum. You should write that down.”
And it was like someone had hit me. I just hadn’t thought of writing a children's book before, but she was absolutely right. This little character came to me, fully formed, into my head. And into my heart. He had a story to tell, and there he was, just waiting for me to tell it.
I cared, I really, deeply cared, about him. So I told his story. It took me a year of Saturday afternoons, trying to figure out if I could actually tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. When I finished my first draft (64 pages), I got my daughter (ten at the time) to read it. She spent a few hours in her room with my manuscript, and I kept trying not to hover outside her door. I was really resigned: if it’s no good, at least I tried, I thought.
Finally she emerged from her room, and said flatly, “How did YOU write this?”
And that’s how I became a children’s author.

See part 1 from last week, how a copywriter becomes a children’s author.

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