Sometimes a book takes its own sweet time. I’ve talked before about the long journeys some of my work has travelled from the initial spark to the published story.
There was Bella and the Wandering House, which took 14 years, and which I wrote about here.
There was Let Me Sleep, Sheep!, which was 13 years, and which I wrote about here.
There was How to Make a Bird (17 years, here.)
And Ella and the Useless Day (17 years, here.)
There are many reasons why so much time can elapse from pen-on-paper to publication. Sometimes it’s about the idea percolating and sometimes it’s about the writer procrastinating … or perhaps pondering. Sometimes it’s about the publishing world needing to catch up to the concept.
For the most part, this slowness has served me well. If How to Make a Bird had been embraced by publishers when I was first sending it out, it wouldn’t have ended up in the hands of Matt Ottley. It would be nothing like the beautiful art object it is today. If Ella and the Useless Day had been published in its original form, I would always have felt as if I’d somehow missed the point, not quite got to the heart of what I was trying to say. And I could never have collaborated with Karen Blair, who has brought much more to it than I could ever have imagined.
I say “for the most part” because there have been downsides – sleeping projects I’ve had to shelve because someone came out with something that was just too similar. Still, though, the hits have been relatively benign. Like most writers, I’m sure, I have a whole storehouse of fragments and snippets, endless beginnings of maybe-possible future things. Some have a little more momentum than others, have gathered more thoughts around them, begun to take on a somewhat recognisable shape. But even so, they’re still just beginnings, formative, not too hard to be philosophical about when I’ve had to let go.
Until now, that is.
Until last week, when Karen Blair and I were out on our little book-signing roadtrip for Ella and the Useless Day, and were down at New Edition, posing for a photo in the children’s section when I turned my head slightly to the left and froze.
For years, I’ve been tinkering with a picture book manuscript. It started, as many things do for me, with some lines that dropped into my head. Those lines were:
Welcome to the world/It is large and full of noise/Welcome to the world/It is small and full of joys
And I thought huh. I like this. I don’t know what it is, but I like it. And so I began tinkering. I repeated those lines over and over to myself and added more.
Welcome to the day and welcome to the night/Welcome to the dark and welcome to the light
Yes, I thought. Sights and sounds and smells and textures. Big, abstract things and small, specific things. I played and pondered. Oh, and I also googled. Because it seemed highly unlikely that someone hadn’t done something like this before. Everyone wants to welcome a new baby! This of course means that there is a lot of room for a lot of new baby books, and I just needed to be sure that mine wasn’t going to be exactly the same as someone else’s. And it was okay. It wasn’t. Yes, there were other Welcome to the Worlds out there, but but they were different enough. They were insufficiently Meggish to be a problem. I told my agent what I was doing, checking in to make sure she agreed that it was reasonable to keep going on that basis. And I kept playing.
Welcome to the ups and welcome to the downs/Welcome to the smiles and welcome to the frowns
Welcome to the blues and welcome to the greens/Welcome to the purples and the spotted tangerines
Not sure how to structure it, though. Is this working? Can I blend the abstract and the specific like this? Is the uneven tone – mixing gravitas with levity – a mistake, or disarmingly appealing?
Then the ending lines appeared:
Welcome to this day, to this hour and this minute/Welcome to the world. We’re so glad to have you in it.
And just like that, I was utterly hooked. I loved that ending. I would wrestle with structure and tone and whatever else was needed to make this work.
I wrestled and wrangled. I scribbled and shook my head and started again. In order to keep the shape under control, I took the entirely uncharacteristic step of sketching out a structure. I was so chuffed with myself, I shared some pictures on social media.
I made it work. I think I did. I even managed to add some of the bizarre Meggishness I love so much:
Welcome to this duck …
… and of course to this one too!
Even the ducks were in! Surely it was done?
I told my agent it was coming. Batten down the hatches & etc! And I was about to send it off when, at the eleventh hour, I had a little panic. Karen Blair was over for an Ella photo shoot and I asked her advice. This structure, this tone, with the mixing of abstract and specific – does it seem off to you? And Karen, with her excellent, calm wisdom, reminded me about how babies encounter the world, how their perception changes as they grow – as shapes start to resolve and blur takes on form, and the abstract in fact moves inexorably towards the specific – and said that my pacing shift, with the speed picking up as the text moved along, was actually so clever because of how learning accelerates and sensory detail starts to come at babies from all sides and … she had a little tear in her eye and I was so happy and we said WE HAVE TO DO THIS TOGETHER!
I cleaned it and polished it and there was just this one little part where the cadence was slightly off so I didn’t quite send it yet. And then, a week later, Karen and I went on our tour de bookshop, and I turned to my left and froze and then I unfroze and pointed and Karen did that little intake of breath we all do and then she said that thing we all do, which was, “Yeah but don’t worry. It’s bound to be really different.” And I nodded and said, “Yeah, I know, but I’ll check it out anyway just in case.” And then we peered a little more closely and saw who the author/illustrator were and we both did a rather large intake of breath and Karen said, “Hmm, those are some heavy-hitters though” and I said, “Yeah, I know” and we both said, “It’s probably still fine though” and left the bookstore without looking at it because hey it was probably still fine. Right?
That afternoon, basking in the afterglow of tour de bookshop, I did a quick google just to reassure myself. And found this note about the Donaldson/Oxenbury, which came out in April this year:
And that was when I went augggh and put my head down on the desk. Day and night? Light? The couplet structure? The exact same cadence? The movement from the abstract to the oddly specific? The accelerating pace and layering accumulation of things? I sent Karen a resigned message and I said:
Goodbye to my story and goodbye to my ducks
Goodbye to pretending that I don’t give any …
I AM SORRY. I ALMOST DID THAT.
Look. It’s just one of those things. I will move on and write faster or percolate less, or something. On the plus side, apparently I think a bit like Julia Donaldson so there’s that.