TRUST YOUR INNER MONKEYS
by Newbery-Honor-Winning author of Al Capone Does My Shirts
The idea for Putting the Monkeys to Bed came while trying to get my son, Ian, to sleep. I wrote the first draft when he was three. The book came out in June, two months after his twenty-first birthday! Before this, my record for the longest gestation period for one book was five years for Al Capone Does My Shirts.
When I speak to writers, I suggest they trust their inner monkeys. Then I tell them the cautionary tale of Putting the Monkeys to Bed.
Some picture books come easily. Moonstruck: The True Story of the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon, Louder, Lili and the upcoming Dad and the Dinosaur came to me in a semi-completed form. Yes, I revised them many, many times, but the revisions didn’t change the major arc of the story.
Early on in the process I had a lot of interest from a house I was dying to work with. The editor sent me a two-page editorial letter, which suggested a direction for the book that I knew in my secret heart of hearts was not right.
But because I was dying to work with that editor, at that house, I rewrote the book exactly the way she wanted it. And when the revision was complete, I glossed over the fact that it didn’t work and sent it back to her with an over-eager, slightly sycophantic cover letter.
That editor recognized how hard I had worked to do exactly what she wanted, so she sent me another long editorial letter detailing how I might change the story yet again. So, I rewrote the book the way she wanted and sent the revision back with another eager cover letter, but this time I could no longer hide from that sinking feeling. It wasn’t working and I knew it.
I can’t say I was surprised when I received a kind, but clear rejection. That editor had realized, just as I did, that Putting the Monkeys to Bed was not working. After that, I put the book away for a few years and took it out again when I was working with another editor, the wise and gracious Nancy Paulsen. I sent Nancy the original book—before I made the revisions that I knew were wrong—and she and the talented Susan Kochan helped me find the right shape for Putting the Monkeys to Bed. Without them, the manuscript would still be sitting in my file cabinet.
But when I try to take a picture book on a safari in the jungle and spend all day on it, my inner monkeys begin to eat the manuscript. Swallow it whole. My picture books are more fragile than my novels. My picture books can’t take the long hours of intense work. For me, working on picture books takes a lighter energy. A brief visit to the jungle—not a year-long safari. One hour to two hours max of intense work, then I put the manuscript away and bring it out the next day and the next and the next. Picture books can take as long as novels to write, but writing them has to be in short bursts.
What I really love is to work hard on a novel, send it off to my editor, and while the novel draft is sitting on her desk, work on a picture book. Novels are all consuming. Picture book writing is easier for me to slip in and out of and works well with the business side of my life. By this I mean: website revisions to make, blog interviews to write, fan readers to respond to, travel arrangements to make, a social media presence to maintain, presentations to prepare—the flotsam and jetsam of work that makes up an author’s life
The second I send a novel draft off, I jump on my to-do list. Then for my treat I start playing around with a picture book. Writing is the wild joy in my life.
Gennifer's favorite writing spot is next to her assistant. Shown here taking careful notes.