The Path of the Banana Slug
Sunday, November 30, 2008

The first picture book I ever wrote was in the late 80’s after a lovely hike in the Santa Cruz Mountains with my husband. We were newly married and we traipsed for hours through the redwoods spotting deer, admiring the changing foliage and ferns, and avoiding banana slugs. We didn’t have kids, and I can’t remember why I thought about writing a picture book. My mind is a bit hazy at this late age. And why did I decide to write about banana slugs? Hmm, that is a mystery too obvious for me to unfold.

One of my next books was about a little boy who snuffled everything up his nose, and then in one great sneeze sent it all flying round the room (wow, what an ending!). At this point I had had a child, and was quickly beginning a large collection of children’s literature. I must have seen a hole in the market. I actually remember pitching this book to a well-known children’s book editor at a conference—we sat on a comfy couch chatting and then I handed her my manuscript, Sniffle Sniffle, to read. She had finally seen it all—that’s what was written on her face. Bless her. She tried to give me a few helpful hints, but really, a book about sniffling up one’s possessions, including the family cat? Sure, little boys might get a good giggle from it, but you know, some things just shouldn’t be printed.

I may be a bit embarrassed at the fact that I’ve written several really bad books, but I’ve experienced this motto first hand, you’ve gotta write the bad to get to the good. Everything I write today is a stepping stone for what I’ll write tomorrow, and the truth is, you can’t learn the craft without walking a few yards on your own personal trail of slow moving, bright and beautiful, banana slugs.

Here are some other random things I’ve learned...

  • Keep your eyes in good shape. Now that I both edit and write, I spend many hours a week reading paper manuscripts or staring at a computer screen. My eyes let me know when I’ve worked too long—and I listen.
  • Use movement or music to get your creative juices going. I have seasons when I’m in creative mode, and during those times when I’m trying to generate ideas I always incorporate exercise into my day—even if it’s just a walk around the block or chopping at the ivy hedge. And music is almost always a part of my writing—different genres of music help enhance the images and words already forming in my mind. I love classical guitar.
  • If you really need some fresh thinking, get yourself into a Moveable Bubble. More about that soon!
  • Find your tush a good chair.
  • Read a million books to your kids—and read what your big kids are reading—and if you don’t have a kid, big or little, borrow one!
  • Love criticism. Seek it out. Rejoice when someone tells you how horrible your paragraph is—how feeble your plot line is—that your work is one enormous cliché. I’ve found that criticism has propelled my knowledge of the craft forward faster than any other learning tool…
  • Once you get to a place where publishing your work is a priority, and you’re juggling many story ideas and projects, be picky in how you spend your time. I’ve recently wanted to write a picture book on oak trees. I did a search—there are dozens of them. I still may be able to incorporate the wonderful world of an oak tree into a larger framework, but pursuing the research and the writing of something already done so many times, and done well, would be silly.
  • When all else fails, write about banana slugs.