Friday, December 5, 2008

Comfort Zones

In 1887, Nellie Bly made an indelible mark on the New York newspaper world by feigning insanity and getting herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She suffered 10 days of neglect and abuse (e.g., the women got one bath a week, with one after the other using the same tub of dirty water and the same solitary towel). Then she exposed the inhumane practices of that institution in two articles for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. It was landmark reporting that helped give birth to the tradition of investigative journalism that still continues today. It also was a perfect example of how a writer sometimes needs to leave her comfort zone to compose work that is meaningful and memorable.

I’m trying to do that now. I’ve been fascinated by the world’s first women’s intercollegiate basketball game ever since I wrote an article about it for The New York Times, and I’ve always thought it was a great topic for a picture book. I wrote a proposal and almost sold it to one publisher, but after much anticipation, that fell through. Last year my clever agent finally found me a publisher and I composed a first draft, using my fine-tuned research skills to document all the facts of the game but missing the boat by a mile. It turns out that being a successful nonfiction author doesn’t automatically make one a picture book writer. My non-fiction instincts don’t mean all that much in a 32-page art-heavy format.

So I had a talk with my new editor about arcs and conflicts and protagonists and then I went to the experts. At Thanksgiving dinner, I asked my cousin’s twin five-year-old daughters to name their favorite book. “The Queen of Style,” they replied, and like a good researcher, I bought a copy and did my best to understand the appeal. It wasn’t hard. Author-illustrators Caralyn and Mark Buehner created a charming, funny story about a bored queen who transforms her life, and her kingdom, when she takes a beauty school correspondence course and practices her skills on her subjects--and their sheep. It’s plain to see why two sophisticated Manhattan kindergartners love this high-fashion fairy tale.

Caralyn and Mark Buehner have nine children according to the book’s flap, so of course they should know how to engage a young audience. I have only a rambunctious cat who prefers chewing books to reading them. Short of getting myself committed to an elementary school, it seems the best way for me to proceed is to break free of the very rules and standards that make for writing quality non-fiction and admit that a picture book is a different animal. Telling the story of the basketball game in picture book form means communicating its essence, rather than reporting on the play-by-play action. If Nellie Bly could bathe in filthy water and eat wretched food to write her exposĂ©, the least I can do is leave my own comfort zone to give writing a picture book a try.

Wish me luck!


Anonymous said...

Here's wishing you luck, Sue! I know you can do it, and look forward to reading it!

Terry Doherty said...

Oh, this would be so wonderful on so many levels. We have followed the NCAA women's game for almost 2 decades ... I love learning about the game.

Wendie O said...

Best of luck.
One thing that might help is the Picture Book semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It's an intensive immersion into the world of picture books -- plus you have to write and revise quite a few of your own.

They might have room in the class starting in January. If not, then the one starting in July. It's low residency -- two weeks in Jan and two in July and all the rest online.

-Wendie Old, a nonfiction writer who will be graduating in January 09 from the picture book semester.