When I get a writing idea, I usually live with it awhile before I start working. ("Awhile" could be two weeks or two years.) I never sit down right then and plough into it.
Except sometimes. Especially if it has been awhile between good ideas. This was one of those times. I had a character I already knew very well (Nilla) and more than enough scenes for a 32 page book. I banged away at the computer far into the night. What's more I finished it! In one sitting! I went to bed, wondering which of my editors I would "grace" with my genius.
I wait a couple of days before re-reading a picture book manuscript. You know, long enough to catch a bug here and there. I figured Camp K-9 needed so little "de-bugging," I would mail it that day.
Hmm. This manuscript seemed unusually long for something that was supposed to be under 800 words. (I know editors like them shorter than that, but I have never which managed less than 775.) I read on and on, then hit the word count command.
2500 words. Gulp.
I wasted three pages (usually the length of the entire manuscript) with a story "frame": Nilla belonged to a little girl and this would be the first time they had ever been apart, and there was a wizard who turned the kennel into Camp K-9 every night and blah, blah, blah. What was I thinking? I never use story frames, not even in novels.
Things went from bad to worse when I realized that I had written a YA picture book for seven-year-olds. For thirty seconds, I considered turning it into a graphic novel...until I remembered that I
can't draw. And what editor would buy a graphic novel about a Valley Girl dog and her friends? Who would read it?
My hand hovered over the delete key. I didn't want to give up on Nilla. I liked the title Camp K-9. I would simply write about Nilla as a puppy.
The trick to writing a picture book (if you are not your own illustrator) is to include a lot of action scenes to give the artist something to work with. After three hours I had only two Nilla puppy memories. She would fall asleep across your shoes, thus trapping you in place until she woke up. And whenever you came home, she would be so excited she would pee at your feet (not on them, thank goodness.) Not great visuals. And worse, no story.
Sigh. I deleted Camp K-9, except for the title. There would be a book called Camp K-9 some day. Just not this day.
Months went by with Camp K-9 in my mental "creative crockpot." I had a critique group meeting coming up, and no manuscript to contribute. I re-opened the empty Camp K-9 file.
Maybe the real Nilla was getting in the way of a fictional one. I changed her name to Roxie, the name of the boxer who lived down the street. I suddenly realized that almost everyone I knew had a dog.
A dog with a human name; apparently people don't name dogs Spot and Skippy any more. I quickly had a roster of dog campers with names like Bea and Hannah. I didn't specify breeds for any of the dogs, save two; Lacy, who was a standard poodle who lived across the street. Since I planned for her to be "the mean girl," I thought the combination of a breed known for being "a chick dog" along with her sweet name, would be hilarious. The other "real dog" was Pearl the Pug, who incidentally belongs to Emmy of A Tree for Emmy fame.
Once, I had those dog names, I could see them, doing all sorts of things that canine campers would do; hiking, swimming, making paw-print crafts. Yeah, I gave my future illustrator a lot to work with.
I counted the days until critique group.
"And now, Mary Ann's picture book," said the group leader. Was I being paranoid or was everyone taking a long time to find my manuscript in their files? "Who wants to start?" asked the leader.
Long silence. Someone's chair creaked. A throat cleared. A little nose blowing. Usually, we all had a million things to say, suggest, critique and couldn't wait to say them. This loud silence was not a good sign.
Someone said they liked the dog names. Another long pause. Someone else said that the illustrations would be "cute." My toes curled. I hate the word "cute."
Finally, the bravest of us said "This isn't a book."
My heart dropped. How many times had I heard that particular criticism? A lot.
"You have a bunch of dogs running around doing stuff at camp, then they go home. So what?"
Disappointed as I was, I knew she was right. There was no conflict, no tension. Sure, Lacy and Roxie had a few run-ins, but they had no resolution.
"Maybe this isn't your kind of book," someone suggested in a kind way. "You write good novels. Maybe you should stick to novels."
This person is a friend, and I know she meant to be encouraging, but it wasn't. It just made me more determined that I would not waste perfectly good characters like Roxie, Lacy and Pearl the Pug.
There would be a Camp K-9. Some day.
Don't forget our second blogiversary critique giveaway at
And don't miss out on a chance of winning an autographed copy of Camp K-9
See Monday's post for further information.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman