The stories, the book

The book is a collection of four related children’s stories under the Title of: SANTA VISITS (Not What You Expect).

If I speak the words “SANTA VISITS” I know what immediately comes into your mind…. don’t I?

But then adding the phrase “Not what you expect” creates possibilities.

I used to make up stories in the car for my son’s entertainment. Long before “Santa Visits.”

In the car, headed for kindergarten, I’d ask for: a name or thing; something you wouldn’t expect; the weather; a color and a number. I had ten minutes to create a story which included each of the above. We almost always got done before time ran out.

From those stories, narrated for entertainment as we drove, one was eventually put in writing. An acquaintance of mine asked if she may read it. She did so during a bus ride to New York City where she worked as a professional editor. Upon her return to New Hope, the next day, she sought me out and asked me to sign the draft. Incredibly flattered I did so but also, having incredibly small intelligence, I led myself to think that more could be easily and automatically written; “sometime” in the future. It hasn’t yet happened for that particular story. To this day it sits on my computer as a draft. However, without my realization, a seed had been planted.

About this same time we were busy writing and mailing a newsletter as our first business was growing. It contained lots of facts, the usual discount coupons, and each edition carried a short story about a wide variety of subjects. Our customers loved our newsletter stories.

But, good feedback on the newsletter also failed to spur me forward. I thanked folk for their kind words and sort of looked forward to writing the next newsletter.

Time went by. Actually quite a bit of time; until, sitting at my laptop one evening with the TV endlessly droning an idea came to me, followed by more.

Driving with my son in the car, there was a formula of sorts; name or thing, something unexpected , the weather, a color, a number. I had ten minutes to create a story which included each of the above.

As I was recollecting those driving moments a commercial came on the TV featuring a Santa Claus Christmas Special Program; suddenly, the first question was answered! Santa Claus was to be a major character!

What would Santa do? The unexpected of course! What was the unexpected? Things that he does when it isn’t Christmas. Without any idea I started writing, well, not writing as much as story-telling. Each sentence had no idea what the following sentence would say but there had to be ”flow.” No pausing, no hesitating.

I wrote until the first draft of the first “VISITS” story took some rough shape at that one sitting.

The story went through at least twenty revision drafts over a short period of time. I was writing for fun and enjoyment. Longer–term planning was not on the horizon. But, again without my realization, a second seed was poised and ready to arrive and be planted in a most unpredictable way.

One evening, as I sat before my laptop, looking for a change of pace, I decided to write a short letter to my cousin’s two young grandchildren in faraway London.

Dear Katie and Edward, my dear Cousins,
How are you both? Is school a lot of fun? What games do you play…

BORING! How could young children pay a moment’s attention to this weak effort? I started over, but, with a new idea.

Dear Katie and Edward,
It would be a funny thing wouldn’t it? Receiving a Christmas gift in summer! Bizarre in the opinion of some who claim they are Santa Claus experts.

And I might agree if my opinion had not been changed by a most unusual event.

How unusual? You decide and then let me know.

Every year as time gets close to Christmas, here in the Village of New Hope, at the end of our working days, nighttime becomes very cold and very dark.

Actually; pitch, pitch, dark and bitter, bitter, cold. That’s our mid-winter nights.
We like to stay inside.

(Here….. I spliced in my draft of the first “VISITS” story.}

Then I signed the letter and mailed it.

“We didn’t realize you had written this story until we saw you signed it,” My cousin told me ten days later. “You have to write more.” Another seed planted.

I was getting the message.

Several more identical letters were sent out to friends and relatives with young children. Each producing the same result.

A book outline was needed. It turned out to be simple. Santa Claus would be a major character but the book would not be about Christmas. I have no problem with Christmas but, honestly, look at the competition. The other major character must be in contrast to Santa and be an ordinary guy taken from his normal, quiet life.

Using the first story as a rough measurement the book would need to be four times bigger. In other words even before adding illustrations and such, I was less than 25% done.

Finally, there would be no structure; no plot. My writing is a story-telling conversation. Where it leads, it leads. It is made up as it goes along. Creativity is some-where in front.

This point about conversation, leads me back to the results of my mini-market research letter. The telephone responses were all from Grandparents and Parents. The hint to me was that the market for this children’s book may not be children at all, but to those who want to read to children.

The final question to be answered in my vague planning process would be how to increase the volume of the book by four times. The answer was waiting in the few words right below “Dear Katie and Edward.” Clearly winter was being described which left three additional seasons. Just what was needed, exactly the volume and nicely divided into four bed-time stories.

But, enough of the planning. Time to write.

I’ve heard and read about authors who, every morning, climb out of bed before the sun rises, pull out their old dusty typewriter, lock the door of a garden shed behind them and write with great discipline for hours; non-stop. Such discipline can, evidently, be a formula for success.

But it isn’t my formula. For years I have written for my own enjoyment. Very little of my writing has surfaced for others to see. I write when the feeling draws me, but in contrast there have been, and will continue to be, long periods of inactivity. Also, when I write, because it is for my enjoyment, I rewrite continuously. A sentence in a story may change many times; a paragraph, many more times; the story is in constant flux.

So, I was to attempt writing a book with no idea where this journey might lead. I was traveling a long, dark, misty road with an unknown destination.

I was to find, though, that I would eventually meet another traveler who would provide valuable direction.
The task of producing the next three stories commenced and I loved it! There were never any outlines. The conversation just started and flowed; rewrite after rewrite. Followed by some serious red ink courtesy of my wife’s admirably good skills developed and taught by twelve years with the Nuns at Saint Elizabeth’s. More of a blessing than I have ever earned!

The end of the writing was not a checkered flag, a referee’s whistle or anything else that signaled that the effort was complete. It was sort of a soft landing during in which edits became fewer and smaller.

It was finished.

A draft manuscript.

I had, now, to find a means of publishing. A chorus of voices sang “self publish!” So I identified a company which would do so. They are a very good outfit and very professional. I was told that if I was ready to publish they would help me along with small batch printing for me to sell.

There was a point in this process that I seemed to be missing. By definition I was the beginner, the amateur. Who was I to determine if my first book was ready to sell? Shouldn’t a professional do that, I wondered.

So I was stalled and still playing with drafts which, honestly, were starting to lose my interest a little.
The traveler who would provide direction arrived, almost as if planned!

My wife told me of her conversation with a local New Hope author named Jim McGinniss. Jim has most recently penned a delightful book named “Jimmie’s Other Glove.” He told my wife, quite seriously in fact, that I had to “get on with it” and start submitting manuscripts.

The very next day he brought to her a large envelope with an equally large hand-written note scrawled across it.
“David, go for it!”

Inside was a copy of his book.

I flipped the book open and it fell to the page with the publisher’s name.

Was it a sign? I could easily fool myself that it might be. But the fact is that I submitted my manuscript and in this world of stacked rejection letters, I signed a book contract three weeks later.

No matter how long you might think that the process will take from signing a contract to signing a finished book I’m willing to bet that your prediction will miss by a wide margin. The process at Tate, my publisher, starts with an Acquisition Editor who brings the original manuscript on board then passes off to a Content Editor. The Content Editor fixes grammar, punctuation, correct use of italics and bold print. I mentioned earlier that my wife is a superior writer who performed my final edits. This fact was underscored when the professionals found just two minor edits in the entire manuscript.

From this point forward silence reigned. The original projected completion date slipped by and there was little to no communication for more than two months. It was during this period that I started reminding myself all of this is just for fun.

I started my second book and brought to a point where the initial draft was about eighty percent complete. Then I stopped. I didn’t want the two books competing with each other.

Suddenly action! The manuscript was passed along to a Project Manager who would be in charge of illustrations, final layout, cover design and printing production.

I had chosen a style of illustration which would have the appearance of pencil sketches. It just felt right for this book. I was asked to furnish a written description of the books illustrations. There was some constructive dialog back and forth ending with a useful illustration list.

I was also asked to provide a written description of the three main characters for the benefit of the illustrators. Although I have had a mental picture of those characters I had never made any effort to describe them. So, I just allowed my thoughts to flow; it was an interesting exercise. When completed I sent the descriptions back to Tate and within a short period sketches of the characters were e-mailed back to me. Another lesson for the amateur author was about to materialize. One of the characters was not my liking.

Santa Claus is not a major player in this book but he is in a leading position. His sketch showed him to be a roly-poly, cuddly, loveable person. Not my image. I asked that he be changed to a big strong “Lumberjack” type who could pull trees out of the ground with his bare hands. This was just fine but my asking for this change put the book at the bottom end of the production schedule and the change in Santa’s appearance would cost a month in the schedule. However, I thought this was a worthwhile investment.

Here I observed the Tate illustrators at their finest! The three main characters were nailed exactly as I pictured them. The illustrators were not yet done. They moved straight ahead into cover design. The cover was approved at first glance. It captured the essence of the stories and the three friends in full color.

The next step was to produce a book layout.

Posted in The story behind the story