A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
A Lesson in Frustration
This coming June, my latest adult nonfiction book, Fizzle: The Hidden Forces Crushing Your Creativity (https://amzn.to/39zTatI), will be released. In advance of its publication, my publisher asked me to prepare a YouTube video that would help promote the book to sales reps and bookstores. And so, I contacted a former student and “hired” both she and her four-year-old daughter as actors for a short 67-second video.
As the videographer set up his cameras and laid out his equipment, the young girl pulled several playthings from her toy box. Included was an extensive set of building blocks. As the camera began rolling, she began to build a tower of blocks. It quickly collapsed. Without missing a beat, she reassembled the tower into a new formation that also toppled over. There was no frustration, no anger, and no “this will never work” attitude. She simply began again, and on the third try, she created a multicolored tower that stood proud and tall. The smile on her face was enormous.
The second part of the video features the young girl’s mother engaged in a writing activity we have all experienced throughout our professional careers. It is something both you and I can easily relate to: total and complete frustration over a manuscript that just doesn’t work! The reaction of my former student conveys an emotion we have all felt and one we’ve all expressed. Watch the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ft9qFv98zR0) and you’ll see something quite familiar.
I’m sure you’ve been so frustrated with a manuscript that you wanted to set it aflame, toss it in the garbage, or flush it down the toilet. Yeah, me too! As authors, we often start out with the best of ideas and the best of intentions; and wind up with something that is pure and simple trash. We shout at it, we scream at it, we throw it up in the air with an air of disgust that frightens small animals and strikes fear into our neighbors. We’ve created some garbage!
But, let’s look at that “garbage” as a four-year-old might. Maybe that manuscript is the beginning of something we had never considered before. Perhaps it hides the germ of a new idea that was not on our radar. It may be a spark that leads us in a completely different direction. It may be a beginning rather than “The End.”
One of my all-time best-selling children’s books, Desert Night, Desert Day (https://amzn.to/33bByCd), began as a clear and complete lesson in frustration. I wanted to focus on the nocturnal and diurnal creatures of the Sonoran Desert, but my first draft looked like something excerpted from a bad Wikipedia entry. It was dry, dull, and completely devoid of emotion. I had done my initial research, framed all the creatures in appropriate verbiage, and created all the necessary background information in myriad sentences. But, that initial draft was bad . . . I mean, really, really bad!
And, so, I decided to rebuild. I searched through the detritus of that manuscript until I found two words—yup, just two words—in that initial draft that could be used to create something entirely new. The two words (“dancing” and “fluffy”) conveyed an intimacy with my intended audience (preschool to Grade 2) . . . a connection that was considerably less cerebral than what I had originally conjured. In short, I saw those words as potential building blocks for a book that engaged prospective readers rather than simply informing them.
The two words, rescued from the ashes of the original manuscript, set me off on a new direction, a different tangent, and a sparkling new journey of discovery and involvement. What resulted was a poetic tribute to some unique critters in an equally unique ecosystem. Here are the first two verses of that book:
Full moon bright.
Above the ground—
Years later, a plethora of five-star reviews and some very impressive sales figures told me I had made a good choice! So, here’s my lesson: When I get frustrated with a manuscript, I try not to get frustrated with every word. Somewhere in all that “garbage” there may be one or two words (or one or two sentences) that that can be rescued and used to construct a changed story . . . a completely different conception that will impress a child, a classroom of children, or perhaps a national audience!
A retired professor of education and resident of York, PA, Tony (www.anthonydfredericks.com) is an award-winning writer of more than 50 children’s books. He is also the author of the best-selling Writing Children’s Books: Everything You Need to Know from Story Creation to Getting Published (https://amzn.to/2TN52Sp).
Thank you for your wise words! A few weeks ago I was in Phoenix and saw Desert Night Desert Day in the gift shop at the botanical garden there. It’s a beautiful book!