The hero is forged on a journey that follows three different categories. The first part of the journey is separation. It starts with a call, an internal beckoning to proceed along the unrealized yet destined path. This self-reflecting dichotomy, an internal struggle to discern the legitimacy of what is being asked, is the beginning of the destruction of the old self. Once the call is answered, a purification will ensue through the second stage of rediscovery. A series of trials and tribulations will cleanse the hero of his/her restrictions with the hope that he or she will shed the ultimate limitation: the ego. With the ego in their rear view mirror, it is time to return to the land once called home with your new self to share the enlightenment that comes with one who has embarked on a successful heroic journey. Leading by example, the hero will be a lighthouse for all who come to follow.
Now Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero of a Thousand Faces is an inspiring and well written treatise of comparative mythology. I am glad I have embarked on the journey of reading this book for the path of my own arc however let’s apply this to Forgetful Jerry. Forgetful Jerry loses his winter stash and enters into a dark stage of helplessness. Unsure of what to do, he runs out of the house. Here we see a point of separation from society however it is not really a call to purification but rather a knowledge that he is cooked come winter time without any acorns. His motive of separation is a correlation of his desperation. The next step though is compatible with the arc of the hero as Jerry has a meeting with a guardian of the threshold. Jim the Badger is an unlikely source but every hero has to find some spiritual guidance from the most strangest of conduits. Once the adventure begins, Jerry has a serendipitous meeting with Steve the Skunk, another unlikely although comparable guardian, to accompany him on his path. Think Han Solo from Star Wars or Harry from Dumb and Dumber. The two of them overcome rough terrain and a shaky memory to finally find the winter stash in the able hands of Hambone. Cue the lesson, the spiritual transcendent nugget of wisdom that friends sure are important in this world. This is where our story ends, as Jerry’s return to society is more a relief that he won’t starve this winter rather than enlightenment of an internal transcendence.
Besides the arc of Jerry, another critique was the length of the manuscript. Already too long, one can argue that Jerry embarks on 1 and a half of the steps in the hero’s journey. How does one include a lifetime of the molding of a character in less than 500 words? 500 words to depict Jerry’s unique journey into a stone as common and rugged as the rest of us? 500 words to display the same concepts yet in different format as the Illiad, Arabian Nights or the story of Jesus? 500 words and not one children’s book I have read since this critique remotely follows the path of the hero? I don’t know man. Maybe I am looking too much into this.
With a few more rejections and a lot of non-responses, we needed to try something different. The few friends and family who have read our manuscripts were saying it was brilliant but they might be biased. Perhaps we needed to talk to some strangers? With this notion, Bill and I attended a critique group for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCWBI) last week. It was held in the parish room of a community church west of Denver. It was a potluck and for the first half of the get together future authors munched on homemade goods as the speaker reviewed some important vocabulary in the literary world. In alphabetical order, a woman, who had at least one published book, expanded on concepts like archetype, beta reader, causality, emotional layering, as she slowly calibrated the untrained mind to talk the talk. After the lecture, we split up into 3 critique groups; two groups for children’s picture books and one for young adult. Bill took Forgetful Jerry to his group while I used Thomas Peters. We spent an hour critiquing each other’s books, following the etiquette of first offering what you like before suggesting what you don’t. When we finally debriefed, both books were received well in terms of how they were written, both were engaging, neither were deemed preachy however both Forgetful Jerry and Thomas Peters do not solve their own problems. They do not follow the arc of the hero and this was a literary rule not to be compromised. But why? I asked. Why must they follow the hero’s journey? Does everyone solve their own problems? The answer seemed a little more complicated than those critiquing could explain. We all follow our own hero’s arc in the course of our life, which is the common thread to which we can all relate. Their explanation came across as a formula for success, more popping a TV dinner in the microwave than making a home cooked meal. Yet I don’t know much about the hero’s journey except for a vague notion of a path embattled with trial and redemption. It would be silly to rely on other’s to define the arc of the hero because then I would not be solving my own problems. I’ve come across Joseph Campbell, the well known professor of comparative mythology at Sarah Lawrence College and have listened to him explain this journey in a series of interviews with Bill Moyer. I took out the Hero with a Thousand Faces from the local library, the seminal work on the hero’s journey. Hopefully this book will shed some light on why a squirrel who loses his nuts or a boy bogged down by others must be redeemed by the arc of their own heroic journey and not through the help of others.
Hiding amongst the superfluous was an email from an agent. A real email, not an automatic one after a submission. Her biography said she would get back to me by eight weeks and now, here we are. I tilted my head at it, intrigued by it’s presence. Ed never got back to me after his promised eight weeks. The mouse suspended over the email subject line before I clicked it. I read the email.
Thanks so much for thinking of me, but this one’s just not quite right for my list. Due to a very full workload, I have to be extremely selective about pursuing new projects.
Please know that this is a very subjective business and that tastes range widely among agents. Someone else may feel very differently—you deserve someone who is passionate about your work and is confident about their ability to position it.
Best of luck with this, and thank you so much for thinking of me.
I laughed. So this is a rejection letter? I didn’t have any expectations this moment, but I definitely did not foresee such a graceful exit. “So what you are saying is it’s not you Ryan, it’s me,” I said out loud into the silence. Good to know.
As we step back from Leonard for a time to focus our efforts on other writing projects, it’s necessary to have this space from Leonard. Despite our best efforts, the story we were chasing isn’t there and we are left with a pile of mismatched puzzle pieces. We can still make something out of it. But I can’t see what it is supposed to be. It could take on a different form from what we were expecting. Perhaps, it exists as a short story in its final form. Perhaps, it becomes a story inspired by real events. There is something to be said with Leonard. And it isn’t simply because of the time and resources invested in his story. It can still become something. Something new. There is still a story that wants to be told, but we have to wait. Stay patient and focused, allowing the story to gestate until it is ready to show itself to us. This seems to be the writing process for me. There is a pile of half baked scraps lying about. Some are roughly sketched out, still unsure of how to build something. Some are still barely ideas. This is the long road. There are no shortcuts to be found. This past year has taught me to keep the point of all this in mind. There is a point to all this. We have something that we feel needs to be shared and that this will give us a platform to build something meaningful in the world. This is where we are going. If I loose sight of those two truths, this would become unbearable as we often seem to be standing still despite all our work. As I sit, watching these ideas take shape, I can sit contentedly knowing it is all going somewhere. I’m just not sure where.
This whole children’s book pursuit escalated from a phone call. I had what I thought to be a final draft of my manuscript and started calling publishers. It was naïve in a way to call them directly but I was new at the game. By the third call, I was talking to a real person. She was a receptionist at Brown Books in Dallas, Texas and asked me what type of book I will be submitting. “Uh Children’s”, I responded most eloquently. She forwarded me to the head of the children’s book division. After ten nervous rings, I left a nervous voicemail. Over the course of the next few days, I replayed that message over and over in my head wondering if I lost the moment. Then, on a frosty Denver morning, that number appears on my phone. I was just about to walk in to work but quickly shot down the stair well to answer her call. After an awkward introduction, we talked about my book and she gave me the spiel on Brown Books. It’s different than most publishers because the author obtains all the rights. The author pays up front for all the costs of creating the book, however they are still very selective in who they choose to publish. It kind of ended there and she said I should submit my book to her via email. I was too excited to think of anything else as I walked back to work. This is awesome.
I heard back from her after a week. She laid out both the good and the bad. She told me I needed to work on character development but the rhythm of the story works. One minute I was the next Mother Goose, the next just another first draft. I furiously took notes and, after all the pros and cons, it was time for the haymaker. “With all that said,” she replied ending with a subtle yet dramatic pause, ” We want to publish your book.” I was pumped. This was my first submission and it’s going to be published by a seemingly legit publisher. No way universe. She asked if I was interested, I said yes, and then she told me the number. This was the number that traditional publishers invest prior to making a profit, the number that reflects the cost of publishing a book, and the reason why the author only receives a percentage of the sales after publishing a manuscript. A total of 24,000 dollars was to be paid in two installments over the course of 6 months to create a completed, illustrated children’s book. Well there goes that one. I tired to talk about it further but ended the conversation that I needed to think about it. Not that I could generate 24 grand in a week, but I was starting to get a little frustrated on the phone. After I hung up, I went from anger to despondent as this runaway train came to a grinding stop. But then, after some time to think, I realized that this isn’t so bad. It was my first submission and it could have been published. Twenty-four thousand dollars is a lot of money and I can’t be frustrated that I don’t have that lying around to pursue this dream of mine. There are other ways to do this, and after talking with her, those are the ways that must be pursued. With a little editing and a heavy dose of persistence, there has to be someone else out there who wants to publish it. There has to be and maybe they have a lower down payment.
It has been a while since I thought of this conversation but last night, I received a follow up email from the head of the Children’s Department at Brown Books. I was nice to feel wanted again, as I have yet to hear back from any agents on my current manuscript. It was a morale boost as well to exchange emails with a publisher, even if I have to pay for the service. She was checking in to see if I was still interested in publishing my book. Yes, ma’am I am still highly motivated to publish my book. Did you lower the price? We’ll see what she says.