TWC Instructor Mike Allegra talks about why writing crap can be a good thing.
Sometimes I need to get a weird idea out of my system. That’s why my picture book manuscript, Momma No-Nose, exists.
Momma No-Nose is the poignant tale of a mom who, through a series of mishaps, gets her nose bitten off by a wild donkey. Self-conscious of her newfound noselessness, Mom refuses to leave the house and soon falls into a deep depression. Fortunately, salvation arrives in the form of her artistic son, who sculpts her a series of beautiful proboscises out of Play-Doh. As the story arrives at its happy conclusion, Mom becomes the stylish talk of the town and her son finds fame and fortune as celebrated fashion designer (with a specialty in nose décor).
Before I go on, let me make something clear: Momma No-Nose is a terrible story. It is a terrible idea, terribly executed. It might not be the worst thing I have ever written, but it’s close. If you were overly charitable, I suppose you could say No-Nose is a celebration of the artistic spirit. But there are a lot of picture book out there that celebrate the artistic spirit far more effectively than No-Nose—and none of those books feature “funny” facial disfigurements.
Momma No-Nose begs a certain question and that question is “Who?” As in “Who on Earth would want to read this stupid story?”
I can answer that question. Momma No-Nose was written for a niche audience of three: my wife, Ellen; my son, Alex; and me.
No-Nose was “inspired by true events.” Years ago, Ellen, the Donkey Whisperer in our household, almost got face bitten by an ornery donkey. The attack was both surprising and hilarious. Very hilarious. In fact, it was so hilarious I laughed about it pretty much nonstop for the next month.
It wasn’t long before No-Nose began to take shape in my mind. When it did, I laughed some more. We all did. Ellen, Alex, and I would throw story ideas around the dinner table and laugh like crazy until someone inevitably choked on his mashed potatoes.
I decided to put the story down on paper. I wrote a draft. Then I rewrote it. Then I rewrote it again. And with every rewrite I launched into a brand-new wave of giggles.
But as I endlessly tweaked and revised the No-Nose manuscript, a niggling, nagging question started to form in the back of my brain. It was a “why” question, and it wasn’t so easy for me to answer.
Why, my brain asked, are you wasting your time on this crap?
When I was working on No-Nose, I had only one published book to my name, a picture book biography titled Sarah Gives Thanks. It took me four years of hard work and over 100 rejections to get that book deal, but it was well worth it. I loved that book. Seeing it on shelves was the proudest moment of my professional life.
Like most writers, I wanted to follow this proud moment with another proud moment. I wanted to sell A Second Book. I figured selling A Second Book would be easier than selling the first one. After all, I was no longer an aspiring picture book writer, I was an actual picture book writer with an actual book! I paid my dues. I’m in the club. Surely that would grease the wheels, right?
So I wrote a new picture book biography. It didn’t sell. I wrote another picture book biography. That one didn’t sell either. I delved into fiction. I sweated and labored over all of these manuscripts, but still no takers. Finding a home for A Second Book was turning out to be a lot more difficult than I had thought. Months turned into years. No nibbles. No interest. Nothing.
Little by little, a kind of desperation had begun to take hold in my mind. Would I ever have A Second Book? I wondered. I began to second guess my understanding of the marketplace. What do readers want? What do editors want? What do agents want?
I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything.
The only thing I did know was that Momma No-Nose would never be My Second Book, because Momma No-Nose was objectively terrible. I knew this. And yet, beyond all reason, I kept working on it.
And that brought me back to my “why” question. Why was I writing this crap? Why was I writing a manuscript that no one would ever want?
I puzzled over this question for a long time.
I puzzled over it while I wrote new drafts of Momma No-Nose.
And as I wrote those new drafts, I laughed.
And there was the answer to my “why.”
I was writing No-Nose because No-Nose was fun. I needed a little more fun at that point in my career. All of the manuscripts I had toiled over in the years following Sarah Gives Thanks, were sweaty, grueling experiences. Each story was crafted with the goal of pleasing an editor or an agent or to appease the Marketing Trend Gods. I was so busy trying to get others to love my work, I ignored my own needs.
I needed to love my stories, too.
Yes, Momma No-Nose sucked. But I loved it. It was not a waste of time. It was necessary. It changed my attitude. It reminded me why I started writing in the first place.
I eventually did get A Second Book published (a story almost as silly as No-Nose titled Everybody’s Favorite Book). In May 2023, book number 17 will hit shelves.
I also continue to write weird, unpublishable stories just for me. I have to. They loosen me up. They inspire me. They keep my creative spirit alive.
And, boy, do they make me laugh.