The Trouble with Tinkering

The Trouble with Tinkering

by Mike Allegra, TWC Instructor

Years ago, I wrote and edited for an alumni magazine called The Lawrentian, a job that allowed me to meet a lot of fascinating people. One such person was Ken Hakuta, the inventor of The Wacky Wallwalker—a sticky, octopus-ish thing that could be found on the bottom of just about every box of cereal that was sold in the 1980s. It was one of the most popular toys of the decade and earned Hakuta a fortune as well as the nickname Dr. Fad.

The way you played with The Wacky Wallwalker was simplicity itself. All you had to do was hurl it up against a wall. There it would stick for a moment or two before gravity would take hold and make the thing drunkenly crawl down the vertical surface to the floor below.

That was what it was supposed to do, anyway. Sometimes it just fell on the floor with an almost-but-not-quite-gross-sounding “plopple.”

Moms hated The Wacky Wallwalker because they assumed it would leave a slimy snail trail. It never did, but their suspicions were never entirely allayed. This made playing with the toy almost naughty, really, as it encouraged you to invent parent-pestering games. (“How many times can I throw this thing against the wall before Mom threatens to take it away?”) And if you pestered Mom to the point where she did take it away, so what? All you had to do was open another box of cereal to get a new one.

Anyway, Hakuta wrote a playful article for the magazine titled, “How to Create the Next Big Thing,” where he provided some advice for aspiring fad-creators. Aspiring writers, however, should also take note of one of his nuggets of wisdom:

Get a Move On: One of the things I hear most when I’m talking to would-be fadmakers is that old lament, “As soon as I’ve gotten my gizmo just a little better (a little cuter, a little shinier, a little uglier, a little bouncier), then I’ll be ready.” Often tinkering is symptom of birth pangs, a fear of letting your baby out of the garage. You’re wasting time.

I have earned my keep through writing and editing for more than two decades. During that time, I have seen and worked with many writers who endlessly tinker with their prose. Some fixate on details, rewording the same sentences over and over again. Others take perfectly fine ideas that are developing well, and perform the writing equivalent of a tear down; they scrap everything and start over for reasons that are inexplicable—even to them.

Both of the above examples illustrate procrastination in action—an especially insidious kind, for it cleverly disguises itself as “working.” Procrastination isn’t only about watching capybara videos on YouTube, it’s also in evidence when you spend lots of time fixing things that don’t need fixing.

Don’t get me wrong. Rewriting is every bit as important as writing, and every writer needs to do a lot of it. That being said, you also need to periodically ask yourself if your endless tweaks or tear downs are necessary or if they are just a tactic to avoid sending your work out to be scrutinized by editors.

Being judged can be very hard—especially if you spend a particularly long time crafting and honing a piece of writing that’s personally important to you. The longer you mess with your story, however, the easier it is to keep hanging onto it in order to make it “just a little better.” It’s a vicious cycle, really; the longer you keep your story, the harder it is to let it go. The longer you keep it, the more painful the rejections will be when they start to arrive.

But, like rewriting, rejection is also a huge part of the writing process. It’s gonna happen no matter how good you are. So, yes, rewrite. Make the work shine. But don’t forget to also get the work out there. Throw it up against a wall; maybe it’ll stick, and maybe it will hit the ground with a disappointing “plopple,” but you’ll never know if you don’t let it go.


TWC Instructor Mike Allegra‘s new picture book, Sleepy Happy Capy Cuddles was published by Page Street in October 2022. He is now at work putting the finishing touches on two other picture books for Page Street: Pirate and Penguin (2023) and Pirate and Penguin: 2 Few Crew (2024).