Teri Sloat: Packaging– A Story's Final And Most Important Phase?

So if you didn’t know who Stephen Sondheim was before I started blogging, you must have figured out he is somewhat of a hero to me. When I wrote my only musical, JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, (about an orphaned jazz musician named Jack, who meets the Beannick at the crossroads of life and falls into the underworld of game shows courtesy of a bean root…Root 66), Sondheim was the man I was told to study. He is not afraid of his own dark side, shameless puns, the underworld, and deep dark humor. (SWEENY TODD is my favorite, followed by INTO THE WOODS).

INTO THE WOODS is the product of re-packaging. The idea was created to be a TV special, not a play. It would have involved actors from well known comedies who run into each other in a series of evolving incidents. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine did not really want to WRITE the special…they just wanted to sell the idea to Norman Lear. (How often have I hinted the same desire …as a person with more ideas than will-power… to an editor!) The response they got from Norman Lear was admittedly well-deserved. He explained that he wasn’t interested in buying the idea, just in reading the script. That ended the conversation about the series (sadly, I’m sure). They had a gimmick, but not a story of substance.

A couple of years later, James repackaged the idea in the form of a Grimm’s fairy tale, replaced comedy actors with fairy tale characters and the dark symbol of the woods, and Stephen wrote lyrics). They kept their gimmick, and to some degree, their template for telling it, which is often what our stories start with, and created a deeper story for theater, not for TV. They re-packaged for the most suitable venue and audience that allowed them to get back that original tingle in the throat that came with their first gimmicky idea.

Off and on, I consult with writers waiting to be published, and often our biggest goal is to get past the gimmick and into the story, and what the story reflects about ourselves. When writers try to force their story into the wrong package, they often leave behind much of the excitement they started with.

Years ago, I wrote a folktale about how the animals got their spots and stripes… aboriginal peoples had found pots of paint behind their village and painted themselves. Dancing around the fire faster and faster, their spots and stripes flew off onto animals that had come to watch them. I had an anecdote, not a book length story, so I put it away. Laura Godwin, a wonderful editor from Holt, told me once that nothing is wasted, but I had no idea where this idea was going to go.

Not long after I read about a young girl, Maria, who, while her father was digging for artifacts in the caves at Altamira, discovered the famous bison cave paintings on the ceiling of the cave. I wanted to write a story about her…this nine year old and her father, on an outing that changed history in the mid-1800s. There was no information, and the story was that the discovery threatened the newest publication by church scholars that the world was only a few thousand years old. Her dad died of depression, not much was mentioned about Maria, so…not enough information for historical fiction or for a non-fiction picture book. I had to dig down to the essence of my fascination… the observant child in all of us and how threatened hierarchy and scholars can be by new information. But sadly, I had no package for either story.

So, in a lesser, but similar manner to Sondheim and Lapine, I found a new template…a new package, and wrote a parody to THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY. The book came out three years ago and is called THERE WAS AN OLD MAN WHO PAINTED THE SKY. It is a creation story in which the Old Man hands his paints to the people to continue painting their world. The story about how the animals got their spots and stripes takes up two pages of the story or song. So Laura was right…nothing is wasted. It just waits to get folded into, or to find, the right package. And, much like Sondheim and Lapine, I needed a new way to share my enthusiasm for what I had learned…a new story. The wonderful thing about being a speaker at conferences and schools is that I can share much of the non-fiction background that prompts my stories as I speak.

In my files I have over 70 stories waiting to be folded together…joke books needing the right form to be put together in or divided into, and space stories that are waiting to be connected to a deeper theme. Of course, there are those one or two I am holding out on to find the “right” publisher because I so believe in the package and it is just a tough sell right now.

Last weekend I did a keynote and two workshops for the Nevada Library Association. I was struck by the persistence of Marc Nobleman, who wrote the cross-over picture book, BOYS OF STEEL, The Creators of Superman. If I understood the facts right, the character of Superman was turned down by every single newspaper syndicate…who would read about a man who could fly, right? Marc was gracious enough to tell us that his book was rejected 33 times…who would be interested in the men who created Superman or in comic book heroes? You wouldn’t believe the book he is having a tough sell with now!

Also, Carl Deuker (GYM CANDY, NIGHT HOOPS, RUNNER) spoke about trying to write about things he really wasn’t fascinated with in order to try to become a writer for YA. As soon as he let himself be who he was and wrote about his interests, his career was launched and has been wonderfully successful. To get the real story go to their web-sites.

I would love to hear what some of your experiences have been. Alaska seems to be the home of some of the most versatile writers.

Teri Sloat has been writing and illustrating children’s books for almost twenty years, with over twenty trade books published with Dutton, Orchard, DK Ink, Holt, Putnam and Alaska Northwest Books. She has also worked as a freelancer in illustration and educational publishing and enjoyed a visiting professorship with Hollins University, teaching MFA students in Children’s Book Writing and Art. Her books have been awarded by the American Booksellers Association, the New York Times, the American Library Association, the Children’s Book Center, Sesame Street, and State Reading Associations. She lives with her husband, Bob, a very small farm in Sebastopol, CA. For more info go to www.terisloat.com and www.terisloat.blogspot.com

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