Happy Friday! Be sure to start the day at Gae’s blog for Friday Feedback. Give some feedback, get some ideas on your own work, and learn strategies for offering helpful, thoughtful critique!
Our guest author reflection here today is from Michelle Cusolito, whose debut picture book FLYING DEEP will be released in 2018. She’s sharing her journey with this book, along with some thoughts on following curiosity wherever it leads…
Curiosity: It’s good for Students, Teachers, and Writers
When I was teaching, if my students asked me a question I couldn’t answer I’d say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out!” This would sometimes send us on wild investigations together.
Now that I’m a writer, I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Most authors get some version of this question. For me, the answer is, “My curiosity.” I don’t subscribe the old saying, “Write what you know.” I prefer, “Write what you’re curious about.” Follow your curiosity. Follow your passions.
I’m primarily a non-fiction writer, but I believe the same applies to fiction writers. Most people write about topics they want to delve into more deeply; topics or themes they are curious about. Some folks investigate a theme by writing fictional stories in which main characters grapple with that theme. I mostly write non-fiction on the topics I love. My curiosity about the world drives me.
Let me give you some examples.
Back when I was teaching fourth grade, my friend introduced me to his friend Don. During the usual “get to know you” chit chat, I learned that Don used to pilot Alvin, a deep-sea submersible that dove to previously unheard of depths. The naturalist in me was fascinated by Don’s description of black smokers (underwater geysers blasting toxic hot water), clams as large as dinner plates and tube worms 6 feet tall.
But I was also fascinated by the people who would take on that job. How did they survive the crushing pressure two miles deep? How did Don, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, pretzel his frame into a sphere that was roughly 6 feet in diameter? How did they last down there all day without a toilet? I wanted to know more. I knew my fourth graders would be fascinated, too, so I invited Don to visit our classroom to tell stories and share pictures. We were mesmerized. We learned new and excited science (All food chains DO NOT start with the sun!) along with interesting tidbits about the lives of pilots and scientists who dive in Alvin (They pee in a bottle!) My lessons on ecosystems, food chains and the lives of scientists were forever changed by Don’s visit.
Flash forward many years. I was writing books for children. I had an agent, but we hadn’t sold anything, yet. I was still following my curiosity and writing books on topics that fascinated me. The manuscript that landed me my agent, a picture book titled Frog Frenzy, investigated the annual migration of wood frogs. I had spent four springs, out in the field, watching migration and taking notes. I researched in books and on-line. And once I had a manuscript that I felt good about, I consulted with one of the premier experts on the subject who fact-checked it for me. I spent five years researching, writing, and revising that manuscript. That’s a long time. But I never got bored with my subject. I loved what I was learning.
I have many other examples, but I’ll skip to the manuscript that will be my first published book: Flying Deep. It was November of 2014 and I had decided to participate in PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month). The goal of PiBoIdMo is to generate 30 picture book ideas in 30 days. I came up with 32, mostly terrible, ideas.
But one of my notes said, “Hydrothermal Vents- Scientists in the Field? NF, Don C, WHOI”
Write about “hydrothermal vents”- those black smokers I mentioned earlier.
Perhaps write it for the “Scientists in the Field”
“NF”-means it will be non-fiction (some of the ideas I listed were fiction).
“Don C” means try to interview Don-the pilot I mentioned earlier.
“WHOI”- means research on the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Website and visit WHOI.
On December 1, 2014, I was out for a walk. I normally carry a small notebook and pen on my walks, but on this day, I forgot. Of course, the first line of a picture book about Alvin popped into my head.
“Imagine you’re the pilot of Alvin, a submersible barely big enough for two.” I recited that line over and over in my head, afraid I would lose it before I got home. But then I realized I had a new-fangled tool in my pocket: a smart phone with a “Notes” app. I sat down to type that first sentence and more came flooding in. I typed wildly with one finger, trying to capture everything. Thirty minutes and 500 words later, I looked up.
I had a first draft. A terrible, inaccurate and wonderful first draft. There were so many gaps and errors in my knowledge (Alvin fits 3 people, for example). BUT I had a structure and I knew how my book would flow. All I needed to do was complete enough research to write it.
I called Don and interviewed him over the course of about 4 hours.
I read every book I could find- both kids’ books and adult books. (Turns out, there was already a
Scientists in the Field Book on the topic, but it didn’t matter. My approach was different).
I watched films.
I scoured the WHOI and NOAA websites (Two reputable, reliable on-line sources).
Through all of this, I revised, researched more when my knowledge fell short, and revised again. By the time I visited WHOI to see their model of Alvin, I had a pretty solid working manuscript. Then I was connected with Bruce Strickrott, Manager of the Alvin Group. He talked to me for more than 3 hours during August of 2015 and took me inside Alvin. I left both energized and aware of places my manuscript was inaccurate. I revised again. The revisions and research would continue all through the fall of 2015.
In February of 2016, 1 year and 3 months after my original idea, I received an offer on my book. But I’m still not done. Just a few hours ago, (I’m writing this in mid-May) I sent Flying Deep to my critique group so they can read the latest version which includes changes based on notes from my editor. There will be several more rounds before the text is complete.
Start to finish, this book (700 words plus back matter) will have taken me nearly two years to complete. And that’s less than half as long as Frog Frenzy and many other manuscripts I’ve written. Despite that, I’m still not bored with the topic. Why? I am infinitely curious about the natural world and people who study it.
So, how does this apply to you, dear teachers, who are writing with us this summer? I encourage you to sit with your notebook or laptop right now and make a list. What are the topics you love? What are your passions? What fascinates you? Challenges you? Intrigues you? What puzzles you or bothers you? Write quickly. Get everything down.
Then, examine your list. What ideas tug at you the most? Which topics can you imagine exploring for the next month or two or twenty-two? Ponder them for a moment. If something comes to you right away, like when I was walking, write it down. If not, take a bath. Take a walk. Take a shower. Go for a bike ride. Stare into space and let your mind wander. No matter what you do, bring a notebook and pen so you can write down whatever comes to you. Write a terrible, (possibly) inaccurate and wonderful first draft.
Get it down in all its messiness. Read it.
What tugs at you now? Follow your passions and write more.