Art from The Jolly Regina, by the brilliant Jen Hill.
Ahoy, mateys, and Happy New Year! My holidays were peaceful and lovely — hope yours were, too. Believe it or not, I have another reason to celebrate — my first novel (!!!) debuts IN SIX DAYS. If you haven’t heard already, it’s called The Jolly Regina, and it’s the first in a trilogy for middle grade (8-12-year-old) readers called The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters.
I thought I might take the next few days to give you a little behind-the-scenes of the process of writing the book. Today’s entry concerns the stars of the production, the Bland Sisters themselves.
So, I have a sister, and we used to make books together; I wrote them and she illustrated them (she has since retired from the business). About ten years ago, we launched a series of books about two sock monkeys named Rocko and Spanky; they drove a motorcycle-with-sidecar and inhabited a very silly, kitschy, retro world, filled with all the things we loved. We were really proud of these books, so it came as a bit of shock when the reviews came out — one of the reviews of the first book in the series said that the illustrations were “bland.” Look inside the book here and tell me if you agree. (Hint: You won’t, because the illustrations are dynamic and hilarious, and my sister was/is a genius.) Getting a bad review is part of the life of an author or illustrator, so my sister and I eventually laughed about it and forgot about it and moved on.
About a year later, when the second book in the series came out, we got some good reviews. But we also got some not-so-great ones. One in particular stood out, because it came from the same aforementioned review journal, and because this review said that the narrative was “bland.” There was that word again! We were frustrated, because 1. It didn’t seem as if the reviewer (in either case) “got” the book at all, and 2. “Bland” is just about the worst insult you could lob at me or my writing. You’re not supposed to let the bad reviews bother you, but I have to admit, I was pretty angry. I sat down at my laptop. And then I did what I always do: I tried to find humor in it.
I started writing a little scene about “The Bland Sisters,” two girls named Jaundice and Kale who enjoy plain oatmeal and weak, tepid tea and cheese sandwiches on day-old bread, and who pass the time by darning other people’s socks and reading the dictionary to each other and watching the grass grow. It made me laugh, and then I shared it with my sister, and she laughed, too. My little writing exercise had served a purpose; that bomb of a review had been diffused. But then something unexpected happened.
Jaundice and Kale Bland had more to say. A LOT more. So I wrote another scene, in which there’s a knock at the door, and the Bland Sisters have to decide what to do. Of course, they open it. But then I had to decide what happened next; what would be the most unexpected development for two unassuming, homebody sisters?
Pirates. Of course, it would have to be pirates. But not just any pirates, my imagination (and feminist spirit) told me. It would have to be lady pirates.
Once the pirates appeared, the story really came to life. It was one of those rare and beautiful experiences where the writing just poured out of me. And it was So. Much. Fun. I think about that experience a lot, and I do all I can to recreate that feeling of “flow” when I’m writing now.
So I have to be thankful for bad reviews, in a way. They force me to consider my work from someone else’s (however flawed, ha ha!) point of view. They motivate me to do better next time. And they fill me with righteous indignation — which, in my case at least, is the ideal creative fuel.
- Like Jaundice and Kale, my sister’s name starts with a J, and mine starts with a K. (Bland Sisters illustrator Jen Hill’s name also starts with a J, yet another reason I am lucky to have her in my life.)
- I am a little bit like Kale, in that I can be a bit of a homebody. And I tend to part my hair on the side.
- I am not like Kale in that I HATE cleaning.
- My sister is very resourceful, which is why I gave Jaundice the smock with all the handy pockets.
- I’m not really a fan of cheese sandwiches — unless it’s grilled cheese, or, ideally, a croque monsieur or croque madame. Then you REALLY have my attention. But the Bland Sisters seem to love them, and so do Louie and Ralphie Ratso, the stars of my chapter book series, THE INFAMOUS RATSOS.
TOMORROW’S POST: More about dictionaries and the Bland Sisters’ loyal companion, Dr. Snoote!