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Help! The Writing Process
Part One: Help from Family, Critique Groups and SCBWI

by Amy Timberlake


I didn't even come up with the original story.

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See, "The Dirty Cowboy" was a true story supposedly reported by my great-grandfather (known in my family as Yi-Yi) in a newspaper called The Silver City Enterprise out of Silver City, New Mexico. As children, my grandfather (who we called ‘Papa') told my brother and I the story when we visited him in Arizona over the summer.

The story went something like this (and it was about this long):

A cowboy decided he needed a bath. Cowboys in those parts didn't bathe often and the cowboy was rather ripe. So this cowboy took his dog and went down to the river. At the river's bank, the cowboy left his clothes at his dog's feet and told the dog to ‘guard them.' When he'd had his bath, he came back to get his clothes. But that dog wouldn't let the cowboy near the clothing. The dog knew what he'd been told, and that cowboy didn't smell like his cowboy. So no matter what the cowboy did, the dog would not let the cowboy take those clothes. The story goes that the cowboy had to walk bare-naked all the way back home.

This was our favorite story. My brother and I loved that the cowboy walked home bare-naked across a desert. (Wisconsin, where we lived, had a lot more vegetation.) We asked for the story of "the dirty cowboy" again and again and again.

So first, I am indebted to my family for telling me the story.

"Fleas Don't Live in Hatbands": Family Feedback

When I decided I wanted to write a children's story, "The Dirty Cowboy" was the first story that came to mind. So I wrote it. Then I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. I remember trying to capture the same style of language that Papa used when he told the story. I also wanted the story to feel like New Mexico. And I added specifics (for instance describing the specific type of dirtiness encrusting the cowboy). Then I sent it to Papa to read. We lived in France at the time, and so it took a couple of weeks to get his airmail reply.

I should explain that Papa was cantankerous sometimes, so I was not surprised when he wrote back saying I had got the story all wrong. First off, he said the story was for adults, not for children, explaining that this was a true tale. (I never understood his reasoning here, but a person didn't argue with Papa's logic.) Then Papa told me that I did not have my facts straight. For instance, he wrote, "fleas don't live in hatbands." So I got rid of the fleas (and other factual imperfections), and thanked him for his input.

I also shared the story with my husband Phil. I am lucky because my husband happens to be a good reader of my work. He's not a writer (he's an actor) but Phil loves to read and has a deep understanding of humor and story. Over the six years from the story's conception (1997) to its final publication date (2003), Phil read draft after draft after draft of this story. Throughout this process, I specifically remember Phil helping me choreograph one of the dog's fights (we tugged a sweater in circles in the living room), and fine-tuning the timing of my jokes (he's a long time Warner Brothers fan). He also suggested that I needed to have the dog vocalize his apology near the end of the story. "You know," he said, "like a Scooby-Doo moment." Then he pursed his lips and said, "Whoorrug?" I transcribed what I heard. The fact that Adam Rex ended up illustrating the dog with those words in a cartoon bubble says it all.

Sample of the story from 1997

Anyway, in 1997, my husband, Phil, and I moved from France back to the States, and I sent "The Dirty Cowboy" off to a likely publisher found in the Children's Writers and Illustrators Market, and joined The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) because this is what the Market said I needed to do.

A Word About Critique Groups

Initially, I didn't take this story to a critique group. I know, I know, this goes against all the rules. But consider: I wrote "The Dirty Cowboy" while living in the southern France (with limited internet access). I don't speak French. Oh I tried, but let's just say my Wisconsin accent sat on the French language like a trained elephant sitting on a viola. So for nine months I mimed my way through the French countryside. I wasn't going to find a critique group in France.

After I got back to the States, I did seek out critique groups through SCBWI, which has regional chapters across the United States. Because we ended up moving several times during this period, I had trouble getting established with one critique group. But I did make friends – people who also struggled to write a children's book – and we supported one another. I cannot begin to number the times someone from SCBWI has helped me out by answering a question, emailing writing quotes, or sharing a story of how they solved the same situation or survived a similar bout of insecurity. Friends are always needed! (Visit www.scbwi.org for more information about this helpful organization.)

With critique groups, the writer always has to choose which suggestions to take. I've been in critique groups since high school and my experience with these groups are that suggestions flow freely (sometimes in an uncomfortable gush), but that not all suggestions are fruitful. For instance, I remember a critique session with "The Dirty Cowboy" where a man covered my manuscript in red ink in the time I took to read it out loud. (An accomplishment in itself – can you write that fast in longhand?) He handed my manuscript back saying he'd "corrected my story." When I read it later, I saw that he had wrung every bit of dialect out of each sentence and the result was prose as boring and dry as potato flakes. So I didn't bother to make any of his changes. Maybe I should say I chose not to make any of those changes.

Maybe it's the quantity of suggestions offered in critique groups that ensures that a few good ones, like Bakelite buttons at the bottom of a button tin, await discovery. I know I did make changes offered by these groups. If everyone agreed that something wasn't working or if someone I trusted suggested a change, I played with that text. Who knows where that led me? I only know that I need to thank these people as well.

But in France I had Phil, my reader. As time goes by I find that a good reader is a rarity. (There's a part of me that wants to put homing collars on these people and track them across the United States like an endangered species.) To me, a good reader is someone who understands me, as well as the writing. Phil knows my sense of humor (in fact, he shares an apartment with it). Sure, sometimes Phil knows how to fix things, but the biggest thing he does is point out where and when he gets confused. If Phil is confused somewhere, I haven't been clear. I nearly always believe him.

In essence, without my family telling me the story, fixing my facts, and reading draft after draft after draft, The Dirty Cowboy wouldn't be published. And what about all the questions and comments raised by critique groups? Or the support I got from SCBWI?

Think that's a lot of help? But wait, there's more. The ashamed bit of me wishes that this list would end now -- that at the some point during the course of this story I was able to produce the perfect manuscript all by myself, finally proving my genius. Alas, it was not to be.

Continue to: Part Two: Working with Publishers

Read about The Dirty Cowboy at Amazon.com

Copyright © 2005 by Amy Timberlake.

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