My Neurotic Picture Book, Mark Karlins

Manuscripts, The Monk of Pizza, Dust

I was looking through a stack of my picture book manuscripts, trying to decide which, if any, to work on. I found one from about five or six years ago which I had been fond of, and which my editor at the publishing house had also liked, that is, before leaving for another job. Had my manuscript been so awful that I had driven her out of publishing?  In fact, driven this excellent editor out of New York itself, a city in which, she had boasted, she had located the best local pizza parlor, a six table joint in the West Village. Given that, according to Trip Advisor, NYC has 10,867 places to order pizza, my editor’s find was no small accomplishment. (I would, however, dispute her choice, favoring Di Fara on Avenue J in Brooklyn, run by the legendary Don DeMarco. Only three tables, ridiculously long lines, owing in part to the Don’s slow method of creating a pizza (he’s as concentrated as a monk working on an illuminated manuscript), but well worth the wait.) Anyway, my editor was gone. The manuscript was on hold until another editor could take over. My own interest in solving the book’s issues dwindled. It wound up on my bookshelf until a couple of days ago. With a tissue, I wiped off the dust.

I had hoped its quality would be better. But reading it, all sorts of problems became apparent. It was as unfocused as the above paragraph about manuscripts, editors and pizza. Certainly the manuscript was rich with ideas, but it had too many ingredients. It was going too many different ways at once — the more I had worked on it, both alone and with the editor, the more scattered it had become. Sure, it was inventive. But it felt restless, apprehensive, insatiable. It had no center. It was, in short, neurotic.

Colorful and spontaneous, it wasn’t a bad first draft; but it had never matured and made its way out of that stage. Lots of cutting was required. More than that, a central identity was missing. I don’t know if picture books need to be more focused than other types of writing, but I suspect they do, partly because of the brevity of the form. Many of the best picture books have a mathematical elegance to them.

A Note from My Editor

“As promised, here are the notes from our editorial meeting yesterday. Basically, everyone said some variation on this theme: ‘there’s too much going on in this story.’ Right now, the story is trying to balance:

the main character’s need for adventure

Hey Diddle Diddle

Nursery Rhymes in general


Don’t ask. Wanadoos? Hey Diddle Diddle? This is what my kind editor called “Karlins’s ridiculously creative mind.” Ridiculous indeed.

My Book Picks Up Its Suitcase and Takes to The Road of Self-Actualization

My poor neurotic picture book needed to be put on the road to self-actualization. With my faulty memory of some psychology books I had long ago read — and with the enormous help of Wikipedia, a source I like but also have some arguments with — I found this early definition: “[self-actualization] is the organism’s master motive, the only real motive. . . . The tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is the basic drive. . . .” A little later in the history of the term, we get to Maslow, seeing self-actualization as “intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately of what is the organism itself. . . .” If we translate this from psychology to writing, or, for that matter, to any creative activity, is there a better description of the process which brings a work to its own fulfillment? The growth of what is already intrinsic to the organism, its center, its essence.

My manuscript needed to find its overarching purpose, in order to become its best self. I found this purpose buried beneath all the events and language I’d created. The story which was asking to be written was actually quite simple. The main character wanted to go on an adventure in order to show her friends that she was capable of taking extraordinary actions and didn’t need to live within prescribed limits. Hopefully, the story is more interesting than that sounds, but that is the story’s governing principle. So, the need for adventure stays, but the Hey Diddle Diddle, the nursery rhymes in general, the Wanadoos, all the extras are gone. It is now, I hope, a better story. It is also, as far as I can tell, the story it needed to become.

1 Comment

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  1. Mark, I so enjoyed reading and pondering this. Faulkner advised us to “kill our darlings” and you urge us to wrangle our Wanadoos. Ha, I know I have more than a few Wanadoos running loose in my pb manuscripts and probably some Hey Diddle Diddles, too. 🙂

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