Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: Update, Featuring First 5 Paragraphs of the Book!

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeI haven’t blogged about the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss for a while because I’ve been waiting.  I sent in the latest version of the manuscript back on the first of the year; my editor finally read it in late March, and sent it out to a reader.  I received the reader’s report this past week.

The good news for those of you (yes, both of you!) interested in the book is that I will be blogging more about it — and thus, you’ll learn a bit more about Johnson and Krauss.  The bad news is that the goal posts keep receding into the distance.  I’m no longer certain that this book will appear in April 2012 (as planned).  At times, I doubt whether it will appear at all.

If you were following the (admittedly dry) chronicles of the revision process this past fall, you may recall that my editor suggested that I restructure the early chapters.  Until the point that Johnson and Krauss meet, I had one chapter on her, then one on him, and so on; after they meet, they share chapters.  He found the alternating-chapter approach flawed: “I don’t think it works.  In fact, I think the opposite reaction occurs — by jumping between the two narratives, the manuscript becomes too fragmented and we lose sight of one of the protagonists for so long that it’s difficult to stay invested in either of them.”  So, I followed his suggestion.  Instead of alternating chapters, I rewrote so that each chapter focused on both protagonists.

The reader for this new version writes, “Nel should not alternate the two lives paragraph by paragraph. The structure is disastrous.”  (I don’t in fact alternate paragraph by paragraph — generally, there are 3-7 paragraphs at a time on each person.)  Instead, the reader suggests, I should devote one chapter to one person, and then one to the other up until the point that they meet.  My editor writes that he “agrees with the reader,” and advises me to do the revisions.  So, now I’ll be reverting to the earlier structure.  Despite the unacknowledged irony, this isn’t all bad: in the process of rewriting during the fall, I was able to cut a lot and make what remained stronger.  I will strive for similar results here.

The bigger problem for me is cutting.  In the last revision, I cut 10,000 words.  Should I manage to cut another 10,000, I still won’t have this down to the 100,000-word length the press wants.  I cannot see how to get it down to that length.  I’ve cut nearly everything that I’ve been asked to cut, but … I’ve also been left to do a lot of this on my own.  And it’s not always clear to me what needs to go.  If I’m editing literary criticism, I just trim the less strong arguments, remove the weaker examples.  In editing a biography, I have a harder time figuring out which life events are less significant.  To give credit where it’s due, I have been grateful for my editor’s advice on the first 100 pages, and have tried to apply his logic of cutting to the rest of the manuscript (apparently without success).

I’m aware of my limits as a writer, storyteller, biographer.  I know I’m not a gifted prose stylist.  For these reasons, I’m of course grateful for editorial advice.  Also, I want to make the book the best possible book that it can be.  So, inasmuch as the criticism helps, I’m in favor of it.  But, at a certain point, I feel like I’m bashing my head against a wall.  Or maybe against a manuscript.  Against something big and solid, certainly.

For instance, referring to my manuscript, the latest reader says, “The beginning is terrible.”  Is it?  Here’s the beginning.  Judge for yourself:

One Friday in August 1950, an FBI agent knocked on their front door.

Crockett Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss were living in Rowayton, a small coastal community of Norwalk, Connecticut.  He was writing Barnaby (1942-1952), that epitome of the thinking person’s comic strip.  She was gathering material for what would become A Hole Is to Dig (1952), the children’s classic that launched the career of Maurice Sendak (creator of Where the Wild Things Are).

When the FBI knocked, Johnson opened the door, and stepped onto the porch, where he and the agent talked.  Unseen by Johnson, a second agent snapped a photograph. Between April of 1950 and May of 1955, the FBI watched Johnson, his bank account, his mail, and his phone.  Lists of transactions, correspondents, and callers all appear in his 114-page FBI file.

The FBI also began to investigate Krauss.  Agents checked into whether either she or Johnson had applied for a passport to travel abroad.  They read her mail.  They interviewed the manager of the Baltimore apartment building where her mother lived.

During this same period, Sendak was spending weekends at the home of Johnson and Krauss, illustrating some of her best-known books, including the Caldecott Honor-winning A Very Special House (1953).  And Crockett Johnson began writing his best-known book, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955).  Situated at the intersection of art, politics, and commerce, the lives of Krauss and Johnson lead us into a lost chapter in the histories of children’s books, comics, and the American Left.

Yes, I’m no Neil Gaiman, but I would question “terrible” as a fair assessment for the above.  I realize that you’re seeing only the very beginning of the intro (I suspect that showing more would displease the publisher), but what do you think?

Anyway, as I undertake the eighth revision, I’ll post some more cuts up here on the blog.  Hope you enjoy ’em!

15 Comments »

  1. jules Said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 8:43 am

    I’m with your FB friend, Roger. Hardly terrible. I think that’s a great opening hook. Best of luck with your revisions. That is hardly helpful, I’m sure, but the book *will* get done, and it’ll be fascinating. For what it’s worth, we children’s lit aficionados are thrilled you’re writing it.

  2. Ashley Nunn-Smith Said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    Definitely not terrible. What sounds terrible to me is how you revised the entire format from chapter to chapter to integrated at your editor’s suggestion, only to have the reader (and editor agree!) that it should be by chapter. How noble of you to find the silver lining and say that the revision process helped you hone what you had written. My attitude might have been less generous in light of this wall (or manuscript) bashing inducing run about.

    But don’t undercut yourself, either. There are definitely more than two people interested in this biography. When (not if) you get through to the end, we will be waiting!

  3. Michelle Markel Said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 9:48 am

    This is a dramatic opening. I’d like to know what specific flaws the reader finds in it, what makes it “terrible.” You can’t please everybody, and you wouldn’t want to. I, for one, can’t wait to read the book.

  4. Sheralyn Barnes Said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 10:23 am

    You’ve intrigued me. I want to know more. I really hope that you publish this book. I want to read it!

  5. Deborah Freedman Said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    Ok, now there are at least five people who want to read this book. I agree, great hook!

    I seem to remember Deb Heiligman talking or writing somewhere something really interesting about how she chose which material to use in CHARLES AND EMMA. Anyway, revisions are exhausting but worth it. Hang in there!

  6. Libby Said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 11:23 am

    I agree that it’s a great hook, and I’m wondering if there’s a longer “beginning” that the reader is referring to, or something else that none of your terrific readers here are seeing.

  7. Libby Said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 11:23 am

    THe above is not meant to say that the reader must obviously be right. I’m just wondering what such a reader would deem “terrible” and why…

  8. Philip Nel Said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for your kind words and your support. As you might’ve discerned, I need it!

    Libby, well, there is one thing prior to the intro, and that’s the epigraph (each chapter has an epigraph). This is the epigraph:

    “Few stories are completely perfect,” said the lion.
    “That’s true,” said Ellen, leaving the playroom. “And otherwise it’s a wonderful story. Thank you for telling it to me.”
    — Crockett Johnson, The Lion’s Own Story (1963)

    It’s also possible that the reader is referring to the first chapter as a beginning, but I don’t think that is “terrible” either. I probably should refrain from posting another five paragraphs, but here’s the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

    On July 25, 1901, Ruth Ida Krauss was born. As her family would tell her, it was midnight and stormy, and Ruth emerged with a full head of long black hair — and her thumb in her mouth. 21-year-old Blanche Krauss gave birth to Ruth at 1025 North Calvert Street, a Baltimore address that did not exist. This future writer of fiction was born in a fictional place.

  9. leda Said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

    Love “this future writer..in a fictional place.” If I were a publisher, I’d jump on it.

  10. Anita Silvey Said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 9:08 pm

    Revision is always horrendous. But this is an important book.And remember Ruth Krauss cut The Carrot Seed from 10,000 words to over 100.

    I’m glad you will be sharing more of this. I found your paragraphs absolutely fascinating. Please keep going!

  11. Cynthia Miller Coffel Said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 7:20 am

    I really like your epigraph–and the meta-ness of using it as an epigraph to a (biographical) story. I also really appreciate your letting us in on the revision process and the ghastliness (and value) of working with an editor. I’m another person looking forward to reading this book. And thanks again for your blog!

  12. Philip Nel Said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

    Additional thanks to Anita, Cynthia, and Ieda. Appreciate your support. Have phone conversation with editor scheduled for tomorrow morning. Here’s hoping we’re able to come to some sort of agreement!

  13. Monica Edinger Said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 4:57 am

    Just to say I sympathize. One of my professional books (co-written) was completely rewritten in response to the reader report. But I sort of had a feeling before we even got the report that what we had wasn’t working so it was sort of relief to have it confirmed. Good luck!!!

  14. Il venerdì che segnò Crockett Johnson « Fumettologicamente Said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 4:06 am

    […] suo blog, l’autore ha postato di recente una versione ‘scartata’ dell’esordio del suo libro. Che in sé, era già una […]

  15. Bob Levin Said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 11:50 am

    Just came across this. I’ve been looking forward to your bio and found the opening both startling and interesting. Put me down as another supporter and well-wisher.

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