posted by Jeanne Munn Bracken
I have to present something to my critique group in two days. I've known for 12 days that this was coming up, and I'm still dithering. Am I writing? Well, sort of. I'm still researching updates for the childhood cancer book. I know perfectly well that I can research this puppy until the cows come home, whenever that is, and I will still find updates. At some point I just have to tweak the draft, weave in the updates, and get the monkey off my back. So I probably should subject the group to another chapter that could use some polishing. Of course, that's all of the chapters. They have already helped with the preface and the bone marrow transplant chapters, and in a perfect world at least those pages would be nearing final draft. Right.
This is dancing dangerously close to the first edition of Children with Cancer: A Reference Guide for Parents, published (Oxford U Press--I can't say that often enough...) in 1986. At that time I was in my first critique group, the extended outfall from an adult education class that turned into a writers' group that spawned two crit groups. Writing equals networking. Okay so far.
Those stalwarts slogged through hundreds of pages, thousands of words, about cancer, radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, support groups--and so much more, working through the sort of mish-mash that starts out everybody's first book ever. They gave me confidence, helped shape a book that reviewers universally called "readable."
I have learned a lot since then, and I have been in several critique groups. Besides my two "floating crap game" groups (meeting irregularly in person and regularly online), I have cut back to one in-person group because of time constraints. The group meets at my library, I am a founding member, and we are a diverse bunch indeed. I am the only one experienced in writing for children (well, in my spare time between pages of leukemia and bouts at the reference desk). We all have, however, readers' eyes and ears, whether we're published or not-yet.
I have already presented to them, as near as I can remember, my current children's works of nonfiction history for middle readers and picture book texts. Besides the aforementioned cancer chapters, I have also shared some essays with them, usually pieces due at our local literary publication The Lincoln Review within days or sometimes hours. Occasionally, in last-minute desperation, I've banged out my blog a couple of days ahead of time and had them go over it, always with the understanding that I had about three hours after the group ended to get the thing online. Motto: "Deadlines R Us."
This time I'm thinking about digging deeper into my past. Like most writers, I have file drawers filled with projects at various stages, from newly hatched idea to drafts in various states of completion, to ready-for-submission and (alas) rejected. Last fall I had to present something to my semi-annual campground group and, knowing that most of them had heard pretty much my entire in-the-works oeuvre, thought of dragging out a project that's been in the drawer since (I'm not making this up) 1985.
Okay, most of us have some real junque stashed in our offices and we probably should just chalk it up to experience and throw it away. But I still think that some of the projects might have merit.
One in particular hit the drawer after presenting it to my first critique group. It's an odd little thing, sort of Flat Stanley meets Jam for Frances. A kid learns the hard way that eating only one food can have disastrous consequences. Maybe. Or not. Eventually I dusted off a newer, more traditional story, since an esteemed editor would be there and I wanted to at least appear knowledgeable, somewhat talented, and not too demented.
So the food guy went back into the drawer, the doll made her appearance, and I got good comments on tweaking the manuscript--which I'll do when the cancer book is finished.
That leaves this week. Thinking about the food guy, I decided that the comments of my group 23 years ago might not be gospel. The only reader in that group with small children was horrified by the story, thought children would be traumatized reading it, and suggested ways to modify it to take out the bad parts. When I tried to take out the bad parts, there wasn't much left of the story. Bang--into the drawer, where it stagnated until today.
That I found the file at all is more a credit to persistence than organization. In fact, I found two folders with various drafts of the story. I also discovered that the story is not on any of my computers or computer disks or flash drives where I've backed up old work. In some moment of neatness, I threw away all the old "floppy disks", because they were written on CP/M, an arcane computer system long since supplanted by Microsoft chez Bracken.
I have reunited the two files and studied the drafts, which have more criticism than actual text--never a good sign. But I think I'll bite the bullet and see if the story can be resurrected. Then I'll have a better idea: Deathless Prose? Or Big Circular File?