Oh, I wish I had known Carolyn Crimi’s secret when I read her delightful novel, Second-Hand Dogs (Balzer+Bray); it would have made reading the book all that much more enjoyable. I did find myself wondering as I read how on earth she was going to get her dog-stars out of their various pickles. And now I know! She bought her solution for $8. Read on to find out more.

Carolyn Crimi (photo courtesy of Jerry Ortega)

After over twenty years of writing books, I have finally, finally found an answer to my writing woes. As it turns out, all I’ve ever needed was an eight dollar pad of newsprint paper. 

I’ve published eighteen picture books, and yet I’ve always yearned to write novels. I told myself I couldn’t do it, that I’m a picture book author and not a novelist. I had started many novels over the years, but I usually didn’t finish them. Or I would only do a first draft. It was, of course, fear that was keeping me from completing these novels. While writing my new novel, SECONDHAND DOGS (Balzer + Bray), I finally saw how to push past this particular fear.

My first drafts go smoothly. I am on fire and usually have a major crush on my work in progress. But then…it happens. After I’ve written the first draft, I’ll reread it and realize that there’s a problem. A big problem. In the old days, I would stop at that point. I’d throw up my hands and say, “I can’t do novels! They’re too hard!” 

I’ve changed all that. Now I light a candle. I meditate. I play Gregorian chants on my aging boombox. In other words, I calm myself down. And then I brainstorm about my problem on my big pad of newsprint. 

Fear is constricting. Fear is small. When I take out my newsprint pad, I immediately loosen up. After all, this is just messy scribbling on cheap paper. It doesn’t have to be part of the manuscript, although it can be. The size of the pad—I like the 18 by 24 inch size– somehow makes me feel bolder. Bigger. Freer. 

I use a marker, so I can’t erase. I might cross out, but mostly I don’t. I just…go. I’ll write the title of my problem at the top of the page, like, “How does Moon Pie get out of this situation?” I need an expansive place for this to happen, so I write standing up with my pad on my dining room table. The process gets me into the loose, uninhibited mindset I need in order to figure out the snag in my plot.

Because here’s the thing. There will always be problems. Always. You can’t just abandon the manuscript when you encounter one, otherwise you will never finish a novel. Being comfortable with discomfort is something I have to relearn every day. 

I’ve also used my big pad of paper for settings. I enjoy taking acting classes, and I had a drama teacher once tell me that in order for me to act convincingly in my scene, I needed to know where everything was. We used minimal props in class, so this involved imagining the setting in detail. I needed to know where the entrance was, what kinds of pictures were on the walls, and what kind of furniture the character owned. Otherwise, I’m flailing around on stage. I’m not grounded in the scene. I can’t very well gesture to a window if I don’t know where it is.

The same goes for settings in my books. For SECONDHAND DOGS, I needed to know how many houses were on Miss Lottie’s block. I needed to know the layout of her house as well as her backyard. So I took out my big pad of paper and sketched simple blueprints of her block, her house, and her yard. Doing this helps me see the scene in a way that writing about it does not. Again, it grounds me in the scene.

I think what I love most about my big pad of paper is that it keeps me inspired. It’s fun to make drawings and scribble notes in such a big way, and when I am knee deep in a manuscript, I need to make the process fun, otherwise I’ll abandon it. I want to look forward to making new discoveries every day. That’s how I’ll make my manuscript stronger. 

All that for just eight dollars. What a bargain!

Secondhand Dogs Written by Carolyn Crimi Illustrated by Melissa Manwill

Carolyn Crimi received her MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College in 2000.  She has published many books for children, including Don’t Need Friends, Boris and Bella, Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies, Where’s My Mummy, I Am the Boss of this Chair, and Dear Tabby. Her book There Might Be Lobsters received SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award for picture book text. Carolyn has also garnered over thirty state awards and was given The Prairie State Award for her body of work. Her novel Weird Little Robots was a BEA Middle Grade Book Buzz pick for 2019. Her latest book, Secondhand Dogs, will be out July 6th, 2021. Carolyn loves visiting elementary schools to talk about how she hunts for ideas. www.carolyncrimi.com