Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
Graded Readers are something those outside of EFL might not know and those inside might never have thought about how they’re written. Up until a couple of years ago, I often used them in class without thinking about their provenance either.
Then I suddenly realised “Hang on a minute…someone must write those…why not me?” Most of the books I’d used were adaptations of classics (all students love Oliver Twist and females swoon as much over the Pre-Int version of Heathcliff as they have always done with the original Wuthering Heights). A rifle through the internet and I’d worked out who the main publishers were and a few calls found out the names of the commissioning editors.
That was the end of the easy part.
Getting them to consider me drew blanks, despite the fact I’d written in other markets and done some online EFL stuff for the BBC. Undeterred, I thought I’d have a go at writing an original instead. I didn’t have a lot else to do at the time and it took my mind off, well, off everything. I needed an idea though. So I literally sat down one afternoon and let my mind find one for me. 45 minutes later I had the bare bones of 2/3 of a story about a boy whose mirror started reflecting 24 hours into the future.
I’d started off unable to think of anything other than vampires as this was very much the Twilight era…OK…flowing with the supernatural… then my mind wandered to mirrors and how, as a child, I had this obsession with trying to catch my reflection out. I’ve since learned a lot more about what the brain’s doing when inspiration hits so I know that if you leave it enough space and quiet it will piece together random bits of information and lo! the muse touches you.
My ending was weak and I knew it. I’m a beginning and middle kind of person – endings are harder. As in life, I usually just duck out before I get to the end of a story – leave the country, let friendships die and detested jobs end when the contract does. Anyway, I pitched it to one of the publishers along with three sample chapters, they saw through my fudged ending and suggested what was needed i.e. an ending that fulfilled the promise of the premise.
I completely failed to make a revision with the necessary tightness and it was rejected.
But from their rejection I was able to work out how to end it more satisfyingly. Their door was forever closed to me though and they wouldn’t even look at the now workable synopsis. Big mistake I think since it was then picked up by a much bigger publisher. The second publisher came through by my making a polite nuisance of myself. They had said they liked new writers to do adaptations first, but, see above, there was no fire under their ass to field any out to me. I called them and politely suggested I pitch them the story since I’d already written the sample chapters and they liked it.
The time frames for this stuff are unimaginable to someone like me that has no idea what they’ll be doing six months from the present moment. From conception to tangible interest took four months. From interest to actual contract (after having to write a complete draft which I was already doing in case it was rejected again and needed to pitch somewhere else) took another eight months. The writing and editing process was eight months again on a schedule agreed by all involved and allowing for me to do nothing on it over summer due to other commitments. As well as the text itself I had to write a detailed artwork brief, as Graded Readers at low levels are heavily illustrated, and the pre and post reading activities that slot in between every two chapters. Then it has been another sixteen months until my ouevre goes on sale.
The book is aimed at Beginner students and language grading is what sets Graded Readers apart from standard books. Mine meant sticking to a list of 300 prescribed, level appropriate words. And that’s including “and”, “he”, “of” etc. I was allowed to add 20 extra words that were essential to the story so some of mine were “mirror”, “bruise”, “hit” – (that makes it sound very violent!). I pored over those lists, constantly checking if I’d inadvertantly included something I wasn’t allowed. This often meant changing things; sometimes simple things like a basketball game became football. Sometimes really irritating things gobbled up my 20 word allowance like shirt but not trousers and I really needed “trousers” for one sentence which had to go in the end.
Then there were the grammar restrictions. Try writing a story in the past when you’re only allowed the past tense of the regular verbs on the list and five specified irregular verbs. I went through all sorts of linguistic contortions to make a point. For example, I couldn’t say “he saw” as it wasn’t one of the irregulars I was allowed but I could say “he didn’t see” or “did he see?” since “did” was one of the five. And some plot points were dropped altogether because they needed the past perfect to express them adequately. I’m quite analytical and a complete geek so for me this process was like cracking a code and I loved it. How can I say that using only this? Just like the astronauts on Apollo 13, I gave enough oxygen to my story to get the mission done.
I learnt a lot through being edited by pros in the field. Luckily, I’m not too precious** about my stuff. If the editor says something isn’t working they’re usually right. My vastly improved ending still needed more tweaking but I had to have it pointed out before I was able to hone it. I notice the final version has had a few more things smoothed out, in each case an improvement on my final draft. I am fairly sure that being easy to work with and hitting deadlines is as important as writing well. I’m a major swot and set myself deadlines ahead of the required dates which then exert just as much pressure as if there were anyone other than me expecting it done by then.
So here it is, the end product of all that work. For me the truly magical thing is that it came from simply deciding to do it and then sitting there and letting an idea bubble up from the depths. Which is why I’m doing it again, next project subject to contracts, and the one after that is a little way past bubble stage but not yet solidified.
See, that was a weak ending wasn’t it?
** I’m saving preciousness for when I’m a bigger name!