Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Coert: The Legend of the Storm Wrangler

I had always wanted to publish a children’s book. Before Storm Wrangler, which came out from Bright Sky Press in October, I had written many, but they were mostly awful. I think part of my difficulty came from the fact that I was trying to write a children’s book, not actually trying to tell a story. When I write YA, I don’t try to write YA; when I write regular old adult fiction, I’m not trying to do that either. It took me until writing Storm Wrangler to realize that I’d been falling into the trap of not giving the reader enough credit. Don’t write a genre; write a story.

Story should come first. Always. Before genre, age group, market, anything. Story always comes first. (Duh, I know. But it’s hard to remember when you have a “goal” in mind.) This post will talk about both the origin of the story and the process of turning that into words on the page.

My son, Dayton, was two years old when Hurricane Ike passed directly over Houston in 2008. The week before the storm hit, our lives were thrown into preparation mode and all he heard was, “There’s a storm coming.”The night of the storm, the wind shook the house so that none of us slept. And the following morning we went outside to find branches strewn everywhere, a massive oak tree blocking access to the street, huge limbs on cars, etc.

In addition to the post-storm destruction, our house (which, aside from a roof leak and the loss of a couple trees, managed to escape relatively unscathed) was without power for two weeks. We spent most of those nights as a family at my in-laws' house, sleeping in my wife's childhood bedroom.

Needless to say, this had a profound impact on little Dayton, and for the next two years, he was not afraid of monsters; he was afraid of storms. He would wake up in the middle of the night saying, “There’s a storm in my bed,” or “There’s a storm in my closet.” He would hide under his covers, waiting for me to get rid of the storm by whatever means I could think of.

Two years later, I finally figured out what to do with the idea of storms and monsters being the same thing. That’s where the Storm Wrangler came from. He’s someone Dayton would have been able to count on during Hurricane Ike: a mythical, Paul Bunyan-esque figure who is unafraid of any weather, who wrestles with hurricanes and tornadoes, who has braved sleet and snow and gale force winds.

But how to put that all on the page? One of the most exciting things about children's books--and in this particular case, one of the most paralyzing--is the writer's complete freedom to tell the story in any way he wants. I thought of my favorite books as a kid, and I went back to my son's bookshelf to try to figure out how his favorite books were written. The visual nature of something like Shark vs. Train (one of Dayton's current favorites) for example, is completely different from the more text-centric Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (one of my favorites). Dayton and I both love Where the Wild Things Are, how the visuals overtake the text on the page until the point where, during the three pages of wild rumpus, there is no text at all.

Because anything seemed to be on the table, I clearly needed to come up with some sort of plan. One of my favorite parts of writing is doing the pre-writing research, so that’s where I went. Eventually, even though I didn't know the form the story would take, I had a good idea about the language and the basic framework I was going for:
  • I wanted to use a lot of storm terminology. There's so much fun to be had with the language itself: drizzle, deluge, sprinkle, etc. just for rain. (I'm a big fan of the anthology Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape.)
  • Also, Because Dayton had equated storms with monsters after the hurricane, I wanted to have the storms personified. The storms, therefore, would be beasts and fiends and ogres. A hurricane would be a cyclops with one massive eye, etc.
As far as the framework went, I broke it into three parts:
  • An intro into the character of the Storm Wrangler. Who is he? Where is he from? What kinds of storms has he vanquished?
  • A section in which the Storm Wrangler shows off his storm wranglin' equipment and arms the reader with his own protective gear so that the reader and the Storm Wrangler will be able to fight together.
  • A description of an oncoming storm/monster that the two wranglers will go off to fight together. The idea was that the Storm Wrangler would show us that there's nothing to fear.
When I finally started writing, the story came out in verse, told from the Storm Wrangler's first person point of view. I hadn't planned it that way, but it seemed appropriate. As I wrote about storms and monsters, lightning and hurricanes--scary things that I knew would be accompanied by visuals--the metered, rhyming verse was almost soothing, like a lullaby. The form was working against the content in such a way that it allowed me to get scary stuff in there without it seeming too scary.

So, I was pleased with the form of the story, and I was able to get at all the meteorological terms and use personified monsters. I told the story in three parts the way I had planned, and I thought the book would end with the two wranglers going off to fight the oncoming ogre because, as the Storm Wrangler himself tells us at the end of the first draft, “ropin’ a twister’s one heck of a ride!”

I liked the idea of ending that way, with a nod to the action ahead, but there seemed to be something missing. In subsequent drafts, I tried to add more. I wanted to add something about the calm after the storm, when the air smells crisp and the sun comes out and everyone is safe and dry again, but I couldn't make it work. After the energy of the twister-ropin' line, anything I put afterward felt tacked on, not actually part of the story. Then my fantastic editor, Lucy, suggested we feature some pages with illustrations only. I loved that idea, as Dayton and I had recently spent a few nights with David Wiesner's marvelous Flotsam.

Once we envisioned an illustration-only page after the twister-ropin' line, everything seemed to come together. The images were going to do something that the writing couldn't. We would be allowed to go with the two wranglers as they roped that twister. It turned out to be our own version of the wild rumpus. (And it also increased my appreciation for the role Maurice Sendak's rumpus played in the structure of the story--not just in the content). The after-the-storm stuff came naturally once we actually got to see the storm itself. Even better, because we've already seen them in action, we can end the book with the two wranglers looking forward to an oncoming storm, and we already know they'll be able to handle it.

Plus, this change led to one of my favorite moments in the book, when the Storm Wrangler and the small child are sitting on the porch, sipping tea, watching the sun break through the clouds--the Storm Wrangler in his boots and the child in his footed pajamas.

There was so much more that went into the book, starting with the brilliant illustrations by Houston-based artist Mike Guillory, but I’ll stop there. If there’s anything I took away from this process, it’s that no matter what or for whom I’m writing, I have to respect the reader. Just because it’s a children’s book doesn’t mean I can’t use big and interesting words, or don’t have to do research, or should neglect structure. Little readers don’t deserve to be patronized; they deserve our full attention to every element of craft we can muster.



  1. This is such a great post! The core of any novel -- be it Adult, YA, or Picture Book -- is the story. Categorization comes after, I think.

    And congratulations on the publication of STORM WRANGLER! It sounds like such an awesome book. :)

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your telling of 'the process', thank you for sharing it. Also, I appreciate the tip that the story comes first. Congratulations on the arrival of Storm Wrangler. :)