Starting the Writing
By the author, Jim Doti
Now that I’ve storyboarded Jimmy the Elf, I have a good sense of how to move the story along. But I don’t know yet all the twists and turns in the plot that I’ll need to come up with in order to develop believable characters doing believable things. For me, I’ve found that writing the book in a chronological manner helps me think of those twists and turns. That’s why I start writing at the beginning and work toward the end. Along the way, the evolving story helps dictate the narrative decisions I make that explain why the characters feel and react the way they do to plot developments.
As I begin writing Jimmy the Elf, I know I need to accomplish several important things in the first few pages. Those things involve describing the setting and introducing the main characters and the major challenge (speech impediment) facing the hero of the story (Jimmy).
In A Christmas Adventure in Little Italy, I used most of my opening letter to the reader to describe the setting of the story. For Jimmy the Elf, the setting is less important than the challenge that the hero needs to confront. So in the letter I write that serves as a kind of prologue to the story, I need to introduce Jimmy’s speech impediment early on. But for readers to empathize with the hero, I believe it’s important to make the speech impediment part of a fear that all young readers probably share in some way. That’s why the following opening letter connects the challenge of Jimmy’s speech impediment with a fear common to all children: starting school and dealing with ridicule.
When I was a little boy, other children laughed at me. They didn’t laugh because I was funny, but because of the way I spoke.
They were making fun of me. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t pronounce certain words correctly.
At the local soda fountain, my mom or dad would ask, “What kind of soda do you want, Jimmy?”
I’d reply, “I want a lerry soda.”
They knew I really wanted a cherry soda, and they didn’t laugh at me.
But when children heard me talk, they would laugh and point at me. That made me mad and sad and lonely all at the same time. So I tried not to talk, but it’s hard not to talk.
Then one day my mom told me I would soon start attending school as a first grader. Although she said I’d like school, I knew that children there would tease me.
The first day that my mom and my dog, Blackie, walked me to school, I knew my safe and secure world at home, where I could hide from other kids, was coming to an end.
In front of me were large doors at the entrance to my new school. These were not ordinary doors like the ones at home. These doors were different. For I realized that as soon as I walked through them I would be entering a new world – one that was bigger and scarier.
Your friend, Jimmy
I think Lisa’s accompanying illustration should include a big, intimidating-looking entry door to the school with a small Jimmy standing fearfully in front of it. To help her visualize what it might look like, I sent Lisa a photo that I took during a recent visit to Chicago. It shows me standing in front of that scary door I entered to attend first grade.
Following the above letter, or prologue, that appears on pages 1-2, the actual beginning of the story (see “Jimmy, Mom and Blackie walking to school” in storyboard shown in “Storyboarding the Book”) will occur on pages 3-4. So with an illustration of the three characters on their way to school taking about a page, that gives me one page to introduce the setting, characters and Jimmy’s speech impediment. Since I want this book to be the same size as our Christmas Adventure book, I know I have space for about 300 words to accomplish this opening task.
Here is my first draft:
Jimmy walks to school with his mom and his dog, Blackie. It is a cold and dreary day, and their breath is smoking the air around them. Jimmy’s mom is wearing a hat she knitted for herself. It’s pulled down tightly over her ears. Although Blackie is wearing his red-and-green plaid jacket, he is shivering. Jimmy’s yellow galoshes crunch the hard patches of frozen snow on the sidewalk. The dark clouds match Jimmy’s mood. He is sad. He doesn’t want to go to school.
“All the kids make fun of me because I don’t say my worbs right. They laugh at me all the time,” Jimmy tells his mom.
“I keep saying to you, Jimmy, not to worry about them,” his mom replies. “Just be a good boy and listen to everything Mrs. Lyons teaches you.”
Mrs. Lyons is Jimmy’s first grade teacher. He likes her. She is nice to him, but she can’t stop the other kids from teasing him.
As Jimmy, his mom and Blackie near the large doors to Reinberg School, Jimmy remembers how scared he was when he first entered those doors three months ago. After all that time, he is still scared.
Jimmy kisses his mom and pats his best friend Blackie’s little head.
“When Blackie and I come to pick you up after school,” his mom says, “I’ll bring some chocolate chip cookies.”
Even the thought of his favorite cookies doesn’t take away Jimmy’s feeling of being scared. Very reluctantly and very slowly, he walks toward the doors. As he struggles to pull one of the heavy doors open, he turns his head around to take one more look at his mom and Blackie.
Jimmy’s mom smiles and waves good-bye. From the look in her eyes, Jimmy knows her smile isn’t a real smile. He knows that his mom is sad because he is sad.
A few observations: My “It is a cold and dreary day” sounds a little too close to the trite opening – “It is a dark and stormy night.” To fix that, I append “… their breath is smoking the air around them.”
Since I know that my mom’s job as a hatmaker (milliner) will later figure into the story, I point out she is wearing a hat she knitted for herself.
In my opening descriptions of the characters’ clothing, I decided to refer to Jimmy’s “yellow galoshes.” The yellow galoshes appeared in “Christmas Adventure,” and I think a reappearance in this story will be a nice connection between the two.
Then I compare Jimmy’s mood to the dark clouds. This helps me set up and explain Jimmy’s fear of school and being scared over his classmates making fun of his speech impediment.
That impediment of mine was not a stutter. In fact, I’m not sure what kind of speech problem it was. All I remember is that I mispronounced certain words. For example, a joke within my family was my reference to our family car as a “Levy” instead of a “Chevy.”
In order to introduce the nature of the impediment, I illustrate it in Jimmy’s first spoken line where he says “worbs” instead of “words.”
I try to evoke sympathy at the end. I’m afraid that it’s a little heavy-handed. At the same time, I think it’s important at the beginning of the story to emphasize Jimmy’s fears, which are brought home by his leaving his mom and dog, Blackie.
The big heavy door that was introduced in the prologue makes its appearance as a metaphor for Jimmy’s separation from his familial comfort zone.
Following is my stick figure drawing to give Lisa an idea of my vision for the scene.