Ear­li­er this week, Jeff Gottes­feld shared how a news sto­ry about a dead tree inspired his first children’s book, The Tree in the Court­yard. Jeff is guest blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

There are two types of writ­ers: those of us who out­line, and those who don’t.

Out­lin­ers can’t under­stand how non-out­lin­ers can keep their sto­ries straight, and non-out­lin­ers can’t under­stand how out­lin­ers can place such bound­aries on their imag­i­na­tions. When an out­lin­er smacks into a sto­ry that defies out­lin­ing, or a non-out­lin­er is thrust into a world where out­lines are not only help­ful but required, it can be any­where from dis­con­cert­ing to dis­as­ter. I speak from experience. 

I’m in the for­mer cat­e­go­ry. I out­line exten­sive­ly. When I speak in schools — which I do a fair amount — I often bring two props with me. First I pass around the print­ed man­u­script to a nov­el I wrote a few years ago for Gros­set & Dun­lap. It was a fun paper­back title for kids, par­tic­u­lar­ly designed to attract boy read­ers because of its, um, body-slam­ming sub­ject mat­ter. Great lit­er­a­ture? No. A book to get kids hooked on read­ing for fun? That was the idea. It sold well, got into Scholas­tic Read­ing Club and book fairs, and poten­tial­ly turned some kid into a read­er for life. That man­u­script is maybe 160 pages, 25,000 words or so in 25 chapters. 

Then I show them my out­line. Twen­ty full pages, chap­ter by chap­ter: the whole book, in brief. Each out­lined chap­ter has not only two or three para­graphs of text, but three or four bul­let points that summed up the major plot points. Writ­ing that out­line took a week or so, but it was worth it. Once I had the sto­ry, the writ­ing part was a plea­sure. And I was not at all straight­jack­et­ed by my own nar­ra­tive: I could veer if I want­ed, but if I did veer, I had to think about what hap­pen to the rest of the struc­ture and adjust accordingly.

Teach­ers love it when I talk about out­lin­ing. They invari­ably hit resis­tance when they try to get their stu­dents to pre-write.” Kids stare in won­der when I explain how every sin­gle movie or tele­vi­sion show they’ve ever seen was in out­line form before a stu­dio or net­work approved it to go to script. Some­times I bring along a TV script out­line for even more show-and-tell. Or, I’ll get a stu­dent to sug­gest an essay top­ic, go to the white board, and dash off a quick out­line for a five-para­graph essay on that sub­ject. When it’s done, I say, Okay. The hard part is now done. The writ­ing is easy.” 

Writ­ing that fol­lows a good out­line is clear prose. Teach­ers tell me that they would rather read a clear essay that is decent­ly writ­ten than a mud­dy mess full of glo­ri­ous sen­tences. So would I! The prob­lem for us out­lin­ers is that there at least three kinds of writ­ing for which con­ven­tion­al out­lin­ing is of lim­it­ed util­i­ty: pic­ture books, poet­ry, and keep­ing a diary and/​or writ­ing let­ters. Which is why, when I wan­dered into the 900-word max­i­mum man­u­script that was my first attempt at The Tree in the Court­yard, I felt like I was in unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry that was all quicksand. 

So I did what peo­ple do when they wan­der into quick­sand. I floundered.

I need­ed a dif­fer­ent way to fig­ure out my sto­ry. I had a nat­ur­al begin­ning: the tree in the court­yard of 263 Prin­sen­gracht, Ams­ter­dam sprout­ed in 1829. I had the mid­dle: the rela­tion­ship between Anne Frank and the tree. And I had the end: what hap­pened to that tree, from the time that the occu­pants of the secret annex were betrayed until the col­lapse of the tree in 2010, and the sub­se­quent plant­i­ng of the tree’s chil­dren” at sig­nif­i­cant sites around the world.

Begin­ning, mid­dle, end. But noth­ing else. I was not going to be able to impose my will on this sto­ry. Instead, I had to be will­ing to let the sto­ry guide me. I start­ed writ­ing lines that I thought (or at least hoped) would find their place in a man­u­script, how­ev­er out of order:

The tree recalled how few had tried to save the girl.

The tree in the court­yard lived for 172 years.

Like the girl, the tree passed into his­to­ry. Like the girl, she lives on. 

She spread roots, and reached sky­ward in peace. Until war came.

Even when her father called her, she wrote. 

It was writ­ing as jig­saw puz­zle, and I grew up hat­ing jig­saw puz­zles. I can’t say I’m a fan of them now. But here’s what I am a fan of: let­ting sto­ries guide me where they want me to go. Some­times it takes a map; some­times it takes being will­ing to wan­der into unchart­ed territory.

Feels a lot like life. 

Jeff Gottes­feld is an award-win­ning writer for page, stage, and screen. He has pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten for adult, teen, and mid­dle-grade audi­ences; The Tree in the Court­yard is his first pic­ture book.

Relat­ed Content:

Jeff Gottes­feld is an acclaimed writer for page, stage, and screen. His work has won awards from the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca, and the Nation­al Coun­cil for the Social Stud­ies. He has pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten for adult, teen, and mid­dle-grade audi­ences; The Tree in the Court­yard is his first pic­ture book, and No Steps Behind is his second.