Thursday, March 23, 2023


The original draft of Rob Worm’s Bird Adventure—which came with your book—was published by my 5th Grade class in 1991. I’d been drawing Rob Worm on every scrap of paper and been thinking about him for at least a year, so forever. 

I was so in love with the idea of writing a book about my best character named after me, I dedicated it to him. My best friend in that same class dedicated his book to me. Awkward. As we remained best friends well past the birth of our own children, it remains awkward:) And my enthusiasm for Rob Worm remains undiminished.

There've been many reimagining's of the original story, but the second draft of consequence was written in college. It was dedicated to the same best friend from third grade who grew up to be an excellent artist. We spent a lot of late nights at coffeeshops, him illustrating as I wrote and I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed writing more than I did when I was young and assumed everything I ever wrote was brilliant (naturally)… or needed some minor grammar checks, but was otherwise perfect.

This most recent draft of the story was written during a pandemic. That was one reason revisiting Rob Worm was so interesting to me. There’s no room for politics or thoughts about Covid-19 in a story about animal characters who happen to talk, but are mostly animals. Rob's world gave me a badly needed break from the one I was living in.

I wrote Banneker Bones and the Cyborg Conspiracy assuming it was my last novel. Banneker 3 was meant to be my sign off, a pretty good spot to end, and I couldn’t complain as I’d written my most urgent novels and enjoyed much of my writing life. 

And then I got vaccinated and found myself in a position to write some more… if I wanted to. Who knows how long a golden opportunity like this might last? After the madness of 2020, who knows how long anything might last?

And was Banneker Bones 3 REALLY the last book I had to write? REALLY? Seems like I forgot something... I was sitting on my patio thinking this thought while working on my author podcast and updating my author website, because, ya know, I was done being an author:) And behold, at the start of spring, I saw a robin pulling a worm out of the ground in my backyard. Like Bruce Wayne seeing a bat fluttering through his open window, I knew what I must do!!!

I had the concept for this newest version of Rob Worm's Bird Adventure in my mind almost immediately. It would be set in a backyard like mine, but with a koi pond and other worm hazards, and it wouldn’t be realistic, exactly, but it would be realistic enough that I could include a bunch of animal facts—the sort of facts I would've obsessed over as a child. And the sort of facts I could utilize in a presentation during a school visit. Regularly chatting with amazing professional authors on a podcast teaches even a dummy like me a few things.

I wrote a solid chunk of the novel while leading a fiction workshop, which is how I do a lot of my writing these days. I tried some very different versions of the story while I was deciding the rules of this new Rob Worm, who did not surf, as he did in the original version, or ride a horsefly through a swamp full of frogs, as he did in a favorite scene from the version written when I was in college. But he did go over a waterfall in a gutter, which I think is very cool, and which neither of the previous Rob Worms did.

I even tried a version of the story called Wym Worm so the protagonist wouldn't have my name, but it just wasn’t the same. When I made that change, I made no forward progress until I changed his name back to Rob. That’s his name. Fifth grade me made that call, college me was fine with it, and adult me can think of him as having no other name. It would be easier to publish under a pen name than change the name of the worm I’ve been thinking about on and off since I was eleven. His best friend is Buzz Fly, who has been his best friend since the first rewrite I did in the 6th grade.

I’ve written many, many, MANY versions of this story over the years, including a Tarantino-esque version where the scenes were out of order and the language was inappropriate for everyone. There were several screenplay versions and a poem version. The college version was planned as a full trilogy. I drafted as far as two-thirds of the second book while racking enough rejection letters for the first to assure me it was time to write something else.

Eventually, large parts of the college version were repurposed for the Banneker Bones trilogy, which was its spiritual successor. Rather than being nabbed by giant robot bees, at one point Rob's worm friends were nabbed by Bernie the bird and Rob and Buzz had to rescue them. Having now written a couple books about Banneker Bones rescuing kidnapped friends, I didn’t want to do that again.

Of the two earlier versions of me adult me is attempting to reconcile, I’m more inclined to listen to 11-year-old me. I like to imagine the three of us meeting to discuss the new version of our one true story, the one we carried all this way for all these years. I don’t approve of a lot of the choices college me is making and I wish he’d put out that cigarette. Or give me one for old time's sake:). But that’s okay, he’s not entirely impressed by me and he wants to know why we’re not more famous. Although he probably thinks it’s amazing I found a woman who loved me enough to marry me. Fifth grade me is more interested in the fact that he’s going to grow up to own a virtual reality helmet. And he also wants to know why we’re not more famous.

It’s fifth grade me I’ve deferred to for most story decisions. He had a vision and these many years later, I think it mostly holds up. I’ve listened to bits of the soundtracks from Indiana Jones and  Jurassic Park films as those were the types of stories Rob Worm was supposed to belong beside. The dried driveway worms are a reference to Indy's mummies and Rob seeing Beatrix for the first time is very reminiscent of Tim Murphy admiring a T-Rex charging the gallimimus.  There isn’t a romantic subplot because fifth grade me wasn’t interested in romance. He wanted big adventure and fun, and college me occasionally forgot those things.

5th grade me's version of the story is sarcastic and talks to the reader in a snarky-ish tone because he’s imitating his favorite author, Roald Dahl. There’s a reference to The Birds because that movie scared him, and, more interesting, he knows it really scared some adults. He’s included a line about coal because a similar line in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off really made his parents laugh. He writes, “on this morning a new life form approached our world” because he’s imitating the melodramatic opening of Little Shop of Horrors and the Audrey II has been giving him nightmares.

That’s one of the ways I know that kid wrote a horror story. Obviously, it’s an adventure (it’s right there in the title). But Rob Worm is taken away against his will, has to be cunning twice to escape two monsters intent on eating him, and then he’s cast aside onto a sizzling hot driveway, barely able to escape. Esteemed Reader, that’s a friendly horror story, not unlike the sort Roald Dahl wrote. It’s Crawl, but with birds:)

I’ve done my best to honor young me’s original vision. I don’t think he’d like the two older hims messing with his story—why don’t they write their own!?! For this reason, I’ve included many of the major plot points from his book. I even made sure to have Rob Worm slide along in water in two separate scenes, as close as I could get to having him “surf” in a realistic-ish framing.

Fifth grade me would appreciate my efforts, I think, especially since I’ve made his unchanged original version available. I even did my best to preserve some of his narrative voice. I’m too American to go full Roald Dahl, but I included some of Dahl’s invented words and directly addressed the reader in a snarky tone. I responded well to that as a young reader, especially in a “scarier” story, because if the narrator plays with the reader, I was assured he would be there during the frightening bits as well. That way the story wouldn’t be too scary (this isn’t a Robert Kent book).

Adult me really enjoyed learning all the animal facts present in this story. Thinking of humanity as an animal population has given me quite a bit of perspective on things. 

Adult me also likes messing with the reader, who I call Esteemed Reader for the first time in a book as though it's just a long blog post. I'm gleefully reminding Esteemed Reader that this is a story throughout and Chapter 24, "How Yellow Was My Jacket," might be my favorite joke in any book I've written. I know fifth grade me would've delighted at such flagrant rule breaking in the middle of a story. And adult me is really pushing this idea of the thematic importance of perspective and wants to remind Esteemed Reader that the narrator has his own perspective.

I don’t actually have a clean version of college me’s draft and that’s just as well. I wouldn’t share it if I did and you wouldn’t want to read it. My retroactive apologies to those who did. It was typed on a classic Macintosh machine I no longer own. I do, however, have multiple binders filled with paper copies of drafts with handwritten notes and corrections.

A lot of cigarettes were smoked and a lot of two liters of Mountain Dew were drank to produce that draft. So much harm was done to my body because I was stupid enough to believe that suffering for my art made it great. It isn’t so. College me had a head full of bad ideas, but in his defense, he was still shellshocked from the trauma of middle school and high school and he’d recently had his heart profoundly broken.

That’s the draft where a father bird was introduced to argue with the momma bird and fictionally resolve a relationship I’d had. His name was Bernie and he dies in the new version before the story begins because fifth-grade me liked tragic openings and adult me isn’t interested in revisiting that old heartbreak when so many really wonderful things have happened since, such as my obtaining a virtual reality helmet.

College me’s draft is tonally all over the place and shows a frequent disregard for spelling and grammar. There are sections far too intense for children as he was imitating his favorite author, Stephen King. And there are references to literature strewn about because he was reading the classics, but all of them are clumsy attempts to impress… someone? In the sequel, there’s a plot about worm religion because college me is working out some things from childhood that definitely will not be fully resolved by his graduation... or the present:)

The draft I worked from had notes made by a girl I was in love with who was not so enthusiastic about me. Those notes make me cringe the most, humiliated for myself all over again. She was kind enough to provide some really excellent story feedback, however. And she inspired me to be better.

College me got blasted with rejection letters that I hung on my wall. It finally began to get through my thick skull that maybe, just maybe, my book wasn’t perfect the first time. Maybe, if I was going to be the sort of writer people read, I was going to have to write better books. And maybe, if I wanted the girls to like me back, I needed to respect myself more than I did.

Before I judge past me too harshly, I do well to remember he did get a gym membership and stopped drinking Mountain Dew. He could’ve done a lot of things better, but he did get me here by not doing EVERYTHING wrong. 

It’s his opening sentence that opens the newest version of Rob Worm’s Bird Adventure. He really liked the word "dark" and I guess I do too. A version of the ants (who used to be beetles) and the koi were his idea, he named the spider Kalegwa, and there are some other elements of his creation I've honored as well. But his version of the story was about humans with human problems who happened to be animal shaped, and so much of it was unusable. In his world, some worms are pirates and a peg tail is still a funny gag, but it doesn’t work in a “real world” scenario. 

I did like his version of the main characters, though. His Rob Worm is very much Ellicott Skullworth and his Buzz Fly is a version of Banneker Bones and I think he'd be happy about that. A version of the trilogy he envisioned eventually came to be.

Time spent writing is never time wasted. It all comes into play in some fashion. Neither the actual Rob nor the fictional one would be here without those Robs from the past. And future Robs, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ll think I set you up nicely. And I hope you’re still telling stories. If you’re able, I know you are. And with the knowledge that we finally created a version of this story we can all agree on.


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