by Sara Shacter
Ah, social media.
A mere fifteen minutes on Twitter whips my insecurity demon into action:
“Someone who’s not you just signed a multi-book contract and won a prestigious award and hit the best seller’s list with a debut title!!" (Demon rolls eyes.) “Loser.”
In our heads, we all know that people trumpet their successes, not their struggles, on the Internet. But still our hearts ache.
Well, ache no more!
I give you…(drum roll, please)
The Social Media Antidote: my 2019 picture book Just So Willow.
The story of this book spans millennia. Literally!
(Screen goes dark. Light comes up on a much younger Sara…)
Just So Willow began as The Just So Hippo, featuring Greta the hippo instead of Willow the polar bear. It was the tale of a type-A hippo, trying to play in clean, freshly fallen snow without “ruining” it. I brought an initial draft to my critique group, made revisions, and was gifted with a stuffed hippo, as inspiration:
Several versions later, during a professional workshop, an editor expressed interest. Wow! Would this be my first contract?
Uh, no. The editor’s Editorial Director sort of hated Greta.
I regrouped and considered the feedback I’d received. Revisions followed: I honed my word choice, sharpened the opening, and changed the format. I started to submit (via SNAIL MAIL – eek!).
In 1999 (note all the work I’d done before this date!) an editor sent me a lovely letter, asking for revisions. Woo hoo! I knew how rare it was to get an editorial letter – she must really love Greta, right? To address her comments, I gave Greta brothers and sisters, amped up the humor, and changed the ending. I turned it around in only a month.
I was under the faulty impression that the editor was sitting by her mailbox, waiting for my brilliant revision. So I rushed.
Cue years of revising and submitting. Greta gained parents, lost parents, then lost her siblings. Word count rose and fell. I made dummies to get a feel for page turns. Yet, the stack of revisions and rejections grew:
Finally, in 2014 (yes, 2014!!), I received a critique from editor Brett Duquette at SCBWI-Illinois’ annual conference, inviting me to revise and resubmit. His comments echoed some I had heard before: the manuscript was too quiet; Greta needed to interact with other characters; the ending didn’t quite work. But this time, I received a brilliant nugget: the ending didn’t work because it didn’t match the beginning in tone. The opening was funnier and punchier.
I battened down the hatches and dove in, deleting everything but the first four lines – the strongest lines of the manuscript. I did not rush. My next version – substantially different from all the rest – took over four months.
I did two more revisions for Brett, during which Greta became Willow, and in 2016 (note: two years after the conference) Brett offered me a contract with Sterling.
Finally, finally, my story was a book.
If you saw my Twitter feed, with news leading up to Willow’s launch, it might seem like she rolled out of my imagination, fully formed.
There’s a story behind every story. It’s likely full of struggle and failure and frustration. That’s the story that matters. It’s what makes us better writers and what makes our stories shine.
You are not alone. Don’t let the Internet fool you.
Be sure to follow Sara on Twitter and Facebook!
by Teresa Robeson
That may be the motto on Galaxy Quest (one of my favorite movies) but it’s also a good motto for writers and illustrators trying to get into publishing because everything takes forever in the business and you will very likely want to throw in the towel at least several times a year if not twice every hour.
I know this from personal experience. Just how long did it take to get my first book published?
Well, six years elapsed between the first draft to the release date. But, if you start from when I made the decision to be a writer, then I’d say it took me about three decades!
The year was 1990. My husband was having a blast doing his Ph.D. and I was stuck in a mind-numbingly dull job. I tried taking up creative hobbies to compensate: I developed an interest in origami...
and I signed up for a “fine arts for non-majors” class.
Both were fun, but something still felt like it was missing. I mulled this over while I was reading stacks of picture books and middle-grade novels.
What had I been doing on almost a daily basis since I learned English in third grade after immigrating from Hong Kong to Canada?
Eat good food?
Yes, that, too. But the answer was creative writing. Growing up, I wrote poetry, and jokes, and puzzles for my little sister to solve. And, in 1990, I wrote many, many letters to West Coast friends back home because I was stuck on the East Coast in that mind-numbingly dull job.
Letters were all right, but I needed more. As Isaac Asimov said, and I paraphrase, to have your writing published is the only good way to leave your legacy. So how does one become a published writer? I started reading Writer’s Digest magazine to find out and stumbled across an ad for The Institute of Children’s Literature.
Right after taking the class, I sent one piece I wrote for an assignment out to a couple of magazines, and received a call from Paula Morrow, then editor of Ladybug, asking if they could buy the story.
A sale! On my first try! I held it together long enough to finish the call and then screamed for joy.
When I made some more sales in the next few years I thought I was motoring along reasonably well in my publishing career. But then a dry spell hit. Between homeschooling my kids (my second child had special needs) and getting more rejections than acceptances, I cut back on writing. Drastically. I felt defeated and exhausted.
I tried to fill the empty feeling of not writing by doing other creative endeavors again. With kids in tow this time, I made paper (and some photography)
and dabbled in soap-making.
I also ate more good food (thanks to hubby who is as excellent a cook as he is a scientist).
But none of that satisfied the itch for something greater and more meaningful (my foodie self is incredulous, “What could be more meaningful than gastronomic delights??”). So, in 2010, I dove back in with greater determination.
I took more classes, for writing and for illustrating, and I took more chances, applying to any and all grants and opportunities that I qualified for, and joining critique groups where I had to bare my writing soul but, in return, got tons of good feedback that made my writing stronger. I still received a lot of NOs, but I also had some successes because I put myself out there.
Some of the lucky breaks include winning or placing in (runner-up, honorable mentions) a few writing contests, which boosted my confidence, signing with an agent (though she quit after we were together for just one year), and getting picked by Jane Yolen as a nonfiction mentee in the We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program. The story Jane worked with me on caught an editor’s interest, and with that interest, I signed with my second agent who has gone on to sell another book for me.
I’m not an overnight success, that’s for sure, but there are almost no overnight success stories. But I followed a path to success that anyone can take, and here are the 4 easy steps. Hah.
1) Learn the craft of writing. If you’re writing picture books, also learn the craft of illustrating or how a picture book is put together. Read as many how-to books as you can and take courses. Some of my favorite classes are listed on the Resources page of my website.
2) Start submitting. Bylines in magazines and smaller publications are a great way to build a resume and experience. Winning writing contests (go for the free ones unless you have money to spare) can help your self-confidence and also look good in a query letter.
3) Join a community. SCBWI provides great resources and support. My first ever illustration sale was to their Bulletin (with a lovely acceptance letter from Steven Mooser). Be a part of a critique group, or three, or at least get one critique partner. Your local SCBWI chapter can help you or you can join other organizations, free and paying, that can also connect you with creative, e.g. Kidlit411, Sub It Club, and 12x12 Picture Book Challenge. These places will also help you learn more about the business side of publishing.
4) Settle in comfortably for the long haul. The old song goes, “You can’t hurry love.” Turns out, this is twice as true for the writing world. Take a break if you need to when you get too down about it, like I did, but be sure to jump back in…because getting published is a lot about “right time, right place” and you never know when that will be for you.
Follow Teresa on Twitter and Instagram!
We are a group of writers and illustrators who have debut books (actual debuts , debuts as author-illustrators, or debuts with medium/large publishers) forthcoming in 2019. Thank you for joining us on our exciting journey!