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!
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!