It takes a village.
Those words typically represent how many people it takes to successfully raise a child. Parents can’t do it without help from relatives, neighbors, schoolteachers, friends and everyone in the surrounding community.
As I move down my path as an author, I’ve discovered those words also apply to book writing. Obviously, to successfully publish a book, you need agents, editors, illustrators, designers, printing press operators, marketers, booksellers and more. But often, there’s a whole village of people involved before the sale even gets made.
I think many people assume that writers sit down, write their book in solitude, edit it a bit, send it off and wait for a publishing offer to arrive. That’s usually not the case, although — because I may be the biggest introvert in the world — it certainly sounds appealing.
I was just fortunate enough to sell my third picture book — The Quickest Kid in Clarksville — to Chronicle Books. Here’s how a village helped make that happen, step by step.
I wrote a solitary first draft at my kitchen table after being inspired by Jacqui Robbins’ and Matt Phelan’s picture book The New Girl … And Me. I thought its depiction of a beginning friendship and the pitfalls that can occur along the way was spot-on, and I wanted to see if I could take that theme in a new direction. I’d also been hanging around my youngest daughter’s school, and the voices of some of the kids had gotten stuck in my head and made their way into my manuscript. The first draft was titled The Fastest Feet on Fleet Street and had two girls competing to see who was the better runner, jumper and double-dutch rope-skipper. They start out disliking each other, but end up as friends. But I knew I wasn’t done, I needed …
I sent the draft through my two critique groups. They made comments, and I made adjustments. Then, I won a picture book critique from esteemed picture book writer Dori Chaconas in a contest and I sent the story her way. She had great things to say about the voice and suggested that I have one of the girls be new to the neighborhood so she’d be more of a threat to the other, who had been reigning queen of the block. I thought this was a great idea, rewrote accordingly and proceeded to …
I took the manuscript along to the Rutgers One-on-One Plus children’s writing conference (which, by the way, is a wonderful experience if you ever get the chance to go). The special thing about this conference is that you get paired with an editor, agent or writer and get to spend 45 minutes with them 1-on-1 digging into one of your manuscripts and soaking up their knowledge. I was paired with Chelsea Eberly, an associate editor at Random House. Not only did Chelsea explain the concept of a story hook better than anyone else I had ever heard, she also turned on a huge light bulb for me by suggesting that I set the story in the past and look for a historical angle to give the story a more strongly defined identity and purpose. Almost instantly, I thought of setting the story in 1960, the year African-American sprinter Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Rome. I went home full of excitement and rewrote the story so both characters idolized Wilma and wanted to be just like her. That brought me to …
I attended a SCBWI conference in Iowa and submitted the latest version for a critique. I was paired with Brett Wright, an assistant editor at Bloomsbury. He had a lot of good things to say in his detailed critique, but he also suggested amping up the tension between my two competing athletes so, as he put it, “They earn their happy ending.” This made sense to me, and was relatively easy to do, so I went at it and moved to …
Now, I thought the story seemed ready to submit. Ammi-Joan Paquette, my agent, agreed and started sending it out. Some rejections arrived, which is inevitable, and then we received a very nice note from Tamra Tuller at Chronicle Books. She said she liked the story, but something didn’t seem quite right. Maybe there wasn’t enough Wilma Rudolph? She didn’t know exactly how to fix things, but if I was willing to try, she’d be happy to look at it later. I was willing, so that led to …
I was off of work and alone in my house the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and I made revising the story my top priority. But I wasn’t exactly sure how to get started. So I sent the story back to my critique group friends sharing Tamra’s comments and asking for ideas. They did not let me down. Norene Paulson sent a list of brainstormed thoughts about how to make Wilma more prominent. Lisa Morlock suggested using the story’s setting to add punch. And, Jill Esbaum offered some character advice. So I pondered, and began …
I did a bunch of research to learn more about Wilma Rudolph. I read her autobiography and other children’s books about her. And in doing so, I learned some very interesting things. Wilma had grown up in Clarksville, Tenn. which was still segregated in 1960. Blacks and whites went to separate schools, saw separate doctors and ate at separate restaurants. But after Wilma’s Olympic victories, Clarksville wanted to throw her a victory parade. Wilma agreed, but said the event had to be integrated. So that parade was the first integrated event in Clarksville history. Knowing that, I moved my story’s setting to Clarksville and had both girls planning to attend Wilma’s victory parade. I also took out the jumping and rope-skipping elements and had the girls’ competition focus only on running events loosely patterned after Wilma’s three Olympic events. And the title changed to become The Quickest Kid in Clarksville. I look a deep breath and advanced to …
I sent the story off to Joan. She asked a few questions, I made a few alterations and she sent the story back to Tamra, who took it to an editorial meeting and then to an acquisitions meeting and then, amazingly, bought it, which resulted in …
Celebration! (And, of course, awaiting the editorial notes from Tamra.)
So thank you to everyone in my village. As they say in sports, this was a team win.
You may be a solitary scribe slaving alone in your room. You may track your progress using a nifty star chart like Tara Dairman.
That’s all good. But once you’ve gotten your manuscript as far as you individually can, consider sending it out into your village.
And if you don’t have a village, go find some like-minded people and create one.
You and your book will be better for it.