We’ve all seen news snippets, featuring a young football player signing a letter of intent to play for the pros. It’s been a long (cough) four years for him. He walked into the spotlight a doe-eyed kid. He will walk out a bazillionaire with braun and bruises. Cameras flash all around him. King for the day holds a fifty-cent pen that, with one indecipherable curly-que, becomes a collector’s item. Ta-da! Now he is a professional. People will know his name. He will drive a Ferrari and hire a publicist. He has arrived.
When I first started out on my zig-zaggy journey toward publication, I admit to having my own pie-in-the-sky visions of what it would look like, feel like to get “the call.” Or, better yet, to sign my first book contract. The only evidence I had ever seen of such an event involved unnaturally tidy desks and mile-wide grins. I always snickered jealously that cases of booze and chocolate must have been consumed in the making of those lucky authors. What would it look like when my time came? Would my family and friends gather en masse to watch me carefully pen my official author signature? Would the clouds part while sunlight beamed a cherubic halo around me (the perfect author photo, don’t you think?) Would I be Queen for the day?
Time has a way of adjusting Pollyanna expectations. Honestly, nobody could have told me how twisty and arduous this journey could be. Maybe it’s enough to know that we change and grow between our Freshman writing stage and our first sale. As the wise Yoda of TV hunks, Ashton Kutcher recently recounted, “opportunity looks a whole lot like hard work.” I agree. But, to add a sentimental spin on the kid-lit topic, I believe our own inner child informs more than we realize.
It’s interesting how having a book newly under contract has thrown me into a nostalgic mood. Partly, I admit, there’s a sense of validation to selling a book. There, I said it! Finally, I can respond to that blasted non-writer question, “Oh, you’re a writer? What have you written?” Grrr!! And, partly because I’ve realized how my first sale (not the first book I’ve written) has brought me full circle.
You see, despite my current suburban address, I’m still a horse-crazy ranch kid at heart. The best years of my youth were spent training and showing horses. A lot! They were my gentle giants, my first loves, my teachers. In some ways, during those awful teen years, horses saved me. Despite the myriad of other subjects I’ve written about, is it a coincidence that my debut book is about a once-famous horse and the remarkable man who loved and “educated” him? I don’t think so.
But I can assure you that my path to publication, like so many, was riddled with lessons disguised as speed bumps.
Signing with my amazing agent, Erin Murphy, involved a four-year-long, twisty side trip of it’s own. (you can read that story here (Lesson #1- Be brave in approaching agents. And smile.)
On first submission, my debut book immediately interested three Goldilock editors. One editor thought my picture book biography was too long and suggested I cut it in half. Another editor thought it was too short. She suggested I expand it to a chapter book. The third editor thought it was juuust right (well, sort of.) (lesson #2- Be flexible with revisions)
Two years and four revisions later, the offer came in, and lengthy negotiations began (thank you, Erin and Sam.) Nobody ever warns you about all the waiting involved in this biz. Editors, agents, and acquisitions committees are very busy people. And, as you know, authors just sit around in their pajamas making stuff up, buying cases of booze and chocolate, and crafting ugly sweaters. (lesson #3-Be Patient. Lesson #4- Always be working on another project.)
Oh, lest any romantic notions remained about how “the call” would come, I arranged to be stuck in Austin traffic when Erin called. “We have a deal,” she declared. I didn’t care what the other drivers thought of my wacky behind-the-wheel-dancing. When they sell their first books, they’ll understand. (lesson #5- Don’t drive under the influence of hysterics.)
When the EMLA envelope arrived, I took pictures of it and coddled it like a new baby. Don’t laugh- you might do the same. Inside were four copies of my shiny new contract. Woohoo! My sweet family doled out just the right praise and I braced for the long-awaited hoopla- my ESPN moment in the spotlight. Where and how would I sign this hard-earned golden ticket to publication? How would I want to remember and document this pivotal moment? Instantly, I knew.
My husband and son grabbed the camera as I dialed the phone. “Mom,” I said. “I need to come home.”
My childhood home, where I first fell in love with the choreography of words on the page.
Home, where this zany dream of publication first trotted into my naïve young mind.
Home, where love, and land, and horses built me.
I plopped myself onto various grassy patches, purple pen in hand. While some very special old friends nuzzled over my shoulder and through my memories. They seemed to approve.
It was all the hoopla I needed.
Donna Bowman Bratton’s debut nonfiction picture book, tentatively titled STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY, will be released in 2015, by Lee & Low Books.
Donna confesses to being a sentimental sap who has relied on chocolate (not booze) during the writing of this book and the many that will follow.