It has been 15 years since my first picture book was published, and this year I’m doing a series of blog posts about things I’ve learned on my writing journey. The Way the Storm Stops will always have a special place in my heart because I wrote it after rocking my son to sleep during a thunderstorm when he was about 2 years old. Here are 3 things I learned:
1. It takes a team to make a picture book.
Some writers are uncomfortable with the idea of losing control of their words and story after a publisher acquires their manuscript. I love the surprise of it and look forward to how it will all turn out.
With a picture book, the text, the art, and how the text and art come together are all incredibly important. Editor Christy Ottaviano (Henry Holt) led and oversaw the project to ensure that all the parts worked well together.
Illustrator Rosanne Litzinger brought her creativity to the project with bold colors and shapes, the inclusion of a cat, and an endearing portrayal of a mother and daughter’s close relationship.
Editors, illustrators, art directors, marketing experts, and more make up the creative team that brings a picture book to completion.
One of the most frequent questions I get is: Why is the main character in the book a little girl if you wrote the story about your son? The answer: An experience with my son inspired this story, but once the publisher acquired the manuscript, many people worked together to make decisions and create a vision for the final book.
2. Sometimes a first draft works, but sometimes it doesn’t.
When I wrote this manuscript, it was the middle of the night and I wrote from my feelings in the moment. I also wrote down sounds as I heard them: pitter, pitter, plam, plam on my windowpane…the story rolled out and I had my pen and notepad ready.
Then I did what everyone says not to do. I sent the first draft off in the mail the next day to several publishers I admired. I didn’t put it in a drawer and let it cool off. I didn’t hold it for three weeks and rework it later. I didn’t run it by a critique group. In the end, it was published exactly as written.
What I’ve learned is that sometimes a first draft works. Unless it doesn’t. It can be hard to know when to revise and how much to revise. I believe in revising to make a manuscript stronger, but I am also careful about revising so much that it sucks the life out.
This is something I struggle with. I rely on a literary agent to help me sort it out. There have been times when I’ve sent her a first draft and it works. Other times, she lets me know I have more work to do. I try to slow down and only send in my most polished work.
3. Publishing one picture book is no guarantee of publishing another one.
There’s a great quote by author Anne Lamott: “Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.” That sums it up. I have heard other stories of authors who sell one picture book and then find it takes a longer time than they expected to sell another.
Perhaps with the first book, we didn’t understand what we did and how we did it. And the market is tough. And editors are people with varying tastes. The list of possible reasons goes on.
After I sold The Way the Storm Stops, I racked up more than 100 rejection letters on various stories over six years. Then I wrote something new, got an agent, and finally sold my second book.
During that time period, I studied, kept writing, and learned as much as I could about picture books – language, structure, and elements of story.
I’ve learned that writers can’t control whether a manuscript will be acquired. But what we can do is focus on the craft, read widely, and write the best story possible.
Author Michelle Meadows blogs about reading, writing, and publishing children’s books.
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