Kathi Appelt, the amazing Kathi Appelt, is my picture book guru. Everyone who has ever attempted to write a picture book should have one.
I have been struggling with a 400-word picture book for months now. It was sold. I had an introduction to a new editor, a contract in hand, the first half of the advance. And then the editor and I realized that the text she had purchased was going to be too much like another picture book I had coming out with another publisher. (Don’t even ask how such a thing could come about. It’s a long story.) And I went back to the drawing board.
I started over with an altered concept, but now I wasn’t just playing with ideas to see if I could come up with something that pleased me, which is the way I usually approach a new picture book text. I had a hole to plug, a specific editor to satisfy, and a deadline.
The first round, I produced a manuscript the editor loved. Well, that’s just a bit of an exaggeration. She loved the first half. And everyone knows that half a story is no story at all. Especially when we’re talking about a picture book.
Picture book texts are fragile creations. To disassemble one and try to put it together again is a bit like dropping a crystal bowl and then attempting fix it with glue. You simply can’t get there. Or if you do get there, what you’ll end up with will probably be misshapen and conspicuously wounded.
And so I listened to what the editor wanted, and I tried. I tried and I tried and I tried. I heard what she was saying. I knew she was right. And I’d say to myself, “You can do that.” But I couldn’t. Each time I got to the end of a new draft I would tell myself . . . I think this does it. I hope this does it. Surely this does it.
But in my heart, I wasn’t going to be surprised to find myself wrong.
And I was wrong, every time.
The editor was considerate, thoughtful, careful. We talked whenever I wanted to, and she checked in with me from time to time in our discussions to make sure I was “all right.” And I was. Frustrated, but all right. But I couldn’t seem to manage the kind of piece we both wanted. Finally, we fell into a pattern where we would have a discussion, I would send a new draft and she would fall into silence. I knew what the silence meant. She had simply run out of words. If we had talked again, she could only say the same thing again. And what was the point of that?
The editor must have been every bit as frustrated as I, probably more so, because she has people looking over her shoulder at the progress of her manuscripts, and I work only for myself. But I didn’t know what to do except to wait, once more, for her to say it all again.
And then one day I thought, it’s been a long time since I’ve talked to my friend Kathi. And even though it seems foolish to bring in another perspective when it’s a single editor I have to please, I’ve taken picture book texts that were in trouble to Kathi before. She has the perfect eye for weighing what works and what doesn’t.
So I sent her Winter Dance. And she said some of the things I expected and one thing I hadn’t. And the one thing I hadn’t expected blew a hole in the tightly closed process I’d been trapped inside.
It’s interesting that Kathi’s suggestion came with an idea attached that didn’t fit, an idea I didn’t pursue. But it started me off in a different place. Instead of trying to fix the second half, I found myself with new energy to reconceive the whole. The piece found an invigorating new life, and it was a new life that managed to hang onto many of the best elements from the previous versions.
The subject line of the e-mail I sent to my editor and my agent with the manuscript attached said, “I think I’ve got it!”
And the immediate response that came back was YES!
But why couldn’t I just do it the first time around?
I’ve long told my students, “If this process were easier there would be even more people out there already filling the publishing slots. So rejoice in the difficulty of the work and don’t lose faith.”
But there is something else here besides the determined slog through complex and demanding work, something that bringing a fresh voice to my effort helped me to do. Often our most creative act is simply letting go. Letting go of what we’re sure must happen. Letting go of the words already on the page. Letting go of our own demands—and anyone else’s—for the piece.
And having the voice of a knowing friend to make that letting go feel safe helps a whole lot.
A warning, though. You’ll have to find your own picture-book guru. I have dibs on Kathi!