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by Jill Esbaum
Ever had a story idea pop into your head while reading someone else’s published book?
I still remember, back in 2008, stumbling onto Mary Amato’s quirky CHICKEN OF THE FAMILY. I was instantly smitten. Boy, did she nail the sibling dynamic. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a little girl whose two older sisters put into motion a fiendish plot to convince her she’s a chicken. It made me laugh out loud then, and it makes me laugh out loud now. Because those sisters—their actions, their dialogue, their emotions—feel REAL to me. Nobody knows how to push a kid’s buttons like a sibling.
Because I loved Mary’s story so much, I was inspired to write something with a similar starting point—older kids carrying out a fiendish plot against their younger, more innocent sibling. Here’s my synopsis: Spencer bunny knows perfectly well that monsters aren’t real, but when his older brothers begin tormenting him with spooky tales of the dreaded Frankenbunny, the little bunny is soon questioning everything he thought he knew.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS FRANKENBUNNY was first submitted in 2008. And rejected by four editors, including two with whom I’d already worked. Ouch. On the advice of my then-agent (who was right), we stopped submitting, knowing it was lacking…something. But, what? Ugh. I am sorry to admit that this close-but-no-cigar part of story creation is often a regular part of my process. Sorry, Spencer. Into the metaphorical drawer you go.
One editor did say she just hadn’t connected emotionally, which told me that the story needed more of that elusive quality, heart…
Every six months or so, I clicked back into the story and, after a careful read, rewrote it in a different POV or tense. I rearranged scenes. Discovered and brought forward connections. Pumped up the characterization. Worked on the voice, the heart. Cut mercilessly. Started from scratch repeatedly. In this project’s file folder are no less than 28 drafts with labels like:
- 1st person Feb rewrite
- 2nd person Feb rewrite
- 3rd person, Feb rewrite
- FINAL DRAFT – 1st person
- FINAL DRAFT – 3rd person
- Frankenbunny 2
- Nov Frankenbunny
- not this one
- Nov Frankenbunny, past tense
- Nov Frankenbunny, 3rd person
- Frankenbunny, present tense
Looks like I didn’t know my own story, right? But I did. Or…you know, I thought I did. I was pretty sure… What I wasn’t sure of, obviously, was how to present it in its best possible light. Gak. I got to the point where almost wished these characters would let me go already. But they wouldn’t.
I shared the story more than once with my brilliant online critique group (shout out to Andrea Donohoe, Pat Zietlow Miller, Lisa Morlock, and Norene Paulson) and also with author Katy Duffield, who all had insightful comments. And finally this story, originally “finished” at 770 words, was sitting at 550. It had taken SEVEN YEARS of revision, but the entire thing was quicker, leaner. It had more heart (even though I remember whining to my office walls at one point, “Oh, c’mon! How can I add emotion and cut the word count?” Wah, wah, wah.).
Flash forward to late 2015. I had a new agent, Tricia Lawrence, and new hope for some of my old manuscripts. Tricia sent the overhauled FRANKENBUNNY to a few editors and—*cue thud as Jill falls off chair*—it sold to Sterling.
I’ve seen the sketches by illustrator Alice Brereton, and every time I look through them, my pulse flutters—in the best way. I can’t wait to see it finished.
Remember this: Have faith in yourself. Keep learning. Keep practicing. Keep submitting. That’s how you get better at…well, everything.
And when a dear-to-your-heart story gathers too many rejections, put it away for awhile. That isn’t necessarily a failure; it may simply be part of the process for that story. If the characters won’t let you go, start exploring other ways to tell their tale. Revise endlessly. Even if it takes seven years to get it right.
Meanwhile, please watch for FRANKENBUNNY, coming this fall from Sterling Children’s.
Jill Esbaum’s recent titles include IF A T.REX CRASHES YOUR BIRTHDAY PARTY, TEENY TINY TOADY (starred review, Kirkus), and ELWOOD BIGFOOT—Wanted: Birdie Friends. Several of her books have been nominated for state awards, and her I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO! won SCBWI’s Crystal Kite award.
She has authored more than twenty titles in numerous series for National Geographic Kids, as well as a picture book, ANIMAL GROUPS.
Jill created a group blog of fellow picture book writers and illustrators called Picture Book Builders, teaches writing at conferences around the country, and co-hosts the Whispering Woods Picture Book Writing Workshop each summer. Find more information at her website jillesbaum.com.
Jill is giving away a picture book critique.
Leave ONE COMMENT below to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once on this blog post. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.