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by Jill Esbaum

One little story idea per day. That’s all Storystorm asks.

Yet, in past years, I’ve petered out about January 18th-19th. Oh, I didn’t lack enthusiasm. I lacked discipline. Sooner or later my mind wanted to spin one of those sparkly new ideas into a story, and I let it. Then I got the teensiest bit obsessed, to the exclusion of everything else. My good intentions to make it to the 31st? Kaput. Sorry, Storystorm.

THIS YEAR, I made it. This year, I approached Storystorm not as a hopeful writer looking for a great new idea, but purely as playtime. Farting around. Romping through my brain’s weirder recesses.

Are the ideas I jotted far-fetched? Absurd? Impossibly lame? Yeah, baby. And woo-hoo! Because nobody cares. Nobody. For me, Storystorm is a way of knocking the rust from my receptor antennae so ideas can keep pinging in long beyond January 31st—while I’m reading, watching TV, hanging with friends, babysitting, on family outings, etc. If one of those pings becomes a story later on, great. If not, that’s fine, too.

A few recent pings that led to publication:

While babysitting…

I was watching my 2-month-old granddaughter. She was a little fussy, so I was walking her around, bouncing her a bit, and whispering sweet nothings, like Grammys do. Without thinking, I said, “Oh, sweetie. Don’t cry. We love babies… yes, we doooo…” Instantly, that old cheer popped into my head:  “We got spirit, yes, we do! We got spirit, how ‘bout you?!” That led to the just-published WE LOVE BABIES, a rhyming cheer declaring everything we love about baby animals.

While observing kids…

At the county fair, there was a kiddo who you never saw without his beloved red rubber boots. That turned into FROG BOOTS (releasing March 3, 2020), about a kindergartener, Dylan, who falls hard for a pair of rain boots covered in multi-colored poison dart frogs—his favorite animal. But when he proudly wears them to school, another kid announces that, because they’re purple, they’re girl boots, and Dylan has to decide whether to abandon them forever…or not.

While reading the newspaper…

I saw an article about a long-distance trucker who lost his tiny dog at an interstate rest area, but he didn’t realize the dog had jumped from the cab until he was hours away. He couldn’t turn around immediately without losing his job. ANGST. Long story, short:  The little dog, believing his buddy would come back for him, WAITED at the rest stop for two entire days. (Yes, there was a happy ending.) I couldn’t help but jump into the mind and heart of that lost-and-loyal doggy, which became WHERE’D MY JO GO? (releasing April 15, 2020).

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So our challenge, here at the end of the month, is to KEEP those antennae up, now that we’ve got ‘em greased and upright. Then, no matter what we’re doing in our “real lives,” we’ll be open and aware and (like Hotel California) programmed to receive.

The piano teacher was right:  Practice really does make perfect. And Storystorm provides the perfect opportunity for focused practice. (Thank you, Tara!)


Jill Esbaum lives on a family farm in eastern Iowa, where she writes picture books and nonfiction. Her latest picture book is WE LOVE BABIES (National Geographic). Several of her books have been nominated for state awards, and her I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO! won a SCBWI Crystal Kite.

Learn more about Jill and her books at jillesbaum.com and picturebookbuilders.com. Find her on Facebook at Author Jill Esbaum and on Twitter at @JEsbaum.


Jill is giving away two prizes to two lucky winners—a picture book critique and a copy of her new book WE LOVE BABIES!

Leave one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

Good luck!

 

by Jill Esbaum

Ever had a story idea pop into your head while reading someone else’s published book?

chickenofthefamilyI 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.

jilldrawer

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.


Version 4Jill 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.

prizedetails

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.

Good luck!

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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


THREE WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
January 7, 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
August 2020

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