I always knew I wanted to be a writer—a picture book writer to be exact, but I’d never taken a creative writing class, I only have one angst riddled journal covering a two month stay in France, and I didn’t have notebooks of stories and poems like some of my writer friends. I was definitely a late bloomer and didn’t start writing in earnest until I was nearly thirty. No over night success, it took quite some time and experimentation before I figured out what I was good at.
1) Maxwell’s Demons: My first foray into writing was a picture book in verse about a boy who lets a pack of demons kidnap his sister. After relishing the peace and quiet for a bit, he realizes his parents will probably be upset and heads off to rescue his sister. A trip to the basement and then into the demon’s layer finds sis terrorizing the poor monsters, who then abandon their kingdom and head home with the boy. Sis finds being the queen of the empty lair lonely, throws down her crown, and heads home to join her brother and the demons for ice cream.
I spent a year illustrating the dummy and actually got a few nice rejections—mostly because the editors liked my demons. (Later renamed goblins—apparently demons in picture books are a no-no.) I also changed the title to Gordon’s Goblins because Jane Yolen saw it at a conference and thought it was too close to Sendak’s Max.
2) Hedda’s Horrible Hair—yet another book in verse: The title was actually inspired by the play Hedda Gabbler, but picture book number two had Hedda refusing to cut her hair so it was now a long, tangled mess dragging on the ground behind her. Over the years I’ve encountered quite a few published stories about little girls with unruly hair—though I’ve never seen such a girl in real life. My story had a bear looking to use her hair to knit blankets to keep warm in the winter.
The bear ends up moving in with the girl and he joins her ballet class and inspires her to cut her hair to knit sweaters and such for all the poor forest animals without homes that burn fossil fuels. The last illustration is creepy and embarrassing, and all I can think when I look at it this is “what was I thinking?” This story actually got more personal rejections and offers to look at other work. I wonder if these editors are still in the biz.
3) NESCBWI: I was a total newbie attending one of NESCBWI’s Whispering Pines writer’s retreats, when the northern New England rep said she was stepping down and would anyone like to take her place. Uncharacteristically (I’m a recovering social phobic), I raised my hand and asked what I’d have to do. (Perhaps the hunger for making connections trumped anxiety.) “Nothing!” I was assured. Just find someone to plan the conference in a couple of years and write a few columns. So for the next three years I wrote columns and articles for the NESCBWI newsletter. This experience was very much out of my comfort zone, but I gradually grew to enjoy it. I wasn’t going to be winning any awards for my columns, but it was nice to try something different.
4) Mr. McGuire’s Magic Repair Shop: Finished about ten years ago, this book started out—very briefly—as another picture book. Because I didn’t start it in verse, I think I was finally able to break out of the constraints of writing in verse and the story grew—and grew—until it turned into a novel and the light bulb went off! This is what I was good at. Good doesn’t mean great, and I worked on figuring out the ins and outs of novel writing. This wouldn’t be my first sale, but novel two, Uninvited, would.
5) The Repair Shop Chronicles: Ten years later, I sold the repair shop—newly titled—as a three book series. I revised it countless times over the years—sometimes not looking at it for over a year, but I stuck with it because unlike my picture books, these characters where real to me.