One afternoon in July, my Grandmother and Auntie Babe decided to take me and my cousin, Beth, for a hike up Blue Hills. We were ten or eleven. I’m not sure. It was one of those memorable days, not because of the weather (hot and sticky) or the scenery (I remember watching for rattlers someone reported). No, it was because of our silly commentary. My cousin and I sounded more senior than the seniors we were with, as if we’d stepped off the nursing home bus.
“My legs are killing me,” I said.
“You can say that again,” my cousin chimed in.
With that my Grandmother and Aunt howled. We weren’t even a quarter of the way up the hill. And this became one of those legendary family stories. How wimpy the next generation is, or something like that. Doesn’t take much, does it?
Getting up that hill took quite a bit of effort. Needless to say we were pooped after the first few switchbacks. This was quite a surprise to us. We had our walking shoes and sticks. We were young and energetic. We thought we could beat our relatives to the top, no problem. Boy did we have a few things to learn.
So too with writing, and more so with publishing. I thought writing came easily. It was natural, a gift. After all, this is where I excelled. Chemistry was a natural disaster. Economics ruined my first semester in college, but give me an article to write, a short story to create, and I was golden.
Or so I thought. But when I began to submit my poetry for publication on a cold day in 1999, I got a reality check. My first rejection letter appeared in the mail. Soon I was keeping a pin cushion by my desk. I stuck red pins in for all of my rejections. Now and then I’d add green for a meager acceptance. I was starting to see this took leg work, and my legs were killing me.
You can say that again! It wasn’t as easy as whipping out a poem one night and seeing it in The New Yorker the next month. This was a climb. Allowing your work to be workshopped and critiqued is never easy, but for most of us, it’s the only way to perfect your art.
With picture books, it’s the same story. I can work and rework a story. I can revise for editors and agents, change my characters from boys to ducks. I can add words, subtract metaphors, and editors will claim to love it. Still, the Big Kahuna editor who sits on the top of Blue Hill may decide it’s not quirky enough or too quiet. *)(*^%&)_4%# So I rework it, and send it out again.
So when is it done? I have two answers. Ellen Bryant Voigt is famous for telling one poetry student, “Honey, it’s all draft until you die.” Certainly this is one thought, but I have another. When I received a phone call announcing my grand prize from Writer’s Digest, I was on a mountain, literally. I was attending the Frost Festival of Poetry in Franconia, New Hampshire. The poem (White Birch) that won the prize was being critiqued when I received that famous call. Some people had no idea what the poem was about. Some people suggested fewer words. Others thought I should expand it. And many had valid points. Still, in the middle of all that, several editors at Writer’s Digest thought it deserved grand prize.
My point? Work hard. Rewrite, and rewrite some more. At some point it will be a winner in an editor’s mind, even if “it’s all draft until you die.” Someone will always have another criticism to add to the pile. Only you, the author, can decide when it’s done. But it’s worth the back-breaking climb and then some. “You can say that again!”