guest post by Anne Broyles
Anne attended a novel revision retreat a couple years ago. Switching from novels to picture books, she applied all the principles of great writing and the result is an amazing story. Here, she talks about her revision process. –Darcy
Arturo and the Navidad Birds
With the publication of my third picture book, I took the chance to reflect on the thirteen-year period that brought Arturo and the Navidad Birds to bookstores. If I’d known ‘way back then what I have learned over these years, the book might have been published earlier but I apparently needed time to learn these lessons!
- Christmas 2000: As I was decorating our Christmas tree with our German foreign exchange daughter, explaining the stories behind many of our one-of-a-kind ornaments, I had the initial idea of a picture book about a grandmother sharing family history with her grandson as they—surprise!—decorate a Christmas tree. As soon as the boxes of ornaments were empty and our tree was complete, I stole off to write four pages of notes, listing possible ornaments and their stories. Working title: The Memory Tree.
- 1/2001: On breaks from other projects, I mulled over the grandmother and grandson. Who were they and what sort of relationship did they have? Having recently studied Spanish in Costa Rica, I decided to root my story in a family with a Costa Rican-born grandmother and American-born grandson.
- 2/2001: I spent way too much time figuring out a chronology of the grandmother’s life. How much time did I spend on Arturo’s character? Not enough!
- 7/2001: I wrote the first draft (2000 words in 3 hours) in English with occasional Spanish words, and compiled a list of possible publishers. The story belonged to Abue Rosa, focusing on her back-story and the ornaments’ history. Arturo was not fully developed in this wordy draft.
- 9/2001: An editor friend gave her opinion on the first draft (“the idea holds a lot of appeal”) but wondered about the chronology of Abue Rosa’s too-complicated back-story. I realized I needed to get into Arturo’s head more. Around this time, I also asked a Costa Rican colleague for comments on language/cultural accuracy and made some small changes. I also asked several Hispanic friends what they called their grandmothers and discovered a great variety as each family chose its own nicknames (English-speaking North American families may call grandmothers Grammy, Nonna, Memaw, Granny Sue, Oma, etc.)
- 2003: I sent The Memory Tree to POCKETS magazine. Rejection #1.
- 2004-2009: Although this wasn’t my main work-in-progress, I did share the story with my two critique groups and a writing revision retreat. With their feedback, I realized that I had a “talking heads” story that was too “quiet.” The numerous ornament stories slowed down the action so I deleted all but a few decorations. The word count decreased, little by little, from 2000 to 933 words.
One colleague commented that her son would never be so calm, but would find ways to play with ornaments. Her words helped me unlock Arturo’s character— he finally came to life as I added the broken bird ornament to give the story tension and meaning. Up until then it had been “Abue Rosa and Arturo decorate the tree together. Isn’t that sweet?” Now, the story had action/reaction, conflict and resolution.
One reader disliked The Memory Tree title, which “sounded like a genealogical tree.” I liked her suggestion and changed to “The Empty Christmas Tree”.
In 2008, I sent the manuscript to two editors. One mentioned “a sweet plot”, the other “liked the Costa Rican references and cultural context” but “the initial string of remembrances isn’t enough to pull me into the story.” Rejections #2 and 3.
- Between 2009 and 2011. I tightened the story to 738 words and sent the manuscript to six more editors for rejections #4 and 5, three no response even with follow-up, and in 2/2010: Pelican’s Nina Kooij said they would hold the submission on their “possibles list,” but I was free to submit elsewhere.
- 2010-2011: Eleven years had passed since my initial idea. Was this bilingual, multicultural, holiday book fit too narrowly defined? I put away “The Empty Christmas Tree” and worked on other projects.
- 1/12: I almost didn’t open my SASE from Pelican since it had been two years since I last heard from them. Nina Kooij asked if the book was still available. Yes, yes, yes!
- 3/12: Pelican requested a new title “that implies the Hispanic culture.” I compiled a list of 22 titles (my own and friends’ suggestions) and tweaked the manuscript, making small changes that better reflected Hispanic culture. They chose Arturo and the Navidad Birds, which I like because it shows the protagonist, his family’s cultural and language background, and the symbols of the problem Arturo must solve.
- 5/12: Pelican decided to publish Arturo and the Navidad Birds with my English-with-a-smattering-of Spanish text and a separate all-Spanish text. I cut 100 words to make room for the Spanish text.
- 7/12: Once I had a complete Spanish translation, I emailed numerous Spanish-speaking friends and professional resources for their opinions. Their responses (we would say this instead of that; we don’t use this phrase in our country) convinced me to make the setting more generically Central American or Mexican. I altered some words/phrases to fit this vision.
- 9/12: I signed a contract with Pelican.
- 9/2012-3/2012: I worked with my editor and the illustrator to coordinate text and art. KE Lewis’ lovely paintings brought depth to my words, and I especially love how she showed Abue Rosa’s memories in sepia with the contemporary story in brighter colors. There are lots of details for young readers to discover in the book’s pages, and I was reminded of how important is the illustrator’s contribution to a picture book.
- 9/2013: Pelican released Arturo and the Navidad Birds.
In hindsight, I realize that my initial idea was more setting than plot. Until I knew both Arturo and Abue Rosa, the manuscript was an exercise in getting to know my characters and making the setting real in my mind. Once I identified a clear problem and brainstormed ways Arturo could try to solve the problem, the story worked. I cut two-thirds of the length, tightened the plot, layered more of Abue Rosa’s culture into the story and built the story’s tension up to Abue Rosa’s statement: “People are more important than things.”
And it only took me thirteen years to get these 32 pages right!
Bio: Anne is the author of ARTURO AND THE NAVIDAD BIRDS, PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS (Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, Bank Street College’s The Best Children’s Books of the Year, and Massachusetts Book Awards recommended reading list) and SHY MAMA’S HALLOWEEN (Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, Teacher’s Choice Award and the McNaughton Award). She lives north of Boston with her husband, two cats
and an old black dog named Thor. For more, see AnneBroyles.com