Three things you need to be a successful(ish) picture book writer:
Talent: You've either got it or you ain't. Assuming you have it as a starting point, you can then learn, you can try things out, you can be inspired... And the harder you work, the better you get.
Luck: Stumbling upon a stupendous and original idea. Landing it on the right desk at the right time.
But it's number two, Persistence, that I want to riff on today.
Persistence means writing and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, until the story finds its form, until it REALLY TRULY WORKS. I still have the evidence in my files to show that I printed out no less than one hundred and eighty seven different versions of my first picture book story, Owen and the Mountain, before I came up with the version that nailed it, and that Bloomsbury (the 24th publisher to see the story, but don't tell them that!) took on.
Persistence means believing in a story if it's really good, despite your friends, or your agent, or any number of publishers saying it doesn't quite work. If I think something's good enough, but haven't managed to sell it, I bottom drawer it. Then every few months (or years) I pull it back out, give it a good shake, and if I still like it enough I think about whether it's worth having another go at finding it a home. I keep an eye and an ear out for new publishers, new editors, new trends, new opportunities, and if I think I have a story that seems to fit, I go for it.
And so, of my five picture books due to be published in 2012, the average length of time since I originally wrote them is TEN YEARS.
February: Collywobble (Pont), written 2010
April (?): Cillian and the Seal (An Gum - Irish language only), written 2003
May: Little Chick and the Secret of Sleep (QED), written 1998
June: The Snuggle Sandwich (Andersen), written 1995
September: Too Noisy! (Walker), written 2005.
All but the first, Collywobble, were kicking around for ages until they found their true form and a publisher who believed in them. The Snuggle Sandwich was one of the very first stories I wrote - recently I did a trawl of my back catalogue and said to my agent 'Of all the stories I've written that we never managed to sell, this is my favourite.' So I injected a bit of freshness into it, including a new punchline and title, and she went out and sold it.
A friend of mine, Liz Weir, can beat even that seventeen year wait. Liz, one of Ireland's very best storytellers, has a picture book coming out this year that she originally wrote all the way back in 1985!
So never say die, say I. Believe in yourself, believe in your stories. And if they're good enough, and you're persistent enough and flexible enough, they'll see the light of day. They really will.
Anyone else got any good examples of persistence paying off?
And, by the way, if anybody wants to find out more about how to become a top-notch picture book writer (or/and illustrator), you could do a lot worse than to come on the week-long Arvon course Polly Dunbar and I are tutoring at Totleigh Barton in Devon in June. Our guest reader is ex-Children's Laureate Anthony Browne. It's going to be good!