If a T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party has just landed on the bookshelves. August 16th, to be exact.Yay and Congratulations! Tell us where you found inspiration for this character?
Thanks, Patricia! First of all, I had written an extensive dinosaur book for National Geographic. For awhile there, I knew a lot about them! So I figured I’d use some of that knowledge, right? I wrote a cute dinosaur story that … ended up going nowhere. Rats. I didn’t think about them again for a couple of years. But then I tried something new (for me), drawing slips of paper from two piles, the first filled with possible story characters, and the second filled with possible situations. I pulled T. rex and birthday party and just started noodling around with the possibilities. I’ve always loved the noise and chaos of kids’ birthday parties (the chaos is fleeting, but the memories are forever), so I had a ball brainstorming.
Now as a grown-up kid, you are living your dream writing non-fiction and fiction stories. Does one come easier than the other?
Nonfiction comes a bit easier, because I have set information and simply have to write it as narrative nonfiction in a way that appeals to kids. When I write fiction, everything has to be pulled from my own imagination and shaped into a story. That takes much more revision, because it’s never as brilliant on paper as it seemed inside my head. Drat.
We would love it, as fellow authors, if you’d share with us a few secrets to your successful writing?
Secrets? Hm, let’s see …
1. I’m stubborn. If I love the heart of a story, I can’t give up on it until it’s exactly right. If that sometimes leads me to the sad realization, after days/weeks of work, that a story just isn’t marketable, at least I’ve given it my all.
2. I’m able to look at my work objectively, as though it’s not my own, which allows me to be more critical. That ability didn’t come quickly, but over a period of years.
3. I embrace revision. I know, going in, that it’s simply part of the process. So I don’t shy away from it. Honestly, revision has become my favorite part of writing.
Now that I look at these three “secrets,” I can see that they’re basically all the same; they’re all about revising your story until it works.
Here’s a BIG question. How does an author keep the editors reading?
When I do critiques for other people, I see too many manuscripts that ease into a story. That’s okay for an early draft, but don’t let a manuscript leave your office that way. A story should be super concise and refined. GOOD stories aren’t just slapped onto the page. They’re meticulously crafted. A self-published author once bragged to me, after learning that one of my books took four months to get exactly right, that he wrote his in only an hour. Having just paged through his book, I had to bite my tongue really, really hard. ;)
Ultimately, good editing is a must. What is your process?
Every time I sit down to work on a story, I reread it from the beginning, silently or aloud, seeing how the language flows, whether the character’s motivation is clear, and whether or not there’s any kind of spark coming through. It takes me about two weeks to finish a first draft. I stop for a quick happy dance, because the hardest part – facing a blank page – is over. Then I tweak for many more weeks, reshaping and reimagining and discovering hidden connections I missed the first 75 times through that I can then bring to the forefront.
So my process is just a matter of reading and tweaking. I don’t number my drafts; that would be depressing! I’m constantly deleting and condensing, adding sensory details and attitude, refining the voice, honing the dialogue, etc. I send a “finished” story off to my critique group, then try to forget about it and get to work on something else.
Do you have an agent and how did you find her/him?
I’m represented by Tricia Lawrence of the Erin Murphy Literacy Agency. I met her at an SCBWI-Iowa conference and immediately felt drawn to her. She’s tenacious and optimistic and a lot of fun!
Did you have many rejections before your writing began getting noticed and published?
YES. So many that a writing friend started calling me The Rejection Queen. That wasn’t because I got so many (which I did), but because they didn’t destroy my desire to continue. I learned early on not to let rejections get to me. Good thing, because I still get plenty. This business is all about finding the right editor for the right story at the right time. Even with an agent, that’s rarely instantaneous. I’ve learned to be patient. Mostly.
Because I was getting nothing but rejections that first year, I backed up the truck, so to speak, and started sending poems and nonfiction and stories to children’s magazines – which were often accepted! Those successes fueled the fire, and I knew I wasn’t going to quit until I sold a picture book story. That happened four and a half years in, and, as it turned out, was addicting.
I know how lucky I am to spend my days doing something I love, at my own pace, something that leaves me time for hobbies and grand-babysitting. I’m still as excited about writing for kids as I was when I started out twenty years ago. And, considering there’s no auto-retirement age for writers, I intend to keep telling stories for a long time to come.
Jill Esbaum writes picture books filled with humor and heart on her family farm in eastern Iowa. Recent titles include If a T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party, Teeny Tiny Toady (starred review, Kirkus), and Elwood Bigfoot - Wanted: Birdie Friends. Her books have been nominated for state awards (Tom’s Tweet in Iowa and South Dakota; Stanza in Indiana; I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo! in Nebraska), named to the International Reading Association’s Notable Children’s Book list
(Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin’!) and the International Youth Library’s White Ravens List (I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!) ; and featured as a New York Times Editor’s Choice (I Hatched!). Scholastic Book Fairs have offered both I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo! and Elwood Bigfoot.
My in-print picture books are:
If a T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party (Sterling)
Teeny Tiny Toady (Sterling)
Elwood Bigfoot – Wanted: Birdie Friends (Sterling)
I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo! (Dial)
Tom’s Tweet (Knopf)
To the Big Top
Estelle Takes a Bath
My nonfiction books are all with National Geographic and include 17 titles, with 5 more on the way. Those can be viewed on my website at www.jillesbaum.com/nonfiction.html
Thank you, Jill!