How I (Literally) Broke into Print – by Pamela Jane

How I (Literally) Broke into Print – by Pamela Jane

Years ago, when I was struggling to write my first children’s book, a renown writing teacher and expert in the field of children’s literature offered some advice. “If you want to get published, don’t write fantasy, don’t write seasonal material, and for heaven’s sake, don’t write about dolls!”

She suggested instead that I write about an authentic childhood experience. This was sound advice, as far as it went. The trouble was, my Christmas story about an ambitious ballerina doll was my authentic childhood experience. As a little girl, I had owned a ballet doll, a gift from a fancy New York toy store, hundreds of miles from our nondescript midwestern town. My own ballet lessons were a disaster due to botched foot surgery; I couldn’t even bend my big toe. But, my doll possessed the grace and stamina I lacked (she could stand in first position for weeks!). I figured it was only a matter of time before she booked it back to Broadway.

When I explained all this to my teacher, she shook her head, “It’ll never sell.” I went home after class, and told my husband what happened. I said, “My teacher told me my book will never sell! She says it’s not my authentic childhood experience.”

To my surprise, my normally supportive spouse said something so outrageous that I hurled a green china vase against the wall, smashing it into a hundred satisfying pieces.

What he said was, “Do you think she might be right?”

After shattering the vase (a wedding gift I never liked anyway), I settled down to write my story, a Christmas fantasy about a ballet doll who longs to dance in the Nutcracker Ballet. Since, according to my teacher, no savvy editor would publish my book, I decided to send it to an obscure publisher who might not have heard that seasonal doll fantasies were out. My friend, Debbie, had other ideas.

“That’s ridiculous. Send your story to a major publisher first,” she said crisply. She had just graduated from law school at the top of her class, and was feeling very self-assured.

“You don’t get it,” I said. “This is a seasonal fantasy about a doll!”

Debbie refused to grasp the fine points of the children’s book market. Finally, just to prove my point, I queried a major publisher. I didn’t even try to make the story sound appealing. “It’s a Christmas fantasy about a little girl and a ballet doll,” I stated flatly. The editor responded quickly, “Please send your story right away.”

I sent it off. Six months went by and I didn’t hear from the publisher. Finally, my heart pounding, I worked up the nerve to call. (In those days, editors still picked up the phone.)

“I’m so glad you called!” the editor said, when I reached her. “We were just preparing to offer you a contract.” I drew my breath in sharply. All my life, I’d heard “No.” No, you’re not smart enough. No, you can’t write. No, you can’t have written this (my eighth-grade English teacher). Suddenly, I was hearing “Yes!” I was practically speechless.

“What about revisions?” I managed to croak. I knew from my class that the editor would expect a major rewrite.

“I don’t want to change a single word, although the copy editor thinks there’s too much starlight.” The editor paused.

“You know,” she said after a moment, “I don’t think there can ever be too much starlight.”

That was the last time an editor told me I didn’t have to change a single word. But, through years of writing and publishing, hundreds of revisions, and thousands of rejections (I recently counted 2,567), the memory of that first acceptance glows through many a long, un-starlit night. What’s more, I have not broken a single piece of china since I sent that green vase hurtling across the room.

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*Noelle of the Nutcracker, illustrated by Jan Brett (Houghton Mifflin, 1986, is still in print).

Pamela Jane is a children’s author, essayist, and author of a memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing.

 

 

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