Publishing a book—for me—involves working with a group of very talented people. A lot of things need to fall into place just right. For example, I need an editor: someone who can ask me questions; someone who can catch the things I missed; someone who knows which sentences to strike and then jot in the margin insert magic here. I’m actually fortunate enough to have two talented editors I can call on. I need test readers, too, to give me feedback. (My test readers are full of awesome.)
Some things come easy for me: story, plot, characters. And some things I was trained to do: typesetting, page design. Then there are trickier elements, like knowing what will sell. You won’t find that in a book, and it’s not easy to teach. But my wife Liz and I have been hand-selling books for twenty years. If we hadn’t discovered what sells and what doesn’t, our bookstore wouldn’t have lasted through the first lease.
What I didn’t have was a professional illustrator. And finding one of those, I’ve become convinced, involves magic, a series of fortunate events, or both.
During my first year of agent hunting, after my first batch of fifty or so queries had been either rejected or simply ignored, I started to think seriously about epubbing, and thus cover and chapter art. I polled my artistic friends. I followed up on a few leads. I met some very talented people. But, ultimately, I needed to attract someone who loved my project. That last part was important to me. As the acting graphics department head of Gibbering Gnome Press, I didn’t want to end up assigning cover and chapter art to someone only half-interested in the project. This was my book, my baby. I wanted someone who loved it as much as I did. But I knew, deep down, that I was dreaming. Of course, if you’ve read my first blog, you already know that sometimes dreams come true.
I almost didn’t make it to the 2011 SCBWI Winter Conference. A blizzard was brewing, but it wasn’t clear just when or where it would hit. The day before I was supposed to leave for NYC, Liz and I had just opened the store when we found out the snow was ready to pounce that afternoon. I flew home to finish my packing while my wife scrambled to arrange for an employee to cover the store, got me a new bus ticket, and booked a hotel near Penn Station for that night. During our car ride into DC, we kept getting texts as the evening buses canceled, one after the other, each getting closer to mine. We arrived with ten minutes to spare. Expected precipitation? One to two feet, in a corridor from DC to Boston to New York City with the maximum accumulation running like a wall right down I-95 (the road I would be riding on). But I’d made it: I was on the last bus leaving DC for New York City.
Our driver explained what we were heading into. She said our chances of making it weren’t good, but that she’d get us as close to the city as possible. I’d never been in a vehicle moving through worse weather. The last half of the ride—we slid. The driver honked her horn every two minutes. I’d never worn a seatbelt on a bus, but I did that night. And I strategized what I was going to do if we spun off some bridge and landed in a river. Seconds count at a time like that.
Late, hungry, and in the middle of a blizzard, I stepped onto the New York City streets, already blanketed with six inches of hard-packed snow. Think I’m exaggerating? After I finally got set up in my hotel, I went out foraging for a late dinner and followed it with a long, late-night walkabout (I love weather). Here’s a pic I snapped in Times Square.
I found myself with an unexpected free day. My only obligation was transferring my stuff to the conference hotel. Time passed quickly. I was excited at the prospect of showing off my new chapter to an agent and editor the next morning and afternoon. Finally, after six years and more than twenty revisions, I had the right beginning. But as I’ve already said, the writers intensive ended in disaster. None of the comments I received made any sense. I left the sessions in shock. How could someone have thought my four- and five-year-old protagonists, clearly described as siblings, were married? Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald? All I did the rest of that day was stare at my two pages and shake my head.
The next day, though, during the workshops, I had a great time, completely making up for my experience with the intensive. In one workshop, we worked on our queries. I was satisfied with mine. But not wanting to waste any time, I set to work on my verbal pitch. An agent had asked the day before what my book was about, and I couldn’t believe how poorly the pitch rolled off my tongue. It was embarrassing! So I honed my pitch, writing it over and over to set it firmly in my brain.
After another workshop, we broke for the luncheon. I’d enjoyed the luncheon at last year’s conference, but my table-mates weren’t nearly as talkative as I would have liked. This year, I was determined to do better. As I scanned the room, looking for someone fun to talk to, I couldn’t help but notice that the seats were disappearing rapidly. It was like being in first grade again, playing musical chairs . . . the music stops, everyone scrambles for a chair—I was terrible at musical chairs. But this time, I told myself I wasn’t going to cry if I didn’t get a chair. Fighting down a wave of panic, I noticed two women with their heads bent together. They were siting with their backs to me, but it looked like they were having a really good conversation. Well, I thought, if worst comes to worst, at least I can always converse vicariously. And there was an empty chair.
I sprinted over to the table and asked if the seat was taken. One of the women, wearing a knit cap with colors that would have done Peter Max proud, tilted her head up and said, “What?” I’d mumbled, a family trait I’ve been fighting to extinguish for over forty years. I sat down—before the music stopped! the seat was mine!—and attempted to collect myself just as the woman in the hat pulled out a small portfolio and showed it to the woman next to her. I peeked. I gasped. I covered my mouth with both hands, again like I was a first-grader. I felt myself falling out of my chair. I grabbed the table edge to steady myself—I am not making this up. A few minutes later, when she made to stuff the drawings back into the big bag at her feet, I adroitly said, “Can . . . can. . . .?” I began pointing. “Me-I . . . see pictures?” She explained they weren’t for a particular project, but were instead some drawings she’d done of some Roald Dahl short stories. And I’d told myself I wasn’t going to cry. . . . I have no idea what I said after that. None.
We three introduced ourselves. Somehow they knew I wasn’t an illustrator. I guess the illustrators must be a tighter-knit group. They asked me what my book was about. I thought, gee, if only I’d thought to work on my verbal pitch, maybe I’d do better than I did yesterday . . . wait a minute.
We all had name tags. The illustrator I’d sat next to was named Carolyn, Carolyn Arcabascio. She asked thoughtful questions about my characters’ motivations, what made them tick. I told her about how Lily, one of my two protagonists, was a recently reformed childhood liar. And how, since she was coming from the perspective of someone who understood that people lied, she was better prepared to make her way through the world than her older brother, who never lied. Carolyn got it.
For any artist, the creation of a piece of artwork is like bringing a new child into the world. And every parent wants the best thing for his or her child. As a veteran bookseller, I’ve seen how a book cover can affect a potential reader on the prowl. It’s the very first thing they see, their first impression. It can be the difference between picking up the book and reading the jacket-flap or passing it by like it was wearing camouflage.
The three of us exchanged business cards. Carolyn’s was the size of a postcard. I held in my lap and stared wistfully at it, thinking how if I could find an illustrator for my book with half Carolyn’s talent, I’d be lucky indeed. The image on the card, which you can see on her website, was the one with two children sitting in the windows of an apartment, talking on tin can phones. I flipped it over. On the back she’d written, “Please feel free to contact me – I would love to work with you! Carolyn”
I turned away. This time I was going to cry. I knew it. While I was trying to figure out what to do, the pre-luncheon activities began. I have no memory of who spoke at the lectern or what they said. By the end of the luncheon, it was all I could do to remember that I had a copy of my first chapter and synopsis with me. As we were getting up to leave, I asked Carolyn if she’d be interested in reading them. She said yes. I told her that if she liked them, I’d be happy to email more. Six days later I got an email: “I would love to read on and meet Lily and Jasper’s older selves in the Moon Realm.” I sent the rest. The Moon Coin had found its illustrator. All it took was a series of fortunate events. And possibly a little bit of magic.
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