By Carol Ekster
I learned about the powerful quote below, by Maya Angelou, when an instructor shared it in spin class. It touched me. Wanting the exact wording, I approached the instructor after class.
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely admit the change it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
I think it struck such a chord with me because, as an author, many of my manuscripts have been revised and completely changed from their original form. Some barely resemble the story they started out as. Comments from critique groups and editors helped polish the piece. Then when a manuscript was acquired, it was changed even more. I had to be flexible, otherwise I might become a difficult author. I might not have wanted to alter that phrase or change a concept, but I wanted the book to be published. It’s a lesson in humility. My ideas are not always the best ideas. Trust those in the book business.
I have twisted and turned my manuscripts to fit a contest’s guidelines or fit a new format (like a picture book altered to become a magazine article). I have refocused a story to get to its heart, I have cut words to leave room for an illustrator. But my biggest transformation has to be with my newest picture book, Before I Sleep: I Say Thank You, illustrated by Mary Rojas, published by Pauline Books and Media.
Before I Sleep: I Say Thank You was the tenth manuscript I wrote, only about a year after I started my life as a writer, at the age of 50! I woke up from a dream repeating the Jewish bedtime prayer, the Shema, and visualized it as a simple sweet bedtime book, maybe a board book. I jotted a note on paper I keep next to my bed for when an idea nudges me awake and I don’t want to lose it by morning. I began a draft shortly after that. It included the entire Jewish prayer. I got a good first response from a Jewish publisher, but they had just acquired another similar book. I sent it to a few more Jewish publishers, but received rejections. It took me a few years to change it to a secular book, just focusing on a bedtime routine of gratitude for all children. I started sending it out to nonreligious publishers. Four years after I started writing it, I got a request from a new local publisher for a rewrite:
“The concept of a child reflecting on what they are thankful for before they fall asleep is a beautiful one and I personally feel the world would be a much better place if everyone did this. Though this is not an offer for publication, I was wondering if you’d be interested in working a bit on the manuscript and sending it to me again for another look?”
She believed in the story! It was the best possible rejection. This publisher gave me some great suggestions, and absolutely helped to improve the manuscript. I waited a month before resending it, to show I didn’t rush my revision. She asked me if I’d keep it exclusive with them as they decided on their list. She gave me a time frame. It was only another couple of months. I had waited years at this point. Of course, when I heard they were passing, I was crushed. That balloon of hope around my heart burst. But everything for a good reason, as I always say. That publisher is no longer in business.
Almost six years later, a critique buddy, Nicole Lataif, brought in a story of forgiveness to our group. She was working on it for Pauline Books and Media. As I left that night, I thought about how a publisher interested in a book on forgiveness just might want a book about gratitude. Well, yes, it happened that this publisher was a Catholic press, but I sent out the e-mail submission on April 6, 2013. It took almost five months to go through the acquisitions process. When I got the e-mail on August 20th telling me they wanted to acquire it, I cried. Happy tears, of course! It had been a long road. But then I began to worry. What would the edits look like? Would my Jewish family cringe at the Catholic publisher? Would I be able to share this religious book in public schools and Skype visits? The edits went back and forth. I was asked to write a parent’s page on the Examen prayer. What was an Examen prayer? I wouldn’t ask! I wasn’t ready to reveal that I was Jewish. Maybe they’d cancel the contract. So I researched and wrote it. They edited. I had the most wonderful of editors, a sister, who was kind and got back to me almost immediately with concerns and questions. When I saw the pdf of the completed book, emotion pulsed through my veins. The illustrations were spectacular, the colors warm and wonderful. It most certainly could be shared with people of all faiths.
The transformation, now complete, flaps its wings to fly into the hands of readers, who will hopefully appreciate this author’s flexibility. Before I Sleep: I Say Thank You would not be here without all the bending, rewriting, and adapting it took for this butterfly to emerge.
Before I Sleep: I Say Thank You’s official release date is January 1, 2015, but it is now available for purchase, just in time for the holidays! Shop www.pauline.org/BeforeISleep or Amazon, or order it from your indie bookstores.