In my wanderings around the Internet to research children’s books, I learned that, aside from quality illustrations, the other critical aspect to success was a quality, professionally edited manuscript. I discovered that picture books are quite formulaic—typically a certain number of pages, a certain number of words—and my stream of consciousness manuscript was clearly too long and too complex for my chosen audience.
From my research, it seems people often assume it is easier to write for children than adults. Certainly it is less voluminous, but there is definitely a challenge in explaining a complex story succinctly and in a manner that children can appreciate. Whether I opted to self-publish or submit the manuscript to traditional publishers, I needed to find a good, professional editor!
Enter Krista Hill of L Talbott Editorial. Krista came highly recommended, and with good reason. She first provided me with an assessment of the manuscript at a higher level, and then a more detailed edit. Was the story worth telling? Did the story have a logical flow? Were there loose ends or inconsistencies? Were the characters developed well? Was there too much detail? Too little detail? Was the writing appropriate for the intended audience? And finally, the nitty-gritty of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Each word needed to be carefully chosen and earn its place in the story.
I have to say that editing what you have written, especially in the case of a manuscript based on a true story so dear to my heart as this one, can be a painful process. You have agonized over each word. Each detail of the story is full of meaning and memories. But I recognized that Krista’s suggestions had merit and would improve the manuscript. Some things needed more detail and elaboration. Others needed to be simplified or even removed altogether.
At a certain point, I had to let go of my emotional attachment to some aspects, and just start rewriting. Like taking off a band aid, it hurts less when you steel yourself and just do it quickly. I had to admit that, despite the sometimes painful process, each iteration (and there were many) got better and better.
When we thought we had the manuscript “together,” I handed it off to Morgan to begin mapping out the illustrations. She came back to me with the news that it was still too long. We had two options: make the book longer than we had intended, which added expense and took us farther from the accepted formula for a picture book for children, or find a way to shorten the manuscript.
And so my struggle to strike a balance between reality and telling the story began.
Soren was born in Denmark, and bred by someone who has, over the years, become a cherished friend: Tove Rasmussen of Daulokke Kennels. Tove has produced many Champion French Bulldogs, and many, like Soren, who are also very athletic, smart and with much humor and much heart for those they love and everything they undertake. Along the road, Tove has taken great interest and pride in Soren's accomplishments. She shared my journey with Soren, and I often thought of her as his "first human mom."
In the original manuscript, the story (true to real life) included someone else who has become a cherished friend over the years, Suzanne Orban-Stagle.
Suzanne of JustUs Kennels, was Soren's "second human mom" and had brought Soren over from Denmark to the U.S. when he was a puppy to be a show dog and part of her French Bulldog breeding program.
When Soren grew too big for the show ring, it was Suzanne who recognized how smart, athletic and determined he was, and who decided he was destined for other things besides the conformation ring. We met through mutual friends in performance sports who knew I had competed with another Frenchie in Obedience, Rally and Agility. That is how, at the age of 1 ½ years old, Soren came to live with me to be my agility dog, and as it turned out, my very best friend.
It was Suzanne’s love for Soren, her appreciation of the many things he had to offer and her willingness to let him to have the life he was meant to lead, even if it was different from the one she had planned for him, that prompted her to let him go. That selfless decision made my story with Soren possible, and her generosity over the years that followed, enabled us to accomplish more than any of us ever could have imagined back then.
The very first publisher who reviewed the manuscript had suggested that having two owners in the story might add too much complexity for young children. Morgan and Krista agreed. But in my heart, this was very much Suzanne’s story too, so it was a difficult decision for me. Suzanne and I discussed it, and agreed that I would make the change, and that the character that was Suzanne and the character that was me would become one character who had Soren from the time he was a puppy.
I was not sure how to tell the story that way initially, but once I looked at that character as a combination of the two of us, it seemed somehow appropriate and the rewrite just flowed. We both loved Soren and vice versa. Suzanne was the first person I called whenever Soren did something wonderful or something funny over the years, and the one who cried on the phone with me at the end when we had to make the decision to say goodbye to him. He brought us together and took us on a most amazing journey that will forever bind us in a special friendship born of shared adventure, and I feel incredibly blessed that we have been able to share the ups and downs over the years.
Finally, when the major rewrites were complete, a long-time friend and author, Rory Janis Miller, who (lucky for me!) is a retired children’s librarian, agreed to have a look at the manuscript and was kind enough to give me her perspective based on years of reading books to children in the age group of my target audience. Her insights helped me make those final adjustments to the story to ensure it was one children could both understand and embrace.
The manuscript today is quite different from the one I wrote well over a year ago. One of the challenges, and I suppose the art of a good children’s book, is knowing when to use words to tell the story, and when to let the illustrations do the talking. In many instances, less is more. The process, though sometimes emotionally taxing, allowed me how to look at storytelling in a fascinating, new way. In the end, I believe the manuscript is much stronger for all the rewrites, and I am grateful for the wise and wonderful input that helped make it so.