Please—will somebody pinch me? I can hardly believe I am here, guest posting on Rate Your Story. Ever since I started writing, I’ve relied on their feedback to help me improve my manuscripts. The book that is under contract was only one of many of my manuscripts that passed through the Rate Your Story portals. So when they asked if I would share some thoughts, I was thrilled.
Sweet Dreams, Sarah (Creston Books: Spring 2017), is about a young woman’s journey. Former slave, Sarah Goode, has a golden nugget of an idea and she follows through, becoming the first African-American woman to own a U.S. patent. Wait a minute...a golden nugget of an idea? That’s how my story about Sarah Goode started! Let me share how that golden nugget of an idea became a manuscript under contract.
In June of 2014, I took Kristen Fulton’s Nonfiction Archaeology class. It was a life-changing experience. I discovered I LOVED writing nonfiction picture books. And I learned that the first thing I needed to do was to find that golden nugget, that moment that had been forgotten, that incident in history that I could help bring alive for young children.
- Find the golden nugget
So I turned to the internet and googled lots of firsts...1st woman in various sports events, 1st woman in the political arena, 1st black woman patent holder. Here is the link that started me on my journey. https://webfiles.uci.edu/mcbrown/display/women_inventors.html Hmmm…the first name on the list was Sarah E. Goode who got a patent for a cabinet bed. That sounded interesting. We can write a story about anything we want. But to get editors to acquire it, you’ve got to have a story that children can relate to. And it also has to be a story that stands out for some reason. Every child has a bed or shares a bed. Being the first black woman to receive a U.S. patent certainly stands out. So I looked more closely at Sarah’s story.
- Do the research
I discovered there was almost nothing about her in books or on the internet. That was good because you don’t want a topic that everyone has already written about. On the other hand, you don’t want something that no one is interested in…and if you can’t find any information, it is almost impossible to write a nonfiction story about it. So I dug deeper, connected with my local library, reached out to other sources that might be helpful. I even contacted the cemetery where Sarah is buried and received a list of all of the people who are buried in her family plot, as well as the age, cause of death, and last known address of each of them. Information can be found in many different places…never give up.
- Write the story
After I had gotten as much information as I could, I thought about what direction my story needed to take. I wanted to convey how incredible Sarah was. A woman…and a black woman at that, living in an era when women did not have any rights. They couldn’t vote, couldn’t own property, couldn’t even keep any wages they might earn. Yet she owned a furniture store in Chicago, designed an innovative cabinet bed that would help her customers save space, and followed through with tenacity to apply for a patent. Sarah’s tenacity fueled my determination. I became invested in seeing Sarah honored with a book. I knew it was an important story for children to read. I wanted to help make that moment in history come alive for them. So I wrote the story…trying to give the reader a sense of Sarah’s background, tying to relay her dreams, and trying to show how she struggled to build the cabinet bed and get the patent for it.
- Ask for feedback
One of the most important steps in my writing process is to give my manuscripts to critique partners. And I did. Over and over again. Fortunately, I have quite a few of them. I sent it out to one group and would revise based on their suggestions and then I sent it out to the next. Rate Your Story saw the manuscript twice. I wrote the story in July of 2014 and sent it to Rate Your Story in August. It got a rating of ‘8’. Back to the drawing board.
- Embrace revision
So Sarah’s Disappearing Bed (that was the title at the time) needed a lot of work. I revised it again and again. I sent it to critique groups again and again. In October, I submitted it to Rate Your Story again. This time, it got a rating of ‘3’. YES! I was making progress. I continued to revise. I continued to give the story to my critique buddies. A word here, a phrase there…I was always open to trying a different approach with the story.
- Get your story out there
After I received the rating of ‘3’ and had revised it based on the additional feedback, I began to submit the manuscript. I was a 12x12 Gold member, so I submitted it in October of 2014. I didn’t hear back from that agent, but I continued to submit the story to others. In 2015, I entered it into the Rate Your Story contest…it won second place!!! A kid lit acquaintance had just signed with an agent. When I visited that agent’s website, I fell in love with her and sent her the story in March. She emailed me within the hour to tell me how much she loved it. In May, I got an email from the agent who had received the story more than seven months before. (NEVER GIVE UP HOPE) She loved it and wanted to see more of my work. Then I participated in the June 2015 #pitmad challenge and it received a ‘favorite’ so I sent it to the #pitmad agent. That agent loved it also. In August, I noticed on #MSWL that another agent was looking for a nonfiction picture book about a strong woman, so I sent the manuscript to her. And she responded immediately. I was thrilled to have so many quality professionals recognize the importance of this story…and I was overjoyed that they were interested in seeing more of my work. In the end, I went with the agent who had been passionate about it from the moment she received it because I believe that an agent MUST be passionate about your work in order to represent you successfully.
- After the contract
With the process of submitting to editors in the hands of my agent, Essie White, I sat back and continued writing new stories. Fortunately, unbelievably…I think I need another pinch…the manuscript was picked up almost immediately. When I heard I was to work with Creston editor Marissa Moss, I couldn’t have been happier. We signed the contract and Marissa sent me the manuscript with a few revision notes and requests. I revised and returned it to her. She sent it back with one additional revision request. I reached out again to my critique buddies who had been part of the process from the very beginning. With their feedback, I was able to construct the perfect ending and the editor was very pleased.
Now the manuscript is in the hands of the illustrator and I can’t wait to see how the book turns out. It’s been an amazing adventure and, at times, a wild ride. But I am ready, willing, and able to grab a seat on that roller coaster again with another manuscript. We do have another story in acquisitions (but that is no guarantee of a contract) and two other manuscripts out on submission. Plus, I’ve got a folder filled with manuscripts in various stages of readiness and a head full of stories waiting to be written. And what do I do for relaxation, you might ask? I read manuscripts from my many critique buddies and try to give them feedback that will strengthen their stories. After all, turn-around is fair play and for me, there is no greater joy than helping another writer.
Although Vivian Kirkfield is not a fan of heights, she is constantly taking leaps of faith. In 2010, she self-published an award-winning parent-teacher resource book, Show Me How! Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting and Cooking. On her 65th birthday, she went skydiving with her son, jumping out of a perfectly good plane, which caused her husband to question her sanity. And when a fellow author and blogging buddy invited her to fly half-way around the globe to speak at the 2013 AFCC/SCBWI conference in Singapore, she couldn’t say yes fast enough.
Vivian is a proud member of the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators, an active participant in an insane number of critique groups, is up for just about every picture book writing challenge, and considers playing an epic game of Monopoly with her seven-year old grandson to be one of the best ways to spend the day. She currently lives in the idyllic New England village of Amherst, New Hampshire with her husband. Vivian is passionate about helping kids become lovers of books and reading and hopes that the stories she writes will have kids asking their parents, “Read this one again, please!”. You can find her on Twitter: @viviankirkfield and Facebook: www.facebook.com/viviankirkfield, or visit her blog at Picture Books Help Kids Soar: www.viviankirkfield.com