Life with Walter
Life with Waltur
By Barbara Gregorich
back to Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke
The following article was published in the Fall 2006 issue of The Prairie Wind, newsletter of the Illinois Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
A Real Bear
For the last ten years I have lived with a bear who doesn’t quite grasp the meaning of idioms. Unlike Amelia Bedelia, who also takes every idiomatic phrase literally, Waltur understands ordinary two- or three-word idioms. Where Waltur rushes headlong into trouble is when confronted with longer idioms (often proverbs) such as “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” or “Never buy a pig in a poke.”
From Little Acorns — The Idea Phase
The seeds for what would become Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories go back to two incidents. The first incident was embarrassing: in ninth-grade French I translated an expression as “he threw his eye out the window.” Only after the laughter subsided did the teacher explain that an idiom doesn’t mean exactly what it says (threw the eye), but means something else: in this case, glanced. The second incident was inspiring: I heard an adult say, in front of a four-year-old, “I can’t do that, I’m all tied up,” and I heard the four-year-old retort, “I don’t see any ropes.” I realized then that I wanted to write about the humor of interpreting idioms literally. The idea stayed with me for two or three decades.
Apply the Seat of the Pants — The Writing Phase
After promoting my adult nonfiction adult title, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball for three full years, I felt the need to write in a different genre. What about a bear who rushed boldly into every idiom he encountered? I named the bear Waltur and gave him two bear friends, Matilda and Darwin. I began to write, and what eventually emerged was an early reader story titled "Waltur Leads a Horse to Water." After polishing the story to what I thought was a finish, I started submitting it to various trade publishers.
No News Is Good News? — The Submitting Phase
A year later an editor at Orchard Books wrote to say she was very interested, but would I be willing to write a second Waltur story so that she could go to committee with two strong stories? I said yes and wrote "Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke." I waited and waited to hear from the editor, and when I finally called to ask about the status of the stories, I learned that she had left publishing to have a baby and that the editor-in-chief wasn’t interested.
I went back to submitting the Waltur stories, now as a package of two. The following year a Viking editor was interested and said she would take the pig story to committee. I waited and waited to hear from her, and when I finally called to ask about the status of the stories, I learned that she was on maternity leave and no longer interested.
Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, I saved it — I stored the Waltur stories in my come-back-to-later file.
A New Broom — The Rewriting Phase
In 2000 and 2001 three things happened that affected the Waltur stories. First, I cleaned out my file cabinet, deciding which stories I should stick with and rewrite. When I ran across the Waltur file, I wanted to see if I could still write in the same style, so I wrote a third story, "Waltur Counts His Chickens Before They’re Hatched."
Second, in the fall of 2000 I took Carolyn Crimi’s Columbia College class in writing children’s books. When I read "Waltur Leads a Horse to Water" to the class I was encouraged to rewrite it. Carolyn suggested that I not use three bears, because they would appear visually too similar. “Use another forest animal,” she suggested. She also suggested making the story funnier by making it shorter. I rewrote as suggested, cutting 120 words from a 920-word story. And I shrank Matilda, turning her from a bear into a woodchuck. Immediately I saw that this was better, not just visually, but in terms of character differentiation.
Third, in the summer of 2001 I joined a critique group formed at Barbara Seuling’s Manuscript Workshop in Vermont. The group decided to meet online weekly. Over the course of the first year I submitted each of the three Waltur stories to the group. Their comments proved invaluable in the final shaping of the three Waltur stories: my writing group is particularly attuned to the logic of beginning and endings, to cause and effect, to when something does need explaining and when it doesn’t need explaining. After each critique I rewrote, and at long last the stories really were polished to a finish.
Birds of a Feather — The Phase of Understanding
In 2002 I rearranged the books on my office shelves, devoting a shelf each to: Fiction Picture Books; Nonfiction Picture Books; Early Readers; Poetry; Middle Grade and Young Adult. On each shelf, I filed the books by publisher, reasoning that if I had many books of a particular house, this would indicate that I loved the type of books that house published. In turn, perhaps, that publisher would love the type of books I wrote.
My shelves in their new order, I saw that I had more Houghton Mifflin titles than any other, so I submitted "Waltur Buys a Pig" in a Poke to a Houghton editor. I waited and waited to hear from the editor, and when I finally called to ask about the status of the stories, I learned that she had left publishing to spend more time with her children. But — she had read my story, liked it, and passed it on to another editor!
This editor liked my story, but wondered if I had other Waltur stories to send her. Luckily, I did! Three weeks later the editor called to say that she would like to buy all three stories as one book. At last — light at the end of the tunnel! I had hit the jackpot! Life was a bed of roses! I was happy as a clam and beside myself with joy!
Although I prefer marketing my own stories, I prefer that my agent represent me in all contract negotiations. She did, and everything went smoothly. I signed the contract for Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories in October of 2003 and, being an optimist, I started to write another set of three Waltur stories.
Worth a Thousand Words — The Editing and Illustrating Phases
Because the pig story and the chicken story were each four chapters, my editor wanted me to change the three-chapter horse story into a four-chapter story. By restructuring the story, I was able to accomplish this.
My editor sent me to Kristin Sorra’s web site and asked if I liked the illustrations. I did, and my editor chose Kristin to illustrate the book. I’ve been consistently delighted with Kristin’s renditions of Waltur, Matilda, and Darwin, as well as of the pig, the horse, and the chickens. Her cover illustration attracts everybody who sees it, and at a recent bookstore event a shopper walked up to me at the autographing table, exclaimed, “Oh, what a wonderful cover!,” picked up the book, and walked to the cashier . . . without asking for my autograph.
Don’t Hide Your Light — The Promoting Phase
In September of 2005 I began to prepare for publicizing Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories, which was was scheduled to come out in July 2006. I read Jump Start Your Book Sales, by Marilyn and Tom Ross. As I read, I underlined. Later I wrote each underlined point on a large sheet of paper. Then I labeled nine pocket folders as follows:
Sitting on the floor, I fanned out the nine folders. Then I placed each sheet of paper into one of the nine folders. Pasting a blank label on the outside of each folder, I wrote the name of a month (or months) on each label. For example, I hoped to write to association newsletters (pig associations, horse associations, chicken and egg associations, etc.) first, because Jump Start Your Book Sales suggested they needed a six-month lead time. I wrote January on that outside label, and I wrote March on the outside label of the LIbraries folder.
When I started my promotional work in January of 2006, I did as much of it as I could through email — mainly to keep costs to a minimum, but also because I wouldn’t have any print material (postcards, bookmarks, etc.) ready until June. By the end of April I had contacted hundreds of associations, professional organizations such as alumni societies, and public libraries. I devoted May to contacting bookstores. In June I asked my web site designer to help me design a postcard and bookmark. Just as we were deciding what blurb to use on the front of the postcard, I learned that Publishers Weekly gave Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories a starred review. So I chose my blurb from that review. And although many how-to books warn to keep postcards and bookmarks spare, I decided to fill the back of my bookmark with a quote from one of the stories and with information on idioms.
Strike While the Iron Is Hot — The Selling Phase
The selling phase stems from the promotional phase and continues (we hope!) long after the promotional phase is finished. Most of us find it difficult to ask somebody outright to buy our book: when I mail out postcards, I write something like “I hope there are 6-9-year-olds in your life” on the card. I carry postcards or bookmarks with me everywhere, so that if somebody asks about my book, I can hand them a professional looking piece that contains the book title, author name, ISBN number, and something about the story. The way I look at it, every sale I make helps me make other sales through word-of-mouth, and because I want to keep writing children’s books, I want to keep making those sales.
The phases of writing a book are like the phases of the moon — they come around in predictable cycles again and again. As I’m selling Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories, I’m getting ready to promote its sequel, Waltur Puts the Cart Before the Horse and Other Stories, which Houghton will publish in the fall of 2007. I’m also writing a children’s nonfiction book and submitting three finished manuscripts to editors. Each of us, at all times, is in one of these phases between Getting the Idea and Selling the Book.