Monday, August 31, 2009

"This close"

I was at the bookstore this weekend and noticed the huge line of Fancy Nancy books and gear. And once again I felt jealous. I love the original Fancy Nancy story, which strikes close to home. Like Nancy, Abbie went through a long period when she was fancy. She wore only dresses and particularly liked colorful prints. Howard and I laughed because she called us "the plain people." Abbie never asked us to try being fancy, like Nancy does with her family, but she regularly adorned anyone willing to sit still long enough with scarves or tiaras. Or both.

Fancy Nancy clearly struck a chord with other families too. It has that universal element all good stories require -- a basic premise everyone can relate to. If you don't know anyone who loves being fancy, you certainly know someone who is a nonconformist in some other way.

Which brings me back to the jealous part. I'm always jealous when an author writes a good story based on an idea I feel like I should have had. But in this case it's an idea I did have. Or very close to it, anyway.

I have a picture book manuscript tucked away in the proverbial drawer that tells the story of a girl whose fashion sense isn't conventional. Charlie chooses her clothes based on her ideas of what makes the day fun: "She wanted to wear skirts that twirled and dresses that felt soft against her skin and socks that made her smile." She does her best to follow her mother's instructions to choose clothes that match, but nothing seems to work. Not choosing socks with stripes because they'll match anything, not wearing only clothes with flowers, not dressing entirely in purple. Finally, she decides to study grown-ups and concludes that wearing clothes that match means choosing things that are boring -- like khaki and navy blue. When picture day comes at preschool, her mom realizes how sad Charlie is and relents, saying the rainbow of colors does match -- it matches Charlie.

I admit my story isn't as good as Fancy Nancy. The change-of-heart on the mother's part isn't something that Charlie actively engineers. I think I could find a better resolution that lets Charlie take charge more, but it seems pointless. Because Nancy already filled that spot in the publishing world.

It's one of the curses of being a writer. Occasionally, it seems possible you came "this close" to writing a blockbuster. You didn't, because your book isn't Fancy Nancy or Harry Potter, and letting a turkey drive the bus just isn't as funny. But you can't help thinking if only your timing had been a little better or if only HarperCollins accepted non-agented submissions...

On a side note (as if everything I write here isn't a side note), the Charlie story earned one of the most astounding rejections I ever got. One publisher liked the story but worried about Charlie's belief that matching clothes were boring. She thought it would offend people who wore matching clothes.

I am not making this up. I'm all for being sensitive to different points of view and not being disrespectful of anyone's style. But the idea that some well-put-together preschooler would be offended by Charlie's sartorial exuberance is beyond me.