Saturday, February 6, 2010

The story behind the story: Kyle's Island

I'm pleased to welcome guest blogger Sally Derby, a well-established picture book author whose first middle grade novel, Kyle's Island, was released this week. Many of us who know and love Sally celebrated the release Tuesday at our wonderful local children's bookstore, the Blue Marble.

Here's a synopsis of the book from the publisher:
For as far back as Kyle can remember, he spent summers at Gram's cottage on the lake--fishing all day, and hanging out with the whole family. But this year is different. His father has moved out, his grandmother has died, and his mother is selling the cottage because they can't afford the upkeep.

Sally Derby takes readers to a small lake in 1970s Michigan, where thirteen-year-old Kyle comes to understand that loss isn't forever, and that people are more complicated than they seem.
 You can read an excerpt here. Now, here's Sally...

It’s exciting to be a guest blogger on Linda’s site, which I invariably find informative, insightful and entertaining. (I really wanted a third “i” there, but entertaining was the word that kept knocking, so I finally let it in.)

Tuesday night, in the afterglow of a satisfying book launch for Kyle’s Island, I lay in bed, too wound up to sleep, and thought about the book’s long road to publication. Earlier in the evening, I’d been asked a very common question — how long had it taken to et the story published — and, to be perfectly truthful, I think I fudged the answers. I’m just not a numbers person. What I should have answered was “A long time.”

But guilt (and the certainty that someone else would ask the same question at my next presentation) propelled me out of my warm, comfortable bed, past my sleeping husband, dog, and five cats, into my study to search my files for the answer. After about forty-five minutes of pulling out folders, rereading old letters, and throwing away miscellaneous papers (“Why am I saving a 1999 grocery receipt?”), I was able to crawl back into bed chilled but satisfied. My first rejection for Kyle came in 1997, and fifteen more rejections followed until Judy O’Malley at Charlesbridge accepted it in 2006.

So nine years and sixteen rejections, but how many revisions? As least twice that many, some based on comments in those rejections, some resulting from comments of Linda and others in my writing group, some from my own dissatisfaction with the manuscript. And if I had to start submitting it anew, I am sure I would find more changes to make. I don’t know a writer who is ever completely satisfied with what he or she has written.

Incidentally, picture books are no different. The changes that you make in them may not involve as many words, but they are no less significant. I can debate for days on whether to write “the sugar bowl” or “a sugar bowl” in a particular sentence. Which should it be here, “invited” or “had invited.” It makes a difference.

How could such minor word choices make a difference? In my writing I am trying to create a world in which someone else can immerse himself. Any jarring note, any little inconsistency that jolts the reader out of that world in order to think about the actual text is a flaw I want to correct.

To avoid the most obvious pitfalls, I start with what I know best. For an easy example, I set Kyle’s Island on a small lake I know as well as anyplace else on earth. Even though I haven’t been back there for years, love has preserved for me a whole mental album of lake memories. After I had Kyle placed firmly at the lake, I decided to set the time period in the 1970’s, because those were the years when my sons and daughter were growing up — without cell phones, without video games, without Facebook. I was much more comfortable putting a fishing pole in Kyle’s hand than giving him a cell phone so he could text his friends all the way from Cincinnati to Michigan.

Most importantly, I had to know Kyle himself. To do that, I had to let him find his own way through the difficulties I put in his way. As he did, I realized that sometimes Kyle was me, sometimes he was my oldest son, sometimes he was one of the other boys. Writing the book became a visit to a place and time I loved in the company of people I love. I didn’t want that visit to end. I hope when you read the book you will feel the same way.

PS: Sally's wonderful author photo was taken by my partner, Howard.