Monday, June 1, 2015

Jill Esbaum Interview, SCBWI Midwest Crystal Kite Winner 2015

Jill Esbaum

I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo

Hi Jill. Thanks for joining us. I'm so excited for you and Nadine (the cow). I wonder if you could maybe take us through this process with Nadine, since you won the midwest region award for the Crystal Kite.

1.  How did you get the idea?

Our neighbor has cattle that graze a long, sloped pasture. When he dumps a huge haybale into a feeder at the top, they slowly tromp up there from far and wide. I imagined one lazy cow who was always looking for a faster, easier way to the top of the hill, and that was Nadine. That story didn’t work, though. Not because I didn’t try everything, including a skateboard.

2.  What did your writing process look like with I AM COW? Did it come to you suddenly? Did you have something else in mind first, and then change it to barnyard animals? Did you sit down and write the entire rough draft first, and then revise? 

The lead character was always a cow. But I couldn’t find the story that suited her. What came to me suddenly (after years of other possibilities that didn’t pan out) was that I had to get her out of her element. Like … into the woods? Every version of the story was written in rhyme, so I basically just kept building and playing around with it. And deleting. Lots of deleting.

3.  What does your revision process look like?  Do you have another set of eyes that look at it? How do you know which feedback to take from others? How long did you work on revising this manuscript once you had your first draft? 

I don’t remember if any of my writing friends saw I AM COW in an early form. If so, it would have been 9-10 years ago. And they would have been encouraging, because they’re kind. I’m currently in an online crit group with people who are also kind - and smart and funny and insightful and honest. When I get their comments, I consider every one, then go with my gut. 

My revision process for stories written in prose is to dive in and lose myself, tweaking endlessly until every page reads like a finished book. All along the way, I'm questioning myself:  Am I dealing with the problem I presented at the beginning? Is every scene necessary? Am I showing cause and effect? How can I streamline? Will a reader care about this character? What is it about him/her that makes this a story only s/he can live? For starters.

When writing in rhyme, I have to answer those same questions, plus rewrite every line a bazillion times to make the rhythm/rhyme work. Still, there's always (always) a point at which I throw up my hands because the stupid story is NOT working and I’m WASTING my time because it’s NEVER going to work! When I hit that wall, I know it’s time to go back and write a brief synopsis out to the side of each stanza to see how (or if) they’re contributing to the storyline.

4.  Did your agent or editor ask for revisions?  How do you handle those? Does an editor call you? Or work through your agent, or both?

My agent sent it out as I submitted it to her. An editor then asked her if I’d be up for revising, which of course I was. From there, that editor and I began e-mailing back and forth. My original opening:

For Nadine and her friends, you might think life was sweet.
Hang around the ole pasture.
Doze off.
But Nadine was about to go out of her mind
living life as a cow of the hang-around kind.
So one day, before breakfast was even digested …
“Hey, girls? Let’s go into the woods,” she suggested.
Starla gasped. “We can do that?”
Annette had turned green.
“Follow me! We’ll be back before lunch,” said Nadine.

The editor had plenty of good things to say about the story, but pointed out that any old farm animal could be substituted for Nadine. There had to be something different or special about her and her experience. What could she discover about herself that she didn’t know before?

In other words, Nadine couldn’t just haul herself off to an adventure in the woods because she was bored (or because it was convenient for me). I wrote six more drafts before finding the current opening, which I think was the third one I actually sent to her. The middle didn’t change at all, and the ending only needed a bit of tweaking.

5.  How long did it take to get your contract?  

I don’t remember, exactly, but I know she didn’t take the story to acquisitions until I’d sent it back to her two or three more times. The fact that she was willing to hang in there, trying to coax a better story from my head, is something I’ll always be grateful for.

6.  How long did it take for the book to come out?

Five years. It was accepted for publication in May of 2009 and released into the world in May of 2014. 

7.  Can you tell us a little about how you got notified about your winning the Crystal Kite for the midwest?  And now what? Does it go on to compete further?

I voted in Round 1, then forgot about it until a few weeks later, when I saw on Facebook (or somewhere) that Round 2 voting had opened. When I clicked into the SCBWI site and saw I AM COW pictured, my stomach flip-flopped. I voted again and tried to put it out of my mind. A few weeks later, I received an e-mail one afternoon from Lin and Steve. I AM COW had won the Midwest Region. *falls out of chair* There’s no further competition. The 15 authors whose books are regional winners are invited to submit a keynote proposal for one of the big conferences next year. From those proposals, one will be selected. No pressure or anything. 

8.  Do you find that the longer you have done the writing process (the more you practice) that it becomes easier?  Or not really?

I wouldn’t say the writing gets easier. What gets easier is understanding the process itself and growing comfortable with it. After 18 years of writing, I now go into every new story knowing my first draft will suck and that revision is where magic happens. Or not. Experience also tells you when a story just isn’t cutting it and never will. Does that mean writing it was a waste of time? Not if you learned something from the doing.

9.  Any advice to the aspiring author?
The same stuff you’ll hear anywhere:
1.  Learn all you can from books about the craft.
2   Read/study what’s being published in your genre.
3.  Write, write, write.
4.  Join a critique group.
5.  If you aren’t a member of SCBWI, join right this minute.

Above all, truly understand that there’s no shortcut to publication. If you aren’t up for years of hard work and rejection, run away now. 

Thanks Jill! That was so insightful. I'm going to put in a plug for your next picture book - ELWOOD BIGFOOT - WANTED:  BIRDIE FRIENDS! coming September 1st from Sterling (available NOW for preorder). 

To learn more about Jill, visit her website:

REVIEW: I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo

Brave Nadine is an accidental example to all of us, of a strong female character. Nadine goes off into the woods, and gets swept away by her own bravery. Written in rhyme, this is sure to be a hit with anyone who is obsessed cows (like my son) or loves humor. Nadine show us the definition of courage -- which means you can feel scared, but can still act courageously.
Nadine also won for Best Female Character, in the picture book oscars: