And here she is! Our wonderfully talented M.P. Barker!
2k8: So, M.P., yesterday you told us what sparked the idea for A Difficult Boy. Now, we want to know more, more, more. How did the book actually come about?
M.P. Barker: Well, I started doing character sketches and fragments of scenes, and, after a while I had enough of them that a vague semblance of a plot began to emerge. I showed them to some friends who promptly challenged me to write five pages a week until I was finished. About two years later, I had 700 pages—an actual book…well, enough for two or three actual books. Then I spent the next eight years revising and revising and revising and shopping it around, trying to find a publisher.
2k8: M.P. is the Mistress of Revision. See how she works her magic here, on Darcy Pattison's blog.
Okay. Back to A Difficult Boy. Give us the dirt on how it found a publisher.
M.P. Barker: Ummmm….how much time do you have? It’s mostly a story of “nos” that meant “maybe” and “yeses” that meant “no.”
A friend (I have such good friends!) told me about the PEN New England Children’s Book Caucus Discovery Award contest (whew! That’s a mouthful, ain’t it?). “Yeah, right,” I said, “Like I have a chance at that.” But I entered anyway and nearly fell over when I got the call telling me I was one of the winners. The prize? My MS (manuscript) bypassed the slush pile and went directly into the hands of an editor—not a lackey or assistant or intern. (By this time, the MS was down to a mere 500 pages.)
After reading it, the editor said “no” but she’d give it another look if I revised it. I got it down to 350 pages, sent it back, waited and waited and waited and waited. Finally, I got a “yes” that inexplicably turned into a “no” four months later—this was after the MS had languished with this publisher—contractless--for two years. (To be fair, the editor was very helpful, and making her suggested changes improved and shortened the MS greatly, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.)
Once I’d recovered from my semi-suicidal depression, I started kicking myself over how stupid I’d been for not getting an agent while my MS was sitting with publisher #1. If I’d had an agent, s/he could have forced a decision one way or another a lot sooner.
So I resolved not to waste any more time and started sending out at least one query a day until I got an agent. For those of you into statistics, I sent out 137 queries—25% got no answer at all, 62% were rejected (mostly form letters or postcards), 20% requested a partial MS, and 10% asked for a full.
It took me about five months to find my agent, William Reiss of John Hawkins and Associates. He initially said, “No.” (More on that later this week.) I wrote back to ask him if there was anything I could do that might make him reconsider. A week later, he wrote back, said he’d changed his mind, and voila! An agent for moi! It took him about nine months to find me a publisher, another two months negotiating the contract, then about six months to get editorial comments and another six months of revisions before the MS was finalized and off to the printer. Phew! Have I put you to sleep yet?
2k8: Wow! M.P., you are incredibly persistent!
A Difficult Boy is a PEN New England Children's Book Caucus Discovery Award winner.
2k8: Did anything surprise you or catch you off guard when you were writing your book?
M.P. Barker: Hmmm…besides the fact that I actually got an agent and a publisher? I think how strongly the characters just took over. For example, there was this peddler who was supposed to be just sort of a walk-on part. He was supposed to be a young, skinny guy who sees Daniel and Ethan riding their master’s horse and mentions it to someone, which gets the boys in trouble—three or four paragraphs, tops.
When I started writing him, though, he turned out to be this middle-aged, short, dumpy, trollish little guy with an uncanny knack for figuring people out. He ended up challenging Daniel to a horse race, came back later in the book, and re-appears as a major character in the sequel I’m working on now.
Then there was Silas, the eldest son of Ethan and Daniel’s master. He had this sort of stand-offish, brooding attitude that I couldn’t figure out until I got close to the end of the book. Then this whole story about a deep, dark secret from his past poured out, and I felt like I was just taking dictation and wondering “Where the heck did THAT come from?” When it was done, all of a sudden his character made total sense to me.
2k8: Imagine you have an offer from your dream press to publish your dream book, no matter how insane or unmarketable or sane or marketable it might be. What story do you want to write next/someday and why?
M.P. Barker: My first dream book is the one I’m planning to concentrate on once the sequel to A Difficult Boy is finished.
The working title is The Sea Captain’s Daughter, and it’s about the wife and daughter of a sea captain who is lost at sea and how they cope after he’s gone. A very strong-willed female botanist/explorer/botanical illustrator moves in with them and turns their lives upside-down. It’s told in the form of logbooks written by the wife and daughter, which are addressed to the sea captain—a practice they’d started when he was alive, and which they continue after his disappearance.
I’ve only written about 40-50 pages so far, still trying to figure out where the story is going and who these people really are, but this is another one where the characters have taken over. As I’d originally envisioned the story, the mother was supposed to die, leaving the daughter free to go adventuring with the botanist. But like that old guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Iris (the mom) said “I’m not dead yet” and it looks like she’s going to have some interesting adventures of her own.
If I had a publisher with an unlimited budget, I think it would be really cool to incorporate floral borders and plates done in the style of 19th-century botanical illustrations.
My second dream book would be any one that would involve a publisher paying me large amounts of money to travel around the world—especially to places that have good food, warm climates, and nice beaches.
2k8: That's all very fine. As long as you turn it into a field trip and take along the entire class!
M.P. Barker: Sounds fun to me!
2k8: Awwww. And our hardcore question of the day: What question won't most people know to ask you? What's your answer?
M.P. Barker: Would you like some chocolate? Oh, yes, please!