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Return to The Writing Process of The Dirty Cowboy Part One

Help! The Writing Process
Part Two: Working with Publishers

by Amy Timberlake

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So as I described in Part One of this article, I got a lot of suggestions and help from family, critique groups, and SCBWI, while writing The Dirty Cowboy. But the help did not end there -- I found there were a lot of perceptive readers working in the publishing industry.

Eight Rejections Later . . .

In 1999, after about eight publishers passed on "The Dirty Cowboy," I sent the manuscript to Charlesbridge Publishing, and a few months later found a kind, personal rejection from Harold Underdown. His letter mentioned a few things he liked, and a few things he didn't like, and then he said, "pacing is all-important in tall tales." Tall tale?

Now here's an embarrassing admission: I never thought of my story as a tall tale. Exaggerated? Embellished? Fanciful? Well, yeah -- that's the way we told stories in my family. But a tall tale? Like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox?

And then it seemed so obvious. I must've groaned then. Of course "The Dirty Cowboy" was a tall tale!

So I decided to take the rejection as a challenge. I'd show Harold Underdown (and all those publishers) a tall tale! And with that impetus, I completely rewrote the story. I added a dust devil, and wrestling, and epic dimensions. The story that would become the book took shape.

[A note from Harold, on reading about this years later: What I like about this, is that you got so much out of what was essentially an aside! This happens all the time. Editors write thoughtful editorial letters, and cover a long list of concerns, but they can't predict what comment will click with the writer and set off creative fireworks. I've learned to give a writer ALL my reactions to a story, because I just don't know which one will help them…]

Two Good Things, One Disappointment, and a Miracle

I started submitting again. Now "The Dirty Cowboy" started getting regular nibbles from the publishers (personal notes scribbled on photocopied rejections).

Finally, in 2000, I decided to try my hand at a multiple submission. I submitted the story to five publishing houses that said they accepted multiple submissions. Four publishers rejected the manuscript and one did not respond either way. So I sent a postcard respectfully withdrawing the manuscript from the fifth publisher.

And then the Good Thing #1 happened: An editor at this publishing house left a message on our answering machine, and it started: "Please don't withdraw your manuscript!" (I still have this answering machine tape even though I no longer own a machine that will play it.) When we finally spoke, this editor asked if I'd rewrite the manuscript for her publishing house and suggested that the cowboy should get just as dirty after his bath as he was before his bath. Once again: thank you, thank you, thank you and why didn't I think of this?

So I did the rewrite and sent it back to the editor, hoping my writing was strong enough to land a contract.

While I waited for the editor to respond, I went to an SCBWI-IL Writers Retreat. Three editors attended the conference, and I read a five-minute version of "The Dirty Cowboy" at an open microphone event. Robbie Mayes, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG), heard my reading. Later, I gathered my courage and went to speak to him. And yes, there was a particularly dreamy moment where he put his hand on my arm and said, "If you hadn't come up and spoken to me, I would have talked to you. I'd really like it if you would submit ‘The Dirty Cowboy' to me." I was stunned, and very excited (except that the manuscript was with this other editor at another house). But this was Good Thing #2.

Soon after I got home, I found out that the other editor had changed houses and the new publishing house didn't publish stories like ‘The Dirty Cowboy.' This was the Disappointment.

But still, how disappointed could I be? I liked Robbie Mayes from FSG. He liked "The Dirty Cowboy." Maybe? So I submitted the story to Robbie Mayes at FSG. And waited.

Sample of what I sent to FSG

Then a few months later, I came home from work to find Robbie Mayes' voice on the answering machine asking me to call him. When I called back, he said he wanted to buy the story! I celebrated with a huge, hand-packed burger at the Strawberry Street Café in Richmond, Virginia and then a few weeks later, work on my manuscript began.

The Colored Pencil: Robbie Mayes

I started my rewrites for Robbie Mayes at FSG in November of 2000. The manuscript arrived in an unobtrusive envelope. It contained a kind letter in which he made general suggestions, and this was attached with a paper clip to my manuscript. The manuscript stunned me. It was covered in colored pencil marks. (To illustrate this point, let me say that when I show a slide of a marked up page to students, they gasp audibly, and teachers never miss the opportunity to point out how lucky the students are to have them, and not "Amy's editor" checking over their work.) I worked through that manuscript one suggestion at a time. And truthfully – I am not kidding about this – I soon felt grateful that Robbie took each and every word so seriously. I knew he was an excellent reader and editor because when he suggested a change, I could see I hadn't been clear. (Believe me when your words are going to be bound, and paired with accomplished art, you don't want one lazy word to get by.)

Sometimes Robbie marked small, but essential changes. For instance, in an early draft I wrote: "The dog turned in his sleep, sniffed at the air, and followed the cowboy's stench like a trail of T-bone steaks." Robbie put an insertion mark between ‘like' and ‘a' and wrote: "he was following." Yes, he was right – much clearer. The sentence now read: "The dog…followed the cowboy's stench like he was following a trail of T-bone steaks." At other times, Robbie simply wrote questions: "Amy, is the dog blind?" This was after my dog had been using his sense of smell – and only his sense of smell – for an entire four pages of text. The plot hinged on the dog's olfactory prowess, and I had worked at emphasizing it -- but for heavens sakes, the dog could see! So I made more changes.

Robbie made me think about everything once, twice, three times. Things I had considered as clear as a pane of glass, I found weren't quite clear if you thought about them this way or that. I remember Robbie making sure the horse got his just due, and that the cowboy and dog forgave one another at the end of the story. And Robbie fact-checked every one of my metaphors and similes. (At one point, I had written "naked as a new hatched roadrunner" and I swear to you that I got an email from Robbie with nothing in it except an Internet link and this sentence: "Doesn't look so naked to me." I clicked on the link and there was a picture of a roadrunner coming out of the egg, fully feathered, looking more wet poodle than bird. I changed the words.) For these, and all the other good suggestions I am forgetting, I am grateful to Robbie.

I rewrote the book twice for Robbie Mayes and then the book went to the copyeditor. I got the copyedited manuscript back from FSG in June 2001.

The Art: Adam Rex

Sometime in the middle of all that writing, Robbie Mayes found Adam Rex, the illustrator of The Dirty Cowboy. It was his first children's book as well, and so the fact that Robbie put us together seems almost miraculous to me.

At some point, Robbie asked me if there was someone whose style seemed right for the story. I did not have an illustrator in mind. So I went off to the bookstore, made a big list of 30 or so illustrators that I thought would do wonderful job, and emailed back. Robbie responded that he thought we were thinking similarly.

Then awhile later I got an email from Robbie with a jpeg attached. "What do you think of this?"

I opened the attachment and laughed out loud. It contained 3 small sketches of the cowboy. There was a three-quarters sketch of the nude cowboy, covering his privates with a hand and a branch of scrub oak. There was a sketch of the cowboy's head from the side. The cowboy chewed on a stem of grass and wore a battered, ten-gallon hat with a snake wound around the top. And finally, there was a sketch of the cowboy's face while yelling.

"I love it," I emailed back. "It's funny. He can draw the body. And he made me laugh out loud." Then I shyly wrote, "The only thing I wonder is how well he draws animals."

A week later, Robbie sent me a full-color jpeg of Adam Rex's illustration of the dog guarding the cowboy's clothes with the cowboy standing behind him. The color astounded me – oranges, blues, yellows, reds, browns and greens. And the dog was as expressive and as beautifully drawn and painted as the cowboy.

Right there and then, I knew I wanted Adam Rex to illustrate the story. If Adam did not illustrate the story, I'd be disappointed with anyone else. I told Robbie this, hoping that he loved Adam's work just as much.

I am so glad that Adam Rex agreed to illustrate The Dirty Cowboy. Through his illustrations, he retold the story from beginning to end visually. Small children enjoy The Dirty Cowboy (despite the fact that all the experts say the book is for ages 5 and up), and I know this is due to Adam's art. (The bathing page is a particular hit with the two year olds.) In addition, Adam added other characters on every page: a rabbit with a clothespin on its nose, a frog who's always in the right place at the right time, highly emotive quail (take a look at their head feathers), flies playing saxophones, and lots of beetles and bugs. The book is half-his by right. It was humbling being paired with someone so talented. (See more of Adam's work at www.adamrex.com.)

Sample of the story as published

Anyway, in August of 2003, The Dirty Cowboy was finally published.

Thoughts (For Now) on Authorship and Suggestions

Okay, so where does this get me? After taking all these suggestions, some of them crucial to the story, am I the author of The Dirty Cowboy or not? Would The Dirty Cowboy have been published without these other people in my life? I don't think so. But would The Dirty Cowboy have been published without me? Of course not.

The first part, and the biggest part of being an author, is writing your story out as best you can (and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting). But what happens after it's all written? Well, then the author has to try to make the story even better than their first, best try, and being better than your best is almost impossible without help. (I suppose you could leave a story in a drawer for a couple of years and come back to it after life has changed you, but who wants to take that kind of time?)

So as author, you must seek out help for your story. You're the one who cares enough about your story to persevere with it, seeking out other writers, readers, and editors. What do they like about the story? Where do they get confused? Have you left any questions unanswered? What elements seem to them to be missing?

And then, with your story's best interest in mind, you choose among the suggestions you've gathered. You choose the ones that make you laugh, or the ones that make your imagination take flight (even if the flight it takes was not what the suggestion maker had in mind), and you definitely take the ones that embarrass you because they are so right on that you must have been blind not to see them. And then you turn on your computer and you change your story. You take other people's good suggestions and you fit them into your story using your voice, your love of language, your pacing and pauses, and your sense of humor (among other things).

Believe me, you tell your story your way. So if someone offers you a good suggestion – take it. Take it and run with it and make it your own.

As a final note, I think it's interesting that our readers – children – don't seem to care how much trouble (or how many suggestions we took) to write our story. Heck, most of the time they don't even remember our names. But they do remember a good story.

Copyright © 2005 by Amy Timberlake.

What Happened Next: Response to The Dirty Cowboy


        • Golden Kite Award 2003 (SCBWI – For Excellence in Picture Book Text)
        • First Prize in the 2004 Marion Vannett Ridgway AwardsInternational Reading
        • Association 2004 Notable BookParents Choice Gold Medal
        • Bulletin Blue Ribbon (The Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books)
        • Finalist for the Spur Award (Western Writers of America)Finalist for Southeast
        • Booksellers Association 2004 Book Award
        • Nominated for the E.B. White Read Aloud Award


Best of 2003: Miami Herald, Mercury News (San Jose) and The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)

Starred Reviews: Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and The Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books

From Publishers Weekly: An "outstanding debut for both author and illustrator. Timberlake's keen comic timing and abundant western witticisms fit hand in glove with Rex's farcical golden-and copper-toned illustration."

Buy The Dirty Cowboy at Amazon

What Happened After That:

Amy Timberlake's most recent work is That Girl Lucy Moon, published by Hyperion Books for Children. It's about a twelve-year-old activist who takes on the deep pockets of a northern Minnesota town, and includes sledding, love, and a good measure of adolescent angst.

And here's a Podcast Interview with Amy Timberlake and Adam Rex about book banning.

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