The last #FirstDraftFriday of 2023 is here! We've had an awesome year of wonderful guests, and today is no different. Anitra Rowe Schulte is joining us to talk about her beautiful new picture book, WILLOW AND BUNNY. Read on to get inspired and then draft your own picture book manuscript today.
WILLOW AND BUNNY, written by Anitra Rowe Schulte and illustrated by Christoper Denise, came out earlier this fall from Two Lions.
To order or learn more about Anitra, visit: anitraroweschulte.com
Anitra is generously offering a manuscript critique as a prize for someone who completes a draft today! Details on how to enter at the end of this post.
Welcome Anitra! Can you tell us a little about what inspired you to sit down and write the first draft of WILLOW AND BUNNY?
WILLOW AND BUNNY is rooted in a moment in time that I’ll never forget. I was driving in our family van, listening to news radio, as I often do. Reporters were recounting details from an event that had happened in our country. The details were horrific. How could something like this happen in our world – a place filled with so much love and beauty? How do things like this happen, time and again? And when darkness comes at us, unexpectedly, and we are confronted with its fury, alongside others – feeling frightened and hopeless – what can carry us through to light again? I pulled my van over and started scribbling down these questions and things that I knew to be true on the back of a long drugstore receipt.
Love that this story started on the back of a receipt! How did it evolve from there?
The questions on that receipt were the beginnings of WILLOW AND BUNNY – ideas that I urgently, desperately needed to explore and answer, for myself and also for the young readers I held close to my heart as a wrote: my three daughters. When I begin putting words to paper (literal or digital), I’m almost always working through something and finding my way.
The narrative element that connected my drugstore receipt scribbles and my final picture book manuscript was the idea (and character) of a tornado, a manifestation of a darkness unpredictable and relentless. That led me to my setting and to the characters Willow and Bunny.
Before you begin the first draft, do you do any pre-drafting or brainstorming exercises to help you flesh the story out?
I don’t typically frame out my stories through any formal means, although that would be really interesting to explore! Generally, an aspect of the story crystallizes in my mind – an image, a pivotal moment, a musical refrain. For WILLOW AND BUNNY, I could clearly picture and imagine all three aspects in the pre-writing phase: First, a serene, beautiful, safe space. Second, a sense of peace disrupted by darkness. And third, the refrain “Bunny and Willow, Willow and Bunny.” The story was and is, in many ways, a build out of these elements. I didn’t “feel the finish line,” so much as sought to connect these ideas into a cohesive, heart-salving narrative.
Do you remember what you thought of your first draft of WILLOW AND BUNNY when it was done? Did you think it was a winner or were you not even sure you’d keep working on it?
As I reread my first draft of WILLOW AND BUNNY, it was clear to me that the style wasn’t modern, so to speak. It felt more classic in nature. That didn’t undermine my confidence in it, but it kind of revealed to me what the story wanted and needed to be. The woodland setting and the friendships found within were instantly familiar and felt like home, likely a reflection of early literary influences, such as WINNIE-THE-POOH. I loved the cozy nature of it, and I felt a responsibility to bring the characters safely through the storm.
Can you share part of your original manuscript that changed significantly? How did you know this needed work and what was the process like to get it where it is today?
The stability and enduring love of Willow was the starting point for the story, and my first draft was simply entitled WILLOW. It was just 332 words, quite short for me and my writing style. Of the first draft, one critique partner astutely said, “I think I'd like to see the relationship between Bunny and Willow build up slightly more” prior to the storm. What a gift that was! (Thank you, Jen!) Here is where the story started:
Bunny rested in the grass beneath his tree – Willow.
Oh, how he loved her big, beautiful branches!
So soft. So fluffy. So thick and swishy.
Bunny parted Willow’s tendrils and peered out. The forest was full of song.
Fox was nowhere to be seen.
Bunny shut the curtain of leaves and smiled. He felt so safe under Willow’s umbrella.
In this text, I can feel and see the main characters – but wow, is it raw and underdeveloped. How did Bunny come to be friends with Willow? What are the hallmarks of rich, dependable friendship? We discover each other, we sense each other’s warmth and generosity, we spend time in each other’s company. My critique partner Jen’s desire to experience a buildup of friendship was an invitation to explore this journey of relationship, and this exploration led to a deepening of detail in all aspects of the manuscript.
Did you have any favorite darlings you had to cut that you’d like to share here. Tell us why you loved it and why it had to go.
The first draft included a character that is not in WILLOW AND BUNNY, who you may have noticed in that short excerpt – a fox. I just love foxes. They are such beautiful creatures, and I like what they can, and often, represent in stories. When the tornado approaches, animals of the forest rush to Willow for protection. I intended for this moment to serve as a metaphor for sharing space with others we don’t know, and how that can add an extra layer of discomfort and uncertainty to scary moments. Should the fox, a predator to many under Willow’s canopy, be allowed in? In the end, it over complicated the manuscript and took space and time away from the development of the story’s central characters. (I’ll find another story for you one day, fox!)
What is the hardest part of writing a first draft for you? And how do you deal with that?
For me, the first draft is a big assignment that I’ve given to myself. The task: To take the feelings and questions out of my heart and do them justice on the page. I feel an obligation to get it right, so that intention comes through in no uncertain terms. That is what propels me through the first draft and the revision process, as well. I’m in the midst of a first draft right now, so I’m currently feeling this question, big time! The two barriers and opportunities to completion of a first draft, for me, are momentum and clarity. When I can harness momentum (something that is often in direct conflict with the demands of life), it provides the fuel. When I discover what my story is truly about, this clarity becomes my compass for revision.
Any other tips and tricks for getting that first draft committed to the page?
I have to keep the manuscript file open on my laptop. If I “x” out of it, I will lose that momentum. I need to find it every time I open my computer, and see the title calling to me, inviting me in. I also play a little trick on myself, to create accountability: I tell someone about the story (my agent or my critique partners), and then I tell them when I’ll be sharing it with them. Maybe it’s the former newspaper reporter in me… I like a deadline and the urgency of delivering my best work within a set time frame. Early mornings are best for me for drafting new work; I’m not quite awake enough to put guardrails up around my creativity, so I can just flow. I also like having a writing retreat on the books. I love using retreats for revision, so when I know a retreat is approaching, it incentivizes me to have a solid first draft to dig into on that day.
Love those tips, especially the accountability and deadline tricks! Those were the two things that prompted me to start #FirstDraftFriday. Readers, I hope you're ready to write because you have a 10 pm deadline to meet. Let's do this!
To enter for a chance at a free picture book critique from Anitra, do the following by 10 pm ET today (Dec. 1, 2023):
Complete a full picture book draft
Return to this blog post and comment that you’ve completed your draft and provide your Twitter handle or full name. You will need to Sign Up/Log In to leave a comment (it’s easy - just an email and password).
You don’t need to send in your draft or provide proof - we’re all about the honor system here! The lucky winner will be randomly drawn from the comments and announced on Twitter shortly after 10 pm ET tonight.