I’m jazzed to have author Jonathan Hillman on the blog to talk about what I’ve come to think of as the three Ps: Patience, Perseverance, and (eventually) Publication. Jonathan’s debut picture book, Big Wig, came out on the best date of the year, in my opinion: 2/22/22! Illustrated by Levi Hasting and published by Paula Wiseman Books, this story went on quite a journey from first draft to final copy. Get ready to be bedazzled!
LL: Welcome, Jonathan! To start out, tell us when you started writing BIG WIG. What did those early drafts look like, and what was the timeframe from your first draft to WIG going out on sub?
JH: Thanks so much for having me, Laura! I first started writing BIG WIG (then titled WIG FLEW) in early 2018 when I was in my third semester at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults (MFAC) program. My advisor Emily Jenkins (aka e. lockhart) suggested that I experiment with forms, since I’d only written YA up to that point. WIG was my first attempt at a picture book. Her warm reception to my first few drafts encouraged me to keep going.
Those early drafts were long—over 750 words. By comparison, the final book is 280. The story was much grander in scale, seeing Wig fly through the streets of New York City and all the way to outer space! B.B. Bedazzle originally had a rival queen named Umbrella Shade (that’s the cut I miss the most).
About a month after having the initial idea, I pitched the book on Twitter during PitMad. My now-agent Brent Taylor slid into my DMs asking me to send the manuscript immediately. So I did. And within a matter of hours, he requested to see more of my work. I sent him another picture book, THE WISHING MACHINE (which will be published in 2023), and the first 15 pages of a YA novel. By the end of the day, I had an offer for representation. It wasn’t long after signing with Brent (maybe a week or two) that we went out on submission. On the very first morning, we received several rejections and a note of interest from one editor. Everything about WIG’s early life went fast!
LL: Not to spoil things for our readers, but you and I have discussed that this early draft didn’t sell. Did the editors who sent those first rejections give any feedback?
JH: The most common note we received was that this book was for adults. The character B.B. Bedazzle was an adult drag queen for all my drafts (that didn’t change until I got an offer). A few generous editors asked how we might contextualize drag within the universal childhood experience of playing dress up.
JH: One editor sent a longer editorial letter asking how this book might explore the ethos of drag. That question was easy for me to answer: Drag elevates and empowers a community that is often made to feel small. It makes the world more beautiful and encourages performers and audience members to imagine bigger, better realities. But putting that on the page while also addressing our second most common note, MAKE IT SHORTER, was a bigger challenge.
LL: After those initial rejections, you decided to shelve WIG. What led to that decision? Did you have plans to eventually resurrect the story, or did you think it was doomed to the drawer forever?
JH: At first, it was procrastination. I’m a born contemplative, so I spent a long time thinking about the feedback. But as the weeks and months passed, I realized I was avoiding the project entirely. I dodged questions about it, and eventually my agent and I moved on to the next project. Part of me thought I would come back to it eventually. But a bigger part of me thought it was doomed.
I shelved it for over a year with no intention of returning to it. I’m discovering that this is an important part of my process: mourning and letting go of the story that I initially conceived to open myself to the possibilities of the story in its finished form.
LL: Ah, yes. Sometimes we have to mourn our darlings before we can kill them. What was your inspiration for the version of the story that finally sold?
JH: After moving on from WIG, my agent sent out my second picture book and my YA novel. Both projects had promising leads, but it was a year of a LOT of rejection. That started to take a toll. By the end of 2019, I had stopped writing altogether. I’ve always experienced some level of depression and anxiety, but at that point it was worse than ever. In order to keep going with my creative work, I needed to first take care of my mental health. I got help, and little by little, I felt pieces of myself returning—the most important of which was my need to use my imagination, perform, and play.
I didn’t make a conscious decision to return to WIG, but the story found me again in early 2020. I started rewriting it hypothetically with no intention of sending it out. My approach was: this story didn’t sell, but what would it look like if it did?
I had always struggled with Wig’s motivation for flying off B.B.’s head. In drag culture, “wig flew” means you’re blown away or astonished by something (for example, if you see a fierce look or a show stopping dance move at a drag show, you might say, “girl, my wig flew!”). After my own crisis of confidence, Wig’s moment of departure made more sense to me. Maybe she doesn’t feel as big as the other wigs, I thought. Maybe she goes on a journey to discover what makes her bigger. Thus, the Big Wig Ball was born.
JH: I simplified the setting, made a dummy draft to get the pacing right, tweaked the text to sound like a pop song, and ultimately decided it was worth sending to my agent. In its published form, Wig’s journey is the journey of the book itself—the story of how I rediscovered my confidence and learned that my truest self is good enough.
LL: Thank you for sharing this with us. It makes the story even more impactful knowing that Wig’s journey mirrored your own.
What did taking WIG back out on sub look like, logistically? Did you send to any of the editors who rejected it the first time around, or did your agent create an entirely new list?
JH: We sent it to the one editor who had given us feedback and hadn’t yet rejected the project, plus a brand-new list of editors created by my agent. Immediately after sending it out, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., so I was distracted from thinking too much about WIG. I wasn’t even sure editors were acquiring books. But on my first day working from home in March 2020, we got the call from Sylvie Frank at Paula Wiseman Books (Simon & Schuster). She loved the story and asked if I’d be open to making B.B. Bedazzle a child—a change that wouldn’t require significant changes to the text. I loved Sylvie’s vision for the book, so we took the project off the table and accepted her offer!
LL: Thus, a debut was born! What advice would you give to writers in the trenches?
JH: I used to think perseverance meant to keep querying, keep sending out the same work and never take no for an answer. But now I view perseverance as the long pursuit of making the story better. Rejections are an opportunity to revise and refine your work. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the feedback you need to reach your final draft. Do the work. Open yourself to big changes. And most importantly, remember to play. We started writing because we love books. I try to remind myself every day that the best writing is an act of love, not fear.
LL: That is truly wonderful advice. Thanks so much for being here, Jonathan!
Readers, if you’d like to connect with Jonathan, you can do so here:
PS- If you enjoyed this interview about Jonathan’s journey to publication, you might also like this guest post by author Katie Frawley, or this interview with author Laura Perdew, which explore similar themes.
Jonathan Hillman is a graduate of Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults (MFAC) program, where he won the Walden Pond Press Award for Excellence in Middle Grade Fiction. His work has been featured in Fat and Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives. His debut picture book Big Wig is out now, and his second picture book The Wishing Machine is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in Fall 2023. He lives near Minneapolis, MN with his two cats.