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How I Got My Agent

5 May

 

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I am so thrilled to finally have this story to tell! It’s the one every writer yearns to tell. It’s the one that’s unique to every writer.

This one is mine.

After three years of writing and submitting to agents, I finally broke through the barrier. You know, the one between being someone who writes and being a writer with an agent.

I did a lot of the usual things aspiring authors do. I joined SCBWI. I continue to go to monthly meetings. I have attended several state and regional conferences and workshops.  I took online classes and webinars. I started three different critique groups specifically for picture book writers, two of which are still active. I joined several online writing groups. I became an administrator in one of those groups, the Debut Picture Book Study Group. I am active on several social media sites.  I purchased and devoured how-to books. And I got to know my local librarians and bookstore owners on a personal basis. I read, read, read picture books.

In short, I did everything I could to learn the craft.

And of course, I did my best to write good stories and submit to agents who were taking on new clients in my genre.

But I also did my best to make connections in the writing community. It was one of these fortunate connections which ultimately led to signing with my agent, Tina Schwartz of The Purcell Agency. I met Tina during a webinar on Writing Queries. We hit it off right away and I began working as her Literary Assistant. Tina was interested in my work. The first story I subbed to her was rejected, but the second pitch was a hit! She called me on Wednesday morning and made a verbal offer of representation. We spoke for a long time and she emailed a standard contract. Luckily for me, my son is an attorney so I emailed the contract to him for a quick look-see and an explanation of some terms of ‘legalese’.

The very next day I was on my way to Chicago for a writing conference. I was so crazy over the moon I could barely stay in my lane! My friend and critique partner (and passenger) was almost as excited as I was. And being the sweetheart that she is, she reread every single workshop and discussion offered as I drove  pondering which alternate sessions to attend in light of my new circumstances. We memorized the names of agents/agencies and editors/publishing houses we wanted to meet that weekend. I’m so happy we had decided to take the shoulder days on the conference. This extra evening gave me the opportunity to better prepare myself without feeling rushed the morning of the conference with new concerns in addition to a 5 hour drive. Then we focused on having fun and learning as much as we could. It was actually a nice reprieve from the constant preoccupation of possible representation. If my brain wasn’t overstimulated before the conference, it certainly was afterwards.

In the meantime, my son had redlined the contract with a few suggestions and I made a list of questions, questions, and more questions I wanted to ask Tina. (Remember those shoulder days? We stayed Sunday evening, had dinner with new friends and didn’t head home until Monday morning.) Monday, I relaxed, reviewed notes, discussed it with my son and husband and I called her on Tuesday morning with my inquires. We spoke for almost an hour, something I appreciate in an agent. She was very patient with me and answered all my questions and concerns. We negotiated the terms of the contract, and Tina re-mailed it on the spot. I printed it out. Signed. Returned a scanned copy. And celebrated!

Now, Wednesday again. One week after the initial phone call, Tina emailed me again. She has sent my manuscript to five publishing houses, houses I would not have been able to get into without an agent.

Unreal! I’m still pinching myself!

 

 

 

 

 

Dreams

5 Feb

How many of you dream about work? Everyone, right? When I was teaching I practically couldn’t sleep the night before the first day of school, a big observation, or parent conferences. And when I finally did fall off to sleep it wasn’t the peaceful, refreshing, life-affirming sleep of the innocent. No, it was terrible nightmares of showing up naked, or being the only one in the room and wondering where everyone else was, or seeing everyone else was completely Pinterest prepared with color-coded folders and eye-catching charts while I was knee deep in plain cardboard boxes.

Well this is my third year of retirement and I can honestly say those dreams are finally starting to fade, although I still have the occasional dream of a coworker showing up in some odd non-work related situation or the one where I wake up looking for something. But what hasn’t changed is the fact that I do dream about work.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming about writing related things, sort of. I’ve actually dreamed that I was typing my dream onto a computer screen. I’ve met authors in line at the coffee shop, pruning roses, and cleaning the oven. I’ve gotten lost driving to a critique meeting in the middle of the sea. I’ve even returned my library books and shopped for journals while flying. Oh, yeah, and last night I woke up looking for my chalk… I guess some things never change.

So what is it about weird dreams? Are they like Scrooge said, a “bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato”? Or as Freud said, “most profound when they seem the most crazy”?

We may never know, but for now, I’m glad that my dreams are more reflective (so to speak) of my new work and what I want to do when I wake up.

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Books Alive!

31 Dec

unnamedYay! I did it!

I promised myself this year that I would read as many new picture books as I could. I got my recommendations from friends and from my library, thank you Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County! Every week I would look at my library’s website and find the new releases and put them on hold for me to read. Today is the last day of 2015 and I have reviewed 360 picture books on my BOOKS ALIVE page! I actually read many more, but these are the one that made the cut for my page.

I quickly realized there were going to be more books than I could possibly read in one year, so I set a few parameters for myself.

First of all, I read almost exclusively fiction because this is what I write. Although I couldn’t pass up a few non-fictions recommended by friends, these are very few of the total number of books read.

Secondly, I only reviewed the ones I could honestly give 3, 4, or 5 stars to. If I didn’t want to reread a story or buy it for my grandchildren, I didn’t review it.

Thirdly, I steered away from commercial characters. Even though I love Winnie-the-Pooh, Curious George, and the Disney franchise, I had to limit my reading and this was one way to do it. I love a good series as much as the next person, but I was really looking for what I could learn from the stand alone picture book to inform my own writing.

Lastly, I stuck to traditionally published books because this is the route I would like to take myself and part of my quest included learning about what sells. So basically, if I couldn’t get my hands on it in my library system I didn’t read it. Although, I have put in purchase requests online for books that were getting a lot of media attention and which were not in my public library.

In total I reviewed… 360 picture books in Books Alive! This does not include the books I read and did not review. It also does not include the books I read that were not published in 2015. Sometimes I would find an author I liked and went back and read more of their work.

Top 10 Things I Learned About Writing Kid Lit from BOOKS ALIVE!

1. There are no hard and fast rules! Yes, publishers are buying and selling rhyming text… good rhyming text. Yes, publishers are buying and selling ‘quiet’ books.

  1. Diversity matters! Even though the We Need Diverse Books movement started last year, I found that there was more diversity in children’s books than I first realized. These books were written and acquired several years before they were published and therefore were in the works before the movement started. I think this issue has been n the forefront of publishers’ minds for longer than we realized. These titles include gender diversity, racial diversity, cultural diversity and diversity in the authors and illustrators who produce these books. And, yes we still have a long way to go… so let’s get busy!

  2. Animal characters still make up the core of picture books. I think children relate well to animal characters and as adults, authors are more apt to tell a ‘difficult’ story one step away from a child protagonist. Also, in going back to the diversity issue, any child can identify with an animal since there is no obvious human trait of gender, race, or culture that makes them different from the reader. Readers can then see themselves as friendly, helpful, brave, adventurous, frightened, etc instead of different from the kid in the book based on physical appearances.

  3. Opinions are like noses, everyone has one. And not everyone can see past their own. Just because someone else did not like a particular book, does not mean that you will dislike it as well. Some of my favorite books are the ones that were overlooked by the media. Conversely, not all the hype about a book coincides with your own opinion. As a matter of fact, I try to generally be positive in my reviews of a book and stay away from those I don’t care for. There are some books out there that you may hate, but remember someone liked it enough to publish it. And you may read a book I have reviewed and think I was crazy to give it 5 stars… again that’s just my opinion. In the same way, agents, editors, and publishers have opinions. There are things they like and things they don’t care for. Just because your work gets a pass from one of these people, does not mean that your work is no good… it’s just not their cup of tea. Try someone else. Research who you submit to so that you can increase the likelihood that they will want your story.

  4. Not all wordless picture books are written by the same author/illustrator. It must be difficult to get your idea across to an agent, editor, publisher, or illustrator if you want to tell a story through pictures exclusively or almost exclusively and you are not the artist. But I have seen it successfully accomplished time and time again. So take your vision and go with it!

  5. There were no books (that I found) beginning with the letter X. That may or may not mean something to a writer out there, but I just thought it was interesting. I might consciously try to write something with an X as the first letter… Xavier’s Puppy? X-Ray Vision? X Marks the Spot? Hey, I kinda like that one… dibs on X Marks the Spot!

  6. Speaking of titles. I can’t tell you how many books I read with the same or almost the exact same title as another picture book. After reading, I would go to Goodreads to record my books read (Which by the way, if you don’t add the date finished, Goodreads will not count it as a book read this year! Guess when I found this out? Last week, when people started posting how many books they read this year and went to look up mine and I had two, TWO. Aiye!). Anyway… while searching for the book by title I would often find more than one with a similar title. Usually this occurred within a few years of each other. But sometimes within the same year, but with different publishing houses. So just because there is already a book out there like yours don’t give up, it might be exactly what someone else is looking for.

  7. Along the same lines, there are hundreds of books with similar themes… friendship, loneliness, fears, lost items, first day of school, bullies, etc. But those that are getting published are new, different, exciting! So what if there are a lot of monster books? Make sure yours is unique… a monster story that only you can tell! Sometimes I’d pick up ‘another bear book’ with dread, and then WOWZERS the author would knock my socks off with the clever jokes, the deep meaning, or the lovely illustrations. And I’d have to remember, THIS is what the publishers want!

  8. Whenever I reviewed a story, I did my best to connect in some way with the author and/or illustrator. I liked their page on Facebook, I sent a friend request, connected on Twitter, looked up their blog. This personal connection gives you another layer of rapport. I found that kid lit people are extremely friendly! They enjoy hearing from fans, they appreciate good reviews of their work on Goodreads, Amazon, and blogs. Many become instant friends, others merely acquaintances. Each connection is another chance to learn from someone who has already made it in the business. Take advantage of personal relationships, these people are your allies in the writing field!

  9. And speaking of making connections… meet as many pros as you can. I love nothing more than to find a great new book and have it signed by the author. Some of the books I reviewed here are a direct result of meeting the author and or illustrator at a workshop or signing event. SCBWI events, Books by the Banks in Cincinnati, and writing workshops are great places to meet the pros. Nothing beats personal connections. I have found them to be wonderful people. They are open, honest, kind, generous, and insightful! This includes the booksellers, librarians, and teachers in your area. Luckily for me, I do know a lot of teachers. For awhile I knew more teachers than an other profession. Now that I’m retired, we still get together for lunch or coffee. It’s important as a writer to remember your audience, parents, teachers, and kids are top on the list! When you check out as many books as I have in the last two years, the librarians get to know you. When you attend book signings, booksellers begin to recognize you. These people can steer you in the right direction when you’re looking for something specific and will be important contacts to have when you are published and ready to go out in public for the first time.

Bonus… give them something, make their life easier, make them remember you. The most important things I did for my readers had nothing to do with my writing journey. The notes I took for myself, were not recorded on my blog, those I keep in my journals. What I did for the readers was simply to give the a quick overview of the story, yes spoilers and all, so they could first see if this was one that met their needs. And then I gave them a few ideas they could use with their children to extend their reading. So whether a parent, grandparent, teacher, or daycare worker, needed a book and an activity to go with it, I tried to give them something they could use. Pinterest became my best friend this year! It takes time to find arts and crafts or easy recipes that are age appropriate without duplicating them too often. But I hope these little things make someone else’s life easier. Many times parents and teachers are too frazzled at the end of the day to think of one more thing. I hope they will come back to my blog once in a while and type in a key word to search for a just-right book and activity for the next day.

Now, off to rest for one whole day before 2016 begins with all its new resolutions! See you on the other side!

 

The 7 Levels of Children’s Literature

12 Oct

I was having dinner with my husband’s cousins this weekend and the topic turned to my writing. “So, what are you working on?” I went on to describe a couple of my stories which are ‘out there’ waiting for representation and the new work I’m doing on the CYBILS Easy Reader and Early Chapter Book panel. The latter was met with cocked heads and furrowed brows. It wasn’t the Award that was confusing, it was the difference between Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books.

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It’s actually a look I’m quite familiar with; many of the parents of my second graders had the same look when I introduced them to the genres past picture books. Most of these parents, and I believe the general public, think there is one giant step their children make from picture books (which them deem as ‘too easy’ for their kiddos) to chapter books (which they erroneously believe their budding geniuses should be reading). I can’t tell you how many parents want their kids graduating from Dr. Seuss to Harry Potter in one fell swoop. And, as the gate-keeper to the class library, I should be the one to put these books in their hands. But I digress…

So, back to the confusion between the levels of children’s literature. Although someone else may have more or fewer, depending on how they organize their thinking, I’d like to discuss seven stages of children’s literature which correspond to children’s levels of reading development. These are categories which can be identified in most libraries and bookstores and are agreed upon terms by the kid lit community. Now, the tricky thing to remember about readers is that no one is totally in one category or another. Children often flow between two or three categories at a time, and should be encouraged to do so.

What I’ve done here to help ‘outsiders’ understand the differences, is to give an example of how the writing changes for each category. Beginning with a story told completely with illustrations and ending with a story told with no illustrations, topics of increasing maturity are presented to the reader.

1. Wordless: No text. (full illustrations)

2. Near Wordless: Duck. Worm. (full illustration)

3. Picture Book: Duck and Worm are friends. (full illustration)

4. Easy Reader: This is Duck. This is Worm. Duck and Worm are best friends. Duck likes to fish. Worm likes to draw. Worm drew a picture of Duck. “You are a great artist, Worm,” said Duck.   (some illustration)

5. Early Chapter Book: “Hey, Worm,” Mallard called to his little brother, Wesley. Mallard picked up his rod and reel. “Shake a leg.  We need to leave now if we want fish for dinner tonight.” Wesley yawned and threw his covers back. “I’m coming,” he said. (fewer illustrations)

6. Middle Grade: Mallard and Wesley marched into Coach Goliath’s office after football practice. Middle School is hard enough without having to deal with the social hierarchy forced upon them by the likes of the knuckleheads on the gridiron. It’s about time someone stood up for the rights of the little guy. And, with Mallard at his side, Wesley felt taller than his 4 foot 9 inches. (illustrated sporadically)

7. Young Adult: It’s unnatural. At least that’s what the demonstrators outside Oak Park City Hall claimed. Wesley shrank away from the chanting crowd. If anyone saw him, there would surely be a lynching tonight. Oak Park’s old guard wasn’t ready for high school prom queen like Wesley. And he wasn’t ready to provide them with one either. He clutched his carry-on bag in one hand and his ticket in the other. He darted toward Mallard’s waiting car at the edge of the parking lot. (text carries the story)

As you can see, the main differences in the levels are in the subject matter, vocabulary, sentence structure, and dependence on illustrations. Each one has a unique function and fills a need in children’s literature. Do not be tempted to rush a child you know through the levels. Take time. Savor the stories. Allow children to become confident, fluent readers who read for enjoyment… not to reach the next landmark… and you will have a happy, life-long reader.

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CYBILS Awards

9 Oct

Cybils Blog Header 2009

As many of you know already, I have the honor of being one of the panelist for the CYBILS Awards for Children’s Literature this year. CYBILS is an acronym for Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Award.

This means that I will be spending almost every waking moment reading or blogging about books here. For this reason, I have dedicated a tab at the top of my page to share my thoughts with you.

Under the main tab, The 2015 CYBILS, I have started two other pages Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books since those are the two genres I will be reading and reviewing. On each of those pages, I have described my definitions of Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books. These may differ slightly from those of other panelists or professionals in the field, but I believe they are substantially accurate. As I read, I will add a page to one of the two categories giving the title, author, publisher, year of publication, ISBN, summary, literary merit, and kid appeal for each book.

As with my other reviews, I will only comment on books that I really like. I hope that you will find these posts helpful in choosing books to read to your children, grandchildren, students, family or friends. Please feel free to make your own comment about any book you find on my website. 

Good luck to all the participants in this year’s CYBILS Awards!

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I will also end each post with the circular icon and a reminder that all of the opinions on my page are my own and have not been influenced in any way by any other parties.

Back to School

3 Aug

It’s that time of year again. Kids and teachers are getting ready for another year of learning and growing together.  The nervousness mingles with the excitement. backtoschool1

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has a fun little writing prompt for this month: In 50 words or less, give us a first impression of your character’s new teacher.

And so I present to you, a 47 word story. Enjoy!

Dragon Lady

A nervous hiccup escaped my lips.

Dragon Lady whipped around.

A second hiccup erupted followed by a warm blast of shame.

Her red painted claw pointed at me.

“Lesson One,” she growled.

The third hiccup exploded in flames.

“You have earned the first star of the year.”

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Picture Book Art

14 May

Admit it, we’re drawn to the art of picture books. It’s okay, we’re supposed to be! The artwork sets the stage for the story. It reflects the mood of the story. It provides another layer to the story. Based on those three things alone, it’s okay to judge a book by its cover. And once you open the cover, you will be amazed that such art is within its pages.

Another lovely reason to love picture book covers, is the immediate recognition we have when we see a book we know and love. When I taught emergent readers many years ago, we began the school year with a bulletin board of words they could ‘read’ by picture/logo association. These included words from traffic signs, chain stores, restaurants, product trademarks, etc. Advertising people know the power of visual memory. As soon as they started bringing in cereal boxes and magazine ads for our bulletin board, I started showing them book covers. Yes, they could ‘read’ titles based on the artwork. Wow! What a revelation for them… they were readers! They could read caterpillar and moon long before they could read sight words like is, the, and a.

I wish I could afford original kidlit artwork. But like any masterpiece, they are well outside my budget. What I have done, however, is the second best thing for me. I frame the paper covers of my books. I only wish I had thought of doing this earlier, because most of my covers are now tattered or discarded. This is an inexpensive way for me to surround myself with the masters. I have a few Caldecott Medal Winners and some classics. I started with the two or three which survived the many years of love and handling. Then I picked up a few more at Half Price Bookstore. Now, I’m raiding my grandchildren’s shelves. My collection is growing and I love how this is turning out. Can’t wait to pick up and frame more favorite friends.

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Having picture book covers on my wall is inspirational for me as a writer as well. I can imagine what my own words will look like to an illustrator, and how readers will be drawn to my stories. I can’t wait for the surprises that an illustrator will bring to my stories. And more than anything, I can’t wait for a child to identify my book by its cover!

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