Lately I have had current and prospective critique clients ask me similar questions about my publishing background, so I decided to whip up an "Ask Away Friday" post to address these questions.
I am a former paralegal who drafted correspondence and pleadings (1983-2003), as well as professional book reviewer who reviewed novels. During that time, I tinkered with rom-com (romantic comedy) novels and screenplays before switching to children's writing in 1999.
WRITING FOR CHILDREN:
I threw myself into learning anything and everything I could about children's writing, took many college and other courses, attended many conferences (including NY and LA SCBWI Nationals, SCBWI International at Madrid in 2003, Rutgers RUCCL each year and Highlights Foundation Workshops at Chautauqua in 2001, 2002, 2003 and later in 2005). Programs like RUCCL and Chautauqua are selective, and I was able to get in time and again, so I did have confidence that I was on the right track with my career choice.
SUBMITTING and HIATUS
I finally felt ready to focus on submitting four years later, around 2003. However, I got married in May 2003, got pregnant, and was prescribed bed rest. As a result, I was living with my family at my parent's house with no access to a computer. I couldn't write, but kept reading. I intended to return to writing as soon as possible, but my new daughter needed my attention more than my writing.
BLOG: I did have a blog which actually made Writer's Digest Top 100 many years ago and which you see today here. I don't feel that my blog helped me sell a book, however, I do feel it is a necessary promotion tool, especially now that I have several books to my name. [Art by: Lisa J. Michaels]
WEBSITE: I feel the same about websites (personal opinion). However, I do think once you sell your first book that you should buy your domain, get your website set up, and start building traffic and subscribers.
BACK ON TRACK:
I finally got back on track in 2010 when Kayla entered kindergarten full-time. At that time, I started submitting and got my first offer on a manuscript called School Bus Buddies from Jenne Abramowitz of Scholastic in 2010. This offer produced my first book, Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten, published in 2011 and illustrated by Anne Kennedy. I did not have an Agent at the time, but had fortunately slipped through the cracks and my manuscript had been seen.
I had absolutely no recall of this event until I recently found the rejection letter, but in 2003 I had attended the NY SCBWI conference and had a critique with Mary Gruetzke, who liked my School Bus Buddies manuscript, but felt it wasn't for Scholastic Press, so she passed it along to Jenne Abramowitz, who rejected it.
Ironically, it was the same story (after many years of revision) that the SAME editor from Scholastic accepted in 2010. Please know, had I remembered the rejection at all, I would have never sent again. But I didn't, and I had put enough time and energy into the manuscript to pass through this time. Moral of the Story: Do not submit before your manuscript is ready. This means several trusted people telling you SEND IT OUT! It would be like opening a bottle of fine wine before it's time.
OFF THE TRACK:
Unfortunately, soon after Hedgehog's publication I moved myself and my daughter to Florida to escape a bad marriage. It took me several years to get back on my feet (2015), but as soon as I did, I joined Joyce Sweeney's critique group and also formed an online critique group and started relearning and honing my skills. In 2016, I submitted Hedgehog's 100th Day of School directly to my then-editor Jenne, and got an acceptance from Michael Croland, who had replaced her. In 2017, after several editor shifts, my book was published under the same name and was illustrated by Lorna Hussey. Scholastic is currently holding a third, related Hedgehog manuscript, pending successful sales of the 100th Day sequel.
Like many other writers, I sent submissions to which I received no response, but for the most part, I enjoyed champagne rejections for many of my manuscripts, with responses like "this is wonderful but just signed a similar book about a dog in Versailles," "unfortunately, I just committed to a Panda book," "I really like this but just took on another feisty princess book," etc. And so I pressed on and persisted.
TWO PATHS TO SUCCESS:
My third book (pending 2018) The Star in the Christmas Play, was a finalist in the a contest put on by Sparkhouse Family. It did not win the contest, but they brought it to acquisitions and ultimately bought it in April, 2017. I am thrilled to announce it will be illustrated by the talented Lorna Hussey, who created the art for my Hedgehog's 100th Day book! [Art by Lorna Hussey]
My fourth book (pending TBA) Moldilocks and the 3 Scares was picked up by Meredith Mundy of Sterling Children's Publishing. She had originally seen my manuscript The Dino Store at a SCBWI Conference in Miami in 2016 and loved it, but said, "I already have too many dinosaur books and it would compete for sales with what I already have. What else do you have?" I pitched six books to her on the spot, and she told me to send the first three. Moldilocks and the 3 Scares was one of the first three. Although it was submitted in February 2016, I received the offer in July, 2017, and the contract is currently pending.
So to recap, I basically was writing / studying / reading for 11 years before I got published (but consider there were many years in there where I was not focused). I did submit to the slush pile and made it through, and I did persist. I am now at the 18 year mark, with four books and this being my best year. I had one book published in January and have a goal of five contracts this year. Even if I don't reach it, I'll have gone further than if I didn't have such a wonderful goal. Two down, three to go. I have a few rewrite requests out and my fingers are crossed.
This is a good time for me to point out that anyone in this business really needs to have patience in their arsenal of skills and really needs to LOVE what they are doing. [Art by Lorna Hussey]
Of all the advice I could give, I would say that everyone's path is different, and that perhaps dedication to learning craft and devoted reading, as well as persistence are the best tools to carve a successful children's writing career.
I think critique groups are absolutely essential and are part of my success. I run several critique groups, including a few for KidLit College (www.kidlitcollege.com) and SCBWI and am very active in them as well. I have no idea how people get by without a critique group with honest feedback.
I am currently talking with someone who is on my dream agent list and my fingers are crossed that it works out. However, I have sold four books on my own, so I am not afraid of pressing on without an Agent. It would be nice, though, as there are some houses I can't be seen by that I think would be good fits for manuscripts I have in my stash. However, I do have a lot of friends that either have an Agent and have not sold a manuscript in quite some time, or, have an Agent and are not happy with them. So to be honest, I do not get caught up in worrying about whether I have an Agent or not and do the best that I can with what I have at hand.
TO WHAT I CREDIT MY SUCCESS:
As I've previously mentioned, in part the fact I am active in critique groups, another part would be the amount of time and energy I invested into my craft, and lastly that each of the books that sold I focused on enough to read over 50 comp titles for, in an effort to make sure there isn't anything else like it, and that it is geared to the publisher to which I submitted.
WHICH COMES FIRST, THE PLOT OR THE CHARACTER:
I will dive into this in more depth in an upcoming blog post, however I will say that ideas are like children. They come to you from different places, and in different ways, and that no two are exactly alike. So, sometimes I start with a character, sometimes with the plot. Sometimes the idea comes as a seed and I write from there. Sometimes, I don't write a word until the idea is fully formed.
I actually have more ideas than there is time in the day, however, I try to focus as much as possible.
I do write all over the picture book and board book spectrum -- which includes meta-fiction, subversive, concept, bedtime, high-concept, friendship, school stories, historical, sweet, rhymed, fairy tales, mash-ups, pun-filled and more! My latest manuscripts are Witch's Christmas Switchmas (an obvious mashup); Counting Sheep with Bo Peep which is a fairy tale mash-up and counting book,; The Trouble with Lemmings which is about a lemming who struggles to show his individuality, only to find that being a part of a group has its perks; and Tombmates, which is about two brothers who must share a tomb (room) in the afterlife; to name a few. I encourage writers to keep writing and revising and to explore many story options until they find that one that soars above the rest.
If anyone has any questions for me that I have not answered, please feel free to post them in the comments and I will do my best to answer them.