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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

On Coming THISCLOSE

When I tell people that I write children's books, they ask, naturally, what I have had published. I say that I am unpublished but trying -- and hopeful. That's why I call myself a children's book writer and not author (yet).

Getting published is a very difficult, painful, maddening (and I hope -- exhilarating) process. The statistics are all over the map, but here are some that I have heard:

  • Large publishing houses receive something like 14,000 unsolicited manuscripts a year. And publish less than 100.
  • One New York agent did the math on everything he receives each year and takes on something like 0.04 percent of those writers as new clients.
Most publishers rarely take on unagented authors, but getting an agent is supremely difficult.

There are ways to make contacts and connections, like joining the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and going to conferences. But that doesn't guarantee you anything. And even then, there's a delicate dance of not being too pushy at those things but still meeting agents and editors who can make it happen.

In February, I went to the SCBWI annual meeting in New York City. It was an investment, but one I saw as necessary if I ever want to see my work in print. I sprung for a pre-conference roundtable session that puts you at tables with agents and editors. You read 500 words of your piece and got feedback. It was a little scary and brutal, and I learned that my novel has a great idea but needs to be completely reworked. I trashed 30,000 words and started over.

I really loved one agent I met, and when I had a finished picture book manuscript a few months later, I sent it to her directly.  I waited for the form e-mail rejection.

But, by God, I got a personal reply.

She loved it. She wanted to see what else I had. She asked me to let her know if I was going to sign with another agent before she could get back to me. I did a really, really happy dance.

Despite working on a lot of different projects, I only have one other complete picture book manuscript and 2,000 words of my reworked novel. I sent her both. And then I waited.

A week later, I got the rejection that I anticipated (you can never get your hopes very high). But she was nice and gracious, and gave me great feedback. She still adored the first book I sent her. She just wanted me to have more finished manuscripts she could sell. She asked me to send her more when I have them written. And she wanted to see more of my novel when it is done.

In this game, you have to consider that a success. If I don't ever appeal to her with my future work, at least I have a little feedback that I am doing something right. In this game, it's the little wins that keep you going.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday's List: 10 Embarrassing Songs (That I Still Listen To) on My iPod

Surely I am not the only one who has them. You know, those songs you still listen to but hope no one at the gym knows. I trolled my 5,000+ songs in iTunes to bring you the most cringe-worthy.

  1. Lights, Camera, Action: Mr. Cheeks. Anything by someone named Mr. Cheeks automatically makes the list.
  2. We All Die Young: Steel Dragon. Forget for a moment that Steel Dragon is the fictional band from the movie "Rock Star." There, it's not such a bad song, is it?
  3. Blame It On the Rain: Milli Vanilli. Say what you want, I never stopped loving them. Girl, you know it's true.
  4. Stars Are Blind: Paris Hilton. Okay, I admit it. This is truly a horrible, awful song and should be taken out of my workout mix immediately.
  5. It Wasn't Me: Shaggy. I may or may not own Shaggy's entire "Hot Shot" album. But I'm not telling.
  6. A tie for both P.M. Dawn songs: Set Adrift on Memory Bliss and Looking Through Patient Eyes.
  7. Watch Closely Now: Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand. This is from the remake of "A Star Is Born." I'm not sure if it's embarrassing because it is Kris Kristofferson or Barbra Streisand or both … I think all three?
  8. Hit Me Baby One More Time: Britney Spears. This reminds me of fourth-year beach week, circa 2000, right before graduating college. So I still listen to it. So there.
  9. Can't Help Falling in Love: UB40. If you think back really hard, you might remember this remake. It was on the very first CD I ever bought.
  10. And finally, the best Christmas song ever made. I Still Believe in Santa Claus: New Kids on the Block. Obviously this is in major rotation come December.
I feel cleansed now that all my musical secrets are revealed. Others must have equally embarrassing songs, no? I can't be the only one.


Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday's List: My Top Five Books, Period

I could write lists and lists about all of my favorite books, broken down by genre, theme, audience, etc. But it's best to start at the beginning. My top five favorite books of all time. In no particular order, they are:

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
And no, this is not a favorite just because Harper Lee was a Chi Omega (somewhere, one of my sorority sisters is laughing). There is something awe-inspiring about reading a book that resonates in different ways throughout your lifetime. I'm not sure when I read it first. Middle school or high school? But it always seems brand-new each time.

2. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster
This is my favorite kid lit book, by far. It is just too perfect for words, and it's a great fit for the reader who loves wordplay in addition to a straightforward "journey" story. I consistently read this over and over again, and the combination of Norman Juster's story with Jules Feiffer's illustrations is story-telling gold.

3. A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
This book appeals to my literary fiction heart. I have a soft spot for Mark Helprin, John Irving, John Update, T.C. Boyle, et. al., and this epic is by far my favorite. It DOES take commitment. The first 75 pages are dull as dirt but the payoff is totally worth it. Helprin's "Memoirs from Antproof Case" is also excellent.

4. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
I recommend this book to every pregnant women as inspiration (and preparation) for what their body can do during labor. But it's more than just inspirational for the natural birthing set; it's a reminder of what it means to be a woman and how important it is to have a community of female friends throughout your lifetime.

5. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
I am not a huge Kingsolver fan; I think I am the only person who disliked "The Poisonwood Bible." But THIS book is different. It's magic. The story of intertwined characters rediscovering themselves is just beautifully told. It's also set in Appalachia, which speaks to my affection for where I grew up.

So, get reading folks! I have a lot of book recommendations from what I've read over the past five years or so, and I will post those as another list.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Good Is NOT Good Enough

"Good enough" is a phrase I live by in my day-to-day life. Spencer has no clean pants, but these jeans don't smell bad and I'll do laundry today anyway? Good enough. Goldfish again for snack instead of something interesting and inventive? Totally good enough. Skipping bath night so we can read books in bed instead? Absolutely good enough.

"Good enough" is what saves me as a mother. Us Type-A personalities need to learn to roll with it if we are ever going to survive parenthood. With each kid, I've become a little better at embracing my inner mediocrity. I'm not terrible at motherhood, but I'm by no means a saint. I lose it sometimes, I ask for their forgiveness. I try to make up for mistakes with apologies and sometimes ice cream. I try to teach them things but don't freak out when we don't do complicated craft projects just for the heck of it.

"Good enough" parenting is, in my opinion, a necessity in today's world of perfect-looking Pinterest projects. I go to bed each night without guilt, and that makes me happy.

BUT. But. "Good enough" is not something that works when it comes to writing.

There are a lot of good writers out there. A lot. I do think I am one of them, mainly because I've been writing my whole life, and spending my career as a writer/editor. However, to get published as a children's book author, you cannot be good enough. You cannot merely be great. You must be exceptional.

And exceptional I am not.

I attended the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Winter Conference in New York last weekend. It was amazing, and I could do several blog posts on all the great stuff I learned. But my major takeaway? What I am doing is not good enough.

Sometimes waking up early to write for 30 minutes, but most of the time not? Not good enough.

Looking at my middle grade novel and thinking it doesn't need major revisions? Definitely not good enough.

The competition is so incredibly stiff. One agent I heard speak last fall estimates he takes on 0.02% of the authors that query him in a year. Another said that she instantly rejects 98% of the queries she receives daily.

There are certainly things you can do to set yourself up for success (that's another post to come). But in the mean time? I'm going to start shooting for exceptional instead of good enough.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

So You Want To Write Children's Books -- Part 1

Since I've gone public with my goal of becoming a published children's book author, I find that there are many other people who are interested in this as well. That is a good thing. The world can always use more creative people writing fabulous stories. But before anyone embarks on writing for children, I think it is important for him or her to ask themselves why they do it. There is a right answer, and yes, there is a wrong answer. Actually, many wrong answers. Here are some:

1. Because I am a really awesome writer.
Well, that may be true. And it's important that you think you are good if you want to get anywhere, because if you think you suck, then your lack of confidence will shine through to prospective agents and editors. But you need proof that you are awesome. You need people (people who really know something, like writing teachers and other writers -- not just your mom or best friend) who tell you that your stories are good (after a LOT of work). Just looking at your own words and thinking you're good enough for a book deal is not enough to make it so.

2. Because children's books stink and I can write a better one.
Yes, there are children's books that stink. But there are a lot, A LOT, of amazing ones. If you think you are the next Mo Willems, by all means, get cracking. But don't knock the field you want to enter by debasing the work the precedes you.

3. Because it's easy.
This one makes writers laugh. Writing is many things, but it ain't easy. Picture books may be less than 1,000 words, but writing a great one is intensely difficult. Every word counts. Just because a novel has a young audience doesn't make it any easier to write. In fact, many writers find it difficult to pare their work down to a reasonable word count.

4. Because I want to be rich.
MWWWWAAAAHAHAHA. That's a good one. I compare writers with journalists. Something insane like the top 2 percent make all the money. The rest of us have day jobs.

5. Because I want to educate children.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but unless you are writing textbooks, it can't be the sole reason you want to be a writer. If you are writing children's books to purely educate, then you are probably coming across as preachy. And in today's market, that is annoying.

So if these are all wrong answers, then what is the right one?

Because I must.

Sure, that sounds a little cheesy. And you can take what I say with a grain of salt … After all, where's my published book? But seriously, you write because you have to. Because these stories are IN you. Because when you go to sleep at night, your characters haunt you and beg to be laid raw on the page. You write because you can't NOT write.

No, this reason does not guarantee publication. It doesn't guarantee anything, other than the fact that you take your creativity seriously. In my humble opinion, that's the best place to start.