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At last the moment has arrived to announce the winners of Tamson’s pitch contest.  I, of course, have read through her post and I can’t believe how much information she provided on what makes a good pitch, what trips them up and why she selected the ones she did.  She even gave us a few honorable mentions.  Thanks so much Tamson!  I am very envious of the winner, because after reading this post, I know you are going to get a phenomenal critique.  And don’t forget – even if you didn’t win, Tamson is a freelance editor and you can hire her to help you with your manuscripts.  

One last thing.  In this post, Tamson talks about titles, and I feel terrible because I think the reason some of you didn’t submit with a title is because I didn’t specify that you could.  I said to submit your pitch and the first line.  Of course that didn’t mean you couldn’t submit titles, but I wasn’t clear. Mi dispiace (Italian for “my apologies”). Live and learn for the next contest!  Now, onto Tamson!

Congratulations, Pitch Winners!

It’s been a lot of fun working on this contest and seeing all the cool stuff that’s gestating in all of your fertile brains. It’s got me thinking a lot more about what makes a good pitch and what doesn’t, how important the pitch is in terms of introducing your manuscripts, and whether or not a bad pitch can be overcome by a fantastic idea. I’d like to share a few insights here as a prelude to the big announcement.

Titles: Many of you did not submit titles with your entries! Presumably, you have them, and just didn’t think they were a necessary part of the contest. And I didn’t end up holding it against you…much. Seriously though, you should be using every tool at your disposal and a title is one of those tools. You might not think you are good at coming up with titles, but you should try, even if it means soliciting help. In all honesty, you may end up having to change it before it’s published, but you should definitely try to find a title that will grab your readers’ attention.

Length:  Many of the pitches should have been shorter. Try to keep it to one sentence. If the sentences are pretty short, you may be able to get away with two. But don’t make it longer than that. Picture books are short! It drives me crazy when I see flap copy that is half the length of the accompanying book, and I feel the same way about a lengthy pitch.  Fear not! None of you were that far off the mark, but there was some excess verbiage floating around.  One way to help you keep it short is to rewrite your pitch about 20 times until it’s pared down to its essentials, while still retaining a personality.

Questions: What role should questions play in your pitch? Usually none. Here’s why: There’s a tendency that we sometimes have to make our pitch sound like aggressive marketing copy, a la infomercial: Do you like Flies? Do you like soup? Well this picture book is for you! Either that, or it sounds like you’re being coy or are playing out a joke or riddle all by yourself: What’s a fly doing in this man’s soup? Why, the backstroke, of course!  When you could just get to the point: A man is enjoying a delicious bowl of soup when he notices something in it that wasn’t on the menu.

Rhyme:  Rhyming manuscripts, much to my chagrin, are taking a bit of a hit these days. Some agents and editors won’t even look at them. For example, see this post by Mary Kole [link to: http://kidlit.com/2009/09/05/rhyming-picturebooks-a-rhyme-with-reason/] (which, admittedly, is just one agent’s perspective). You have to make sure those first lines really shine. That means, ideally, you show the agent that you are the master of your craft [link to this post: http://tamsonweston.com/blog/rhyming-picture-books-arent-so-scary/]. But at the very least, you should show her that you are a confident and capable versifier. That means that none of those four lines should feel like they’ve been put there merely to accommodate the rhyme scheme. They should flow out eloquently and organically.

Personality: The pitch is a tool to get people to want to read your manuscript and there are guidelines to help your pitch do its job. It helps, though, if there’s a little spark to it as well. Is your character’s voice really engaging? Is your manuscript funny? Is your language lyrical? Then, ideally, your pitch should reflect that. You can, then, bend the “rules” a bit to make this happen. Don’t overwork it though. If you are having trouble getting personality in there without making the pitch very long, then just get to the point. This is a picture book, after all. It’s short. Agents are just going to want to dispense with the introductions and move on to the manuscript.

The Unexpected: Finally, I have to say that sometimes I was almost won over, in spite of myself, by pitches that weren’t ideally executed, but had a great concept behind them. For example, one of the winning pitches contains a question which I thought helped capture the personality of the character. I considered a couple of others that had questions too. Sometimes the idea just wins out, even when the writer doesn’t follow the guidelines to the letter. The best route to a good pitch is to follow the guidelines as closely as possible while capturing the essence of your manuscript.

Here are a few honorable mentions and a little critique of their execution.

TITLE: MARCUS AND THE FUNTASTIC BROBOT — by Angela Padron

PITCH: Marcus wants a brother. So he builds his own “brobot”, only to find that having a little brother – especially a robotic one – isn’t easy.

FIRST LINE: Marcus wanted a brother to play with, but his mom wouldn’t give him one, and he didn’t have enough money to buy one.

This is just a great idea for a book. The proof is in the pudding, of course, but it’s a good concept. The pitch, however, is unnecessarily wordy. This is pretty easily fixed: “Marcus wants a brother—so he builds one!” I wouldn’t use “Funtastic,” either. It’s feels like too much of a marketing buzz word at this point, much like Spooktacular. Marcus and the Brobot is solid on its own. Brobot is a good, evocative invented noun.

PITCH: Are you ready for a French nickname? To get fluffy? To save a flower? A charming dandelion enlists the your help in NAPOLEON BLOWN APART.  — by Julie Falatko

FIRST LINE: Bonjour. I am Napoleon. Yes, yes, I know, I am very beautiful. My lovely yellow petals shine like the golden sun.

This one cracked me up. Unfortunately, it’s not a great use of questions—this falls into the category of infomercial-type language.  Just the last sentence of the pitch would have been fine, but it probably be shouldn’t be in second person. This can put off some agents. I would also recommend cutting the third sentence in the opening of the manuscript.

TITLE: SECRETS OF THE NOT SO DEEP — by Sue Heavenrich

PITCH: After a week Maya’s mud puddle is teeming with life. What are those fast swimmy things, and how did they get there? Nonfiction/ecology.

FIRST LINE: After yesterday’s rain I am ready for puddle stomping.

Great title. I like playful approaches on nonfiction, so this appealed to me. However, this is a case where the question is not helping the copy. Just the first sentence in the pitch is enough. The  “nonfiction” tag is also not necessary.   The first line of the manuscript is good. Quite solid.

AND THE WINNERS ARE…

Second place, winner of the book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom is…

ABIGAIL RAYNOR!!!

PITCH: Arabella is desperate to keep Penweezle, an ex-witch’s cat, but convincing her family is not easy, especially when the cat tries to help.

FIRST LINE: It was just before teatime when the doorbell rang and Arabella found a cat on the doorstep.

This pitch has a funny deadpan quality to it. It sounds like a conventional pitch, but that clause on the end really gives a little punch. I immediately was imagining the kind of havoc this cat could wreak. The repetition of “door” (in doorbell and doorstep) in the first line is a little unfortunate and easily fixed. It needs a title, of course.

First place, winner of the book, Writing with Pictures, by Uri Schulevitz is…

HEATHER NEWMAN!!! 

PITCH: Esther is a fashionista sheep trying to bring a little style to her flock, but finding the perfect accessories on a ranch isn’t easy at all.

FIRST LINE: Nothing made Esther happier than trying on different outfits.

A really concise, well-worded pitch with a little personality. I would change “fashionista” to “fashionable” however. “Fashionista” is too new a phenomenon. This may be just me. I would also delete “at all” but that’s a pretty minor quibble.

Grand Prize, winner of the manuscript critique is…

MELISSA KELLEY!!! ***confetti toss***

PITCH: Elly is wild to save her favorite endangered zoo animal – but big brother claims there’s no such thing as Unicorns! Then what are those?

FIRST LINE: I am the luckiest girl in the world.

This is a case where the question really worked for me, and it adds a little element of surprise to the pitch, which is nice. I wonder why there’s not a “her” before “big brother,” though, since, presumably, it’s not his name.  The first line of the story is great. Gives us a sense of this exuberant girl right away and you don’t even resort to using an exclamation mark. Amazing. But, no title! (Save the Unicorns! Unicorns at the Zoo!  The Finest Unicorn at the Zoo). Well done. I look forward to reading the rest.

Let’s all give a big thanks to Tamson for hosting this contest for 12 x 12 participants.  Congratulations to all the winners and to everyone who participated.  I learned loads in the process of running the contest, and I hope you all did too.  

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This will likely be my last Gratitude Sunday until the end of March due to my upcoming trip to Italy.  Not to worry, as I have no doubt I’ll return steeped in gratitude.

Quotes on Gratitude

“The world has enough beautiful mountains and meadows, spectacular skies and serene lakes.  It has enough lush forests, flowered fields and sandy beaches.  It has plenty of stars and the promise of a new sunrise and sunset every day.  What the world needs more of is people to appreciate and enjoy it.” — Michael Josephson

“As each day comes to us refreshed and anew, so does my gratitude renew itself daily. The breaking of the sun over the horizon is my grateful heart dawning upon a blessed world” — Adabella Radici

“Gratitude is a vaccine, an antitoxin, and an antiseptic.” — John Henry Jowett

Gratitude List for the week ending March 3

  1. I actually got my submissions for the NAESP children’s book contest and the Barbara Karlin Grant sent out on time. Miraculously, my printer did not act up even once in the process of pulling materials together.  An auspicious sign…
  2. I completed my February 12 x 12 in 2012 PB draft.  Just under the wire, but complete nonetheless
  3. I hired a designer/developer to create my author website and gave them everything they need to get started.  HUGE relief.
  4. Girl’s night out – with my daughter! We went to dinner and a movie – The Lorax.  The movie did not have the emotional impact of the book, but then, I almost never like a movie better than the book.  Especially when it’s Dr. Seuss.  Still, my daughter asked me as I was tucking her in, “What do you think I can do to help the world?”  So it was worth it.
  5. Volunteering to help fit costumes for Em’s upcoming musical.  I’m heartbroken that I won’t be here for the show (the trip to Italy was planned months before the show was scheduled), so I was glad to see all the costumes (including hers) and to share that part of it with her.
  6. David Sedaris. Nuff said.
  7. My mother-in-law had a death on her side of the family, and I’m glad my husband was there with her this week.
  8. My friend Susanna Hill sent me a signed copy of her book in an envelope with Snoopy on it.  What a way to send a smile in the mail!
  9. Even better is the actual book, which is one of my favorites – Punxsutawney Phyllis. She wrote such a sweet note to my kids.
  10. I got a great night’s sleep last night, which almost never happens!

What are you grateful for this week?

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The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. The short film version of this app (which is also a storybook app) won an Oscar this year. I think that's proof of how big and important this market is going to be.

As some of you may know, I am committed to taking the story I entered in last year’s MeeGenius Children’s Author Challenge and developing it into an app.  I’ve been doing quite a bit of research, yet I feel I’ve only just begun my descent into the rabbit hole.  In reality this post should be titled, How to start THINKING about Creating a Storybook App.  There is a huge morass of information out there, much of it inconsistent.  It seems nobody has written Storybook Apps for Dummies yet.  I thought I’d take a crack at the very basics.

First, authors who are also illustrators have a distinct advantage in app development.  One reason it’s been so challenging to find information is because there are precious few resources geared toward “authors only” who have ideas for apps, beyond telling them to partner with an illustrator.  The best information I’ve found so far has been at e is for book, a blog written by a group of traditionally published, professional children’s book authors and illustrators who are working on various digital book projects, and Digital Kid’s Author, author Karen Robertson’s website.

Karen wrote and illustrated the app “Treasure Kai and the Lost Gold of Shark Island,” a treasure hunt adventure book.  Recently, Karen spoke on Publishing Insiders Blog Talk Radio series on Secrets to Creating Children’s Book Apps (the show is still available; you can listen for free).  On the show, Karen discussed 5 steps to app creation.  All of these steps assume the text is written, edited and ready to be developed into an app.

  1. Decide what kind of app you want to create: Think about how much interaction you want in the story. Think about what animation might enhance (vs. detract from) the story.  Do you want a “read to me” option, which requires narration?  Do you want touch-based animation?  Special sounds?
  2. Create a brief for your app: This is a document that details the text, illustration, sounds/narration and animation that goes on each page. Unlike a manuscript for a traditional picture book submission, here the author and/or illustrator does suggest page turns because they are critical to developing the interactive components of the app.
  3. Create art for your app: Again, this is where illustrators have an advantage because they can both write and illustrate the app.  If you are an author looking to partner with an illustrator, look for one that can work digitally.  Ideally, the art is created using digital layers to produce the best animation effects.
  4. Decide what narration, sounds and animation you want: Do you want music in your app?  Do you need to hire a narrator?  Do you have sound sprites planned (touch-based animation that triggers a sound, for example an animal noise or a drum beating)?
  5. Build the app: This is where the app developer comes in.  The developer creates the code that turns the static story and illustrations into an interactive app.  You can hire an independent developer or work with a company that specializes in app development.  An advantage of an independent developer is that they can usually create custom code for features specific to your app.  You might also be able to retain ownership of that code.  A disadvantage is being reliant on that person to maintain and update your app for its lifetime.  Development companies typically have expertise in app development, and will code your app based upon their platforms.  This might provide less flexibility for custom animation, but companies continue to become more sophisticated in their offerings.  Companies will almost always provide the maintenance and updates for your app on an ongoing basis.  Some companies even offer do-it-yourself drag and drop interfaces.

Our VERY favorite storybook app!

After listening to the radio show and skimming through Karen’s e-book, I am still left with the question of what authors are supposed to submit to app development companies in terms of proposals.  Is it just a manuscript?  A full brief?  Should it include a marketing plan?  I have Googled storybook app “template,” “proposal,” “submission,” “brief,” “specification,” six hundred ways to Sunday and still haven’t come up with a good answer.

In two weeks, I’ll be in Bologna, Italy attending the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, focused exclusively on the children’s market.  I’m writing articles for SCBWI and The Children’s Book Insider.  Many industry thought-leaders will be in attendance, so I am hoping to dig much deeper into these issues on behalf of authors and illustrators.  Stay tuned!  I probably won’t be able to blog in real-time while I am there, but I will be tweeting and posting snippets and updates on my Facebook Author page if you are interested.

I know some of you reading already have experience creating storybook apps.  Any advice to share?  Does anyone have questions they’d like me to get to the bottom of in Bologna?  Leave feedback in the comments!

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This year, I’m signing up for the anti-resolution revolution.  It is so tempting to start listing all the things one wants to accomplish at the start of a New Year, but in my experience, the process (and thus the result) is flawed.

I believe the reason resolutions often don’t work is because they start from a place of lack, of negativity, of failure.  We think about all the things we weren’t happy with in the previous year and set out to “fix” them in the new one.  Lose weight = I weigh too much.  Save money = I spend too much.  Make more money = I don’t have enough money.  Spend more time with my kids = I’m not doing enough for my kids.  Write more often = I don’t write enough.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you know I am all about self-improvement, especially improvement that puts us on a path to self-actualization.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with setting goals, and achieving them is even better.  However, the goals need to be set on a strong foundation.  So I figured, why not start with what I did accomplish this year and set goals from there.  Let’s first celebrate success and then determine how to carry that forward into the New Year, rather than berating ourselves for what did not get done.  Being zen about it, probably everything got done that was supposed to.

Here is my list of what I consider to be my major professional accomplishments this year

  • Completed two picture books.  Both are now on submission.
  • Was accepted into, and completed, the Rocky Mountain SCBWI mentorship program.
  • Drafted a third picture book which is at least halfway to submission-ready
  • Completed PiBoIdMo and ended up with 30+ picture book ideas
  • Sent 20+ queries over the course of the year
  • From those queries, sold one poem and got contracts to write three articles (coming in 2012)
  • Entered a picture book in the MeeGenius Children’s Author Challenge and made it to #16 out of 400+ entries
  • Learned a TON about online marketing and promotion from the contest.
  • Completed four months of group coaching to launch a new project.  I am now about halfway through drafting the business plan for that project (more news on that in 2012)
  • Formed a LLC to support my writing business and other projects I launch
  • Took a two-month course on blogging to build an author platform.  I have now gone from a high of 2000 hits per month on my blog to a high of nearly 6000 per month.
  • Guest posted on several blogs
  • Set up an in-person picture book critique group in Boulder
  • Attended a digital publishing conference and the Rocky Mountain SCBWI regional conference
  • Last, but not least, launched the 12 x 12 in 2012 challenge to write 12 picture books in 12 months.  This is, obviously, one of my major goals for the coming year.

In addition to work accomplishments, three other achievements deserve mention.  One is that I ran a personal best in the Bolder Boulder 10K this year and felt great.  The race also happened to take place right after I turned 40, which felt even better.

Second, I planned, from start to finish, and then took a six-week trip to Italy with my family for the summer.  This trip was the fulfillment of a major dream and life-changing in every possible way.  Although my kids are still young, I think it will turn out to be life-changing for them to have had such an experience.

One of the things the trip to Italy inspired me to do is the third achievement I want to mention.  I wrote a Bucket List.  I saw how rewarding it was to realize even one dream, so I thought I would capture as many more as I could in the hopes of realizing them all.  I am trying not be afraid of dreaming big.  So perhaps a motto for 2012 is Dream Big or Go Home.

For your further contemplation, here are a few other posts with an alternate take on New Year’s Resolutions

Lynnette Burrows doesn’t let Mrs. Darkside win.

Hayley Lavik is not going to change anything next year.

Prudence MacLeod is going to read books by live authors.

Emma Burcart is going to be kind – to herself.

Jennifer Lewis Oliver has never made a New Year’s Resolution.

Myndi Shafer does have a short list of resolutions, which she made in the Nick of Time.

What is your stance on New Year’s Resolutions?  Good thing, bad thing or in-between?

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A Troop of Monkeys

ETA: Although the contest is now over, I’ve kept this post as I originally wrote it with one exception: MeeGenius took down the link to my story on their website, so I have removed the links that were in the original post. 3/3/12

Many of you know by now that I recently submitted one of my stories to a contest with MeeGenius – an e-publisher.  For the past week, I’ve been emailing contacts and posting it on Twitter and Facebook – getting my first real taste of promoting a book.  Hands off to published authors – it’s very time-consuming, difficult, and if you are like me and not used to self-promotion, pretty uncomfortable.  It just feels strange to contact people and say, “Hey, look at me! Vote for me! Please!”

I decided I’d feel better about it if I shared a little background behind the story.  Because every story has a story!

This book, A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS, was one of the first I wrote once I decided to try my hand at children’s picture books.  My husband came up with the original idea after he found a website with a list of some of the collective nouns for animals.  He thought I should write a simple book with just the group name.  A group of monkeys is called a TROOP.  And so on.

When I looked over the list, I was surprised to see how few of the group names I actually knew.  I’d heard of a pack of wolves, a herd of buffalo and a pride of lions.  But a float of crocodiles? An ostentation of peacocks?  Those were entirely new and fun to discover.  I also enjoyed the fact that the group names tended to describe either the animal’s appearance or behavior.  So I decided to write the story as a concept book (rather than one with a plot), and use rhyming couplets to teach both the collective nouns and one fact about each of the animals.

A couple of years ago, after putting TROOP through a few rounds of critiques, I submitted it to a few editors.  I got a couple of “helpful” rejections with the message that the story wasn’t “big” enough to be a trade picture book and that there were other, similar books on the market.  In my own research, I had found a board book with a few collective nouns and a book of the type my husband had suggested I write, but none just like mine.  Nevertheless, I moved on and kept TROOP in a virtual drawer.

I never stopped loving it though, and two years later, with the world of publishing turned upside down as a result of e-books, e-readers, and apps, I started

An "ostentatious" peacock

thinking about bringing TROOP back from the dead.  I think the book would translate very well to the enhanced e-book format.  I envision kids pressing on the owls and hearing them hoot, or tapping the peacocks and seeing them shake their tail feathers.  And although it’s a dirty word when submitting, I gathered so many of these collective nouns in my research, I have enough for a series based on different types of animals – birds (a convocation of eagles), aquatic (a smack of jellyfish), insects/reptiles (a rhumba of rattlesnakes).

Finally, there are many ways to use a book like this in the classroom, the least of which being the difference between collective and singular nouns.  It’s an opportunity to teach interesting vocabulary and tie it back to the animals.  What does ostentatious or shrewd mean, and why do we use those words to describe peacocks and apes, respectively?  There’s a “green” element to the book with its final plea to take care of the earth and share it with animals.  There’s also a science and geography component – where do these animals live?  What do they eat?  How do they behave?  I look forward to doing these presentations in classrooms myself!  In fact, if I win, my kids’ school library gets a complete library of MeeGenius books for free!

While I don’t love the promotion aspect of this contest, I do believe in this story and want to see it published.  Furthermore, I am set on publishing it in an e-book format.  The MeeGenius contest is a good opportunity to try to make that happen.  I wish the winner was chosen entirely on editorial judgement so I could hide behind my laptop, but I have to admit I’ve learned a lot from putting a tiny toe into the waters of promotion.  So here it is once again.  If you haven’t already, please take a look at A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS, and if you have a Facebook account, vote for it if it speaks to you.

I know there are other picture book writers who follow my blog who have also entered this contest.  I invite you to include links to your stories in the comments.  I know I’ve “liked” several from the PiBoIdMo group, but there may be more.  Feel free to share the “story” behind your stories if you are so inclined.  🙂

Thanks for reading! I feel better having provided some background on this story, how it came to life, and what it means to me.

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I am so excited to present my first-ever author/agent duo for the How I Got My Agent Series.  Thanks to Jennifer Mattson for agreeing to go under the microscope participate alongside Linda. I decided on a She Said/She Said format, with their pictures as the indicator for their responses.  Of course I couldn’t resist sprinkling in a few of my own comments, which appear in italics.

Linda Ashman is the award-winning author of more than two-dozen picture books.  She has had three books released in the past three months, and you can enter to win one of them (details below).  Yesterday’s post includes my reviews of the books, and you can earn double points in the giveaway if you also comment and share that one.  Linda lives right here in the great state of Colorado with her husband Jack, son Jackson, and dog daughters Stella and Sammy.

Jennifer Mattson is an Associate Agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency.  Before joining ABLA, Jennifer spent nearly five years  reviewing children’s literature as part of the Books for Youth staff of Booklist magazine. Prior to Booklist, Jennifer was an Associate Editor at Dutton Children’s Books. She represents authors across all children’s genres – picture books, MG and YA.  Jennifer is also the co-author of THE OFFICIAL EASY-BAKE COOKBOOK, which we happen to own! (although I hide it because truthfully, I dread the days my daughter asks me if we can “Easy Bake.” Same thing with Play-Doh actually, but enough about me…)

Let’s dig into the questions shall we?

Linda, when did you seek an agent for the first time, and how/why did you know it was time to look for one?

I signed on with my first agent around 1999, after selling seven manuscripts on my own.  Although I wasn’t actively looking at the time, a writer friend spoke highly of her new agent and suggested I talk to him.  Since I’d been “negotiating” my own contracts (as in, “Where do I sign?”), it made sense to work with someone more knowledgeable about contracts — and the business in general — than I was, and who had relationships with more editors and knew their particular tastes.

Jennifer, the first question this audience will have is: Are you currently accepting submissions from picture book authors and/or illustrators?  If so, what kind of manuscripts are you looking for?

Yes, of course.  I am accepting text-only picture book queries and queries from author-illustrators, but at this time I’m not looking to sign up illustrator-only clients.

It impresses me when an author knows how to develop a character and tell a complete, satisfying story with extreme concision, with 750 words as a target maximum, and under 500 words much preferred.  I’m not looking for issue-driven/teachable moment stories, stories with historical settings, fairy tales or fairy tale retellings, nor, as a rule, nonfiction picture books – though I’ve been known to take a shine to nonfiction that illuminates some truly surprising corner of history or science with strong kid appeal (I loved The Day Glo Brothers, for instance – wish I could have represented it!)  What excites me most, though, are humorous stories that turn on universal conflicts resolved in memorable character-specific ways.

Since poetry is Linda Ashman’s specialty, it’s clear that I’m open to rhyming manuscripts. Having said that, I now have a few clients who primarily write in verse, so for the time being I’ll be most active about adding writers-in-narrative to my roster.

Note, in a few months I will be taking a hiatus from reading queries for a while because I’m going on maternity leave (my e-mail autoresponse will be clear about when that goes into effect).

What an excellent reason for a query hiatus. Many congratulations!! One more voracious reader of children’s books is about to enter the world…

Linda, Jennifer was not your first agent. What have you learned from working with three different agents?

I’ve learned that it’s really important to get a sense of how an agent works.  When you send her a story, will she read it within a matter of days, or does she, for example, devote one week a month to reading clients’ work?  Does he have an overall submission strategy for your manuscript, or does he send it to one editor at a time and wait for a response?  Does she notify you right away when she hears back from an editor, and — if it’s a decline — discuss with you the next plan of action?  Is the agent a one-person shop, or part of a larger organization?  (Neither is necessarily better than the other, but I really appreciate the support Jennifer gets from her colleagues at Andrea Brown.)

In order to avoid annoyance on one side and frustration on the other, expectations are everything.  Be very clear about communications.  How often should you expect to hear from him — only when there’s news, or will he check in periodically?  Is she accessible by phone or email if you have questions?   Beyond that, make sure you like this person, and feel comfortable asking questions.  This could be — hopefully will be — a very long relationship.   You don’t need to be best friends, but respect and compatibility are important.  And, above all, make sure the agent is genuinely enthusiastic about you and your work.  This is a tough business, and it helps to feel you have a professional ally looking out for your interests.

Wow, that is such a great answer.  I so often think that in this competitive market, writers think any agent is better than no agent and forget that it’s a business relationship that should benefit both the agent and the author.  Thanks for giving us some great questions to ask!

How did you find Jennifer and then come to the conclusion that she was “the one?”

I met Jennifer when we both were on the faculty at the “Big Sur in the Rockies” writing retreat in Boulder in May 2010.  I really liked her, and was impressed with her thoughtfulness and intelligence.  I knew she’d worked with Meredith Mundy, my Sterling editor, so I asked Meredith about her.  I really trust and respect Meredith, so when she gave Jennifer a ringing endorsement, I decided to contact her to discuss working together.  I’m so glad I did — Jennifer has been a dream to work with.

I’ve met Jennifer at two different ABLA events, and she is so knowledgeable, but also so friendly and approachable.  Readers, query her if you think your stories are a good fit!

Likewise, Jennifer, what drew you to Linda’s work and made you want to sign her as a client?

I’ve known Linda’s work for a long time, because when I was an associate editor at Dutton Children’s Books in the late 1990s, she would regularly submit (and be published by) the head of our imprint.  The publisher would bring promising manuscripts to an editorial board meeting, so I recall seeing Linda’s work and being impressed by her professionalism and her gift for poetry.  Later, Linda went on to publish with a former colleague and friend of mine, Meredith Mundy at Sterling.  The degrees of separation kept getting a bit smaller over time – and finally Linda and I were faculty members at the same writers’ workshop, Big Sur in the Rockies in Boulder, CO, cosponsored by our agency and the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI.  In a way, meeting Linda felt like greeting an old friend, partly due to our professional connections, and partly because I had spent so much time reading my daughter her board book, BABIES ON THE GO!  I was thrilled when, several months later, I received a note from her asking if I’d like to discuss working together.  Honestly, it didn’t take much thinking!

BABIES ON THE GO is great! But you guys have probably already figured out that we’re big Linda Ashman fans in this household.  By the way, at that very same Big Sur in the Rockies meeting, I was fortunate to have Linda as one of my faculty members.  From that experience, I can tell you that her manuscript critiquing service is well worth the price.

Linda, the picture book market is tough right now, and it seems many agents don’t take PB clients only.  I know your situation is a bit different because you had already sold many books before signing with Jennifer, but what advice would you give to a pre-published PB writer seeking an agent today?

Sometimes, in our eagerness to get published, we send our work out there before it’s ready.  I certainly was guilty of this when I first started writing, and I cringe when I come across old manuscripts which should have landed in the recycling bin instead of on an editor’s desk.  So before even thinking about editors and agents, I’d advise writers to become students of the picture book.  Reading them to your kids or your students — or recalling old favorites from childhood — isn’t enough.  Study the really good ones, especially those published in the last five years or so.  Start with year-end “best of the year” lists from ALA, School Library Journal, Bankstreet, the children’s blogging community, etc.  Really look at what makes these books successful and appealing (or not; this is highly subjective, after all).  Pay attention to the voice, the pacing, the escalation of the drama, and how the story is resolved.  Then make a dummy of your own manuscript and see if your story fits the picture book structure, if you’ve cut out every extraneous word, if your voice is distinctive, your story dramatic and visually interesting, and your ending satisfying.

Once you’ve got several strong stories, and you’ve followed the manuscript formatting requirements (and a meticulous friend has checked for typos), then you can turn your attention to agents.  Here again, research is key.  If you can go to conferences and meet agents in person, that’s great.  But it’s not necessary.  Fortunately, you can find tons of information on the internet.  Study agency websites, and make a list of agents who appeal to you and seem open to your writing style and interests.  Then google them.  Many have been interviewed on blogs, and a few have blogs of their own.  The more information you have, the easier it will be to target your submission and write an informed and personal query letter.

I’m chuckling as I read this because Linda shared one of her early manuscripts with us at a rhyming workshop she gave. Don’t worry Linda – I won’t name it here! Suffice it to say it’s inspiring to see how much a writer can grow if they truly commit to studying the craft.  And now, for a shameless plug of one of my own posts: If you want more information on how to research agents and editors, go here.

Jennifer, Linda writes almost exclusively in rhyme, yet we hear agents and editors say (often) that they don’t want to see rhyming manuscripts.  What separates a saleable rhyming story from one that is not?

That’s a great question.  I think that there is a note of inevitability communicated by the best rhyming manuscript – in other words, one barely notices the rhyming, except to be delighted by it, and one can’t imagine another way of expressing the same idea.  It’s a combination of perfect rhythm / scansion and absolutely perfect end rhymes:  I’m never fond of slant rhymes.  (When I was a kid, I used to hate reading British poems that rhymed things like “again” and “rain”!)

Apart from technical perfection, to be saleable in the picture book market, editors need poetry to be more than just gorgeousness and musicality.  Linda and I have had the same comment on a number of manuscripts recently, and it’s not uncommon at all:  “This needs a stronger story arc!”  So, writers of verse face an exceptionally high bar.  Their manuscripts must be technically flawless but also must advance a storyline.  It is so rare for a writer to have mastered all of those elements simultaneously that I think many editors and agents have simply found it more efficient to put the kibosh on rhyme preemptively.  For whatever reason (perhaps the prominence of Dr. Seuss?), it seems that amateur writers gravitate to verse before trying their hand at anything else.

This might be some of the best advice I’ve seen on what makes a rhyming manuscript work – thanks!

Given how tight the picture book market is these days, what advice would you give to PB writers looking for agents on how to stand out?

An exquisitely professional query letter that references specific, comparable, recent titles on the market always catches my eye.  We receive tons of queries from people who clearly don’t read much in the contemporary picture-book marketplace, so it’s nice to include any sign that you’re engaged in the industry in an active, ongoing way (it’s also nice to mention membership in SCBWI and critique groups).

Other aspects of your submission will convey the professional level of your work, too.  It helps when a project reflects the typical length of a frontlist picture book (rather than the typical length of a published-long-ago classic, like Robert McCloskey’s wonderful but 2000-words-long TIME OF WONDER…).  I also look for writers who know how to creatively anticipate the contribution of an illustrator, e.g., by not overwriting description and, when appropriate, leaving certain key beats of story development to the visuals.

I always recommend that authors of picture books line up three or four projects that they feel are ready to share with an agent before first submitting.   Agents usually ask queriers to focus on one manuscript, but if an agent is interested in continuing a discussion, normally he or she will ask to see more of your work.  You’ll want to be ready for that.

Linda, dogs are frequent characters in your books, including your latest release, No Dogs Allowed!  Can you tell us one of your favorite real dog stories based on one of your own pets?

Sammy, our Lab mix, is very smart and has an impressive repertoire of tricks.  When appropriately bribed, she’ll fetch the paper, wake Jackson (our son), deliver canned goods from the kitchen cabinet, jump like a kangaroo, roll over, speak, whisper, dance, spin (once, twice, or three times, as directed) and more.  But she has a lot of attitude, and feels that this sort of performing is really beneath her.  And she has a way of showing her resentment.  After every meal, she goes on a raid and finds a sock — on someone’s dresser, in the laundry basket, in a closet — and runs off with it.  She never actually chews it.  She just likes to hold it hostage for a while (usually until we tell her how funny and cute she is, thereby rewarding her for her naughtiness).

Awww, too cute! I want to give her a hug just reading this. If I’d thought ahead I would have asked you for a picture of her.  🙂

Jennifer, please complete this sentence:  “If I could take just one book with me to a remote desert island, it would be….”

I hate to compromise the children’s-lit focus of this blog, but I’d probably choose something lush and long-lasting, like George Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH or Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR.

Nope. I totally get that.  If you’re stuck on a desert island, you need something a bit broader in scope than a children’s book.  My own choice would be A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, by John Irving.

Let’s all give it up for these two lovely ladies for this great post!  I hope you learned as much as I did.  Also, don’t forget that Linda Ashman is giving away a personalized, signed copy of both SAMANTHA ON A ROLL and NO DOGS ALLOWED for two lucky winners. You must be a follower of the blog to enter (new followers welcome!).  Here are the ways you can enter:

  • Leave a comment on this post and/or yesterday’s post.  Be sure to say which book you’d prefer if you win. – 1 point
  • Tweet this post (include link in your comment) – 1 point
  • Like this post on Facebook (include link) – 1 point
  • Blog about the contest (include link) – 2 points

THANKS AGAIN to both Linda and Jennifer. I had so much fun putting this post together, and I hope you did too!

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After waffling back and forth for ages over whether or not to include information about my books on this blog, I decided to go ahead and take the plunge.  You will now see a shiny new page on the blog called “Books.”  On this page, I included the titles and pitches of my two completed children’s books.  For one of the books, I included the first two stanzas.  I was hesitant to include part of the text, but because that book is rhyming and agents so often say they don’t want to see rhyming manuscripts (read: bad rhyme), I wanted to demonstrate that I do in fact know how to rhyme well.

There are three main reasons I took this step:

  1. These two books are completed.  They have been written, revised and revised and revised, vetted by countless fellow writers, published authors and even editors and agents.  I am actively seeking representation for them, and you never know who might wander over to the blog one day and take a look.  I know it’s unlikely, but it could happen.  Plus, my pitches have been polished to a shine thanks to WriteOnCon.
  2. I want to show that I am a serious writer.  I don’t just write about writing, I actually write.  Sometimes I even finish things.  🙂
  3. It makes me feel more like a “real” writer.  Real writers have information about their writing on their websites.  A LOT of work went into these books, and I am proud of the finished products.  Therefore, I want to share them.  Just like real writers.

In addition, I revised my “About Julie” page.  My focus has changed since I started writing the blog, and after reading umpteen posts about how important the ABOUT page is, I decided to dust mine off.  I’ve made a mental note to check it every quarter or so.  Things do change, and that page should reflect the most current me it can.  If you have time, check it out and let me know what you think.

Where do you stand on the “To Writing Sample or Not To Writing Sample” debate?  There are good reasons for both, so I’m curious to know how other writers have made their decisions on the subject.

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