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Today, please welcome Jean Reidy, another terrific Colorado author, to the How I Got My Agent series.  This is an especially exciting week for Jean because her book, LIGHT UP THE NIGHT released on Tuesday.  I’m honored to be part of her blog tour celebrating the book.  I met Jean at last year’s Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference, where she discussed the craft of writing picture books.  I bought her second book, TOO PICKLEY, for my son whose eating habits seem to get pickier and pickier even as he gets older.  I laughed when shortly after I brought the book home and read it to him, he said he didn’t want his bread one night at dinner because it was “too crusty.”  TOO PICKLEY is a companion in style to TOO PURPLEY, and the third in the series, TOO PRINCESSY, comes out in 2012.  If you’ve ever wondered how to write a compelling story in less than 100 words (TOO PURPLEY is a whopping 40 words long), GET THESE BOOKS!

LIGHT UP THE NIGHT has been released to rave reviews and is a story every child can relate to.  Jean is a master at taking everyday activities for kids (eating, getting dressed, going to bed) and turning them into adventures.  Without further adieu, please welcome Jean.

Jean, how long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one? What kind of research did you do before submitting?

I’m afraid my answer isn’t very direct. Are you ready for a long-winded and winding story?

Of COURSE we are!!

Okay, here goes.

I’d been writing articles for magazines and newspapers for quite a while. But it was on a family road trip about ten years ago – after listening to a Sharon Creech recorded book – that I decided to write for children. On that trip, I actually brainstormed my first middle grade novel; however, I soon realized I didn’t know what I was doing. So when I got home I began to explore the craft of writing children’s books in earnest.

As part of that exploration, I attended a workshop in which I wrote my first picture book manuscript. It was both challenging and fun. That first manuscript actually won an award at a writer’s conference and I made the mistake of thinking it would be snapped up quickly by an editor or agent. Silly me. I queried it widely, yet that manuscript still sits in a file waiting to be reworked.

While I was querying agents and editors with that first book, I focused on finishing my middle grade novel.  I only dabbled in picture books whenever an idea struck me. Knowing that fewer and fewer agents were taking on picture books, I approached agents with my middle grade novel instead. One of those agents – my dream agent – was Erin Murphy.

How did I know it was time to get an agent? First of all, I’d been getting positive feedback from a variety of readers in the profession including editors. I had a hunch that I had a few “very close” manuscripts. Secondly, after studying the ins and outs of publishers and editors and imprints, I could see that marketing my manuscripts was taking precious time away from writing them. I’m a ferocious follower of editor and agent websites and blogs as well as the publishing trade bulletins. But there was no way I could keep up with all the nuances, preferences and movements in the industry. Erin does that masterfully.

Why was Erin my dream agent? I’d been reading message boards and interviews and chatting it up with a few of her clients and they all just gushed about her. Plus, she represented children’s literature exclusively, including picture books. Finally, Erin is an editorial agent, she works with her clients to put the best story out there. Her feedback on my drafts is amazing.

But Erin only considers potential clients from referrals or from writers she meets at conferences and she happened to be attending our Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference that fall – YIPPEE! -on the same day as my niece’s wedding – SHEESH! Anyway, I wrote to her and explained the situation and she very kindly agreed to read my novel. So I sent it off to her – with fingers and toes crossed – pronto.

During that same fall, I wrote TOO PURPLEY!  I read in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin that a veteran editor was moving to Bloomsbury and that her specialty was books for very young children. Bloomsbury was open to unagented submissions, so I sent the editor my manuscript, which her intern pulled from the slush pile. Within a few weeks of submission, the editor asked for companion manuscripts to go with TOO PURPLEY!  So I wrote three additional books, one of which was TOO PICKLEY! and another was TOO PRINCESSY! which comes out in 2012. We were going to acquisitions and I was TOO excited!

Meanwhile, back at Erin Murphy Literary Agency, Erin was in the process of reading my middle grade novel when TOO PURPLEY! was on its way to acquisitions. With that contract in sight, I signed on with Erin and she has negotiated and sold all of my picture books.

The dreaded questions: How many queries?  How many rejections?

I had great luck landing a home for TOO PURPLEY! and TOO PICKLEY! and signing with Erin all within a matter of months. Now if you want to talk about my picture book manuscript that won that contest – hah! – I’ve tried to block out those rejections. Too many to count.

Some may think that since landing an agent my life is rejection-free. Hardly. I have one picture book manuscript that both Erin and I love, but it’s had trouble finding a home. I’ve even revised it for an editor to no avail. I’ve also had manuscripts that have been rejected by my own agent. But I know Erin is always looking out for my career and I trust her completely.

That is such a great point.  I think those of us on the “other side” of the agent equation imagine that life is all tap dancing in the tulips after you get an agent.  Writing and publishing is a tough business for everyone.  We have to be in it for the love.

Your first two books, TOO PURPLEY and TOO PICKLEY are rhyming, and we always hear that agents and editors don’t want rhyming manuscripts.  How did you break that particular barrier?

As a matter of fact LIGHT UP THE NIGHT (Disney Hyperion), is a cumulative verse which also uses rhyme. TOO PRINCESSY! (Bloomsbury 2012) follows the same rhyme scheme as TOO PURPLEY! and TOO PICKLEY! and ALL THROUGH MY TOWN (Bloomsbury TBD) is a rhyming story about community. TIME (OUT) FOR MONSTERS! (Disney Hyperion 2012) is my only picture book that doesn’t rhyme, so far. So I guess you can say I sort of love rhyme. I feel that when rhyme is done well, it can facilitate a child’s own ability to read and enjoy a book. And editors know that.

Before I use rhyme, I ask, “Why does this story need to rhyme?” I often read manuscripts that have fantastic premises but are restricted by the rhyme. Or they grow to be hundreds of words too long for the sake of the rhyme. I think rhyming writers need to honestly assess if the story is better because of the rhyme.

Once I’ve decided to rhyme, I line up loads of fresh readers for my story. And I ask them to read the text out loud, noting where the rhythm or rhyme trips them up. So often rhythm artificially perfects itself via repetitive reading. And as writers we can trick our own ears quite easily. But with fresh readers, I only get one chance.

Stories need to rhyme perfectly on the first read. Natural accents and beats need to roll off the reader’s tongue. The rhyme must essentially disappear and not call attention to itself. It’s a bit like background music in that regard. Bad rhyme jolts readers and listeners out of a story ─ which more or less ties in to my best advice for picture book writers. Remember, the best picture book experience is the magical interaction of the reader, the book and the child. Make sure your writing doesn’t stand in the way of the magic.

I am totally guilty of tricking my ears with rhyme and reading it with the rhythm I intended.  I love the suggestion to line up lots of fresh readers!

In addition to the “rhyme” factor, lately it seems like many agents who do represent picture books are looking for author/illustrators. Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author-only focusing solely on picture books? How did you know your agent was “the one?”

There are fewer and fewer agents that seem to be interested in picture book authors. And I completely understand the economics of why agents may prefer author/illustrators. But thankfully, Erin does take on picture book authors. She believes in representing a writer’s career, not just a book, and when she sees your potential as a children’s author, she works right alongside you to build your career – whether it be in picture books, middle grade, young adult or a combination of multiple children’s genres like mine.

Has your writing process changed since signing with an agent?

Since signing with Erin, I’ve not only acquired a kind and inspiring mentor in the business but a “family” of Erin’s clients. Her agency is rather unique in this regard. We have an agency listserve on which we bounce ideas off of each other, celebrate good news and offer one another support. Participation is completely voluntary.

Oh, but you asked about process. My process hasn’t changed much. I sometimes run ideas by Erin before I dive into them and other times I’ll send along a polished final manuscript that I haven’t shared before. I find having an agent has allowed me mental freedom to delve more deeply into my writing and take more risks. Knowing that I have someone who will be receptive to my work allows me to stretch myself without fear. Granted, Erin may not always love what I give her, but she’ll always read it with interest.

Great answer!  Being able to stretch your writing knowing you have a receptive audience with a professional perspective is a unique benefit agents provide.

What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?

Elevate your understanding of the craft and industry first. Attend conferences. Connect with picture book writers and industry professionals online and in person. The picture book writing resources available online are endless. If you have a computer and a library, you have no excuse to be uneducated about the market. Worry less about your pitch and more about your product until you’ve grown the support of several tough and trusted readers all saying, “You have GOT to send this to an agent.” If you need a fresh read of your picture book manuscript, check out my Picture Book Peek Weeks on my blog at http://jeanreidy.blogspot.com/.

Hmm… I may be sending one over to you soon! 🙂

If you could go on a writer’s retreat anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

My agent has an annual retreat with all her clients. I have yet to be able to attend. They recently held their 2011 retreat in Austin to coordinate with the Texas Library Association conference. I wish I could travel back in time to attend that one with them. It sounded like a perfect combination of business, inspiration, friendship and fun – hanging out with kindred spirits in children’s literature. Hopefully next year.

Wow – I was totally expecting Hawaii or someplace else completely exotic.  Just goes to show you how community is as important, if not more important, than location.

What’s up next/what are you working on now?

I have five picture book manuscripts in the works and I have a middle grade novel I’m revising that I’m really excited about. I just got the F&Gs for TOO PRINCESSY! and TIME (OUT) FOR MONSTERS! and they are so fun. Genevieve LeLoup and Robert Neubecker, the respective illustrators, connected perfectly with these texts.

For any of our friends in Colorado, Julie, I’ll be reading and signing LIGHT UP THE NIGHT on November 12th at the Tattered Cover in Highlands Ranch at 10:30 A.M. Be sure to bring your kids and grandkids along with their favorite blankets and stuffed animals. We’re gonna have some fun!

I SO wish I could go with my family, but my daughter is performing in a musical that day.  However, Coloradans – make time to attend this event if you can!!

I’m always blogging, tweeting and updating my website and I love visitors. So please visit me at http://jeanreidy.blogspot.com/ or my website at www.jeanreidy.com or follow me on Twitter at @jeanreidy for all the latest.

Finally, I’m working on a very special launch for LIGHT UP THE NIGHT. I’m holding an online auction November 7-18 called LIGHT UP THE LIBRARY which benefits the library at Musana Children’s Home in Iganga, Uganda where I worked last summer. I’ll be auctioning loads of fabulous items for writers at all stages of their careers and other gifts and services just in time for the holiday. You can find the all details at the auction website at http://lightupthelibrary.blogspot.com/. I hope everyone has a chance to stop by.

I can’t wait for your auction! I’m so inspired by what you are doing.  Note to readers: I’m donating a special item for the auction, so I’ll announce it once the event goes live.

Thanks so much, Julie! Happy writing!

Thanks to YOU Jean, for such thoughtful and comprehensive answers and congratulations on the release of LIGHT UP THE NIGHT.  You’ve given us lots to think about.  You can check out the rest of Jean’s blog tour at the links listed below:

October 10 – 14 (THE WHOLE WEEK) – Picture This! http://robsanderswrites.blogspot.com/

October 11 – Sharing Our Notebooks http://www.sharingournotebooks.amylv.com/

October 13 – Literary Friendships http://literaryfriendships.wordpress.com/

October 14 – Write Up My Life http://writeupmylife.com/ – That’s Me!!

November 4 – Writing for Kids While Raising Them http://taralazar.wordpress.com/

Are you a picture book author with an agent?  Want to share your story?  Contact me so we can include you in this series!

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Thanks again to Linda Ashman and Jennifer Mattson for last week’s giveaway and How I Got My Agent interview.  Please mark your calendars for this Friday, October 14th when another Colorado author, Jean Reidy, will be here both as part of the How I Got My Agent series and her blog tour for the release of her newest picture book, LIGHT UP THE NIGHT.  Light Up the Night releases tomorrow, so you heard it here first.  Go out and order your copies!!

I also spent a day in Austin over the weekend, courtesy of the Austin SCBWI, learning as much as I possibly could about digital storytelling and publishing.  I’ll share some tidbits on the blog this week so keep an eye out.

Now, without further adieu, here are the winners of Linda Ashman’s amazing new books!  Drum roll…

NO DOGS ALLOWED! goes to Beth MacKinney!!!!

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN COLORADO (which wasn’t on the original giveaway list, but Linda has it and this reader wanted it, which enabled us to draw more winners, so…) goes to Stacy Jensen!!!!

SAMANTHA ON A ROLL goes to BOTH Joanna Marple and Julie Musil (Turns out we have an extra copy, so we were able to give away two of these)!!!!!

Congratulations to the winners.  Please email me at jhedlund33 (at) yahoo.com with your mailing addresses and who you would like the books to be signed to and we’ll send them on their way.  Woo Hoo!

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This is the third annual Random Acts of Publicity week, founded by Darcy Pattison as a way to promote favorite books or favorite authors.  I’m focusing on three Colorado picture book writers, all of whom have reached out a hand to help me in my own budding career (and their books are great!).  In fact, I am so convinced that you will love the books too, I am giving away all three as a prize package.  To enter, you must:

  • Be a follower of this blog – if you are a new follower, let me know how you follow (email, Google Reader, Networked Blogs, etc.)
  • Leave a comment on this post by midnight ET on Friday, September 9th.  To keep the promotion love going, in your comment, please leave the title of at least one picture book published within the last five years that you love. = 1 point
  • Tweet about the contest = 1 point
  • Like this post on Facebook = 1 point
  • Blog about the contest = 2 points

In your comment, let me know how many points you have.  I’ll announce the winner on Saturday, September 10th. Now, onto the books!

TOO MANY PUMPKINS, by Linda Arms White.  This book is a modern classic and, along with the equally delightful TOO MANY TURKEYS (2010), is perfect for this time of year as we approach Halloween and Thanksgiving.  Find out how the heroine and hero, respectfully, turn their bumper crops into something fabulous.  Linda gives generously of her time to the Rocky Mountain SCBWI chapter.  She worked with me for six months through the mentorship program, and my WIPs improved immeasurably.  I am a much better writer as a result of working with Linda.  For others interested in working with her, she is a co-owner of the Children’s Author’s Boot Camp, and also offers manuscript critiques.

STELLA UNLEASHED, by Linda Ashman.  Linda is a master of writing picture books in rhyme, particularly those for older children (4-8).  I should know because I took her “Crimes of Rhyme” workshop, so I commit fewer of them now.  We own many of her books, and this one is our current favorite. (Although her latest – NO DOGS ALLOWED – is on its way to us as I write this, and we eagerly await it).  Who can resist a story told in a set of poems about a dog who chooses first her family, then her name, and then creates all kinds of entertainment and chaos for her family – as all dogs do.  Other favorites of ours are COME TO THE CASTLE, WORLDWIDE MONSTER GUIDE, and M is for MISCHIEF.  I worked with Linda at the Big Sur in the Rockies workshop, so I can also vouch for her manuscript critiques.  They can be invaluable, especially if you write in rhyme.

TOO PICKLEY, by Jean Reidy.  This book is a must for anyone with toddlers who are picky eaters (and what toddlers aren’t?).  My son used to say things like, “This bread is too crusty,” so I knew this book was for him.  I met Jean at the RMC-SCBWI conference last year, and she has graciously agreed to come on the blog later this fall for the How I Got My Agent Series.  If you have a fussy dresser (which I also do), check out TOO PURPLEY.  Jean does writing workshops and talks, and is also part of the Skype an Author network.

Comment (see rules above) to win a prize pack with a brand new copy of TOO MANY PUMPKINS, STELLA UNLEASHED, and TOO PICKLEY

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Lynda Shoup is one of the nicest virtual friends I’ve had the pleasure to “meet” this past year.  We got to know each other last year during NaPiBoWriWee and caught up again last week for the 2011 version.  She recently bestowed upon me this award:

It came at a pretty ironic time because I have a terrible cold and am currently sporting sweatpants and a sweatshirt with my hair pulled back in a scrunchie.  Ordinarily I stay away from blogger awards just because I never have the time to “pass them on,” and I feel bad that by listing some, I skip over others that I also love.  However, this time the award really did boost my spirits so I figured it was time to join in.  The rules are to reveal 7 things about yourself that readers might not know and then to pass the award on to up to 15 bloggers whose blogs you enjoy.  So here goes.

7 Things You Might Not Know About Me (and that aren’t already listed on my 100 Random Things)

  1. I wish I would meditate every day.  I don’t know why I don’t.
  2. I will turn 40 later this month
  3. Surprisingly, I’m not upset about #2
  4. I’ve always fantasized about being an actress or a dancer (I have no talent at either)
  5. I once thought my car had been stolen, but really I had just forgotten where I parked it.
  6. I experience all five senses in my dreams – weird but true.
  7. I loved Charlotte’s Web so much as a child that I had a stuffed pig named Wilbur.  My mother sold it in a garage sale.  I’ve just barely forgiven her…

And now, onto some great blogs I think you will enjoy:

First up are three of my awesome critique partners who blog regularly.  Their blogs all have tons of great information!

  1. Alison Stevens
  2. Megan Bickel at The Write at Home Mom
  3. Christie Wild at Write Wild

Other virtual friends:

  1. Cheryl Reifsnyder at The Rich Writer
  2. Jean Reidy at A Totally Random Romp
  3. Ingrid Sundberg at Ingrid’s Notes
  4. Corey Schwartz at Thing 1 and Thing 2
  5. Julie Musil
  6. Catherine Johnson
  7. Katie Davis
  8. Nancy Hatch at Spirit Lights the Way

Eleven is probably enough for now, but I encourage you to check my blogroll for more ideas.  I read each and every one that is listed and enjoy them all.  Thanks again Linda!

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Here to kick off the 2011 series of How I Got My Agent for picture book writers is none other than Tara Lazar, the generous founder of PiBoIdMo (or Picture Book Idea Month for the uninitiated).  Tara started PiBoIdMo as alternative to NaNoWriMo for picture book writers, and the event has grown exponentially each year.  I participated myself in 2010 and came up with some ideas that I can’t wait to work on.  Her debut picture book, THE MONSTORE, which will be published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster in 2013, was an idea Tara got during her first PiBoIdMo (It works people!).  Thanks for coming by, Tara.  I’m so thrilled to have you.

“Thanks to you too, Julie.  I’m glad to be here.”

How long had you been writing picture books before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one?

I didn’t decide it was time to look for an agent! My friend Corey Rosen Schwartz did!

I met Corey about three years ago, when I first began to write picture books. She has long been a champion of my work. She encouraged me to query agents with THE MONSTORE–she was convinced it would sell. She was right!

What kind of research did you do before submitting?

I had been researching agents for years, keeping tabs on those I thought would be a good match for my style of writing. There are so many agent interviews available online, as well as the agents themselves! They keep blogs, writing about what they are (and aren’t) looking for. I encourage other writers to follow agents on Twitter, read their blogs, and read interviews. Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents and Casey McCormick’s blogs are excellent resources for agent information.

It’s a tough market for picture books in general these days.  Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author focusing solely on picture books? 

My connection with my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, was like kismet. My friend Corey had won a critique with author Jean Reidy and didn’t have a current manuscript to send, so she sent mine! Jean then tweeted that she loved my manuscript, and Joan, who is friends with Jean (they are both represented by Erin Murphy), asked what she was reading. So Jean and Corey gave me a referral to Joan. While Joan was hooked with my picture books, she also loved the first chapter of my middle-grade novel. So I can’t say that I’m focused solely on picture books, but Joan did comment that she had been looking for a picture book author to represent.

I also had a nice connection with Kelly Sonnack at Andrea Brown. Although Kelly did not offer representation, she was very interested in THE MONSTORE. And kismet struck again when her client James Burks was chosen to illustrate it.

I think it’s essential for picture book authors to have several manuscripts ready-to-go before querying agents. One book is not going to result in representation. It’s just too tough a market.

I have heard the same thing from several agents – be ready to share more than one manuscript. Thanks for bringing that up!

The dreaded questions: How many queries?  How many rejections?

I did not query agents until THE MONSTORE. And then it was just Ammi-Joan and four other agents.

I was very cautious with submitting to editors, too. I was waiting until I was good enough. I felt that submitting too early was a mistake. I didn’t want to use up my chances with particular editors by sending them an early manuscript and then not being able to send it again once I had revised successfully. I had submitted about 15 times with 15 rejections, a few personal.

How did you know your agent was “the one?”

While we clicked immediately on the telephone, I don’t think you truly know your agent is “the one” until you begin working with them. And working with Joan is a joy. I feel lucky to have her. She is very encouraging and she helps me to refine manuscripts. She loves nearly everything I produce, which I think is rare. If there’s a manuscript she’s not certain will sell, I know she’s right and I move onto something else.

Has your writing process changed since signing with an agent?

When I have a new idea, I ask Joan about it first. Should I write it? It’s great to have her feedback before I waste my time on a sub-par concept. I send her first drafts to ask if I’m going in the right direction and if it’s worth revising, or if I should try a different angle. This kind of early feedback is something I always wanted from an agent. Although picture books are short, they don’t take a short time to write. The process with Joan ensures that I’m not working on something that has no potential.

Sounds like bliss…

We sometimes hear that picture book writers don’t really need an agent.  What do you think the advantages are of having an agent?

I think I just answered that question! In addition, I don’t want to take time away from my writing to focus on sales. When I was submitting directly to editors, I spent weeks researching which ones would be a good fit. Then I spent weeks writing cover letters. I researched similar titles, the editor’s other books, and the publisher’s lists. It was a long process. And I couldn’t seem to change gears easily from the creative side to the business side and back again. When I was submitting, that’s all I was doing. Having Joan means I can spend more time on writing.

You are the host of the popular Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) event in November.  One of your own PiBoIdMo ideas became the book that is now being published.  Do you think the PiBoIdMo process made a big difference in helping you get that “winning” idea?

Truth be told, I get ideas almost every day. But PiBoIdMo did get me in the habit of writing down those ideas, of seeking out the magic around us every day. One of my favorite quotes is from Roald Dahl: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

The daily process of writing down ideas builds and becomes a habit. I think to be creative, you have to hone your creative sensibilities. You have to be creative every day. PiBoIdMo encourages the artist in us to be productive.

What’s up next/what are you working on now?

I am digging back into my middle grade novel. I just completed a new picture book manuscript that Joan loves, and I’m doing some revision on it. (I should note that Corey loves it, too. LOL!)

What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?

Be patient. Give yourself time to improve your craft. (I like Neil Gaiman’s story about THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. He came up with the concept years ago, but put it away until he was a better writer.) Take at least two years to write seriously before submitting. Join a critique group. A good one will honestly tell you if you’re ready to seek representation. Don’t query too early. Once an agent rejects a project, you can’t send it to them again (unless they specifically request a revision, which is rare). If you’ve been submitting the same manuscript with no interest, write something else. Move on. When you do query, be sure to have other projects ready to send. If an agent is interested, they will ask to see more work.

I have to say I love the advice of taking two years to write seriously before submitting.  I wish somebody had told me that when I was starting!  I could have avoided submitting projects that weren’t ready.

Last, but certainly not least: Johnny Depp or Ryan Reynolds?

Umm, Edward Norton. I think he’s one of the most talented actors working today. And I think he’s handsome, with a boyish charm.

Okay we agree to disagree. 🙂  Seriously though, thanks to Tara for this fabulous interview!  I hope you guys get as much out of it as I did.

If you are a picture book writer with an agent or an agent with picture book writer clients and would like to be featured in this series, please email me at jhedlund33 (at) yahoo (dot) com.

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