I've been querying agents for about eight years. When I started, I kept a hand-written journal, noting the dates and responses I received from my list of carefully researched agents. The last two years, I abandoned my journal for a digital spread sheet. February 12, 2018, I typed the final entry:
SIGNED WITH MY AGENT!
Ten years learning to write. Four novels queried. Over ninety queries sent. Seventy-one rejections. One offer to represent. The other nineteen agents were informed that I signed with an agent, so I don't know how they would have responded to my work.
I've always learned from and been inspired by posts about authors' journeys to acquiring an agent, so I thought I'd share a bit of mine. When I submitted my first book, I had no idea how far I was from being ready. I sent off the requested pages, along with a horrible synopsis. I'm sure it was the easiest rejection of the day for every agent on my list. Was I crushed? Yes, but I moved on. I took online classes, read books on craft, joined two critique groups on top of the one I already belonged to, thinking I'd learn three times faster. And I revised over and over and over again.
Five months later, I submitted my first book again, but more cautiously and to fewer agents. I received two requests for partials. Jump for joy, progress! In the end, they all rejected my dear book. So I set it aside, thanking it for all I'd learned. A year or so later, I queried my second book. By this time, I expected the rejections, but they stung just as much. I took my book to workshops and conferences, read more books on craft and listened to critique partners.
By the third book, I knew how much I didn't know and was intimidated by how much I had to learn. I considered an MFA, but, given a writer's earning potential and our budget, I couldn't rationalize spending the money. So I plugged along the path. I knew quite a few published authors by now, and it was wonderful to celebrate their new books. It was also growing harder to imagine my books ever sitting next to theirs on a shelf.
I learned to write lovely prose and create enticing concepts. Yes, the third book was also rejected when I queried. But two agents said they'd like to see more of my work! And I discovered something crucial in the agents' responses, the weak spot I needed to focus on . . . structure. I needed to learn how to plot. So for my fourth book, I chose a story that would fall apart without a well-conceived plot. Ignoring the urge to create pretty writing, I gave my character a concrete goal and charged towards that goal on an armored-horse with a lance in hand. I worked on that book for almost two years. It won Florida's 2018 Rising Kite contest. I submitted it to agents the week after and was offered representation one week later.
Here's what I learned from this journey:
Read new books in the age category that's your focus. Read award-winning books. You don't have to analyze them, but become familiar with what kids are reading today, and soak up the way good stories are told.
Learn everything you can about writing for children. There are many good books on craft to choose from. Join the Society of Children's Book Writer and Illustrators. Jump on their forum, ask questions and participate in discussions. Attend SCBWI workshops and conferences for motivation, education, networking and opportunities to pitch your book to editors and agents.
Find a good critique group. Your local SCBWI chapter can help with that. Critique partners not only help you grow your book, they help with query letters and they're there to support you. Writers understand writers.
When you're facing an inbox of rejections, agents can seem like the enemy. They're honestly not. They work weekends and nights, shuffling through massive piles of queries. They give up their days off because they want to find their next client. They want to find stories they love. So, before you send a query, ask yourself if it will shine in that pile of hopeful submissions.
Learn what you can from rejections. If an agent responds with a personal comment, read it carefully. Decipher it. Has she said I'm not relating to the character? Study character emotion and how to put that on the page. Did she not connect with the concept? How can you make it more original and dynamic?
Perseverance is your best friend. Embrace it. Feed it vitamins. You need it healthy and strong!
No two paths are alike. When you start comparing yourself to someone who published their first book after only two years of writing, put blinders on and focus on telling the stories only you can tell. Every book you write teaches you how to write better. There are no wasted efforts, unless you quit. Don't give up!
For the first time I'm participating in kid lit reviews hosted by Kellee Moye and Jan Vincent. Unlike the teachers and librarians who amaze with their stack of reviewed books, along with a list of the ones they're still reading or planning to read, I'm presenting one review. I'm a writer and I don't read any book fast these days. But I'm happy to be posting among such committed readers.
My first #IMWAYR book is:
WINTERHOUSE by Ben Guterson.
Orphan Elizabeth Somers is a reader, a puzzle solver and a girl driven by curiosity. When her cruel aunt and uncle send her to a grand hotel for the Christmas holiday, Elizabeth is puzzled at their sudden generosity. Freed from the poverty and neglect she's grown used to, Elizabeth's spirits soar under the doting care of the hotel's owner, Norbridge. But there's darkness in Norbridge's history and it's threatening the hotel. Elizabeth is determined to discover the source. Her curiosity leads her down dangerous paths. As she uncovers the hotel's secrets, she feels more and more connected to Norbridge and his past.
I enjoyed this book and it's wonderful illustrations. The intrigue was mixed with a drop of magic and set in a wintry wonderland. Elizabeth's curiosity sometimes produces terrible consequences. And although she tries briefly to rein it in when it affects a new friendship, she quickly returns to acting on impulse. That felt like a genuine portrayal and provides good content for discussion. Elizabeth is also a brave girl and she doesn't doubt her perceptions. Her confidence was awesome. The best news for fans of this book: it's the first of a trilogy!
I'm a world-class introvert who, except for college, has been perfectly happy creating art by myself without a soul intervening. But the day I realized I wanted to write books for children, I went looking for people with the same goal. I needed to learn and I wasn't prepared to go into debt for an MFA. So I joined the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators and found a local critique group.
That was ten years ago. Not only did I discover writers who were willing to share their knowledge and experience, I found people who accepted and supported me. My critique partners, the Skyway Writers, are committed, compassionate women. We're as dedicated to helping each other succeed as we are to achieving our own goals. We share our stories, our hopes, our devastation over hurtful book reviews, or agents and editors who pass on our projects. As our knowledge evolves, our writing grows stronger through honest, intensive feedback. Today, I consider these women great friends and I can't imagine writing without them.
Bolstered by my critique group experience, I fought my reclusive tendencies and dragged myself to SCBWI events. Here in Florida, we have an amazing community of writers. For many years, writing teacher and picture book author, Rob Sanders organized local SCBWI workshops and presentations. No introvert stands a chance when confronted with Rob's charm. He has a smile as warm as Texas and a passion for helping writers achieve their goals. He has now passed his local responsibilities to writing coach Bob Schwartz, but Rob hasn't stopped encouraging writers. At the state level, Florida's Regional SCBWI Advisor, Linda Bernfeld, works year round with a host of dedicated volunteers to support writers. They orchestrate two conferences, gathering some of the publishing industry's best and brightest to teach and inspire Florida writers. Florida SCBWI also provides mentoring opportunities, a website and newsletter, a statewide boot camp, an annual writing contest and a growing list of critique groups. If you visit a conference, you'll see Linda and her team, racing here and there, making sure writers and presenters have what they need. They come to those conferences, determined to make writers' dreams come true.
From the start, everyone, and I mean everyone, has been kind and friendly. I'm not sure what it is about children's writers, but if you sit next to one, you've likely made a friend for life. Some are shy like me, some outgoing and engaging. But they all scoot over to welcome new members. And that feeling isn't contained to Florida. SCBWI President Stephen Mooser answers emails as if he's sitting across from you, sipping tea. He and Executive Director Lin Oliver, travel from their homes in California to teach and inspire at our conferences. They offer a fantastic yearly grant contest, opportunities for members to publish articles, poems and illustrations in their magazine The Bulletin, and a place to interact, ask questions, find and form groups on their website.
But even with that army of goodwill permeating a decade of SCBWI membership, the child inside me who moved too many times to make friends, hesitated to believe I belonged.
Until two weeks ago.
It was the weekend of the SCBWI conference in Miami where the results for Florida's 2018 Rising Kite writing contest would be announced. I wasn't able to attend, but encouraged by writing partner Augusta Scattergood, I entered my middle grade book in the contest. Sunday afternoon, my phone pinged. Fellow Skyway writer Teddie Aggeles texted "Look at your email!"
I did. There in my inbox was a message from two more Skyway Writers, JC Kato and Janet McLaughlan. They were at the conference, cheering and accepting my award for first place in middle grade fiction. My phone pinged again and I pulled up Facebook to see a photo and congratulations from author/illustrator Fred Koehler:
More cheers followed, many, many cheers, from people I knew and people I didn't. I cried happy tears off and on all afternoon. Winning was a great honor and a thrill, but it wasn't the award that overwhelmed me. It was the kindness and love from writing friends. It went straight to my heart and broke that rusty, old lock that chained me to the belief I didn't belong. So, thank you Rob and Dorian Cirrone, for your special efforts to support this reticent writer. Thank you Janet and JC, for cheering my win, accepting my award and pitching my book to an agent. You are the most awesome writing pals. Thank you Fred and Teddie for elevating my Sunday afternoon by announcing my win. Thank you Augusta for always, always encouraging writers to reach for the dream. And last, but in no way least, thank you Linda, Dorian, Linda Shute, your brigade of volunteers and every person who scoots over to make room for shy people. You are a powerful force for good in this world.
I've been reading writers' Facebook posts summarizing 2017 and looking forward to bigger and better things in 2018. Many of them listed books being published and manuscripts sold that will become future books, which is fabulous. But I wonder how they celebrated those accomplishments.
Writers struggle for years to produce a publishable book. Then there's the long, agonizing journey to find an agent who loves the project, and another trek to find a publisher who believes in it, too. In the quest to attract agents and publishers, we endure more rejection than many people face in a lifetime. We battle anxiety and self doubt. We question why we put ourselves through this torture.
So when a writer's manuscript beats the odds and becomes a purchasable reality, you'd think there'd be a big party. All the friends and relatives who couldn't for the life of them understand why it took ten years to make a book would be invited, along with the author's writing community. They'd bring their excitement and high hopes for the book's success. The author's spirit would bubble and glow, refreshed and recharged for the grueling journey of the next project.
I have a lot of published writer friends, but I've never heard of any of them throwing a party. They share their good news on Facebook and Twitter, garnering a flurry of excitement that lasts a day or two, all of it evaporating in cyberspace while the author sits at home. The closest they come to physically celebrating is a book launch. Although they get congratulated and wished good luck, book launches are all about about introducing and selling the book. It's business
My critique group is wonderfully supportive and deeply committed to each member's success. We celebrate holidays with gifts and goodies, sometimes even a special lunch. If one of us travels, they'll likely bring back souvenirs. Our fabulous leader Teddie often surprises us with impromptu gifts. But when it comes to our writing, an enthusiastic round of congratulations is how we usually recognize achievements. That's just plain sad. Are we allergic to literary exuberance, afraid too much joy will curse our next project?
I don't know the answer, but one of my goals in this new year is to rectify this imbalance. I've asked my critique partners to brainstorm ways to acknowledge accomplishments, from finishing a book to seeing it on the shelves. I'll let you know what we come up with and what we do with those suggestions. In the meantime, I hope you have an art or writing project you're excited about and that 2018 brings plenty to celebrate. Happy New Year!
Writers invest a lot of time learning their craft. We study books and blogs and attend talks by authors, editors, agents and teachers, all in an effort to write better stories. We hear pretty much the same advice from everyone:
Never Open Your Book With A Dream
Avoid Backstory Whenever Possible
Shun Passive Verbs
Balance Dialog, Action and Internality
Get Rid Of Adults (for children's writers)
We listen. We take their advice to heart. We work to present dramatic stories with dynamic verbs and sparse backstory. We avoid sleeping scenes with even a hint of a dream. Then apologizing to our beloved parents, we kill off the adults. We advise our critique partners to attack every instance that doesn't follow the rules and we slash the offending sections.
So, it's with utter dismay that we pick up the latest award-winning novel and discover it opens with a dream and pages and pages of backstory, or the author uses to-be verbs in every other sentence, or most of the story focuses on adults. I used to frown at these books, scratch my head. Fellow writers and I would discuss the mystery. How did these books get published when they break the rules we've been taught?
What I've come to understand is that great books tell a great story. Period. Readers don't know the rules and they don't care. And when it comes right down to it, neither do publishers. No doubt, they want writers to know their craft. They want them to write the best book they can with bonus points for beautiful language and style. But compelling story and voice is what sells books.
When I was an art student, we were told, learn the rules, then you can break them. So that's my advice to new writers. Study, learn the rules and apply them. Practice, practice, practice. But don't ever let rules get in the way of your creativity. When you write a first draft, kick them out of your head and let the story flow. Focus on what makes your story original. Run wild with its uniqueness. Tell it the way only you can. The rules will be waiting in your handy dandy toolbox when you revise. Apply them with care, where needed. They should always make your story better. If not, put them aside.
twinkiesNative Floridians aren't easily distracted by nature. We grow up with a variety of amphibians and reptiles, including alligators, over 12,000 insect species and forty-four snake species. We learn early on to leave gators be. Don't feed them, for crying out loud, unless you want them knocking on your door and looking at your fingers as if they're Twinkies! We know which snakes and bugs are poisonous and we learn to get along with them all. It's their planet, too, and they'll likely be here long after we're gone. I'm always surprised at newcomers who are disgusted by lizards. I think they're cute.
We're used to hot, humid weather that melts ice cubes before they've had a chance to chill your drink. Daily thunder storms with booming lightning don't stop Floridians from going about their business. When I was a little girl, we invited the family to our house during hurricanes. The kids played games. I don't remember what the adults did but it seemed everyone had a good time and the next day, we picked up and moved on.
Writers are a lot like Floridians. We don't let much distract us from our work. Even when we stop typing, we're figuring out story in our heads. We do it while driving, doing chores, waiting in lines and sometimes when we're supposed to be listening to the person next to us. Work isn't nine to five for us and storytelling isn't just a job, it's a mission.
Two weeks ago a storm called Irma headed to Florida with her eye set on Tampa Bay. I imagine every writer in the state stopped writing like I did, to watch that storm on the news. It was a monster, wider than the state, chewing up the islands below us and leaving devastation behind. Now that I'm grown, I take hurricanes seriously. And from the sounds of it, so do most Floridians, including the children's writing community. Thousands listened to the dire warnings and evacuated. The people who stayed behind searched for a safe place to ride out the storm.
We boarded our windows and doors, filled our cars with gas and our cupboards with canned food and water. Neighbors helped neighbors and wished each other well before heading inside to sit awake all night, listening to Irma batter our houses. On Facebook, the children's writing community lit up with offers of help and thoughts for everyone's safety. After Irma passed, Floridians cleaned up downed trees and smashed fences. They sweated in houses that no longer had electricity. Some faced destroyed homes and a long road back to normal.
The writers in my group struggled to drag their thoughts back to their stories. A statewide series of workshops was postponed and a contest deadline extended. But we will recover, and we won't have to do it alone. The children's writing community supports its members. Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser of The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators have offered to cover the costs of everyone (everyone!) wanting to attend the postponed workshops. The workshops have already been rescheduled, and I'm busy working on my contest entry. Writers, like Floridians, expect hardships and challenges. We're not going to let a storm, no matter how fierce, keep us from our art.
Saturday morning before the sun rises, I'm driving with a writing partner to the Society for Children's Writers and Illustrators conference in Orlando. The first thing I tell new writers when they ask for advice is join SCBWI. Without them, I suspect many children's writers and illustrators would give up before their books reach the hands that are meant to hold them.
The minute I realized I wanted to write for children, I Googled writing groups, found a meeting nearby and joined. I was a woman with a dream and no skills. Who knew there were writing rules? I spent a year learning the basics and I'm forever grateful to the woman who had the patience to pass them on without a single groan or eye roll. But she didn't write for children and even though others in the group did, we were all struggling to understand what that meant. Sometime in that year, I discovered SCBWI and thought why not, I'll join that, too. When I attended my first SCBWI critique group, I knew I was in the right place.
At the national level, SCBWI offers a website that caters to the needs of members. There are blogs, resources, grant contests, a message board where you can get any question imaginable answered, find online critique groups and get your query letter reviewed. SCBWI hosts a summer conference in Los Angeles and a winter conference in New York. They also publish a quarterly magazine called the Bulletin and an online newsletter.
SCBWI is represented in every state by volunteer-run groups. Florida's chapter hosts two conferences a year, a mentorship program, a newsletter, local workshops and an annual contest. It also facilitates the ongoing need of members to establish critique groups. Which leads me back to my weekend. When you go to a conference, expect great things, like learning from agents, publishers and authors of admirable books. Saturday, I'll be attending a middle grade fantasy workshop with author Henry Neff and senior editor for Scholastic, Matt Ringler. How wow is that?
Expect to leave conferences inspired and motivated. Even better, expect new friends. I've never met a friendlier crowd than SCBWI. They share your dreams, understand your trials, and they'll celebrate your success. If your new to the writing world and you're attending your first conference, you might make connections that lead to a writing group. For sure, exchange emails. Writers need support. Even if you're an introvert like me, you don't have to do this alone.
Saturday morning, my writing partner and I will probably chat all the way to the conference about our stories, the workshop and what we hope to learn. When the sun dips below the trees, we'll turn the car towards home, our heads filled with what we learned and our hearts filled with renewed dreams and the encouragement of friends.
Authors are often asked where their stories come from and they give a variety of answers: dreams, memories, an event that rattles the insides of their brains and demands to be honored, like the bombing of New York's twin towers.
Kelly Barnhill, who recently won the Newbery Award with her middle grade book The Girl Who Drank the Moon, talked about the book's origins in Publisher's Weekly. She said an image of a swamp monster spouting poetry sparked the story idea. That image percolated and mixed with her interest in how people see the same thing differently, and her setting was inspired by a trip to Costa Rica.
I think most stories evolve like that. A seed's planted, then another and another, growing a jungle of words in our heads. They have to get along at some point, come together in a cohesive way and they have to make us ask "what happens next? That's when our fingers start typing.
The book I'm working on now started with drawings I did of fantasy figures I saw in the wood floor of an old house my husband and I were restoring. I imagined a lonely girl finding those figures and the story was born. Another book grew from a longing to commemorate the days I spent riding and training horses and the last book sprang from living in a dynamic urban neighborhood.
I like to hear the main character's voice in my head before I start, but I'm not always that lucky. Sometimes, I have to write for a long while before that voice emerges. Since I'm a visual person, setting is vitally important. I need to see the world first, to understand the geography, the buildings and environment. If I try to write without that, the world doesn't feel real.
My critique partners and I have discussions about describing our characters. Should we be specific, so readers have clear visuals, or should we be vague so more people can identify with the characters. I rarely know much about my character's physical description at the start of a story. For me, physicality is not nearly as important as personality.
Let's not forget plot and conflict. It's what drives the story and I've learned the hard way not to start a story without knowing the protagonist's goal. If you have a story screaming to be written and you don't know the main conflict, take a deep breath, take a walk, take the time you need to figure that out. Explore issues that are important to you, like Kelly Barnhill's interest in the way people's perspectives color their world. Ask yourself how your interests and concerns might shape your character's world. Then ask what your character wants and what's the worst thing that could happen. Now, you have the start of a solid story.
What are you waiting for? Start typing!
Before readers launch into a literary journey and spend hours and hours reading a story, they must be charmed or fascinated by the protagonist. It helps if the character is funny or feisty. Everyone likes feisty. Feisty faces the world with chin up and eyes blazing. Readers can't wait to see what that character gets up to and they believe whatever she faces, she'll be up to the task.
It's tougher to start a story with a protagonist who's downhearted and pessimistic. In her excellent book The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, Cheryl Klein likens the experience to listening to a negative person at a party who goes on and on about their bad luck and how it never changes. Who wants to spend time with that person? She says negative, defeated characters are unappealing. If you start a story with a protagonist who's downhearted, it's vitally important to show they're resilience and assertiveness. Immediately! And humor counts double in this story.
So, guess who starts every book with a dispirited, passive person?
Yep, that would be me. My muse NEVER imagines characters who wake up on the right side of the bed with a sword drawn to vanquish their enemies. In my critique group The Skyway Writers, my critique partners know I always want their eyes searching for the passages where my character lacks assertiveness. They help me see when she's reacting instead of acting, passive instead of active, finding problems instead of solutions and embracing defeat instead of believing in victory.
I think most writers tend to pen protagonists with personalities that echo their own. If you're not a witty and daring optimist, that doesn't mean you can't create appealing characters. You just have to dig deeper, find the parts of you that believe in miracles and have the courage to overcome the most dreadful events. Write the character you hope to become!
It took many years and hours upon hours of writing and learning to earn a place among The Skyway Writers, the group I share stories with. They're one of the most valuable things in my life, right up there with reliable transportation and groceries. I've met many people who struggle to find compatible writing partners, so one of the things I thought I'd do with my blog this year is share some of the wisdom I glean from my group.
This month, the Skyway Writers talked about the need for an active protagonist. It's a subject vitally important to me because I'm an introvert. If I'm not paying attention, I'll start every story with a passive, reactive character. I still remember the moment when I took a synopsis class years ago and the teacher pointed out my character wasn't DOING anything assertive to reach her goal.
Oh. You mean, they have to pick up the sword and yell charge?
Your protagonist has to drive the story, even if it's a quiet, emotional tale with very little action, and even if they make a wreck of their lives and everyone else's, they have to drive the train. From the onset when they make the decision that sets the story in motion, each decision and action must propel them to the climax and resolution.
That's so much easier said than done for someone like me. I try not to let it interfere with writing a first draft but I pay attention to it in every revision and ask my critique partners to keep an eye out for places where my character's not asserting herself. If you don't have a writing partner, don't despair. You can teach yourself to beware of weak protagonists.
When you revise, take notes in every scene. Is your main character making decisions that drive the plot or is she merely responding to other characters' decisions and actions? Is she following someone else's lead? If so, it's not a bad idea to look at the leader and ask if maybe it's their story you should be writing. Try a chapter in their point of view. Or go back to chapter one, wind your protagonist up, then buckle on that sword and charge!
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. And creatures, always creatures. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
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