Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Writer's High

So, it appears I've forgotten to post for awhile. In fact, I teased you with a February post just before I attended my first Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Conference in New York, and then I never followed up to tell you how it went, and that was very naughty of me, and I'm sorry.

Reader, is it over the top to say I fell in love at SCBWI? Don't worry, husband, if you're reading this. There's nothing unseemly here. I fell in love with the community of writers, and I fell hard. I know it seems silly to say how nice everyone was, but it's the truth! There was no ego, not even from the writers and illustrators whose books have won buckets full of awards and sold incredible numbers of copies.

There was a feeling of camaraderie among everyone, published or "pre-published" (that's the term they use, love that!), a feeling of incredible responsibility toward our jobs. What could be more important than writing for children? For those three days at the conference, the answer was clearly nothing.

I came away inspired, my head spinning with ideas. I had to let everything settle for awhile. And then I got to work. I drafted a new picture book, talked to my agent, wrote a new draft. I also committed myself to writing a middle grade novel, first with a silent vow, then on paper with a number of goals with deadlines attached. And I wrote it in pen, so it's for real.

I'd been freewriting about a vague idea for a middle grade for a few months prior, but now I really am taking the plunge. I'm reading all the middle grade I can get my hands on, and I'm taking the books I love, and tearing them apart. It reminds me of a camp my kids attend where they take some small electronics item (like a VCR or clock radio) and use tools to take it all apart. They don't need to put it back together (thankfully!) but they do learn a bit about how those parts make it work.

So, I'm tearing apart my favorite middle grade books to see how they work, actually outlining a few to see where the author made certain plot choices and how that affects the book's pacing. You might think this kind of close scrutiny of amazing books would have a demoralizing effect, but it's really the opposite. Breaking these books into many parts makes writing one seem do-able.

If you can figure out how to write a first chapter, then why not write the second, and so on, until you're flying, for awhile at least.. Think of it like running. If you can run one mile, you can probably run two. If you can run two, why not a 5K? Is a writer's high akin to a runner's high? I don't know, as I've never experienced a runner's high.*

I suspect I'll keep along this way for awhile, taking notes, brainstorming ideas, figuring out who my characters are. I wouldn't be surprised if, before I even write the book's first sentence, I have 100 pages or more of typed notes. But I've learned through trial and error that this is the best way for me to work. (I've written two adult novels; one is "in the drawer"; the other is out on submission to agents.) I'm not a "pant-ser" as in a "fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants" writer. I tried that once and failed miserably. I need to plan out this book and then take my little road map and do the easy-by-comparison part, the writing.

Will check back in here periodically to let you know how it's going. In the meantime, here's my dog at his adopt-a-ver-sary party. Sit. Good Boy.

*I was a sprinter in high school. I never ran more than one lap around the track at a time. I ran a 5K recently and prayed for sweet death so I wouldn't have to finish.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Taking a Stand

I’m a week away from attending my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ (SCBWI) Conference and am feeling nervous and excited. The suitcase is already out. I’ve solicited advice from friends on what to wear, and disregarded it. (Everyone said to dress in black in New York, but I bought a skirt of a dozen patchwork colors because, come on, this is children’s publishing. It’s colorful!)

In recent days, the Executive Director of SCBWI, Lin Oliver, shared a statement to address, what I presume must be complaints directed at the organization for members speaking out about recent political events. The letter does all the usual things such letters must do, reinstate that SCBWI members are varied in their views, remind that individual statements by people associated with the group do not represent the whole group. But the letter doesn’t apologize for standing up for certain values.

“We stand for freedom of expression, for inclusion, for the absence of hate, and for equality of opportunity for all. These are not political ideologies but expressions of our shared human values.”

But of course, you can’t believe in that statement and not take a side on current events. Loving your neighbor has, unfortunately, become a political ideology. Some well-known children’s authors have expressed their worries that being outspoken might hurt their sales. We all know there’s a new boycott sprouting up every day, and that authors are “brands” as much as they are human people trying to do their best writing. I don’t blame authors for worrying about such things.

But I don’t have any sales to worry about quite yet; my debut picture book won’t be out for awhile. So I figured I might as well get ahead of the game by stating right now that I plan to continue to play whatever role I can in working for social justice. If that’s offensive, you probably shouldn’t buy my books, though, to be honest, you probably wouldn’t like them anyway.

I had a hard time writing after the election, and the events of recent weeks have confirmed all my worst fears about the direction we’re headed as a country. But there’s only momentary comfort in hiding under the covers, so I marched and talked to friends and got back to work. It’s an important time to be a writer, and especially I believe, a writer for children who is helping to reinforce the values quoted above in a new generation. I’m so looking forward to meeting many others next week who feel the same way.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Age of Success

I was at a party recently where a friend and I toasted our recent professional successes, when she said “I love the 40s!” She was referring to our ages, not the decade. Since my last post, I had a birthday and turned the calendar to a new year. These events happen on the same magical evening called New Year’s Eve, which this year featured my husband and I, and our two kids, asleep by 9 p.m. in our hotel room after a day of museum-hopping in Chicago. Because that last day of the year is momentous in several ways, I tend to feel this whole stew of nostalgia and regret and hope and excitement and despair. A lot of bad things happened in 2016, but I also got an agent and he sold my first book. And the Cubs won the World Series. Those are things I never thought would happen, but they did, and I am so grateful, mostly about the book stuff, not the Cubs, though that was very cool.

Yet because I am hopeless, I have caught myself thinking, well, if I would have started writing children’s books a decade ago, I would have x books published by now. Then I have to punch myself in the face, because who thinks like that? Well, for one, the publishing industry. Writers are constantly reminded, via various lists and awards and profiles, that really young writers are really cool!

It’s enough to make any writer over 30 feel like it’s too late. If she hasn’t had a break-out success by now, she never will. I recently attended the Sewanee Writers Conference where an agent said she would not seek out any new clients who were “geriatrics,” which she defined as writers over 50. The fact that half the crowd was sporting gray hair didn’t seem to matter to the agent, or to the conference organizers, who put her on the speaker’s list every year. Most writers are already filled with a healthy dose of self-doubt. We really don’t need our age thrown into the list of worries.

Here’s an article I just came across about a study in Science looking at age and success. The conclusion was that how hard you work matters much more than your age. However, there’s a distinction made between science and the arts. Check out this quote from the article: “Harvard education theorist Howard Gardner told the Washington Post that early creative breakthroughs are likely to happen in fields where the work itself is suited to a shorter form, like math or poetry. But in law, psychoanalysis, history, or philosophy, you’ve got to spend more time marinating.” Have you ever written poetry? Then feel free to call this bullshit. I suspect Gardner has not written any or he would be aware that creative writers’ ideas also need to “marinate.” 
I think part of increasing my creativity as I age is about not caring
so much what other people think, which makes me more willing
to take chances. This wombat, for reference, doesn't give two fucks.

Even though I know this to be true, I sometimes have to remind myself. I was talking to a poet friend about the relative speed with which I wrote the picture book that recently sold. But what I left out of that account was all the years I’d thought about the story. (The inspirational nugget comes from my own grade school years.) Nor did I take into account the years I’ve spent volunteering at a public school much like the one in the book, gathering my observations along the way. Nor did I take into account the decades I’ve been writing, getting a bit better each year at all the facets that go into creating a compelling read. My friend said, “All your life was preparation for you to write that book quickly.” It does make you re-think the word “quickly,” doesn’t it? He’s exactly right.

I’m hoping that there will continue to be more research done on creativity and age. I’m hoping that more and more people will recognize that writers are in fact capable of having success (even a first success) later in life. I’m frankly tired of reading opening sentences like, “Though writer x didn’t start until well into his 40s, he’s had an amazingly successful career…” Why should this be surprising? It’s much more surprising to me when a 20-something has great success, yet so many people in creative fields hold that up as the norm.

Poets and Writers magazine ran a recent feature on writers over 50, which is great, yet they tagged the cover with a ridiculous, apocalyptic subhead, “It’s never too late!” Wow, thanks, I guess I won’t drink this arsenic after all. I also noted that one of the authors featured in the article refused to provide her age. So how’s that for progress?

I'll end this rather rambling new year's post with a memory of  a trip I took to Mexico with some girlfriends last December. I was facing all sorts of doubts about my writing and whether anything more would ever come of it, but bobbing in the ocean helped me forget about that for awhile. And so, too, did a marathon yoga session with a yogi who kept repeating the mantra, “You are exactly where you’re supposed to be right now.” I’m sure it’s new-agey claptrap to many people, but it helped me to put things in perspective, to stop wishing that I had done something better, sooner, and accept that I’d done good, and that better things were coming, and when they did (as they would in just nine months’ time), I’d be ready. Here's to a creative 2017, whatever your age!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Writing for Children, Message in Mind

I came across a tweet last week about writing for children that said if the writer’s message is to teach a lesson, the writer should throw that book away and start something else. As a new writer of children’s books, I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

I think the person is referring to a heavy-handed approach, kind of a checklist approach toward indoctrinating kids with the moral lessons the author thinks they ought to know. Think of the Berenstein Bears, where I imagine there’s a book addressing each one of the seven deadly sins. I know a lot of kids, and parents, love these books, but I’ve always had a hard time with them. Mama knows everything! Papa is an idiot! All the kids need is a list of rules and they’ll fall in line! When I finish reading one of these books to my kids, the first thing I feel like doing is turning to them and saying, “Now, honeys, do you see how the brother and sister were doing the same naughty thing you were and then…” I try not to do this, but the books really seem to force that kind of reaction, which makes me crazy.

That said, I’m not against books with lessons. I just prefer a bit more subtlety. Have you read this year’s Newbery winner, “Last Stop on Market Street”? It’s a picture book chock full of messages for kids, about looking for beauty in unexpected places, but more importantly, about helping to create that beauty by your own actions. The book provides a great lesson on how everyone, even a young child, can make a difference in somebody’s life by giving of themselves.

Now I don’t know that the author and illustrator (Matt De La Pena and Christian Robinson) set out to craft this specific message. I imagine Matt might have sat down to tell a story about a boy and his grandma. That’s where stories begin for me. In my debut picture book, “Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse,” I wanted to explore the relationship between a young girl and her classmate who has a tendency to make things up. As the idea evolved, it became a book “about” empathy but I believe a young child would say it’s a book about a couple of kids and whether or not one of them has a horse, and that’s fine with me. I do hope they pick up on the message of empathy, however. But back to that tweet. Is it wrong for me to hope kids learn a lesson from my book?

Every day, I’m hearing stories about kids being put down for their differences. In our own neighborhood school, kids have told students of color to leave the country, citing the words of our president-elect. It’s hard to be a parent, a writer, a human, and not get depressed. But after a week of feeling complete despair post-election, I got back to the keyboard. I have to tell you, I’m so glad to be writing for children right now.

Every week I go into our public elementary and volunteer in the classroom, and I see these kids who have more common sense and more kindness than anyone gives them credit for. The hateful things said by a very small number of young kids are nothing more than a repetition of what they’ve heard on TV or, unfortunately, from the adults in their lives.

But if kids can make a connection with a book in which kindness prevails, then they might start to believe that, even if there are multiple forces in their lives telling them otherwise. I’m more than okay with my books, or anyone’s, having messages, especially if those messages help raise a generation of people who are a little more tolerant toward each other.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Obligatory Contemplative Post-Book-Sale Blog Post

My debut picture book, “Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse,” sold to Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers last week. There’s a period at the end of that sentence, though there should probably be 25 exclamation points. But that was last week, and like all human creatures, I’ve adapted to this incredible good news and returned to my baseline state of happiness. There’s a big, fancy term for this. It’s called “hedonic adaptation,” one of many facts I discovered while researching the writing project I’ve been working on for years, my adult literary novel, “Happy, Indiana.” That was the book I was planning to sell.
What's next for me, world?
“Adrian Simcox” was a side project, born on a rainy spring afternoon when a burst of inspiration, brought on by reading a stack of award-winning picture books (and an extra cup of coffee), sent me to my file of kid-book ideas and quickly then to my computer. The book came out in one session, as I nervously watched the clock because I had to pick up my kids from school, but wanted to get every thought down on paper first. I was in the “zone” and when you’re in there, you don’t ask questions; you just write. It needed editing, of course, lots, but still I felt with that first draft that I might have done something special.

Two years ago, I posted this piece about how I don’t write for children, primarily because it’s super hard and I’m not good enough. I left the door open for the possibility, though. And now, with this picture book sale, that door has been opened with such force that the hinges have popped right off. That’s an exhilarating feeling, a scary one, too. Before the sale was even final, I was wondering if I could pull something like this off a second time, and my ever-patient husband was like “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” DRINK THIS CHAMPAGNE AND CELEBRATE, DAMN IT!!!” And so I did.

But this week, it’s back to the page, and back to that novel, for now. I feel confident that this revision may be the one to tie up all those lingering loose ends, that it might be good enough to land an agent (my new agent reps children’s fiction, so I’d need another to rep any adult work), and maybe even get a publisher. But, I must confess. As I’m working on novel revisions, my brain keeps filling with picture book ideas, so much so that I eventually just kept a file open on my computer so I could quickly switch back and forth.

I love my novel. I love writing essays. But this recent development has opened up a whole new, but certainly related, career path, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve got no shortage of “things I’m thinking about” but now I feel much more empowered to put those things into whatever written form will best serve the idea. Some ideas are more suited to adults, some to children. My options have increased, and that’s a very good thing.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

What To Do When Your Book Is On Submission

My picture book is on submission! What does that mean? Well, this is the phase when you’ve signed with a super duper agent (see previous post), you’ve made any edits to your manuscript that the agent suggests and then the agent submits your book to a list of editors at various publishing houses who he thinks would be a great fit.

This is one of the many reasons why having a good agent is so important! Believe it or not, in the middle of the cornfield in which I live, I am not lunching with editors on a daily basis. I'm new to the publishing world and don't have contacts. My agent does. In fact, at many publishers, you cannot even submit a manuscript on your own. You have to do so through an agent. There are so many writers out there, agents only take on books they are pretty sure they can sell. This is why the word on the street is that it's harder to get an agent these days than it is to sell the book. 

My agent put together a nifty list of editors he thought would be perfect for my book and sent my manuscript to them. And now we wait.

Many things can happen during this time. All of them could say, “I hate it!” (unlikely, since the agent has done his homework). One, or more, editors could like it and make an offer (yay!). If numerous editors express an interest in bidding, then the book can go to auction. This doesn't happen a lot, but when it does, it's pretty awesome. 

There are several ways to do an auction, one being a traditional auction where the editors keep bidding higher and higher, in rounds, until there’s one left standing, at which point, the author takes that bid. There’s also something known as a "best bid blind auction" where everyone just puts their best offer out there from the start, not knowing what the other publishers are doing. The author isn’t forced to take the top offer. Maybe there’s an offer that came in lower, but the author just really feels like that editor/publisher would be great to work with. That’s a-okay!

Hey look! Hardwood!
Keep in mind that before an editor can even make an offer, he or she has to meet with others at the publishing house, make sure they agree that the book is one they must have, think about how it fits with other books they have coming out, discuss who might illustrate it (I’ve only written the text. You do NOT want to see my drawings!) Also before making an offer, an editor might want to talk to the author, to get a sense of where the author is coming from, and to convince the author that her or his publishing house is the best choice. This is also an opportunity for the author to find out if she “clicks” with a particular editor, since the two of them would be working closely together for many months on the book.

This can take weeks. And so, things to do while my book is on submission:

 (A) Pull up that yucky carpeting in the living room 

 (B) Brush the dog

 (C) Take many long walks

 (D) Work on another book

Well, I’m sure my agent would say D, but I'm thinking C, followed by B. (This dog isn't going to brush himself!)  

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

How I Got My Agent

This is the post I’ve been wanting to write for nearly a decade, the post where I tell you I am officially represented. Sounds very serious, doesn’t it? It is very serious. I have signed with literary agent Steven Malk at Writers House, and though it’s been a couple weeks now, I still wake up and think, oh, I had a wonderful dream that I signed with this incredible agent, and then I tell myself this is real! Normally, my dreams go the other way, with me falling off buildings, falling out of a car that’s falling off a cliff. So, this is a great new development!

I have many, many things to say about getting to this point and what happens next, too many to vacuum-pack into one post, but for now, I’d like to hold these two, at first-glance contradictory, opinions up to the light.

1)  This was a long time coming.
2)  This happened seemingly overnight.

First, number one. I’ve been writing for years, dear readers, you know this. I started blogging (very occasionally) way back when I was writing my first novel and my daughter was still in diapers. (I just walked that daughter to school where she’s now in the 4th grade.) I’d been publishing short fiction for years and started to regret that I’d given it up to try a novel. That novel almost broke me, not the writing of it, which was very hard, but still enjoyable, but the trying to get it published part. It wasn’t that no one liked it. It was that lots of people liked it, but didn’t love it. (To those of you in the querying trenches, you’ll recognize this as a common phrase on rejection letters.) Sometimes I think it would have been better if they’d all hated it because I would have set it aside much sooner. Instead, I kept thinking the next query was going to change everything.

And I did get the attention of an agent who had a good track record. She wanted to see a few changes before she signed me. No biggie, right? Except that the little changes were actually kind of big, and after I’d work on one thing then another, I was met with long periods of silence, then apologetic messages, all without a contract. I was so na├»ve and, yes, desperate, that I just hung on and hoped. This sounds like a bad romance, and in many ways it was. We met in person and there were warning bells going off in my head the whole time. I knew we were not a good match, but I did not trust my instincts, and so when she eventually said, “It’s not you, it’s me,” I was not only devastated, thinking my book would never get out there, but also hating myself for being so stupid.

I entered a period of curling under the covers and wailing “I will never write again!” And that book? It never got out there, and that’s okay.

I took a new approach. I decided if I love writing (I do) and if I’m only really happy when I’m writing (I am), then I just need to write and not care so much about the business end of things. Agents, and editors and publishers, are going to do what they’re going to do. They will either want my work or they won’t. All I can do, all I can promise, to anyone, but mainly to myself, is that I’ll keep writing and trying to improve. And when I’ve got something I think is pretty good (whether that’s my new novel, an essay, a short story, a picture book), I will put myself out there, but I will not beat myself up when rejections come in. I will work hard so that when opportunity comes knocking, I will be prepared.

Giving up on that first book was the hardest writing-related thing I’ve ever done, but also the best thing. My second novel knocks the socks off that first one. And I’ve written, and published so many other things because I’m writing whatever makes me happy. I’ve taken to writing essays when I really need to deal with something that happened to me. If they get published, great, and many of them have, but it’s the act of writing them that I find liberating. I’ve written humor pieces and also (newsflash!) picture books!

It was inevitable, really. Though my kids, at 7 and 9, have largely moved on to chapter books, our home is still filled with picture books. We still bring home a few on every library trip. The ones we love, we read again and again. I volunteer to read with kids at the elementary school. I co-chair the book fairs. There have always been times when I’ve come across a really great picture book and thought, wow, I would love to be able to write something this good! And other times when I thought, well, I’m sure I could write something this good! And over the years, every time I had an idea for a picture book, I added it to my “big file of picture book ideas” on my computer. Which brings me to #2.

It feels like I signed with Steve in an instant because we were really only in communication with each other for a few weeks prior. I should mention that Steve is a children’s book agent, representing everything from picture books on up to YA. When I emailed my book, titled “Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse,” to Steve along with my query letter, I literally chuckled as I hit “Send.” Steve is one of the top children’s book agents in the country. Look up all the best-sellers, all the Newbery and Caldecott winners, then look up their agents. Time and again, I found it was Steve. And here I was, brand new to children’s writing, sending my query cold, into the so-called “slush pile” to be read, I figured by an intern who might, if she even felt like it, send me a form rejection back.

When I got a very quick reply back, I was expecting the typical “Sorry this isn’t right for me…” letter. But instead, Steve wanted to know what else I was working on. And he liked the book, very much. We emailed back and forth for a few weeks until we had THE CALL, which is a very important chapter in the fairy book tale of getting an agent. Unlike my meeting with that agent many years ago, this time, I knew it was right. We clicked. Everything he was saying made sense to me and let me know that if Steve was my agent, I’d be in excellent hands. When I got off the phone, I sobbed. My husband cried. The kids were freaked out, not really understanding the concept of “happy tears.”

Lots of writers complain about the “slush pile” or say the publishing industry is rigged against those who don’t know the right people. When I was in my deepest denial about my first novel, I often said the same thing. It was easier than admitting the truth, that maybe my book just wasn’t good enough.

My experience these past weeks has taught me that the only thing that really matters is that you keep trying to write something great, and keep aiming high. If your dream agent seems to land in your lap, it’s because you did everything right to bring him there. And also, who knows, maybe there was a bit of luck involved. Maybe Steve read my manuscript right after eating something delicious or watching a YouTube video of kittens. Whatever the case, I am so grateful and pleased to be starting this exciting new chapter of my writing life.

And now before I start quoting Journey (Don’t Stop Believin’!), I need to sign off. There is MUCH more to come on this story. Stay tuned.