On Being Your Own Audience
~Guest blog by Angela Burke Kunkel
When you think of a picture book being read, what--- or more precisely, who--- do you see? A child snug on the lap of a beloved parent or grandparent? A teacher, perched on the edge of a tiny classroom chair, reading aloud to a rapt class seated criss-cross-applesauce on the rug? A toddler, alone in their room during quiet time, studiously turning the pages and reciting a favorite book from memory?
Or is the audience . . . you?
Sometimes, in our journey to become writers, we study so much advice and so many mentor texts and blog posts and craft books that we lose sight of our own voice, our own relationship with books, our own relationship with words.
We write for children, after all, many of us in a particular genre or format. Picture books present their own unique set of challenges, with the industry standard of 32 pages and that ever-fluctuating “sweet spot” for word count. And, of course, you have other considerations: room for the illustrator. The child. The reader. It can be enough to crowd out why you’re doing this in the first place.
And, selfishly, it is okay if that’s you.
Allow me to back up for a moment: In my daily professional life, I work as a teacher-librarian in a school that serves grades seven through twelve. My entire career, I’ve only worked with tweens and teens--- never with elementary or preschool-aged children (and, may I just say, bless those early childhood and elementary educators). When social conversations wind their way round to writing, teens and even other adults often express surprise that I don’t write YA. After all, that’s who I interact with on a daily basis. And there is incredible work for young adults out there. I love reading it and talking about it, especially with young people.
But it isn’t what my brain reaches for right now, emotionally or structurally, in terms of my own writing. As someone who wanted to write novels for a very long time--- and never, ever finished a complete draft--- I found myself circling back to picture books. As I rediscovered them through my own young children, and through using them in classroom instruction with middle and high schoolers, I realized I also enjoyed them for my own aesthetic reasons. I loved how wordless titles felt like a silent movie unfolding. I loved the deceptive simplicity of clever refrains or circular structures. I loved the lyrical language and pacing of others, as metaphorical and gorgeous as any Mary Oliver poem. And yes, I’d read them with a child snuggled on my lap, or to a classroom of students (albeit at tables, not criss-cross-applesauce), but the aesthetic experience was a personal response for me. And eventually, I found myself reading them . . . by myself. When I had the itch to write after many years away from it, I allowed myself to consider the possibility of picture books.
As Ann Whitford Paul notes in Writing Picture Books, picture book form is unique because they are books written for people who cannot yet read, “usually read by an adult reader to a nonreader . . . The pictures are there to entice the nonreader to listen and also help construct meaning from the words.” And she’s right, but I also think as writers we can expand our vision beyond that, while still respecting it. After all, aren’t all good stories, regardless of form, about the experience of constructing meaning?
While it’s important to write with your primary audience in mind, remember that you can also have multiple audiences. I’d encourage aspiring writers to not only focus on how children might experience their book, but teens and adults as well. There are so many books I have used or want to use at the high school level--- from Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach to Yuyi Morales’s Dreamers. Seeing teens, often stereotyped as cynical or disaffected, engaged in a picture book with the same wide-eyed wonder as a kindergartener reminds me that these stories serve a purpose for everyone. We just need to allow for that possibility.
So my challenge to you is this--- when you’re writing, and especially during those free writes and first drafts--- allow yourself to let go of that image of the lapsit reader or the elementary classroom. Disregard that editor voice in your brain that questions things like appropriateness and marketability and Lexile level. And, just for a little while, allow yourself to play. Swim around in words that make you feel like you’re engaging in a beautiful piece of language that isn’t cataloged “E” because it’s Easy. It’s “E” because it’s for everyone. And maybe, in that space of openness and play, you just might surprise yourself (and ultimately, your reader) with something beautiful.
Angela Burke Kunkel's debut picture book, DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT (illustrated by Paola Escobar and published by Random House/Schwartz & Wade) releases in Fall 2020. In addition to being an author, Angela works full time as a school librarian. She is a graduate of Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. Angela is represented by Liza Fleissig at the Liza Royce Agency. You can contact her here. You can also connect on Twitter and Instagram.
Hosted by Francine Puckly
I was first introduced to Rachel Lynn Solomon online when I came across an article from her TidBits newsletter. The article delineated the first year reality of her debut novel, YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE, and the joys and terrors that accompany the birthing of a book. Her article prompted me to pick up a copy of YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE, and I couldn’t put it down! I was even more excited when I found out her second novel, OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, was hitting the bookstores a few weeks later in January 2019. 24 Carrot Writing is excited to host this interview with Rachel!
Welcome, Rachel! Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be with us and our readers!
Thank you for having me!
In your debut novel, YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE, you created a relatively unlikeable female protagonist. What do you feel were your biggest challenges with having an unlikeable female protagonist tell part of this story?
Adina, one of the protagonists in YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE, is definitely unlikable—she’s cold, arrogant, a little manipulative, and secretly very vulnerable. I’m not sure what it says about me that her voice remains the easiest and most natural one I’ve ever written, haha. She just came to me so vividly. She’s balanced out a little by her twin, Tovah, but Adina makes some pretty terrible choices throughout the book. With her, I wanted to give a voice to some of the darker thoughts I had as a teen—the thoughts many of us are afraid to acknowledge. What if, instead of behaving the way she thought she was supposed to, the way society wants girls to behave, she instead acted on her worst impulses?
I definitely worried that she’d be labeled “unlikable” and written off by some readers, but ultimately my goal was to create a compelling, complex character. To me that’s much more interesting than someone who makes the right choices and does the right thing all the time. I’ve loved hearing people’s reactions to Adina because while some find her pretty appalling, others relate to her and root for her, and I think it’s because in real life, we don’t necessarily make the right choices all the time either.
Your characters experience interesting medical (and emotional) situations. In YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE, your protagonists face a fatal genetic disorder called Huntington’s Disease. In OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, you explore a kidney transplant. What was the research process like for each of those books? Will your future stories include medical aspects as well?
Since I don’t have firsthand experience with Huntington’s or kidney disease, the writing process for both books involved a lot of research. It was a mix of interviews with people who had that firsthand experience—patients, yes, but also doctors and family members—plus reading, watching videos, listening to podcasts.
I’m drawn to subjects I want to learn more about, and that was the case with those two medical-leaning books. It can be quite heavy writing about those topics, though, and I don’t have any current projects that include illness. I also wanted to avoid putting myself in a box as a writer.
OUR YEAR OF MAYBE is your second novel. In what ways did you find the publishing process to be easier the second time around? And in what ways was it harder?
Everyone says the second book is the hardest, and because my second book was already drafted when my book deal happened and specifically written into my contract, I thought I’d escaped the book 2 curse. I was very, very wrong. I let OUR YEAR OF MAYBE sit for a whole year while I worked on edits for YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE, and when I reopened the document, I was horrified. It was…extremely bad. Every scene took place at someone’s house, and though the main characters’ families were supposed to be close, their parents didn’t ever show up on the page. So I furiously rewrote it a couple months before my deadline, and after receiving my editor’s notes, rewrote it again. I love how it turned out, but it took me a while to find the story I wanted to tell.
I thought I’d be better about not reading reviews the second time around, but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to avoid Goodreads. Some of the positives, though: I knew exactly what was happening in terms of timeline, and probably the most incredible thing was that people who enjoyed my first book were excited for my next one. I’ve talked to some amazing, amazing bloggers, booksellers, and librarians who’ve been so supportive, and I’m just grateful beyond words. Writing can be so solitary, and the book being released means it’s no longer just yours—it’s out there for anyone to interpret and (hopefully) connect with.
Your fifth book actually became your debut. What advice would you give novelists who are laboring over manuscripts that don’t seem to be selling? At what point did you decide to let go of a manuscript and focus on a new story?
Yep! I queried two books before signing with an agent on my third, and she submitted that book, another one, and then a small submission round for YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE before we parted ways. I queried it and signed with my second agent, who sold it. That’s a really great question because sometimes in Pitch Wars, I see the same manuscripts two or three years in a row. Everyone is working at their own pace, and there are no deadlines, but if you’ve queried many, many agents and revised multiple times without anyone biting, it might be a good idea to set that project aside for a while. I don’t view anyof my books as a waste of time—all of them made me a better writer.
At any stage, the best thing to do while waiting for feedback, waiting on queries, waiting on submission is to write the next book. That’s the only thing that will get you closer to where you want to be. And falling in love with a new book was what made me realize I could move on from something that wasn’t working.
You are a Pitch Wars mentor! How did you become a Pitch Wars mentor? And what is the best part about being a mentor?
I truly love Pitch Wars. I’ve been involved as a mentor since 2014, and back then, it was much smaller—I just DM’d Brenda Drake and asked if I could be a mentor! Since we restructured Pitch Wars last year, I’ve now gone through the new application process twice, and I’m a member of the leadership committee as well.
I owe most of my friendships, even IRL ones, to Pitch Wars, and it’s opened up my community and felt like a home in ways I never could have imagined. I love working one-on-one with other writers and digging deep with their stories. Two of those fantastic books have been published: Heather Ezell’s NOTHING LEFT TO BURN in 2018, and Marisa Kanter’s WHAT I LIKE ABOUT YOU, which comes out April 2020. Especially with Marisa’s book, which features Jewish characters whose experiences are the closest I’ve ever read to my own, it’s an indescribably wonderful feeling to play a small role in helping that book reach readers who may not always see themselves either.
Your blog is a wealth of information for debut novelists, from media expense breakdowns to swag and book-related gifts to your querying journey for your debut. In your July 23, 2018 blog (http://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/blog/ymmwig-query), you share the query you sent for YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE. The stats? 80 queries sent. 26 requests. 3 offers to represent. What advice would you offer our readers as they look to pitch their manuscripts and query agents and editors?
Thank you! I aim to be as honest as I can about my journey because there’s not enough transparency in publishing, and knowledge might help others better advocate for themselves. We hear about the overnight successes so much—and those are AMAZING, but that’s definitely not every experience. I thought I’d find a new agent immediately after I left my first one, but I sent 80 queries over six months. I had already written a new book and was building a query list when my now-agent emailed asking for a call.
I would build your query list only with agents you want to work with. Anyone can call themselves an agent, and a big social media following or an English degree is not indicative of someone’s skills as an agent. Do your research—does the agent have any big 5 sales? If not, does their agency? (At the very least, if your goal is a big 5 publishing deal, the agency absolutely should have big 5 sales.) Most websites will list recent titles. New agents at established agencies can be great, but I’m always wary of agents with little experience starting their own agencies. I think Publishers Marketplace is one of the best resources, though it’s $20/month. You can cancel any time, and it might be worth going in for a membership with a friend or two. Other than that, QueryTracker and Absolute Write are solid as well.
If mentoring and writing wasn’t enough to keep you busy, you also operate Rainy Day Editing, a freelance editing service (https://www.rainydayediting.com). How do you juggle all of these different projects? And how many freelance projects do you take on at a time?
I left my FT job last year with the goal of dividing my time between writing and freelance editing, and it’s been a really positive change for me. My time is split pretty evenly, and I have the flexibility to focus more on one or the other on a given week, depending on deadlines. Bullet journaling has helped me TREMENDOUSLY. Every Sunday, I plan out my week, and every month, I reflect on the past month’s accomplishments and set new goals. I also track my clients in a Google spreadsheet. It took me a while to figure out how to stay organized, but now that I’ve found a system that works for me, it doesn’t feel like juggling at all!
With freelance projects, I like to take on 2-3 full manuscripts per month, and I try to keep myself open for one-week turnarounds with smaller critiques.
Many debut authors do not know where to begin in marketing their upcoming book. What are some essential first steps debut authors should take in preparing for their book’s release?
Here are a few suggestions, with the caveat that none of these are required. There are plenty of authors who don’t have a social media presence—it’s all about what feels best and most comfortable for you.
That said, I would recommend establishing yourself on Twitter and Instagram if you aren’t already, and the best social media tip I can give is to interact and engage with others in the community. And make sure it’s genuine—only hype up a book if you’re truly excited about it. You might consider joining a debut group to gain a support system of fellow authors releasing around the same time you are. I had a really positive debut group experience (Electric Eighteens), and our group remains intact as a support group, but I know it’s not for everyone!
If you don’t have a website, there are a number of free platforms, though I pay for Squarespace and love it—easy to use, and it looks super clean. Make sure someone can find out everything they need to know about you and your book from your site, and include a media kit as well. (I only made my media kit earlier this year, whoops, but it’s already saved me tons of time.)
If you only do one thing for your book, I highly recommend bookmarks. They’re relatively inexpensive, even if you hire a designer, and they’re such an invaluable promo tool.
Publishers Weekly recently announced that your editor, Jennifer Ung, at Simon Pulse has acquired two more books. Your contemporary YA romance, TODAY TONIGHT TOMORROW is due out late spring 2020, and another novel is slated for 2021. Can you tell us a little bit about each project?
I’m so, so excited about TODAY TONIGHT TOMORROW, probably more than either of my first two books. It’s a rivals-to-lovers romance that takes place all in 24 hours on the last day of senior year, and it was an absolute blast to write. The main character wants to write romance novels, and it deals a lot with having a passion (usually something aimed at women) that people tend to judge. There’s also a lot of exploration of pre-college anxiety and the feeling of leaving behind a place you’ve known your entire life, and in that sense, it’s also a love letter to Seattle. The romance is a slowwww burn, but I promise, the payoff is worth it. The cover is also ADORABLE—stay tuned for the reveal sometime this fall! And here’s the book on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40032364-today-tonight-tomorrow
My 2021 book is under contract, but I don’t have anything quite ready to reveal for it yet—still very early stages!
Thank you so much for the interview, Francine!
Rachel Lynn Solomon writes, tap dances, and collects lipstick in Seattle, Washington. Once she helped set a Guinness World Record for the most natural redheads in one place. She's the author of the Sydney Taylor Honor Award-winning You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone, also an Indies Introduce title and Kids' Indie Next Top 10 Pick, and Our Year of Maybe, a Kids' Indie Next Pick, both from Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse. Her next book, Today Tonight Tomorrow, will be out summer 2020. A longtime Pitch Wars mentor, she lives near a zoo with her husband and tiny dog. You can find her online at rachelsolomonbooks.com and on Twitter @rlynn_solomon.
On Writing Playfully
Guest Post by Julie Berry
Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.
I wonder if any of us over the age of twelve actually believe this.
If everything’s sizzling in your writing life, this post isn’t for you. Surf onward with my blessing. But if things aren’t quite tickety-boo, pull up a chair. (Disclaimer: As an American, I have no actual right to say “tickety-boo.”)
If we want to write better, we need to fail more, and if so, why not gleefully? To fail more, we need to work more freely and loosely. Though we work in words, we should imagine ourselves to be working in finger paints, not oils. Writing needs to be a game, sans competition, where making a mess is a bonus.
(This is the reminder I need most right now. I’m looking squarely in the mirror.)
Whatever “writing well” means to you—and it means something different to each of us, so with whom are we competing, exactly?—that shining country is reached eventually. Not today. So there’s no harm in making today a writing day where it’s okay to play.
What, in fact, are we so worried about? This is the lowest-stakes profession on the planet. Nobody dies on the operating table if we solve our characters’ problems too easily. The planes all land safely, even when our characters are dull as dirt. Nobody’s portfolio is wiped out by our penchant for cliché.
Therefore: If you want to write, write badly and have fun with it.
If you’ve got a better plan—say, perhaps, to be a tortured artiste, and produce nothing but flashes of luminous beauty, when, and only when moved by the muses—go you.
I’ve had seasons where ideas seemed to crackle and flow from my fingers. Pages poured. Insecurities notwithstanding, I knew something was working right. I beheld my work, and saw that it was good.
I’ve had seasons where I had nothing to offer to the page. Words, tepid; ideas, flat. The process, drudgery. My confidence, in the toilet. I beheld my work, writhed, and flirted with other career options.
All this means is that I’m a writer. But I wish I hadn’t worried so much. In the crackly times, I felt loose and light and free. In other words, confident. Confidence doesn’t always appear on command, but we can always choose to play.
Play is how puppies and kitties and cubs and babies learn—fearlessly exploring without caring how they look. Pretending. Pouncing. Mimicking. Rough-housing. Making plenty of nose. They wobble and leap, land on their rumps, then try it again.
Fun is the most open state of mind available to us, where we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we can genuinely laugh at our flops and failures. Fun is still how we learn best, if we let ourselves.
Why is that hard? Why do we run from fun? Why is it hard to persuade our teens, and ourselves, to take a chance on the dance floor and try that funky move we’ve been rocking in the bathroom mirror? Or to try out for the play/the talent show/the team? What have we got to lose? Only our precious egos, but who’s watching? Who cares?
Let’s say the writing’s not going so well right now. You’re not doing much of it; you’re blocked; you’re afraid; your idea stinks; you can’t solve the plot problem or the character problem or the research problem or the life problem.
Here’s what you do: you write a scene about a big booger in your WIP.
I dare you.
Or a scene about a drunken leprechaun. A talkative mime. A clown in love. A theme park visit gone wrong. A botched burglary. A crabby principal with a bad toupee. A first kiss plus halitosis. A loose octopus at church.
Anything worth doing is worth doing ridiculously. Face your fears in the mirror, then cross your eyes and stick out your tongue.
I’m going to hazard a guess here: perhaps what’s holding you back right now is not your artistic weakness, but your skill.Your talent. Not your lack thereof—that’s a pet complaint, but a fib, and we all know it. You can write. You wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t. But maybe, just maybe, the way you write well is your impediment. Maybe you have to let go of what you do well to learn what else you can do. Stop clinging to your safest style, and stop critiquing your draft with your pet preferences. Let yourself fall on your rump.
The top coaches in the world take the best athletes they can find, then break their habits. Their good habits! Their championship-winning habits. Those coaches force their star athletes to start over and rethink the game in entirely new ways. They don’t let top talent remain complacent. They rebuild them from the ground up. Brace yourself for my zinger here: they teach them a new way to play.
Which is why I offer you my booger method at no charge. If the old method isn’t working, try a new one, but if it isn’t play—if it’s not light and free and experimental—I’m not sure how far it can carry you.
We’re all here because in our innermost hearts, we knew making books for kids would be fun. Let’s not let worry squeeze all the joy out of this thing we once decided to do for love.
Try storyboarding your novel with fingerpaint. Sculpt a metaphoric representation of your antagonist’s motivations out of Play-doh. Hire Mr. and/or Mrs. Potato Heads to pose for that romantic scene.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t take our work seriously, nor write about weighty subjects. My topics aren’t all fun and games, but a lot of them are, and I can approach them all playfully. I don’t think it would’ve diminished the artistry of the Sistine Chapel if Michelangelo had whistled while he worked, or sketched some dorky glasses on Adam. Perhaps he did. (He didn’t use oils, either. Go figure.)
If we’re capable of writing – if we possess paper and pen, or a typewriter, or a computer, and we have a functioning brain and some command of language, and we have a roof to shield us from the rain and a lamp to light us, and enough stability in our lives that we can put some words down occasionally – then we are incredibly fortunate and blessed. In the great cosmic lottery, the human race allowed us to be the ones who could, if we would, serve as its storytellers. Let’s appreciate that gift by using it joyfully, playfully, and freely. Let’s stop worrying, plop our rumps in chairs, and write.
Julie Berry is the author of the 2017 Printz Honor and Los Angeles Times Book Prize shortlisted novel The Passion of Dolssa, the Carnegie and Edgar shortlisted All the Truth That’s in Me (2013, Viking), the Odyssey Honor title The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place (2014, Roaring Brook), and many others. Her latest middle grade novel, The Emperor’s Ostrich, released in 2017 from Roaring Brook. Her new young adult novel, Lovely War, published by Viking Children’s Books, has received seven starred reviews, and been called “Poignant” by The Horn Book, “Mesmerizing” by Booklist, and “Virtuoso” by the New York Times. Her first picture books released in fall 2019: Long Ago, On a Silent Night (Orchard Books/Scholastic); Don’t Let the Beasties Escape This Book (Getty Publications/Abrams Kids); and Happy Right Now (Sounds True). She holds a BS from Rensselaer in communication and an MFA in creative writing for children and young adults from Vermont College. She lives in Southern California with her family.
For more information about Julie and her books, please visit julieberrybooks.com.
Now Available: Lovely War. Seven starred reviews. “An unforgettable romance so Olympian in scope, human at its core, and lyrical in its prose that it must be divinely inspired.” Kirkus, starred review.
Hosted by Kelly Carey
We are thrilled to welcome author Lisa Rogers to 24 Carrot Writing. Lisa’s debut picture book, 16 WORDS: WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS AND “THE RED WHEELBARROW” (Schwartz & Wade, September 2019) received a starred review from Kirkus who called the book a “gorgeous introduction to the power of poetry." And more picture books are coming with HOUND WON’T GO (Albert Whitman) in the spring of 2020.
Join us as we talk with Lisa about her path to publication, her debut picture book, and how her days as a reporter and a lover of poetry influenced her writing journey. And about her lovable dog Tucker!
Congratulations on the publication of your debut picture book, 16 WORDS: WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS AND “THE RED WHEELBARROW” (Schwartz & Wade, September 2019). Can you tell us about your journey from daily newspaper reporter, to elementary school library teacher, to children’s picture book author?
Thank you! My first newspaper job was as editor of The Daily Blab, our family newspaper, so I guess I’ve always had the urge to write! My six-year-old sister was my accomplice and co-editor. The Blab was a gossip sheet full of family jokes and our way of getting back at our two tormenting older sisters. Much later, after earning two degrees in English Literature, I became a sports journalist for a small-town weekly, edited another weekly, and then moved to daily news reporting.
I worked many different beats, and found I loved features best—getting to know people and what motivated them. Yet I needed to have more time for my family, and so I made a change. I had at one time thought about becoming a librarian. A position opened up at my daughter’s school, and I got the job. I went to library school and worked as a librarian at the same time. After years of reading with children, that urge to write resurfaced and I began to write my own stories. The common thread: communicating and connecting with people in a positive way.
Why William Carlos Williams? When did you first discover his poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, and what was it about those sixteen words and Williams that inspired you to write your debut picture book?
Poetry and art have long been passions, and my poetry writing is impressionistic rather than formal, so Williams’ poetry resonated with me. Poetry for me freezes a moment in time much like a snapshot or painting can. What came before, and what happened after that moment, is left to the imagination. The inspiration for 16 WORDS came from the work of a scholar who dug deep to find the wheelbarrow’s owner, Thaddeus Marshall. When I read about his discovery, I immediately knew that I had a book to write!
In celebrating the work of Williams, you are launching your own career as a picture book author. Can you talk about how it feels to join your writing endeavors with those of Williams? How does this collaboration add to your own excitement about your career and your wishes for the book?
Wow! I just got the shivers! I would never have thought of that connection! But, like Williams, my writing has evolved. It took a while for me to find my writing voice and feel confident about it. Like Williams, I spend a lot of time noticing – training from my newspaper career. I would hope that the book will inspire young readers to notice, to trust themselves, and to respect that each human has something to share with the world.
As a debut picture book author, what have you found most rewarding and surprising about the experience so far? How has the journey of writing and preparing to launch your picture book differed or resembled the experience of writing and publishing articles you have written as a journalist?
One of the best aspects of reporting was that I worked with incredibly smart and talented people—role models for writing who were passionate about providing news to readers. That’s the same in the children’s literature world—it’s full of gifted writers committed to their craft and their readers. Writing tight to fit a small newspaper hole was good practice for not only using the right words, but understanding that our first attempts are not always our best. One constant frustration was not being able to revise my writing due to the daily deadline. Writing children’s books is all about revision!
In your role as an elementary school library teacher, you get a front row seat to the reading habits of young picture book readers. Can you talk about how your students interact with books, dispel a myth or misunderstanding that you think people hold about how kids interact with books, and/or give one piece of advice to folks who want to encourage children to develop a love of reading?
Oh, thank you for asking my absolute favorite question! I love to brag about my students. They are experts at noticing. They love the magic of the page turn. They love when illustrators add to the story in surprising ways. They notice alliteration and repetition and enjoy what we call “juicy” words. They absolutely know when the next book in their favorite series is coming out, and they cannot stand to wait! Students love being surprised in picture books—fiction and nonfiction—and they want to feel satisfaction and resonance with a novel. My students are eager readers of characters beyond the majority Caucasian. Their preferred genre has tilted in a big way from fantasy to realistic fiction. I recently rearranged their library by genre: realistic, fantasy, mystery, science fiction, historical fiction, and graphic works. I’m meeting my students where they are: they choose their books by genre rather than author.
They appreciate beauty as well as delight in a completely funny and silly read. They want and need new books, so please keep writing them! Advice for encouraging readers: know the book before you present it to a child, and show them the best.
You are represented by Erzsi Deak at Hen & Ink Literary Studio. How did you find your agent? What have you found most surprising, most rewarding, and/or most daunting about working with an agent?
I found Erzsi through the 12 x 12 online writing challenge, which inspires writers to draft 12 picture books in a year. I’ve never actually met that challenge, but the resources available via 12 x 12 were enormously important in developing my writing. And, my membership allowed me to submit to agents. I submitted the manuscript that became 16 WORDS to Erzsi, she took me on, and sold it almost right away. Surprising: Because someone had faith in me, I became inspired to write more and better manuscripts. Rewarding: It’s fabulous to work with someone who loves my writing. Daunting: Nothing! Daunting for me would be having to represent myself. I’m grateful beyond belief!
In your earlier career as a daily reporter, you shared that you became skilled at “wrenching information from close mouthed cops” and that you were once thrown out of a post-election party. How has the tenacity and thick skin you developed during that career aided you in starting your career as a children’s author? What aspects of your reporting days are you happy to trade for those of a children’s author?
When your story is literally cut from the bottom, you learn quickly how to get the important stuff up high. You have one chance to grab the reader: that’s the same with children’s literature. Another huge benefit was learning to find ideas and angles, and the daily practice of getting words down. Thick skin: I use rejections as learning opportunities. Tenacity: if someone doubts whether I can do something, my response is to prove that I can.
The children’s writing community is wonderfully supportive and offers many resources to aspiring and published writers. You are actively involved with The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA as well as NESCBWI. How important has your involvement in the writing community been to your writing success?
That involvement has been enormously important—essential, actually. I am pretty sure I would not have stuck it out without that. I remember sharing a rejection with some very successful Loft authors. “That means you’re getting close!” they said. I almost gave up, but they were right. I rejoined the 12 x 12 challenge and the Loft, kept up with classes, workshops, and NESCBWI conferences, and that way, boosted my skills. It worked!
Here, at 24 Carrot Writing, we are big on goal setting as a way to stay motivated and on task. You have shared that you need deadlines to keep you on task. Do you tend to set goals or deadlines or both to keep your writing on track?
I work best when I am crunched for time. I’m not good with self-created deadlines. But when I have a limited chunk of time to work, I do set goals. On a recent school break, I planned to revise 5 picture book manuscripts that hadn’t sold. I set a day and a half for each one, and by the end of the break, I met my goal. Some of those are out on submission now. Fingers crossed!
Working as an elementary school library teacher, you must have author visit stories. Can you share a smashing success story and some lessons that you think make an author visit amazing? And can you share a cautionary tale with advice on how to avoid a bad author school visit?
Teachers will be thrilled to have you visit, but it’s unlikely that they will have time to prepare. As a library teacher, that’s something I enjoy doing, and I think it makes a difference.
The best visits dovetail with curricular goals, so do offer to tailor your presentation; teachers can be hesitant to ask for what they want.
Share something meaningful. What is the takeaway? A sneak preview of your next book? Something teachers can build on right away? When our 4th grade teachers introduce perspective, we host Victoria J. Coe, who has students write from a dog’s perspective. My older students remember the poetry they wrote three years before with Nancy Tupper Ling. Sharon Creech took time to speak with a small group of students. Memorable, valuable visits.
Be clear about your expectations—should the students have read your latest book or do you want to surprise them?
Insist that someone meet you and bring you to where you are presenting.
Ask that the students, especially the younger ones, wear nametags so you can call them by name. Have a teacher identify a child who might benefit from being chosen to speak. Develop a crowd control technique. From author Frank Murphy, I learned one that I use daily.
Bring backups of your presentation and essential equipment.Be flexible and expect that there will be bumps—that’s part of a school environment.
What lessons on writing have you learned from your beloved coonhound and prolific blogger, Tucker?
Never become diverted from your true path. Little things matter, so pay attention. Move forward with a project only when it’s time. Walks with Tucker inspire my writing and give it rhythm—as long as he’s not treating me like a kite, or refusing to move! He’s annoyed that I hog the computer, but he’s stepping pretty now that my next project has been revealed…
What is up next for you? What projects are you excited for and where can folks find you and your book?
Thought you’d never ask! I’m really excited to see final sketches for my next picture book, HOUND WON’T GO, inspired by this extra-large, extra-stubborn lovable beastie. It was fun to turn our ridiculous predicaments into fiction and even more fun to have them come to life in a picture book! HOUND WON’T GO will be unleashed in spring of 2020. Ahhhh-wooooo!
Of course, I couldn’t be more thrilled to shepherd 16 WORDS into the world. I can’t wait to share it with children, especially in Rutherford, NJ, the town where William Carlos Williams and Thaddeus Marshall worked and lived. I’ll be reading at the Meadowlands Museum there, only a few blocks from their homes, which still look just as they do in the book thanks to illustrator Chuck Groenink’s careful research. It’s going to be amazing!
To learn more about Lisa, visit her website at http://www.lisarogerswrites.com/.
16 WORDS publishes September 24. Preorder a signed copy from Wellesley Books or click on the link below to preorder an unsigned copy.
For a list of Lisa's upcoming events, visit http://www.lisarogerswrites.com/events.html
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