~ Having an agent isn’t everything
~ Guest blog by Samantha Gassman
In January 2020, I was flying high. After 5 months of querying literary agents with my picture book manuscripts, I had an offer of representation in hand and my first book on submission with publishers. But as the months dragged on, it became clear that my hope of seeing my book in print was not going to happen.
During the course of 12 months, my first manuscript was rejected by 30 publishing houses — big ones, small ones and everything in between.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Rejection doesn’t stop after you have an agent
When I received my first offer of representation, I was equal parts thrilled and relieved. I was ready to be out of the query trenches and into the big time! Instead, I traded in the “your work isn’t the right fit for me” rejections from agents for “It’s cute but I’m afraid it didn’t quite capture my attention as I was hoping. I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass” rejections from editors. Ouch!
Not only do the rejections continue after landing an agent, publisher rejections sting even more. When I was querying agents, I convinced myself it was “just to see what would happen.” Like a schoolchild picking daisy petals: maybe they’d like me, maybe they wouldn’t. But when a publisher rejects your work, they’re saying it’s not worth their time or money to publish your story.
On that note...
2. Acquiring a book is a risk
When a publisher acquires a book, particularly a picture book, the publisher is taking a huge risk on your book’s ability to compete and perform in an over-crowded marketplace. During the acquisition process, there will be a Profit and Loss (P&L) analysis performed by the editor or financial specialist. After all, publishing is a business, not a charity. While writing for children is often portrayed as a whimsical process, if your cute story isn’t worth the manufacturing, design or overhead costs, a publisher will pass.
In my case, the feedback from several editors was exactly that: “The energy is great, but the story doesn’t hit high enough to compete in the market right now.”
3. Agents have a really tough job
Agents get paid when the author gets paid. In other words, after your book is acquired, contracts are signed, advances are paid (or not) and royalties come in. Because publishing is such a slow industry, this means your poor agent doesn’t see any cash for 1–3 years AFTER they sell your book. They weren’t paid to read your query, offer their revisions, or go back and forth with you on edits. They do all of that in hopes that your book will be acquired by a publisher and fly off the shelves. Even then, most agent commissions are only 15–20%. On a $17 hardcover book, that’s only a few bucks.
I will be forever grateful to my first literary agent for her perseverance and patience as we received rejection after rejection. Especially since our agreement was based on her representing this one manuscript, and she had all her figurative eggs in my one basket.
4. Taking a critical eye to your work is important
If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: Read your manuscript like a publisher. Regardless of what kind of book you’ve written, you must be well- read enough in your genre, age group, etc. to know where your book fits into the market.
What is unique about your book?
Why does there need to be another book on your topic?
What value does it provide the reader?
After the doors to my publishing dreams were closed for this manuscript, I re-read it with the editors’ comments in mind. You know what I found?
They were right.
ARTICHOKIE KARAOKE (great title, right?) is a really cute book. The rhyme style is catchy (similar to Hip Hop Lollipop) and kids would appreciate the premise of being stuck in a boring grocery store with nothing to do. But, as the 30 editors noted in their own way, it is too “slice of life.” The conflict and resolution are too tame, and without the rhyme, the story falls flat. Maybe if I had considered these things before, I could have revised it to be more compelling. Upped the stakes. Increased the friction. Landed the deal.
Take a look at your story as objectively as possible and ask yourself those tough questions before it goes on submission. If you know in your heart it could be better, make it better. There is no need to rush.
Seriously. Don’t rush it.
5. Keep trying
Although my first attempt at being a published author didn't work out, I tried again with another agent in 2020. Just before my rainbow baby was born, my new agent and I received an offer of publication for my picture book, DEAR RAINBOW BABY. It comes out on National Rainbow Baby Day – August 22, 2022, courtesy of Clear Fork Publishing.
P.S. It’s also my rainbow baby’s second birthday that day – how perfect is that!?
After my first book was rejected by 30 publishers, I felt completely deflated. The contract with my first agent was terminated and even though there are still a handful of publishers who never responded, ARTICHOKIE KARAOKE will likely never be traditionally published.
At least, not in its original form. Knowing what I know now, I may dust it off one day and revise it, and try again. Or maybe, elements of the story will find their way into a completely new piece. Or maybe, I’ll borrow the rhyme scheme to write a new story. It doesn’t matter — the point is, we learn more from our failures than our successes.
Don’t give up!
Samantha Gassman is a children's book author, Air Force veteran, military spouse, and mom to two kids and two cats. She is the author of DEAR RAINBOW BABY (Aug 22, 2022) and PEANUT AND BUTTER CUP (2024). Visit Samantha’s website to learn more.
Preorder DEAR RAINBOW BABY here.
~By Megan Litwin
A former K-2 teacher, I’m a big fan of schedules and routines. I know how important it can be to have a structure to the day you can count on, yet one that also leaves room for organic detours. Schedules can be powerful - and comforting - for children and adults alike.
Of course, life hasn’t made it easy to keep to any sort of schedule lately. But this January, I felt determined to start off on the right foot. 2022 brings with it my debut picture book, and I could not be more excited! At the same time, that means I’ve found myself with extra balls to juggle and new roads to navigate: a website, a wonderful co-marketing group, planning for events and school visits. All very good things indeed. But all NEW things, too. Now, besides time to write (to daydream, draft, revise, and more), I need a chunk of time just to keep up with being an “author.” No matter where any of us are on this journey, there is a certain amount of attention that needs to be paid to the business side of things.
But how to make time for these different roles, without dropping any balls or feeling frazzled?
I needed a comfortable routine I could count on.
First, I thought about the time frame of my work day (something that looks different for everyone). My best work hours are absolutely when my kids are in school.
Then, I thought about the flow. I knew I wanted to fiercely protect my writing time, no matter what got thrown my way each day. So actual butt-in-chair writing is the morning’s first work. I’ve committed to at least one hour a day for that. Or more! But setting a realistic minimum helps me stay true to that goal. If I’m in the groove and really deep into the work, that could stretch by hours – and I love when it can. Or I might write for just that hour and then do something else writing-related, like critiques. There is a certain amount of open-endedness built in. And a whole lot of morning coffee…
No matter how it’s going, by the time lunch rolls around, it’s time to switch gears to author business. Choosing ONE focus per day helps, and that focus varies with deadlines and such. I might work on my newsletter, write reviews, or make pins on Canva (where I definitely can fall down the rabbit hole…). But when these tasks are not creeping into my writing/craft time, I actually enjoy them!
After the writing and author work, I scheduled some reading time. Yes, I said “scheduled reading” – because it’s important to me, and my routine should reflect that. I might read a new pile of picture books, some poetry, or a beautifully crafted chapter book. My children get home around 2:30, so scheduling my reading to coincide with that allows me to model my commitment to reading AND encourages them to join me with their own books. Win-win!
And finally, we all have many more roles and responsibilities other than writer/author/reader. I might have an appointment, get called to substitute teach, or have a sick child. And even on a perfectly organized work day, it is my role as Mom that is most important to me, and that one requires most of my attention once my kids are home. At that point, I tuck the work away and promise to return to it tomorrow, just like I would if I were leaving the classroom or office.
Schedules work best when they are flexible structures. After an inspirational virtual webinar with Bethany Hegedus at the Writing Barn, where she talked about setting goals for each quarter of the year, I realized that maybe schedules could also be seasonal structures. I decided to call this a WINTER work schedule, and I already felt a lot less pressure to make it perfect. It may change when spring arrives, and then change again to fit the cadence of my summer days. But it suits me right now. It makes me feel full and warm – because I am making space for what matters to me, day in and day out, as this new year begins.
And…it is an acronym!! Because, after all, I’m forever-at-heart a primary school teacher!
A WARM Winter Work Schedule:
No time slots. No word counts. No pressure. These are simply the daily roles I want to spend time on, and in this order.
What kind of an overarching structure works for YOU? What does your “winter writing season” look like? I hope it is warm and wonderful and full of whatever you need…right now.
Megan Litwin is a children's book author and regular contributor for 24 Carrot Writing. Her debut picture book TWINKLE, TWINKLE, WINTER NIGHT, illustrated by Nneka Myers (Clarion Books) will hit the shelves October 2022. To learn more about Megan visit her at www.meganlitwinbooks.com/.
Thank you to 24 Carrot Writing for asking me to blog for them today. It’s a pleasure to be here talking about one of my favorite things: The Query Letter.
A bit of background: It’s no secret that I’d queried a lot in the early 2010s (I’ve written about it in a bunch of places -- Articles about Querying and Writing - Query Godmother). After a few false starts, I signed with my third agent in the summer of 2013. This past summer, after seven years with the same agent, we parted ways—and I was honestly feeling like a bit of a failure. I’d been hoping for feedback on a manuscript and wasn’t prepared for my agent to be downsizing their list. In the middle of 2020, I took it really hard.
All this to say that anyone can be in the query trenches.
Writing a query can be scary. Remember, a query letter is a tool. It’s a way to put your words into the world. Don’t overthink the query letter. It’s manageable. There are parts to it.
1. Introduction (and opening paragraph):
Sometimes this is called the “hook” part of the query. Include the title, the word count, the target age, and the genre of the book. A short tagline (elevator pitch) can be included in this section as well. It is not mandatory, though. If you have something personal to add, like that you met the agent at a conference, or took their workshop, do that here. If you don’t have anything personal, don’t force it.
2. Book section:
Think of this as your back cover copy. This is the most important part of the query. Be specific, but brief. Try to express how your book is different than others. Use specificity about character goals, stakes, and motivations. This section should be the longest—after all the query is about your BOOK. Make sure you are answering these questions in this section:
Something about yourself and your expertise. What makes you the person to write this book? If you have any relevant published works, mention them here. Keep this part business. Don’t include things about your family or hobbies.
I’ll be honest, I have yet to sign with a new agent. However, my request rate is over 20%, so I feel like my query letter is working, and there are several people considering my work. Keep track of this sort of data, so you know when to revise and/or move to the next manuscript.
Jumping into the querying pool can help you put aside your fears and anxieties about your work. Querying is forward motion. It is taking control of your career.
Know yourself and what works for you. I wish you all good luck in 2021.
Kristine Asselin is the author of several works of children’s nonfiction, co-author of the middle grade novel The Art of The Swap, as well as the YA novels Any Way You Slice It and Falling for Wonder Boy. She loves being a Girl Scout leader and volunteering with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She is a sucker for a good love song (preferably from the 80s), and can’t resist an invitation for Chinese food or ice cream (but not at the same time!). She lives in Central Massachusetts with her teen daughter and husband, and spends part of everyday looking for a TARDIS to borrow.
~by Amanda Smith
So, you wrote something. And now you wonder what the steps are for getting it published.
First of all, congratulations! Writing on a consistent basis, to the point where you have a book, is a huge accomplishment. (If you want to write children's books and aren't sure where to start, this blog by Kelly is for you.) Writing a book, however, is only the first step. Sending a freshly written manuscript to an agent or publisher would be like asking Paul and Prue to judge a cake after you had only gathered the ingredients.
Here are some basic steps towards publishing:
You need someone else's eyes on your work (not family!). Ideally your critique partners should be up to date on the current market and knowledgeable about writing. They will look at content, structure, plot and character development, language use and, if you need, line editing. It is imperative to have someone else read your work. Sometimes we get so caught up in the excitement of a new project, or have read the same words so many times we don't see the plot holes, unclear details, or glaring mistakes.
Where to find critique partners?
Local writing organizations
Online groups such as Kidlit 411, Storystorm, Children’s Book Authors & Illustrators, 12X12, to name a few.
Craft workshops and courses
If your critique partners are worth their salt, you will receive lots of revision notes. Depending on the depth of the notes, you will have to revise or, in some cases, even rewrite. Regardless of the scope of revisions, you will likely have a couple of critique-revision rounds. Do not skip this step! It is during this phase that your work continues to mature and become the best it can be. It is hugely rewarding to dig deep and polish away the rough edges of your story.
Beta Readers: (Not necessary for picture books)
After critiques and revisions, you need Beta readers, who consist of readers the age of your intended audience or readers deeply familiar with your genre (think teachers, librarians). A beta reader questionnaire is a helpful tool for gathering focused feedback. Another round of revisions will likely follow beta readers.
Once you have completed these steps and you feel that your work is ready to send out, you need to decide whether you want to take the traditional publishing route or explore independent publishing?
The rest of today's post will focus on traditional publishing. Next time we will learn about independent (self) publishing. Make sure you know the pros and cons of each option.
If you choose traditional publishing, you should know that it can take months or even years. Most of the bigger publishers are closed to unsolicited submissions and you need an agent to represent your work.
Some publishing houses however, do accept unagented submissions. Books, such as THE CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET, can provide guidance as to which publishing houses are open to unagented submissions. Always check the publisher’s website for their latest guidelines.
While you can certainly do research online and through publishing trade journals to find publishers who are open to unagented or unsolicited manuscripts, it is very helpful if you have a more personal contact with an editor at the publishing house. One of the best ways to make this connection is to attend a class or workshop taught by the editor. Also, editors who attend writing conferences will often accept unsolicited submissions from conference attendees for a limited time, so be sure to look into this possibility when attending these events. Always do your research to be sure a specific publisher publishes the genre/age level you write.
A good literary agent will help you polish and edit your story, send submissions to publishing houses, negotiate contracts, and handle advances and royalties. They are super knowledgeable about the industry, and know what editors are seeking. Your agent is your ally and business partner. Therefore it is important to carefully research agents, not only for what genres they represent or what their interests are, but also whether they will be a good match for you. Once you have narrowed down agents you would like to approach, you need to query.
Places to research agents:
SCBWI The Book
Manuscript wishlist (www.manuscriptwishlist.com/)
Publishers Marketplace (https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/)
Some writing websites also offer a treasure trove of information in the form of agent interviews and guest blogs. A few to browse are http://www.literaryrambles.com/, https://www.pbspotlight.com/, and The 12x12challenge
Most agents are active on social media
Acknowledgements of books you have read
A query is a letter in which writers pitch their work and introduce themselves to an agent. It is a business letter that follows a specific form. Stay tuned for a guest blog regarding query letters by the Query Godmother, Kris Asselin, later this month.
Queries are used for picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, as well as all other fiction. Nonfiction writers send a cover letter, proposal with outline, and some writing samples.
Each agent or agency has their own rules regarding submissions. It is very important that you read and follow each specific agency's submission guidelines. Not only does it streamline the process for them, but it also reflects well on you, their future client, and your ability to take direction.
Be prepared for several rounds of querying. If an agent would like to represent you, they will contact you and usually schedule a phone call with you to further discuss the details. Remember, not only is the agent interviewing you to see whether they want to take you on as a client, but you are also interviewing the agent to see whether they will be a good match for you.
Once you have received an offer of representation and contracts have been signed, you and your agent may go through another round of revisions before they submit your manuscript to publishers. There might be several rounds of submissions before you receive an offer for your book.
At this point the process is out of your hands. You have baked your cake to perfection. You've trimmed and filled and frosted. You've decorated and delicately flavored. Editors, acquisition boards, and marketing departments are your proverbial judges, and once your delectable offering hits the right palate, you will get your Hollywood-handshake: A published book!
by Annie Cronin Romano
You’ve heard the advice: read what you write. Do you write nonfiction picture books? Read hundreds of them. Are you a middle grade fantasy writer? Read all the fantasy MG you can get your hands on. Write dystopian young adult? You get the picture.
Let me be clear. This is good advice. Solid advice. It is imperative to be aware of what is getting published in the area in which you write. It’s important to study it. What makes those books work? Why did it make it to the shelves? What is unique about the concept?
But what writers often overlook is that it is just as important to nourish our reading souls as it is our writing knowledge. That means reaching for that book outside the genre in which you write and reading for pleasure. Grab that commercial book club novel. Dive into that mystery or psychological thriller. Itching to check out a sci-fi series? Go for it. Pour a glass of wine and crack the spine on that romance.
I write picture books and middle grade, and I read as much as I can in both those areas. For quite a while, that’s all I read. But since working in a bookstore and a library for nearly a year, I’ve been reading a lot more YA and adult books of all stripes. I needed to be familiar with what was on the shelves beyond just the children’s sections. When customers and library patrons come in, I have to be prepared to offer tips and guidance in a broader range of areas. And—Surprise! Surprise!—I discovered I could learn a lot from those books that–despite not being the type of books I write--offered a window into strengthening my own writing, regardless of the genre. I found myself considering pacing, character development, plot, setting: the elements that are required in any story, inspired from a different perspective. I wondered how I could try different styles and points of view, how I could switch up my characters and make them more engaging, how I could play with setting and voice. I was still reading for pleasure, of course, but I realized that even though a book isn’t specifically a mentor text to what I write, I can still learn about the art of writing from reading it. Eureka!
Of course, no matter what I read, I’m always enjoying myself. But often, I felt locked into a particular genre because it aligned with what I wrote. Now I read more outside my writing genres because it feeds my reader’s soul and, I firmly believe, makes me an even better writer. So yes, continue to read mentor texts and study the areas in which you write, but go beyond that, too. Make time to read whatever catches your fancy. Your inner reader and your thoughtful writer will thank you for it.
~Hosted by Amanda Smith
The Writers' Loft in Sherborn, MA is a community dedicated to helping writers achieve greatness. They have a quiet, drop-in writing space and a community room for special events or just hanging out. They are also on the cusp of releasing their third anthology, FRIENDS AND ANEMONES: OCEAN POEMS FOR CHILDREN featuring writers and illustrators from the Loft. Many of these Lofters also worked on the first poetry anthology AN ASSORTMENT OF ANIMALS. 24 Carrot Writing asked the illustrators about the experience of working on a joint project.
This anthology is a collaborative project involving 30+ creative souls. What did you enjoy about working alongside other creatives? What was easy? What was challenging? In which ways did it stretch you? What aspects did you have to take in consideration as you created and edited your artwork?
Priscilla Alpaugh: Working on the Anthologies was a rare chance to work with such a large group of artists. It was wonderful to see each other’s work and be able to share constructive criticism with one another. It’s a treat to read the poems that the Lofters wrote. So many talented writers! It’s energizing to know that everyone is working towards the same goal.
It is always a challenge to combine different poems on one page or spread. I was lucky and got one of the easier combinations. In each case I went in with a pretty clear idea of what I wanted in the image. Starting with thumbnails for composition and then sketches for content led to a final sketch where I could also consider value. I typically combine watercolor and pencil digitally, but this time it was mostly all digital.
To learn more about Priscilla, visit http://priscillaalpaugh.com/
Leanne Leutkemeyer: I enjoyed the feeling of community. I love the energy and excitement of being in a room with creative people. I enjoyed being part of the team. This project introduced me to so many wonderful and talented writers and illustrators. The timing of this project was perfect for me. It took my mind off the world and let me escape into oceans, play with whales and stingrays, and make art. The Zoom meetings helped fight feelings of isolation.
However, getting art direction from a group can be a challenge. It can be intimidating to sit shoulder to shoulder with artists you admire. In a meeting full of voices, it’s hard to catch and absorb all of the suggestions as they fly by. I scribbled many notes. It’s more challenging to have group input, but also exciting and inspiring to see the incredible work everyone was putting out.
In which ways did it stretch me? I developed new painting techniques to work large and discovered different scanning techniques. I’m excited about the new photoshop skills I’ve picked up through this project. In the past I’ve always fixed mistakes on the illustration as I painted or started over till I got it right. It’s pretty mind-blowing to be able to add an extra tail on a stingray while painting and know that I’ll be able to take the earlier one out that wasn’t working, and not have to repaint the whole illustration.
To learn more about Leanne, visit https://www.leanneluetkemeyer.com/
Deb O’Brien: The artists had several challenges in this anthology. We received a lot more poems this year, which meant several poems per spread. Not only did our illustrations have to support each poem, we had to make sure that the art and the poem fit on the page.
Another challenge was the Corona virus. Normally, the artists and designers would get together several times to discuss color palettes, design, and layout. This time, we had to do it all via Zoom. We made it work, but it wasn’t easy.
Some artists couldn’t even think about art. I was grateful I had this assignment; it gave me focus, direction and deadlines. I was able to block out the world and dive into my work. I’m very proud to be a part of the anthology and can’t wait to see the published piece.
To learn more about Deb, visist https://deb-obrien.com/
What did you learn about yourself, your creative process, book-making, and/or marketing while working on the anthology?
Amanda Davis: I was honored to have the opportunity to illustrate several poems in this year’s anthology. It’s the first time my illustrations are appearing in a published children’s book alongside many other talented creators to boot! For this particular anthology, illustrators brought to life the fun and crazy creatures of the sea. I knew I wanted to garner a likeness to the creatures in the poems while also putting my own original spin on them. Typically, my process involves drawing from my imagination or from real-life models or scenes. Since I didn’t have access to real-life models of vampire squids or narwhals, I knew this part of my process was going to be a challenge. With the help of the Loft team, I learned more about properly using reference images, avoiding copyright issues, and finding creative ways to craft original models using materials such as clay. Because I was illustrating for publication, I also felt an added pressure to get it right. This meant practice, practice, practice and revise, revise, revise! I enjoyed working collaboratively with the other artists and design team who provided me with valuable feedback that helped polish my work. The whole experience was a learning process, and I’m grateful for the knowledge and patience of the Loft community. I can’t wait to share our beautiful, seaworthy collection with the world!
To learn more about Amanda Davis, visit https://www.amandadavisart.com
Joy Nelkin Wieder: Working as a team was the most exciting and educational process in working on an anthology with other Lofters. I learned so much about marketing a children’s book from others on the team that I was able to apply everything I learned when my own book launched in January. Everything from writing up a press release, to making contacts at local bookstores and media outlets, to participating in book signings and presentations, to creating marketing materials such as flyers and posters. During the marketing of An Assortment of Animals, I took the lead in putting together art exhibitions of our original artwork from the anthology. Our framed illustrations were displayed at the Art and Frame Emporium in Westborough and the Hopkinton Art Center in Hopkinton. We currently have an online exhibit of illustrations with the Acton Memorial Library – check it out here: https://www.actonmemoriallibrary.org/events-programs/art-exhibition/
Visit Joy's website at http://jnwieder.com/ to learn more.
Doreen Buchinski: I was honored to design An Assortment of Animals. It was a wonderful opportunity and a chance to challenge myself. As a graphic designer, I’ve created brochures, logos, promotional materials, etc., but hadn’t explored designing picture books. I was excited and terrified of the herculean project ahead. Applying principals of good design to the book layout—like alignment, balance, repetition, contrast, type, and space—was priority. Tasks included: researching fonts, colors, and on-demand printing, managing art files, emails, edits, and file prep, while also completing my own anthology illustrations. Yes, there were days when the project felt overwhelming—but I stayed focused on each day’s priorities. With superb anthology editors, Kristen Wixted and Heather Kelly, the Writers' Loft founder, at the helm, the development and completion of the book was successful. Collaborating with talented illustrators and authors, and displaying their beautiful art and poetry on the pages of the book were experiences I will always treasure.
Visit Doreen's website at https://www.doreenbuchinski.com/
What was your approach when you first received the poem(s) you were to illustrate? Walk us through your process.
Sarah Brannen: For me, the first step was picking the creatures I was going to illustrate. I went back and forth with the editors as they sorted out who would make art for which poem. I specifically requested jellyfish and they were kind enough to make that work. I also thought I’d like to do sea glass. I was an avid collector as a child and I still have a jar of my very best pieces, which include even rare colors like yellow and pink.
Kristen Wixted and I talked a lot about how to group the poems. It was her idea to do a spread of things found on the beach, so that I could do a trompe-l’oeil image of everything spread out on the sand. At the last minute Kristen asked me to illustrate the very last poem in the book, Sea Serenity. My most recent book, A Perfect Day, is set on the ocean and it opens with a very calm image of the ocean at dawn. We both felt that something similar would be perfect to close the anthology as well. I sketched a very old wooden lobster pot buoy that I’ve had since I was little, although I changed the colors to white, blue and green. It’s meant to evoke, in some way, the earth itself. Old buoys have numbers carved into them so I put “2020” on the one in the illustration.
My web site is www.sarahbrannen.com.
Jodie Apeseche: When illustration assignments were divvied out, I was super excited. I felt that everything was in my wheelhouse-lobsters, cuttlefish, crabs, sea otters, seahorse and sea dragon-yup those would be fun.
The tricky part was how to make my illustrations connect to the poems while keeping in my style of painting. For example, after reading Lobster Rainbow more carefully, I was faced with a predicament. I had not realized that I would have to paint 6 different colored lobsters. I couldn’t figure out how to do that without making a very cluttered illustration.
Solution, I created a lobster grid a la Andy Warhol. Problem solving is such a big part of illustration and I owe gratitude to author, Jean Taft, for pushing me to that end.
For more about Jodie, visit jodieapeseche.weebly.com or http://art-jam.net/
Liz Goulet Dubois: When I first received my poem from Lynda, I was surprised! I was expecting perhaps a short, pithy poem. What I received was an epic tale of a seal, underwater dentistry and a duplicitous shark! I approached illustrating this the same way I would approach a picture book. I distilled the text down to what I thought were the key scenes, and created individual sketched vignettes in pencil that could wrap around and enhance the text. The drawing was challenging also because of the scale differences in the characters depicted: everything from a blue whale down to a jumbo shrimp! After the sketches were settled and approved, I scanned them and colored them digitally, which is my usual method. Hopefully readers will be amused by the sight of a shark brandishing dental tools, and wearing a bib!
To learn more about Liz, visit https://www.lizgouletdubois.com/
FRIENDS AND ANEMONES: OCEAN POEMS FOR CHILDREN is set to launch in November and is chock-full of whimsy, fun, and freaky animal facts that will delight children and adults. To learn more about the Writers' Loft visit www.thewritersloft.org/ and www.thewritersloft.org/anthology for information regarding previous anthologies.
By Annie Cronin Romano
If you’ve ever taken a workshop on novel revision, there’s a good chance you’ve heard your fellow writers mention doing frequency checks on words that are often overused. These “weed words” are words or phrases that pop up over and over in your manuscript without adding texture to your narrative.
Using the “find” feature, you type in the word you want to check and then edit accordingly. But did you know the exercise of a frequency check can and should go beyond merely deleting or changing an overused word? It can help you catch stereotyped phrasing and increase your awareness of varying descriptions and vocabulary.
Recently, I was completing frequency word checks while editing my middle grade novel. When I first started the revisions, I kept a running log of words I noticed I was using frequently. Rather than interrupt my flow when writing, I'd simply jot down the word in my log to check later. However, it was while doing the common words frequency check that I discovered my own personal “weed words.” For instance, I never realized how frequently I used the words “hand” "reached," and “turned” in this particular manuscript until I started the frequency check. They kept showing up! I was astounded at how often I used certain words I didn’t think of as overly-common. In finding those words, I also picked up on similarities in many of my descriptions. (Didn't she "roll her eyes" three paragraphs ago?) As I edited, my weed word list grew from about 40 words on my running list to over 100 words (i.e., adding "roll" and "eyes"), and the task at hand became much more than a find-and-replace drill. I delved deeper into my writing, examining my voice and style as I edited. Questions I began asking included, “How can I convey that feeling differently?” "Is this truly how the character would say this?" “What else can my character do to show that reaction?” and “Is this line essential/moving the story forward?” What started as a basic editing drill led me to reexamine my overall writing technique and how it impacted my story as a whole. The result was a significantly stronger manuscript.
I have included a frequency words list below, which includes words I discovered I use too often (my own personal "weed words") as well as some of the usual suspects ("very," "really," "seems," etc.). Your list may look quite different, but this will give you a place to start. Sometimes your weed words may be project-specific (i.e., if you're working on a book that takes place in the desert, check for words like "sand," "dry," and "arid"). You don't have to eliminate every instance of these words; use the list as a tool to ensure you vary your vocabulary and minimize common phrasing and descriptions.
The next time you’re editing your work, consider going beyond the find-and-replace approach to thinning out your weed words, and dig down further to bring out the best in every line. Weeding, when paired with conscientious revision, will make every word sing!
~ By Amanda Smith
In last week’s blog, Lindsay Ward encouraged us to lean into our creativity and reinvest in our goals during this truly bizarre time. For some of us, writing in the midst of quarantine feels like sanity and welcome routine. However, I have heard other writers mention that they are unable to write, that they are not in the head-space to be creative. And others’ writing time is consumed by keeping young children on track with school work, or working longer hours from home. So how do we keep our writing goals?
At 24 Carrot Writing we have always proposed two kinds of goals: Creative goals and craft goals. The beauty of setting these two kinds of goals, is they access different skill-sets and even different brain hemispheres, so we can always keep moving forward in one area when the other seems inaccessible.
If you are happily plugging along with your creative goals, writing your story and meeting your word-count targets, carry on. You’ve got this! However, I would urge those writers who feel as if their muse is quarantined in a whole different zip code to lean into those craft goals. Here are some ideas:
These last few ideas are craft/ creative cross-overs:
Above all, feed your creative soul with what brings you joy! If writing doesn’t bring you joy right now, that is okay. Step away. Follow a few online watercolor tutorials. Play with clay. Write some poetry. Go dig in the garden. Make music. Sew a few face masks. Because your marvelous mind will be puzzling at your story, carving out your characters, and coming up with fresh ideas, all waiting for you when you are ready to pick up the pen again.
Guest Blog by Rob Justus
Hey there beautiful reader!
This is author, illustrator, nice guy, Rob Justus. The lovely people at 24 Carrot Writing have asked if I could contribute a couple points on how to begin your journey into the world of creating graphic novels.
Now I know, I know, who the heck is this guy? I don’t even have a graphic novel published!....But I will.
Right now, I’m the author/illustrator of the amazing KID COACH picture book, but come Fall 2021 my first graphic novel series, DEATH AND SPARKLES, will be flying off bookshelves!
So how did I get here? How did I go from picture books to middle grade graphic novels?
Well, I was told by a few people that middle-grade graphic novels are a booming segment of the book market, and that my humor and storytelling might be a could match. That’s when I saw dollar signs dancing in my eyes! Muh-ha-ha!
Everyone thinks that writing a picture book is easy. It is really freakin’ hard!!! You’re generally constrained to 32 cohesive pages, where every single word is scrutinized over and over. With graphic novels, there’s a little more room for my ideas to run around. And run around I did!
It starts with character
When I start a story, it starts with a character that I’ve sketched. These characters tend to have something that stands out from all the other things I’ve sketch. They have a life to them.
For DEATH AND SPARKLES, it started with me drawing random skulls. Those skulls evolved into this:
It was a fun, simple, easy to draw character, but if I was going to make Death the central part of an ongoing narrative he probably needed a little more visual emotional depth...which translates to: Dude should at least have a mouth.
From there, and really just goofing around with some friends, we gave this serious looking character a buddy. Something that was the exact opposite of the grim reaper. A pudgy little unicorn!
Originally, I planned on aiming these characters at younger kids, and having the graphic novel set up as a simple sitcom with each chapter being a funny situation. I pitched this to my agent and she politely told me it was a steaming pile of poo-poo caca.
Then she gave me the most important piece of advice I’ve gotten in this crazy journey I’ve taken to become a real author...
WORLD BUILDING changed everything. My agent told me to write lists of personality traits for each character. How they react to certain situations. How they feel. Sometimes I just wrote lists of random questions: How does Death feel about swimming? Why would Sparkles want to be friends with Death? How does Death feel about death? How can I include cupcakes? Would Death have a pet?
Once I had an idea of who Death and Sparkles are as characters, I began to define the world they live in. Where does Death live? How does he travel around? Does Sparkles do anything for himself? Who’s in his entourage? Are unicorns descendants of dragons? From there I could start to populate this world with other secondary characters and antagonists.
Because I spent so much time defining and building this world it became SO easy to write. I knew how the characters would react to different situations, how they’d deal with conflict and how Death and Sparkles would grow to become best buds. I even know how their friendship is going to evolve over the next six books! That said, my agent was worried I’d struggle writing something longer than 32 pages, with our goal to have a nice arc over hopefully 120 pages. All the work beforehand let me run wild! Just a mere 275 pages later we had a fully sketched out dummy ready for submission. DEATH AND SPARKLES is easily one of my proudest achievements as a writer and illustrator.
I’m a firm believer in just doing your thing. As long as you’ve got a pencil and paper you’re good to start creating anything you want, but I will plug one little thing that helped me immensely. A little program called Scrivener. It’s a writing program that let me keep all my notes in one place, while having a great outlining/cork board/cue card thingy. Go check it out. Best $20 I ever spent.
I grew up reading and wanting to draw comics when I was a kid, but “chose” the safer options in life and got a comfy job as a consultant. When I decided to leave all that behind and switch to a creative career, it felt like things were coming full circle. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I can’t wait to show the world I built for DEATH AND SPARKLES in Fall 2021, but in the meantime feel free to check out my picture book KID COACH.
I’m author, illustrator, nice guy Rob Justus, and hopefully you found this ramblin’ insightful. Shine on, people!
To learn more about Rob please visit his website at https://robjustus.com/ or find him on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/robjustus/. Rob is a member of The Soaring '20s High Flying Picture Book Debuts. Find all The Soaring '20s authors and illustrators at https://www.soaring20spb.com/.
You can order a copy of KID COACH here.
Guest blog by Ileana Soon
Hello! My name is Ileana, and I am the illustrator behind Annie Cronin Romano's book, Night Train: A Journey From Dusk to Dawn. I was invited by 24 Carrot Writing to contribute some of my thoughts and share my experience bringing Night Train to life. There were a lot of things I learnt along the way. I'll touch on my process here as well as walk you through some of my thoughts behind my visual decisions. This will be fun!
Getting the manuscript, thoughts and ideas
I was really excited when I got the manuscript as I had felt like the story was right up my alley. It had travel, a train journey, and a great sense of adventure. Whilst reading the script, the feelings it evoked popped a few visual references into my mind, such as the movie A River Runs Through It (directed by Robert Redford) as it seemed to capture the same feeling. Seeing as it was a period setting, other visual references soon followed that were also period pieces; movies like Testament of Youth (directed by James Kent) and The Painted Veil (directed by John Curran). Below are some screenshots taken from the movies mentioned.
As an illustrator, I think it is important to always bring something personal to every project worked on, the theory being that sharing a personal experience through art will somehow invite an emotional connection from the viewer, even if it's something that can't quite be explained. I find that throughout my life I have been attracted to paintings only to find that it, too, was very personal to the artist. Reading Annie's script brought back a lot of my memories travelling as a student throughout Europe and the UK. To save on accommodations, there were many nights spent at train stations and on trains, enroute to the next destination. It was the perfect experience to borrow from as I remember some nights staring out the window from my train, and watching the sun rise as the train moved into a new station and country the following morning. It was exhilarating. Below are some pictures taken during my travels that served as reference.
To begin, it was important to lay out the pacing of the text. What would be the rhythm of this book? Using Photoshop, the words were cut and pasted onto each page until the pacing felt right.
Next, I wanted to come up with a visual vocabulary for this world. As you may now realise, cinema is something I really love, and borrowing from this, the art direction for this world could be set in screen direction, and colour.
Visually, it's a challenging task to illustrate a train making a journey through the night. If you think about it, how many truly different ways are there to paint a night sky? How many night skies can there be in a book without boring the reader? (Surely not 32 pages!) To vary and make it visually interesting, I wanted to bring variation to this journey through colour temperature as you can see in the swatches below. I will also touch more on colour later.
Screen direction (or page direction in this case) seemed important to show continuity in the train's journey from dusk to dawn. It's vocabulary that some films use to show progress for a character throughout a plot. It's a subtle thing, but throughout the book the train always moves from the left of the page to the right. Every single page. Included below is this thought laid out in a page sent to the publisher.
So to recap, here is a summation for the visual vocabulary of Night Train. Inspired by the aforementioned films, the story was set in the 1920/30s. Inspired by my travels in Europe and the UK and a train journey that I took from a big city to a small town by the sea in the UK, I thought mapping a similar route would help to capture the same sense of wonder in these illustrations I felt on that journey. The colours would change from warm in the beginning to cool by the end. The screen direction for the train would always move from left to right. Annie also shared her thoughts of how it would be great to set the train journey in the Pacific Northwest. Great! More specificity — always a good thing.
Ideations, thumbnails, sketches and revisions
Since pacing is very important, it was important for me to ideate the entire book in one go, instead of focusing on a page at a time. This meant jotting (drawing) ideas out on posits whilst laying out the entire book. This is all done by hand, sticking post-its to a wall. This was a habit my director and I used to do, whilst previously working at an agency as a lead designer, doing different storybeats for commercials and laying it all out in sequence on a glass window. Below are the rough notes ideating for Night Train in sequence.
Please forgive the roughness of this; this is not something I would ever show to anyone and it's done for my reference only when beginning a project. They are just thoughts. Doing this provides an opportunity to see the story as a whole and choose compositions that work sequentially to match the pacing in relation to each other, rather than picking the best composition for every page, which would make the book tonally flat (imagine a loud note for every page — not fun to listen to surely). I sometimes imagine sequential images as a song: the notes (images) have to flow together nicely, the volume (light vs dark) has to modulate as well, and all in one key! That's where visual vocabulary comes in.
From these thoughts, images are chosen to put together thumbnails to deliver to the publisher:
After the thumbnails are delivered, the team at Page Street gave me a green light to move toward sketches. Sketches are refined drawings from the thumbnails presented. From these sketches, my Artistic Directors give feedback, and these sketches go back to the drawing board until they are approved. The team at Page Street had the fine idea of introducing a family as characters that we could follow throughout the book, instead of the separate individuals I had previously sketched out. Great idea! Some sketches are approved straight away, but some go through several iterations. Included herein is a sample of the evolution of a sketch from presentation to approval:
After all the sketches were approved, I was asked to bring a spread to finish, and somehow in the back and forth with the team at Page Street, I proposed the idea of doing a colour script so they could see at a glance how to book would look like as a whole. Included herein is the colour script that was sent to Page Street:
Challenges with colour
One of the great challenges of this project was to find a way to have words sit on a page against the night sky whilst still being legible. Blue, or black for that matter, is dark in value, and black words against a dark blue sky is very hard to read. The publisher specified at some point that most of the type printed would be black, so on my end I felt it was important to structure the pages so that the words could be read against the painted backgrounds. Additionally, there was also the extra challenge as previously mentioned to make the pages more exciting, as 32 pages of purely dark blue skies would make the book tonally flat.
Thus, if you notice, less than 50% of the book (about 41%) is actually set against a dark blue sky, whilst the rest is set against the backdrop of the sun setting, and the sun rising, which gives a lot of opportunity for the black type to sit against lighter backgrounds, making it more legible.
This opportunity also opened up a pocket of time in terms of the hours that the train started and ended its journey. If its journey started at say 5pm, and ended at say 7am, the different variations of light that it would see during its journey would naturally vary a lot, bringing with it many exciting ways to introduce changes in colour temperatures as the pages turned.
Sticking to the visual vocabulary of moving generally from a warm palette to a cool palette from beginning to end, the frames have been aligned in sequence here so it may be easier to see what my thought process was like in doing this colour script.
Race to the finish
After the colour script was approved, everything from there on out was very straightforward. It was really a matter of just refining the pages from the colour scripts to a bigger final, finessing the final details, and adjusting colours as needed. Since it was set in a very specific time period, and also in a very specific geographic region, it really is important to make sure that all the references were right, from the costumes to the shapes of trees and smaller details surrounding all the pages. Below are some costume references sourced from that time period. These references were sourced from books at the library, archived film footage, as well as Pinterest.
The final few weeks working on this really did feel like a race to the finish! Below is an example of the evolution of a page from the colour script to the final.
Delivering the pages to my AD was a great feeling, and she has to be thanked for really being there at every step of this journey with me. I sincerely believe that all the feedback given made the pages better, and the visual ideas stronger. Hopefully, this translates over to the reader when they pick up this book.
Thank you for letting me share my process of bringing Night Train to life with you, and thank you to 24 Carrot Writing for inviting me to do so. I hope it was helpful and am looking forward to reading all the different approaches/processes other illustrators have here in the future.
About the Illustrator
Ileana Soon is an illustrator/vis dev artist who grew up in a small seaside town in Borneo, before making her way to Los Angeles where she currently lives and works. Her clients include The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Oprah Magazine. She has also won multiple awards, including a Silver Medal from 3x3, as well as recognition from American Illustration and The World Illustration Awards. Learn more about Ileana and see more of her work at http://ileanasoon.com/, on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/ileanadraws/, and on Behance at https://www.behance.net/ileanasoon.
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