Guest Blog by Ellen Mayer
All picture books are works of collaboration. But with Leaves to My Knees, I had an extra-special helper: my young granddaughter. Elise was three-and-a-half years old when I first brought her in as a collaborator. A beta reader for this newly published book, she is now a first grader.
The Math Makes Sense
Leaves to My Knees is a playful STEM story about a little girl, Camille, who is determined to rake a pile of leaves all the way up to her knees to jump in. In the story I wanted to demonstrate how young children, before they use formal units of measurement like a ruler, measure by comparing sizes with their own bodies in everyday activities.
Elise at age three-and-a-half helped me “test out” the use of the math ideas on measurement and comparing sizes in my polished draft. As we raked leaves together in the backyard, I slipped in story character Camille’s mathematical thinking. How about raking a pile all the way up to your knees? I asked. The prospect not only delighted Elise, but the thinking felt true and natural to her, and soon she was chatting about the progress of the pile up her legs, just like story character Camille. She was also interested in comparing the size of her little toy rake against the big grown-up rake of her grandfather. For this young child, the math in the story made sense.
Clarification Is Needed
In the fall of 2019, I submitted the manuscript to the publisher. After I signed a contract for the book in the spring of 2020, Elise began to help me with revisions. While zoom readings during the beginning of the pandemic meant the loss of the lap, this technology did afford me a clear view of Elise’s four-year-old face, and I was able to make note of her expressions and body language as I read the text to her. Before the reading, I said:
Elise, there are no pictures yet. You’ll just have to imagine them for now. But I’ll read you the words.
She listened intently as I read through the entire text.
What do you think? I asked.
GOOD! she proclaimed.
Even without the art, the story kept her attention – and elicited smiles.
But I noticed one point where Elise furrowed her brows. When Camille sets out to rake leaves all the way up to her knees, she hoists her rake up onto her shoulder and does so “Because I mean business.”
Elise was clearly drawing a blank at the idiom.
Is “I mean business” kind of confusing? Should I change that a bit? I asked.
How about if I say: “Because I am serious––I mean business!”
That’s good, she said.
Of all the idioms in the story, that one needed a little explication for this four-year-old.
Reconsider a Character
Months later, a PDF arrived from publisher Star Bright Books with illustrator Nicole Tadgell’s full-color art in it. After reading it aloud to Elise, my beta listener paused thoughtfully and asked:
You know, Mimi, Jayden doesn’t say anything. How come?
That gave me pause. She found it odd that the goofy and playful two-year-old brother Jayden didn’t say anything. I never deliberately intended for him to be silent. Hmmmm.
My publisher was getting the files ready for the printer, but I had to email the editorial team.
If it's not too late, I have a suggestion for one more text edit. This suggestion is prompted by a comment made by my granddaughter when I read her the story recently. She pointed out – with some concern – that Jayden doesn't say anything in the story.
I suggested that we have Jayden join in with Daddy when he cheers Camille on with a GO! as she readies herself to jump into her leaf pile, now up to her knees.
Star Bright Books concurred. One of the editors wrote back:
It’s always fascinating to learn what children can see that adults don’t. Thank you, Elise, now Jayden has his own “voice.”
A Starred Review
I learned that the reception of the story only improved with repeated readings.
I watched my granddaughter sitting on the sofa beside her grandfather as he read aloud from the pages of the PDF, her face passing through a wide range of emotions as Camille suffers ups and downs in her leaf-raking project. When they got to the page where Camille steps into her hard-earned knee-high leaf pile, confirming that it indeed reaches to her knees, and shouts “TA-DA!”,
Elise sprang up on the sofa and raised her hands high above her head in victory, just like Camille, and shouted joyfully:
Months later, she insisted that she had “requested” that Camille say “TA-DA” back in the editorial stage. But then, that’s what happens in collaboration, isn’t it? We often forget who contributed what.
When she was six years old and a rising first grader, Elise wrote out her review.
To help her elaborate on her stickies, I said I wanted to “interview” her about each page. With much eagerness and solemnity, she pulled up a chair next to mine. As we slowly examined each page I asked her what she thought and she provided detailed feedback. She loved what the kids were wearing (it’s a Stegosaurus hood on Jayden), Jayden was so funny, her favorite image was the cover because Camille looks so happy.
Elise identified with Camille, and she thought her peers would, too. They would understand how Camille feels and they’d feel the same way in that situation.
Like, it’s a good book because it’s kind of like you’d be if you were Camille… I think the kids in my kindergarten class would’ve liked the book because it’s like them.
Ready to Read
Soon after Elise started first grade, I had a surprise for her. It was the “F&G”, the folded and gathered advance pages of the book, before it was bound. It was a glossy splash of fall color, all ready to read, with real pages to turn. She was the person I most wanted to share it with. I jumped right in and started reading.
After several pages, she put her hand over mine.
She had a surprise for me, too.
STOP, MIMI! she said. Let me read. I’ll read this page.
Since I couldn’t see very well through my tears, I let her take over.
The book had come far in those last three years.
And so had Elise.
Lessons Learned From a Young Beta-Reader
Quite apart from the joy our journey together afforded me, getting reactions from a real child helped my writing process:
Each child and each book process is unique. For myself in this case, I came away with some thoughts about how to incorporate a young child into the making of a picture book:
You will never sell a book by claiming that your grandchild loves it, but working with a young reader in your family to critically evaluate your manuscript can make it stronger and help it find publishing success. I hope the collaboration I enjoyed with my granddaughter, as I worked on Leaves to my Knees, makes you think about using your own young beta-reader to improve your work.
Leaves to My Knees, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell, and published by Star Bright Books in October 2022, is Ellen Mayer’s ninth book for children and her third math-infused one. Before focusing on writing for children, Ellen was an education researcher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, studying family engagement in young children’s learning, and an early literacy specialist home visitor with the Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts. To learn more about Ellen and her various books for children, visit her website at www.ellenmayerbooks.com. To learn more about illustrator Nicole Tadgell visit her website at http://nicoletadgell.art/.
~ Guest post by Heather Kelly and Kristen Wixted
Hold onto your hats, folks, this will be a long post. But our goal is to give you a blueprint for following your dreams of holding your book in your hands!
It’s Heather Kelly and Kristen Wixted here, publishers and editors at Writers’ Loft Press and Pocket Moon Press. Not only do we indie-publish our own stuff, but we publish anthologies and mentor other writers to publish their own work. Check out our previously published anthologies: Firsts, An Assortment of Animals, Friends & Anemones, and Heather’s workbook to help you get the writing done, Jumpstart Your Writing in 30 Days.
Today we’re going to take you on a journey to publication using Tom Franklin’s brand new steampunk Middle-Grade adventure story, The Pterrible Pteranodon, as a guide.
Tom started with a very clean draft that had been critiqued and edited.
Pro Tip: Throw your manuscript into Pro-Writing Aid for a final polish!
We recommend hiring freelance editors and copy editors at places like ALLi—the Alliance of Indie Publishers, Reedsy, or other indie-friendly forums.
Next, Tom hired Robert Thibeault to create a genre-specific cover. Tom did his research by checking out his genre bucket at Amazon. Make sure to check out your genre-bucket best-sellers at Amazon before you choose a type of cover.
For example, here are the best sellers of middle-grade steampunk at Amazon:
Robert Thibeault designed an amazing and genre-specific cover:
Hopefully, you can see how it would not only fit alongside the books in its genre but also stand out. It looks great as a thumbnail. Very important in this digital age!
Pro Tip: Choose a type of cover that sells well in the genre. What you love as a book cover might not be what your reader loves. Sometimes as authors, we have to put our personal preferences aside!
Here’s a closer look at Tom’s cover, so you can see the details:
You can see here how an artist and book designer make a cover—it wraps around. Isn’t that cool?
REACHING YOUR READERS:
While Tom was waiting for his cover art masterpiece, he put up a freebie so people would sign up for his mailing list.
Having an email list—direct contact with fans—is the most important piece of the publishing puzzle.
Without this, every time you publish a new book, you start from scratch looking for fans.
Tom gave away the first few chapters of his book and audio files of his book to entice people onto his list. Check it out here. Go ahead and sign up—Tom is going to KICKSTART this book, and you get to walk through the steps with him! (See the countdown page here!)
Don’t just hide your freebie and the sign-up to your list on your personal website—plug it into one of the sharing sites that go directly to fans. Right now, two of the biggest sites are BookFunnel and StoryOrigin. Using sites like these, Tom doubled the number of fans he had on his list!
Pro Tip: Story Origin is still in beta, so it’s currently FREE to use! Nothing beats free!
Once you have fans, interact with them on a weekly or regular basis. Use email companies like MailChimp or mailerlite to do this professionally.
Pro Tip: Make sure to consider who your fans are and give them what they are looking for! Remember that the people who sign up for your list are readers of your genre (or parents of the readers) and not just other writers or your friends.
Formatting/Book Design: Use a program like Vellum (only for Macs) to format the inside of your book, or use the free program at Reedsy. Reedsy is a great one-stop-shop for finding indie-publishing support in general.
While growing his email list, Tom finished all the production pieces.
Here’s a list you can use:
Upload all the pieces (formatted correctly) along with the final cover artwork to Ingram Spark.
Pro Tip: if you pay to be a member at ALLi you get a code for free uploads and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP has free uploads.
Upload your ebook to KDP and choose to either have your book in Kindle Unlimited or use a distributor to go wide (like Draft2Digital)
Pro Tip: Sites like Ingram Spark and KDP are often wonky, so make sure to save all your keywords and descriptions and bios elsewhere and paste them in. We have had some tense moments in the past!
Pro Tip: You can purchase keywords that work in your genre at K-lytics, KPD Spy, or Publisher Rocket, to attract the right online buyers. Oftentimes as authors, it’s hard for us to think about what search words readers use! These keywords help people find your book when they search for it.
If this seems like it’s a costly process, it can be. We generally budget $1,000 for a novel. (For an original cover like Tom’s from an artist, it’s much more!) But you can publish on a shoestring budget, by buying your cover premade (there are so many sites to use--just search for ‘premade book cover’) or by bartering. If you know someone who is a cover designer, and you are a great editor, trade those skills!
Pro Tip: It’s okay to publish with the budget you have and then upgrade things as you go!
FIND YOUR "WHY?"
One of the most important questions to ask, before you start this process, is, “Why?”
Why are you indie-publishing?
If you want to see your book in your local bookstores:
If you want to make the most money you can:
Whatever you do, don’t go it alone. Some of the best resources for authors starting out on the Indie-pub path are Joanna Penn’s podcasts, the Facebook Group 20 Books to 50K, and joining an indie pubbing group. We have a virtual one at the Writers’ Loft if you’d like to join (email email@example.com to get on the email list). It’s run by Dave Pasquantonio who is also a freelance editor and knows a ton about book promotion. We promise, once you get going, things get easier, because you keep running into the same people, the same sites, and most of the people you run into are very supportive! So that’s another part of the job—be supportive of your fellow writers.
Pro Tip: Don’t shortchange your readers—oftentimes the beautiful things that we love about books are simple enough for indie-publishers to achieve. See the gears that Tom added to each page number, the way his cover artist put the Pocket Moon Press logo into a gear, and how Tom invites his reader to read on into the next adventure!
Phew, we covered a lot, right? Thanks to 24 Carrot Writing!
Feel free to leave us questions in the comments! Just out of curiosity, did we make you open up a billion tabs? We might just give a prize for the person who fesses up to opening a ton of tabs! Heather generally has at least 25,000 tabs open on her screen on any given day. (Let us know in the comments and we’ll pick someone at random.) Did you sign up for Tom’s email list so you can follow his further adventures in Kickstarting? We can’t wait for that process. (That’s another blog post)!
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!
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