by Francine Puckly
My fellow 24 Carrot Writing bloggers and I just returned once again from the SCBWI New England spring conference. At Kelly’s suggestion a few years ago, we sit down together to list our top takeaways once we return from workshops and conferences. It’s a powerful practice!
I attended many informative workshops this year, but the key takeaway for me was from Ekua Holmes’ keynote address—and specifically the wise words of her mother. Her mother encouraged her not to become overwhelmed by the future and all of the tasks in front of her, but rather just “do the next thing.” This advice has centered me more than I could have imagined, and it fits with Kelly’s idea of the “do-it-today takeaways”—using the conference energy to take quick actions that will give you a boost toward your goals.
I have three big and messy projects in front of me this year, and I’ve been slow to make progress on them. But instead of racing too far ahead on my to-do lists or getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of my projects, this idea of doing the next small action item is simple yet profound.
My three “do the next thing” conference takeaways:
Have you recently attended a conference, a long workshop, or a webinar geared toward your writing and illustrating life? If so, reread your notes. Think about how you can incorporate your newly acquired knowledge by doing the next thing in each of your goal areas.
Don’t wait to take small actions that will propel you toward your goals. As we approach the midpoint of the calendar year, what’s your next thing?
~ by Amanda Smith
Dear First-time Conference Attendee,
Phew! What a weekend! Is your head still spinning with all you heard and everyone you met? Are you finding yourself alternating between euphoric highs, having walked the hallways with legends, and gloomy lows with whispers of “but do I belong?” haunting your dreams?
Let me assure you, I know the feeling. I attended my first NESCBWI conference seven years ago. I was just returning to writing and not sure of anything yet. The inevitable ice-breaker “What do you write?” stumped me all day long. Because I went to the conference to figure that out! As I shared workshops with seemingly confident people who were much more knowledgeable than I was, I felt my voice getting smaller and smaller. By lunch time I was barely a whisper. Somehow, in my oblivion, I ended up at a table with YA and MG writers who were all either published or on the cusp of getting published. They included me, took interest in my work, encouraged me, gave advice, and showed extreme kindness.
I left the conference knowing this:
So, dear First-timer, here are some post-conference tips for you:
Guest Blog by Meg Lysaght Thacher
Every year, over 700 writers, illustrators, agents, and editors converge on Springfield, MA, to meet and learn and talk about their favorite thing: children’s books. If you’re heading to Springfield next month, here’s how to make the most of your conference experience.
First, go read Francine Puckly’s Essential Conference Preparation Checklist.
Your First Conference
About a third of conference attendees are first timers. (You can recognize them by the subtle “First Conference” labels on their badges.) If you are one, be sure to attend the conference orientation on Friday afternoon. You’ll get information and advice that’s even more useful than what you’ll read here, plus you’ll meet the conference coordinators and the New England SCBWI team.
Listen well. Take notes. Participate! Don’t sit in the back—this isn’t high school.
Go into your one-on-one agent/editor meeting with an open mind. No matter how many times you’ve polished your work, no matter how many critique partners have read it, an editor or agent will probably see something that needs improvement. You paid for this advice. You will get your money’s worth by listening.
Visit the critique prep and support room. There will be a moderator and other attendees who can give you an idea of what to expect in your meeting, or help unpack your 15 minutes of advice.
There will be talks by lots of famous authors. Do not miss Jane Yolen’s keynote address. Just trust me on this one. It will be short, sweet, inspiring, and you will finally learn what BIC* means.
Other events include panels, open mic, peer critiques, an interview with Patricia MacLachlan…um, I don’t think the 24Carrot folks have enough space for me to talk about it all. Read your conference schedule!
* Behave like a professional.
SCBWI has recently adopted anti-harassment guidelines for its conferences. Would you like to be a professional writer? Behave in a professional manner. The NESCBWI conference is a place to learn, network, and hang out with fellow writers. It is not a singles bar.
* Meet new people.
Sit down at a table with someone you don’t know at least once. When you meet someone new, tell them your name, age group you write for, genre(s), and current project. Don’t just read each others’ nametags.
* Do not pitch unless requested.
There are 600 people at the conference, and all of them have at least two projects they’re dying to pitch. We could all stand around pitching for the entire conference, and we would not have a single human conversation. That being said, it’s fine to pitch when someone asks you to.
* Treat the agents and editors like the human beings they are.
There’s plenty of time after the conference to send them your manuscript and perfectly polished query letter. Would you rather that query letter started with “Remember me? I’m the one who monopolized your time during the Friday night mixer!” or “I really enjoyed chatting with you about our favorite classic fantasy novels”?
This is an excellent way to get involved, feel like you belong, help the conference to run smoothly, and meet folks. Plus, there’s free food on Saturday night, and you get to learn the secret volunteer handshake.**
Take Care of Yourself
You can always tell the people who don’t get enough food or sleep at a conference. By the last day, they have glazed eyes, are speaking complete gibberish, and have probably introduced themselves to you three times. Don’t stretch yourself so thin that you can’t make a good impression. There are quiet spaces listed in the conference schedule. Use them if you need to decompress or regroup.
And drink plenty of water!
Beware of False Comparisons
At any given NESCBWI conference, about a quarter of attendees are published authors or illustrators. Everyone else is “pre-published.” We’re all here to improve our writing and learn. Comparing yourself to other people will get in the way of that. Embrace your you-ness.
After the conference
A major benefit of attending a conference is that you get a list of agents and editors who will accept your query for a few months after the conference. The list includes people who don’t normally accept unsolicited queries. Follow the directions on the list. Show them how easy you will be to work with. Make sure you submit only a polished manuscript. You’ll learn a lot at this conference. Apply it! And never share the list with non-attendees. You paid for this privilege. And we don’t want to swamp the faculty inboxes.
Approach your conference with a growth mindset. Everyone is there to learn—even the faculty. Even the editors and agents. And especially you. So learn!
Meg Thacher will be attending her eighth NESCBWI conference this April. She teaches astronomy at Smith College and writes nonfiction for Highlights and the Cricket Magazine group. This is her first blog post of any kind.
Find out more about Meg:
Twitter handle: @MegTWrites
2017 meeting stats courtesy of Shirley Pearson (who will remind you to fill out your post-conference evaluation). Thanks, Shirley!
*Nope. Not going to tell you. Listen to Jane.
**There is no secret volunteer handshake. Maybe we should make one up!
~ by Amanda Smith
Encore is a yearly event where some speakers from the NESCBWI Spring conference are invited to present their workshops. Two Encore events are offered to provide opportunity for more writers to learn from these excellent teachers. This year’s Encore II was held at Devens on Saturday, October 21. Because of the nature of Encore, the event is not themed, yet, somehow, every year, in the subtext of what the presenters are saying, a theme emerges. This year the common thread was PLAY.
Dana Meachan Rau, author of over 300 books, including Robot, Go Bot! and books in the Who Was? series, presented a workshop about injecting emotion in characters to encourage empathy from readers. She led us through writing exercises where we played around with writing a character’s emotion through a setting or an object. When we play to explore emotions, we connect deeper with our character’s emotion. “First we feel, then they [the readers] feel,” she said.
Molly Burnham, author of the Teddy Mars series and 2016 Sid Fleishman Humor Award winner, talked to us about humor and writing funny. She implored us to play for a minute, to horse around with ideas, to do seemingly silly three-minute writing exercises, like matching different animals with human actions, and finding the funny in it. Sometimes we get so bogged down in the work of it all. The deadlines, the goals, the next chapter. Playing is freeing for the exact reason that it is not a work in progress. And yet, playing accesses a different part of our brains, which sometimes leads to breakthroughs in our current work. She said, “It’s great just to play, we are artists after all.”
Under the direction of sticky-note queen and author AC Gaughen (Scarlet, Lady Thief, and Lion Heart) we played around with character traits. We scribbled pieces of identity on sticky notes. She then urged us to discarding the go-to traits, the comfort zone, and go with the unexpected, which leads to the development of more interesting characters. AC also had us play around with our character’s central traits. Through play we discovered how changing what is central to our character changes the conflict.
Chris Tebbetts, whose books include the Middle School series and Public School Superhero with James Patterson, as well as the Stranded series with Jeff Probst, presented on Improv and Play. He reminded us that “purpose should not be more important than play” and encouraged us to sometimes throw out the rules and just write. Write without thinking, don’t get logical, and see where it leads. “Improv helps limber up one’s creativity.” He also challenged us to sometimes “play with a limited set of tools.” Setting our own rules and staying within those rules help us think outside the box. Play off-screen, with visual techniques such as story-boarding and maps.
Erin Dionne (Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking, Ollie and Science of Treasure Hunting and more) rounded the day off with quirky revision techniques. Revision lends itself to play, as not one technique works for every project. The revising writer needs to play around with a variety of hands-on techniques including story-boarding, spiderwebs, grids, calendars and maps, until they find what works for that particular project. “Problem solving is an act of creativity,” she said.
The presenters reminded us that every activity connected to our characters and story is considered work. So even when you are playing, you are still working. Playing is just more fun! We are writing for children after all.
By Brook Gideon
I am asked a lot of questions regarding my first book job, illustrating the chapter book Azalea, Unschooled by Liza Kleinman. How did I get the job? Did the illustrator choose me? Did we submit together? How much say did I have in the design and how much say did the author have in my illustrations? As all writers and artists know, the journey isn’t a straight shot.
©2016 Right Click Photography
Landing the Gig:
I was contacted by the wonderful editor of Islandport Press, Melissa Kim, by email. I had been scrolling through my inbox while on a break at work. Scanning it quickly and thinking it was an SCBWI list serve message, I almost deleted the email but at the last second I saw it was addressed to me specifically. (That was a close call.) Melissa was interested in my work for a picture book, she had seen me on the RISD website, and was wondering if I could send along some samples. (Um, yeah!) I had just moved and all my stuff was packed in boxes and stacked to eye level, filling the room that was to by my studio. Sure, I could send some, if I could find them. I let her know I had just moved and she said to take my time as nothing would be decided for a few months. Well, of course I dug through my boxes immediately and found the best copies I had. The next day, I slowly drove to the post office on a wicked snowy day and mailed them off. I drank a celebratory beer and then I waited.
A decision was to be made in January. By the end of the month I had not heard anything, so I followed up with an email inquiry to be sure my samples made it to her safely. All was good, no decision had been made yet. It was the end of February before I got the word they were going a different route, thanked me for submitting and let me know that they would keep me in mind for future projects since they all liked my work. Whomp whommmp. I laid around and binge watched t.v. in a slump. So close and no prize. The kite eating tree had struck again.
Another month went by and Melissa emailed me to ask if I would be interested in illustrating a chapter book called Azalea, Unschooled. So, I did what every person in the KidLit world says to do. I said yes while freaking out royally because I had no idea what I was doing. She attached the sample of my work that fit the style they liked the most, as well as other artist examples. It was to be a full-color cover with black and white illustrations every chapter or so. The fee schedule would be a flat fee, no royalties, and they expected the cover in about three months at the beginning of summer with the chapter illustrations to follow in the fall.
It was my first book contract and I didn’t have an agent, so I was slightly clueless and had a ton of questions. What is typical for payment? What things should I look for in the contract and what things do I need to be sure are there to protect me? I immediately contacted two wonderful KidLit friends about the contract and offer details so they could tell me what was what. They scraped me off the ceiling, and I learned that chapter book illustration contracts are typically flat fee (a.k.a. work for hire) unlike picture books which usually include royalties. They gave me an idea of what I should expect to be paid and as well as advice as to how to include statements about who owned the original artwork and for what purposes it could be used.
Armed with my friends’ contract information, I made sure:
1) Islandport Press and I could both use the art for promotional material but…
2) I retained the rights to the original artwork
3) the original art would be returned to me. (I work traditionally in pen and watercolor, so sending my images off in the mail was scary, too!)
4) there would be authorship credit whenever my images were used
5) my name would appear on the cover (a huge point to push for)
6) we had a “kill fee” in case the project was scrapped and I’d already done most of the work!
Other things to know are the expectations for initial and final sketch timelines, how many revisions you are willing to do, and payment schedule. (I was paid in halves, first when contract signed and the remainder when finals were submitted.) The contract was signed and accepted. I met Melissa and got the final version of the contract at the NESCBWI conference.
Illustrating a Chapter Book:
First, I read through of the manuscript to get a sense of the story. The second time through I started a list of the characters and noted any physical descriptions that were given. I sketched some initial faces (aka floating heads) to get a feel of what each would look like.
I was given specs (the size of the book), how they would work and a timeline of due dates. The front cover was due first, and it is hard to do this so early in the process. By the time you are done with a book, you are so accustomed to drawing your characters that the images are fresher and less stiff. However, the cover is needed early for promotional purposes. I sent in super rough ideas of the characters and cover, and Islandport Press let me know what they liked. There was some back and forth with Melissa and the book designer, Karen Hoots, tweaking the approved image until the final was agreed upon.
Next, interior sketches were roughed out and sent for approval. Melissa had ideas for each chapter, but I could work from my imagination as well. (Side note: work the interior sketches from the middle out. Then the first and last images will be strongest since you’ve drawn the character over and over and those are the images many people remember.)
While most of the feedback was from Melissa and Karen, Melissa did show the images to the author, Liza Kleinman, and she liked them all. The only suggestion I was given was to change Gabby’s appearance slightly, as Gabby was of mixed race. It was a bit of a challenge, since my interior illustrations were simple line work and black and white. I revisited my sketches of Gabby, altered a few things, and it worked. It’s amazing how subtle changes in even the simplest images make all the difference.
The back cover was done last, which proves my earlier point. The work is better when you are comfortable with the character. Melissa had stated it was her favorite and wished it could have been the cover.
Months later copies of my book were delivered to my house. It was a surreal moment. Then came the book launch, cake, friends and fun, but that’s a blog for another day…
Brook Gideon is a writer and illustrator and a member of SCBWI and The Writer’s Loft. She survived the Blizzard of ‘78, a Garanimals wardrobe, big hair of the 80s, and giant palmetto bugs crawling over her in the 90s. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three vacuums to slay the Ghost Wookiees arising from two dogs and a herd of cats. She loves circus peanuts, cake and sharks. Visit her at www.brookgideon.com, on Twitter @brookgideon, or on Facebook @brookgideonsbiggerboat.
By Amanda Smith
So, you have been writing and revising and polishing and editing. You also attended an SCBWI conference or two, and printed out the highly coveted faculty submission guidelines. You poured over editor and agent names, highlighted deadlines, and bookmarked MSWL. And then you stuffed the guidelines in the bottom drawer along with your manuscripts, and climbed under the covers with a flashlight and a book. Because putting your precious story OUT THERE is just too much.
Or life got too busy. It was spring, and then the school year ended, and then it was summer, and then the school year started, and phew! And now you’ve missed all the deadlines. Oh, well, next year after the conference you will do better.
Make a plan. Today. Because your beautiful story, your heart spilled onto the page, will never ever see the light of day if you don’t send out those submissions. Lots and lots of submissions. And if you don’t cowboy up and deal with those rejections. Lots and lots of rejections. And keep on sending out submissions until you get the call or the email. And then there’ll be dancing. But first. Submissions.
So, here’s my plan: (Because yeah, this is totally me.)
No more excuses. This year, grasp the wonderful opportunities provided by SCBWI. Put the flashlight down, creep out from under the covers, and send your stories out into the big wide world of publishing. We promise, we will hold your hand when the rejections come in. But one day you’ll get the call. And then there’ll be dancing! Lots and lots of dancing.
Downloadable pdf files:
by Francine Puckly
I am pleased to host an interview with author and writing colleague, Nancy Tupper Ling. Nancy’s books for adults include the poetry collections, Coming Unfrozen and Character, and, for those of you at a loss for the right words on special occasions, Toasts: The Perfect Words to Celebrate Every Occasion. Her picture books include Double Happiness, The Story I’ll Tell, and My Sister, Alicia May. Nancy is the founder of Fine Line Poets (www.finelinepoets.com) and winner of the prestigious Writer’s Digest Grand Prize and the Pat Parnell Poetry Award. Nancy and I had the chance to catch up this past winter, and in honor of Mother’s Day I wanted to talk a little bit more about her most recent picture book, The Story I’ll Tell.
Thank you, Nancy, for joining me for this interview!
The Story I’ll Tell is a tale of a mother and how she will share her child’s arrival with her family. You said in a recent conversation that this book is much more than a story about adoption. What is the heart of The Story I’ll Tell? What readers, beyond adoptive families, will enjoy this story?
The idea for this story came to me in a daydream as I was driving along the highway. I had an image of a child arriving on a family’s doorstep in a basket, and I began to wonder what kinds of stories a parent would tell that child about how he came into their lives. Gradually it grew into an adoption story, but I hope it reaches all families. When I sign a book for a child, I often write “for all the stories you’ll tell.” Everyone has a family story or two, and sharing these stories draws us closer.
Did you interact with the illustrator for this book, and, if so, what was your working relationship?
Typically publishers like to keep the author and illustrator apart during the creation of the book. This way the author doesn’t try to influence the illustrator’s work. That said, I love connecting with my illustrators along the way. Shortly before our book was about to launch, Jessica Lanan and I found each other on social media. Now I bring some of her storyboard sketches with me when I visit schools to show a bit of her process as well as my own.
Tell us a little bit about the process of working with your editor. How long did The Story I’ll Tell take, from start to finish, once it was acquired by Lee & Low Books?
I like to think of The Story I’ll Tell as one of those “gift” stories. Surprisingly, it didn’t require much revision, and I believe Lee & Low was the first publisher to see it. With my book Double Happiness, I revised and submitted many, many times. The whole thing took about ten years! So my experience with The Story I’ll Tell was very different. My agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, told me she’d found a new editor at Lee & Low in July 2013. Shortly after that, I was in the middle of a California conference called Build a Better Book when I got the good news. It had been accepted. I worked with my editor, Jessica Echeverria, but the edits were minimal. It was a little over two years after signing with Lee & Low that it was published (November 2015)—right in time for National Adoption Day.
What lessons have you learned as a writer throughout your publishing career?
Two of the biggest lessons I’ve learned along the way are: 1. Listen. This may seem easy but few people master this. They have their story. They want to sell their story. They don’t need the advice of any peers or editors along the way. And thus, they miss out on the chance to improve. And 2. Always have 5 or 6 stories in your back pocket, written out and ready to go. This is not a one book wonder industry. My agent is constantly sending several of my stories out simultaneously. And I’m never sure which ones are going to be picked up and which will fill a void in the publishing world. I can’t predict. So it’s best to bring several to the table.
How important has the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators been to your writing career?
Initially, winning the Writer’s Digest Grand Prize helped to launch my foray into the world of children’s writing. Shortly after that amazing win, I discovered SCBWI and it’s been a partnership every since. From my local critique group to the big conference, SCBWI has had my back. My latest venture with SCBWI was when they supported a visit I made to the Joseph P Tynan School in Boston. While the school didn’t have funding to invite a local author for a visit, SCBWI made this possible.
What has been your most difficult promotional or marketing challenge?
I have learned that even starred book reviews and various awards don’t guarantee massive readership. My books tend to be quiet. Sometimes they are niche books, fitting into certain pockets of the world and library shelves. It’s always a struggle to get the word out about my books. Kirsten Cappy with Curious City helped me to create activity kits for my books, and that was helpful in reaching teachers and librarians. Even with the best publishers, much of this work is on our own.
Which picture book writers have inspired you and your creative work?
When I was at a writer’s conference, an agent once compared my work to Charlotte Zolotow’s. I think that was one of the best days of my life. In my opinion, her books are classic, amazing and enduring. I also love those children’s authors who are poets too, like Nikki Grimes, Linda Sue Park, Janet S. Wong, along with my writer friends Nancy Poydar, Pat Zietlow Miller, Liz Garton Scanlon, Jean Reidy and so many more.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Write everything. Don’t restrict your writing to one genre. You never know. A poem can win a contest that may lead an editor to check out your children’s manuscript. It happened to me. It’s possible.
Can you tell us about your newest book, The Yin-Yang Sisters and the Dragon Frightful, to be released in 2018?
Thanks for asking. Told like a classic Chinese folktale, this book has a dragon, Frightful, who makes the villagers’ lives miserable. It’s also the story of Mei and Wei, twin sisters who complete one another like yin and yang. They were inspired by my own daughters, who are opposite in many ways. While Wei is determined to rock Frightful’s world, Mei spends her time researching all about the lives of dragons. It’s only by combining their skills that these two sisters figure out how to change Frightful into a Delightful dragon.
What’s up next?
My mentor and coauthor, June Cotner, and I have completed another anthology called Family Blessings. Hopefully that will launch into the world soon. I’ve also finished my first middle grade manuscript about an orphan in Russia who must choose between finding her lost sister, Anya, or being adopted and leaving the country she loves.
For more information about Nancy and her books, visit www.nancytupperling.com.
Tidbits about Nancy:
Currently reading: Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick and The True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick. Wow, both Revolutionary War books and the authors have the same last name. Interesting!
Favorite Motivational Phrase: In the dedication for all my books I include the Latin phrase Soli Deo gloria. It reminds me to use the gifts I’ve been given for God’s glory.
Favorite books for kids(short list!):
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
Crow Boy by Taro Yashima
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
Any Cynthia Rylant books, but especially the Mr. Putter series
Favorite Books for adults (at this time):
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by James Ford
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Favorite film: The Scarlet and the Black (with Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer)
Remedy for writer’s block: Seize pockets of time, wherever and whenever you find them!
Relaxation trick: Hula hooping
Coffee or tea? Tea, iced
Vanilla or Chocolate? Chocolate
by Francine Puckly
I am pleased to host an interview with friend and writing colleague, Janet Fox, author of student self-help book Get Organized without Losing It, three young adult novels Faithful, Forgiven, and Sirens, and most recently the middle grade novel The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.
In addition to Janet’s writing career, she has worked as an oceanographer and taught English at both the middle and high school levels. She serves as assistant regional advisor for the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Montana. I recently had the chance to catch up with Janet at the SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City in February. Here are just a few of the many questions that bubbled to the surface after visiting with her!
Thank you for joining us, Janet!
Thanks so much for having me here, Francine!
In NYC, we discussed landing a literary agent, a process that for many is a long (and often discouraging!) process. What was your process to finding the best representative for your books? What is the key piece of advice you’d offer writers on that quest?
I'm actually working with my second agent. My first agent and I parted company amicably when she no longer loved the direction my work was taking (she likes YA romance; I wanted to write MG fantasy). But I met her through a critique at an SCBWI conference. It was not my first critique, and I had been writing for several years trying to polish what became my first novel, so that's my first piece of advice: polish and revise, polish and revise, until your manuscript glows, before you submit. And my second piece of advice: take chances with critiques, especially those offered through SCBWI. Even if you don't land an agent you'll gain valuable experience in being critiqued. And my third piece of advice: don't be discouraged! If you learn and apply the craft, and you keep writing and submitting, one day you'll find a match with an agent.
Last note - the author/agent relationship is like a marriage. Your agent needs to be your biggest cheerleader and should love your work without reservation. Don't sign with someone because you're desperate. Sign with an agent who believes in you and will be your advocate.
“Pre-published” writers have the flexibility on deadlines. They may or may not be drafting a new novel while submitting revisions for the manuscript under contract. How do you organize your work, as drafting a new story and revising a completed story use very different parts of the creative process?
Great question. There's a lot of down time in publishing, and I don't want to rest on my laurels. Besides, I love to write, so I write every day regardless of where I am in the process.
For example, in early January my agent sold my next novel (a MG fantasy titled THE LAST TRUE KNIGHT) to my editor. My editor asked me to work on it based on a phone conversation. I did, and completed that draft in early March, and sent it off to her. While she wrote her edit letter I had almost a month to wait, so I began working on notes and early pages for what I hope will be my next-next novel.
As for the different parts of the process, they really aren't so different for me. Each time I sit down to write I feel like I'm learning a new craft element, and each creative moment I'm in feeds all the others that wait. Early drafts are hard for me, and I love revision, but it's still all a generative process.
When working with your editor, how long does she give you to complete revisions for each stage of the process? For example, do earlier revisions require bigger changes to the manuscript and need more time? Or are you marching to a tight timeline always?
That depends on the project and on the editor. For THE CHARMED CHILDREN, I had about 4 weeks after the first edit letter because my editor was taking a sabbatical and needed to push the process. For THE LAST TRUE KNIGHT, my editor said there's no timeline right now because she wants to see a really deep next revision and doesn't want me to feel pressured to do less than my best. (Needless to say I'll be working under my own self-imposed deadline, because I work better that way.)
But generally, yes, the first edit letter addresses the big, global changes that need to be made, so that round takes longer, and each successive round is shorter and shorter.
At this point in time in your career, do you write full-time or part-time?
Full time, lucky me! I have a very supportive husband, my son is in college, and we're pretty settled.
What does a typical workweek look like for you?
I write every day, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my birthday. Sometimes that doesn't amount to much - maybe some notes, maybe a few hundred words; but I usually try for at least 500 new words a day, or a certain number of pages of revision a day.
Of course, I do spend a bit of time marketing - writing blog posts, posting to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, generating marketing and publicity materials. And I spend time reading craft books, attending conferences and webinars, and giving lectures or doing school visits, and all of those things take lots of time, too.
But the main thing I try to do is write. Every day. And read, every day.
Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured?
I don't have a special time that is really cast in stone. I just scan my day and try to fit the writing in first, but if it takes me until 3 in the afternoon to get to being creative, that's all right. I used to be only a first-thing-in-the-morning writer but life gets in the way so I give myself flexibility.
But I won't let myself off the hook if I can help it!
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?
I'm an avowed pantser (seat-of-the-pants writer). I've tried often to write to an outline, from the most rigid to the most vague, but that approach kills my creativity. I just can't outline. I love to see where my subconscious will take me. My worst writing comes when I've planned, so I've learned to honor my personal and very organic process.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
My first draft takes from two to four months. Every draft after that takes from one to two months, and the process gets shorter with each revision, so for me to write a full novel with a draft I feel is ready to send to my agent takes in total almost a year.
But I hit the reset button when I get my first edit letter because that edit always takes me to new places which takes a bit more time.
I should add here that my agent is an editorial agent, meaning she wants to see the full draft of whatever I write before she'll submit, and she makes extensive editorial comments on my work, to which I must respond before she'll submit. And she's excellent at it, so I completely trust her. The proof of her ability is that many of her clients are not only multiply published but receive starred reviews and more. My editor told me that when Erin (Erin Murphy) sends her a manuscript, she puts it at the top of her queue, because even if it's not something she can sign, it's always a polished piece.
Which writers have inspired you and your creative work?
Oh, wow, that's always such a hard question because I love so many and it changes so quickly with what I've read most recently. But here are a few. Kathi Appelt is my primary mentor - I wouldn't be published without her friendship and example. Laurie Halse Anderson, Julie Berry, Linda Sue Park, Jandy Nelson...I love Adam Gidwitz's INQUISITOR'S TALE, and Kelly Barnhill's THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, and anything by Grace Lin, Laura Ruby, MT Anderson, Rita Williams-Garcia, E. Lockhart.
But my first and earliest inspiration was C.S. Lewis, followed by all the old fairy tales, and then by Agatha Christie.
Which social network has worked best for promoting your work and/or creating a supportive writing community? Why?
I think I have to say Facebook. I have a lot of author friends there, and this is such a supportive community. I learn something new almost every day from people on Facebook. And I have an author page (www.facebook.com/AuthorJanetFox/) although I don't update it as often as I should - perhaps once every couple of weeks. After that I'd say my blog (janetsfox.com/), which I update every week, and then Twitter (@janetsfox). I'm trying to be better about Instagram (www.instagram.com/janetsfox/) because I know that's a terrific way to interact with especially younger fans.
But I also have a way for readers to follow my blog and/or my occasional newsletter here: bitly.com/janetfox
What has been your most difficult promotional challenge?
Hmm. Well, I'm not very good at self-promoting in person. Just the other day I was traveling through a city on a trip, and saw that a well-respected indie was right around the corner from where we were having dinner. I had to steel myself to go in and ask if they had my book, to sign stock. Not only did they have it, it was on a special display (hence why I didn't see it on the regular shelf) with a terrific review tag, and they were thrilled to meet me. While I felt sheepish and embarrassed, they were more than excited. So I obviously need to get over my embarrassment.
What is the hardest thing about writing novels from start to finish?
Definitely it's not getting discouraged when you think your work stinks. It's so easy to hate what you're writing, to feel like you haven't said what you want to say, and to feel like giving up.
For me, the creative spark - before I've set pen to paper for the first time - is brilliant. The idea shines like a supernova. Translating that brilliance to mere words, well, it's never perfect. As a writer I can only approach perfection, I can never achieve it. So I have to write through my mortal failure because to do anything else would mean giving up altogether.
What’s up next?
Next is THE LAST TRUE KNIGHT, from Viking. My own one-sentence blurb: "A novel about gender identity and alternative facts in a magical Elizabethan England." We're aiming for a fall 2018 release. Stay tuned! You can follow along on any of my social sites.
What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
This is what I say to kids every time I'm in the classroom:
Everyone has a unique vision. Everyone has a unique story to tell. You, and you, and you have your own story, one that belongs to nobody else. Tell in your own voice, in your own time, with your own full heart, and don't be afraid to give it away, for you'll be giving the world the greatest of human experiences.
Your unique story is a bright light that has the power to change the world.
For more information about Janet and her books, visit www.janetsfox.com.
Tidbits about Janet:
Currently reading: Linda Sue Park, FOREST OF WONDERS
Favorite books (short list!): The Narnia books; THE UNDERNEATH; BONE GAP; THE PASSION OF DOLSSA; BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE; LORD OF THE RINGS; HARRY POTTER...I could go on!
Favorite quote: "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth." Pablo Picasso
Favorite film: Casablanca
Manuscripts composed/edited in: Scrivener and Word
Remedy for writer’s block: BIC! (Butt in chair. Works every time. I promise.)
By Amanda Smith
Last Saturday five fabulous speakers and almost eighty eager writers gathered at Mount Wachusett Community College. Every year NESCBWI offers a one-day mini conference in the fall where the cream of the crop from the Spring conference present their workshops. This year, for the first time, NESCBWI offered two Encore events, to make these valuable workshops available to more writers.
Even though all the speakers’ presentations were excellent and full of practical and eye opening advice, often the most honest, most useful tidbits are shared once the presenters go off script. These bite size bits of revelation are what I would like to share with you.
Anna Staniszsewski (Power Down, Little Robot, Once Upon a Cruise) spoke about finding the emotional heart of your picture book. She urged us to ask the hard questions before we start drafting. Knowing the heart of your story will keep you on track as you write. She also reminded us not to teach a moral. “Your point will get across if you tell a good story.”
Kristine Carlson Asselin (Any Way You Slice It) gave an excellent presentation on query letters. My biggest take away from her talk is that there are rules, and ways to break them, but above all, your query letter should be professional and appropriate. Her workshop connected well with Anna’s in that as writers we have to know the heart of our story in order to pitch our work project convincingly and effectively. She summed it up with this quote by Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
With humor, music, and some boss handouts, Annie (AC) Gaughen (The Scarlet Trilogy) lead us to discover our antagonist’s story. It was a fascinating exercise to dig into my antagonist’s background, character traits and motivations. Through Annie’s guidance, I discovered that what the protagonist views as his strengths, are often his greatest weaknesses in the eyes of the antagonist. That contradiction lies at the heart of your story and exploring it builds strong conflict.
Erin Dionne (Ollie & the Science of Treasure Hunting, Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking) helped us become better critique givers and receivers. Sticking to the unwritten theme of the day, she challenged us to identify the core of our story. “What is the thing, that if you take it away, makes your story collapse?” she asked. One of her most helpful off script tips was to keep a different note book for every book you are working on. Why didn’t I think of this before? No more flipping through three different notebooks containing conference notes, and free writing, and research on multiple projects to find a hurried note scribbled down in the middle of the night. No more filling through folders with slips of paper flying everywhere. Thank you, Erin! You have changed my life!
To end our full day, Trisha Leaver(The Secrets We Keep) challenged us to bleed onto the pages, to dig deep and discover the emotion behind each action. She encouraged us to explore senses and perceptions, and how they are colored by emotion.
Even though I have a notebook filled with advice from Encore II, my biggest take away is this: Do not underestimate the power of the writing community. I walked into that room on Saturday feeling overwhelmed by synopsis writing and the querying process, doubting the worth of my work. By listening to these presenters, and discussing ideas with my peers, and being in a room filled with creative energy, I was pulled out of my funk. Some workshops confirmed what I was doing right, others gave me the tools to go fix what I was not yet doing right, but most of all I am refocused.
I would like to urge you to get with your writing community. Find a workshop in your area, check out SCBWI’s website for regional meet-ups, have coffee with your writing group, join an online group. It will do your heart good! We cannot be lone rangers in this endeavor.
by Francine Puckly
My fellow 24 Carrot Writing bloggers and I just returned from the SCBWI New England spring conference. Having seen each other all weekend, we were tempted to postpone our monthly goal-setting meeting scheduled for the next morning. But knowing re-entry to regular schedules can be tricky after a jam-packed weekend, we kept our monthly appointment. We convened over a cuppa, and Kelly had the brilliant idea to list our top three takeaways from the conference.
If you recently attended this conference, a long workshop, or a webinar geared toward your writing and illustrating life, this exercise is invaluable. It might take weeks—and possible months—to employ all the new tricks and tips discovered at the conference and even longer to practice and hone all the new skills learned. But what are three new goals you can enact today to get an immediate bounce from the conference? Kelly calls these your do-it-today takeaways!
So instead of stuffing your notes into a drawer, comb through them! Glean nuggets of advice that will help you strengthen your writing. Capitalize on the energy and optimism you bring back from meeting with colleagues and peers. It’s easy to slip back into former routines if we wait too long to take stock. So don’t wait! Capture those do-it-today ideas now!
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