Today, please welcome Jean Reidy, another terrific Colorado author, to the How I Got My Agent series.  This is an especially exciting week for Jean because her book, LIGHT UP THE NIGHT released on Tuesday.  I’m honored to be part of her blog tour celebrating the book.  I met Jean at last year’s Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference, where she discussed the craft of writing picture books.  I bought her second book, TOO PICKLEY, for my son whose eating habits seem to get pickier and pickier even as he gets older.  I laughed when shortly after I brought the book home and read it to him, he said he didn’t want his bread one night at dinner because it was “too crusty.”  TOO PICKLEY is a companion in style to TOO PURPLEY, and the third in the series, TOO PRINCESSY, comes out in 2012.  If you’ve ever wondered how to write a compelling story in less than 100 words (TOO PURPLEY is a whopping 40 words long), GET THESE BOOKS!

LIGHT UP THE NIGHT has been released to rave reviews and is a story every child can relate to.  Jean is a master at taking everyday activities for kids (eating, getting dressed, going to bed) and turning them into adventures.  Without further adieu, please welcome Jean.

Jean, how long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one? What kind of research did you do before submitting?

I’m afraid my answer isn’t very direct. Are you ready for a long-winded and winding story?

Of COURSE we are!!

Okay, here goes.

I’d been writing articles for magazines and newspapers for quite a while. But it was on a family road trip about ten years ago – after listening to a Sharon Creech recorded book – that I decided to write for children. On that trip, I actually brainstormed my first middle grade novel; however, I soon realized I didn’t know what I was doing. So when I got home I began to explore the craft of writing children’s books in earnest.

As part of that exploration, I attended a workshop in which I wrote my first picture book manuscript. It was both challenging and fun. That first manuscript actually won an award at a writer’s conference and I made the mistake of thinking it would be snapped up quickly by an editor or agent. Silly me. I queried it widely, yet that manuscript still sits in a file waiting to be reworked.

While I was querying agents and editors with that first book, I focused on finishing my middle grade novel.  I only dabbled in picture books whenever an idea struck me. Knowing that fewer and fewer agents were taking on picture books, I approached agents with my middle grade novel instead. One of those agents – my dream agent – was Erin Murphy.

How did I know it was time to get an agent? First of all, I’d been getting positive feedback from a variety of readers in the profession including editors. I had a hunch that I had a few “very close” manuscripts. Secondly, after studying the ins and outs of publishers and editors and imprints, I could see that marketing my manuscripts was taking precious time away from writing them. I’m a ferocious follower of editor and agent websites and blogs as well as the publishing trade bulletins. But there was no way I could keep up with all the nuances, preferences and movements in the industry. Erin does that masterfully.

Why was Erin my dream agent? I’d been reading message boards and interviews and chatting it up with a few of her clients and they all just gushed about her. Plus, she represented children’s literature exclusively, including picture books. Finally, Erin is an editorial agent, she works with her clients to put the best story out there. Her feedback on my drafts is amazing.

But Erin only considers potential clients from referrals or from writers she meets at conferences and she happened to be attending our Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference that fall – YIPPEE! -on the same day as my niece’s wedding – SHEESH! Anyway, I wrote to her and explained the situation and she very kindly agreed to read my novel. So I sent it off to her – with fingers and toes crossed – pronto.

During that same fall, I wrote TOO PURPLEY!  I read in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin that a veteran editor was moving to Bloomsbury and that her specialty was books for very young children. Bloomsbury was open to unagented submissions, so I sent the editor my manuscript, which her intern pulled from the slush pile. Within a few weeks of submission, the editor asked for companion manuscripts to go with TOO PURPLEY!  So I wrote three additional books, one of which was TOO PICKLEY! and another was TOO PRINCESSY! which comes out in 2012. We were going to acquisitions and I was TOO excited!

Meanwhile, back at Erin Murphy Literary Agency, Erin was in the process of reading my middle grade novel when TOO PURPLEY! was on its way to acquisitions. With that contract in sight, I signed on with Erin and she has negotiated and sold all of my picture books.

The dreaded questions: How many queries?  How many rejections?

I had great luck landing a home for TOO PURPLEY! and TOO PICKLEY! and signing with Erin all within a matter of months. Now if you want to talk about my picture book manuscript that won that contest – hah! – I’ve tried to block out those rejections. Too many to count.

Some may think that since landing an agent my life is rejection-free. Hardly. I have one picture book manuscript that both Erin and I love, but it’s had trouble finding a home. I’ve even revised it for an editor to no avail. I’ve also had manuscripts that have been rejected by my own agent. But I know Erin is always looking out for my career and I trust her completely.

That is such a great point.  I think those of us on the “other side” of the agent equation imagine that life is all tap dancing in the tulips after you get an agent.  Writing and publishing is a tough business for everyone.  We have to be in it for the love.

Your first two books, TOO PURPLEY and TOO PICKLEY are rhyming, and we always hear that agents and editors don’t want rhyming manuscripts.  How did you break that particular barrier?

As a matter of fact LIGHT UP THE NIGHT (Disney Hyperion), is a cumulative verse which also uses rhyme. TOO PRINCESSY! (Bloomsbury 2012) follows the same rhyme scheme as TOO PURPLEY! and TOO PICKLEY! and ALL THROUGH MY TOWN (Bloomsbury TBD) is a rhyming story about community. TIME (OUT) FOR MONSTERS! (Disney Hyperion 2012) is my only picture book that doesn’t rhyme, so far. So I guess you can say I sort of love rhyme. I feel that when rhyme is done well, it can facilitate a child’s own ability to read and enjoy a book. And editors know that.

Before I use rhyme, I ask, “Why does this story need to rhyme?” I often read manuscripts that have fantastic premises but are restricted by the rhyme. Or they grow to be hundreds of words too long for the sake of the rhyme. I think rhyming writers need to honestly assess if the story is better because of the rhyme.

Once I’ve decided to rhyme, I line up loads of fresh readers for my story. And I ask them to read the text out loud, noting where the rhythm or rhyme trips them up. So often rhythm artificially perfects itself via repetitive reading. And as writers we can trick our own ears quite easily. But with fresh readers, I only get one chance.

Stories need to rhyme perfectly on the first read. Natural accents and beats need to roll off the reader’s tongue. The rhyme must essentially disappear and not call attention to itself. It’s a bit like background music in that regard. Bad rhyme jolts readers and listeners out of a story ─ which more or less ties in to my best advice for picture book writers. Remember, the best picture book experience is the magical interaction of the reader, the book and the child. Make sure your writing doesn’t stand in the way of the magic.

I am totally guilty of tricking my ears with rhyme and reading it with the rhythm I intended.  I love the suggestion to line up lots of fresh readers!

In addition to the “rhyme” factor, lately it seems like many agents who do represent picture books are looking for author/illustrators. Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author-only focusing solely on picture books? How did you know your agent was “the one?”

There are fewer and fewer agents that seem to be interested in picture book authors. And I completely understand the economics of why agents may prefer author/illustrators. But thankfully, Erin does take on picture book authors. She believes in representing a writer’s career, not just a book, and when she sees your potential as a children’s author, she works right alongside you to build your career – whether it be in picture books, middle grade, young adult or a combination of multiple children’s genres like mine.

Has your writing process changed since signing with an agent?

Since signing with Erin, I’ve not only acquired a kind and inspiring mentor in the business but a “family” of Erin’s clients. Her agency is rather unique in this regard. We have an agency listserve on which we bounce ideas off of each other, celebrate good news and offer one another support. Participation is completely voluntary.

Oh, but you asked about process. My process hasn’t changed much. I sometimes run ideas by Erin before I dive into them and other times I’ll send along a polished final manuscript that I haven’t shared before. I find having an agent has allowed me mental freedom to delve more deeply into my writing and take more risks. Knowing that I have someone who will be receptive to my work allows me to stretch myself without fear. Granted, Erin may not always love what I give her, but she’ll always read it with interest.

Great answer!  Being able to stretch your writing knowing you have a receptive audience with a professional perspective is a unique benefit agents provide.

What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?

Elevate your understanding of the craft and industry first. Attend conferences. Connect with picture book writers and industry professionals online and in person. The picture book writing resources available online are endless. If you have a computer and a library, you have no excuse to be uneducated about the market. Worry less about your pitch and more about your product until you’ve grown the support of several tough and trusted readers all saying, “You have GOT to send this to an agent.” If you need a fresh read of your picture book manuscript, check out my Picture Book Peek Weeks on my blog at http://jeanreidy.blogspot.com/.

Hmm… I may be sending one over to you soon! 🙂

If you could go on a writer’s retreat anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

My agent has an annual retreat with all her clients. I have yet to be able to attend. They recently held their 2011 retreat in Austin to coordinate with the Texas Library Association conference. I wish I could travel back in time to attend that one with them. It sounded like a perfect combination of business, inspiration, friendship and fun – hanging out with kindred spirits in children’s literature. Hopefully next year.

Wow – I was totally expecting Hawaii or someplace else completely exotic.  Just goes to show you how community is as important, if not more important, than location.

What’s up next/what are you working on now?

I have five picture book manuscripts in the works and I have a middle grade novel I’m revising that I’m really excited about. I just got the F&Gs for TOO PRINCESSY! and TIME (OUT) FOR MONSTERS! and they are so fun. Genevieve LeLoup and Robert Neubecker, the respective illustrators, connected perfectly with these texts.

For any of our friends in Colorado, Julie, I’ll be reading and signing LIGHT UP THE NIGHT on November 12th at the Tattered Cover in Highlands Ranch at 10:30 A.M. Be sure to bring your kids and grandkids along with their favorite blankets and stuffed animals. We’re gonna have some fun!

I SO wish I could go with my family, but my daughter is performing in a musical that day.  However, Coloradans – make time to attend this event if you can!!

I’m always blogging, tweeting and updating my website and I love visitors. So please visit me at http://jeanreidy.blogspot.com/ or my website at www.jeanreidy.com or follow me on Twitter at @jeanreidy for all the latest.

Finally, I’m working on a very special launch for LIGHT UP THE NIGHT. I’m holding an online auction November 7-18 called LIGHT UP THE LIBRARY which benefits the library at Musana Children’s Home in Iganga, Uganda where I worked last summer. I’ll be auctioning loads of fabulous items for writers at all stages of their careers and other gifts and services just in time for the holiday. You can find the all details at the auction website at http://lightupthelibrary.blogspot.com/. I hope everyone has a chance to stop by.

I can’t wait for your auction! I’m so inspired by what you are doing.  Note to readers: I’m donating a special item for the auction, so I’ll announce it once the event goes live.

Thanks so much, Julie! Happy writing!

Thanks to YOU Jean, for such thoughtful and comprehensive answers and congratulations on the release of LIGHT UP THE NIGHT.  You’ve given us lots to think about.  You can check out the rest of Jean’s blog tour at the links listed below:

October 10 – 14 (THE WHOLE WEEK) – Picture This! http://robsanderswrites.blogspot.com/

October 11 – Sharing Our Notebooks http://www.sharingournotebooks.amylv.com/

October 13 – Literary Friendships http://literaryfriendships.wordpress.com/

October 14 – Write Up My Life http://writeupmylife.com/ – That’s Me!!

November 4 – Writing for Kids While Raising Them http://taralazar.wordpress.com/

Are you a picture book author with an agent?  Want to share your story?  Contact me so we can include you in this series!

Categories: Agents, Authors, Children's Books, How I Got My Agent, Picture Books, Publishing, Rhyming, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , ,

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29 Comments

  1. So enjoyed this! Especially timely to be reading about magazines as a teleseminar I listened to this week has really got me thinking more seriously about submitting to these. Really appreciated the discussion on rhyme and the importance of waiting until your manuscripts are really submission-worthy!

    • Right! I think the most important thing to note from Jean’s experience is that she took a big step back to focus on the craft – THEN started submitting again.

  2. I enjoyed this article! It was nice reinforcement to find fresh readers for rhyming poetry!

  3. Great job Julie – Wonderful questions and terrific, helpful answers from Jean!

  4. Wonderful interview! I had a great critique from Jean once, I’d love to send a young pb to Picture Book Peek Weeks. My kids would love a picture book with hardly any words, I’ll show them and see if they are interested. Best wishes!

  5. Thanks, Joanna. Yes, give those magazines a try. The market is getting tougher but they’re always looking for fresh voices.

  6. Thanks, Russ. Oh yes, writing in rhyme can be tricky business. Find readers who read or write poetry OR have really good ears for rhythm.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Cathy!

  8. Thanks, Catherine. I’m so happy the critique was helpful. And yes, please watch for my next PB Peek Week. But in the meantime, stop by my auction 11/7-11/18. I have loads of wonderful items for writers – including some fabulous PB critique packages.

  9. What a delicious, meaty interview. (Bad rhyme jolts me, too.)

    Thanks, Julie and Jean…

  10. Blog hopped over, great interview. And as far as rhyme goes I do it all the time. Is that a crime? Aren’t I sublime or am I just a nut, stuck in a rut..haha..couldn’t help myself.

  11. Ha ha, Pat! Sounds like you’re a pro. Thanks for the fun post!

  12. I love reading rhyme. I’m just a criminal when I try to write in rhyme. Thanks for sharing your process and how your agent works.

    • Stacy,

      If you love reading rhyme, maybe I’ll send you my manuscripts once I think they’re close to done to see if you can find places where the rhyme “sticks.” 😉

    • Hi Stacy, thanks for stopping by and thanks for the Twitter follow. Good luck with all your picture book projects – rhyming or not – and good luck with your memoir too.

  13. Best of luck, Jean! Thanks for sharing your insights with us. 😀

  14. Welcome Jean,
    Hey Julie, do you think you could introduce us to a few Granny, home spun,this is how the old folks did it …images? Nah, I guess that wouldn’t compare at all after looking at you…
    Wow, makes me wonder…
    Did all our home making Grand folks look as good as you girls back when they invented true love, and Sunday dinner?
    Guess I missed the real dishes back then, wow feeding my face.
    God Bless You
    paul

  15. Julie – thanks for a very interesting interview!
    Jean – I feel like I’ve seen you everywhere this week – here, Picture This, and your own blog – thanks for sharing all your valuable insights. Erin certainly does sound like a dream agent 🙂

    • Hi Susanna – Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it’s been a busy, busy blog tour week. I’m glad you were able to follow along. I hope you can stop by my auction in November too. I have loads of awesome items for writers. And I’ve just begun to preview some on my blog. Have a great weekend.

  16. Thanks Julie and Jean for a fascinating interview.
    Jean, it was great to read about your agent and publishing experiences.
    Congratulations on the success of your picture books and also on the release of Light Up The Night!

  17. Thanks for the interview, Julie and Jean. I was going over my files today and contemplating the quirkiness of the picture book market, so it was very timely. In my own writing, I’ve had favorable comments on one of my PB manuscripts and a consideration, but no sales. (Alas!) That’s almost harder to deal with than a form letter rejection.

    Your words were encouraging!

    : )

    • Beth – I’m sure you’ve already heard this, but favorable comments and a consideration are HUGE. I know it’s hard, but you’re close – really, really close.
      Good luck with all your projects.

  18. I met Jean at the RMC-SCBWI, and was so impressed with her. This looks like a great book!

    ~Debbie

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