Here to kick off the 2011 series of How I Got My Agent for picture book writers is none other than Tara Lazar, the generous founder of PiBoIdMo (or Picture Book Idea Month for the uninitiated). Tara started PiBoIdMo as alternative to NaNoWriMo for picture book writers, and the event has grown exponentially each year. I participated myself in 2010 and came up with some ideas that I can’t wait to work on. Her debut picture book, THE MONSTORE, which will be published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster in 2013, was an idea Tara got during her first PiBoIdMo (It works people!). Thanks for coming by, Tara. I’m so thrilled to have you.
“Thanks to you too, Julie. I’m glad to be here.”
How long had you been writing picture books before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one?
I didn’t decide it was time to look for an agent! My friend Corey Rosen Schwartz did!
I met Corey about three years ago, when I first began to write picture books. She has long been a champion of my work. She encouraged me to query agents with THE MONSTORE–she was convinced it would sell. She was right!
What kind of research did you do before submitting?
I had been researching agents for years, keeping tabs on those I thought would be a good match for my style of writing. There are so many agent interviews available online, as well as the agents themselves! They keep blogs, writing about what they are (and aren’t) looking for. I encourage other writers to follow agents on Twitter, read their blogs, and read interviews. Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents and Casey McCormick’s blogs are excellent resources for agent information.
My connection with my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, was like kismet. My friend Corey had won a critique with author Jean Reidy and didn’t have a current manuscript to send, so she sent mine! Jean then tweeted that she loved my manuscript, and Joan, who is friends with Jean (they are both represented by Erin Murphy), asked what she was reading. So Jean and Corey gave me a referral to Joan. While Joan was hooked with my picture books, she also loved the first chapter of my middle-grade novel. So I can’t say that I’m focused solely on picture books, but Joan did comment that she had been looking for a picture book author to represent.
I also had a nice connection with Kelly Sonnack at Andrea Brown. Although Kelly did not offer representation, she was very interested in THE MONSTORE. And kismet struck again when her client James Burks was chosen to illustrate it.
I think it’s essential for picture book authors to have several manuscripts ready-to-go before querying agents. One book is not going to result in representation. It’s just too tough a market.
I have heard the same thing from several agents – be ready to share more than one manuscript. Thanks for bringing that up!
The dreaded questions: How many queries? How many rejections?
I did not query agents until THE MONSTORE. And then it was just Ammi-Joan and four other agents.
I was very cautious with submitting to editors, too. I was waiting until I was good enough. I felt that submitting too early was a mistake. I didn’t want to use up my chances with particular editors by sending them an early manuscript and then not being able to send it again once I had revised successfully. I had submitted about 15 times with 15 rejections, a few personal.
How did you know your agent was “the one?”
While we clicked immediately on the telephone, I don’t think you truly know your agent is “the one” until you begin working with them. And working with Joan is a joy. I feel lucky to have her. She is very encouraging and she helps me to refine manuscripts. She loves nearly everything I produce, which I think is rare. If there’s a manuscript she’s not certain will sell, I know she’s right and I move onto something else.
Has your writing process changed since signing with an agent?
When I have a new idea, I ask Joan about it first. Should I write it? It’s great to have her feedback before I waste my time on a sub-par concept. I send her first drafts to ask if I’m going in the right direction and if it’s worth revising, or if I should try a different angle. This kind of early feedback is something I always wanted from an agent. Although picture books are short, they don’t take a short time to write. The process with Joan ensures that I’m not working on something that has no potential.
Sounds like bliss…
We sometimes hear that picture book writers don’t really need an agent. What do you think the advantages are of having an agent?
I think I just answered that question! In addition, I don’t want to take time away from my writing to focus on sales. When I was submitting directly to editors, I spent weeks researching which ones would be a good fit. Then I spent weeks writing cover letters. I researched similar titles, the editor’s other books, and the publisher’s lists. It was a long process. And I couldn’t seem to change gears easily from the creative side to the business side and back again. When I was submitting, that’s all I was doing. Having Joan means I can spend more time on writing.
You are the host of the popular Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) event in November. One of your own PiBoIdMo ideas became the book that is now being published. Do you think the PiBoIdMo process made a big difference in helping you get that “winning” idea?
Truth be told, I get ideas almost every day. But PiBoIdMo did get me in the habit of writing down those ideas, of seeking out the magic around us every day. One of my favorite quotes is from Roald Dahl: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
The daily process of writing down ideas builds and becomes a habit. I think to be creative, you have to hone your creative sensibilities. You have to be creative every day. PiBoIdMo encourages the artist in us to be productive.
What’s up next/what are you working on now?
I am digging back into my middle grade novel. I just completed a new picture book manuscript that Joan loves, and I’m doing some revision on it. (I should note that Corey loves it, too. LOL!)
What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?
Be patient. Give yourself time to improve your craft. (I like Neil Gaiman’s story about THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. He came up with the concept years ago, but put it away until he was a better writer.) Take at least two years to write seriously before submitting. Join a critique group. A good one will honestly tell you if you’re ready to seek representation. Don’t query too early. Once an agent rejects a project, you can’t send it to them again (unless they specifically request a revision, which is rare). If you’ve been submitting the same manuscript with no interest, write something else. Move on. When you do query, be sure to have other projects ready to send. If an agent is interested, they will ask to see more work.
I have to say I love the advice of taking two years to write seriously before submitting. I wish somebody had told me that when I was starting! I could have avoided submitting projects that weren’t ready.
Last, but certainly not least: Johnny Depp or Ryan Reynolds?
Umm, Edward Norton. I think he’s one of the most talented actors working today. And I think he’s handsome, with a boyish charm.
Okay we agree to disagree. :-) Seriously though, thanks to Tara for this fabulous interview! I hope you guys get as much out of it as I did.
If you are a picture book writer with an agent or an agent with picture book writer clients and would like to be featured in this series, please email me at jhedlund33 (at) yahoo (dot) com.