12 x 12 Member Heather PreusserI can’t even begin to say how excited I am to share my friend Heather Preusser’s “How I Got My Agent” story with you. You see, Heather is a real-life friend who lives right here in Colorado, and we’ve been in a critique group together for four years. I’ve loved Heather’s writing since Day 1, and trust me when I tell you she is going to be a SUPER star. Not only does she write heartfelt and hilarious picture books, but she’s also on submission with a middle grade novel. She does both high-concept and humor, and quiet and meaningful, equally well. Please welcome… Heather!

How long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one?
I started writing children’s picture books in the spring of 2011 when I enrolled in a class with Linda Ashman at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver. (If you ever have the opportunity to work with Linda, I HIGHLY recommend it.) Of course, that summer I made the rookie mistake of sending out manuscripts too soon. Crickets. I attended my first SCBWI Rocky Mountain conference that fall and realized just how much I had left to learn.

True story: While my query letter was being critiqued in one of the conference sessions, I actually put my coat on in an attempt to cover up my nametag; I didn’t want anyone connecting me with that awful query letter, the one where I sounded like a high school English teacher applying for a teaching job rather than a writer trying to capture the tone and style of a picture book manuscript. That humbling learning experience helped me see that I had no idea what I was doing; I wasn’t ready to submit my manuscripts. I spent a few years focusing on craft, going back to school for my MFA in Creative Writing, joining critique groups, and participating in both online and in-person workshops. Almost three years later, some of my stories were placing in little contests, and the critiques I was receiving from agents participating the Writer’s Digest webinars I’d signed up for encouraged me to submit to them through traditional means. I was getting closer.

What kind of research did you do before submitting?
While focusing on craft, I started following blogs, like Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating: Sharing Information About Writing and Illustrating for Children and Chuck Sambuchino’s New Agency Alerts. Every time they mentioned a new agent who fit my criteria, I added the information to my Excel spreadsheet, which I cleverly titled “Dream Agents.”

The dreaded questions: How many queries? How many rejections?
In the winter of 2014, I queried eleven agents. Three responded asking for additional manuscripts (My soon-to-be agent Janine Le at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency got back to me in one week!). I received a form rejection from one agent and never heard from the others.

Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author focusing solely on picture books?
I wasn’t looking for an agent who focused solely on picture books. As part of my MFA, I wrote a middle grade novel, so, ideally, I wanted an agent who represented picture books through young adult; however, I didn’t think my novel was submission-ready, so I didn’t mention it to Janine initially.

How did you know your agent was “the one?
In addition to Janine’s patience and understanding (a family emergency came up shortly after I contacted her, which meant we had to postpone our first phone conversation), I appreciated every piece of editorial feedback she gave me. Every comment rang true. When she told me she was also a wordsmith, I knew we’d be a perfect fit.

If 12 x 12 helped you in any way during your agent search/development of craft, can you tell us how? (P.S. It is TOTALLY okay if the answer is no. I am not trying to “lead” you 🙂 )
Although I didn’t find my agent through 12×12, the community most definitely helped me, particularly when I was living in Germany with my new husband and his family. I felt isolated and uninspired; because of the language barrier, I couldn’t glean story ideas by eavesdropping on conversations or checking out books from the local library. (My husband, however, did translate and read picture books aloud to me whenever we went in bookstores.) That year my husband and I rented an apartment in Berlin, and after throwing our own Thanksgiving feast, I sat down determined to make the 12×12 Winner’s Wall. I entered what Donald Graves calls “a state of constant composition” and managed to write eight first drafts between Thanksgiving and Christmas, eight new stories I wouldn’t have birthed then and there without that Julie-imposed deadline. They were far from elegant, but at least I had something down on paper, something to work with. Sadly, I have yet to make the Wall; that year I was one manuscript short.

There’s also a wealth of knowledge that’s shared in the 12×12 community, which was instrumental as I researched agents, how to write query letters, etc. It was through 12×12 that I learned of other wondrous kidlit resources, such as Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo, Miranda Paul’s Rate Your Story, and Susanna Leonard Hill’s “Making Picture Book Magic” class.

Has your writing process changed at all since signing with an agent?
I’m still exploring what it means to have an agent and how that affects my writing process. Janine has encouraged me to run ideas by her in any genre, and – more importantly, I think – she’s encouraged me to work on projects I’m passionate about.

What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?
Take your time. Learn your craft. Of the four picture book manuscripts I submitted to Janine, two were the 18th draft, while the other two were drafts 12 and 20. And we’re still revising!

In the process of revising, you’ll need to kill some of your proverbial darlings, but you’ll also need to stay true to the story and yourself as a writer. In her first email response, Janine said I caught her attention with a particular line that many people told me to cut (either they didn’t understand my humor or they didn’t understand cow anatomy or both), but I liked it so I kept it in draft after draft after draft. I’m learning over time to trust myself as a writer.

Do you think your platform (blog, social media) helped you find your agent?
Although I wrote and recorded reviews for Katie Davis’s podcast Brain Burps About Books, and Katie recommended that I create an author website, I didn’t have much of a web presence when I contacted Janine, and I only dabbled in the Twitterverse; however, in our first conversation Janine referenced my query letter, asking if I was still reviewing MG and YA novels for Katie’s podcast. It made a difference that I was involved in the industry, that I was actively participating in the online kidlit community (blogs, webinars, podcasts, etc.).

Tell us something that is on your “bucket list.” Something you’ve dreamed of doing all your life but have yet to accomplish (besides publishing a book, which is inevitable at this point 🙂 )
I’ve always wanted to learn another language. Despite living in Germany for almost two years, right now my German only consists of useful, fun-to-remember words, like Formfleischvorderschinken (ham), Eisenbahnbetriebsordnung (railroad rules) and Taschenfederkernmatratze (mattress with springs in it). Like David Sedaris, I hope that I too will “talk pretty one day.”

What’s up next/what are you working on now?
After finishing another round of revisions on my middle grade novel, we sent it out to editors. I’m also currently revising a handful of picture book manuscripts.

Heather teaches high school English in Colorado. When she’s not teaching, reading or writing, she enjoys telemark skiing, rock climbing and learning ridiculously long German words. You can find her on Twitter at @HeatherPreusser.

P.S. Are you looking for an agent who represents picture books? Four of them are participating in the Picture Book Summit online conference October 3rd, and will be accepting submissions from attendees! Registration closes Friday at midnight though, so act fast if you’re interested!

Categories: 12 x 12, Agents, Brain Burps About Books, Children's Books, Guest Blogging, How I Got My Agent, PiBoIdMo, Picture Books, Queries, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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There are so many books by Linda Ashman I could select for Perfect Picture Book Friday. Not only are we huge fans in our house, but I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Linda several times over the course of my writing career. In a fantastic example of the circularity of life, I once cried on Linda’s shoulder at a workshop after MY LOVE FOR YOU IS THE SUN got completely trashed in a first pages session. She then took the time to walk through the manuscript with me and give me tips for making it better. Several years (and MANY revisions later), this past week she was able to give me an endorsement for it as part of my Kickstarter campaign.

Linda is also our 12 x 12 featured author for November, and if you haven’t read her post on bad beginnings (and how to fix them), you should go straight there – AFTER you read this post of course. Then I highly recommend you nab her ebook, The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books. Lastly, you should check out more of her award-winning, critically acclaimed books. Now – let’s get on with the show, shall we?

M is for Mischief - Ashman M is for Mischief

Written by Linda Ashman and Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

Dutton Juvenile (July 3, 2008)

Suitable for: Ages 6-8

Themes/Topics: Poetry, Consequences, Rhyming, Manners, Alphabet Book

Opening/Synopsis: From Amazon: “Clever cautionary poems, raucously illustrated, about 26 children you’d rather read about than meet.

Here are twenty-six brats you’d never want to babysit: Catastrophic Coco, Gluttonous Griffin, Impolite Irma, and Quarrelsome Quincy, just to name a few. Linda Ashman’s perfectly crafted ditties about kids from Angry Abby, who is “apt to argue at any time and any place,?” to Zany Zelda, who “zigs and zags through all the rooms” are paired with hilariously energetic digital collages by Nancy Carpenter. Kids will relish the chaos these naughty tykes create and also the comeuppance many of them justly receive.”

Activities: Linda has a phenomenal teaching guide for this book on her website. As a bonus, she even offers an exercise for writers to learn how to scan the meter of one of the poems.

Why I Like This Book: As a writer and fellow rhymer, I love this book because it showcases how brilliant Linda is at writing rhyme. Internal rhyme, consonance, assonance, alliteration – it’s all here. Not to mention that each character’s personality jumps off the page. No easy feat to accomplish by itself, much less to write all in rhyme! My kids love the book because ALL kids love to read about naughty children. Especially naughty children who are MUCH naughtier than themselves. They express the same kind of glee over some of the consequences the children face in the book as they do for the brats in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. AND – without even realizing it, they are learning about good manners while reading about and considering these children with their bad manners. The book is a perfect jumping-off point for more serious discussions about behavior and consequences.

For more fantastic picture books and resources please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog and find the tab for Perfect Picture Books.

Categories: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Authors, Books, Children's Books, Parenting, Perfect Picture Book Friday, Picture Books, Rhyming, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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Linda Ashman

I am SO excited to welcome November’s 12 x 12 featured author, Linda Ashman! I’ve met and worked with Linda in person and online several times. She is a phenomenal writer (seriously her rhyme blows my mind it’s SO great!), an equally fantastic mentor and now, she’s sharing her considerable talent with us. The only thing I don’t like about Linda is that she moved from Colorado to North Carolina, so I don’t get to see her in person anymore. 🙁

Linda’s latest step in her distinguished career as a picture book writer was to publish an ebook sharing her extensive knowledge both as a writer and a writing teacher — The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books. Folks, this book MUST go onto your virtual shelves. I’ve read all 150+ pages of it and there is so much juicy goodness in there it will make your head spin (how many more cliches can I use in one intro??). Not since Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books has there been a tome I recommend so highly for picture book authors.

Linda is generously giving away both a picture book critique AND a free copy of Nuts & Bolts. So we’ll have two lucky winners this month! In the meantime, soak up all the knowledge and wisdom contained in her guest post here on bad beginnings and how to fix them. Welcome Linda!

Beyond the Bad Beginning

If you’ve read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (and if you haven’t, I highly recommend it), you know it’s okay to write “shitty first drafts”—that even the best books begin badly. Still, if you’re like me, you’re convinced that no one’s first drafts are as irredeemably drecky as your own.

In today’s post, I plan to prove that (a) my first drafts are, actually, much worse than yours, and (b) even the most pathetic beginnings can be turned into compelling—and salable—manuscripts. To do that, I’ll share some of my own unlovely work, then offer ten tips for getting beyond the bad beginning.

In The Nuts and Bolts Guide I talk about how I struggled with the rhyme pattern for my book Creaky Old House—so much so that I wound up writing three versions, each in a different meter. While I share the first stanzas of each version in the Guide, I don’t share the inauspicious beginning that preceded them.

The idea for the story—then called “Rickety House”—was pretty skimpy: a wacky family lives in an old house that’s well-loved but needs lots of repairs, with one repair leading to another and another. Because my son—like many 4 year olds at the time—was a Bob the Builder devotee, I wanted to include some tools and construction action as well. With those basic ideas in mind, I grabbed a pad and scribbled the following:

Aunt — came to visit.

But the doorknob came off in her hand.

My word! Huffed Aunt Rita
Oh these old houses! Aunt Rita complained
They’re nothing but trouble
No trouble at all, my Papa exclaimed.
I just need a . . . screw. / thingamajig.

We went to the basement.
To the basement!
We searched through
Through piles of nails and
And . .

We found rusty old nails
And —- pails
Buckets and screwdrivers, hammers and —
Sandpaper, saws and – and –
But no screw.

No problem, said Dad.
The hardware store
And find a new knob.

Does the word “gibberish” come to mind? There’s little evidence of a story here, much less a rhyming one. A pretty flimsy platform to build on, but I had a strategy—or at least a next step. Since the family was headed to the hardware store, I brainstormed construction and renovation-related terms and jotted them on the same page, figuring this might give me some direction and generate phrases with rhyme potential (you can see the actual draft here: Creaky First Draft). Then I sat at my computer and started typing, hoping to clarify—or at least add to—the story in the process. Here’s the next iteration:

Aunt Bess came by to say hello
But the doorknob came off in her hand.

And the doorknob came right off.

“No problem, Bess,” my dad
just a little screw is all we need
I’ll get one from my workbench/workshop

To the basement
We cleared the cobwebs, wiped the dust
Found – and an ancient sandwich crust
Searched through buckets, bins and pails
Through nuts and bolts and – and nails
And then—at last!—we found a screw.
“aha!” said Dad. “this one should do.”

I’ll fix that doorknob lickety split.
Too bad. The — — didn’t fit.

Brackets, pliers, wrenches, clamps
Trowels, vises, mallets,
Tacks, drills, drill bits, scrapers,

Found brackets, trowels, pliers, tacks
Rags and workbooks, stacks and stacks!

Papa scratched his head.
Mama heaved a sigh.
“seems this screw won’t do the job.
We’ll buy ourselves a brand new knob.

Hmm. Not much better, is it? The story, such as it is, doesn’t make sense, and has blank spots and unfinished sentences. My rhymes are minimal and mostly bad (and hint at the struggles with meter to come). Oh, and Aunt Rita is now Aunt Bess.

Bad as it was, I felt encouraged by this draft because I could see the barest outline of a story—an old house, a goofy family, and an escalating misadventure as they came up with increasingly elaborate solutions to address a minor problem (a broken doorknob). Plus it had good illustration potential and gave me the opportunity to use plenty of construction words.

Still, I had a long way to go just to make the story comprehensible, much less worthy of submission. So I wrote many, many dozens of drafts, and—as noted earlier—experimented with three different rhyme patterns. Nothing seemed to work. At several points I nearly threw in the towel, convinced that my struggles were a sure sign the manuscript was unpublishable. But I liked the idea, and liked a few of the stanzas, so I kept at it. And—eventually—the rhyme pattern clicked, the story fell into place, and I finished (for the time being; I did more revising after the story was acquired).

Although Creaky Old House required more work than most, all my manuscripts start out just as scraggly and unpromising. And many of them—actually, most of them—never get beyond that stage. So how do you know if your bad beginning has the potential to be a viable manuscript?

Well . . . you don’t. That’s the frustrating part. Few of us want to invest time in a story that’s not going anywhere, but it’s a necessary part of the process. You have to be willing to play around with an idea—to flesh out those early, scrawny drafts—to get a sense of where the story’s taking you. And you have to be willing to do the painstaking—and, yes, sometimes tedious—work of revising (and revising . . . and revising). This is where a lot of us get stuck—and discouraged. So here are a few suggestions to get you past the bad beginning toward that final, fabulous—and salable—manuscript:

1. Imagine your ending. Often, I know what’s on page 32 before I have any idea of what’s in the middle of my story. Having at least a vague sense of your destination makes it easier to get there.

2. Think incrementally. Yes, it’s good to keep your ending in mind, but you don’t have to have the entire story mapped out from the get-go. Just let the beginning lead you to the next step, then the next one, and the next one. Stuck? Then . . .

3. Brainstorm. If you look at my Creaky Old House early draft (Find it here: Creaky Early Draft), you’ll see lists of tools, doors, doorknobs, and hardware stuff along with strings of rhyming words. Similarly, my To the Beach drafts include long lists of beach paraphernalia. Do I use all these terms? No. But words beget ideas, and free-associating can stimulate creativity and lead your story in new directions.

4. Let it flow. As you probably noticed, my earliest drafts are barely coherent, filled with partial sentences and dashes when I couldn’t think of the right word. Don’t be nit-picky early in your writing process—just get your ideas on paper. Later, when you’ve got your story figured out, you can obsess about clarity, word choice, grammar and punctuation.

5. Experiment. Your story’s written in third person? Change it to first. The little girl is narrating the story? Try letting the goldfish tell it. It’s written in rhyme? Change the meter, or write it in prose. Switch things up and see what happens.

6. Visualize your story. Sometimes I can “see” the story before I can write it. For my book Rain!, for example, I made a rough (very rough) storyboard to map out the action, then figured out the text later (you can see just how rough my storyboard is here: http://www.howtowritepicturebooks.com/1/post/2013/10/the-wisdom-of-making-dummies.html).

7. Change your scenery. I often read my drafts while walking around my neighborhood, pen in hand. Or I go to a coffee shop. Being in a different environment can give you a fresh perspective.

8. Let it go. Occasionally I start off with some self-imposed requirement that trips me up down the road. For example, after reading somewhere that repetition was a good thing in picture books, I decided To the Beach would be a “Story with Repetition.” So, as I wrote it, I repeated the same phrase over and over again (The car is packed. We’re on our way. We’re going to the beach today). Yes, repetition can be good. Sometimes. And other times it can be annoying. Once I let go of the repetition idea (admittedly, at an editor’s suggestion), I wrote a much stronger story.

9. Be open to serendipity. I’ve started several poetry collections that never quite came to fruition. But I expanded a few of the poems I’d written into manuscripts that eventually became picture books. Don’t be afraid to let your story take you in a different direction.

10. Be patient. Sometimes ideas aren’t ready to be hatched. If you can’t seem to get beyond your bad beginning, put your manuscript away for a while. Do not throw it away. I wrote Rub-a-Dub Sub in a week—two years after I’d relegated it to my file drawer as a nonstarter. Sometimes timing is everything.

Above all, don’t be discouraged. Your drafts are likely to look bad—really bad—before they start looking good. If you forget this, just remember Aunt Rita and Aunt Bess—neither of whom, by the way, made it to the final version of Creaky Old House. (See the final text here: Creaky Old House Final Text)

It’s always a pleasure to visit your blog, Julie. Thanks for having me!

ONE MORE THING FOLKS! Linda is teaming up with another of our fabulous 12 x 12 members — Susanna Hill — to offer a rhyme clinic on December 2nd. I HIGHLY encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity. Submissions are open until mid-November and all of the details are here.

Linda Ashman is the author of many critically acclaimed books for children, as well as The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books, a “how to” handbook for picture book writers. Her children’s books have been included on the “Best of the Year” lists of the New York Times, Parenting, Child, and Cookie magazines, Bank Street College of Education, the New York Public Library, and others. As a children’s poet, she’s been compared to Mary Ann Hoberman, Douglas Florian, and Jack Prelutsky; Kirkus called her poetry “as pithy and clever as Ogden Nash at his best.” You can learn more about Linda on her website: http://www.lindaashman.com

Categories: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Authors, Children's Books, Picture Books, Rhyming, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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I was more than a little inspired reading this post from today’s Tuesday 12 x 12 author — Jennifer Bertman. I remember reading during those middle of the night nursing sessions with my babies but writing??? I think that makes Jennifer my new hero. Reading her post reminded me that finding the joy is what it’s all about. We also have a mutual admiration of author Linda Ashman. I’ve also taken one of Linda’s workshops, which makes me feel an even greater kinship with Jennifer. I’m sure you will too after reading this post. Please welcome Jennifer!

When I was in graduate school I took a class called “Alternate Genres” where we studied a new genre of fiction every two weeks. One segment focused on children’s books, and we created our own for an assignment. I can’t remember ever having as much fun with a school project as I did creating that book. I’ve been a lifelong fan of children’s books, but it never occurred to me that I could attempt to write them myself until I was immersed in that project. That was over ten years ago and I’ve been slowly but steadily working toward a career as a writer of children’s books ever since.

I focused my energy on picture books first, but a few years and many rejections later I began to fear that maybe I didn’t have what it took to be a children’s book author after all. I’ve never been one to back down from pursuing a dream so I decided to switch my focus to middle grade novels. I received some early encouragement from an editor and an agent that had me thinking I must be on the right track. But picture book ideas continued to call to me. I’ve flirted with them over the years, but I could never really shake that worry that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a Tammi Sauer/Liz Garton Scanlon/Doreen Cronin.

But then I started up a correspondence with an agent who was so encouraging about one of my picture books it made me start to believe in myself again as a picture book writer. I attended a writing retreat led by Linda Ashman, one of my all-time favorite contemporary picture book authors. I was filled with inspiration and my confidence continued to build. At the end of last year I simultaneously joined a picture book critique group and the 12x12x12 Challenge. This undertaking was a little bit crazy on my part because I was also expecting my first baby in April and working on revisions of my middle grade novel for the encouraging agent.

But the concept of the 12x12x12 Challenge was just too brilliant to pass up. The clincher was first draft. Not polished draft. Not submission-quality work. Just purge the idea from brain to paper. And the idea of a community of writers working toward the same goal appealed to me as well. I had worries that my writing would not only take a backseat to becoming a mom, but it would get left curbside as the minivan rolled away. The 12x12x12 Challenge seemed like the perfect way to keep myself tethered to the writing community and my writing goals. Surely amidst my baby and revision mania I could manage one picture book rough draft a month.

Well . . . I have to confess I’ve fallen short of the goal, but I still consider my participation in the 12x12x12 Challenge a success. I’ve written six drafts so far: two were one-finger typed into Notes on my iPhone in the middle of the night while nursing, one is scribbled in a notebook in the middle of notes for the novel I’m revising, and three are typed on my computer. I’ve discovered several new blogs and writers whose work I enjoy, and I’ve gained inspiration from the 12 x 12 x 12 posts and Facebook community. But something unexpected is perhaps the most valuable thing I’m taking away from this challenge: I’ve rediscovered the fun. Perhaps because I had low expectations for myself given the other things I’m trying to juggle, perhaps because I’m not approaching these drafts as “something I hope to publish”, or perhaps it’s just sheer deliriousness of sleep deprivation or spending hours making nonsensical noises to entertain my baby. For whatever reason, I’ve found myself revisiting that mental space I was in when I worked on the picture book assignment back in graduate school.

I don’t know if I will ever hit that sweet spot of the perfect picture book idea executed in the right way on the right editor’s desk at the right time. But I know I need to listen to the advice I’ve given to countless writer friends: Just. Keep. Going. I truly believe if you love something enough, and if you work hard to study the field and hone your skills, and you keep trying to reach your goal no matter what obstacles you face, you will succeed. Hopefully I’ll be able to report back in a future 12×12 Challenge as being proof of that.

Jennifer Bertman earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of Moraga, CA. Visit her blog where she hosts the Creative Spaces interview series featuring the workspaces and processes of various children’s book authors and illustrators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Children's Books, Goals, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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Thanks again to Linda Ashman and Jennifer Mattson for last week’s giveaway and How I Got My Agent interview.  Please mark your calendars for this Friday, October 14th when another Colorado author, Jean Reidy, will be here both as part of the How I Got My Agent series and her blog tour for the release of her newest picture book, LIGHT UP THE NIGHT.  Light Up the Night releases tomorrow, so you heard it here first.  Go out and order your copies!!

I also spent a day in Austin over the weekend, courtesy of the Austin SCBWI, learning as much as I possibly could about digital storytelling and publishing.  I’ll share some tidbits on the blog this week so keep an eye out.

Now, without further adieu, here are the winners of Linda Ashman’s amazing new books!  Drum roll…

NO DOGS ALLOWED! goes to Beth MacKinney!!!!

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN COLORADO (which wasn’t on the original giveaway list, but Linda has it and this reader wanted it, which enabled us to draw more winners, so…) goes to Stacy Jensen!!!!

SAMANTHA ON A ROLL goes to BOTH Joanna Marple and Julie Musil (Turns out we have an extra copy, so we were able to give away two of these)!!!!!

Congratulations to the winners.  Please email me at jhedlund33 (at) yahoo.com with your mailing addresses and who you would like the books to be signed to and we’ll send them on their way.  Woo Hoo!

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

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I am so excited to present my first-ever author/agent duo for the How I Got My Agent Series.  Thanks to Jennifer Mattson for agreeing to go under the microscope participate alongside Linda. I decided on a She Said/She Said format, with their pictures as the indicator for their responses.  Of course I couldn’t resist sprinkling in a few of my own comments, which appear in italics.

Linda Ashman is the award-winning author of more than two-dozen picture books.  She has had three books released in the past three months, and you can enter to win one of them (details below).  Yesterday’s post includes my reviews of the books, and you can earn double points in the giveaway if you also comment and share that one.  Linda lives right here in the great state of Colorado with her husband Jack, son Jackson, and dog daughters Stella and Sammy.

Jennifer Mattson is an Associate Agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency.  Before joining ABLA, Jennifer spent nearly five years  reviewing children’s literature as part of the Books for Youth staff of Booklist magazine. Prior to Booklist, Jennifer was an Associate Editor at Dutton Children’s Books. She represents authors across all children’s genres – picture books, MG and YA.  Jennifer is also the co-author of THE OFFICIAL EASY-BAKE COOKBOOK, which we happen to own! (although I hide it because truthfully, I dread the days my daughter asks me if we can “Easy Bake.” Same thing with Play-Doh actually, but enough about me…)

Let’s dig into the questions shall we?

Linda, when did you seek an agent for the first time, and how/why did you know it was time to look for one?

I signed on with my first agent around 1999, after selling seven manuscripts on my own.  Although I wasn’t actively looking at the time, a writer friend spoke highly of her new agent and suggested I talk to him.  Since I’d been “negotiating” my own contracts (as in, “Where do I sign?”), it made sense to work with someone more knowledgeable about contracts — and the business in general — than I was, and who had relationships with more editors and knew their particular tastes.

Jennifer, the first question this audience will have is: Are you currently accepting submissions from picture book authors and/or illustrators?  If so, what kind of manuscripts are you looking for?

Yes, of course.  I am accepting text-only picture book queries and queries from author-illustrators, but at this time I’m not looking to sign up illustrator-only clients.

It impresses me when an author knows how to develop a character and tell a complete, satisfying story with extreme concision, with 750 words as a target maximum, and under 500 words much preferred.  I’m not looking for issue-driven/teachable moment stories, stories with historical settings, fairy tales or fairy tale retellings, nor, as a rule, nonfiction picture books – though I’ve been known to take a shine to nonfiction that illuminates some truly surprising corner of history or science with strong kid appeal (I loved The Day Glo Brothers, for instance – wish I could have represented it!)  What excites me most, though, are humorous stories that turn on universal conflicts resolved in memorable character-specific ways.

Since poetry is Linda Ashman’s specialty, it’s clear that I’m open to rhyming manuscripts. Having said that, I now have a few clients who primarily write in verse, so for the time being I’ll be most active about adding writers-in-narrative to my roster.

Note, in a few months I will be taking a hiatus from reading queries for a while because I’m going on maternity leave (my e-mail autoresponse will be clear about when that goes into effect).

What an excellent reason for a query hiatus. Many congratulations!! One more voracious reader of children’s books is about to enter the world…

Linda, Jennifer was not your first agent. What have you learned from working with three different agents?

I’ve learned that it’s really important to get a sense of how an agent works.  When you send her a story, will she read it within a matter of days, or does she, for example, devote one week a month to reading clients’ work?  Does he have an overall submission strategy for your manuscript, or does he send it to one editor at a time and wait for a response?  Does she notify you right away when she hears back from an editor, and — if it’s a decline — discuss with you the next plan of action?  Is the agent a one-person shop, or part of a larger organization?  (Neither is necessarily better than the other, but I really appreciate the support Jennifer gets from her colleagues at Andrea Brown.)

In order to avoid annoyance on one side and frustration on the other, expectations are everything.  Be very clear about communications.  How often should you expect to hear from him — only when there’s news, or will he check in periodically?  Is she accessible by phone or email if you have questions?   Beyond that, make sure you like this person, and feel comfortable asking questions.  This could be — hopefully will be — a very long relationship.   You don’t need to be best friends, but respect and compatibility are important.  And, above all, make sure the agent is genuinely enthusiastic about you and your work.  This is a tough business, and it helps to feel you have a professional ally looking out for your interests.

Wow, that is such a great answer.  I so often think that in this competitive market, writers think any agent is better than no agent and forget that it’s a business relationship that should benefit both the agent and the author.  Thanks for giving us some great questions to ask!

How did you find Jennifer and then come to the conclusion that she was “the one?”

I met Jennifer when we both were on the faculty at the “Big Sur in the Rockies” writing retreat in Boulder in May 2010.  I really liked her, and was impressed with her thoughtfulness and intelligence.  I knew she’d worked with Meredith Mundy, my Sterling editor, so I asked Meredith about her.  I really trust and respect Meredith, so when she gave Jennifer a ringing endorsement, I decided to contact her to discuss working together.  I’m so glad I did — Jennifer has been a dream to work with.

I’ve met Jennifer at two different ABLA events, and she is so knowledgeable, but also so friendly and approachable.  Readers, query her if you think your stories are a good fit!

Likewise, Jennifer, what drew you to Linda’s work and made you want to sign her as a client?

I’ve known Linda’s work for a long time, because when I was an associate editor at Dutton Children’s Books in the late 1990s, she would regularly submit (and be published by) the head of our imprint.  The publisher would bring promising manuscripts to an editorial board meeting, so I recall seeing Linda’s work and being impressed by her professionalism and her gift for poetry.  Later, Linda went on to publish with a former colleague and friend of mine, Meredith Mundy at Sterling.  The degrees of separation kept getting a bit smaller over time – and finally Linda and I were faculty members at the same writers’ workshop, Big Sur in the Rockies in Boulder, CO, cosponsored by our agency and the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI.  In a way, meeting Linda felt like greeting an old friend, partly due to our professional connections, and partly because I had spent so much time reading my daughter her board book, BABIES ON THE GO!  I was thrilled when, several months later, I received a note from her asking if I’d like to discuss working together.  Honestly, it didn’t take much thinking!

BABIES ON THE GO is great! But you guys have probably already figured out that we’re big Linda Ashman fans in this household.  By the way, at that very same Big Sur in the Rockies meeting, I was fortunate to have Linda as one of my faculty members.  From that experience, I can tell you that her manuscript critiquing service is well worth the price.

Linda, the picture book market is tough right now, and it seems many agents don’t take PB clients only.  I know your situation is a bit different because you had already sold many books before signing with Jennifer, but what advice would you give to a pre-published PB writer seeking an agent today?

Sometimes, in our eagerness to get published, we send our work out there before it’s ready.  I certainly was guilty of this when I first started writing, and I cringe when I come across old manuscripts which should have landed in the recycling bin instead of on an editor’s desk.  So before even thinking about editors and agents, I’d advise writers to become students of the picture book.  Reading them to your kids or your students — or recalling old favorites from childhood — isn’t enough.  Study the really good ones, especially those published in the last five years or so.  Start with year-end “best of the year” lists from ALA, School Library Journal, Bankstreet, the children’s blogging community, etc.  Really look at what makes these books successful and appealing (or not; this is highly subjective, after all).  Pay attention to the voice, the pacing, the escalation of the drama, and how the story is resolved.  Then make a dummy of your own manuscript and see if your story fits the picture book structure, if you’ve cut out every extraneous word, if your voice is distinctive, your story dramatic and visually interesting, and your ending satisfying.

Once you’ve got several strong stories, and you’ve followed the manuscript formatting requirements (and a meticulous friend has checked for typos), then you can turn your attention to agents.  Here again, research is key.  If you can go to conferences and meet agents in person, that’s great.  But it’s not necessary.  Fortunately, you can find tons of information on the internet.  Study agency websites, and make a list of agents who appeal to you and seem open to your writing style and interests.  Then google them.  Many have been interviewed on blogs, and a few have blogs of their own.  The more information you have, the easier it will be to target your submission and write an informed and personal query letter.

I’m chuckling as I read this because Linda shared one of her early manuscripts with us at a rhyming workshop she gave. Don’t worry Linda – I won’t name it here! Suffice it to say it’s inspiring to see how much a writer can grow if they truly commit to studying the craft.  And now, for a shameless plug of one of my own posts: If you want more information on how to research agents and editors, go here.

Jennifer, Linda writes almost exclusively in rhyme, yet we hear agents and editors say (often) that they don’t want to see rhyming manuscripts.  What separates a saleable rhyming story from one that is not?

That’s a great question.  I think that there is a note of inevitability communicated by the best rhyming manuscript – in other words, one barely notices the rhyming, except to be delighted by it, and one can’t imagine another way of expressing the same idea.  It’s a combination of perfect rhythm / scansion and absolutely perfect end rhymes:  I’m never fond of slant rhymes.  (When I was a kid, I used to hate reading British poems that rhymed things like “again” and “rain”!)

Apart from technical perfection, to be saleable in the picture book market, editors need poetry to be more than just gorgeousness and musicality.  Linda and I have had the same comment on a number of manuscripts recently, and it’s not uncommon at all:  “This needs a stronger story arc!”  So, writers of verse face an exceptionally high bar.  Their manuscripts must be technically flawless but also must advance a storyline.  It is so rare for a writer to have mastered all of those elements simultaneously that I think many editors and agents have simply found it more efficient to put the kibosh on rhyme preemptively.  For whatever reason (perhaps the prominence of Dr. Seuss?), it seems that amateur writers gravitate to verse before trying their hand at anything else.

This might be some of the best advice I’ve seen on what makes a rhyming manuscript work – thanks!

Given how tight the picture book market is these days, what advice would you give to PB writers looking for agents on how to stand out?

An exquisitely professional query letter that references specific, comparable, recent titles on the market always catches my eye.  We receive tons of queries from people who clearly don’t read much in the contemporary picture-book marketplace, so it’s nice to include any sign that you’re engaged in the industry in an active, ongoing way (it’s also nice to mention membership in SCBWI and critique groups).

Other aspects of your submission will convey the professional level of your work, too.  It helps when a project reflects the typical length of a frontlist picture book (rather than the typical length of a published-long-ago classic, like Robert McCloskey’s wonderful but 2000-words-long TIME OF WONDER…).  I also look for writers who know how to creatively anticipate the contribution of an illustrator, e.g., by not overwriting description and, when appropriate, leaving certain key beats of story development to the visuals.

I always recommend that authors of picture books line up three or four projects that they feel are ready to share with an agent before first submitting.   Agents usually ask queriers to focus on one manuscript, but if an agent is interested in continuing a discussion, normally he or she will ask to see more of your work.  You’ll want to be ready for that.

Linda, dogs are frequent characters in your books, including your latest release, No Dogs Allowed!  Can you tell us one of your favorite real dog stories based on one of your own pets?

Sammy, our Lab mix, is very smart and has an impressive repertoire of tricks.  When appropriately bribed, she’ll fetch the paper, wake Jackson (our son), deliver canned goods from the kitchen cabinet, jump like a kangaroo, roll over, speak, whisper, dance, spin (once, twice, or three times, as directed) and more.  But she has a lot of attitude, and feels that this sort of performing is really beneath her.  And she has a way of showing her resentment.  After every meal, she goes on a raid and finds a sock — on someone’s dresser, in the laundry basket, in a closet — and runs off with it.  She never actually chews it.  She just likes to hold it hostage for a while (usually until we tell her how funny and cute she is, thereby rewarding her for her naughtiness).

Awww, too cute! I want to give her a hug just reading this. If I’d thought ahead I would have asked you for a picture of her.  🙂

Jennifer, please complete this sentence:  “If I could take just one book with me to a remote desert island, it would be….”

I hate to compromise the children’s-lit focus of this blog, but I’d probably choose something lush and long-lasting, like George Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH or Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR.

Nope. I totally get that.  If you’re stuck on a desert island, you need something a bit broader in scope than a children’s book.  My own choice would be A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, by John Irving.

Let’s all give it up for these two lovely ladies for this great post!  I hope you learned as much as I did.  Also, don’t forget that Linda Ashman is giving away a personalized, signed copy of both SAMANTHA ON A ROLL and NO DOGS ALLOWED for two lucky winners. You must be a follower of the blog to enter (new followers welcome!).  Here are the ways you can enter:

  • Leave a comment on this post and/or yesterday’s post.  Be sure to say which book you’d prefer if you win. – 1 point
  • Tweet this post (include link in your comment) – 1 point
  • Like this post on Facebook (include link) – 1 point
  • Blog about the contest (include link) – 2 points

THANKS AGAIN to both Linda and Jennifer. I had so much fun putting this post together, and I hope you did too!

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

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Linda Ashman is a favorite in our house.  My kids ask for her books by author rather than title.  She is one of the first picture book authors I got to know well here in Colorado, and how lucky I am for that!  Besides being a friend, she is also an award-winning author of more than two dozen children’s books, and a master of rhyme.  Linda’s books should be on your “must read” list if you ever plan to write in rhyme.

We’re here today celebrating three things.  First, the fact that Linda has had three (yes three) books released in the last three months.  Second, we are giving away signed copies of two of those books (details below).  Third, Linda will back tomorrow to breathe new life into the How I Got My Agent series for picture book writers with an added bonus – her agent Jennifer Mattson will be with her!!!  Now onto the goodies – the books!

Samantha on a Roll, Margaret Ferguson Books/FSG, October 2011:  Poor Samantha wants to try out her new skates, but Mama’s too busy to help her.  I’m pretty sure every child can relate to that scenario.  What’s a girl to do?  Sneak out and try them herself of course!  Hilarity ensues as the story takes on fantastical proportions that kept my kids on the edge of their seats.  My youngest literally let out a sigh when we reached the immensely satisfying ending.  I think he’d been holding his breath.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  Kirkus gave it a starred review, saying, “Things get a bit dicey when plucky Samantha experiments with her new roller skates in one frightening, hilarious inaugural “roll” through town.”  And the School Library Journal said, “The rhyming text makes this delightful story tons of fun to read aloud.”  Too true.

The Twelve Days of Christmas in Colorado, Sterling, October 2011: I’ve seen books in the Twelve Days series but hadn’t picked one up until now.  What a joy!  Of course the format follows the song, replacing the traditional version with all things Colorado.  But the best part is the letters the little girl is writing home about her stay, which include many golden nuggets about Colorado’s history, landmarks, and vast recreational opportunities.  This book is perfect for my daughter (3rd grade) who is studying Colorado facts and history right now.  It’s way more fun to learn about the state bird (lark bunting), state tree (blue spruce), etc. reading this fun book than studying a list of facts on a sheet of paper that she got at school.  I’ve fallen in love with Colorado all over again – what’s not to love? – as a result of this beautiful book.

No Dogs Allowed! Sterling, August 2011:  I must admit that while I love all of Linda’s books, I’m partial to the ones with animals – especially dogs.  In this nearly wordless book, a cafe owner turns away a boy who wants to come in with his dog.  In order to prevent others from attempting the same, our cafe owner writes – NO DOGS ALLOWED! on his menu board.  Our poor owner, however, gets stumped as more and more customers arrive with more and more outrageous pets.  Eventually, the boy with the dog arrives at a solution which leads to a heartwarming ending.  My son has carried this book with him everywhere since we got it.  He loves that he can “read” the story all by himself because the story is told primarily in the illustrations.  As a writer, I am amazed by Linda’s ability to write a wordless book when she is not an illustrator.  She’s gotten so many questions about how to do that she’s kindly a near-final version of the manuscript on her website.

Linda is kindly giving away one personalized signed copy each of SAMANTHA ON A ROLL and NO DOGS ALLOWED.  You must be a follower of the blog to enter (new followers welcome!).  Here are the ways you can enter:

  • Leave a comment on this post.  Be sure to say which book you’d prefer if you win. – 1 point
  • Tweet this post (include link in your comment) – 1 point
  • Like this post on Facebook (include link) – 1 point
  • Blog about the contest (include link) – 2 points
  • Come back tomorrow and earn all these same points by commenting on Linda’s How I Got My Agent post.

I will be running the contest all week, and will announce the winners next Monday, October 10th.

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

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This is the third annual Random Acts of Publicity week, founded by Darcy Pattison as a way to promote favorite books or favorite authors.  I’m focusing on three Colorado picture book writers, all of whom have reached out a hand to help me in my own budding career (and their books are great!).  In fact, I am so convinced that you will love the books too, I am giving away all three as a prize package.  To enter, you must:

  • Be a follower of this blog – if you are a new follower, let me know how you follow (email, Google Reader, Networked Blogs, etc.)
  • Leave a comment on this post by midnight ET on Friday, September 9th.  To keep the promotion love going, in your comment, please leave the title of at least one picture book published within the last five years that you love. = 1 point
  • Tweet about the contest = 1 point
  • Like this post on Facebook = 1 point
  • Blog about the contest = 2 points

In your comment, let me know how many points you have.  I’ll announce the winner on Saturday, September 10th. Now, onto the books!

TOO MANY PUMPKINS, by Linda Arms White.  This book is a modern classic and, along with the equally delightful TOO MANY TURKEYS (2010), is perfect for this time of year as we approach Halloween and Thanksgiving.  Find out how the heroine and hero, respectfully, turn their bumper crops into something fabulous.  Linda gives generously of her time to the Rocky Mountain SCBWI chapter.  She worked with me for six months through the mentorship program, and my WIPs improved immeasurably.  I am a much better writer as a result of working with Linda.  For others interested in working with her, she is a co-owner of the Children’s Author’s Boot Camp, and also offers manuscript critiques.

STELLA UNLEASHED, by Linda Ashman.  Linda is a master of writing picture books in rhyme, particularly those for older children (4-8).  I should know because I took her “Crimes of Rhyme” workshop, so I commit fewer of them now.  We own many of her books, and this one is our current favorite. (Although her latest – NO DOGS ALLOWED – is on its way to us as I write this, and we eagerly await it).  Who can resist a story told in a set of poems about a dog who chooses first her family, then her name, and then creates all kinds of entertainment and chaos for her family – as all dogs do.  Other favorites of ours are COME TO THE CASTLE, WORLDWIDE MONSTER GUIDE, and M is for MISCHIEF.  I worked with Linda at the Big Sur in the Rockies workshop, so I can also vouch for her manuscript critiques.  They can be invaluable, especially if you write in rhyme.

TOO PICKLEY, by Jean Reidy.  This book is a must for anyone with toddlers who are picky eaters (and what toddlers aren’t?).  My son used to say things like, “This bread is too crusty,” so I knew this book was for him.  I met Jean at the RMC-SCBWI conference last year, and she has graciously agreed to come on the blog later this fall for the How I Got My Agent Series.  If you have a fussy dresser (which I also do), check out TOO PURPLEY.  Jean does writing workshops and talks, and is also part of the Skype an Author network.

Comment (see rules above) to win a prize pack with a brand new copy of TOO MANY PUMPKINS, STELLA UNLEASHED, and TOO PICKLEY

Categories: Authors, Autumn, Children's Books, Dogs, Giveaway, Picture Books, Poetry, Rhyming, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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