TimMcCanna_8x10_smToday I have the great pleasure of introducing someone to the How I Got My Agent series who is not only a mind-blowingly (that is totally a word) talented writer and musician, but also someone I’m fortunate to call a friend. Tim McCanna tells the story of how we first met and came to collaborate on a couple of my projects, so I won’t steal his thunder, but let’s just say that the first time you encounter Tim’s work – whether his writing, music, or blockbuster videos – the only viable response is, “Wow!” Add to that the fact that he is just about the nicest person on the planet, and Tim becomes a “quadruple threat” on his way to sure stardom in the children’s writing world. It’s been an honor in every way to work with him and to have him “in my corner” on this crazy publishing journey. Please welcome Tim! 

How long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one?

Thanks for having me, Julie! You know, I had zero strategy when I started out writing picture books in 2009. Within months I was submitting to slush piles and I have a binder full of form rejection letters to prove it. I eventually mixed in some agent submissions here and there, but I really didn’t know what I wanted or needed in an agent.

In 2010, Caryn Wiseman from Andrea Brown Literary spoke at a local SCBWI conference. I liked her right away (as everyone in the session did) and submitted to her after the event. Alas, my story didn’t resonate with her, so she kindly passed.

At some point I dialed down the submitting and focused on improving my craft and building my network. I participated in Picture Book Idea Month and 12×12, kept attending conferences, joined a critique group, and wrote lots of new stories. Three years later, I had a much more robust portfolio of polished manuscripts. Plus, I became an Assistant Regional Advisor for my local SCBWI chapter, and I even sold my picture book Teeny Tiny Trucks on my own. At that point, I felt like my work was strong enough and I understood the industry so much better that I started to think about who might be the perfect agent for me.

What kind of research did you do before submitting?

In the early days, all I had was my copy of The Children’s Book Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. I occasionally queried agents who were spotlighted on LiteraryRambles.com. Of course, meeting folks (or at least sitting in on their sessions) at conferences to get a sense of who they are is always a good thing. I’m a total introvert at events with lots of people. But volunteering for my SCBWI chapter created great icebreakers and gave me opportunities to just talk to editors and agents without trying to wow them in sixty seconds with an elevator pitch.

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

Oh gosh. Lots of both. In the first three years before I made my first sale, I submitted around 15 manuscripts of various length and style to twenty or thirty different publishers and at least a dozen different agents. I never once got one of those personal, magical, uplifting, hand-written rejection letters of encouragement from editors you hear about. I wonder if they’re just urban legends.

For a while there, I was completely flummoxed. What was I doing wrong? Why didn’t anyone other than my critique group partners like my stories!? Granted, 2009 to 2011 were especially tight years in the publishing world, but I began to slip into a resentful dark place. I pulled myself out of that self-inflicted slump by focusing on writing shorter, snappier, more commercial stories while getting out and volunteering and joining online communities. A positive attitude and persistence is key. We’re very lucky that the kidlit industry is so friendly and supportive.

Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author focusing solely on picture books?

Not really. That never came up. I had an early chapter reader to show a slightly longer work, and I’m currently writing a middle grade novel that I mentioned in my follow-up emails, so perhaps having a little variety helped. All I knew was I didn’t want to beg for representation. I was going to wait for an agent who loved my work and was enthusiastic about partnering with me.

How did you know your agent was “the one”?

So, nearly four years after first seeing Caryn at that regional conference, she participated in an Agent’s Day event in San Francisco in early Fall 2014. I submitted my rhyming picture book Bitty Bot! for critique and she immediately connected with it. After a couple weeks of sharing additional pieces with her and talking some more, she officially offered and I officially accepted! That just goes to show that “no thanks” doesn’t necessarily mean “not ever.”

Caryn has a great business sense—and I really kinda don’t. She also offers editorial feedback, which I knew I wanted in an agent. And she didn’t shy away from my rhymers. That was crucial. I write both rhyme and prose, but I knew if an agent said, “Gee, rhyming books are tough to sell,” that we weren’t a good match.

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 🙂 )

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. 12×12 has done a lot for me. At its core, 12×12 is about writing. Getting those first drafts down. I love the simple goal-setting aspect of it. But of course, there’s much more. The community, the support, the people, the networking, the knowledge you gain from the blog and forums. It’s a great resource that became a lovely part of my journey as a children’s writer.

Katie Davis’s kidlit podcast, which led to writing a song for 12×12, which led to writing a song for Julie’s A Troop is a Group of Monkeys app, which led to my selling Teeny Tiny Trucks to the same publisher. It was a 2-year domino effect that I never planned!

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 you’ve already checked off! 🙂 )

Two words: Dog Dancing. It’s totally a thing.

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

Well, after signing with Caryn, we sold Bitty Bot! a month or so later in a 2-book deal to Paula Wiseman Books at Simon & Schuster. Woo! The first book comes out Fall 2016, and I’m tossing around ideas for a sequel right now. My working title is Bitty Bot 2: Bitty Does Something Else In a New Location, Perhaps During a Holiday, Or Not.

Tim McCanna played accordion in a punk rock band and composed very silly sci-fi musicals in New York City before he finally got a real job as a children’s book author. When he’s not daydreaming about dancing with dogs, Tim serves as Assistant Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators San Francisco/South chapter. He lives in Mountain View, CA with his wife and two kids. Find Tim online at www.timmccanna.com.

Categories: 12 x 12, A Troop is a Group of Monkeys, Agents, Children's Books, How I Got My Agent, Picture Books, Publishing, Queries, Storybook Apps · Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


12 x 12 Member Laura GehlThis is an especially fun “How I Got My Agent” post for me to share because Laura Gehl not only got her agent through the 12 x 12 picture book writing challenge, but she signed with MY agent, Erzsi Deak! That makes us fellow chicks in the Hen & Ink “coop.” When you read Laura’s story and see how hard she works and how accomplished she is with her writing, you won’t be surprised she landed an agent. AND, I’m very excited that she’s getting started building her platform with a brand new website and blog. Recently, she blogged about her writing process at Hen & Inkblots, our agency blog.

If all that weren’t enough, her first picture book, ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, releases next month – the SAME DAY as my book release!! So get ready for a party on September 9th! In the meantime, please welcome Laura.

How long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one?

I’ve been writing for about ten years…but mostly magazine articles, not books. Once I decided to look into publishing picture books, I could see that I would have a lot more options if I found an agent. I did get my first two picture book contracts without an agent, though…it is not impossible!

What kind of research did you do before submitting?

I read everything I could find on-line. And I do mean everything.

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

I’ve never counted! I did send out a large number of queries before finding an agent. The agents who took the time to write a personal response helped me keep going. I started by querying only with rhyming manuscripts, and I think I would have found an agent much sooner if I had dropped the rhymes. However, my first two picture books (ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR/Beach Lane, fall 2014; AND THEN ANOTHER SHEEP TURNED UP/Kar-Ben, spring 2015) are in rhyme. So if you love writing in rhyme, don’t give up.

Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author focusing solely on picture books?

I did feel daunted by the number of great agents who said they only wanted to represent author-illustrators. And I felt particularly worried when one agent said she loved my picture books but only wanted to sign me if I had a submission-ready middle-grade text in addition (she explained that picture books are just too hard to sell). In the end, though, several agents ended up expressing interest in my picture book texts.

How did you know your agent was “the one”?

I read an interview with Erzsi Deak, who is now my agent. In the interview, Erzsi said that she tries to make sure all of her writers and illustrators feel attended to, or coddled (she probably put it better than that). I am NOT patient and definitely couldn’t go weeks without hearing from my agent, so I thought Erzsi’s style would be perfect for me. Sure enough, if Erzsi ever gets impatient with my constant emails, she hides it well! ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR by Laura Gehl

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 🙂 )

12 x 12 provided me with the chance to submit to Erzsi and encouraged me to develop picture book texts, two of which are now under contract (PEEP AND EGG: I’M NOT HATCHING/FSG, spring 2016; HARE AND TOROISE RACE ACROSS ISRAEL/Kar-Ben, spring 2015). Equally important, 12 x 12 set me up with my fantastic critique group. I cannot imagine how I ever wrote anything without them! When we started, no one in the group had an agent. Since then, three of us have found agents, and I know the others are getting very close.

Has your writing process changed at all since signing with an agent?

Not really. I try to get my manuscripts into the best possible shape before sending them to Erzsi. Which means my mom and my husband read a manuscript (and say “This is great!”), and then my critique partners read the manuscript (and say, “This is great…but here are 28 things to change”). Only after I fix those 28 things, and probably 27 more things that are wrong with the next few drafts, do I send the manuscript along to Erzsi.

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

I agree with the frequent advice that you should research agents in advance and submit only your best work. On the other hand, I think it is important to get your work out there. At some point, you need to stop researching, stop revising, and just submit. Also: have a list of agents ready before you submit to even one. That way, if you get a rejection, you can just move on to the next agent on your list, which will limit your moping (eating chocolate while moping briefly is still definitely allowed). Lastly: keep a file of any positive words you get from agents. Literally cut and paste JUST the positive words from a rejection and put them in that file. Then read through your positive words file when you start getting discouraged.

Do you think your platform (blog, social media) helped you find your agent?

In my case, no. I am currently working on a website, in advance of my first book coming out in September, 2014. I’m also trying to figure out how to use social media without it becoming a black hole that sucks up all of my writing time.

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 🙂 )

Riding a tandem bicycle. I can’t wait to have my husband do all the work while we zoom uphill.

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

I am always working on a gazillion projects at once. Right now I am working on several picture books, an early reader, three fiction chapter books, a nonfiction chapter book, and a middle grade novel. I’m also excited to announce my new website is up! Come and find me at www.lauragehl.com.


Categories: 12 x 12, Agents, Books, Children's Books, How I Got My Agent, Picture Books, Publishing, Queries, Rhyming, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


12 x 12 Featured Author Sue Fliess

Our July featured author, Sue Fliess, is one heck of a busy lady! But she took time out of her unbelievably hectic summer to answer some questions I gave her focused on writing picture books for younger children (0-5), which is Sue’s specialty. 

I’m lucky enough to have met Sue in person several times at SCBWI conferences (she might be the one person more passionate about going to as many conferences as possible than I am – LOL), and I can tell you she is every bit as bubbly, energetic, and FUN as her books are! I wish you could have seen her costume for the 2013 SCBWI-LA dance party – theme 60s. 🙂 White patent leather go-go boots. That’s all I’m saying…

Sue is also multi-talented–excellent at promoting her books AND a great singer to boot. Check out this parody video she made of the “Cups” song for writers. Even more appropriate for picture book writers is her more recent parody of the song “Royals” by Lorde. Have fun watching, and please welcome Sue!!

Despite being so busy, Sue is graciously giving a picture book critique to one lucky 12 x 12 winner this month. Start your writing engines!

First, can you tell us a bit about how you got into writing for children?
I’ve always written as a hobby, even as a kid, but when I had a baby of my own, I started reading him tons of picture books. He was very drawn to space. So I wrote him a story about exploring outer space and our galaxy. Right at that time, a friend of mine told me about a local class on writing for children and asked if I wanted to go with her. On the day of the class, my friend got sick, but I went anyway. I left the class determined to give it a try. That was in 2005 I think.

Most of your published books are for younger children (0-3). What inspires you to write for this age group?

I think I love boiling things down to their essence, and it’s a fun way to see things through a child’s perspective. Such a small thing to a grown-up can be colossal to a kid, so capturing just one part of a moment can be enough to build a story around. My book, Tons of Trucks, is a true toddler book, geared towards 0-18 months, but my other books are ages 2-5. But all those same things apply.

I’ve been told that getting book deals for the younger set is even more challenging than for “standard” picture books. Do you think this is true?

It’s hard to say today, but I think much depends on finding the right editors—there are many that do books for the younger set. I do know that when I was seeking publication and representation, I relied heavily on conferences, talking to other authors, and meeting editors and agents to get a foot in the door. Don’t be afraid to dialogue with these people—they are human. I felt like I had to have several publishable works ready for shopping when I queried agents, and even to reference in my cover letters to editors. Editors and agents get so many submissions, they have the luxury of being picky. Agents want to know you’re not just trying to get that one story you’ve written published, but that you’re in it for the long haul.

How To Be a Pirate by Sue FliessWhat advice would you give to pre-published authors trying to break into this market?

In the 10 years I’ve been in the industry, I’ve met exactly one person who wrote her first story, sent it in and the first publisher she sent it to bought it. That’s not the norm. Prepare yourself for doing the hard work and persevering. Those who do, get attention, and if your writing/illustrating is high quality, you can get a book deal. Don’t give up, but don’t expect to get there if you aren’t willing to do the homework. If you give up (or never submit) then there’s a 100% chance you’ll never get published. Whether you’re writing picture books, Middle Grade, or YA, it’s like any other industry—get to know the players and learn how to network.

How is the craft of writing books for the 0-4 set similar to and different from writing picture books for older children (4-8)?

The younger the age group, the shorter the story, more basic the concept, and even sentences, in my experience. When you creep into 4-8 year old range, you can venture into slightly deeper concepts and emotions, but still be sure to keep it to experiences a child that age would have. Since every word counts, make sure they are the right words for your character or story.

You’ve also written Little Golden Books. What is different about writing for LGB? Do they have special parameters/requirements? Can unagented authors submit to them?

Little Golden Books is an imprint of Random House, so they do require an agent. That said, I met my editor, Diane Muldrow, at an SCBWI Los Angeles conference, and approached her after her session. Even though I had my agent submit to her, I think she would have been okay if I had done so myself. Don’t be afraid to ask for an editor’s email. The worst they can say is no. Little Golden Books aim for stories on tried and true topics. They are looking for timeless. They tend to be shorter, but just pick up an LGB and look—24 page format, and usually well under 500 words. I’ve sold them stories about pirates, robots, superheroes, ballet, getting a pet, hugs…you get the idea!

Many of your books are written in rhyme, which is another tough market. Do you think rhyme is either something you have or your don’t, or do you think it can be learned?

I think rhyme is definitely something that comes naturally to some (sometimes a whole first stanza just comes to me, before I even have a story), but of course, can be practiced and learned by anyone. The best way to know if you’re forcing your rhyme or being successful at it, is to have someone read it out loud to you (you should always read your own work out loud to yourself too). When they stumble – even if it’s on one syllable, it needs to be fixed. If you’re just starting out with rhyme, my best advice is to write the story first. Then, if it truly lends itself to being told in rhyme, go for it. And for the love of Pete, start with a simple meter! Otherwise you may despise rhyme out of the gate. 🙂

Let's Build by Sue FliessWhat are your favorite resources on writing in rhyme?
Some of my favorites are Sandra Boynton, Jane Yolen, Julia Donaldson, Karma Wilson, Brian Lies, Matthew Van Fleet, and so many others who rhyme brilliantly. I love experimenting with new meters, even if I end up scrapping them. It’s fun to try new things.

What’s coming up next for you? New projects? New books?
I can’t believe how busy I am right now! Personally, my family just sold and bought a house, and drove cross-country—my husband and I, our 9- and 11-year-old sons, and our 12 year old Labrador named Teddy—from Northern California to Northern Virginia. On the book front, it’s been a wonderful year. How to Be a Pirate (Little Golden Books) came out in January, Let’s Build (Two Lions/Amazon) published in May, How to Be a Superhero (Little Golden Books) comes out July 2014, as does the board book version of my LGB with Bob Staake, Robots, Robots Everywhere! Finally, The Hug Book, another Little Golden, comes out December of 2014. I have several more books slated for 2015 – please check my website! And a goal—once I get settled in—is to finish a draft of the middle grade book I wrote 2 chapters of but had to stop just before we decided to move. Phew!

Categories: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Agents, Authors, Books, Childhood, Children's Books, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Publishing, Rhyming, SCBWI, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Oh my goodness, guess what I found in my blog’s Trash folder today? A “How I Got My Agent” post that I wrote two years ago that was somehow never published. I feel terrible about that, but I’ve brought it back from the dead and am happy to finally put it in front of you. What’s more, I met Natasha Wing this winter at an SCBWI booth during a literacy conference and could not have been more impressed. I HIGHLY encourage you to check out her book AN EYE FOR COLOR: THE STORY OF JOSEF ALBERS. It’s gorgeous! Please welcome, very belatedly, Natasha Wing.

I realize that ever since the 12 x 12 in 2012 challenge went live, the “How I Got My Agent” series has been a bit stagnant.  Well, no more! Today I breathe new life into the series by welcoming Natasha Wing, a fellow Colorado author.  Natasha is the wildly successful author of the “The Night Before” series, with Halloween, Easter, New Year’s and Mother’s Day just a few of the titles available.  What is even more exciting is that her latest book in the series — THE NIGHT BEFORE FATHER’S DAY — releases today!  I am so glad to host Natasha and not only hear her agent story, but also help celebrate her book birthday!  Welcome Natasha!

Natasha, 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 had been writing for about 5 years and decided I needed an agent when I discovered that I had accepted less for my advance than I should have. The other thing I was looking for in an agent was to head off rejection letters. Didn’t like getting those in the mail. So I got the name of an agent from a friend and submitted to her after publishing my first book, but the agency didn’t take me, even though we had a mutual friend! In all fairness, they wanted to see that I had published more than one book. The other agent I contacted was through a movie industry friend’s agency, but they weren’t interested either. So I put looking on hold until I had more books.

The Night Before series are rhyming books, and we always hear that agents and editors don’t want rhyming manuscripts.  How did you break that particular barrier?

It was a personal challenge when I took a class at a university about writing for children and the instructor said don’t submit rhyming stories, so I set out to prove him wrong and sold Hippity Hop, Frog on Top, my first book – a counting book that rhymed. With the Night Before series, I wasn’t submitting original rhymes so to speak, because it was based on a poem that had been part of our culture for over 100 years, so it was an accepted form of storytelling. I just put my twist on it.

Likewise, editors and agents often say not to pitch book series. How did you come up with the idea for the T’was the Night series? Did it start as one book or did you always plan it as a series? 

It began as one book, The Night Before Easter. I thought, yeah! I sold a bunny book! And that’s all I thought would come of it. But I have a very astute editor at Grosset & Dunlap – Jane O’Connor of Fancy Nancy fame – who saw that sales went well for the Easter book, and asked me to write a Halloween version, then a Valentine’s Day version, then later we added school-related themes. It’s the series that keeps on giving! So no, it wasn’t planned, and you can see by the number of illustrators who have illustrated along the way that the style wasn’t pre-planned either. Fortunately, there is a connective feel to the art that ties the books together. Now Grosset & Dunlap is using Amy Wummer exclusively, and I enjoy her art. Today, The Night Before Father’s Day is being released, and another one, The Night Before My Birthday, is in the works. So this series has sort of defined my place in the children’s book industry.

How did you know your agent was “the one?”

I met my agent at a conference in New Orleans quite accidentally. I had a major migraine (which I never get), but I wanted to go to the Newbery dinner so I forced myself to attend. After the dinner, I was hanging out in the lobby and happened to be standing next to Linda Pratt who at the time was representing Sheldon Fogelman Agency. We started talking and she asked me to submit samples and a career goal summary. I wasn’t actively looking for an agent, but I wanted to take the submission part off my shoulders, so I submitted to Linda. Her agency accepted me. That was 1999 and we’re still together – I followed her to her new agency, Wernick & Pratt. I knew she was “the one” because she was very calm and patient, and smart and willing to listen. She also “gets” me and knows how to motivate me and unlock my blocks. So it’s like having a friend who gives you unconditional love without judgment. Plus she’s been in the business for longer than I have so I trust her insight.

Has your writing process changed since signing with an agent?

Well, I just talked to my agent this morning, and after 20 years of writing, I apparently still need some direction and reining in! I tend to write whatever moves me: picture books, concept books, biographies, middle grade, easy reads…you get the picture. So it’s hard for me to focus on one genre and develop a Natasha Wing niche. The only thing that comes close is my Night Before series where I’ve jokingly dubbed myself The Night Before Queen. But that grew organically so it’s not something I planned. With an agent though, I write more freely without the dred of getting rejection letters out of the blue or dealing with having to research where to send the manuscript next. That part I always hated because it took away some of my energy from writing. I also try to write in a more directed way now. If I know an editor is looking for a certain type of story, I can cater it to her in hopes that she will contract it. No guarantees these days! So I guess I would say that I write with more purpose and direction, yet if you ask Linda, she might not agree! I can be like an ADD puppy sometimes who wants to fetch every opportunity!

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

Have a variety of picture books ready, don’t bank on just one to land an agent. He or she needs to see that you’re serious and a career writer, not a hobby writer. The agent will get a better idea of your writing style if you have more manuscripts to show. One other way to show that you are serious about your career is to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators or Children’s Book Insider.

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

I work on several things at the same time because they are in various stages of completion. Right now I am researching a new biography, waiting to hear if I still need to revise end notes for my upcoming biography on Jackie O, rewriting the first chapter (for the millionth time) of a middle grade novel, and fleshing out a middle grade underwater fantasy. That plus promoting my new book, The Night Before Father’s Day. This year I actually wrote out a list of goals and it feels good to check stuff off.

As a fellow Coloradan, what is your favorite place to visit in Colorado and why?

I love Rocky Mountain National Park in any season for its beauty and wildlife. My husband and I have so many more trails to check out still. I also love skiing at Steamboat Springs and Copper Mountain. And we always find ourselves in Old Town Fort Collins for happy hours. We’ve only been here two years, so there’s lots more to explore!

Natasha Wing has been writing children’s books for 20 years and has 21 books to her name. Her best-selling Night Before series regularly makes best-seller lists. An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers was an ALA Notable. She is the Picture Book Expert for Children’s Book Insider and a mentor for Rocky Mountain SCBWI. Like her on Facebook at Fans of Natasha Wing books (https://www.facebook.com/natashawingbooks), or read Natasha’s News at www.natashawing.com. Natasha also does free Skype visits to schools.

Categories: Authors, Guest Blogging, How I Got My Agent, Picture Books, Publishing, Rhyming, SCBWI · Tags: , , , , , , ,


yolen01It’s no secret that I am a HUGE fan of children’s author Jane Yolen, May’s 12 x 12 featured author (just check the bottom of this post for links to all the others I’ve written about her). Before I even THOUGHT about writing for children myself, I fell in love with her work by reading it to my own children.

So when the opportunity arose to spend four days under her tutelage at an advanced Picture Book Boot Camp at her farm in Massachusetts, I waited all of two seconds before deciding to splurge and treat myself to what I knew would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I will never be the same writer again. Attending that retreat was one of the BEST DECISIONS I ever made, reminding me again why it is so important to nurture your writing and creativity. We should never stop learning, stop growing. Jane is proof of that with more than 300 books published and, I now know, 40 or so completed and/or at various stages of development.

I’ve been wanting to document and share what I learned during our time together, so I asked Jane if she would let ME write her featured author post summarizing the high points (which honestly only scratch

Jane reading to boot campers

Jane reading to boot campers

the surface). She agreed, but did add a few words of her own at the end of this post.

I also have a special treat for you – a video compilation of some of the lessons Jane provided on revision, rejections and critiques and publishing trends.

We covered SO MUCH over the course of four days. It would be impossible for me to share everything, so I am focusing on what resonated with me the most about the craft of writing, as opposed to the business.

First, one thing picture book writers have to keep in mind is that great books are not ones that have a message to deliver to children. We started with a bang when Jane elaborated on this point. She said books are not about “delivering a message,” but rather “the gaining of wisdom.”

“All good books are about questions. Not giving the reader the answers, but teaching them how to ask the right questions.”

In this way, we allow the child reader to relate, reflect, and ultimately determine the meaning for him or herself.



Jane also spent time warning us not to be “beguiled” by our talent. For example, she can rhyme in her sleep, and something she tosses off in 2 minutes will be 95% better than most people could do after hours of work. But that doesn’t mean it’s GREAT rhyme or that it’s new or innovative.

Everyone has strengths in their writing, whether it’s a facility with rhyme, humor, poetic prose, etc. But if you rely on those talents TOO much, you will cease challenging and stretching yourself and your writing will suffer. “Don’t confuse yourself with a genius,” she said. “They are the outliers. For the rest of us, it’s just hard work.”

Here are some more gems from Jane – direct quotes on the subjects of being prolific and taking risks.

Build a Body of Work

  • In the midst of seismic change [in the publishing industry] find opportunities.
  • The best way to avoid writer’s block is the write a bunch of stuff. Work on multiple projects that cross-feed each other.
  • We all have themes that revisit in our lives. We can write and rewrite on that theme, subject, passion again in a new way.
  • Write for your child self. Ask her (or him), “What did you want to read?”

Take Risks with your Writing

  • The worst thing for an artist of any kind to do is to get comfortable. Because then you are not growing, and art dies.
  • Following trends is not writing.
  • Don’t accept parameters that you should be stretching.
  • You can always push the boundaries.
  • Know the rules and structure of writing so you can break them in a meaningful way.
  • Sometimes recognizing where the story is leading you is the most important thing. And if it’s taking you outside of your comfort zone, FOLLOW IT.
  • You do not know what you can and can’t write until you try it. Try it all. Maybe the one thing you thought you could never do will be the thing that breaks you out big.
  • Get outside of yourself. Be open to the universe.

I sent Jane this post for her review, and she asked me to add the following tidbits. So here you go:

  • If you believe your good reviews, you will have to believe your bad reviews, too. Better to believe in the piece that you are writing.
  • Be elastic, ready to bend your storytelling in new ways.
  • Don’t listen to the critic in your head, listen to the story.
  • A lifetime as a writer is a journey, not a career. Even the mis-steps, wrong turns, detours are part of the journey.
  • Reinvent your writing every five to ten years. 

And now for the finale! I invite you into Jane’s living room to see her teaching first-hand. In the first third of the video, she demonstrates a revision technique that has already revolutionized my own revisions. Essentially, you break your prose into “breath spaces” and write it as a poem rather than a paragraph so you can “see” the words better.

Without further ado, here’s Jane.

And as promised, here are my other posts featuring Jane. These go waaay back, and all except one predate 12 x 12.

One lucky 12 x 12 participant will received a signed copy of TAKE JOY, Jane’s treatise on the writing life. So butts in chairs people! I know you’re going to want to be in the running for THAT prize.

Jane Yolen is an author of children’s books, fantasy, and science fiction, including Owl Moon, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?

She is also a poet, a teacher of writing and literature, and a reviewer of children’s literature. She has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century.

Jane Yolen’s books and stories have won the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, two Christopher Medals, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Jewish Book Award, the World Fantasy Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award among many others. 

Lucky inaugural Boot Campers!

Lucky inaugural Boot Campers!

Categories: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, A Troop is a Group of Monkeys, Authors, Children's Books, Creativity, Giveaway, Goals, Picture Books, Poetry, Publishing, Rhyming, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


BFDA_Awards_Seals_GOLD_highresI am honored, humbled, and quite frankly gobsmacked to announce that A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS has been awarded a Gold Benjamin Franklin Digital Award by the Independent Book Publishers Association.

In the comments sent to my (awesome!) publisher Little Bahalia, one judge wrote:

“This is an excellent enhanced e-book for kids that introduces the fun plural nouns of various animal groupings—a pride of lions, a bloat of hippopotami, an ostentation of peacocks, etc. Super fun.” [Five stars!]

And even more heartwarming for a writer, and of rhyme in particular, the writing quality component of the award achieved FIVE STARS, and one judge had this to say:

“The book has a nice rhyme structure–not too overbearing, nicely constructed, not forced.” [Five stars!]

On their website, the IBPA acknowledges that the definition of “book” continues to evolve, and they established the Digital awards category to “honor and encourage the field’s innovators.” 

TROOP has received critical acclaim in reviews, most notably being named by the Guardian last year as a Top 50 App for Kids, but this is its first award, and it is major. So I am in the mood to celebrate with a SWEEPSTAKES featuring amazing prizes! I hope you’ll join in the fun. Click here to go there now.

Thank you for celebrating with us!

Categories: A Troop is a Group of Monkeys, Apps, Authors, Children's Books, Digital Publishing, ebooks, Giveaway, Picture Books, Publishing, Rhyming, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


12 x 12 new bannerWhew! It’s been another busy week with registration for the 12 x 12 picture book writing challenge. So much so that I have been remiss in sharing some great opportunities associated with joining.

First, anyone who registers at the Little GOLDen Book level and pays in full by 6:00 p.m. EST on Monday, January 20th is GUARANTEED a picture book query critique by either “query whisperer” Emma Walton Hamilton (who will do as many as she can) or myself.

But that’s not all! The queries will be stripped of identifying information, and Emma and I will be video-recording the critique session. Therefore, you’ll not only get your own query critiqued, but you’ll have full access to a video recording of 100+ picture book query critiques. Emma charges $150 for a single query critique – more than the FULL amount of your 12 x 12 GOLD membership!! I’m not aware of any opportunity like this being offered anywhere, so I hope you’ll take advantage of it while you can.

Second, earlier this week I hosted a live Google+ hangout discussing not only the opportunity for GOLD members of 12 x 12 to submit to agents, but about submissions in general and how to craft a good one. Below is the video recording, which everyone is free to watch and learn from, regardless of whether you plan to join 12 x 12 or not. It covers dos and don’ts of submissions, whether and when it is okay to follow up, and even the age-old question of “Should I send a rhyming manuscript?”

Lastly, I was proud to once-again be a guest on Katie Davis’ Brain Burps About Books podcast discussing this year’s features and benefits of 12 x 12. Here is the link to the episode, which also contains a sneak peek into the Membership Forum.

If you’re thinking of joining 12 x 12, please register soon so you don’t miss any opportunities available to you! Registration closes altogether at the end of February, and the next chance won’t be until 2015.

“The 12 x 12 is really a family of kidlit writers. Although there are various “levels” that offer wonderful, amazing opportunities, it’s the things (IMHO) that can’t be measured, that are the most beneficial to your career. The support, the passion, the sharing of information.” — Elaine Kiely Kearns, founder of KIDLIT411

Categories: 12 x 12, Agents, Authors, Brain Burps About Books, Friendship, Picture Books, Publishing, Queries, Rhyming, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


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: , , , , , , , ,


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: , , , , , , , , , ,

HOW can I speed this process up??

HOW can I speed this process up??

If you’ve read Part I,  Part II, and Part III of this series, you know I decided to crowdfund my next picture book through Kickstarter with a HYBRID (not self, not traditional) publishing model. I’m running a five-day series on my blog discussing some of the potential benefits of crowdfunding. Today’s topic is timing.

In traditional publishing, it often takes 2-3 years (sometimes more) to publish a picture book after it is acquired. This is because:

  • The contract must be negotiated and signed by the author.
  • The book must be edited, revised by the author, etc.
  • If the book needs an illustrator, the publisher’s art director must not only find an illustrator, but that illustrator has to put the project in line with the other projects he or she might be working on.
  • The illustrations can take up to one year or more, depending on how busy the illustrator is.
  • The book must then be designed, sent to printers, actually printed and then shipped.

P.S. I am not a professional publisher, and I’m sure I’m missing some steps traditional publishers take — this is just the basic timeline.

By contrast, with crowdfunding, once you have your team together for your picture book (see Part II), it is possible to publish the book in less than one year from the time of the campaign.

However, once again I have to stress that you must NOT skip the quality control (editing, designing, etc.) steps that traditional publishers take (such as editing) when crowdfunding. Your book should still be the best it can be!

So let’s take a look at my timeline for MY LOVE FOR YOU IS THE SUN. Keep in mind that by the time this process “officially” began, the manuscript had been through two years of revisions and many critique group rounds. I also had the manuscript critiqued by several well-published authors with expertise in rhyming and poetry (Linda Ashman, Eileen Spinelli and Rebecca Kai Dotlich). Crowdfunding should not reduce the amount of time it takes to WRITE a good book, only the amount of time to publish one.

  • Feb 2013: Stacey Williams-Ng at Little Bahalia Publishing agreed verbally to publish the book. Susan Eaddy agreed verbally to illustrate the book. NYT Bestselling author and freelance editor Emma Walton Hamilton completed a final, professional edit on the manuscript.
  • March 2013: Erzsi Deak of Hen & Ink becomes my agent and agrees to help create and negotiate the contracts.
  • April – June 2013: Absolutely nothing happens because we are all so busy with other projects (so right here would be an opportunity to cut three months off your own crowdfunding timeline).
  • July 2013: Erzsi and I begin discussing contractual issues, looking over boilerplates, etc.
  • August – September 2013: Erzsi, Stacey and I discuss (via email and phone calls) the contractual terms at length. Finally come up with a structure we all agree to. I begin discussions with Susan about the contracts. Contracts all signed at the end of the month and Susan begins work on the book sketches and the detailed sketch for the first illustration to be used in the campaign (See Part II if you want a peek at the sketches).
  • October 2013: Susan is working on completing the first illustration. I am frantically setting up and planning for our Kickstarter campaign (including running this series). Stacey is kicking up her heels with wine and chocolate – KIDDING! She’s actually in the middle of the launch of both A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS (yes, that is my book too) and TEENY TINY TRUCKS.
  • November 2013: The Kickstarter fundraising campaign will begin!!
  • December 2013: IF we get funding for the book we will celebrate like mad and then… (following schedule is tentative but we’re confident)
  • April 2014: Artwork completed and approved
  • June 2014: Book designed, finalized and sent to printer.
  • July 2014: Books are on a boat en route to us.
  • August 2014: Books reach the warehouse
  • September 9, 2014: Tentative release date!
Happy Dance we'll be doing if we succeed!

Happy Dance we’ll be doing if we succeed!

So this is 18 months from “acquisition” to publication. And had we kept our momentum in April – June, it could have been a 15-month turnaround time.

Of course, each project will be different – some might take more time and some less. But I think this shows that a serious potential benefit of crowdfunding is time to market. By this time next year, I’ll have another published picture book in my portfolio, and I think that’s pretty amazing!

Don’t forget to follow along with the rest of the posts in this series!

Monday, Why Crowdfunding Part I

Tuesday: Why Crowdfunding Part II: Creative Control

Wednesday, Why Crowdfunding Part III: Experiment with New Publishing Models, Teach and Share with Fellow Writers

Thursday, Why Crowdfunding Part IV: Timing  (This Post!)

Friday, Why Crowdfunding Part V: Demonstrating Demand PRIOR TO Publication

Categories: A Troop is a Group of Monkeys, Agents, Authors, Books, Children's Books, Crowdfunding, Picture Books, Publishing, Rhyming, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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