Author Archives: Pat Zietlow Miller

About Pat Zietlow Miller

I'm Pat Zietlow Miller. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, where I try to juggle family, work, reading, writing and revising. Usually, I succeed. I am represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. I recently sold two picture books to Schwartz & Wade -- SOPHIE'S SQUASH and SHARING THE BREAD. I have another picture book THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE sold to Chronicle Books. You also can follow me on Twitter. I'm @PatZMiller

A common thread: Reader response to SOPHIE’S SQUASH

SJPAs a debut author, you spend large chunks of time getting ready for your book to go out into the world.

You edit, proofread and spell-check. You mail postcards, blog and promote. You check your sales numbers and Amazon ranking regularly.

But one part of being a debut author took me a bit by surprise. While I had spent a lot of time getting my book ready to go, I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about how others might respond to it.

Sophie's Squash by Pat Zietlow MillerBut soon after SOPHIE’S SQUASH, my tale of a little girl who falls in love with a butternut squash named Bernice, was released in August, I started hearing from readers. They contacted me through Facebook or my website with stories. Among other things, I received:

  • Video of a girl reading my book and saying how all she wanted was a squash for Christmas.
  • Pictures of beaming children holding squash, pumpkins and watermelon with drawn-on faces. (The picture with this blog is just one example.)
  • Stories from parents about how their now-grown children had fallen in love with apples, heads of garlic, bananas and other forms of produce.
  • Mentions that the book was going to a real-life Sophie (usually a younger girl) or a real-life Bernice (usually an older woman).
  • Hand-drawn cards.
  • Photos of librarians who had created displays featuring Bernice and her friends.
  • Wonderful blog reviews.

I was pleased to know that kids and their parents could find some truth in my book. And I am grateful for each and every story that was shared with me. But the one below might just be my favorite. It arrived in my inbox yesterday from a woman I went to high school with. I haven’t seen her in years, but here’s what she wrote:

A friend of mine has a 6-year-old boy who is on the autism spectrum. He fell in love with a small pumpkin around Halloween and was reading to it, sleeping with it and asking if he was being a good daddy to it. His mom started to get worried about what was inevitably going to happen. I gave her a copy of SOPHIE’S SQUASH, and it was perfect. He totally got it and was excited to plant his pumpkin. His mom bought copies of the book for his school and synagogue, too!

And that, I think, is why writers write. In the hopes that their story contains something universal that will help someone else understand something better, handle a difficult time more successfully or remember something they’ve always known, but have temporarily forgotten.

This isn’t something you can control as a writer. It’s hard to say, “Now is the time in my revising where I’m going to add the part that will strike a chord with like-minded readers.” But you can increase your odds of success by always being true to the story you want to tell and not shying away from feelings that are uncomfortable. Because, often, that’s where the common thread of humanity is — in the less-than-pretty parts.

And you may not know if you got it right until the cards and emails start arriving.

I’m saying goodbye to EMU’s Debuts with this post so other authors with bright-and-shiny new books can use the space.  As I go, I thank every person who has read my posts, supported my efforts and been so very positive. Some of you I know well, while others I haven’t met. But you’ve all made being a first-time author even more fun than I always hoped it would be.

I have more picture books in the works — two will be published in 2015 and one at a yet-to-be-determined date. They’re all quite different than SOPHIE’S SQUASH, but I hope their readers find something in them to connect with as well.

And if they do, well, that will be better than any sales ranking could ever be.

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Filed under Farewell, Happiness, Thankfulness, Writing

Want to help an author out? It’s pretty easy!

Lauri Chandler and SOPHIE'S SQUASHDo you know a real, live author? Or, is there an author you’ve never met but whose work you admire?

You may never have thought about it, but there are things you can do to help that author succeed. And most are at low or no cost to you.

In general, authors are shy, retiring people. They don’t want to give you a sales pitch for their book, but they are extremely grateful for any support you provide.

So I’ve compiled a quick list of way to help a favorite author out that anyone can do, whether they have cash on hand or not.

Most books are relatively inexpensive compared to other pleasures in life, so I’ll start with …

THE THING THAT COSTS MONEY

Buy a copy of the book. This might seem really obvious. But it is, by far, the most useful thing you can do for your author friend. March yourself into a bookstore or go online and by the book. Publishers judge an author’s success and future potential by sales, so your copy, and the few moments you spent purchasing it, makes a difference.

As a newly published author, I’ve been surprised by how many people have asked me, “Where can I get a copy?” Most books are available online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com or powells.com. And, almost any bookstore will be able to order a traditionally published book if it isn’t already on their shelves. Some will even have it shipped directly to you.

Don’t think that your author friend’s book fits your interests or demographic? Think creatively.

  • Would it interest a family member?
  • Could it be a donation to your local public library or a school or church library? (Then, you’d get a tax-deduction, too.)
  • Could you give it to a day care, a Toys for Tots Drive or a Boys’ and Girls’ Club?
  • Might you save it for a future holiday, birthday or baby shower gift?

Don’t be one of those people who, every time they see the author in question, says, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to buy a copy of your book. I’ll have to do that sometime.” There’s no good way for the author to respond, except to smile awkwardly and say, “That would be great …”

Instead, be the person who can honestly say, “I bought a copy of your book. It was awesome!” (And, if you can be a person like my cousin, Kris Schmidt — who emailed me to say she’d bought TWELVE COPIES for current children in her life and future babies to be born — you just might get a hug.)

And if you want to know more about the importance of buying the book of an author you like, see this illuminating post on the From the Write Angle blog.

But, I know, sometimes cash is scarce. If that’s the case, you still can support your author friend by doing…

THINGS THAT DON’T COST MONEY

Ask your local public library to order the book. Most libraries have purchase request forms you can fill out online — or paper versions you can fill out in the library. They’ll usually ask for:

  • The title (Like, for example, SOPHIE’S SQUASH).
  • The author (Pat Zietlow Miller).
  • The publisher and publish date (Schwartz & Wade / August 2013)
  • The ISBN (978-0-307-97896-7).

Check it out or request it from your public library. If enough people want to check out the book, the library may order extra copies.

Post a review. You can share your thoughts on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com or goodreads. If you say positive things, that’s a bonus.

Post something on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn about the book. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Something like this is fine. “My friend _ADD NAME HERE_ wrote a book called _ADD TITLE HERE_. It’s awesome. You can check it out at: _ADD LINK TO AUTHOR’S WEBSITE OR BOOKSELLER HERE_.”

Of course, if you want to wax poetic about the author’s or the book’s many virtues, that’s wonderful, too. Lauri Chandler, a librarian from Indiana, posted this photo of herself celebrating the release of SOPHIE’S SQUASH. And while we’ve never met in person, she’s definitely on my list of people to hug someday.

Attend the book launch party or book-signing event. Authors always secretly fear that no one will show up and they’ll be left sitting all alone feeling unloved. So stop by and say “hi.” Even if you don’t buy a copy, the author will be thrilled to see you.

What other things have you done to support authors?

Share them in the comments below.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’m off to buy books by some fellow EMU’s Debut authors.

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Filed under Advice, Book Promotion, Promotion

The worst job ever …

17351021Even people who have gone on to great heights in their careers started out with some less-than-inspiring jobs.

Actor Ashton Kutcher talked about this in his acceptance speech at this year’s Teen Choice Awards, saying: “I believe that opportunity looks a lot like work. I never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job. Every job I had was a  stepping stone to my next job, and I never quit my job before I had my next job.”

Kutcher’s career path to TV and movie stardom included helping his dad carry shingles, washing dishes at a restaurant, working in a grocery store deli and sweeping in a factory.

Carol Brendler can relate. In her new novel RADIO GIRL, set in the 1930s, teenage Cece desperately wants to be a radio star. She even gets a secret job at a radio station. But, will it be the best job ever? Or the worst? And what will happen when Cece’s secret job collides with Orson Welles’ infamous, and very public, “War of the Worlds” broadcast?

Just for fun, we asked each of our EMU’s Debuts bloggers to share their worst job ever. None involved alien invasions, but they were all memorable for other reasons.

Take it away, folks!

Tara Dairman’s incompetent embassy
“When I was 21 and living abroad in Ireland, I stumbled into a summer clerical job at another country’s embassy. I won’t say which country; all I’ll say is that Ireland was clearly not where this country sent its diplomatic A-team. The ambassador was most frequently found asleep at his desk, and his underling, who interviewed me, barely spoke English. But worst of all was my direct boss, who had a penchant for screaming and half of whose office looked like a storage center for a brand of unfiltered cigarettes from his home country, which he smoked right through our meetings. Ireland had workplace smoking laws at the time, but technically, in the embassy, we were on his home country’s soil, so I guess he was able to do whatever he wanted (much to my lungs’ displeasure). I lasted three weeks, and my payment in the end was a blank envelope full of cash euros. I’m pretty sure there is no official record of my ever having worked for this country’s government!”

Adi Rule’s substitute woes
“Now, some people enjoy substitute teaching. (Some people also enjoy hooking a car battery up to their nostrils.) And I will say that I had some wonderful experiences and met some really awesome teachers and students. But there are a lot of reasons why substitute teaching is terrible, the worst of which, for me, was the fact that almost everyone automatically thinks you’re dumb as a post. They will trust you to hit “play” on the VCR, but can’t imagine you’re capable of making six photocopies without five of them being of your butt. This was made clear to me one day when I was in for an English teacher. (It was a class I’d been in previously, where I’d told the students that when they were done with their busywork — ahem, assignment — they could read, write, or draw. One girl said, “Write? Write what?” I said, “Whatever you want.” She was totally confused. How sad is that, America?) So this particular day, they were going to learn about adjectives. There was a clear lesson plan drawn up. I was at the board, 30 seconds in, when a disheveled teacher rushes in and apologize for the HUGE MIX-UP. You see, they didn’t realize the lesson would involve TEACHING, something that would clearly cause the barely sparking neurons of a substitute teacher to short circuit and explode! So she was there to save the day and teach about adjectives! YAY! And she must have done her job well, because that day, twiddling my thumbs at the teacher’s desk, I managed to come up with quite a few substitute teaching-related adjectives.”

Mylisa Larson’s early morning cadavers
“Well, I’ve had some winners in my checkered early employment history (swatting flies for my mom at a penny a fly was my first paying job followed by hoeing endless rows of corn for ten cents a row), but the worst job would have to be that I put myself through part of college by getting up at 4 AM and cleaning the cadaver lab in the biology building.”

Joshua McCune’s telephone hell
“The worst job for me was a telemarketing gig I took my first summer of college. Non-profit stuff (American Heart Association, etc.), so I didn’t feel like a complete scuzzball. Didn’t matter. I’m the antithesis of a salesperson … if somebody says no thanks, I say thanks for your time and goodbye. WTF is a rebuttal? Yeah, I sucked. Days were only six hours long and I only did it for six weeks, but it was pure, monotonous misery. Positive note: My experience there provided some background for a critical scene in TALKER 25. Side note: The meanest people in the country (at least in terms of hanging up on you and snappishness) seemed to conglomerate in the Pacific Northwest.”

Laurie Ann Thompson’s injury-riddled deli stint

“It could be the time I worked for an insurance salesman, cold-calling clients — during dinnertime, of course — trying to convince them to buy an annuity, but I’m going to have to go with the grocery store deli I worked at in college. They specifically instructed us to disregard all safety precautions so we could get things done “more efficiently.” Every night we were supposed to wipe down the deep fryers with hot oil still in them (yup, 3rd-degree burns and a trip to the ER) and clean and disinfect the meat slicer while it was running and all the safeties were removed (yep, sliced off the very tip of one of my fingers). Fortunately, neither job lasted very long before I found something better!”

Amy Finnegan’s cheesy fundraiser
During my sophomore year of high school, my dance team was invited to a competition in Hawaii. Everyone wanted to go, but the trip was going to be crazy expensive. We worked for months doing the typical fundraisers — car washes, rummage sales, coupon books — but still came short. Then came the opportunity for the team to work a designated amount of hours at a cold storage facility … unwrapping single slices of frozen American cheese. Not so bad, right? WRONG. The cheese turned out to be moldy and disgusting! All of it! We were unwrapping it so it could be sold to a dog food factory, and I felt bad for those poor little dogs. After weeks of this nauseating fundraising effort, more than 20 years later, I still can’t look at a slice of American cheese without gagging. And now you won’t be able to either. (But it was a great trip to Hawaii!)”

And MY worst job? That would have to be a secretarial post I took right out of college. It’s true I might have thought I was a tad overqualified for the spot, and that feeling didn’t change when the company CEO gave me a hand-scrawled sheet of paper to transcribe. His writing was terrible, and I did the best I could, but I obviously missed some finer points. He was yelling at me for getting it wrong, when I said, “But, I thought …” and he responded in full Dolby surround-sound: “I don’t pay you to think! I pay you to type!” Yeah. That was my clue that we would not have a long and happy partnership.

But all those jobs are long gone. See, we’re all just like Ashton (although maybe not as famous or well-groomed or quite as handy with a camera). Our worst jobs led us to successful, fulfilling careers as new or soon-to-be authors. Could we have done it without those early struggles? Who knows? Perhaps they built character if nothing else.

Anyway, what was your worst job ever? Leave a comment and tell us. You’ll be entered into a drawing for a free copy of RADIO GIRL.

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Filed under Promotion

I broke a rule … but it worked

Sonia and BerniceNew picture book writers often hear rules they should follow if they want to avoid making beginner mistakes and increase their chances of being published. Those rules usually go something like this:

Don’t write about overdone topics like the tooth fairy or the first day of school.

Don’t use talking animals.

Don’t write in rhyme.

Don’t write a story with a moral.

Don’t write a story based on something your child did.

At first glance, those are all good rules. And they exist because editors see far, far too many stories about talking teddy bears getting ready for kindergarten written in terrible rhyme designed to teach children that being nice to their classmates is a good idea — all because the author’s grandson came home crying after his first day of school saying the other kids were mean.

So I agree. If you disregard any of these rules you may be taking the long path to publication.

And, yet …

There are terrific stories about the tooth fairy and the first day of school (You Think It’s Easy Being the Tooth Fairy? / First Day Jitters).  Treasured tales about animals that talk (Owl Babies). Wonderful rhyming stories (Tom’s Tweet). Successful stories with morals (Little Bunny Foo Foo) and stories that are based on something your child did (like … um … my upcoming book).

Sophie's SquashYes, it’s true. Sophie’s Squash, which will be published by Schwartz & Wade on Aug. 6, is based on something my youngest daughter did when she was 6 or so. (That’s her in the top photo, holding a reincarnation of the first squash she adored.)

Will my book be successful? I have no idea.

But I am proof that you can get a story published that’s inspired by your own child. I do, however, have a few tips that might make doing so easier.

— Be inspired by the event, but don’t feel you have to tell it exactly as it happened. Stories are different than real life. They have a format they need to follow. A problem that has to be resolved. My daughter, Sonia, fell in love with a butternut squash, drew a face on it and carried it around like a doll, but that’s where the similarities between her and my main character, Sophie, end. Sophie carries her devotion much farther than Sonia ever did. And the parents in my story are much more gracious and patient with her squash-love than I ever was.  Why? Because it makes a better story. Even if it didn’t really happen exactly that way.

— Feel free to combine memories. Sonia’s love for a squash got me writing. But as I revised, I realized the story needed some more tension and heart. So I pulled another Sonia memory up, a comment she had made after our beloved cat, Lucy, had died. We planted a tree and scattered Lucy’s ashes by its roots. When we were done, Sonia turned to me tearfully and asked, “Now, will a new kitty grow?” That hope that the things we love can return to us  inspired a new ending for my story that ultimately proved to be just right.

— Don’t overdo it. Yes, your child inspired the story. Yes, your child is wonderful. But don’t get so hung up on those things that you find yourself naming your main character after your child, working in your other children’s names and providing detailed illustrator notes about exactly how your child looks and how the tiles on the kitchen backsplash should be red because that’s the color they are in your kitchen. The essence of your story is what’s important, not whether the main character has shoulder-length, feathered hair, just like your daughter. Plus, your illustrator might have ideas to take your story to an entirely different level. Don’t tie his or her hands.

— Look for ideas everywhere. Don’t rely just on your kids for ideas. They’ll grow up way too quickly and you’ll be left scratching your head. My next picture books were not inspired by either of my children.

But, I have to admit, another one I have in progress was.

(Oh … and hey. While I’m here, I also want to mention that I have a giveaway over at goodreads. If you go here, you can register for the chance to win one of two copies of Sophie’s Squash.)

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Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Writing

Kids celebrate THE MONSTORE in creative fashion

M2If you’ve been helping celebrate the release of Tara Lazar’s debut picture book THE MONSTORE (Simon and Schuster, 2013), you know that it’s about a boy who keeps buying more and more monsters from a not-so-helpful neighborhood store in hopes that one of them will be able to keep his pesky little sister from bothering him.

It’s a great idea, even if it doesn’t work out exactly as the boy might have hoped.

So … I thought the best way to mark the arrival of this great book, which is MM1illustrated by James Burks, would be to ask some kids what kind of a monster they would create if they could make their own. No over-exposed creatures like Frankenstein or Godzilla or King Kong. Just custom-made, newly minted monsters from the creative minds of the next generation.

As you’ll see from the responses and the art, my young friends were up to the task.

Meet Eli, who is 4. He says his monster stomps on and grabs bugs with his four M3arms. The monster lives in a cave and he eats spiders. He has green fur, and it’s all crazy.

Now, let’s welcome Joshua, age 6. His monster is Mosde, a 9 -year-old girl, who takes care of kids, helps kids if they fall, and gives Band-aids as needed (which she carries in her purse).

M4Anna is 11, but she’s not too old to believe in monsters. Spike is a water monster with water wings that propel him through water. He has bright skin that glows in the dark, deep water and many instincts that help him navigate the water. Spike can swim under water, but he can’t breathe M5underwater — has to swim to the surface to breathe and then hold his breath. But he can hold his breath for one century. That is why no one has ever seen him.

Jacob, age 7, designed a monster that can fly. He shoots fire out of his mouth. He catches prey with his talons. His name is Talon, and he’s 20 years old. Because Talon can fly, he helps Jacob retrieve balls from roofs and whatever gets stuck high in trees.

M6Jaiden says, “I would buy a monster that would make my bed, do my homework, and make any kind of candy I wanted.”

Sienna says, “I would buy a monster that could turn into a kitty when I wanted it to and it could be a nice monster that could shoot out hot chocolate.”

M7Then, there’s Drew. He just finished kindergarten, and he designed a monster named Mr. Monster. Drew says Mr. Monster is a very strong monster who helps Drew wash dishes. Not that Drew currently washes dishes in his home. But, with the help of Mr. Monster, he tells his mom that he could start.

Abby, who is 5.5, said she would like “a monster who eats fruit and vegetables and likes to go to the pool with me so I can float on his back.”

Jake, who is 8.5, says he would like “one that can play Minecraft and find all the diamonds.”  If you are not familiar with Minecraft, it is game (usually played on the computer or iPad) where you create or customize your world, build houses, mine for resources AND kill monsters.

Sam, who is 10, says: “Only friendly monsters? Hmm. I’d buy one to do my homework and play Minecraft multi-player games, and somehow get me lots of money.”

Isaac, who is 4, notes: “I would get one to help me tie my shoes and to help me drive. And I would want it to make me marshmallows and shoot cotton balls with rocks inside of them at ghosties and other scary things.”

Georgia, who is 6, says: “He would get me lunches that I like and eat all of the things I don’t like that my mom makes. And he could teach me how to drive. And make me cakes. Strawberry cakes. Also, he could spray magic on me so that I can sleep at night so my mom doesn’t go whackadoodle.”

John, who’s 6, says: “I would like it to have fifty heads, one eye, one tooth, one baseball cap, and one hundred arms. Oh, and one more thing — a mean father. (It’s just like the Cyclops and the Hecatonchires and Uranus.)”

And last but not least, meet Ellie, who’s 9. She says: “I would like to have a nice little monster named Pie. It’s fluffy and has little pointed ears, and it’s blue. It has little bows on each side of its ears, and little round arms and feet, and is very cute and friendly.”

Well, then! There are more than enough idea for Tara and James to write a sequel.

If you could design a monster to help you with something, what would it look like? What would it do?

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Filed under Celebrations

Thoughts on being star-struck …

Emma's StarIn the past two weeks, I’ve found out that my picture book, SOPHIE’S SQUASH, received starred reviews from two industry journals — Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

As a debut author, I’m new to this, but I knew enough to know this was a big deal. My publisher was happy. My agent was happy. My writing friends were happy. I was, to put it mildly, ecstatic. After all the work and the waiting and the rejection and the waiting and the revision and the waiting, people who didn’t know me or my book thought it was worthy of some distinction.

Wow.

And Lisa Morlock, an author friend of mine, even sent me two stars of her own to go with my Kirkus and PW stars. One, shown at the upper right, was drawn by her daughter, Emma. That was even nicer.

When things calmed down a little, I started reading other book reviews. I looked up my favorite books. Books I have displayed on my desk as inspiration that maybe, someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll be a good enough writer to write a book like that.

I was surprised to see that many of the books I adore did not get starred reviews. And one of my absolute favorite books, one that many people regard as something of a classic, not only did not get a starred review, it didn’t even get particularly positive comments.

This didn’t shatter my illusions, but it did make me pause. And remember something I knew all along.

Art is subjective. Two equally intelligent people are capable of reading the same book or watching the same movie or listening to the same music and having equally passionate — but completely opposite — responses to it.

So when all is said and done, your book is your book. Loved, loathed or overlooked, it was your best effort to tell the story you wanted to tell at the time you told it. You control that part. How others perceive it and what they see in it may have more to do with them and their life experiences than you and yours.

I’m happy my first two reviews have been positive. I’m not, by nature, a huggy person, but I’d hug Kirkus. Or Publishers Weekly. Or Lisa Morlock. The whole thing has kind of been like having an extra birthday without having to turn a year older.

But, I’m mentally prepared for the less-glowing comments as well. They may come from another well-known review journal. They may show up on Amazon or GoodReads. Or in a private email to my inbox. Or be reflected by lackluster sales and remaindered copies.

I think my mantra for when that happens will be: “It’s out of my hands.”

But for now, I’m going to enjoy the stars I have — especially the ones provided by my friend, Lisa — and focus my efforts on things I do have some control over. Promoting SOPHIE’S SQUASH the best I can. Writing and revising my next books (Maybe even using the Carol Brendler non-outline method.) Working to be a better and better writer so I can live up to the standards set by the books on my desk.

STAR-ting right now.

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Filed under Happiness, Reviews

It takes a village … to write a book

It takes a villageIt takes a village.

Those words typically represent how many people it takes to successfully raise a child. Parents can’t do it without help from relatives, neighbors, schoolteachers, friends and everyone in the surrounding community.

As I move down my path as an author, I’ve discovered those words also apply to book writing. Obviously, to successfully publish a book, you need agents, editors, illustrators, designers, printing press operators, marketers, booksellers and more. But often, there’s a whole village of people involved before the sale even gets made.

I think many people assume that writers sit down, write their book in solitude, edit it a bit, send it off and wait for a publishing offer to arrive. That’s usually not the case, although — because I may be the biggest introvert in the world — it certainly sounds appealing.

I was just fortunate enough to sell my third picture book — The Quickest Kid in Clarksville — to Chronicle Books. Here’s how a village helped make that happen, step by step.

Step One

I wrote a solitary first draft at my kitchen table after being inspired by Jacqui Robbins’ and Matt Phelan’s picture book The New Girl … And Me. I thought its depiction of a beginning friendship and the pitfalls that can occur along the way was spot-on, and I wanted to see if I could take that theme in a new direction. I’d also been hanging around my youngest daughter’s school, and the voices of some of the kids had gotten stuck in my head and made their way into my manuscript. The first draft was titled The Fastest Feet on Fleet Street and had two girls competing to see who was the better runner, jumper and double-dutch rope-skipper. They start out disliking each other, but end up as friends. But I knew I wasn’t done, I needed …

Step Two

I sent the draft through my two critique groups. They made comments, and I made adjustments. Then, I won a picture book critique from esteemed picture book writer Dori Chaconas in a contest and I sent the story her way. She had great things to say about the voice and suggested that I have one of the girls be new to the neighborhood so she’d be more of a threat to the other, who had been reigning queen of the block. I thought this was a great idea, rewrote accordingly and proceeded to …

Step Three

I took the manuscript along to the Rutgers One-on-One Plus children’s writing conference (which, by the way, is a wonderful experience if you ever get the chance to go). The special thing about this conference is that you get paired with an editor, agent or writer and get to spend 45 minutes with them 1-on-1 digging into one of your manuscripts and soaking up their knowledge. I was paired with Chelsea Eberly, an associate editor at Random House. Not only did Chelsea explain the concept of a story hook better than anyone else I had ever heard, she also turned on a huge light bulb for me by suggesting that I set the story in the past and look for a historical angle to give the story a more strongly defined identity and purpose. Almost instantly, I thought of setting the story in 1960, the year African-American sprinter Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Rome. I went home full of excitement and rewrote the story so both characters idolized Wilma and wanted to be just like her. That brought me to …

Step Four

I attended a SCBWI conference in Iowa and submitted the latest version for a critique. I was paired with Brett Wright, an assistant editor at Bloomsbury. He had a lot of good things to say in his detailed critique, but he also suggested amping up the tension between my two competing athletes so, as he put it, “They earn their happy ending.” This made sense to me, and was relatively easy to do, so I went at it and moved to …

Step Five

Now, I thought the story seemed ready to submit. Ammi-Joan Paquette, my agent, agreed and started sending it out. Some rejections arrived, which is inevitable, and then we received a very nice note from Tamra Tuller at Chronicle Books. She said she liked the story, but something didn’t seem quite right. Maybe there wasn’t enough Wilma Rudolph? She didn’t know exactly how to fix things, but if I was willing to try, she’d be happy to look at it later. I was willing, so that led to …

Step Six

I was off of work and alone in my house the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and I made revising the story my top priority. But I wasn’t exactly sure how to get started. So I sent the story back to my critique group friends sharing Tamra’s comments and asking for ideas. They did not let me down. Norene Paulson sent a list of brainstormed thoughts about how to make Wilma more prominent. Lisa Morlock suggested using the story’s setting to add punch. And, Jill Esbaum offered some character advice. So I pondered, and began …

Step Seven

I did a bunch of research to learn more about Wilma Rudolph.  I read her autobiography and other children’s books about her. And in doing so, I learned some very interesting things. Wilma had grown up in Clarksville, Tenn. which was still segregated in 1960. Blacks and whites went to separate schools, saw separate doctors and ate at separate restaurants. But after Wilma’s Olympic victories, Clarksville wanted to throw her a victory parade. Wilma agreed, but said the event had to be integrated. So that parade was the first integrated event in Clarksville history. Knowing that, I moved my story’s setting to Clarksville and had both girls planning to attend Wilma’s victory parade. I also took out the jumping and rope-skipping elements and had the girls’ competition focus only on running events loosely patterned after Wilma’s three Olympic events. And the title changed to become The Quickest Kid in Clarksville. I look a deep breath and advanced to …

Step Eight

I sent the story off to Joan. She asked a few questions, I made a few alterations and she sent the story back to Tamra, who took it to an editorial meeting and then to an acquisitions meeting and then, amazingly, bought it, which resulted in  …

Step Nine

Celebration! (And, of course, awaiting the editorial notes from Tamra.)

So thank you to everyone in my village. As they say in sports, this was a team win.

You may be a solitary scribe slaving alone in your room. You may track your progress using a nifty star chart like Tara Dairman.

That’s all good. But once you’ve gotten your manuscript as far as you individually can, consider sending it out into your village.

And if you don’t have a village, go find some like-minded people and create one.

You and your book will be better for it.

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Filed under Editing and Revising, Patience

Are you a writer? Patience is your friend.

Waiting for your book to debut? Use your time productively. Reading books? Yes.

Waiting for your book to debut? Use your time productively. Reading books? Yes.

I would not normally say I am a patient person.

I tend to want what I want when I want it, whether it’s chocolate, a certain pair of shoes or to get the whole family out of the house and into the car so — for once — we can get where we’re headed and not be late.

But I am capable of working diligently toward a goal for a long time knowing that it may take me a while to get there. When I was in middle school, a church youth group leader said I was tenacious and I’ve always held on to that word because I knew it was true.

Eating large amounts of chocolate? No.

Eating large amounts of chocolate? No.

I rarely give up.

So when I decided it was time to start pursuing my lifelong dream of being a children’s author, I got busy. Reading. Learning. Writing. Revising.  Again and again and again.

And that’s when I learned the important of patience. Publishing is a wonderful industry that I am thrilled to be a part of. But it can move at a glacial pace. And impatient people who live and die with every wait and delay can drive themselves, and those around them, crazy.

Why doesn’t my general impatience spill over into publishing?

Initially, I wasn’t sure. But, as they say in the NFL, upon further review, I came up with these reasons:

1. Clearly defined roles. Everybody involved in creating and publishing a book has a job to do. Mine is to write the best book I can, respond positively, professionally and promptly to suggested changes from my editor and share my opinion when asked. So I focus on what I can control. Then, once I’ve done my work and the text is final, the book moves on to the next stages in the process. Those stages are handled by people who are experts in their field and know what they’re doing far more than I do. Which leads to …

2. Trust. I have great faith in the people who work on children’s books. People in this industry love what they do and are committed to putting out books they love so others can love them too. Attend any SCBWI conference and listen to the editors and art directors who speak, and you’ll see this is true. I’ve been amazed at the beautiful things everyone else involved in a book’s advent create. It’s part of a continued focus on …

3. Quality. Good things take time. Just like I needed time to get the story in saleable form and then revise to meet the acquiring editor’s vision, illustrators need time to ponder and sketch and rethink and redraw and polish. Art directors need time to think about things like trim size and cover design and all the tiny touches that elevate a book from basic to beautiful. Printers need time to color-correct proofs and bind beautifully. And I am more than willing to wait for all those things to happen.

Plus, there are so many ways to spend the time while you’re waiting to see your final book. You can:

1. Read. You can discover all the cool new releases. In publishing, there’s always something that just came out to read and hold and admire and learn from.

2. Write. You can write your next draft using all the knowledge you gained from your previous project. And since you want it to be the best it can be, that’s going to take some time. (For full details about obsessing over your next book, see Tara Dairman’s recent post!)

3. Plan. You can create a marketing plan for how you’re going to talk about your book once it arrives.

4. Dream. You can go to a library or bookstore and figure out where your book will be shelved. (This is actually much more fun that it might sound.)

And if you have some time left over, you can always indulge your need for immediate gratification by eating some chocolate, buying some impressive shoes or trying, one last time, to get all your family members out the door and in the car by a pre-determined time.

Although if your family is anything like mine, that might take you longer than waiting for your book’s debut.

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Writers need people. Many thanks to mine.

Destiny RewrittenUntil last week, I’d never ordered a book online just because I liked its cover.

I had, of course, ordered lots of books online.  In fact, the UPS delivery folks and the postal people are probably gathering right now to talk about how to best stage an intervention regarding the number of book-filled boxes and envelopes they regularly deliver to my door. My husband might be participating as well.

But usually, I order books because I’ve heard good buzz about them. Or I know the author. Or I’m intrigued by the topic or concept.

But in the case of DESTINY, REWRITTEN by Kathryn Fitzmaurice, I saw the cover and instantly clicked “Add to cart.”

Why? Just look at it. There’s a tween girl surrounded by books with a cat by her side. Put a pair of glasses on her and that could have been me when I was 12.

I guess I just knew I’d like it. And I wasn’t wrong, I read it in a single sitting and was enchanted by Emily’s quest to find her father and figure out whether fate or free will would determine her purpose in life. Besides, how many times have you seen Emily Dickenson and Danielle Steele held up as equally inspiring literary figures in the same book?

But the reason I decided to blog about this book on EMU’S DEBUTS is because of one line on page 254:

Everyone nodded and sighed, and a quiet but peaceful feeling came over us, the kind that makes you feel connected to each other just because you know the same thing.

I liked this so much I turned down the corner of the page.

And creased it.

No matter what you’re passionate about — Accounting! Gardening! Minecraft! — you’ve probably had moments like this. Where you find yourself with a group of like-minded people who all know the same things you do. They get you. You get them. You don’t have to explain why you like what you like or how it works or why you spend so much time at it. No one makes dismissive remarks about your hobby, and you don’t have to spend lots of time explaining it to well-meaning but clueless people.

Writing is a lot more fun when you have others who know the same things as you. You can find people like that in critique groups (like Emily does in DESTINY, REWRITTEN) at conferences, online or even in a literary agency like everyone blogging here.

Now I’m quite a large introvert. I am not one to reach out to people I don’t know. I don’t mingle. I run from cocktail parties. At my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, I skulked around in back rows and corners, afraid someone would tell me I didn’t belong. But then I learned the lesson from this book. Most of the people there liked the same things as I did.

I could make a joke about Tiny Cooper hating “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and people would laugh, not look at me oddly. I could say, “Some days are like that, even in Australia” and everyone would nod knowingly.

So if you’re a writer or a reader, I hope you find your groups of people too. Heck, if you’re a plumber, I think you should do the same. Because, let’s face it, talking about air admittance valves with me just isn’t going to be as satisfying.

With all this in mind, I want to thank my people. My two critique groups — Jill Esbaum, Lisa Morlock and Norene Paulson — and Pat Lessie, Chris Miles, Cathy Stefanec Ogren and Eve Robillard. And my fellow EMU Debuters — Carol Brendler, Laurie Boyle Crompton, Melanie Crowder, Tara Dairman, Tara Lazar, Joshua McClune, Adi Rule and Laurie Ann Thompson. My agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette. And lots of other writing friends too numerous to name.

They’ve all made my journey to debut author more enjoyable. And I know they’ll tackle the UPS and postal representatives if they even think of executing a book-buying intervention for me.

Who are your people? Feel free to thank them in the comments below.

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Filed under Colleagues, cover art, Thankfulness

Need some writing inspiration? Turn on the radio.

A glimpse into my iPod.I’ve long had a pet theory.

Picture books and pop songs are pretty similar things.

Sure, the format is different. You process one through your eyes and the other through your ears.

But, they both have the same goal.

To convey a story or emotion using a very limited number of words in a very specific format in a way that is catchy enough that people will want to read or listen to it again and again and again.

They both also suffer from the same misconception.

That good ones are easy to write.

Anyone can scan the shelves of a bookstore or surf their car’s radio settings and then declare, “There’s nothing good out there. I could write something better than this drivel.”

But anyone who’s ever tried putting pen to paper or fingers to guitar strings to actually come up with something that works knows writing something as memorable as Hanson’s “MMMBop” or Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is way harder than it seems. So is coming up with picture book classics like Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day or Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny. It’s easy, as Joshua McCune pointed out in his last blog post, to get lost in the weeds.

How do you get unstuck?

You have to ask yourself …

What’s going to get into someone’s head and stay there, so that years later, some words or notes will flip a switch and make the whole thing comes flooding back?

I recently saw some comments from the the band Hot Chelle Rae about songwriting that I think really apply to picture book writing too. Hot Chelle Rae is a newer band — and, yes, I do have three of its songs on my iPod — but I admired one of its singles from the first time I heard it.

“Tonight, Tonight” has well-written lyrics (which include a rhyming reference to actor Zach Galifianakis) and a very catchy hook of a refrain. (“La, la, la. Whatever. La, la, la. It doesn’t matter. La, la, la. Oh well …”) Check it out here. You know you want to.

Here’s what lead singer Ryan “RK” Follese, who’s the son of Nashville songwriters Keith and Adrienne Follese, says.

“My dad told me early on that writing hit songs is just like your batting average,” Follese says. “He reminded me that Barry Bonds hits 70 homeruns a year, but he doesn’t hit a homerun every time — it’s maybe one out of ten. So if you want to write hit songs, you’re going to have to write 50 songs for your first record, which is what we did. We threw out loads of songs.”

Every picture book writer I know has the same story. Lots of attempts. Lots of times they thought they might have gotten it right only to find out it still wasn’t there. Lots of setting manuscripts aside or abandoning them altogether as they learned more, got better and became better judges of their own work.

The hard part can be knowing when to throw something away.

But Follese says it’s easy.

All the members of Hot Chelle Rae write, and the band also works with other non-band-member songwriters. As Follese notes, “We have a rule: The best song wins.”

That’s a good rule for picture book writers to follow as well. It’s easy to get caught up in something you have an emotional attachment to, when what you really should be asking yourself is, “Of all my works in progress, which is really the strongest?” And, “What can I write next that will be even better?”

I find that I sometimes listen to pop songs for picture book writing inspiration. Not in subject matter, but in structure. How did they handle that rhyme scheme? What makes that refrain so memorable? And I know some authors come up with playlists for the book they’re currently writing featuring music that supports their characters, mood or theme.

As I said, the link between pop songs and picture books is a pet theory of mine.

But, I did think there was one glaring exception.

Despite these similarities, I thought you’d never see a picture book where the author inserted him or herself blatantly into the book.

It happens all the time in pop songs whether it’s Usher chanting his name rhythmically in the background of “Scream,” Nicki Minaj telling everyone exactly who she is in “Super Bass” or all the references to Chaka Khan in “I Feel for You.”

“Ha,” I used to laugh. “It’s not like you’d ever see me insert a paragraph of text in my next manuscript that simply says ‘Pat Miller. Pat Miller. Pat Miller.’ It just wouldn’t work. Besides, I’m not famous like Usher, Nicki and Chaka. Who would even care?”

But then I saw Chloe and the Lion (Hyperion Books, 2012) by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex, and my theory was shot to smithereens. (If you don’t have the book handy, this video gives you an idea of what’s going on.)

So, I was wrong.

But, that’s OK. I guess I can just quote Taylor Swift’s recent Top 40 hit and say, “Never say never …”

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