The Making of a Book Cover: Behind the Cover Reveal of THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS

The Benefits of Being an OctopusFriends, I know you have met author Ann Braden in our last post, but I have to share with you my amazing interview with Ann about her cover reveal. What was particularly fun is that…well… basically I LOVE to talk to Ann anytime I get the chance and you are about to see why. She is not only a talented writer, but she is a thoughtful, observant, deep human. And I learn something from her every time we talk, like the importance of having a rock in your pocket to keep yourself calm. (No, really.)

This particular conversation with Ann is about what happened when her cover showed up. Not the flannel kind. The BOOK kind. As in, after all the many forms of anguish one experiences in getting published, it’s actually happening and you open an e-mail to look at your actual real live book cover.

Here we go. Enjoy! – Anna Crowley Redding

Anna: You and I first met out in Washington at a retreat. I’ll never forget it. Neither of us had book deals yet and I remember how you shared about managing that anxiety of working hard on writing and waiting for a break through. And here you are now, with your first book baby on the way.  How are you feeling these days?

ANN: Yes! That was soon after I had spent an entire month holding a satisfyingly-shaped rock in my hand because I was on pins and needles waiting to hear news about two books that had made their way to the top of the acquisitions process. That was a good rock. And for the record I think I finally heard the decision (of ‘not quite’) about a year later, so it was good I had that rock to help me settle in for the wait!

As to how I’m feeling right now, I’ve been loving every step of the process. I loved digging into revisions with my amazing editor, getting to copy edits, collaborating on this cover, and then most recently, getting to see it laid out like an actual book! There are even e-ARCs up on Edelweiss! That’s pretty darn real!

But I know that as you put your heart out into the world, it’s always best to have something sturdy to hold onto. For me that ideally means getting deep enough into the next manuscript that I’m able to stay sane while riding this roller coaster. Unfortunately, I’ve been pretty busy getting this book ready, and I’m only at the very beginning stages of the next one. It’s probably time to find that satisfyingly-shaped rock again.

Anna:  Your cover reveal was featured on Mr. Schu’s blog. I mean MR. SCHU!!!! He’s a rock star traveling librarian, a shout-it-out-from-the-mountain-tops book advocate, and all around kidlit hero. Please give us a taste of what it was like flying so close to the sun and having Mr. Schu reveal your book cover!

Ann: I’ve been a huge fan of Mr. Schu since I was on maternity leave from my middle school teaching position back in 2010 and had just discovered Twitter. His enthusiasm for books was (as you know) infectious and as I started down the path of writing MG books, I was propelled in part by the knowledge that out there in the world there were people like him who LOVED good books and introduced them to kids.

I have to admit that when Mr. Schu agreed to reveal my book cover I may have leaped around the house for a good long while.

Anna: I need to know about the first moment you saw your book cover with your name on it . . . as the author!

Ann: Oh my goodness. People had said that moment was amazing, and they weren’t kidding. I looked at it small. I looked at it big. I printed it out. I taped it to actual books. All while flailing around A LOT. Since then, my five-year-old daughter has started proclaiming: “THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS! BY ANN BRADEN!” at random moments.

Anna: THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS is such an important book for readers. And grabbing them with the cover, is an important part of getting the book into readers’ hands. I am such a fan of the design. How did that come together? And were you involved in the process?

Ann: I aually got to be super involved in the process. My editor pitched two concepts at the beginning, and I loved one so we went with that. We discussed things every step of the way, and it was such a great collaborative process – and I love love love the end result! I love how bold it is, and I love the way it captures the idea that there is so much going on below the surface of a person. Because isn’t that the truth?

Anna: Now teachers have a crazy good opportunity to win a full classroom set of THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS between now and your book birthday. Tell us about that!

Ann: Yes! I was a middle school teacher before I became a writer and I always thought about how this book could reach those kids feeling alone as they struggle to juggle just as much as the main character Zoey – and how this book could be used in classrooms to start really important and meaty conversations.

Here are the details for the giveaway:

Teachers and librarians have a chance to win a complete class set of books (32 copies!), octopus tattoos, and lesson plans. To enter visit: http://annbradenbooks.com/teachers-librarians/ and click the link at top of the page. While you’re there you can download the brand new Educator’s Guide for THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS. It offers a wide range of discussion questions and activities designed to help kids think deeply about the power of assumptions, the realities of poverty, the ways we can bridge the divides in our society (like about guns, for example), and the importance of finding your own voice.

Anna: Lastly, for writers out there who are still waiting for that first sale, what advice do you have in keeping calm and focused while they are waiting to break-in?

Ann: This advice is said a lot, but that’s only because it’s so darn true: once you put something out into the world, take a break…read some good books, watch some mindless TV…and then get to work creating the next thing. And until then, find a good rock to hold.


Readers, was I right or what? Ann is a gem and I can’t wait to have her book in my hands!

Award winning journalist and author Anna Crowley Redding‘s own debut GOOGLE IT! comes out in August 2018.

 

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And They Persisted

As an aspiring author, getting to read the success stories of others – about what it’s like to get the out-of-the-blue (and life-changing) call from an agent or editor that says “yes” – was like candy. They gave me hope.

Except after years of reading those stories and believing success was right around the corner (only to find that it wasn’t), I started to need a different kind of story. I needed stories about persistence. So, to all of those who are persisting in the querying and submission trenches, this is for you.

__________

The first manuscript I wrote was cringe-worthy. It was short – just 28,000 words – but I had written it one-handed while my baby boy nursed, so it was pretty darn long considering. I wrote it having no idea whether I could write a novel and no idea how you actually publish one (like knowing an appropriate word count for a MG novel.) But it made me realize that I COULD write a novel. Of course, once I immersed myself in figuring out the process for getting published, it quickly became clear that this manuscript wasn’t going to cut it. I started writing manuscript #2.

Manuscript #2 had a snazzy title (SWIMMING WITH TCHAIKOVSKY – it makes you pause, right?) and a good concept. Out of the 100+ queries I sent to agents, I got 30 requests to read the full manuscript. But none of those requests turned into an offer. Looking back I can understand it more clearly now why: the main character was too passive, the plot was complex in certain ways, but too thin in others. I had more work to do as a writer.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t query Manuscript #3 too soon. This time, I would make sure the meat of the story was as good as its concept—an all-girl science club (Sciencetastic Supergirls) that basically has to save the world. Plus, by this point my time in the querying trenches meant I had developed wonderful friendships with other aspiring MG authors who had become invaluable critique partners. And this time, everything came together. To test the querying waters, I entered my first page one of Miss Snarks First Victim’s Secret Agent Contest (http://misssnarksfirstvictim.blogspot.com/) and not only did I love the agent’s feedback on each of the entries, and not only did she end up choosing mine as the winner and requested a full manuscript BUT she was Tricia Lawrence, an agent at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. This was an agency

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I even have my very own Emu that sits prominently in our living room. Hence, the extra longing.

I had been pinning after since the beginning. A month later she wrote me an email that used the word “love” SEVERAL times. My growing son had been waiting for me to go for a walk in the woods when the e-mail came in. Then, he had to wait more and it started to rain. But then, I was ready and we ran together through the woods with the rain on our faces, and he didn’t quite get why his mama was screaming with happiness, but it sure made for a fun time.

The supergirl manuscript went on submission, and over the course of a year it got a request from an editor to revise and resubmit, but it didn’t end up leading to an offer. But in the meantime, I had learned from my previous manuscripts that the only way to stay sane when submitting work is to be starting something new. As my next manuscript (#4) took shape I could see that it was far bolder than anything I had written before. In part this came from the amazing, intangible benefit of having an agent who believed in me, and in part because in another area of my life I was becoming the leader of the gun violence prevention movement in Vermont, a role that was teaching me I was far stronger than I originally thought. I decided I want to stop submitting Manuscript #3 and focus instead on the new stories I was writing (Manuscript #5 was similar in that dove deep into issues people didn’t necessarily want to talk about – but needed to).

But…. neither of Manuscript #4 nor #5 found a home. Even though they both got very close to big deals – and I was on the edge of my seat, eating absurd amount of chocolate for months expecting to hear the good news any day and even showing up at social events holding a ROCK in one hand because I needed to squeeze something to keep myself from exploding—it didn’t happen.

Thankfully, before I hit that emotional roller-coaster, I found the space to start writing Manuscript #6. When I started it not only did I have an agent who believed in me, but I was fully convinced that I would have an editor by the time it was done. I was sure that this would be my second book and that it didn’t need any shiny jazz hands to grab someone’s attention. Instead, it could just be honest.

I bet you can see where this is going.

A year later I had spent a whole lot of time building up a protective wall around my emotions when it came to the submissions process. I had read the wise Tamara Ellis Smith’s words about longing and how to sit beside it rather than letting it consume you. But still, the best I could do at the time (if I wanted to keep my sanity intact) was to try to sit on top of it. When Tricia told me she was sending out this novel on sub, I had no reaction. Those were just words. The e-mails would go out. Rejection and silence would come back.

But then, a month later, I was driving home from a daylong board meeting (during which I hadn’t managed to find time to pee), late for school pick-ups, scrambling to find someone to pick up one of my kids, hightailing it to pick up the other, and oh-my-goodness did I have to pee. And then I saw out of the corner of my eye an e-mail come in on my phone. It was from Tricia and it had the words “offer” and “love.” Even now, my whole body goes numb just remembering it. I was like a zombie picking up my daughter from pre-school. I even ran into a friend who is an aspiring author himself, and when he asked me if I was okay (because I must have look like someone died), I told him that I really needed to pee. And then cautiously I told him about the e-mail. He, in turn, cautiously said (still looking my somebody-died-face), “But that sounds like a really good thing.” I swallowed. “It does, doesn’t it?”

It took me about a month and many conversations with my writer friends for it to sink in that this story rooted in simple honesty was going to become an actual book. THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS is about a 12-year old girl at the edge of poverty who has to find her voice. There are no bells and whistles. Instead, it is seeped in the realities of the class divide, the gun debate, and complex family relationships. It is about finding hope and pushing forward no matter how much the odds are stacked against you.

And isn’t that what we all need to do?

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Version 3

About Ann Braden

Ann Braden writes books about kids struggling to find their voice amidst the realities of life. She founded GunSenseVT, a grassroots group focused on championing the common ground on the issue of guns in Vermont, which successfully got gun violence prevention legislation passed. She also helped found the Local Love Brigade, which now has chapters all over the country sending love postcards to those who are facing hate. She is a former middle school social studies teacher. Ann’s debut novel The Benefits of Being an Octopus comes out in September 2018 from Sky Pony Press. The novel is a close, personal look at life on the edges of society, through the eyes of one girl just trying to find her way forward, recommended for fans of Jason Reynolds’ Ghost. You can connect with her at her website, on Facebook, on Twitter, or on Instagram.

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THE POET X LAUNCHES (part 2)

The Poet X

Oh friends! How I have been looking forward to this day! We have a book launch to celebrate. Stop what you are doing right now. I’ve got an interview for you to read and book that must be added to your collection. Elizabeth Acevedo’s, THE POET X, is waiting at a bookstore near you. And boy, do we need this book. Acevedo’s novel-in-verse tackles the heart of finding your voice, your power, your place in this world, while challenging preconceived notions, ideas, beliefs . . .  and I am just scratching the surface in this summary. THE POET X is entering this world while teens across the country (and beyond) are finding their own voices and using that powerful energy for change. What timing.

 

Here’s how Harper Collins sums up THE POET X.

 Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about.

With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out. But she still can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.”

 THE POET X received a star review from Kirkus, saying “It’s about how the power that we find in other peoples’ stories is a power we can claim for ourselves. That we, ourselves, can become the storytellers.

And it’s about how acknowledging and expressing hard personal truths—truths rooted in pain, fury, exhaustion—can lead us to hope and joy and wonder and optimism.”download

I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Elizabeth about her book, about this rising voice, the importance of girls of color seeing their own stories on bookshelves. Friends, grab your coffee, you are going to want to savor every word of what Elizabeth has to say. And then RUN to the bookstore and grab a copy of her debut novel-in-verse. This book will move you.

Now, without further adieu, my special conversation with Elizabeth Acevedo, author, slam poet, and woman extraordinaire.

 

ENJOY!

Anna Crowley Redding

 Anna –  One of the powerful things that struck me about THE POET X is your main character, Xiomara Batista, and her struggle to find her voice and thus, her own path, her own journey, her own place in this world. I started thinking about your readers and how that core truth might move them. Do you think about that, too? What do you hope they take from your pages and from Xiomara’s words?

Elizabeth – I definitely want my readers to feel that that their voice matters and that their unique story is important. It’s easy to feel small in this world, and a reminder that you can be your own narrator, and hero, is definitely a theme I hope comes through.

Anna –  Your book is hitting the shelves at a time when young people, teenagers in particular, are reacting to powerful events in our country. They, too, are finding their voice and learning the incredible value it has. What would you say to these teens?

Elizabeth – “Go on! Y’all have the answers.” I really am inspired by the young people I’ve seen in Florida, and the teens I saw protesting in Baltimore and Ferguson before them, and the teens I saw at the Women’s March. Time and again I’m reminded that it’s young people who have led most major movements in this country and it will be young people who will leads us, this country, this world, towards a more empathetic and fuller future.

Anna – Ibi Zoboi, author of American Street, had this to say about THE POET X: “Acevedo has amplified the voices of girls en el barrio who are equal parts goddess, saint, warrior, and hero.” Tell me what it’s like to read that sentence and to add your powerful book to the shelves of young girls and girls of color in particular?

Elizabeth – I loved reading that sentence by Ibi. I think she gets the world in a different level than many readers, firstly because we are friends, but also because we have similar ideas about getting girls of color from the hood into books and showing their full complexity. We both understand that young women from urban areas contain multitudes beyond how they’ve been represented in literature to date. I hope to continuing writing stories that celebrate those many sides.

Anna –  Is there hope that the world is actually changing? We have #metoo, #ownvoices, #blacklivesmatter, #neveragain and . . . on the movie/entertainment front, we have The Black Panther! Is there hope for more diverse books in publishing for children and young adults? And more voices, period. A more authentic view and experience of the actual diverse world we live in?

Elizabeth – I think the publishing industry is beginning to realize that stories from marginalized backgrounds are necessary for the future readers of our country. I think they are responding to the demand that those stories be published, I just hope that they also remember this is not a trend; it’s an ongoing effort to equalize publishing and reflect the many cultural experiences that make up this nation.

Anna –  What would you say to young writers, who are lucky enough to get a copy of your book!

Elizabeth – I hope you enjoy!

Anna – Lastly, if you could hop a plane right now, and sit next to yourself as a junior in English lit class . . . what would you whisper into the ear of your younger self?

Elizabeth – There is no blueprint. There is no one path. No one can tell you how to be the woman you want to became. You must make her up. And you are brilliant and bold enough to do so.


Emu’s Debuts author Anna Crowley Redding‘s GOOGLE IT: A History of Google comes out August 2018 from Feiwel & Friends.

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THE POET X LAUNCHES (part 1)

The Poet X

All the members of Emu’s Debuts are privileged today to help Elizabeth Acevedo celebrate the launch of her gorgeous debut, The Poet X from Harper Teen.  Read on to learn more about this book’s path to publication and the ways the story is bound to touch and enrich readers everywhere.


The Poet X Belongs On the Shelf in Every School – Ann Braden

Last night I had the privilege of finishing The Poet X. I sat there for a long time, holding all of its amazingness inside me and trying not to burst. It was so real, and it explored such timely issues in such a powerful way that it exposed them for all to see – and to feel.

Take this stanza from page 126:

“She knew since she was little,
the world would not sing her triumphs,
but she took all of the stereotypes
and put them in a chokehold
until they breathed out the truth.”

And what filled me up to the point of bursting was thinking about what this book could mean for our students who not only need to see themselves in books, but who need to be inspired to make their voices heard. I used to be a classroom teacher, and my heart is full of all the students who need this book. Our job is to get it into their hands.

This year’s the NCTE has chosen the powerful theme of “Raising Students Voice: Speaking Out for Equity and Justice.” As Franki Sibberson, the program chair of the 2018 annual convention, reminds us: “Our students’ voices matter. Their voices matter in our schools, our communities, and beyond. As teachers, we want our students to discover their own voices.… Our students deserve stories that impact who they are and who they can become.”

The Poet X is a book that needs to on the shelf in every school. It will show students that their voices matter, and it will show them how their own lives can change when they speak out.

As the main character Xiomara says:

“If my body was a Country Club soda bottle,
it’s one that has been shaken and dropped
and at any moment it’s gonna pop open
and surprise the whole damn world.”


ARCs and Electricity – Kat Shepherd

I have been eagerly awaiting the book birthday of Elizabeth Acevedo’s THE POET X for almost a year now, so I felt doubly lucky that not only did I get a sneak peek of an ARC of the book, I also got a chance to attend my first even poetry slam this past weekend, where Elizabeth was the featured performer.

 

For those who don’t know, ARC stands for Advanced Reader Copy. These are early, unproofed copies of an author’s book that are sent out to librarians, teachers, and other reviewers to help build buzz around a book before it’s released. If you’ve ever followed groups like #bookvoyage or #bookexpedition on Twitter, you’re probably used to seeing kidlit folks excitedly tweeting about the latest ARCs making their way to mailboxes across the country. Having the chance for an early read already feels incredibly special, and THE POET X was everything I hoped for and more.

 

Xiomara, or X, is entering high school and working to make sense of the conflicting worlds that try to define her: childhood and adulthood, Dominican and American, skepticism and faith, self-love and shame. Poetry is what allows her to fit the pieces of herself together and share her voice with the world. So it was fitting that I got to get a glimpse into Xiomara’s real-life world just as I was reading her story.

Lightning Strike

Elizabeth Acevedo had been invited as the featured poet at a Macalester College poetry slam in St. Paul last Saturday. I already knew she was a phenomenal poet and speaker, but I had never seen her perform in person before. Have you ever felt that pull in your belly when you see someone do something that they were just absolutely born to do? That’s what it felt like seeing Elizabeth. She read poems, she told stories, she made goofy little asides, and she had us hanging on her every word. She was absolutely electrifying.

And the slam itself: undiluted and intense, with poets sharing their most vulnerable selves. Audience participation isn’t just encouraged; it’s absolutely vital. There are snaps, claps, hoots and hollers, peppered with the occasional hiss or cursing of the judges. It is organized chaos punctuated by moments of the sublime.There are poems with lines that cut into the deepest part of you and leave you struggling for breath. It’s the same rawness and urgency of emotion that is captured so beautifully in Acevedo’s novel.

 

THE POET X reminds of that art is a lifeline, and it’s also a heartline that connects us to one another. It allows us to be our most vulnerable and urgent selves, and still have faith that we will be loved.


The Team Behind the Launch  – Christina Uss

The Poet X began its transformation from manuscript to ARC to full-fledged launching hardcover book when Elizabeth Acevedo signed with her agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, who then connected her with the book’s editor, Rosemary Brosnan at Harper Teen. Pre-published writers often agonize over how they’ll find an agent or editor, wondering if there’s some magical, mystical way to get noticed. In Elizabeth’s case, all the magic she needed was right there in her words. Her writing spoke so strongly to these two, they both knew they simply had to work with her on this book.open-a-book

Ammi-Joan Paquette explained how her part in the journey began:

“Liz and I had been in touch a few years before, and at that time she had sent me sample pages of another work she had in progress. Although that was a bit earlier in her writing journey, she definitely had the magic already! We kept in correspondence, and when she eventually sent me the manuscript for POET X, I was hooked. I knew this was what I had been waiting for. Pure magic.” The main character, Xiomara, particularly drew Paquette in: “Her voice rings through so clearly and vividly. From the earliest lines she is a living, breathing, multi-dimensional character, and her personality is exquisitely captured as she develops and grows across the course of the story.”

            Paquette submitted Xiomara’s story to editors she thought might make a good match, and The Poet X ended up selling at auction – an enviable situation when multiple editors/publishing houses all want to be the one to publish a work. “When that happens, the various editors each make their case for why they would provide the best home for the work. That’s what happened with POET X—it’s very exciting, but also a bit nerve-wracking, as you might imagine, for the author to suddenly be in a position to have to choose between such an array of excellent options. In this case, Rosemary Brosnan at Harper Teen was inarguably the top choice for POET X, and I can’t imagine a better home for Liz and Xiomara anywhere!

Rosemary Brosnan let Emu’s  Debuts know she agrees:

Everything about THE POET X drew me in and made me want to acquire it! The voice, the wonderful poetry, the story—everything about this book screamed to me, ‘You must publish!’ I was also quite taken with the Afro-Dominican main character, Xiomara, as she is someone we have not seen a great deal in YA literature. And Liz herself is a force; I watched videos of her performances after I read the manuscript, and I was completely bowled over. (See links below to catch your own glimpse of Elizabeth’s power onstage.)

        Like Paquette, Brosnan found Xiomara to be a unique character. “Some of the issues…in the story have been dealt with by other authors, but Xiomara is a truly memorable character, with her Dominican heritage, her love of poetry, her ultra-religious mother against whom she rebels.” She hopes all the book’s readers will leave its pages knowing “that poetry does not have to be obscure or written by dead white males! That poetry is fun!”


Savoring Poetry – Please Join the Challenge – Hayley Barrett

The Poet X is stunningly beautiful, inside and out.

I tried to read it—to sit quietly and read it—but I couldn’t. My voice wouldn’t cooperate. My ears wouldn’t cooperate. I should have expected as much. I’m predominantly an auditory learner, and my voice is sometimes the best tool I have to explore an idea. As I read The Poet X, my lips began to move. Eventually, I realized I was whispering and began to read aloud. Sweet, poetic relief!

To experience poetry silently, to only ever experience it like that, is to do it a disservice. Poetry does not care to be silenced or made to be less that all it truly is. Poems deserve to be read quietly, to be read out loud, to be shared with many voices. The Poet X certainly deserves that.

Throughout my education—which included an undergrad English major—only one teacher required me to memorize and recite poetry. I often chose the work of my favorite poet, Maxine Kumin. When I recited Kumin in class, I heard her voice and, perhaps as importantly, I heard my own. Savoring her words broadened my poetic palate and whetted my appetite for language. The experience nourished and strengthened me.

There are many videos of author Elizabeth AcevedoElizabeth Acevedo on her website and YouTube, including spoken word, two TEDx talks, and others. I encourage you to seek them out. In a recent one, she introduces The Poet X and talks about how she hopes her readers “hear a voice they’ve never heard.” If they read The Poet X aloud, one of the voices readers hear will be their own. I believe this experience will nourish and strengthen them. They may even discover their own poetic voice. I hope so.

As we celebrate her launch of The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo challenges each of us to identify a female poet, choose one of her poems, and commit it to memory. I didn’t retain the Kumin poems I memorized for Professor Briggs, but I can reclaim them. I accept the challenge.


The rest of the Emus plan to do the same! Will you accept the challenge with us? Please comment below and share the poems and female poets who help you hear a voice you’ve never heard.



The Emu’s Debuts nest is honored to count Elizabeth Acevedo as one of our own! Contributors to this Emu’s Debuts post include middle-grade authors debuting in 2018 Ann Braden , Christina Uss, and Kat Shepherd, and picture book author Hayley Barrett, debuting in 2019.


 

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The Three Questions That Led to BE KIND

Be_Kind

I’m so grateful to the current group of EMU’s Debuts for letting me visit for a guest blog.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was a member of EMU’s Debuts, waiting for SOPHIE’S SQUASH to come into the world. It was a time of excitement and fun and nervousness and wondering.

I’ve had more books come out since SOPHIE, but I still feel the same way when a new book arrives. What will happen? Will people like it? Will it matter?

So I’d like to walk you through the questioning process for my new book, BE KIND, illustrated by Jen Hill, which released Feb. 6 from Roaring Brook Press.

THE IDEA:

BE KIND started with a conversation I had with Editor Connie Hsu from Roaring Brook Press. She wanted to publish a book on kindness and had the title. My job was to write the story. Which led to question No. 1: What should I say?

I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a child who wants to be kind, but isn’t sure quite how to go about it – especially after the first attempt doesn’t go so well.

I thought back to how I often felt as a kid – nervous and unsure. Wanting to do the right thing, but afraid of having it taken the wrong way. So quiet, that I probably sometimes came across as rude even though that’s not what I wanted.

In the book, the main character ponders different ways of being kind and how each way might make a difference in the world. I like how it shows that there’s no one right way to be kind. All you can do is try sincerely and try again if it doesn’t work.

THE CHARACTER:

The story is told from inside the main character’s head. Which led to question No. 2: Who should this character be?

Because the story is told in first person, the main character doesn’t have a name. Or an identified gender. We wanted a character people could relate to and see themselves in.

And it’s interesting. Some people have read the book and assumed the main character is a girl. Others have assumed a boy. My favorite response came from Madison, Wisconsin, school librarian LuEllen Childers. She read the book to some students, and the kids started discussing if the main character was a boy or a girl. LuEllen asked them: “Does it matter?”

And, after some more discussion, the universal answer was that, no, it did not. Because everyone could be kind.

THE AUDIENCE:

Our question No. 3 was: Who is this book for?

It might seem like an odd question. Picture books are for kids, right? And, yes, they are. But picture books can have a broader scope than that. More and more middle school and high school teachers are reading picture books to their older students to introduce topics and start conversations and reintroduce the power and joy of story. And more and more adults are realizing that picture books can apply to them, too.

No book is ever for everyone. But I hope BE KIND has ideas and concepts that apply to people of all ages, and I tried to keep that in mind as I wrote.

If you’d like to know a little more about BE KIND, here’s a Pinterest board I made featuring other picture books about kindness.

And here’s a book trailer featuring some students talking about what being kind means: to them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2eZBM0uvIg


PAT ZIETLOW MILLER iis a former member of EMU’s Debuts. She has published seven picture books. Find her on Twitter at @PatZMiller or visit her website twww.patzietlowmiller.com.

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Help from Hollywood

Long before I ever started writing fiction, I worked as a script reader for studios specializing in children and family entertainment. It was a low-level freelance job that paid just enough to cover my monthly cellphone bill, but it was perhaps the best education I could ever have asked for as a writer.

My job was to read and provide “coverage” of screenplays that had been submitted to the studios, i.e. giving a brief summary of each script’s story, critiquing it, and determining whether it was a good potential fit for the studio. One of the most important things coverage did for me was it moved me away from thinking of a story as either something I liked or didn’t like, and instead moved me to approach every story as a potential problem to solve. Whether a script was initially a strong one or a weak one, my number one job was to approach it with the goal of figuring out how to make it better. That’s right; one of the first lessons that Hollywood taught me is that nothing is perfect, and almost everything is fixable.

Like a lot of writers, I tend to be a perfectionist with a flair for the dramatic. When I’m writing it feels like every sentence is a high-stakes decision that will determine the ultimate fate of the book, my career, and possibly even my ability to survive another day on this planet. While it can be paralyzing, before I sold anything that wasn’t that necessarily a big a problem for me. If I wanted to take years to write a book I could. But when deadlines come into the picture, perfectionism is no longer a workable plan, especially when those deadlines usually aren’t that far apart. Now when I’m working on a first draft, my husband and I have a joke in our house: “We’ll fix it in post.” It’s a reference to the cherished Hollywood tradition of fixing errors in the post-production editing process, after the movie has finished shooting. In the film and TV business, nothing is ever considered a perfect finished product up until the very moment it’s released, and then the audience and critics can gleefully start ripping it apart.

Hollywood is known for its short attention span. Studio execs are inundated with hundreds of scripts a month, and they might hear several dozen pitches a day. As a result, they wanted their notes broken down in easily-distilled categories. The execs I worked with were most interested in four main elements: premise, plot structure, characterization, and dialogue. By focusing on specific elements rather than the piece as a whole, it allowed me to determine what made a particular story resonate or fall flat. I could quickly identify strengths, and if something didn’t land, it gave me an efficient way to figure out what wasn’t working and why.

This has been invaluable in my own work. I always start with the story’s concept or premise. Hollywood is big on “high concept” ideas. This simply means that your story’s premise can easily be pitched and communicated. It succinctly answers the question, “What is this about?” Because I write for kids, having a high concept idea is a pretty good place to start. If a bunch of kids want to know what my book series is about, I want to make sure I can pitch it to them in one sentence and grab their attention before they lose interest and scatter. Not every great idea has to be high-concept, but I have found in my own work that if I can’t easily communicate my premise, it might be a sign that my story has problems.

Highlighting the importance of plot might be the Captain Obvious move of the year, but in screenwriting when we talk about plot we’re really talking about structure and pacing. Everyone’s writing process is different, but working as a script reader turned me into a dedicated outliner. In screenwriting, structure is everything; lots of times if a story isn’t working, it is likely a problem with either the structure or the pacing. My mom always used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there.” Focusing on structure keeps me focused on where I’m going and how I’m getting there. It’s purposeful, and it makes for efficient and effective storytelling. I think of the plot structure as the skeleton of the story. If the skeleton isn’t solid, then it’s going to cause problems down the line when we start adding the rest of the body.

If the plot is the skeleton, the characters are the muscle. They do the moving and the heavy lifting. Because I was reading for a kids’ network, my job was to find kid-driven stories. If the kids weren’t driving the plot, it was a pass. As a writer I always have to make sure that my characters are driving the plot, and not the other way around. Beyond the inciting event, the story shouldn’t just happen to characters; we want it to be driven by the characters’ choices and actions. Characters also have to be rich and nuanced and feel authentic. Scripts where a character felt more like a prop, or seemed to be there solely to stand in for an idea or lesson of some kind, were less successful. For novels I lump voice in with characterization. When reading for character, I was always look for honesty and authenticity. In other words, it’s the character’s voice we want to hear, not the author’s.

Because screenplays are so reliant on dialogue, working as a reader gave me a lot of insight into how dialogue can make or break a story. Dialogue is our best way of getting to know characters and build conflicts that keep the story moving. One of the main stumbling blocks for dialogue is when it doesn’t feel natural. Readers can spot inauthentic dialogue from a mile away. My biggest pet peeve as a reader was when kids didn’t talk like real kids. It immediately pulled me out of the story, and each time your reader gets pulled out of your story, it makes it that much harder to bring them back. The other problem is when characters don’t have distinct voices. I struggled with this in Babysitting Nightmares: The Shadow Hand, because I had four preteen girls with common interests. It took a lot of extra character work and revision to make sure that each girl felt distinct, and I’m still not sure I got there.

If you’re worried about how your dialogue is landing, a table read is a really easy way to test it out. In Hollywood screenwriters often host table reads, where they invite actors or friends sit around a table and read a screenplay out loud. Invite a few folks over and have them do the dialogue of your scene. Listen to how they sound. Ask them how they felt reading it. This is a really effective and fast way to spot and fix dialogue problems. If you’re feeling shy or short on time, act out the scenes yourself. I do this all the time when I’m workshopping dialogue in my books. I’ll use physical gestures, move around the room, and speak in different voices so I can imagine how the characters might talk about what they’re feeling in the scene. Unlike film and TV where actors bring the writing to life, books have to rely on the reader’s imagination to bring the authors’ words to life. Don’t be shy about channelling your inner actor to make sure that your character’s voices will be heard.

The time I spent reading for film and TV was a huge gift I gave my writer self, because it forced me to look at my own work through a completely different lens. Many writers dedicate time and energy to reading within their lane, but consuming content outside your lane is a really effective way to inject some much-needed outside perspective on your own work. If you’re feeling stuck in a rut or uncertain of what your own story needs, go check out something completely different. And don’t just read; watch movies and watch TV. Watch what your audience watches, and take notes. Definitely watch the good stuff, but make sure you cover the bad stuff, too. I read a lot of great screenplays, but I also read a lot terrible screenplays, and every one of them taught me something different. The beauty of writing is that every experience brings an opportunity to learn something new.

 

Author PhotoKat Shepherd is a writer and former classroom teacher living in Minnesota with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. Her Babysitting Nightmares series (Macmillan/Imprint) debuts June 5, 2018. You can find Kat at katshepherd.com or connect with her on Twitter @bookatshepherd.

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Filed under Advice, Character Development, Characters, craft~writing, Deadlines, Editing and Revising, middle grade, Middle Grade, Plotting, process, Screenwriting, series, Uncategorized, Writing

Four Things All Debuts Should Do

I am a month away from my release (!) and I was thinking recently about different pieces of advice I’ve gleaned over the last year that might be helpful for a debuting author. Below are four things I think all debuting authors should do.

  1. Ask to see your marketing plan!

I fundamentally believe that a writer should worry about writing, and trust their publisher to worry about the publishing. But coming from background where I’ve made my own chapbooks, and then worked closely with a small publisher on a different book of poems, I’m used to being in the know regarding how my work will be marketed and publicized.

That said, I didn’t know what I was allowed to ask for or what information I was supposed to have throughout the process of working with a bigger publisher. Luckily, my editor offered a lot of information without my needing to ask, and I also reminded myself of a saying I first heard from my agent Joan: the squeaky wheel gets the oil.

And following that advice, I know I asked (still ask!) a lot of silly questions, but I think I also ask some good questions that have led to my having a better sense of what my publisher would be doing for me in terms of promotion and what I would need to do myself. Seeing my marketing plan helped me gain comfort in what was happening behind the scenes, and also I came to the table with ideas that would complement the work that my publisher was already doing in getting my book publicized.

  1. Establish what your “reviews” plan is going to be

I had to learn the hard way that I don’t need to read every review I’m tagged in and that establishing a routine for how I would deal with feedback once the book was reviewed would be critical to my well-being.

Since my ARCs were sent to librarians, booksellers, and bloggers seven months before my release date, a lot of folks began writing reviews while I was still working on revisions. And at first, I wanted to read every review and see what WHOLE REAL READERS were thinking and feeling about the novel. But I quickly realized that I was letting too many voices into my head while I was still working on revisions.

I have a writer friend who established an Official Reviews Reader: a friend to read the reviews on their behalf and highlight anything that the writer might wish to know. I know some writers who silence their Twitter mentions and asked their editor not to send them any reviews. In my case, I don’t check online reader review anymore but I still have my editor send me all trade reviews. This works for me! And I think it’s important to consider what works for you.

  1. Find your tribe

Writing is lonely, and you need to find a tribe! Join a debut group, read the work of the other writers in your debut year, attend readings, engage with writers whose work you enjoy, or whose work you’re excited about and begin fostering an online relationship.

Although your friends and family will try to understand the pressure and anxiety and anticipation that comes along with putting your book into the world, other authors debuting with you are basically your comrades-in-arms. They are in the revision trenches, the reviews blues, and the cover reveal highs.

Having writer friends in the same debut year also makes future conferences and literary festivals more enjoyable when you have other authors you can band together with.

  1. Figure out how you’re going to celebrate!

You wrote a book, it’s going out into the world. And as writers I think we quickly learn to appreciate every win: signing with an agent, selling the book, turning in revisions, seeing your cover, etc., and I think it’s equally important to take a moment before the release to celebrate that you made a tangible thing that will be out in the world forever, and ever, and ever.

Hope this helps!

 

ELIZABETH ACEVEDO is the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants. She holds a BA in Performing Arts from the George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland.  The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018) is her debut novel. She lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

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Singing Your Book’s Song

Happy New Year! I’m relieved to report that it’s now 2018. Do you know what that means? Well, for me it means when someone asks when my picture book Babymoon will be published, I can reply, “Next year.” Those two words have been a long time coming. Who would ever believe that 180 words could take years and years of thought and effort?

I know who would believe it. Another writer. Probably you.

Babymoon is my heart-of-hearts book. Its message—that new families deserve quiet time to bond and fall in love—is deeply important to me. It’s been my job to steadfastly believe in this message, to sing the song of it to myself and to others, as I worked to give Babymoon its chance at publication.

Only you can sing your book’s unique song. You understand its melody and meaning better than anyone else ever could. It’s your job to steadfastly believe in it, and if you can, to make others believe in it too. This could take a long time. Many years. A lifetime, even.

But what could be more important? The possibility of singing something into existence reminds me of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind In The Door. Have you read it? It’s about naming and being named, letting love guide us to our truest selves, and singing our own irreplaceable song. 

Whenever we write or engage in any creative endeavor, that’s what we’re doing. We’re naming. We’re letting love guide us. We’re singing a new song born of imagination and inspiration. With time and lots of work, each has the potential to manifest into something real, like a book.

So let’s welcome 2018 with lifted voices. I’ll be listening for yours.

 

 

 

 


I write for young people and live to make kids laugh. My picture book Babymoon, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, celebrates the birth of a new family and is coming in spring 2019 from Candlewick Press. What Miss Mitchell Saw, a narrative nonfiction picture book, is coming in spring 2019 from Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books and will be illustrated by Diana Sudyka. Girl Versus Squirrel, a funny STEM-based picture book illustrated by Renée Andriani, is coming from Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House in spring 2020. I’m represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

 

 

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Filed under Dreams Come True, Faith, Inspiration, Picture books, process, Uncategorized, waiting

You’re Publishing a Book? How Nice!

I remember walking into my local indie children’s book store and asking if I could talk to their book buyer. “My debut novel comes out next year,” I told her, eyes wild with joy. “How nice,” she cautiously replied, and I could immediately see weariness and wariness in the woman’s eyes. I thought I’m not the first mom to walk in here and say I’ve written a book, am I? I wondered how many folks came in with books printed through Amazon’s CreateSpace, certain every bookstore has plenty of room to stock them and time to hand-sell their self-published creations.  

Telling my I-just-signed-a-book-contract celebration news to acquaintances often elicited this reply: “How nice! My daughter/aunt/ neighbor/child’s teacher/lawyer/candlestick maker published a book too!” 99% of these books were self-published. I can’t guess what percentage of non-writer folks assume that self-published books and traditionally published books are pretty much identical in terms of quality and the time invested to achieve that quality, but it felt high. High enough that I felt compelled to introduce my impending authorship by cramming in somewhat pompous-sounding details before running out of breath: “My first book is coming out next year with a traditional publishing house that’s been in the children’s book business for over eighty years and it’s going to sold in bookstores all over the country just like Harry Potter and yes, you’ll be able to order it not only from Amazon but anywhere fine books are sold.”

When I began my journey to publication, self-publishing was not part of my equation. I never questioned that I was going to seek out an agent and go the standard elephant3

glacially-paced rejection-rife but-oh-so-worth-it-all route. However, after years of work and only six months away from my book’s birthday, self-publishing persistently lurks in the background when I talk about my upcoming debut. It doesn’t lurk maliciously; more like a confused, well-meaning elephant who doesn’t know why its presence near my dining room table (carefully set for a book debut celebration party) is making me uncomfortable.

I learned to accept this sense of a misplaced pachyderm wandering in my writer’s soul until I took over leadership of an informal local writers’ group. One member of my group nearly shelled out big bucks for a “publishing contract” from some vanity press pretending to be doing him a favor. And another elected to print his memoir through Amazon and was amazed to find that my publishing experience bore no resemblance to his. I’m now worried about pre-published writers who genuinely want to become professionals getting sucked into thinking there’s no appreciable difference between self-publishing and traditional.

There are certainly valid reasons to self-publish, like avoiding rejection and having control over your book’s design and timing of release. I would hope that anyone choosing self-publication does so with their eyes wide open, knowing the price they pay for personal control is giving up the giddy fun of receiving advances, the power to reach readers through extensive publicity and distribution networks, and the warm, supportive hammock of confidence in the quality of your book’s professional editing and production.

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What about your own journey, fellow pre-published and published writers? Let’s talk about any elephants that lurk at your own dining room tables. Have you considered going (or even satisfactorily navigated) the self-publishing route? Have you ever struggled to convince folks that traditionally publishing a book is one heck of an accomplishment? You have? How nice! Please share a comment below.

 


Christina Uss

CHRISTINA USS is proud that it’s taken years of persistence to say her debut novel THE ADVENTURES OF A GIRL CALLED BICYCLE comes out June 5, 2018 from Margaret Ferguson Books/ Holiday House. See the cover reveal on KidLit TV here. Tweet to her about your own publishing experience @christinauss or drop by http://www.christinauss.com.

 

 

 


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A Band of Babies (Hardcover)

Source: A Band of Babies (Hardcover)

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