My #FirstPictureBook

Did your #firstpicturebook receive any rejection letters?

September 4, 2017

Tags: Emma Bland Smith, Susan Hood, Nancy Churnin, Deborah Freedman, Josh Funk, Ed Masessa, Brittany R. Jacobs, Lori Alexander, Camille Andros, Katey Howes

After three years of rejection, I finally sold my second picture book biography! (Check back in a few weeks to learn more about that project.) Honestly, I stopped keeping track of how many rejection letters it received once it reached 50. “We like it, but we don’t love it” seemed to be the running theme. But it wasn’t until one publisher sent me a long and thoughtful email with specific suggestions, that my manuscript clicked, clicked, CLICKED into place. So to celebrate acceptance after so much rejection, I’m reposting 10 Q&As with these #firstpicturebook authors:

Nancy Churnin: “The rejection letters came in three phases. The first phase was for the version of the story I wrote before I realized I needed to study this craft. There were lots of those! The second phase was after my lovely agent, Karen Grencik, took me on hours after reading the version I had written after taking multiple courses and challenges and gotten help from fabulous critique partners. Those were personalized and regretful rejections which were a big step up from the form letters I had gotten after submitting to the slush piles. The third phase came after I carefully considered a common thread in the comments in the rejections….”

Deborah Freedman: “SCRIBBLE received three rejection letters, for three different versions of the story. After each “pass”, I went back and started all over again. Two years of revisions definitely made the story much stronger, and I’m truly indebted to the two editors who took the time to give me honest feedback.”

Josh Funk: “I sent it to 36 agents. Two responded as if they read it. Ten sent me form rejections. The other 24 were black holes (I never received a response). So I gave up on agents. I sent it snail mail to 10 publishers that accepted unsolicited submissions. One sent back a rejection. 8 never responded. So that all adds up to 45 rejections and ...”

Ed Masessa: “My agent, Marcia Wernick, helped me polish the draft and sent it to a half dozen or so editors over the course of several months. They all came back with a “well done, but…” And all of the ‘buts’ hit upon a central theme – the story dragged. So I kept the bones of the story and went to work on picking up the pace and the fun factor.”

Brittany R. Jacobs: “We had one heckuva time selling the Kraken, and it was because of the artwork. About 20 houses turned us down because they didn't love my illustration style. There was even a point where I considered selling the manuscript and letting someone else do the artwork. Thankfully Pow! saved the day and offered a contract for both text and illustrations, and we ended up with a lovely book.”

Lori Alexander: “Oh, yes! Pre-agent, I sent the early versions to various publishers and ended up in their slush piles. There were a handful of non-responses and some form rejections. I nearly gave up at that point. The process was so slow and I didn’t feel like I was learning enough from the rejections. But the more I read, the more I realized rejections are all part of the business.…”

Camille Andros: “A. Yes! Of course! Probably around two dozen or so from agents and then editors. But I wasn't really shopping Charlotte around as much as I was THE DRESS AND THE GIRL which was the first book I wrote and was more focused on initially. That book got lots and lots of rejections, but each personalized rejection (they weren't all like that of course) and the feedback that came with it was so helpful in improving each manuscript.”

Katey Howes: “Oh, yes! I received at least ten very nice rejection letters for GRANDMOTHER THORN before getting the incredibly exciting call from Rob Broder of Ripple Grove Press. Most of the rejections claimed to love the lyricism and symbolism of the story, but said that it would be a tough sell in the current market because it was “quiet.” Several agents who read GRANDMOTHER THORN asked to see other works from me.”

Emma Bland Smith: “I didn’t receive many rejections for this manuscript, but I want to state that I have received many dozens, maybe even hundreds, of rejections, in total, for all my of manuscripts, over the six or so years I’ve been submitting! And I still am. With JOURNEY, it was a case of the right story getting to the right publisher at the right time. I’m very grateful.”

Susan Hood: “My first version had the same main character and the same ending, but it was a completely different story. A more modern story. My editor thought it had possibilities, but it was rejected in Acquisitions. I was so disappointed, I stuck it in a drawer for years.”

10 Writers Talk Titles

May 15, 2017

Tags: Maryann Cocca-Leffler, Susan Montanari, Maria Gianferrari, Emma Bland Smith, Karlin Gray, Heather Lang, Ammi-Joan Paquette, Jodi McKay, Wendy BooydeGraaff, Cheryl Keely

How did you pick the title for your #firstpicturebook? Ten writers answer this question below. Click on the quote to flash back to the original Q&A.

Maryann Cocca-Leffler: There was an old ad for Prince Pasta on TV …Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day…which was catchy. I wrote to the Prince Pasta Company to make sure there was no problem using my title. It was Okayed and the title stuck.

Susan Montanari: In the dream the woman said, “That’s not a dog it’s a chicken.”

Maria Gianferrari: The original title of the book was PENELOPE, UNTALENTED. However, because I received a two-book deal, we needed a title that could carry to the second book, so Penny & Jelly was born!

Emma Bland Smith: JOURNEY is the name that a child (actually two children in different states) submitted in a naming contest sponsored by a conservation organization, Oregon Wild. (The full name of the book is JOURNEY: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West.) I love the name because it evokes the wolf’s adventurous spirit.

Karlin Gray: In reading Nadia Comaneci's autobiography, I learned that she was a rambunctious toddler who had tons of energy.... While I was writing my book, I also had a three-year old who loved to fling himself from couch to couch. Constant movement was a theme on the page and in my own living room. The two collided and created NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL.

Heather Lang: “Queen of the Track,” was one of Alice’s nicknames. Although she wasn’t treated like a queen by society, she behaved like one and really did dominate the track for a number of years in sprinting events and the high jump. The title also worked nicely with the ending—the King presents Alice (“the Queen”) with her gold medal.

Ammi-Joan Paquette: Originally the book was called simply TRACKING FAIRIES. However, my editor felt this could invoke a harsher feel: ‘tracking’ in the sense of ‘hunting’ (poor fairies!). My writer friend Natalie Lorenzi suggested the “Tiptoe Guide” portion, which I think did a brilliant job of softening and tying the whole title together. I love the result!

Jodi McKay: I honestly didn’t think that this would remain the title. It’s just what I kept asking myself for so long and still do for that matter. Even now, as I write the answers to these questions, I’m going back and forth looking for the right words. It’s crazy, but it’s part of my process.

Wendy BooydeGraaff: This is one of those times when the title came first, and then the story. My daughter and I were at the park and she was playing pretend and said, “Salad Pie,” which I thought was so clever and creative that I repeated it in my head over and over all the way home. Then, during her rest time, I scribbled out the first draft of the story.

Cheryl Keely: The original title was Here to There and Me to You. I liked the thought of bridges making connections and bringing people together. I really liked the line in the book containing those words. It seemed to me to sum up the best connection of all – me to you and you to me. A Book of Bridges was added later to make it clear that the book was about bridges. It helps to let readers to know what a book is about!

10 More Tips for Writing Picture Books

August 1, 2016

Tags: Laban Carrick Hill, Abraham Schroeder, Maria Gianferrari, Megan Wagner Lloyd, Sylvia Liu, Susan Hood, Emma Bland Smith, Penny Parker Klostermann, Karlin Gray, Donna Mae

Here is a list of tips pulled from previous posts. Click on the quote to read the writer's entire Q&A.

Laban Carrick Hill: "A picture book is not a word book. The words in a picture book need to serve the illustrations, not the other way around, even though the illustrations would not exist if not the words had been written first. What I tried to do was provide artfully descriptive language that would be a springboard for the illustrator to do their thing."

Abraham Schroeder: "If you can't stop thinking about even the faintest notion of an idea, a character, a little phrase, write it down and see what it turns into. Many times I've jotted down an idea that I think is totally silly, but after considering it objectively, sometimes months or years later, I realize there might be a whole a lot more to it."

Maria Gianferrari: "Don’t give up! Even though picture books are short, they’re not easy to write. They often undergo multiple revisions and entirely change shape. It takes time to improve your craft. Keep reading; keep writing and join a critique group for feedback."

Megan Wagner Lloyd: "Find your unique voice and trust the illustrator (aka keep your art notes to a minimum!)"

Sylvia Liu: "I had known about the award for over a decade. After I started writing picture books, I kept the award in the back of my mind each year, but it wasn’t until I wrote A MORNING WITH GRANDPA that I felt I had a story that was suitable for the contest."

Susan Hood: "An interesting exercise is to type out the text of a favorite picture book and then compare it to the finished book. It will help you see how the text works hand in hand with the art to create something new."

Emma Bland Smith: "My process is always something like this: I write something. I think it’s great. I send it to my critique partners. They tell me everything that’s wrong with it and how to fix it. I lick my wounds for a few hours or days. Then I take their advice and revise it. Repeat several times."

Penny Parker Klostermann: "I took pictures of clouds that took on familiar shapes. One evening I photographed one that looked just like a dragon and I thought what a great main character a dragon would make if I could just find a story for him."

Karlin Gray: "I thought back to my six-year-old self and wondered, who would I have wanted to see in a picture book?"

Donna Mae: "I took on self-publishing as a personal challenge. I had an overwhelming feeling of Do This Book By Yourself."

JOURNEY: BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF OR7, THE MOST FAMOUS WOLF IN THE WEST.

May 23, 2016

Tags: JOURNEY: BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF OR7, THE MOST FAMOUS WOLF IN THE WEST, Emma Bland Smith, Robin James, Little Bigfoot, an imprint of Sasquatch Books, October 2016

Emma Bland Smith is a mom, librarian, and the author of SAN FRANCISCO'S GLEN PARK AND DIAMOND HEIGHTS. But today she is discussing her debut picture book,
JOURNEY: BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF OR7, THE MOST FAMOUS WOLF IN THE WEST—coming in October 2016.

Q. Was JOURNEY the first picture book manuscript that you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?)
A. No, JOURNEY was probably my seventh or eighth manuscript. I began writing about eight years ago, so I had amassed a small portfolio by the time I signed with my agent (Essie White of Storm Literary) in 2015. My first manuscript is a book about pie, accompanied by recipes. It’s unorthodox, but I’m still fiddling with it, and I have hope! In the meantime, we’re submitting my more traditional picture book manuscripts.

Q. What inspired JOURNEY?
A. I kept reading about this rogue wolf who was getting a lot of attention for traveling a vast distance, from northern Oregon to Northern California. People were worried about his safety (would he get shot?) and wondered if he would ever find a mate. There was the drama, right there, and then, when I read that a child had picked his name in a naming contest, I thought maybe that was the hook I needed to turn the story into a children’s book.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. JOURNEY is the name that a child (actually two children in different states) submitted in a naming contest sponsored by a conservation organization, Oregon Wild. (The full name of the book is JOURNEY: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West.) I love the name because it evokes the wolf’s adventurous spirit.

Q. What kind of resources did you use while researching JOURNEY?
A. Well, mostly the internet. I read all the news articles I could about the wolf OR7. I read a few nonfiction books about wolves. And I contacted several officials with different governmental and conservation organizations. I emailed them a lot toward the end of the editing process, to make sure we got all the facts right. Although some of the events in the story have been fictionalized, much of it is factual, and that was a bit of pressure for me (I don’t usually write nonfiction). We also included a timeline and other nonfiction material in the back matter.

Q. How did you decide where to start and end this nonfiction story?
A. It made sense to start the story with the wolf leaving his family and heading out on his own. As far as the ending, that was a little trickier. In my first version (which I just looked back at), the ending was very vague and open, sort of flowery and poetic--not what editors are really looking for! There wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion because we didn’t really know what was going to happen with Journey. Luckily for me, sometime after that first draft, it came out in the news that he had met a mate and they’d had pups. That made for a much more exciting ending!

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I have to say that I’m not sure I have an answer to this one! I’m very fond of just about everything. I think I’m most partial to the sections with the wolf, because of how hard it was to get inside his head without veering into anthropomorphism. (Avoiding anthropomorphizing was something my wonderful editor, Christy Cox, felt strongly about, and she was right.)

Q. Did JOURNEY receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. My agent sent the book to a small selection of regional publishers, and I believe it was rejected—nicely, which I loved!—by two of them. Sasquatch contacted my agent very shortly after she submitted it and expressed interest. So I didn’t receive many rejections for this manuscript, but I want to state that I have received many dozens, maybe even hundreds, of rejections, in total, for all my of manuscripts, over the six or so years I’ve been submitting! And I still am. With Journey, it was a case of the right story getting to the right publisher at the right time. I’m very grateful.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on JOURNEY.
A. I spoke on the phone to the publisher, Gary Luke, at the very beginning of the negotiation process, before he even made an offer. (My agent set up the call.) At the end of our conversation, in which he discussed some potential edits, he said, “Well, I’m looking forward to publishing your book.” I hung up, then put my head down on my kitchen counter and cried. After countless rejections for other books, over the years, the relief and gratification was just immense.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. I did not have any input. In fact, that first time that I spoke to the publisher, he told me he already had an illustrator in mind. That was fine with me. It was my first book and I was in no situation to be demanding! Also, as it turned out, the illustrator, Robin James, was amazing and I couldn’t have chosen someone better suited if I’d had the chance.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the cover was! The wolf’s fur was so soft, I wanted to reach out and touch it. As for the inside art, I loved it all, especially the gorgeous landscapes. Robin did a really stunning spread of Crater Lake, and another of Mount Lassen. One thing that surprised me was the spot art. This is a new term for me, but apparently spot art refers (at least in this case) to small illustrations, often of a single object, that appear in a blank space in the spread. Robin included spot art of pancakes (for a diner setting), a wolf stuffie (adorable!), and a pile of thumb tacks (in the little girl’s bedroom, where she tracks the wolf’s progress on a bulletin board), among other things. Something about them--some cozy, solitary quality--just tugged at my heart, and I like what they add to the tone of the book.

Q. How long did JOURNEY take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. The process was unusually fast, I believe: about 18 months. Initially it was going to be longer—it was first slated for spring 2017, before the publisher bumped it up to fall 2016. The reason is that this is a time-sensitive subject. We wanted to get the book out there as soon as possible, while Journey himself is still with us and on people’s minds. The whole team—including editor Christy Cox, illustrator Robin James, production editor Emma Reh, and publicist Nicole Banholzer—worked so hard.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)
A. I would have liked to include more of the history of wolves in America in the story, but due to length and style concerns, we had to cut most of that out. It was a little heavy and didn’t fit with the tone and voice; we didn’t want very young readers to get bored. We did include it in the back matter, though.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Join a critique group! I’m in one in-person group, and correspond by email with another. Both are amazing and indispensable. You might think your manuscript is perfect to start with, but after getting it critiqued and revising it, it will be even more perfect! (My process is always something like this: I write something. I think it’s great. I send it to my critique partners. They tell me everything that’s wrong with it and how to fix it. I lick my wounds for a few hours or days. Then I take their advice and revise it. Repeat several times.) If you can’t find a critique group, take an online course and make some friends that way who might become critique partners with you. Join SCBWI, go to conferences, and read everything on Kidlit411. It’s very hard to succeed on your own without a community of people to share information and advice with.

To learn more about Emma Bland Smith visit her website.