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True Story Blog

Happy Holidays

Christmas came early for me this year. Last weekend, I woke up to find that Nadia Comaneci had posted on social media —"Karlin Gray did an amazing job with this book"—with an image of NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL and an Amazon link! I've always been proud of this book but that endorsement was delicious icing on the cake. I'm so thankful to everyone who helped me with this book, from my writing instructor Victoria Sherrow to my editor Kate O'Sullivan at HMH to the talented illustrator Christine Davenier.

I just want to remind writers that I don't have an agent. I workshopped my manuscript for a year. (Yes, my classmates were sick of it!) I sent it to every publisher that accepts unsolicited nonfiction picture books. It was rejected everywhere . . . until one person plucked it from the slush pile.

Since then, I have been writing, submitting, and receiving lots of rejection letters. And then one day, another editor picked up one of my manuscripts. Now my rhyming fiction picture book, AN ORDINARY MOTH, will be published by Sleeping Bear Press in 2018.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this Q&A blog and learning about how writers created their first picture book. It will return in the New Year with new writers and new books. Until then, enjoy the holidays with family and friends before you go back to that drawer full of manuscripts!
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This month Jodi McKay's debut picture book will be published and today she found all the right words to tell us about WHERE ARE THE WORDS? Leave a comment below to win a copy!

Q. Was WHERE ARE THE WORDS? the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. WHERE ARE THE WORDS? was definitely not the first story I wrote. There are at least a dozen that came before all of which are tucked away waiting for their turn to be revised.

I actually happened to come across my first manuscript (which I wrote and illustrated) the other day when I was cleaning out the deepest recesses of my basement. Believe me, that’s where it belongs. It was a collection of rhyming poems about different half kid, half animal characters. That’s right, humanimals. Good thing it didn’t work, eh?

Q. What inspired WHERE ARE THE WORDS??
A. I spend a lot of time staring at my computer, willing words to appear on the screen. It was one of these intense staring episodes that I wondered why I couldn’t find the right words for a story and then I thought, Hmmm can I write about that? “Of course!” I answered myself, “But you need to do it in a different way.” So I went through my mental list of possible characters and came across the punctuation marks. It all came together very quickly after that.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. 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.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I love when Exclamation Point is trying to catch Run, Jump, Skip, and Hop. The words are doing exactly that, running, jumping, skipping, and hopping away from Exclamation Point which makes a funny and very active scene. Denise Holmes, the illustrator of this book, did a great job making that spread come to life.

This idea of trying to catch words came a little later in the revisions. I always had Exclamation Point trying to wrangle the words, but it wasn’t as literal as this.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in first person?
A. Well, for a couple of reasons. One, I figured that if I wrote it in first person, then these unconventional characters may feel more relatable and two, I wanted this to be a simple story with a twist. I imagined children reading it and discovering that the characters speak as their roles dictate. That, to me, would be an incredible learning opportunity.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing WHERE ARE THE WORDS? 
A. I knew the problem and the characters rather quickly and I knew that I wanted the characters to speak in a way that shows their punctuation roles. After establishing the three main characters, Period, Question Mark, and Exclamation Point, I needed to add in other punctuation marks and figure out how they could or maybe weren’t able to help Period reach his goal of writing a story. I wanted there to be a sense of teamwork woven into the story so I really tried to have each character be important to creating that theme.

Q. Did WHERE ARE THE WORDS? receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I am prefacing this with the statement that this is a highly unusual situation and I was very lucky to have experienced this.

I received one rejection from an agent who favorited it on #pitmad. I then sent it to an author whose critique service I had won in a contest. She offered a few suggestions and then asked if I would be interested in sending it to her editor. Um, heck yeah! I sent it to her editor at Albert Whitman and waited for a couple of months with no word. Assuming this meant no, I started to query it. Two weeks after I sent three queries out, I opened my email and there it was, an offer to publish a story about punctuation marks trying to find words to write a story.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on WHERE ARE THE WORDS?
A. You know that feeling when you are about to go over the top of the first hill of a roller coaster and you want to puke and laugh at the same time? It was kind of like that. I called my husband who immediately thought someone had been in a horrible accident because I was cry-yelling. Then I just kinda sat and let it sink in. Once the initial shock left my body I allowed myself to be excited. I am not a very excitable person so this was a big deal.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. None at all, I just got really lucky. Denise is an extremely talented artist who took punctuation marks and gave them life. I had no idea how that was going to happen, but she did it and now the book is so much more that I had imagined it could be. I am very grateful to have been able to work with Denise.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I really liked the mannerisms of the characters. Their facial expressions are fairly simple, but the way their arms move and how they are positioned really gives a sense of personality and adds more heart to the story. I also loved the colors that Denise used.

Q. How long did WHERE ARE THE WORDS? take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It has been almost two years and like most published authors will tell you, the two longest years of my life. I have learned a lot about the publishing process and about myself in that time so I appreciate it all of it.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Find your people first. Not your wife or husband, not your best friend, but people who know what writing is like and who can offer you not only specific support (say that 5 times), but honest and experienced feedback about your manuscripts. The kidlit community is vast and wonderful. There are published and pre-published authors available to share knowledge and writerly love for anyone who seeks it. These are the people you want in your corner as your write your stories. I could not have done this without my critique groups, SCBWI, and all of my online author friends who have so graciously given their wisdom. Find your people.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I am a big advocate for a good story arc and I try to make sure that I hit all of the elements of the arc by asking myself this: Who, Wants, But, So, Then, Sign off. In other words, the main character has a goal, but something stands in his/her way of achieving that goal so he/she tries three different and increasingly harder ways of reaching that goal (failing each time), then the main character learns something or changes in some way that helps him/her finally get to that goal. All is well so the story wraps up usually in a funny, circular, or open ended way. Getting all of the key parts of a story down is an art form that I am still working on, but I like to start there.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I am currently working on a picture book idea that hit me while I was supposed to be relaxing at the end of a yoga session. I don’t normally think about mice as I sink into child’s pose, but once they popped in my head they wouldn’t leave me alone. Very chatty, those mice.
I’m also revising several stories that I plan on sending to my agent soon. She is very editorial, which I love so I anticipate revising some more afterwards.

Thanks for having me on your blog, Karlin!

Jodi would love to hear from you! You can find her on:
Her website- www.JodiMcKayBooks.com (Look for the teacher’s’ guide!)
Email- Jodi@JodiMcKayBooks.com
Facebook- https://www.facebook.com/JLMcKayBooks/
Twitter- https://twitter.com/JLMcKay1

A WINNER WAS EMAILED AND THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. To celebrate WHERE ARE THE WORDS? publication, Jodi is giving away a copy of WHERE ARE THE WORDS? Simply comment below to enter. One comment per person, US addresses only, please.
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Happy Holidays!

I will be taking a blog break for most of the month of December while I visit with family and friends. Happy Holidays and Happy Writing!
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