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True Story Blog

Making a list and checking it twice . . .

Santa’s not the only one who likes a good list. Below are links to lists from 11 picture-book authors—from “500 Things That Kids Like” and “7 Steps to Writing Success” to “18 Ideas for a Successful Book Launch” and “10 Reason’s I’m Thankful for Children’s Books”. I’m grateful that these writers have contributed to my Q&A blog (click on author’s name above to read their #firstpicturebook interview) and that the KidLit community is so generous with their advice and support. Happy Writing and Happy Holidays! See you in 2018!

Tara Lazar’s List of 500 Things That Kids Like

Tracy Marchini’s How Can You Tell If You’re Using Picture-Book Language

Marie Lamba’s 7 Steps to Writing Success

Rebecca Grabill’s How to Promote Your First Picture Book

Josh Funk’s Marketing Strategies

Sylvia Liu’s 18 Ideas for a Successful Book Launch

Chana Steifel’s 5 Writing Lessons I Learned from an Ironwoman

Lauri Fortino’s Tending Your Story Garden

Jami Gigot’s Creating Picture Books As An Author/Illustrator

Deborah Freedman’s Resources for Writers and Illustrators of Picture Books

Katey Howes’ 10 Reason’s I’m Thankful for Children’s Books:

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Did your #firstpicturebook receive any rejection letters?

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.”

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Author Josh Funk has two upcoming picture books but today he talks about crafting his very first picture book, LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST—"a ripping barnburner full of outlandish action, heroic and dastardly characters, roller coaster rhymes and some absolutely fabulous illustrations by Brendan Kearney" (David Henry Sterry, The Huffington Post) .

Q. Was LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was definitely not the first (or second ... or third) manuscript I ever wrote. The first was about a fox and a squirrel and involved a mystery about a missing guitar. And it was ... pretty terrible. But I spent well over a year revising it - and it was a fantastic learning experience. Looking back on it, I realize that I'd have to completely rewrite it for it ever to fit today's picture book market (or just be any good). But I learned so much as I revised it. And I continued to write new manuscripts as I learned. One of which was Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast.

A. I had been writing picture book manuscripts for a while and was always on the lookout for new ideas. One Saturday morning I came down for breakfast and asked my kids what they wanted to eat. One said, "Pancakes!" and the other said, "French toast!" - and they argued for a bit. When I checked the freezer, all we had were waffles. It was on the way to the diner that I thought it might be fun to see a pancake and French toast arguing.

I asked my kids what a pancake and French toast might fight over and one of the kids said, "Syrup." I thought that was a brilliant idea. But I can't remember which of my kids said it. And now, years later, the kids fight about which of them came up with the idea. So what started with two kids arguing, continues today ... with two kids arguing.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The names of the characters were always pretty descriptive and different, so Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was the title since the very beginning.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part is probably the bean avalanche. Not only is the two-page spread extremely colorful (illustrator Brendan Kearney once told me it took an entire week for him to color in those beans), but it's just such a silly thing to happen.

It was not part of the first draft. The first draft was actually just the two main characters arguing about who was more deserving of the syrup-- it was more of a debate. One of my critique partners made the comment that it needed more action (thanks, Jane). That's when it turned into a race.

I will say that the bean avalanche was something I mentioned in my cover and query letters, cause I thought it was a pretty descriptive and different thing.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. Most of it has to do with the fact that the story is written in rhyme. The way it flowed, I needed certain syllables in the right places and 'Lady' just fit. In the very very very first draft, Sir French Toast was actually Mister (because two syllables were needed). It was suggested I stick with the royalty theme (thanks, Carol!) and go with something like 'Sir' - so I did. And that's why the fourth line of the book is "sat Lady Pancake beside Sir French Toast." I used 'beside' as a two syllable replacement for the word 'and' when 'Sir' was originally 'Mister.'

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. Because there are multiple main characters, this seemed to fit best. I must admit though, it just came out this way at the start and I never considered changing it.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST?
A. I knew the two characters, the setting (inside the fridge), the conflict (only one drop of syrup was left in the bottle and they both wanted it), and the ending (I'm not telling here). None of that changed along the way. Almost everything else did.

Q. Did LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. 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 ...

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST.
A. On the evening of October 30th, 2013, I received an email from an editor at Sterling saying they found my manuscript in the slush pile and they would be taking it to acquisitions the following week. While I was excited and encouraged, I'd had some close calls that didn't go through in the previous few months so I didn't get overly excited until ...

Eight days later I was at The Writers' Loft in Sherborn, MA (a local writing community), a few hours early for a picture book critique group (I hadn't yet critiqued the manuscripts we were going over that night) when I got the email. No one else was around, so I screamed a little. I giggled a bit. I called my family to tell them. It was pretty exhilarating!

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. None. Sterling told me that they'd found an illustrator and sent me a link to Brendan Kearney's website. I was psyched. From the very beginning before I saw any of his sketches, I knew he'd be pretty perfect.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Brendan had put so much thought into not just the main character, but so many of the side characters as well. Lady Pancake's whipped cream hair with a cherry and wafer crown along with Sir French Toast's strawberry hat blew me away. None of that was in my text. All he had were the character names. The rest came from Brendan's imagination.

And the cover is perfect. The color (bright turquoise-green) pops off the shelf, along with the embossed gold foil! And it's got so much tension and action built in to the illustrations. I love it!

Q. How long did LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Just under 22 months. Which is fast. Almost lightning fast for a picture book non-sequel where the author and illustrator are not the same person.

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. Nope. I wouldn't change a thing!

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST?
A. Strangely, a lot of kids wonder whether Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast will ever get married (or if they already are married). I do know that if they did start a family and have kids, their children would definitely be crêpes (French pancakes).

Q. When you do readings of LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. The twist ending.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. I've put together a set of Resources for Writers on my website. But the most important thing I'd recommend is that you keep writing. As I said earlier, my first manuscript was terrible. My second was a little less terrible. Every book you write is likely to be better than the last, especially if you're going to conferences, getting feedback, learning about the industry, making (and learning) from mistakes, and more. I can't tell you how many times I've heard keynote speakers say that finally, it was their seventh book written that became their first one published. So keep writing. And keep writing new things.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I have two new books: Pirasaurs! (Scholastic) illustrated by Michael Slack and Dear Dragon (Viking/Penguin) illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo. Next spring (2017), Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast: The Case of the Stinky Stench will be released. And then a few more are on the way after that.

To learn more about Josh and his books, visit his website.
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