One Writer’s Journey

November 17, 2017

Querying Agents: Wait!

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:26 am
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When is the best time to send out your agent queries?  In truth, I was just getting ready to send a few out.  Getting ready can take a while and that’s a good thing.  Wednesday I was reading the November 2017 Nelson Literary Agency Newsletter.  Kristin Nelson recommends waiting until January 2, 2018.  Why?  Because agents are clearing out their in-boxes.  Don’t worry!  Whether you are approaching an agent with a picture book or a young adult novel, this means that you have almost 2 months to do your homework.

  1.  Check out the listings on Manuscript Wish List, #MSWL tweets and agency submissions information.  This first step just involves finding people who might be a good match.
  2. Google their names.  Read every interview you can find.  Look for the names of books they love.  Look for the titles of books they’ve sold.  Keep an eye open for the things they are passionate about.
  3. Start requesting some of these books.
  4. Read, read and read!  Don’t just request the books.  Read them.  This is vital because you need to know that an agent who is looking for quirky middle grade humor will find your humor quirky vs frightening.
  5. Keep track of what makes this agent a good fit.  This list will fluctuate as you do more reading and find more information.  Agents will move up the list and down.  But that’s okay.  You really do want to submit to someone whose an excellent match.

Whether you go with a new agent or an established agent is a matter of personal choice.  There are pluses to submitting to a new agent.

  • New agents need to build a client list.  They need to find new clients.
  • New agents are often the ones granting interviews and going to conferences because of #1.  This means that it is easier to find out about them — whether they are editorial agents, what they like, etc.
  • New agents don’t have as many estaliblished clients taking up all their time.

An established agent has a client list and can be pickier about what new work they sign, but there are also pluses to established agents.

  • Established agents have more contacts.  They can get your manuscript read by editor you can’t approach.
  • They have a track record.  A google search will show you what an established agent has sold and often find comments (hopefully praise) from their authors.

Fortunately you’ve got some time.



November 16, 2017

Picture Books: Writing Funny

Whether you plan to write humorous fiction or work humor into your nonfiction, it pays to know what your audience finds funny.  Part of that is a matter of personal taste.  My son never got Sponge Bob or Captain Underpants, but Veggie Tales cracked us both up.

Still, humor is also a matter of developmental stage.  A younger child simply does not understand humor in the same way.

Here are the developmental stages of humor as defined by this article at Scholastic.

Infant responds/laughs along with physical play such as tickling or peek-a-boo.

A one year-old knows that it is funny to do unexpected things.  This can be as simple as playing keep-away by not letting someone take something.

By two, a toddler is stepping up this game and may run away when called.

Imitation is also funny.  If one toddler drops something, they all drop something.

Three year-olds want people to laugh with them.

By four, bathroom humor is a hoot.

Four year-olds also like to make up silly stories.  Note, they are silly but may not make a lot of sense to adults.

By five, it is funny to substitute one word for another to make a funny sentence.

Kindergartners are coordinated enough that it is now funny to pretend to be uncoordinated.

Sea Monkey and Bob by Aaron Reynolds is a preschool picture book.  From cover to cover, this is a silly story.  We have a puffer fish with a human name who is afraid he will float to the surface.  Sea Monkey is just a funny sound thing and he’s afraid he’s to heavy to float at all.  Questioning limits and outright silliness appeal to readers two to four.

In Dogosaurus Rex  by Anna Staniszewski the humor comes from the fact that Ben doesn’t get that you can’t adopt a T-Rex at a shelter, it is just so big.  The t-rex is imitating a dog and that’s just funny for 3 and 4 year olds.

This one contains a plot spoiler!  It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk by Josh Funk plays with this fairy tale with Jack arguing constantly with the narrator and making friends with the vegan giant. This is another silly story but it is older as one reality is substituted for another.

Humor is a great way to hook a young reader of any age but you have to know what works at what age to make the sale.



November 15, 2017

Rejection: 5 Tips on How to Deal with the Inevitable

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 12:53 am
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Rejections happen. Now, pet the cat!

I was making pretty good time on the treadmill when an e-mail popped up.  The sender immediately looked familiar.  It was one of the agents who had recently received my manuscript.  Her letter was short, simple and to the point.  “Thanks but no thanks and good luck elsewhere.”

Well, poop.

Some days rejections really get me down.  I think a lot of it has to do with what else is going on in my life and whether I’m tired or hangry. But here are five things you can do to minimize the impact of your next rejection letter.

  1.  Always have another project in the works.  If you love what you do and you are currently writing, you’re going to be in a more upbeat mood.  You also won’t have your entire writer-ly identity tied up in one project.
  2. Always have another project out.  Try to have more than one piece out at a time.  I’m not saying that you should be marketing two YA fantasy novels at once, but you can have that novel out as a well as a nonfiction picture book.  Me?  I sent off a poem about two hours before I got the rejection.
  3. Have another market in mind.  I always try to identify two or three markets for a given manuscript before I start submitting.  Even I’m sending it to the last market on that list, it is time to add new possibilities to my list.
  4. Get up and move.  I was on the treadmill when I got this rejection. I’ve heard when you exercise that endorphins make you happy or something like that.  Maybe yes. Maybe no. But this rejection didn’t hammer me the way that some of them do.  Do yoga.  Go out and walk.
  5. Give yourself some time.  The reality is that some rejections just flatten you.  Maybe the submission was to your dream editor or agent.  Maybe this is someone who asked for this and now they are saying no.  Whatever.  Give yourself a set amount of time, a friend uses two days, and then get over it and send that manuscript back out there.

Writers have to deal with rejection.  Find the coping mechanism that works for you!


November 14, 2017

Stories Based on Real Life: Reality with a Twist

“That would make a great story.  You should write it.” If your family and friends are anything like mine, they love pointing out when some event would make a great story.  And in all reality life is a great place to find inspiration.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I read the picture book Robinson by Peter Sis (Scholastic Press, 2017).  In this book, the narrator and his friends love pirates.  They play pirates all the time.  But when the time comes for the school costume party, the main character, encouraged by his mother, decides to dress as his favorite character – Robinson Crusoe.  His friends are not amused.  Back at home, he dreams of great adventures and when he awakens his friends have come to check on him.  Soon they are all playing castaway.

The story was inspired by an event that Sis experienced as a child but it differed in several key ways.  Why then did he not duplicate his experience in the story?  Because reality very seldom arranges itself as a perfect picture book manuscript.  Here are just a few of the things you may need to change:

Motivation. Your characters have to have a motivation for their actions.  In life, you may not always know what that motivation is.  In picture books it is a necessity.  But that’s okay.  Fiction picture books don’t have to duplicate what inspired them.

Satisfying Ending.  Not all real-life situations have a satisfying conclusion. You may never find the missing object, but in a picture book your ending must satisfy.  If the main goal is not achieved, it still has to resonate and be something that readers will want to revisit. To make the story work, it may not duplicate reality but that’s okay.

Solution.  In the best picture books, the young character solves their own story.  They may have some help but the motivation and the actual effort must the their own.  In reality, picture book aged people have much less autonomy. But that’s okay.

Time.  You may need to expand or contract the timeline to make your story work.  A story that takes weeks and weeks to resolve, especially if it is weeks and weeks of the same old same old, may not work in picture book form.  But that’s okay.

Why?  Why is it okay?

Fiction picture books don’t have to duplicate what inspired them.



November 13, 2017

Dummy: Use It to Rewrite One Spread at a Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:15 am

On Friday I blogged about using a dummy to “test drive” your manuscript.  In addition to making sure you have a solid picture book manuscript, a dummy is also a great way to edit and tighten your text.

Why?  Because picture books are super short.  Each word has to have maximum impact.  But when I work through a picture book manuscript in standard manuscript format, I tend to let things slide.  I’m not sure why this is but I don’t do it if I work with the text in dummy format.

In a dummy, I’m forced to look at the text on one spread and only one spread.  This let’s me better judge how much is there and how it works as a single unit.

When I use this technique to slow down, here are some of the things that I consider:

  • Is my text as tight as it can be?  I look for -ly adverbs and pointless adjectives.  If I find them, can they be cut or can I choose a better word that doesn’t need to be clarified?
  • Are some spreads text heavy?  There should be balance.  I don’t want most spreads to have 2 or 3 lines and another to have 8.  If this happens . . . cut, cut, cut.
  • Do I use a lot of visual description?  Some of it can probably go.
  • Do I use good picture book language?  This is a good time to check for lyrical language, words or phrases that are repeated as a chorus, onomatopoeia, etc.

Sure, I could do this without a dummy, but a dummy helps me envision my work as the picture book it will one day become.  It also helps me slow down and work with only small portions of the text, giving every word the attention it deserves.

Why not try this technique with your own work?


November 10, 2017

The Dummy: Another Way to Test Drive Your Picture Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:14 am
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Yesterday, I blogged about creating a storyboard to test your picture book idea.  But there’s another tool that let’s you test your manuscript before you send it to the editor.  The dummy.

Since I use the dummy to revise, that means I must have a solid draft in hand.  Some people may use it earlier in the process but I prefer to use it toward the end.  Why?  Because I use a dummy to look at the details.

If you’ve never made a dummy, it is easy peasy. First, staple together 16 pieces of paper so that you have 32 pages front and back.  Then mark off one page for the title page and other front matter.  There are generally about three pages at the beginning of a picture book that contain the title and other material but no story.  Once you have this, you are ready to print out your text and lay it out in the dummy.

Yes, this means that you will have to decide how much goes on each spread.  Most often it will be one scene.  And you have to decide if it should be a one page spread or a two page spread.  But this will make you think.

  • If I have a two-page spread, does the scene demand this panoramic scope?
  • If I have a one-page spread, is there the detail it demands?
  • Does this spread differ in some way from the surrounding spreads? This difference can be a change in setting, which characters are present, emotion or action.
  • Does this spread have a specific action for the illustrator to depict?
  • Do I avoid dialog with no accompanying action?  Talking heads make for boring illustrations.
  • Does my text take advantage of page turns?  Page turns are great for hiding surprises.


Really think about these questions.  A dummy is a great way to tell if you’ve written a picture book.  If your story doesn’t take advantage of the picture book format, if it is too short or too long, or has too many talking heads?  Then it might not be a picture book.

And that’s okay.  Better to find that out yourself than to have an editor tell you the same thing.


November 9, 2017

Storyboard: One Way to Outline Your Picture Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:26 am
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When you write a picture book, you need to make certain you have enough story.  The problem is that there has to be enough to stretch over 32 pages.  And this has to be 32 pages with zing.  They can’t be scant.  They can’t be meaningless.  They have to matter.

I’ve been noodling over a new idea for just over a month now.  I know it is a story that matters.  How do I know?  People are arguing about it.  Everyone is certain that their answer is Right with a capital R.  But I have to make sure this story that matters can fit inside and fill the inside of a picture book.

One of the best ways to tell is to storyboard it.  For those of you who have never worked up a storyboard, it is a worksheet, or board, that allows you to mock-up a picture book so that you can see the entire thing on one page.  I don’t like working on something as small as a sheet of printer paper.  My storyboard is a piece of cardboard that was used to cover a mirror in shipment.

Why bother with a storyboard?  The great thing about using a story board is that I can see right away if I have enough scenes.  Will my idea fill a whole picture book?

So I start by writing a sentence or a phrase for each scene.  I do this on post it notes.  Once I have my post-it scenes in hand, I set about arranging them on the various spreads.

Some people prefer to do this on a worksheet.  I like this post-it note approach because I can re-arrange things as needed. To an extent, the order of my scenes are sequential.  This happened on X date.  This followed on Y date.  And this was on Z. But that just covers the historic spreads.  The modern ones are going to take some fiddling.  Post-its and my giant board let me move, cut apart, put on one two-page spread, and just generally fiddle.

When I’m done, I have an outline and I’m ready to write.  Not that the writing will necessarily be easy but at least I know when I’m done I’ll have a story that is long enough, and worth of, a picture book.


November 8, 2017

Read Beyond Your Comfort Zone

If you heard someone yelling like a lunatic on Monday – that was me.  But it’s okay cause I was celebrating.

Monday I found out that Black Lives Matter was part of a radio broadcast on Minnesotta Public Radio.  Kerri Miller did a segment titled Read Beyond Your Comfort Zone.  She opened by discussing the work of Gene Luen Yang, LOC’s Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, who encourages children and teens to read beyond their comfort zone.

Miller feels this advice is just as solid for adults and invited a panel of guests to discuss relevant books.  They were Anitra Budd, a writer and visiting assistant professor at Macalester College; Sarah Park Dahlen, an associate professor of library and information science at Saint Catherine University; and Matt Keliher, manager at Subtext Bookstore in downtown St. Paul.

Here is a complete lists of the books discussed and recommended.  First, it cracked me up that children’s book were included although the host was directing this towards adults.  Then I looked at the list. I’m overwhelmed and humbled. Check out this list.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

Black Lives Matter by Sue Bradford Edwards and Duchess Harris

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

A Different Pond by Bao Phi

The Brother by Rein Raud

Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz; audiobook narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

Truthfully? I am well and truly astonished that a book I worked on is on a list with Sharon Creech, Kwame Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Angie Thomas.  I still can’t wrap my brain around it.  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe?  Every time I look at the list, I get swoony all over again.



November 7, 2017

Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:30 am
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When I saw the announcement for the Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2017, I knew that they’d be special. After all, they’d been chosen by the NYTBR (New York Times Book Review) and NYPL (New York Public Library).  What I wasn’t sure about is whether or not they would all be picture books. Then I clicked through and saw the above illustration.  Check.  They’re picture books.

But I thought I’d take a moment and discuss the variety of illustrated children’s books available.

For the youngest “readers,” or toddlers, we have board books.  These books are literally cardboard.  They are small and sturdy to hold up to rough handling.  Picture and text come together to tell super simple stories.  Sometimes they are adapted from picture books.  I tend to give Sandra Boynton board books as baby shower gifts.

Of course, we also have picture books.  Picture books are most often 32 pages long. They marry text and illustrations. Because most picture book readers aren’t technically readers, they are written to be read aloud to a young listener or group of listeners.  The books above are picture books.

Early readers are also highly illustrated. Like picture books, there tends to be an illustration on every spread.  The difference is that the illustrations don’t add to the story.  Instead they help the new reader interpret the text, looking for clues in the illustrations when they get stuck puzzling out a word.

Chapter books and some middle readers often have some line drawings.  The illustrations are fun but they aren’t a big part of the book.

Juvenile graphic novels are graphic novels with age appropriate content for . . . whatever age, usually chapter book through young adult.  They rely on sequential art to tell a story.  There is text but the illustrations are essential, bold and striking.

This is the 65th annual list for the NYTBR which, for the first time this year, paired up with the NYPL.  You can check out the brief article here and the books will be featured both in a special children’s books section on the November 12 in the NYTBR. They will also be featured in a reception at the New York Public Library on November 14.

Another great group of books to study to up your picture book writing game.


November 6, 2017

Win Picture Books

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 7:50 am
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I hope that you’re taking some time during the month of November to check out some of the Picture Book Month offerings. Over the weekend, I spotted the #Thankful4PBs giveaway. Organized by Tracy Marchini, all of these books are part of the giveaway:



To win, visit this link and find the the Rafflecopter form when you scroll down the page.  There are entries for tweeting, for visiting Facebook pages and more.  The grand prize winner will receive a copy of every participating book, including a limited edition of Jannie Ho’s Bear and Chicken! Three runners up will receive a smaller prize pack of four participating books.

This is a great way to get your hands on some books to study to help perfect your own picture book craft.  And, you might want to share a few of them with the young readers on your Christmas list.

And take the time to check out Tracy’s site.  She is an agent, freelance editor and writer.  Quite a talented lady and you’ll learn a lot.



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