By Kim Tomsic
My journey to publication includes a mixture of focused effort, magic, and hijinks. In 2008, I’d just finished reading all of Richard Peck’s books to my son and decided rather than waiting for the great R.P. to write another tale, I’d write one myself. I set to task, and 55,000 words and a year later I finished a novel. I hired a professional editor who gently informed me I was not ready to query, but that I should join the SCBWI. Two months later, I was on a plane headed to one of the most magical experiences of my life—the 2009 SCBWI International Conference in California.
Heck no, I wasn’t going to cry. I was too dazzled by the experience to even realize the critique wasn’t going well. In fact, internally I was dancing because information is power. This critique gave me greater capacity to see my errors, gain new tools, and sharpen my skills. Everyone at the conference said participating in a critiquing group was key to growth, so when I flew home, I joined two groups, read several craft books, read gobs and gobs of children’s literature, and kept working.
A few years later, I enter the hijinks phase of my publishing path. In 2011, I attended another SCBWI conference in California. I noticed an “unofficial” scavenger hunt posted on Twitter that was orchestrated by Chronicle Books editor Melissa Manlove. The rules of the hunt said to form a group of five and follow the hashtag for more instructions. I wrangled five fun strangers and spent the Saturday night gala searching for items, taking photos with kid-lit celebrities, answering book-ish questions, and then posting all answers to the unofficial hunt hashtag.
We won! The prize: cocktails, conversation, and a chance to pitch. If you’ve never met Melissa Manlove, here’s what you should know: she’s incredibly smart, she’s a fast and organized thinker; and she’s fun. She treated our team to watermelon martinis and other fancy poolside cocktails. When it was my turn, I pitched a story idea for a novel. Melissa listened and then gave me a piece of advice that I might have heard a thousand times before, but for some reason, this was the first time I actually digested it. She said, “It sounds like a lot of things are happening to your character rather than your character making things happen.” This was my lightbulb moment.
Fast-forward to today, my debutnonfiction picture book, GUITAR GUINIUS, How Les Paul Engineered the Solid Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World, edited by the fabulous Melissa Manlove and illustrated by Brett Helquist, will release with Chronicle Books on April 9, 2019. The elephant story (title tbd) releases with Chronicle in 2020. Oh, and by the way, thanks to Melissa’s initial advice, I learned how to write active characters. Please check out my two novels edited by Maria Barbo and published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, The 11:11 Wish (February, 2018) and The 12th Candle (October 2019).
Kim Tomsic was the "new girl" at 8 different schools where she played four square, volleyball, and the flute. She never learned to play the guitar, but she likes to brag that she’s the mother of a guitarist! Kim lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, two children, and two dogs. She believes in miracles, magic, and music. Beyond writing, she is also a yoga teacher, a pet wrangler, and the Co-Regional advisor of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Kim’s debut novel,The 11:11 Wish released with Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in February 2018.
Little Lester Polsfuss’s music teacher told him he’d never be musical. She was wrong! Guitar Genius, How Les Paul Engineered the Solid Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World! (April 9, 2019 Chronicle Books), is a perseverance story centered on National Inventors Hall of Fame legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame icon, Les Paul. Les faced ridicule, hardships, and struggles as he worked to engineer devices and recording techniques that proved to be revolutionary in the music industry.
By Lisa Robinson
Every summer we go to Brooklin, Maine, (you read that right, it’s Brooklin, not Brooklyn) and rent a cottage one mile down the road from E.B. White’s farmhouse. On one side of the cottage, a grassy field rolls down to a rocky beach strewn with seaweed, shells, and sea glass. On the other side, towering pine trees march to the shoreline. I like to think that the spirit of E.B. White imbues this landscape with creativity and inspiration.
Each year I bring home new additions to my sea glass collection—brown, green, blue, clear, and occasionally purple pieces—and place them into a jar on my bedside table. Small and large, jagged and smooth, shiny and dull, the shards wink at me during the long, cold New England winter, reminding me of summer. Combing the beach for sea glass year after year has shown me the best way to find these mementos, or at least, the best way for me. Perhaps others have a different strategy. What I’ve discovered is that if I search for sea glass head-on, eyes glued to the beach, it’s unlikely that I will find it. No matter how far and wide I pace, focus and determination rarely produce results.
However, when I soften my focus and stroll the beach in a leisurely fashion—with one of my daughters at my side, waves splashing my feet, seagulls soaring overhead—it’s likely that I will stumble upon a sea-glass treasure. It might be lurking under a rock, a seaweed frond, or a clam shell. One day it occurred to me that this was exactly how the inspiration for my story ideas comes to me.
If I go looking for an idea, I don’t usually find one. But if I maintain loose attention for ideas as I go about my day—reading the newspaper, making a meal, talking with clients, jogging through the woods, watching my kids at the circus gym—the ideas often pop up. In fact, I’ve discovered that this kind of unfocused, mindful attention often results in more ideas than I know what do with.
However, not every piece of sea glass goes into my pocket to join the ones at home in my jar. Some are too shiny and fresh—newly broken glass—and some are too similar to pieces I already have. I leave those on the beach for others to find. Similarly, when I come across a story idea, I have criteria for whether or not I store it in a file for later use. The main one I use is my emotional response: do I feel a tickle of excitement? Can I imagine spending a lot of time working on the idea without losing enthusiasm? Do I wish I could abandon my current project and dive right into this shiny new one? (I try not to do that—but that’s a topic for another day).
Our annual summer vacation in Maine—a time when I don’t write—has taught me one of my most important writing lessons: if I wander through my day with my mind open to possibilities, ideas inevitably wash up on the shore of my imagination.
Inspiration is everywhere.
Lisa Robinson is a child psychiatrist and author of four forthcoming picture books. Her debut picture book PIRATES DON’T GO TO KINDERGARTEN (Two Lions) arrives on July 9, 2019. You can find her at author-lisa-robinson.com or on Twitter: @elisaitw
By Lindsay Leslie
I walked into my youngest son’s room, and it was as if the idea pole-vaulted from the floor into my ear and wiggled its way toward my brain. I had accidentally stepped on one of my son’s picture books, and thought, I just broke its spine. Then my mind pinged and ponged to: this book has a spine, what if it were spineless, this book is spineless. I looked at my son and shouted, “This Book Is Spineless!” I jotted the idea down. That’s how it all began, but it probably began way before that, as with all stories needing to be told.
I was always an anxious person (good at faking that I wasn’t), and I feared a lot. I remember going to Six Flags with my family. We were all staring at the Shockwave, a big loop-de-loop ride I believed would be my certain death if I went on it. Overactive amygdala, much? My mom pulled out the bribes, and I’m not just talking ice cream here. She promised me a puppy. Yep, a puppy. I looked her square in the eye and said, “No way!” The anticipation of an event, like riding a roller coaster, always overwhelmed me.
Anxiety continued in various forms throughout my life. Some helpful, some very hurtful. But because of my experiences, I knew that a book about it being spineless and afraid of the story on its pages was one I needed to write and could write. I could take on a serious topic like anxiety and make it palatable, a bit light-hearted, and a little silly. I’m one of those use-humor-to-defuse-a-situation kind of folks. Also, I was set on writing the narrative arc to mimic the rise and fall of those anxious feelings, making sure the reader was invested and helping the book along way. I knew I needed to share that anxiety can be managed, can be faced, and you don’t have to face fears alone.
Going back to the topic of inspiration, I’m often asked when does inspiration strike and where do I get my ideas. This is tough to answer in a finite way. Ideation seems so organic to me. But when I really throw a brain cell at what I’m doing during those idea-creating moments, I can nail down two ways I come up with ideas: creating associations and active sensing.
Now, where do you get your ideas? How do get inspired to create? And, is it hard for you to nail down exactly the process you go through to drum up ideas?
A diary keeper, a journal writer, a journalism major, a public relations executive--Lindsay Leslie has always operated in a world of written words. When she became a mom and began to tell her kids bedtime stories, Lindsay connected the dots to children’s literature. Lindsay is the author of THIS BOOK IS SPINELESS, her debut picture book (Page Street Kids, Feb. 19, 2019). Her second picture book, NOVA THE STAR EATER (Page Street Kids), will launch on May 21, 2019. Her third picture book, WANTED: DUSK RAIDERS (Page Street Kids), will launch in spring of 2020. She lives with her husband, two young boys, and two fur-beasts in Austin.
By Lisa Rogers
Breakfast is ready, and so is my manuscript.
My husband is an essential part of my writing process. True, he reads my work and lets me know when it falls flat or is missing something. But one of his most important contributions is making breakfast.
Every morning, he prepares a different breakfast than the day before, and the day before that. He lays out placemats and utensils, grinds the coffee beans, warms the coffee cups, sets the first section of The New York Times to the left side of my plate, a glass of water with exactly three ice cubes to the right, and copious amounts of blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries just in front of where he’ll place my filled plate. Then, as the coffee drips into the Melitta carafe, he calls me to come downstairs.
You, a writer dedicated perhaps to Trollopian chunks of scheduled writing time, might think I’m lazy, sleeping when I could be working—or at least getting ready for work—during those careful and generous preparations.
You know Anthony Trollope, right? The British post office inspector who got up at an ungodly hour every morning and wrote for a specified amount of time? If he finished a manuscript before that time was up, he began another. And another, and another—he’s one of the most prolific writers ever.
Sometimes, unlike Trollope, I am sleeping. But usually I am writing. Writing, letting the lines of a story move through my mind until they settle into a pattern, like wavelets lapping in a protected cove. Before I head downstairs, I transcribe those lines in pencil on actual paper—not so they can be erased, but so I can hear and feel the rhythm of my words as lead meets the paper’s tooth.
For a long time, I didn’t think I had a writing process. I figured actual writing required extensive periods of sitting. I dislike sitting. I’d rather be walking my giant foxhound, Tucker, running, lifting barbells at the gym, or involved in one of my many creative passions. Even my wonderful job as an elementary school librarian, which provides plenty of inspiration, involves little sitting.
Then I heard the admirable Andrea Davis Pinkney speak at an SCBWI conference. Writers must write every day, she said. Early each morning, she puts her feet on the ground and meditates for 30 minutes. Then she writes. Then she swims. Then she gets her children to school and goes off to her own job as a children’s book editor and publisher. I was in awe.
Am I a writer? I wondered. I don’t write every day. I don’t meditate. And then I took the train home from the conference and wrote a story in my mind as I looked out the window. Before I returned to Boston, I put it on paper—the Trollopian way.
When I was a reporter, I wrote every day. There wasn’t time for meditation. There wasn’t time for revision. One of my colleagues told me he always felt satisfied at day’s end, because he had filed his stories. They were finished; he was done. I never felt that way. I always wanted to go back and try them again. Experiment with a new beginning. Find more sources. Make that story better. More complete.
I’m a different kind of writer now. I have the opportunity—the imperative—to revise. My stories can sift through my mind, always changing. I can do more research. My story can become a better one.
That conference was a couple of years ago. And I’ve realized that even though I don’t put my feet on the ground, I do meditate. I do write, every day.
That meditative time is my real writing time. That inspiration, that working out of whatever problem in my story has come up, that answer to the question of how to wrap it up in a way that resonates—it all happens just before breakfast.
Lisa Rogers is an elementary school librarian and a former newspaper reporter and editor. Her debut picture book, 16 WORDS: WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS AND THE RED WHEELBARROW, will be published by Schwartz & Wade Books on May 28, 2019. She is the winner of the 2016 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. Find her at lisarogerswrites.com and on Twitter @LisaLJRogers.
By Ishta Mercurio
I got my first agent -- the agent who sold SMALL WORLD -- in the most unreplicable way possible.
I did all the stuff you're supposed to do. I researched agents for months: I went to conferences, I googled book deals, I read agent interviews, I pored over the PW announcements. I made three lists: a "Dream Agent" list, a "If My Dream Agents All Say No" list, and a "These look like legit agents who rep what I'm writing so I may as well give them a try" list. I queried everybody, starting with the "Dream Agent" list and working my way down. (More on that later.)
My query was honed and polished. After a few rejections, I revisited it to see if I could make it even better. I got page requests, and THOSE got rejected, so I revised my query again. I revised my pages. I queried first one picture book, then another, then a chapter book. I slogged through slushville for years. I kept track of every query letter I sent on a spreadsheet. And then finally, FINALLY, on the last day of a 6-8 week period at the end of which this agency had a "no response means no" policy, I got a full request! YES! The agent said she was really drawn in by my first ten pages and she wanted to see more. I spent a few hours freaking out and pacing and unable to speak in full sentences, and then I sent it off.
And waited some more.
Finally, after a month or so, I sent a professional follow-up. I was sure she wouldn't want to represent this book, because if she was really enthusiastic, she would have gotten back to me by then, right? It was only a chapter book -- about 7,000 words. So short! So she must have hated it, really. But I wanted to stay professional and leave things in good standing for the future.
She said she was still keen to read it, but that she needed a couple more weeks. (I knew, from googling, that she was the foreign rights agent for the agency, and that she was new to agenting, and that she had to read queries and manuscripts in her own time outside of work hours, so I told myself that this was understandable, even though I thought she probably would have read it by now if she had liked it.) Cool. So I followed up after a couple weeks, and again every couple weeks after that. For a couple of months.
Keeping it professional, right? Because that's what you do. But no way was she going to sign me if she still hadn't read the full. I was sure. All the blogs said so.
But then I found myself in a quandary: the SCBWI Winter conference was coming up in NYC. (I had registered for this conference before I had even queried her.) Her agency was in NYC. If she read my full and didn't like it, fine. But if she read it and liked it, and wanted to talk, then wouldn't a meeting over coffee while I was in NYC be the ideal thing?
So after much agonizing, I did the thing you're never supposed to do.
I sent this agent an email suggesting that we meet in person. I am not suggesting that you do this. NEVER DO THIS. I only did it because, after she requested my full and I spent months following up with her, there was something of a precedent, in terms of communication and follow-ups and an expectation that she would actually read the thing eventually, maybe. But I still feel squicky about having done it, because it's such a taboo, and for GOOD REASON. Anyway.
It went something along the lines of, "I know I'm doing this backwards, and I know this must seem stalkery to you, and I swear I'm not a stalker. But there's this writers' conference, and I'm attending... And I'm sorry for being so awkward, but do you think you could read my full soon?"
It was much more professional sounding than that, but you get the gist. I was sure she would write me off as a creepy weird writer-person and run for the hills.
She didn't. In fact, she thanked me for letting her know I would be in town for the conference, and she promised to read it that weekend. And she did read it that weekend. And on Monday, she emailed me to ask if we could meet on Thursday night, after I arrived in NYC but before the conference started.
So we met, and talked, and we really clicked. There was an immediate rapport, and we liked the same books, and I agreed with her thoughts about the general direction of my work, and I liked her communication style, and when she offered me representation at the end of our chat I had basically already decided I would say yes.
I had partials out with other agents, of course. So there was all that to wind up, and in fairness to those other agents, I wound all of that up before I said yes. But Laura Biagi was the perfect fit for me, so it was an easy decision.
Laura isn't my agent anymore -- she is enrolled in an MFA program for creative writing, and one day, she is going to write something that will knock your socks off -- but we still keep in touch, because we gelled like that.
So, what are the takeaways here?
Always be professional. Always. Remember that agents are human, too, and the time they spend looking for new clients is the time most people spend going to the movies or hanging out after work with friends or bathing. And their priority is always the clients they already have, which is what you would want for yourself if you were one of their clients. So even when they take forever to read a requested full, be respectful and extend kindness.
Always follow the guidelines.
Research, research, research. Take the time. It's worth it.
Go to conferences whenever you can. You learn a lot, and it signals to agents that you're serious about this business. Some conferences offer bursaries and scholarships if money is an issue.
Almost Most Importantly, remember this: My "Dream Agents" were not actually my dream agents. It's easy to look at an agent with a whole stable of successful authors and think, "That's my dream agent!" But their communication style might not work for you. The frequency with which they are able to communicate with their clients might not work for you. Their personality might not be a good fit with yours. These are all just as important as their enthusiasm for and ability to sell your work.
And never give up.
Ishta (pronounced EEESH-ta) Mercurio is an author, actor, and lifelong environmental activist. Raised in the US, she has also lived in England and Scotland, and has visited Venice, Italy; Paris, France; and a range of beautiful places all over the United States. One day, she hopes to visit her relatives in Cebu. She now makes her home in Canada, where she homeschools her two sons and films and photographs plants and wildlife, from the tall to the small, in her backyard. Find Ishta at www.ishtamercurio.com or connect with her on twitter at @IshtaWrites.
Her fiction debut, SMALL WORLD (illustrated by Jen Corace), is a STEM-concept picture book that explores a girl's journey of growing up in the world and discovering its beauty and marvel.
By Vivian Kirkfield
Everyone has their own way of doing things, right? Like milk and cookies. Some people dunk their cookies in the milk. And others like to keep their cookies dry and crunchy.
Writing picture books is a bit like that. Some people have a strict routine. Others write when the muse calls. Some start with an outline. Others just write. You know…plotters or pantsers.
When I first started writing picture books in 2012, I had no idea what that meant. I figured out plotters pretty quickly…people who plot…who plan the story they are going to write before they start writing. And then I looked up pantsers and discovered they are people who don’t plan…they write by the seat of their pants, so to speak. And their story unfolds as they go along.
I guess I am a combination of both. I’m more of a plotter when I am writing nonfiction picture book stories because there is so much research and the research itself usually leads me to exactly what the story will be about. When I write fiction pbs, there is a lot more leeway. I can add fictitious events. Change the setting. Or get rid of the main character and substitute someone else which is definitely not something that can be done when you are writing about a real person. 😊
But since I write quite a lot of nonfiction picture book biographies, I thought I’d share a bird’s eye view of the process I use.
And of course, a discussion about story ideas would not be complete without mentioning Tara Lazar’s Storystorm. This month-long kidlit challenge takes place in January and has been helping writers for many years. I’ve participated since 2012…and I treasure each year’s notebook that is filled with story ideas. Many of those ideas became picture book drafts and some turned into polished manuscripts. And now, amazingly, several will be real live books. Pippa’s Passover Plate (Holiday House, Feb 12, 2019) and Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book (Pomegranate, March 1, 2019)
It's 1955. Marilyn Monroe hopes to prove herself a great actress. Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald hopes to perform at Hollywood's top club. Both women discover those goals are possible, when friends stand beside you and, when necessary, make their voices heard.
So, there you have it. The seven steps I take as I write each one of my manuscripts. And just like a good chef adds something special to her signature dish, I add a large dollop of passion, patience, and perseverance…and I think that has made all the difference.
Vivian Kirkfield is a reader forever and a writer for children. A former NYC kindergarten teacher, Vivian loves bringing history alive for young readers. Repped by the incredible Essie White, encouraged by an insane number of critique partners, and loved for the past 50 years by the same man, she writes every day ,dances every night, and smiles all the time. You can find her at her Picture Books Help Kids Soar website: www.viviankirkfield.com or connect with her on Twiiter @viviankirkfield or on Facebook. Vivian has three picture books debuting in 2019:
By Kim Chaffee
I am a plotter, through and through. But before I can sit down to outline a new story, research a nonfiction topic, or brainstorm possible obstacles for my main character to encounter…I dance. That’s right. I dance.
To be clear, it’s not pretty (think Elaine from Seinfeld…ok, maybe not that bad)- but it is effective at getting my blood flowing, my creative juices pumping, and it puts me in a great mood to attack my work with a positive mindset. It brings me back to my high school volleyball days when we would crank up Jock Jams before a big game. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
Music is so subjective and surely a song or two that gets your feet tapping has popped into your head while reading this, but here are a few from my playlist if you need some suggestions:
Black Horse and Cherry Tree K.T. Tunstall
They Don’t Know Ariana Grande (Trolls soundtrack)
Nasty Janet Jackson
The Greatest Show (The Greatest Showman soundtrack)
Single Ladies Beyoncé
Footloose Kenny Loggins
Warning: Dancing can be addicting. My advice is to choose two, maybe three songs to get you going for the day. You don’t want to spend all of your writing time shaking your groove thang!
As much as I love and need the pump-up music, once I’m warmed up, it’s time to switch the tempo a bit so I can focus on my writing. For this, my go-to is soundtracks. Braveheart, and Avatar are solid choices and Jurassic Park is a recent addition to my writing playlist. This music helps me concentrate and keeps me on task.
How about you? What music gets you going? Keeps you on task? I’m always looking for great suggestions!
HER FEARLESS RUN: KATHRINE SWITZER’S HISTORIC BOSTON MARATHON, illustrated by Ellen Rooney
Page Street Kids
April 2, 2019