Category Archives: Getting Published

How Does A Book Get Published?

You know you’re in trouble when an article about a writer’s path to publication brings you to tears, especially when you’re on a United flight from Chicago to Boston, in the middle seat, and you don’t know the people flanking you.

You also come to realize, once again, that you are a writer.

I just finished Keith Gessen’s powerfully written piece on his friend Chad Harbach’s 10-year journey to bring a debut novel, THE ART OF FIELDING, into the world. Gessen’s article, How a Book Is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding  (Vanity Fair, October 2011), is outstanding. Some critics claim its focus is too narrow and only describes publishing from the viewpoint of the educated and privileged, but I feel privileged to read the inside scoop on this rapidly morphing industry.

Who needs to read the article? Let’s see:

Novel writers

Beginning writers

Anyone wondering how publishing works

Disillusioned writers who doubt they’ll ever be published

Anyone curious about eBooks and digital media

Someone considering a career as a literary agent or an editor

Why did I love it? Gessen details his friend’s path — beginning in Racine, Wisconsin, and rising to the top of the international publishing world – with such an honest and engaging voice that it felt like he’d written the piece specifically for (the anxious, unpublished, full-of-self-sabotage person that is) me.

Harbach worked on his novel for 10 years and received countless rejections. Many of his friends, including Gessen, thought he’d be better off moving on to another project. Time and countless distractions took him away from his novel, yet those very elements helped round out the final product.

It’s fascinating to read all the behind-the-scenes activity in the world of publishing, particularly the emails exchanged between Harbach and his soon-to-be agent, Chris Parris-Lamb just after the latter finished reading the first 250 pages of Harbach’s manuscript. I realized I’d been holding my breath while reading the agent’s emails. His enthusiasm for the project is what every debut novelist hopes for: an agent who unequivocally gets it, who promises to care for and protect your manuscript as if it’s his own, who feels honored to represent you.

I cut the emails out of the October 2011 issue of Vanity Fair and copied them here for you. The first was sent after the agent read the first 250 pages. The second was sent once he finished the book, the next day:

The emails I dream of receiving...

I’m not naïve; the chances of receiving emails like this from potential agents are slim to nil, but just reading the account of how a passionate writer kept going, kept the faith, and kept improving his manuscript until he felt it was right…well…that’s the stuff that keeps me going when it just feels too hard.

It’s also reassuring to hear what industry insiders say about the changing face of publishing. Yes, eBooks are thriving, but as Amazon’s VP of Kindle content told Gessen, “The only necessary parts of the business are authors and readers.  Everybody else has to figure out how to be useful and relevant in connecting those two groups.”

I’d highly recommend the article to anyone who’s in – or looking to enter – the worlds of writing or publishing. It may not make you cry, but it’s guaranteed to demonstrate how a writer’s dreams can really come true.

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For Kids (And Adults) Who Love To Write

Thank goodness you’re here, because I know you’ll understand what I’m about to say.

I’ve wanted to write since I was little. I know you have, too.

If I ever see a scrap of paper, I get excited. You know the feeling.

A blank Word document on a monitor feels like a gift.

My hands usually to catch up with all the thoughts in my head. I love the feel of a keyboard under my fingertips or a pen in my hand.

I used to be a kid who loved to write. I’m 43 years old now, and I officially began my “writing career” when I was 40. I still have so much catching up to do, but one of the things I promised myself is to share whatever I learn, especially to kids who were just like me.

So, here’s an open letter to any kids (or the adults they’ve become) who love to write and who want to do it as much as possible:

Dear Writer Friend,

You realize how good we’ve got it, right? Our love of writing opens worlds beyond description, and not just on the page. Writing things down is just part of the wonderful world we’re part of. Talking about writing, sharing our writing, and reading others’ work adds so many layers to our own writing satisfaction.

There are lots of people who write, but true writers share a language of understanding with one another that is like no other.

Those of us who love to write are so fortunate. Ask anyone who loves to write and they’ll tell you it’s just something deep inside that needs expressing, and the options available to express that need are limitless. Journals, essays, poems, novels, blogs, short stories and letters are only a few of our choices.

True writers cross-train when they’re “stuck”. A novelist can take a break from her conflicted characters and write a magazine article for other writers about conflicted characters. A magazine writer can stretch her writing skills by outlining a picture book. A picture book author can sign up for a conference on eBook writing to learn how to share her work with more readers. The options keep going.

The writing community is like a family. We’ve got the crazy uncles we’re a little embarrassed by, the gentle, grandmotherly types who remind us we’re the very best in the whole wide world, the bossy sisters who try to outdo us, the cousins we see only once a year and wish it could be more often. We’ve got younger siblings who look up to us, and older, wiser siblings who take risks and show us the way. The family of writers is full of opportunities to learn from others and, most importantly, about our own talents and interests.

Keep writing, even when you’re tired. Keep writing, even when you wouldn’t share your work with your worst enemy. Keep writing until you feel written out…then write some more. As a writer, the best part of you is your deepest, most honest core. That’s where your voice is. That’s where your strength is found. That’s the place you’ll want to write from. You won’t always reach it, but it’ll never, ever go away.

Sincerely,

Your Fellow Writer

P.S. If you’re a kid who can’t wait to be published, look into places like these to practice your skills.  Most of all, have FUN, and check out these great websites for inspiration:

Amazing Kids Magazine:  Here are the submissions guidelines

Click here for Websites for Young Writers.

Resources on Kids Learn To Blog

Genna’s World, endorsed by the Newberry Award Committee.

KidPub: Books and stories by kids, for kids.

Aaron Shepard’s Young Authors page.

The Young Voices Foundation, mentoring young writers.

The Betty Award writing contest.

Poetry and Essay contests: Creative Communication

Creative Kids magazine (and writers’ guidelines)

Launch Pad magazine

Stone Soup

Magic Dragons

Motivating Other Kids To Blog

Where else can kids hone their writing skills?

Teaching Writers How To Blog

My friends Sally, Francie and Lisa are interested in starting blogs.  I plan on putting up some easy-to-follow instructions for anyone interested in starting one of their own.  Would you like to read about that?

We are sitting in Wilmette, Illinois.

What Really Happens at A Writers’ Conference?

If there’s any advice I might offer aspiring authors, it’s to focus on the work — and not too much on your feelings.  Sound impossible?  Yup, it did to me too, especially when my heart broke a little at the beginning of this year’s SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Annual Conference in New York City.  Things definitely got better…but here’s a recap of what a writing conference can do for us, and how important it is to keep going, even when it gets so hard that you want to give up.

——————————————

How I Felt Inside While Editors Read My First 500 Words

My head told me to keep my expectations low, but I just couldn’t do it.

I brought my complete manuscript to the conference this year.  On Friday, the day before the actual conference began,  I attended the SCBWI Pre-Conference Writers’ Intensive, in which two “rounds” of meetings were conducted, pairing writers up with an agent or editor to read and critique the first 500 words of their work.

I attended the Writers’ Intensive portion of the conference last year with a much less polished and much less “finished” manuscript, and yet even back then, I’d hoped an industry professional could see exactly what I see, could feel exactly what I feel, after reading those first 500 words.  I left last year’s conference knowing I had a lot of revising to do, and I spent a year doing it. This time, my hopes were even higher than last year.  At last year’s conference, a woman sitting next to me was asked for her manuscript:  an editor took it on the spot!  I wanted to be that woman; I wanted my manuscript to find a home.  The same editor asked me if my manuscript was finished. D’oh! It wasn’t completely finished, but I had it all in my head! If it had been finished, I just know she would have taken it and presented it to her team and handed me a book contract, right? Well, with that kind of attitude, I went into this year’s conference with all the confidence in the world. I wanted the professionals to feel the love for my characters as I do, and to ask me for my full manuscript so they’d come to know, like I do, how worthwhile this story will be for young readers everywhere.

I. I. I. Wrong attitude.  Bad attitude.

No one asked for my manuscript this year.  I had two copies in my bag, and that is where they stayed. I was crushed.

Oh baby…that’s not even the worst part.

One of the editors commented that I should really start my novel in the kitchen, where my main character learns some important news.  Problem is, that’s where the novel began last year; the editor’s comments then were that I ought to start the book with ACTION!  So, for this year’s conference, the book starts on the boat.  I began to feel a little bit of motion sickness myself with all the differing opinions.

I’m such a pleaser, and I’ve never worked so hard on a project as I have on this.  After the afternoon editors left the ballroom, I fought back tears.  The room was filled with hundreds of other writers who’d gone through their own critiques.  I was too embarrassed to look around to check if anyone else was crying.  Just the act of suppressing tears made it that much harder to keep them hidden.  Suddenly, my face was completely soaked with tears, but I couldn’t get up to leave, because then I’d have to walk through an entire room of people staring at the loser (me) who’d actually thought she’d get a book contract at a Writer’s Conference.

As if!

Lin Oliver, the SCBWI President, spoke to us at the beginning of the day about not taking things personally.  About listening to criticism, taking it in and working with it.  She reminded us of a line from the movie A League of Their Own:  “There’s no crying in baseball.”

Well, this isn’t baseball.  This is three years of critique groups, revisions, time away from my kids and my husband and my friends.

My. My. My.  Wrong attitude.  Bad attitude.  Especially bad (and wrong and misguided) was my belief that I could hit a home run at the Writers’ Intensive.  It’s nearly unheard of.

So, there I sat, blotchy-faced and sweating, ducking my head into my conference agenda and praying for the tears to stop (and for another tissue as I sniveled all over my first 500 words…though at this point, who cares?).  A woman across the table noticed my distress and whispered, “How long have you been working on yours?” She’d also been given some not-so encouraging feedback about her submission from the 20-something editor at our table, though she wasn’t devastated like me.

I said, “I think I’ve been working on it for 3 or 4 years now.”

“If it makes you feel any better,” she said, “this is my 10th year.”

Now, if that isn’t perspective, I don’t know what is.  She wasn’t crying.  She wasn’t giving up.  She had just as much passion for her story as I do.

Another woman, this time to my right, also noticed my tears.  She said, “Hand me your submission,” then proceeded to make detailed comments all over it, suggesting new ways to look at things, circling the strong parts, and offering her email if I wanted to talk further.

My most painful day ended with a huge amount of compassion from fellow writers who’ve been there, who know how personal it is, no matter what, and how essential it is to keep on going.

Hotel Ice Bucket

What I love about ice buckets is their versatility.  Some might keep a bottle of wine chilled.  Some might cool down a caffeinated, diet beverage for an after-workout treat.  I, myself, like to keep it by my bedside for easy access to the ice I use for reducing eye puffiness from crying.

The Do’s and Don’ts for treating red, puffy eyes while staying in a hotel:

Do NOT walk across the street to the Duane Reade pharmacy looking for a cosmetic solution for red, puffy eyes.  The pharmacy staff will stare at you, then ask if everything’s okay (which it is not, especially in a crowded pharmacy at 5pm in New York City).  You will begin to cry again.

Do NOT purchase a product called Eau Thermale Avene, even if the bottle says, “Redness relief soothing cream”.  It will be very expensive.  It will not work.  You will not be able to pronounce it.  And, your purchase will be accompanied by a free gift at the checkout counter, which the clerk will have trouble finding the barcode for, delaying your egress from the busy pharmacy at 5pm on a busy New York City night.

Do NOT take the free “gift” from the clerk, even though it comes in a cute white cosmetic bag with orange trim because you will go back up to your hotel room and open it up (whispering to yourself, “Well, at least SOMETHING good happened today”), only to discover the free gift is a bag of cosmetics for the aging woman.     You will begin to cry even harder.

DO glob on tons of concealer, even though it pools in the creases of your swollen eyes.  Any attention you get will remain focused on the horrific makeup rather than on your sadness.

DO turn down the lights. Do avoid the mirror.

DO go to dinner with a college friend who’ll make you laugh immediately with his honesty. “Wow,” he’ll say. “You weren’t kidding.  You really WERE crying hard.”

DO put your pride aside and share your sob story with your friend.  It’s guaranteed to make you both laugh until you begin crying again.

DO reconnect with another old friend with whom you haven’t seen in 20 years!  Melissa (Carey) Shanker and I started at Leo Burnett on the same day (I believe it was June 22, 1990).  We’ve both since ditched our advertising careers to become happy moms and aspiring children’s writers, and it was fantastic spending the weekend with her.  Here we are, just after we’ve seen each other for the first time in two decades (note my puffy eyes):

Christine and Melissa (Carey) Shanker. It happened to be Melissa's 43rd birthday. She might be taller than me, but she's a LOT OLDER (by 70 days).

DO go back to your room and fill your ice bucket.

DO get a wet washcloth and lay a row of icecubes on the washcloth.

DO roll the ice cubes into the washcloth.

DO grab the plastic bag provided in the ice bucket and wrap it around the washcloth.

DO lay down on the bed, turn on your favorite TV show, and lay the ice-roll on your eyes.

DO replace the ice every fifteen minutes.

DO feel like you’re doing something pro-active, even though the swelling doesn’t really go down at all.

———

The Official Conference Begins…

How could I forget all the important reasons I came in the first place?

In my insane effort to hit a home run during the Writer’s Intensive, I’d let myself forget the primary purposes of attending a Writers’ Conference:

–Camaraderie

–Motivation

–Empathy

–EDITORS’ and AGENTS’ CONTACT INFORMATION

While my conference experience focuses on children’s writers and illustrators, I’m confident there are parallels across many genres.

Writing can be a lonely sport. But when you’re gathered with 1100 other peers who want the same thing you’re working toward, it’s a sign you’re doing something worthwhile.

Despite the emotional breakdown I felt on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were packed with useful, inspiring messages. By Sunday afternoon, I left the conference feeling ready to take on the world.  I was fortified with understanding and new friends and energy.  I left with contacts to send my manuscript to and a greater sense of where the children’s publishing industry stands.  Here are the highlights I took away from the conference:

Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry — an exquisite writer and presenter.  Demonstrated in her speech that even the tiniest comment can turn into a novel if you let it sink deep enough into your psyche.  Sees the innocence of children and the power of their wonder. Appreciates their questions, even when those questions focus incessantly on dogs.

During Lois Lowry’s presentation, I happened to be sitting next to an Evanston native, Alison Cherry, who’s working on a Young Adult novel.  We laughed and shared our manuscripts with each other.  I’m so grateful to have connected with her.  Even though she now lives in New York, she’s an example of a woman raised in Evanston, who attended ETHS, then Harvard, and went on to lead a fabulous independent life in NYC.  I can only hope to raise children as wonderful as Alison.

Christine and Alison Cherry, current and former Evanstonians. Stay tuned for her debut novel, RED, coming out in 2013...

I attended three breakout sessions with editors from various publishing companies.  When you register for a conference, you’re allowed to select from a list of speakers whose discussions fit the needs you have.  For some just starting out, it’s important to learn the difference between an agent and an editor.  For the seasoned writers who’ve got their manuscripts ready (or close to ready), it’s important to hook up with editors representing the publishers you admire and hope to work with.  I selected three editors looking for middle-grade novels and listened to their opinions on the state of the industry.  Everyone seems to offer similar messages:  no more vampire stories needed; electronic books are real and here to stay; voice is key — it must be honest and believable; middle-grade novels are selling big right now; it’s hard to get boys to read Young Adult novels; middle-grade boys are still interested in reading; it’s easier to get girls to read boy books than the reverse; Borders Books is near collapse, which poses an interesting situation — everyone hated the Barnes & Noble and Borders for stealing sales from independent bookstores, but now that Borders is drying up, we’re bummed our books are losing another home.  As much as editors have asked for series in the past, a good novel must stand on its own two feet; having a literary agent is key.

But WHY do I need an agent?

Jerry McGuire, the sports agent. Good literary agents are out for more than the coin. Their mission is to handle the business end of things so you can focus on your writing; the exceptional ones provide editorial feedback to make your work the best it can be.

An agent will be your advocate throughout the process of selling your book.  (S)he will guide your manuscript to its finest form before submitting to editors, then navigate the business dealings throughout a sale so you can focus on the work of writing your next great book.  Many editors won’t look at unagented submissions; their time is stretched so thin with this economy that a manuscript better come ready to go if it’s worthy of even opening.

One editor confessed she doesn’t do any manuscript reading during her workday.  She reads after work hours, because her day is filled with the business end of being an editor (she didn’t elaborate, but I assume that means meetings, paperwork, phonecalls and discussions with peers and agents, etc.).  She said she’ll generally read 50 pages of a manuscript (and know much earlier if it’s a keeper), because even if a story starts slow, it might take 50 pages to convince her to put it down.  If she gets through 3-4 manuscripts a week, she’s thrilled.

R.L. Stine

Author R.L. Stine gave the luncheon keynote, and was he amazing.  The modesty and humor this man has astounds me.  I’d expected a creepy, slightly dorky guy, but he’s actually witty, silly, and a confessed humorist-turned-accidental-horror-novelist-for-kids.  I loved how honest he was about stumbling into writing horror for kids.  “Never say no.  Always say yes to opportunities,” was his primary message.  “You never know where an opportunity may take you.”

When the day was over, I met with members of the Illinois chapter of SCBWI for dinner at Grand Central Station.  What a refreshing evening.  We shared opinions about the bad experience I’d had at the Writer’s Intensive (because I just couldn’t let it go) and how to keep going when it feels hopeless.  We laughed and traded stories that only writers can appreciate about avoidance, perseverance and hope.

Sara Zarr

Sunday morning’s keynote speaker was Sara Zaar.  I’d never read her work, because she’s a YA novelist, but I was moved to tears (are you sensing a theme?) by her speech.  Here are my notes from her 45 minute talk:

At the 2001 conference, she’d been writing about 5 years.  She was a bit “angry” then.  Wondered why no one took her writing seriously.

At the 2005 conference, she’d been writing about 9 years.  She was beyond frustrated.  And, she lost her purse in the hotel.  Figured it was a sign.

They say you write the book you want to read.  She wants to give us the speech we want to hear [how did she know how I was feeling?].

Her agent says the time between when you’re no longer a beginner — yet not officially in the business — is the longest and hardest.  No one knows how long that time is.  That’s why it’s important to attend to the rest of your life during that time.  Rejection can’t take that away from you.  Keep creating.  That may be the only thing that’s completely yours during this time.  Crafting a creative life is essential — but let it also be quiet and normal and growing…a life you can center yourself within…calmly…in order to let yourself grow.

Here are the characteristics of a creative life, according to Sara Zarr:

1. It must be sustainable. You’re doing this for life.

2. It must be engaging.  It must move you.

3. You must invite company.  Seek a mentor, even if it’s a dead mentor.  Be a mentor to someone, and be as open as possible.

4. Know when to send company away.  Recognize when you need privacy with your work, your characters, your time.

5. Your work must be faith-based.  Not the religious faith, per se, but HOPE.  Especially before you’re published [my hand’s raised], people with hope are the people who write novels [she quoted someone “Flannery” about this…].

6. It’s a life that gives back.  Do what you’re meant to be doing, but then give back to those who are meant to do it, too [for instance, that’s why I’m blogging].

Here are the obstacles of a creative life, according to Sara Zarr:

1. Unsustainable habits — not taking care of yourself.  Many of us joke about being stressed, under deadline.  Most of us need to stop doing half of what we’re doing and do the other half well.  Figure out what sorts of habits and routines facilitate your creativity.  She recommended a book called The War of Art (eliminating drama in life).

2. Obsession with process vs. craft.  It’s so important to finish…not just to think, tweet, talk, workshop, analyze.  If you only see your work as commodification of a market, you’ll lose your creativity.  Yes, it’s important to understand the marketplace and your value in it, but don’t judge yourself against others’.

3. Being in the wrong company.  Agents, critique groups, support networks…it’s so important to have writing soulmates [I feel like I do have that…my critique group, my husband and children, my parents, the subscribers to this blog, my friends who check in and ask how I’m doing.  I appreciate them all.]

4. Self obsession.  Living inside our own heads can make us forget our lives and how to engage.  Make sure to do things for others.

5. Lack of faith.  Don’t let doubts of hopelessness override belief in self.

6. Disenchantment.  This is the opposite of engagement.  Cultivate and care for your creative self.  The answer is in the work.

Sara received a standing ovation after her speech.  Her acknowledgement of how hard this calling can be was met with appreciation and support by everyone in the room.  Hers was a speech that exemplifies why we go to these conferences.

A panel discussion about HUMOR followed, including three authors:  Mo Willems (www.mowillems.com), Marvin Terben and Lenore Look.  My stomach hurt from watching the men exchange witticisms and ad-libbed humor.

Linda Sue Park

The closing keynote was given by Linda Sue Park, who wrote the Newberry Award winning A Single Shard. Her website is http://www.lsparkreader.livejournal.com.  She was wonderful and inspiring and everything you’d hope from a closing speaker.  The best message she left for me was to focus on the work — and not how I (as a writer) compare to anyone else out there.  She was asked to write book #9 in the Scholastic series “39 Clues”:

Park said she’d been completely intimidated when her editor asked her to write book #9 — after all, big-time authors had written other books in the series, including Rick Riordan (The world of Percy Jackson ) and Margaret Peterson Haddix (what excitement hasn’t she written?).  What she learned, however, was not to compare herself to the other writers and their bodies of work…but rather focus on the project in front of her.  “I stopped making it about myself…and then I was able to write.”  Sounds simple, but if you’ve played the comparison game (to other writers, to colleagues at work, to other parents, friends, neighbors), you know how paralyzing it can be.  I loved her advice.

______________

So, after the closing keynote, did I check out of the hotel and hightail it to LaGuardia?

Absolutely not.  I left my bags with the bellman and walked…and walked…and walked.  I’d always wanted to visit Ground Zero, but so many friends and family members had said, “Why?  There’s nothing there to see these days except construction.”  Well, I walked from the Grand Hyatt to Ground Zero (stopping three times: once for a New York City pretzel; once for a New York City hot dog; and once for a new pair of boots.

Note the bootstraps. Helpful after a Writer's Intensive like the one I attended.

The boots I’d brought for the trip had holes in the soles. The new ones actually have “bootstraps”…a fitting accessory that I plan on using after my experience at the Writer’s Intensive.

Ground Zero

Here’s the video I shot of my visit:


When I finally reached Ground Zero, I didn’t expect much.  I followed a loud gentleman who appeared, well, delusional, spouting facts and figures about the events of 9/11.  He stopped at the corner of Liberty St. and Greenwich St., right in front of NYFD Ladder Co. 10’s station, and opened a binder filled with photos and maps.  A small crowd gathered around him as he spoke of the disaster with emotion.  He stood in front of the Firefighters’ Memorial (on the side of the fire department, overlooking fences surrounding the site.  The space that was once The World Trade Center now appears to be a massive construction site.  Still, there’s a feeling of solemnity when standing near such a place.  People walk slowly past the fences, trying to peer inside.  Twisted metal juts from some spots in the ground, leaving us wonder, “Is that left over?  Is it new?”  The snow has buried all the dust around the site, but if I could see it, I’d wonder, “Are there victims in this?”

Though I was told not to expect much, I felt more connected to the events of 9/11 than ever.  When I watched the scene unfold on television nearly 10 years ago, I couldn’t believe it was happening in my own country.  New York City seemed so far away…so unreachable…so much a part of other people’s lives.  Standing here at the corner of Liberty and Trinity Streets, I gained a greater sense of just how massive — both physically and emotionally — this event was.

I videotaped the man on the corner, who said his name is Harry John Roland, a.k.a. Ground Zero Man or The World Trade Center Man.  He said he’s on Youtube, and that he’s there every day, rain or shine, to let visitors know what happened on 9/11.  He said he worked in one of the 7 buildings destroyed on that day.  When I got back to Evanston, I found a Youtube video someone else posted, and the comments under the footage ranged from grateful to disgusted.  Some people find his facts and details enlightening.  Others criticize him for making a profit off others’ misery.  I can only say I appreciated his reverence and his dedication to the memory of the place.  So many do not know what happened, and whether his facts are 100% accurate or not, I felt his heart was in the right place.

I couldn’t stop researching him…trying to find some more details on this man.  Then, I ran across an NPR story on him (I’d been misspelling his name).  I realized he’s not a homeless man.  That he has a family.  That he’s not doing this for money.  That he’s out here, every day, to heal himself.

And as I write this, I realize Harry John Roland and I share a bit the same attitude.  We’ve both felt pain, and we both keep going. We’re not sharing our messages for staggering sums of money, but we both have important messages to share.  Some people think we’re crazy. Some criticize us for not presenting our messages in just the right way.  But our messages are our messages, and we have the right to share them as we know them.

And so, to writers out there, I say: attending a writing conference is exactly what you make of it.  You can choose to listen, to engage, to search for meaning, to find a single nugget that moves you forward…or not.  It’s up to you.

Ground Zero. January 30, 2011.

As one editor said to me during the Writer’s Intensive, “Listen, you don’t have to do what I’m suggesting.  It’s just an idea, and it’s your book.”

How very true that is.

So You Want to Write A Children’s Book…or…Finding a Passion

Actually, maybe you don’t want to write a children’s book.  Maybe that’s the absolutely last thing on earth you’d ever wish on your worst enemy.

I respect that.

Maybe you’re reading this because there’s an occasional oddball story including one of my kids’ humorous antics…or a confession about the tears I frequently shed while banging my head against the wall, trying not to lose my focus on my novel.

Still, I’m so glad you’re here.

No matter why you’re reading this blog, I promise you’ll always hear the truth.

My maternal grandmother, Edna Jane, always used to say Jesus Christine, you’re just so earthy. She certainly didn’t mean that as a way of describing me as a crunchy, granola licking, makeup-free hippie chick from Evanston, Illinois (although I’ve been known to crunch the granola and forgo makeup on many occasions).  She meant it as a way of saying I was brutally honest.  Sort of in a shocking, Joan Rivers, Chelsea Handler kind of way…calling it like I see it, saying what someone else might think — yet hesitate to say.

There was a huge chunk of my life — early 20s through my 30s — when I was trying desperately to find my voice.  My honest voice.  My meaningful self that could connect deeply with people.  At that time, I bounced from business job to business job, trying to fit where I thought I ought to be.  That time was beyond bleak, working in positions I honestly hated.  If you’ve had that experience, you know it’s almost too painful to put into words, but I’ll try.  You dread waking up.  Dread the decisions that led you there.  Dread the future.  Dread putting one foot in front of another.

People work in jobs they hate all the time…often because there isn’t an alternative or an option to get out.

I slowly opened my heart and my mind to new experiences.  Earning my teaching certificate was my first baby-step toward finding my true voice. It afforded me the gift of working with children.  There’s magic in their wonder and enthusiasm; honesty and pure emotion unlike anything else in life.  Whether a child is typical or developmentally delayed, you are guaranteed to see who they are at all times — no airs, no pretense, no posturing.  Kids are earthy, alright.   They can’t help it.  They say it like they feel it.

And so, it only makes sense that my earthy personality connects easily with children, through teaching or writing or just plain connecting.  For God’s sake, I don’t fancy myself a “natural” with kids, and I’ve had hundreds of moments I’d rather not recount when my patience ran thin with a classroom or a child — particularly my own.  But I feel at ease with kids, probably because I’m so very much like them.  Very few things motivate me as much as helping  people — especially children — who are struggling inside.

Funky segue, but hang with me here…My journey toward becoming a published children’s author brings me to many peaks and valleys.  The valleys sometimes appear as feelings of defeat or exhaustion, but the peaks include stumbling across a site like www.calla.com.  It provides concrete basics for writers wrapping their heads around the “requirements” of children’s publishing.

And so, to have lived through seemingly dreadful times and come out on the “other side”, doing what I love to do — writing — I can only share my words of encouragement to others stumbling into this world like I did.

Open your heart, and your mind will listen for the things you need.

Open your mind, and your heart will lead you toward the right decisions.

It’s scary, but find your voice by asking for help when you need it.

Middle Grade Submission Guidelines

Here’s an example of Sourcebook’s submission guidelines for Middle Grade novels.  Gives an idea of what publishers are looking for, and what I’m aiming toward.

 

It all began with an itch on September 1, 2010

My Grandmother, Irene Cieslak, died just two months ago from Parkinson’s Disease.

She taught me many things in life, including how to make chocolate peanut butter balls, how to be humble yet proud, and how to appreciate the latest copy of the National Enquirer.

One time, during a visit to our house in the 1980s, she handed me a scratch-off lottery ticket.  Miraculously, I won $50.  I thought it was rigged.  I looked to my grandfather, Walter, then back to Grandma.  My smile was huge.

She said, matter of fact, “Well, your feet must have been itching last night.”

I almost dropped the winning ticket.  HOW did she know?  My feet — and hands — had been itching the night before.

“Simple,” she said.  “When you’re coming into money, your palms and your feet will itch.”  And that was that.

Fast forward.

Last Wednesday night,  I was in bed, trying to sleep, but it felt like something was crawling all over me.  I worried it was a case of bedbugs…they seem to be all over the news (plus, my grandmother also passed down her hypochondriacal nature to me).  I got up, put on some lotion, and tried to sleep again.  Itchy itchy itchy.  I tried to stop thinking about it, but then, of all things, my big toe just went crazy with itchiness.  So bad, in fact, that I soaked it in the tub, thinking I might have been bitten by something.

The next morning, I felt perfectly fine.  No bug bites.  No redness.  No sign at all there’d been an itchy foot.

I went about my day, taking kids to school, futzing with a blog entry that I can’t seem to get right (about books I’ve been reading lately, wondering who on earth even reads my blog except kind souls who feel sorry for me or want to keep my spirits up about being published someday), and generally pushing the piles on my desk from one side to another.

Around 4 in the afternoon, the caller ID announced a local number I didn’t recognize.  I answered, thinking it might be the parent of one of my son’s friends.

“Is this Christine Wolf?” the young woman’s voice asked kindly.

“Yes it is,” I said, quite annoyed that yet another salesperson could sneak through the do-not-call fortress I’d clearly failed to build strong enough.

“My name is…….and I’m calling from —CH dot com.”

“From where?” I said, eyeing the fridge, wondering if it was five-o-clock yet.

“—CH dot com,” she said patiently.

“Scratch dot com?” I asked over the voices of my three children and each of their three friends.

“PATCH dot com,” she said, unruffled.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “let me step outside.  I’ve got a million kids running around here and it’s hard to hear you.”  I felt like I was being selfless by continuing to hear her schpiel, rather than barking, “Sorry, not interested.”

“Not a problem,” I think she said.

“Where are you from again?”

I don’t really recall the exact conversation, but it went something like this:  She’s the editor for an online newspaper called Patch.com, her name is Jessica, and she’s been given my name by someone who read my blog and really enjoyed it.

“I’m sorry,” I said, ignoring the kids and the dog and the bottle of wine waiting for me in the fridge, “but did you say someone read my blog?”

“Yes,” she said.  It totally sounded like she was smiling.

“REALLY?” I asked.

Then I remember her saying they’re looking for someone for their About Town column, someone who’s honest and in touch with a lot of people in the community.  At that point, I thought she was looking for names.

“I know a lot of people,” I think I blurted out.  I fought the urge to scream, “WHO READ MY BLOG?  How did they find it?”

She continued.  “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to send you an email describing the job.”

I don’t think I said anything.

And I think she expected me not to say anything.  “We’d like you to be our About Town blogger.”

HOLY C&@P!!!!!!!

She sent me the email that night.  I Googled the heck out of PATCH.com, trying to figure out if this was really legit or if I was dreaming.

I kept thinking to myself:  I’d get to keep working on my novel.  I’d get to work from home.  I’d blog twice a day, Monday through Friday about the town I live in and the people who live here.  I’d get paid to do it?  I’d get paid to do it.  I’d be a paid writer.  A professional writer.

And then, I remembered my big toe.  How it itched.  And drove me crazy. And kept me up all night.  I thought about my grandma, smiling from that place she’s gone to, saying to herself, “I told her so.  I told her so.  I’m no liar.”

Then, the next few days were an absolute blur.

I reviewed the job description and contract with my attorney (who’s also the father of my children).  Knew the commitment would be big.  Challenging.  Exciting.  Good “exercise” for dedicated writing and creative thinking.  Considered how it might force me to stay disciplined with my schedule.  My attorney agreed with me that it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

I signed on the dotted line on Friday, September 3, submitted my bio and photo for the website on Sunday, September 4, and had my first blog post published online on Monday, Labor Day, September 5.  I became a working girl again on the day most people take “off”.

CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?

I still can’t.

Another really surprising thing happened on Monday night.  I was sitting in the kitchen with my attorney, talking again about how unbelievable this whole situation was, when the phone rang.  The caller ID said, “Elder, Robert.”

“Pick it up!” I said, knowing it was the regional editor for Patch.com.  Jessica, my new boss/editor had emailed me the day before, saying…oh what the heck, here’s her email:

Christine,

I just wanted to pop you a note to say not only did I love your first article, but the Chicago Patch regional editor (Rob K. Elder, of the book “Last Words of the Executed” and formally of the Chicago Tribune) thought it was great. You’re a really talented writer, and I’m so glad we approached you for this column!


Do you have any ideas for the next few columns yet? A sample of what readers should expect?

Have a great Labor Day!

Now, I was taught at a very young age not to boast or show off.  And if you’re reading this, I apologize so deeply for including that email, truly I do. But when I read those words, I started crying.  And, I didn’t even know who Rob K. Elder was.

If you’re a writer, you need no further explanation. And if you’re not a writer, it might sound silly, but it’s so absolutely amazing when someone says something kind about your writing.  That’s why we go to critique groups (for feedback).  And conferences (for encouragement). And therapy (for…well…).  Writing is a lonely, sometimes agonizing and frequently isolating experience.  The irony of writing is in its desire to share with others what we create while we’re alone.  Don’t get me wrong:  I love writing, just like a runner might love to run marathons.  It can be tough, and I need to push myself a lot.  I might not always want to do it, but I know I’ll feel better about myself if I do.  It feels natural and I feel great when I’m done.  It’s just who I am.

Oh, back to Elder, Robert K. on the phone.  I went out on the porch and tried to sound cool and in control.  But inside I was shaking, because I’d Googled Rob K. Elder after that email, and again, HOLY C&@P, he was calling me.

Again with the paraphrasing:  He was just calling to thank me for coming aboard and for my excellent writing (oh how I wish I’d recorded that CALL!).  All I could think about was how this guy had interviewed Gary Sinise.  And now, he’s calling Christine Wolf to say thanks.

Wow.

Grandma Cieslak, thank you for everything you taught me.  I almost never make the chocolate peanut butter balls, and I all but gave up tabloid rags after Princess Diana was killed in Paris because of the paparazzi.  But, I now know with certainty that a little itch on the toe is something to sit up and pay attention to.

Oh, and the biggest kicker?  The mother of the main character in my novel (for 8-12 year olds) loses her job as a local newspaper editor because online newspapers are taking over readership.  Hmmm.  Interesting…..

Here’s an article on Patch.com

http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/04/can-patch-com-help-aol-reinvent-itself/

Thanks, as always, for reading.  I’m genuinely grateful you stuck around, even when I wondered why you did.

P.S.  I wish you could have met my grandmother.  You would have liked her. She was a hoot.