Tammi Sauer is the author of Cowboy Camp, a knee-slappin’, whip-snappin’, giddyup of a picture book.
I predict you’re going to be hearing a lot about Tammi soon. With several gotta-read-’em titles on the way–including Chicken Dance, Mostly Monsterly and Princess-in-Training–we can all say we knew her when!
Tammi is moseyin’ over to my blog today to talk about her trail ride from writer to published author.
Tammi, how did Cowboy Camp gallop from your desk to the bookshelves?
Cowboy Camp didn’t start at my desk, it started on my front porch.
One evening, there was an unexpected knock at the door. I opened it and was greeted by a young boy. He was selling newspaper subscriptions in an effort to go to…COWBOY CAMP. I looked at this kid with his everywhere hair and thick glasses and uncowboy-like everything and knew I had a story.
I wrote the manuscript, revised it, and sent it out in under a week—my fastest ever. Early on, Cowboy Camp made its way to three acquisitions meetings. Oh, the joy. But each time the manuscript was returned to me with regret. Oh, the agony. Many personal rejections rolled in as well. Then I discovered a house that was just starting up a picture book line. I thought, “Maybe this is it!”
I sent Cowboy Camp to Sterling Publishing. Within two weeks, I learned the manuscript was going to acquisitions. Shortly thereafter, the editor emailed and told me the acquisitions team loved the manuscript, but the house wanted to find the perfect illustrator before offering me a contract. Yes, more joy. More agony.
Months went by. I decided to send Cowboy Camp to SmartWriter’s first W.I.N.! (Write It Now!) Competition. Cowboy Camp ended up placing second in the picture book division out of more than 400 entries. I shared the news with my editor contact at Sterling. Within weeks, I had an offer. Yee-haw!
You said Cowboy Camp was your “fastest ever.” How many picture book manuscripts did you write before Cowboy Camp? Are any of those slated for publication?
I’m not sure how many picture book manuscripts came before Cowboy Camp. Maybe four or five? I do know that they were collectively awful. I consider them my “practice manuscripts.” And ha! No, none of those early works are slated for publication.
So how long had you been writing for children when you got the contract for Cowboy Camp?
In 2000, I started toying with the idea of writing children’s books (this meant I would write for a couple of hours one day and not write another word for the next, oh, ten months or so). I didn’t get serious about writing children’s books until the spring of 2003 when an illustrator paid a visit to my daughter’s preschool. Seeing a real live person who was involved in the creation of children’s books was the push I needed to make writing a priority in my life. I received Cowboy Camp’s offer the following year.
You have five books slated for release. Do you have an agent now, or are you continuing to submit on your own?
I have an agent. In August of 2005, after much agent research, I sent Laura Rennert at Andrea Brown Literary Agency a query for a humorous, contemporary teen novel. It wasn’t long before she asked for the manuscript. The next thing I knew, she wanted to call me. Eek! Fortunately, a miracle occurred and the phone call went well…so well in fact that I KNEW I found the right match for me and my work.
Around the time that I signed, my PB writing started to take off. And that teen novel of mine? It was getting revision request after revision request after revision request to infinity. I made the decision to put the novel on hold and focus on what I loved and did best–PBs. Laura fully supported me on my decision.
You obviously have the talent to succeed in novels. How did you come to the realization that you were a PB-writer at heart? Do you think you’ll ever go back to that YA novel?
PBs just felt more right.
I don’t think I will ever go back to that novel. There was a lot that I loved in that manuscript (the characters, the humor, the voice). But one day it occurred to me that if I was going to have a novel Out There, I’d want it to be someone’s favorite. I would want others to feel about my book the same way I had felt when I read A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban. My manuscript was nice, but it didn’t have that kind of wow factor.
What do you love most about writing picture books? Is there a particularly satisfying challenge? Are you thrilled to see your words come to life through each illustrator’s interpretation?
I can’t think of the one thing I love most. Coming up with a good idea is awesome. So is finding the perfect word, creating just the right story arc, and discovering new ways to build heart and humor into a manuscript.
As for satisfying challenges? I would have to say getting the “Yeah, baby!” from my critique partner Cynthea Liu is one of the hardest things to come by and therefore one of the most satisfying of challenges. The “Yeah, baby!” is what we give one another when a manuscript is decidedly brilliant and ready to be sent agent-ward. Believe me, getting the coveted “Yeah, baby!” is worthy of fanfare.
It has been a real thrill to see my words come to life through each illustrator’s interpretation. In Chicken Dance, Dan Santat created an Elvis Poultry that absolutely floored me. I recently received Scott Magoon’s sketches for Mostly Monsterly and I was equally amazed. Scott’s take on the main character and her story was better than I had ever imagined. I feel honored to be working with such talented people.
One way for children’s authors to promote their books is with school visits. You just got back from a school visit in Texas. Can you tell us about that? What is a typical Tammi Sauer visit like for the students?
I absolutely love doing school visits–especially when schools work hard to make the day an event. On my web site, I list some tips for a successful school visit and Holliday Elementary certainly made the most of it. The kids–as well as some of the faculty and staff–gussied up in their best cowboy and cowgirl gear. Cowboy grub was served. Stick horse races took place in the gym. Bandana-wrapped trail mix was passed out. A guess-the-number-of-beans contest was held in the library media center… It was truly a cowboy-themed day.
I always strive to make my school visits fun, engaging, and informative. I offer a lot of opportunities for audience participation, perform a couple of magic tricks and/or an impromptu theater experience, and do what I can to really connect with the kids. Creating a memorable and meaningful experience for students is my top goal.
Yee-haw, honey! That sounds like a rootin’-tootin’ good time!
Once your picture book is accepted, the publisher has to find an illustrator. How much input do you give your editor regarding illustrator choice?
Some houses ask for illustrator input. Some don’t. I was thrilled when my editor at Simon & Schuster asked me for an Illustrator Wish List. So fun! One of the names at the very top of my list was Scott Magoon. I was astounded when Scott signed on for Mostly Monsterly. Total writerly dream come true!
I am happy to say I have formed good email relationships with Dan Santat and Scott Magoon. They are both so funny and brilliant and beyond what I had ever hoped for as partners for my books.
How do you stand the wait until your book is released? Most picture books take 1-2 years to hit the shelves!
I WISH it only took 1-2 years! Chicken Dance will hit the shelves three years after I received the offer. Mostly Monsterly debuts two and a half years post-offer. The waiting is pretty horrible–especially since I am not a patient person. At all.
But, wow, when little bits of news trickle in—like finding out who will illustrate an upcoming book or receiving preliminary sketches or seeing the final art for the first time–it makes for some really nice moments along the way.
Tammi, thanks for sharing your story. Before you ride off into the sunset, what’s your best piece of advice for aspiring picture book authors?
My best piece of advice for new writers who dream of becoming published picture book authors is to read–and study!–as many picture books as possible. Knowing picture books inside and out–their feel, their rhythm, their language–is the very first step in creating quality picture books of their own.
OK, cowpokes! You heard Tammi! Now get on back on yer saddle! Read and write!