Ever have one of those light-bulb moments when your manuscript finally gels? Your plot falls into place and you wonder why you didn’t think of something so simple and perfect before.
Sitting in on Sudipta Bardhan Quallen’s picture book workshop last month, I had a dozen lightbulb moments. She dissected picture book structure like a biology teacher dissecting a frog–she split it wide open and showed us its heart. (OK, maybe that analogy wasn’t good for the squeamish, but she has a science background, so I think it works.)
For example, she suggested inserting a “ticking clock” into our manuscript. A deadline makes the story urgent and exciting. (Eureka!) If you’ve never heard her speak, you’re missing out on one of the finest picture book tutorials anywhere.
Besides being wicked sharp, Sudipta has a nervous energy that’s endearing. Get her engaged in conversation, and she’ll talk non-stop about her love of children’s literature. (And high heels and shopping on Bluefly. Yes, she’s a girly-girl like me.)
Surprisingly, she never dreamed of becoming a kidlit writer. She’d thought of being a doctor (but she’s afraid of blood), a model (but she likes to eat), and the President (but she had a dissolute youth). So much for childhood dreams.
So Sudipta, if you didn’t want to be a writer, how did you get into the kidlit business?
I got pregnant twice in the span of 15 months and had to move from California (where I’d been going to grad school) to New Jersey (where a little piece of me dies every day). Like every other new mom in the world, I decided I had stories that I just had to tell my kids and so I started writing. I also had this idea that writing was totally a job I could do with two babies in the house, which was just stupid because you can’t do anything with two babies in the house.
Amen to that! I can’t do anything with two babies out of the house, either. (And by the way, I’ll let that NJ crack slide.)
When I started writing, everything was really bad. Some day, when I am super-famous, I will pull out my Alphabet book, and my going-to-the-zoo book, and all the other requisite bad stories we all write when we start. But eventually, I figured out to go to conferences and read up on the craft of writing, and I started to get things published.
How did you get your first big break?
About two months after I started writing, I wrote up a short story for Highlights. It was something that had actually happened to a friend of mine, with a bit of fictional dramatization. Highlights bought it and it was the first $200 I made writing.
I also randomly got a foot in the door of children’s publishing by mentioning my science background in a cover letter. I’d sent a picture book manuscript to Sterling, which they rejected, but in the rejection the editor asked if I’d consider writing a science experiment book for them. That became Championship Science Fair Projects, which still sells really well for me, and a few years later, my first picture book, Tightrope Poppy, was published by the same editor.
New writers are often told not to mention irrelevant information in queries, but your science background landed you a contract. What exactly is your science background?
I graduated Caltech in 1998 with a BS in Biology (by the way, with the passage of years and my gradual failure to remember even the most basic biology concepts, BS is becoming more and more appropriate). I spent a year at Harvard, but it really wasn’t for me, and then headed back to Caltech as a PhD candidate in developmental neurobiology. But those plans went off the rails when I had two babies. I had this crazy idea that I could write with two kids in the house—which you totally cannot do—but that’s how I got into the writing-for-kids business.
Normally, I recommend that you don’t mention anything other than kidlit in your cover/query letters, but if you keep it short and sweet, you can throw some things in there. I think the line I wrote was something like: “I have a Master’s degree in Biology from the California Institute of Technology and have published several scientific articles.” That doesn’t take up so much space that it is annoying.
What has surprised you most about being a published author?
So many things have surprised me about being a published author. Hard to pick just one. So I wrote a Top Ten list. I love Top Ten Lists. Except after I start writing and realize that I only have six interesting things to say. But who’s ever heard of a Top Six list?
Top Ten surprising things about being a published author:
- That the advances are so small that after everyone has had their cut and you’ve paid all your expenses (whether it’s permissions, or research costs, or just the cost of babysitting that allowed you to write the book) you have just enough money left over to take your family out to dinner. But only if they agree to go Dutch.
- That you can’t just show up at a book store and expect them to have your book. Or believe that you are a real author.
- That there’s a 50-50 chance that the number of kids that are biologically related to you who show up for a book signing will outnumber the number of kids that are NOT biologically related to you.
- That no matter how much market research you’ve done, there’s a good possibility that there is a really similar book out there that no one has ever heard of – except the person writing the review.
- That even though the publisher picks up the tab for producing the book, all of the marketing responsibility is on you. So if you want anyone beyond your mother and your best friend to know about it, you need to get your butt in gear.
- That you know no more about writing or publishing after the contract than you did before. Even though everyone expects that you do.
- That the more successful you get and the more books you publish, the less of your writing time will actually be devoted to writing.
- That when you and a group of writing colleagues meet certain editors (who may now be agents…), no matter how many books you’ve done, the first comment he will make is, “So… you all are *moms*, huh?”
- That it is a long time before you move “real author” into the list of things you consider yourself. I still haven’t really gotten there.
- That going to a school for an author visit is as close to being Angelina Jolie as you will ever get. And it’s a pretty cool feeling.
How did you begin to bill yourself as a speaker?
I started to volunteer to speak at conferences because I wanted to teach what I had learned about the craft of writing picture books to other aspiring writers. I got a lot out of SCBWI events in New Jersey, and I wanted to give back. Also, teaching helps you learn in ways that doing does not. For example, at this year’s NJ-SCBWI annual conference, I gave a workshop about rhythm, rhyme, and repetition. I talked about using a refrain in your picture book manuscript to give it narrative structure—and it was the first time I had consciously realized that that was something I do a lot in my own writing. Having to teach it, however, was what made me conscious of it.
Some authors say they learn something about themselves with each new book. What did writing The Hog Prince teach you?
In my workshops, I emphasize the importance of the market over and over again. I’m constantly saying that I only write what I know I can sell. But as I review my own body of work, which has finally grown large enough that I feel comfortable calling it a body of work, I notice that, within the confines of what I feel the market can bear, there are themes that I subconsciously explore time and again. And these are the themes that resonate most strongly for me.
In The Hog Prince, Eldon dreams of being something he is not. He believes that if he were to change by magic, his life would be better, that everything would be shiny and pretty and luxurious and grand. And while I run the risk of coming off as having no self-esteem at all (which is not true, I have an itty-bitty bit), I can say that there have been plenty of times in my life that I have felt this way. In fact, I don’t think it is just a childhood thing–I’m not sure that we ever completely grow out of feeling like everything about our lives would be improved if only we could change ONE little thing. Except that it is never a little thing, nor is it one thing, nor will your life actually get better.
What’s nice about the story is that Eldon figures out that he is worthy and precious just the way he is, and that the folks who really matter (in his case, Petunia) don’t want him to change one muddy little thing. I struggle with this lesson, and I think a lot of kids do, too. Hopefully, that’s what makes the story timeless.
So, here is what I learned about myself:
- I sometimes wish I could change into royalty;
- I use my books to sort out emotional issues;
- I think that every story is better is you replace the main character with a pig.
You may be right there. Who doesn’t love pigs? I mean pigs in literature. Real pigs, not so much.
Thanks for the interview, Sudipta! I think I know what the blog market can bear, and although I’d love to talk to you for another thousand words, something’s telling me to wrap it up here.