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Women Who Write, a collective of aspiring and published New Jersey writers, is hosting a fall reading at the Morris County Library this weekend. Please join us for an inspiring afternoon of poetry, prose, haiku and memoirs. Admission is free and refreshments will be served.

(Yes, I will be there! Hence the tooting horn.)

Women Who Write
Fall Reading
Sunday, October 26, 2 p.m.
Morris County Library
30 East Hanover Ave.
Whippany, NJ

Click here for directions.

Hope to see you!

This post is just one in a series about the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. Click the RUCCL tag above to read them all.

Chad Beckerman is a graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. He worked at Scholastic and Greenwillow before taking on the role of Art Director at Abrams BFYR and Amulet Books. Besides designing book jackets, he illustrates YA covers and creates the artwork for novel interiors. In addition to all that, he’s got a wry sense of humor and knows how to work a microphone.

Chad Beckerman, Molly O'Neill, Lisa Cheng, Lisa Ann Sandell

 Chad told us he’s unlike an editor. “They like to put their hands in everything,” he quipped. “I just have to make things look nice. And that’s…really nice.”

One of the things he likes to do is check out the competition. “I’m in the bookstores every weekend,” he said. He eyes what’s on the shelves, but he’s keenly aware that “you shouldn’t try to be what other books are being.” His job is to remain as unique as possible. “Look at what is out there, but do something totally original.”

Chad talked about translating novels into cool visuals and how difficult a task it can be to get it right for the audience. He recently worked on a book where a school prankster shoots classmates you-know-where with a watergun so it looks like they peed their pants. “That’s great,” he said, “here’s what we’re gonna do. We’ll put a watergun on the cover squirting yellow liquid!” But there’s some lines you can’t cross. It’s only a watergun, but it’s also a gun. And urine. “They told me we can’t do it, we just can’t. It made me sad, but I got over it.”

Chad is the savvy designer behind Jeff Kinney’s blockbuster novel-in-cartoons, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. “That one was really hard to do, even though it’s really simple.” There’s no color in the book; the interior illustrations are simple black drawings. But the book still needed a color identity if it was to be noticed on the shelves. People often associate a diary with a brown leather cover, but Chad felt that was “too literal” a translation for this book.

The Diary is a journal that the character’s mom gives him, so Chad looked at a lot of different diaries to get a feel for what this book should be. They settled on a typeset font for “DIARY” to suggest it was a bookstore purchase by Mom, but they scribbled “of a Wimpy Kid” in handwriting to demonstrate it was personalized by the main character Greg. Then they placed a ripped piece of paper with a drawing of Greg on the cover, seemingly torn right from the diary. (I personally love the wimpy, slouching pose.) The background is red to make it stand out, but it’s not a solid red—it has a slightly worn, leathery appearance. And each book in this series is color-coded. There’s a green one, a blue one and a do-it-yourself version in orange. “Some people think it’s brown, but it’s not brown, it’s orange,” Chad reminded us. The different colors help kids easily pick out the ones they don’t yet have!

People often ask Chad where he finds illustrators. In this digital age, he loves to browse websites and blogs looking for new talent. But the best way to get to him is by sending a postcard with a web address. It sits on his desk and reminds him to go online.

One point Chad emphasized to the RUCCL mentees is that “if you like what you’re writing about, then you need to go with it.” No matter what it is, he promises to make it jump off the shelves.

To wrap us this series, next I’ll post about the audience questions!

This post is just one in a series about the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. Click the RUCCL tag above to read them all.

Molly O’Neill began her career in school library marketing before becoming an Assistant Editor at The Bowen Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books. “It’s hard to separate the marketing parts of my brain from the editorial parts,” she said, offering some background behind her perspective.

“If I love this manuscript, the first thing I ask is who is it for?” The answer will inform her decisions on everything from design to marketing. “Now I know what you’re thinking,” she addressed the audience of writers, “my book is for all the people in the world!” We all laughed. Sure, we’d love to believe that millions around the globe will buy our debut novel! But no, each book has a specific audience and her job is to make a book connect with that group. So she refines the question further, “Who’s going to love it first?”

Ms. O’Neill spoke about a new literary novel by a debut author (and if someone remembers the name, please let me know). Since literary novels are first embraced by librarians, they picked jacket illustrator Raul Colón, whose lush watercolors librarians instantly recognize as associated with other literary titles.

One of the best ways to make an audience connection is through artwork. The Emily the Strange graphic novel series uses black, white and red to paint the main character’s world. A visually stunning book appeals to Emily’s counterculture fans. Emily has pale white skin, jet black hair, and a brood of black cats. As HarperCollins works on a new YA series based on Emily, they even make these visual connections in the office, using bright red paper and black pens at their meetings.

Molly asks herself some very important questions about each manuscript. How is this book different? How does it stand out? And yet, how is it the same as successful books on the market? What does it compare to? This point was drilled into our heads throughout the day—think about how your manuscript compares to a brilliant best-seller, but tell editors and agents why it’s completely different!

Ms. O’Neill spoke about when a publisher distributes advance copies of a book. Tucked into the front is a letter from the editor explaining why this book is exciting. For Herbert’s Wormhole, a novel in cartoons, they ditched the letter in favor of a single cartoon. “Who is it for?” is still at play.

And the most important question editors may ask themselves is, “Am I going to enjoy working on this?” Two years is a long time to be involved with a project. But if the answer is yes, then they can believe that people are going to read it over and over again. That is an editor’s ultimate goal, for their book to become your favorite.

Chad Beckerman coming next in this series!

This post is just one in a series about the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. Click the RUCCL tag above to read them all.

Lisa Cheng edits picture books as well as middle grade and young adult fiction at Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. She began her manuscript-to-book speech, “…so there’s this manuscript that I love and I want to take it further. What steps do I go through?”

The short answer: a lot. Lisa provided us with a valuable inside look at the complicated business of publishing. As writers, we submit manuscripts and then wait for an answer, often for months and in some cases, years. After listening to Lisa, we now know why. There’s much to be done.

First, she reviews her own list. What has she released lately? What does she have coming out? Does this manuscript compete directly with projects to which she’s already committed? If the answer is no, then she looks at the other McElderry editors’ lists. Then she looks at Simon & Schuster’s list. If the book does not compete, then she moves to the next step.

She looks beyond what’s hot in the marketplace now and tries to imagine if this manuscript will be welcomed in a year or two when it’s released. In other words, is it too trendy or will it work in the future? Other questions she thinks about: Does this book have an audience? Does it have a good hook?

If she’s still convinced of this manuscript’s promise, she’ll show it to other editors in her group. She has to be confident at this point since she’s asking her colleagues to take time out of their own schedules, time away from their own manuscripts, to read her project.

If it passes her peer review, then it’s onto the acquisitions committee. In these meetings, she asks editors and her publisher to review the book. Design sits in and gives an opinion. Marketing sits in. Publicity, too. They all make a decision of whether or not this manuscript should proceed.

If it’s thumbs up, then she has to work up a profit and loss statement. Some of the financial considerations: estimated price point, forecasted sales, royalties, overhead costs (everything from staff salaries to lightbulbs are in that number somewhere), art costs, and production costs (binding, type of paper, page count). Phew. That’s a lot of numbers. And they have to look good.

So that’s what editors like Lisa Cheng have to do before you get that magical piece of paper: the contract. Her job is to “look beyond the craft to the business” and that’s what we writers should do as well.

Next up is Molly O’Neill!

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. Click the RUCCL tag above to read them all.

How does a manuscript become a book? Four RUCCL mentors offered their experience from four unique perspectives:

Chad Beckerman, Molly ONeill, Lisa Cheng, Lisa Ann Sandell

Chad Beckerman, Molly O'Neill, Lisa Cheng, Lisa Sandell

  • Lisa Ann Sandell is a Senior Editor with Scholastic, but she has also written three young adult novels, so she answered wearing her published-author hat.
  • Lisa Cheng, Associate Editor at Margaret K. McElderry Books, talked to us an editor who has fallen in love with a new manuscript and wants to take it further.
  • Molly O’Neill from The Bowen Press came to the editorial side from school library marketing and has a knack for looking beyond the artsy part of writing to the business part.
  • Chad Beckerman of Abrams BFYR and Amulet Books presented the art direction angle (and made us laugh).

My mentor, agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin, introduced the panel. There she is. She is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. I’ve never seen someone smile so much when giving constructive criticism!

First up was the extraordinarily talented Lisa Ann Sandell. She had an idea for a novel brewing in her head for seven years, so she finally sat down to write it. When she finished, she polished it up and sent it out to agents. She received revision requests from an agent, took a few months to revise, and sent it back out.

Let me pause for a moment and fast-forward to the five-on-five discussion I had later that day. Editor Erin Molta cautioned us against submitting a revision request the very next day. “Umm, did you even think about it?” Erin said, recalling when a writer got back to her too quickly. Note how Lisa took a few months. I know we’ll be extremely fired up once we get that request, but take the time to consider the editor’s suggestions. Don’t rush it. If they’re interested now, they’ll be interested in a few months.

Back to Lisa. She was asked to revise again, so she did. And then her agent sent it out. When the book sold to Viking within a few weeks (WOW!), there was more editing to do. Not only did her editor present her with a line edit to smooth out the language, there were the copyeditor’s marks, too. She had to address both sets of comments. “Because I’m an editor, I can be a little more easy going about this process than others,” she said.

In conclusion, don’t expect the final draft of your manuscript to be the final. There will be more revisions necessary as you secure your dream agent and sell to the publisher. But remember, everyone who has a hand in the revision process has the same goal as you: to make your book the best it can possibly be.

Lisa Cheng is up next in another post! Stay tuned!

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. Click on the RUCCL tag above to read them all.

Vivian Grey, accomplished author and founder of the RUCCL conference welcomed attendees to an “extraordinary creative collaboration.” Why did she use those three words? The RUCCL is unlike any writing conference of its kind, matching new and aspiring authors with experienced professionals for an in-depth discussion of children’s literature—on whatever topic the mentee wishes to explore.

“Use this day to move your writing career forward,” Ms. Grey said. “The RUCCL pioneered and developed the one-on-one format and helped launch the careers of many well-known authors: Marcie Aboff, Laurie Halse Anderson, Denise Lang, Pamela Curtis Swallow, Kay Winters, and Rita Williams-Garcia.” (And I’m sure I didn’t catch them all!)

When Vivian Grey approached legendary Rutgers President Mason Gross in 1970, he enthusiastically supported her idea and assured the conference a permanent home at Rutgers through a presidential charter. The RUCCL is the only group in the country to be recognized in this manner. Aspiring authors can be confident knowing that this organization will continue to inspire us year after year.

Ms. Grey left us with words of wisdom based upon our difficult times. “We live in an era of great confusion and agitation,” she said, referring to the upcoming election, our suffering economy, and the wars raging overseas. “Children are vulnerable and powerless. But we can listen to them and be their voice. We can help them understand this increasingly confusing world.”

She continued, “There’s no better time than now to be writing for children. The vision we create for children becomes their future.”

Bravo, Vivian. The vision you created for us will indeed become our future, too.

This is the third in a series of posts about the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. Click on the RUCCL tag above to read them all.

Author Kay Winters is a RUCCL success story. Who better to give the introductory speech? She attended the one-on-one conference three times before she was published, but now has 14 books in print with 5 more under contract. She came to inspire. And she did with this simple yet powerful statement: “I’m here to tell you: it can be done.”

Ms. Winters spoke of her journey to becoming an author, which began in childhood with a love of books. She always wanted to be a teacher, however, and that is what she became. But she still wrote for pleasure, penning articles, short stories and poems that never made much money. Writing to make a living didn’t seem possible.

She eventually co-authored a book about teaching. But the long hours writing plus being a teacher created a tiring pace that she could not sustain. When a local author visited her school, he told her, “Give yourself five years to break into the business.” She thought, “I need to get going!” Shortly thereafter, her school offered an early retirement package. Her letter of resignation was on the Principal’s desk the next day. She wanted to write full time.

“When I quit teaching, I worried that I would miss the hugging,” Kay said, referring to her students. “But children’s writers are hugging.” We all laughed. We know. She was already hugging us.

After her retirement, Kay took classes at The New School and spent afternoons at the Children’s Book Council reading every single picture book that they received. Thousands of them. She joined two writers groups. She subbed her manuscripts. Wolf Watch was rejected 17 times.

But she came to RUCCL with hope and left inspired. The encouragement she received at the event kept her spirits up despite the rejections. “I think I can” became “I know I can!”

And on her third trip to Rutgers, Kay’s agent-mentor took a look at her picture book manuscript and said, “This is publishable.” And then another. “This is publishable.” She left fired up!

It was soon thereafter that the offers came pouring in. They say good things come in threes. This was true for Kay, who sold Teeny Tiny Ghost to HarperCollins, and the oft-rejected Wolf Watch was snatched up by Simon & Schuster just two weeks later. Viking then offered a contract for Did You See What I Saw? Poems About School.

Kay now spends her time writing, speaking at conferences and making school visits. She especially loves hearing from her student-fans:

Dear Ms. Winters, thanks for coming to our school. Your assembly was awesome. I wasn’t there.

and another charming young man asked:

How old are you? Were you on the Titanic?

OK, she doesn’t have as much experience as that child thought, but she has been in this business long enough to impart three very important tips for all aspiring writers.

  1. Word Hard.
  2. Let your manuscript breathe. Don’t send it right out. Give it some time and revise.
  3. Have persistence. Because there is a lot of talent out there, but persistence is in shorter supply.

Kay ended with something a mentor once told her: “I’ve never known anyone who wanted to do this, who worked really hard, and didn’t succeed.”

Thunderous applause for Kay Winters! She gave us her own magical story.

Rules, Tara? Why are you writing about rules? K.L. Going just urged writers to shake off the rules and “step boldly across the lines.” We are creative souls! We don’t want more restrictions!

Ah, you are right. But remember, Ms. Going also said that writers need to be educated. Know those rules and understand why they are in place. Only then can you decide where to successfully break them. Then you don’t have to call them rules anymore—think of them more as suggestions.

Yesterday I met with Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group, an experienced professional who came to agenting via the editorial track. She knows this business. She knows what sells. So when she gave me five rules for picture books, I took careful notes.

Rule #1: Audience age is 2-6 years old
This one was a little surprising to me. I often see PBs categorized in three ways: baby board books, toddler books, and books for 4-8 year olds. But eight year-olds are not reading picture books. They may be classified that way for teachers who want to read aloud to their class. Unless you’re writing board books, think of your audience as 2-6 years of age. What situations will they relate to?

Rule #2: 500 Words is the Magic Number
Again, another suprise–somewhat. Yes, I’ve heard about that 500-word mark, but I’ve also heard about the 1000-word barrier. Most of the books I read my own children are closer to 1000 and sometimes more. Personally, I don’t often spend $16.99 on a 500-word three-minute experience. My children and I enjoy sharing stories at bedtime and a short one can sometimes leave us feeling short-changed. Ms. Henkin said she’s heard the same thing from many parents, so I asked, “Why is there this disconnect between parents and the industry?” It’s all about perception. The current industry perception is that today’s parents are busier than ever and they want short books to put their children to sleep quickly. OK, that’s not true in my house, but I’m a statistic of one. Publishers are buying 500 words or less. Repeat after me: 500 or less.

Rule #3: Make it Really Sweet or Really Funny
Maybe this isn’t so much a rule as a great suggestion. These kind of books are easier to sell. People get it. Elevate your “awww” factor. Make the laughs side-splitting.

Rule #4: Use Playful, Unique Language
When publishers say they seek a “unique voice” that doesn’t only apply to middle grade and young adult novels. The sounds words make are new and interesting to young children. Play it up.

Rule #5: Create Situations that Inspire Cool Illustrations
PB writers are told to leave enough unwritten so illustrators can tell half the tale. But that’s not enough to be thinking about. Go a step beyond. What story situation will inspire an unusual, unique illustration? Something you’ve never seen before? Don’t just leave room for pictures, leave room for AWESOME pictures. The cooler the art, the better the book.

Another thing that I brought home with me after our PB discussion was concept. Many times, I’ll get a spark of an idea and immediately sit down to write. I will start taking more time to develop that concept, thinking about all the rules above before ever putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard). And then maybe I’ll decide to step over one or two of those lines. I’m a creative soul, after all.

This is the first in a series of posts on the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. (Because I have 20 pages of notes to share!)

Phew! What a whirlwind day! I mingled with editors, mixed with agents, and milled about with other aspiring authors at the RUCCL mentoring conference. My head is spinning with suggestions. So where to start? Well, I’ll begin at the end, with keynote speaker K.L. Going. The author of Fat Kid Rules the World and The Liberation of Gabriel King wrapped up the event with an inspiring speech about “writing across the lines.”

Agent Linda Pratt introduces K.L. Going

Agent Linda Pratt introduces K.L. Going

K.L. began by telling us what we already know: as writers, we have many, many rules to follow. Manuscript length. Formatting. Submission guidelines. Avoid passive voice. Don’t write didactic tales.

“But writers are creative souls,” she said. “It’s hard for us to color within the lines.”

She stopped her speech and asked everyone to stand up. And then she told us to shake off those rules! So I grabbed my friend Jill by the shoulders and shimmied her around. She returned the favor. Wubba wubba wubba! Boy, that felt good!

“Despite what anyone else says,” she said, “there are times you must step across those lines.” She relayed her early writing experience, sitting on the floor of her sparse employee housing at Mohonk Mountain House, typing away on her laptop. It was the happiest time in her life because she wrote without rules. She didn’t care if anyone read her work, she simply wrote because that’s what brought her the most joy. She wasn’t thinking about marketability, high-concept hooks, or the current list of best-sellers. However, it was also the least productive time in her life since she wasn’t writing with that intention to sell.

So how can writers be both happy and productive? You need to choose which lines you’re willing to cross while staying inside others. With Fat Kid Rules the World, she wanted to create a character that wasn’t familiar. Troy is dirty, smelly and raw. And to some, offensive. That was a line she was willing to cross, potentially alienating some readers. But, she still wanted Troy to be lovable by the end of the book. She could not compromise on that essential rule of writing: creating likeable characters.

“You need to write what you want regardless of whether you think anyone else ‘gets it’,” she said. “But writing what you desire is always a risk.” With Fat Kid, she didn’t necessarily cater to the reader. There’s a hunk of bleeding leg and splattering of fat when Troy envisions the results of his own suicide, and some people may put the book down at that point. (In fact, her book was banned in some areas.) But others will stick with it and read on. If the reader’s journey isn’t easy, maybe it will be more redemptive and satisfying by the end.

She cautioned us further: you need to balance your risks. Troy may be unusual, but his emotional struggles are immediately known in the first chapter. Readers may not relate to his appearance, but they can relate to the critical inner voice we’ve all had whispering in our ears at some time in our lives.

K.L. told us it’s important to know the rules. Because you can only make educated decisions about your manuscript when you have knowledge of the industry. “But don’t forget that creativity has its own demands. Don’t be afraid to try something different. Step boldly across the lines!”

So, where are the lines for you?

Last week Nathan Bransford asked blog readers to tell him about the worst piece of writing advice they ever received. I didn’t participate because I couldn’t think of anything. Sure, there was the critique partner who rewrote my manuscript in her own style. Yeah, I’ve been told a story was ready for submission only to realize, months later, that it needed more work. And a writing professor once banned the entire class from killing off characters. He didn’t want us to come to a rough patch in our story and take the easy way out. I didn’t agree with the rule, but it was understandable.

I don’t consider any of that bad advice. Poor judgment, maybe, but not faulty guidance (especially since I didn’t follow it).

The best advice is not really advice at all, but when a publishing professional relates his or her own experience to an aspiring author. Advice is subjective; it’s based upon personal circumstances. If you don’t know the story behind the advice, then it’s impossible to gauge whether or not that advice will work for you.

So don’t give advice. Tell others what you’ve learned and how you’ve learned it. Share your experience.

The children’s writing world is filled with many generous professionals who volunteer their time to assist those of us starting out. Never before have I met such a kind and welcoming group of people. I have to say that no one has given me a bad piece of advice yet. And hopefully I won’t steer you wrong, either.


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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019

illus by Ross MacDonald
October 15, 2019

illus by Vivienne To
Spring 2020

illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
August 2020

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