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by Brenda Reeves Sturgis

As writers, we must ALL strike while the iron is hot. Every writer tries to get into the castle (the publishing houses) over the drawbridge. The drawbridge however is crowded, heavy laden from the weight of writers that would love a meeting with the Queen or the King, (the editors). It is necessary, and beneficial to keep your eyes wide open for a secret passage that presents itself to you where nobody else is looking.

still-a-family-final-cover

This is EXACTLY how my newest picture book, STILL A FAMILY, Albert Whitman & Company, illustrated by Jo-Shin Lee, was conceived and transpired. I was trolling on Facebook one day, and there was a conversation that began on the wall of Tracey Adams, co-founder of the esteemed literary agency, Adams Literary. Josh Adams was my first agent, and so we have a wonderful relationship still, and I frequently read their posts as they are the most amazing people and such incredible agents. Tracey was in Maine visiting, and her daughter made a comment wondering why there were so many homeless people in Maine.

Tracey wondered why a book about the homeless, and how to explain homelessness to children, hadn’t been written yet. I was circling the castle and I saw that small light in the window of opportunity open. Nobody else had yet discovered it, and so I sat down and wrote a first draft of Still a Family. In doing so, I struck while the iron was hot.

It was quick writing session, 30-minutes maybe. I originally didn’t write STILL A FAMILY to sell it. I wrote it because I truly wanted to write something for Tracey’s daughter. It was a story written in rhyme, and I posted it on my Facebook wall.

Immediately…within seconds, I got a message from a Facebook friend who works in a homeless shelter saying, “This is GREAT! Can I share it with people at my shelter?”

I was encouraged by this response, and answered with, “Let me run this by my agent, the beautiful-friend-to-all Karen Grencik, of Red Fox Literary to see if there might be a calling for a book like this,” and I took the story off my Facebook wall if there were indeed a need for this story.

I sent Karen a message. “Do you think there is a calling for a book about a child living in a homeless shelter?” She pinged back a response…”No, I don’t really think there is a calling for a book like this, sorry.”

Well, I continued walking around the castle, and I saw another door open that nobody had yet seen, as two editors had responded on Tracey’s Facebook wall post. Their commentaries went like this. “I would LOVE a book like this for OUR house.” “YES, us too, we would like a book like this.” I scribbled down names, and found out what houses the editors worked at. I ping-ponged back another message to Karen. “There are two editors asking for this manuscript, will you send it?”

And just like that, before the day was over, we were out on submission with STILL A FAMILY.

I know this is highly unusual, I know the way this happened was nothing short of a miracle, but in saying this, had I not been open to getting into the castle other then over the drawbridge, had I not been willing to write something on cue, to write to what a specific editor had requested, STILL A FAMILY might never have come to fruition.

albertwhitmanKaren and I received immediate responses (within a day or two) regarding this manuscript. And within 6-weeks, STILL A FAMILY was sold to Albert Whitman & Co, this is record speed in the land of publishing. The manuscript changed a LOT, it was revised and revised, rewritten and tweaked, it went from rhyme, to prose. I had never written in prose before and it was a scary process for me, but I listened intently to my editor, Andrea Hall, and I was able to write the story (which took just about a year of revision) and is now being released on January 31st.

Albert Whitman wanted the story to be about a family, and how a family STAYS a family while living in different homeless shelters. Oftentimes families are separated, the mom lives with the children in one shelter, and the dad lives in a different shelter with men. I researched and wanted to write a story that would speak to the homeless, but also to librarians, educators, parents, grandparents, depicting the story compassionately, and with respect, it is a story of hope but most of all it is a story about LOVE.

I wrote the story to bring the plight of the homeless to light, to humanize this epidemic that is taking over our country and enveloping our world. 2.5 million children are affected by homelessness every single year. Sometimes the ONLY thing that separates the homeless from people with a home is a medical crisis and/or a few paychecks.

still-a-family-1 still-a-family-2

One thing led to another, Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly have given STILL A FAMILY glowing reviews. There is a news anchor in New York that is going to blog about this book and report on it, and I have paired with Schinnell Leake, an Oprah Woman of the Year and founder of Extra-Ordinary Birthdays, an organization that provides birthday parties to children in homeless shelters. This is quickly becoming my life’s work, getting STILL A FAMILY to the children that need it most, to the children in the shelters, to the families to give them hope, to the schools for understanding and educational purposes…this is my new mission.

In closing, I reiterate to you to keep looking, keep searching, keep writing, and keep walking around the castle trying to get an audience with the Queen or the King. Keep your eyes open for trap doors, for a different access, for another way in, because you just never know how wonderful it all might be and how what YOU have to say can make a difference. Not only for people that you didn’t even know needed you, but for your own life, your unique purpose and your individual writing journey as well.

A percentage of every sale of STILL A FAMILY will be donated to homeless shelters across the country.


cover-still-a-familyBrenda Reeves Sturgis is the author of 10 TURKEYS IN THE ROAD,  illustrated by David Slonim, THE LAKE WHERE LOON LIVES, a cumulative rhyming book, illustrated by Brooke Carlton, and TOUCHDOWN, illustrated by Trey Chavez.

Brenda is the winner of the 2007 Smart Writer’s contest and the Grand Prize winner of the 2014 MeeGenius Author Challenge contest. Her latest picture book, STILL A FAMILY, will be released by Albert Whitman & Co on January 31st, 2017. You can visit her at BrendaReevesSturgis.com, or on Facebook, and you can see the trailer of STILL A FAMILY on You Tube.

prizedetails

Brenda is giving away three copies of STILL A FAMILY—one to a winner here, one to a homeless shelter of the winner’s choice and one to a children’s library selected by the winner.

Leave ONE COMMENT below to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once on this blog post. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

Before we talk cumulative tales with guest author Brenda Reeves Sturgis, it’s time for a little blog business. The winner of EXTRAORDINARY WARREN is: 

SUSAN CABAEL!

Congratulations…and be on the lookout for an email from me.

Now let’s get to a LOON-y interview with Brenda…

lakewhereloonlives

Your newest book, THE LAKE WHERE LOON LIVES, is a cumulative tale (like The Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly), where each new scene builds upon the previous ones, all repeated in the text. What inspired you to write a cumulative picture book…and what special considerations does a writer have when writing such a story?

I didn’t set out to write a cumulative tale, but just set out to write what I heard in my head and in my heart.

I live on a lovely little lake in Maine and I am always elated when the loons come back to the lake in the spring. Their haunting hoots and wicked wails always leave me breathless wanting to hear more, and so when the story came to me as a gift in the middle of the night (which is my usual writing time). I just began writing, and writing and writing and what appeared was THE LAKE WHERE LOON LIVES.

In a cumulative story, each line builds and stacks on the previous sentence, and loon is written in rhyme so that made it even more challenging because every time I changed a word, the story would start to crumble and I would have to rewrite not only the sentence that I was revising but also all of the sentences before it, so that I would keep the right rhythm and meter.

I wanted to depict what a day in the life of a loon might be like, so I put in chicks, a fly, a fish that would snap at the fly, a boy on a dock that would give fishing a try, a cast, a struggle, and a splash and a swish, and then after a HUGE RUCKUS, the story starts to unwind where Mama Loon finds the SPOT on the lake that she loves best. She tucks her chicks in tight, and just like all loving Mamas do, she reads her babies a goodnight story before she settles in with a nice cup of tea by her campfire.

LOON

Little did I know when I wrote it that the illustrator would illustrate LOON so totally different than I had pictured, and I am so very glad that she did. Because in this loon story mama loon LOVES to waterski, she is daubed white and black because her chicks used her as a canvas with Loon White waterproof paint. I think the illustrator, Brooke Carton did a fabulous job with her loose illustrations which compliment the tight text very nicely.

INNISFREE BOOK STORE, MEREDITH NEW HAMPSHIREI hope your readers will enjoy reading THE LAKE WHERE LOON LIVES as much as I enjoyed writing it. Islandport Press has been wonderful to work with, and they had a book launch for LOON at The Maine Audubon Society in May, and I’ve been busy with signings and events almost every weekend since.

Why are cumulative tales beneficial for young children?

Cumulative stories teach word repetition and children therefore know what to expect in the story, which then helps them learn languague and pick out familiar words. This enhances their reading abilities, making for a stronger student and a more confident learner. A cumulative story is a perfect tool to teach a reluctant reader.

Tell us about Islandport Press. How did you find them and why was this story such a good fit for their list?

I’d heard about Islandport for years, and when I started researching their books I saw that they were Maine-and-New-England-themed, so on a whim, I submitted to them on my own, then sent an e-mail to my agent Karen Grencik saying, “By the way, I submitted to Islandport!” She answered back, “GREAT, fingers crossed!”

I got the acceptance e-mail while sitting in the Biddeford Library. I went outside, sat on the curb and cried, because up until that point, I didn’t know if I got published on a fluke, or if I had any kind of talent or chance at another book at all. It was a wonderful process, and I am so grateful to Dean Lunt the publisher, and Melissa Kim my editor. They have an amazing marketing staff, they are kind and thoughtful and amazing to their authors!

Also, on the back of LOON, something I am most proud of is a nice blurb by author Chris VanDusen.

What’s next for you, Brenda?

TOUCHDOWN, after 7 years, after winning Smart Writers, after being rejected 50 times (not once because of the writing but because of the marketing “hook”) has become a finalist for the MeeGenius Author Challenge, and whoever wins will be awarded $1500.00.

Good luck, Brenda! And thanks for giving away a copy of LOON to our blog readers. 

Comment below by August 29th or a chance to win! And feel free to ask Brenda questions about cumulative stories or her work.

Writing is a solitary profession. Sitting on our bed, laptop balanced on a pillow, wearing mismatched jammies all day (well, that’s how I work, anyway), we don’t gab at an office water cooler or take swanky lunches with colleagues. We’re alone with our characters—who can drive us nuts! We’re alone with our ideas, our words, and a vat of java.

Most writers I know are hard on themselves. We are our worst critics. We can spend all day writing and feel as though we’ve accomplished nothing. It’s nice to hear someone say what we’ve written has potential, has vision, has made someone spit all over their keyboard in laughter (the highest compliment, I think).

So today I bring you the story of three kidlit friends who came together with one goal in mind—to take an author’s career to the next step. To provide an encouraging, supportive environment in which she can thrive. Folks, you gotta have friends. Luckily, the kidlit community includes some of the best people around.

Please welcome author Brenda Reeves Sturgis, consulting editor Emma Dryden, and agent Karen Grencik!

TL: Brenda, your debut picture book TEN TURKEYS IN THE ROAD was released by Marshall Cavendish last year and quickly earned both critical and commercial success. Most people think you publish one book and you’ve got it made. But you felt your career needed a boost. How did you come to this conclusion?

BRS: Thank you for this thoughtful blog post, and for interviewing the three of us.

I sold 10 TURKEYS IN THE ROAD in 2008 and at that time I was represented by another agent, but in 2010 we parted ways and I was left trying to navigate the children’s lit world, alone.

I queried for many months and got personal, kind rejections. After a long period of going it alone, I knew that I needed to find out what was holding me back from finding my perfect-for-me agent. I had heard of Emma Dryden for years, and had great respect for her. She was and is knowledgeable in all aspects of publishing. I was confident that by hiring Emma she would know what needed tweaking, and what I needed to do to progress in my quest. I contacted Emma and she agreed to consult, we set up a phone call, and I sent her my manuscripts.

TL: Emma, what was your reaction when you read Brenda’s work? What did you propose as the next step in her career?

ED: When Brenda first contacted me, she explained her situation—she was a new writer with one book under contract; she’d been with an agent and was currently seeking a new agent; she was “trying to do everything right,” but it didn’t seem to be paying off and she was starting to question how she could keep her dream of being a children’s book author alive. There’s nothing that concerns and upsets me more than to hear an author or artist is questioning their dream. Coming up with a strategy to find an agent would be the easy part; helping a distressed author regain their confidence and adjust their outlook was something completely different—and that’s what our consultation was really all about.

Brenda’s ideas and writing are strong and smart. Her nervousness about doing everything right was what was holding her back, blurring her vision. We focused not only on figuring out a calm, focused strategy to query agents with her strongest possible manuscript, but we also talked a lot about how best to conduct oneself in a fickle marketplace, the importance of flexibility, the benefits of patience, and the significance of not giving up.

After several hours of email correspondence and phone conversations, I felt confident in encouraging Brenda to query Karen Grencik, an agent whom for various reasons I felt would not only be delighted by Brenda’s work, but who would have a compatible sensibility and outlook to suit Brenda’s own.

TL: Karen, what made you fall in love with Brenda’s work and make an offer of representation? 

KG: First of all, a great big “thank you” to you for taking the time to tell our story. It is a bit unusual, the manner in which we all came together, and I hope your readers will find it to be inspiring!

It is an honor to receive a referral from Emma Dryden, as I know the thought she puts into everything she does. I talked with Emma right away and when she stated that she thought Brenda had an untapped talent similar to two of the best picture book rhymers in today’s children’s book world, I knew I had to look at Brenda’s manuscripts. Brenda and I set up a phone appointment to discuss expectations, as there is always some concern about this when a previously represented author is seeking a new agent. I was worried that I might not be able to meet Brenda’s needs and I knew Brenda was feeling a bit gun-shy to jump back into the fray, but right off the bat we developed a sense of comfort and comraderie that’s made working together quite easy.

Not only did Brenda take proactive steps to jump-start her career again, but she took seriously and applied each and every practice Emma discussed with her, putting aside her considerable worries about what had come before and focusing instead on what she needed to do to accomplish her goals as a picture book author. This laid excellent groundwork for her to secure new representation. Yes, Brenda did need an agent—a strategic partner who shares her goals—but what she needed more was validation and a positive, safe working environment, which I’ve been delighted to be able to help provide. Now it’s my turn to find good homes for her fabulous picture books!

Brenda appeared in my life at just the right time, as Red Fox Literary had recently opened its doors, and I had the kind of time available to service my clients in a way that most agents only dream about. Over the past year that we’ve been working together, Brenda has learned to trust that I will do everything I can as quickly as I can, and that has allowed her to relax during the times that I’m not immediately available. And I’ve learned to trust that Brenda is a very hard worker, a perfectionist about her writing, and will only send me her very best work. Trust is a significant element of the best author/agent relationships, as it is of the best author/editor relationships as well.

For authors out there who feel isolated and alone, we three want to remind you that the universe is preparing for your success. An editor and an agent might be just waiting for you to show up. Be sure to pay attention to the signs. We certainly do!

TL: Karen, thanks! Your story is indeed inspiring!

Now back to Brenda…what are your goals for your career?

BRS: My goal remains the same as it was 8 years ago, and that’s to write the best, most original children’s books that I can. It’s important to me to help and make a difference where doors are opened, I strive to inspire, educate, and work as hard as humanly possible. I feel innately blessed to work with Karen and with Emma, and look forward to all good things coming our way. Thank you for your time with this Tara, I am truly appreciative for this opportunity.

TL: Thank you for sharing your story! I know it will help many writers as they examine their career progress. We should all recognize when it’s time to make a change and be brave enough to take action.

Please visit Brenda Reeves Sturgis, Emma Dryden and Karen Grencik’s websites where you’re sure to receive even more inspiration!

by Brenda Reeves Sturgis

I’m in the throes of marketing madness. It’s a whirlwind. The view from the eye of the cyclone is breathtaking! Ideas are swirling all around. Each wind gust propels me forward. However, promoting 10 TURKEYS IN THE ROAD is not something I have done alone. I’m certainly glad that I started the process a year ago, because marketing takes on a life all its own, and it’s imperative to have innovative and trustworthy people in your corner.

What did I write? Who was I? What did I stand for? What did I have to offer? These questions were always in the forefront of my mind. I wanted people to know exactly what they’d be getting from my book, a critique, or an author visit from me.

Each step has been its own adventure. All writers must walk their own steps, sing their own song, and dance their own dance. What I’ve learned over the past several months, as I’ve prepared for the release of my book, is that you can NEVER start marketing early enough. EVERYTHING takes a tremendous amount of time, along with a conscious effort and many different resources. I’ve met and worked with some of the best people in this industry over the last year—top-notch, top-of-the-line creators!

After assessing my web presence, I realized that the first thing that needed a complete overhaul was my website. My website is my business card. I surmised that it is my introduction to the literary world. Through it, librarians, teachers, editors, and parents would catch a glimpse of my life and my writing style.

I held to the old adage, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” and I kept that close to my heart. I needed and wanted to put my best professional foot forward, and so for me, this meant a completely fresh design.

I wanted a site that was colorful and fun in the same taste as the art of 10 TURKEYS, illustrated by the talented David Slonim. I turned to Donna Farrell who executed exactly what I needed and wanted. She did a superb job. We had the same vision, and she didn’t  disappoint. She goes over and above for her clients, and each website she designs is unique in its own right.

Marketing takes money, and you’ll want to make sure that you plan accordingly. I was fortunate to find talented people along the way that added a sprinkle of magic to everything that was created for my site. My teachers’ guides were written by my daughter-in-law, Whitney Reeves, a stupendous and creative educator and inventor. Whitney is not only a fabulous writer but also co-creator and founder of Bitzy Baby, a revolutionary company that provides safe sleeping and innovative crib bumpers for infants.

My friend, critique partner, and the very talented author/illustrator Carrie Clickard (Victrica Malica, Flashlight Press, 2012), created my puzzles, puppets, book trailer, and also my sorting game, along with some snappy songs. Carrie has a plethora of advertising knowledge, and she helped me compose fun activities for children of all ages.

I hired Renee Gray-Wilburn of A Way With Words to proof and copy edit content. Renee questions every comma and picks up on every grammatical error!  I was determined to give 110% to my site, just as I do to my writing because it is all interconnected. If you want your site to be the best it can be, you must seek out those who can add their own brand of magic to your work.

I made contacts with The National Circus Federation and The National Wild Turkey Federation, and I contacted reviewers. I also hired master marketer Kirsten Cappy of Curious City to help implement a strategy.

When I was not writing, I was planning and researching where I could market next, and every day I stepped on new stones. I kept climbing and continued plodding along the windy path.

My business cards were ordered through Vista Print with the cover of my book on the front of the card, along with a QR code, which links directly to my site. On each puzzle and activity page, not only was my QR code for Amazon added, but also my QR code for my website. When children bring home activity pages, I wanted their parents to have a way to wave their smart phone and order TURKEYS if they were so inclined.

In marketing, people want to purchase something WHEN they want it.  It is my job to make it easy for them to say “YES” without facing lots of unneeded clicks and unnecessary steps.

We’re all busy, and there are numerous wonderful books out there from which to choose. As a professional writer, I want to satisfy my audience, and so I think about ways to make EVERYTHING easiest for them.

Every day is a day for marketing madness. I’ve had fun, learned a lot, met great people, and have loved every second of bringing 10 TURKEYS IN THE ROAD to you! I appreciate all of you who have helped me in this endeavor. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to raise a reader. I am sincerely and eternally grateful to each one of you that I now call friend!

Brenda is giving away a signed copy of 10 TURKEYS IN THE ROAD! Leave a comment to enter and a winner will be selected in one week!

As a child, Brenda Reeves Sturgis fell asleep with picture books in her hands and a thumb in her mouth. Now she’s a picture book author who recently won a Mom’s Choice Award. She lives on a lake in Maine with her husband Gary. When Brenda’s not busy enjoying life, she’s researching and writing, writing and reading, and she’s very busy grandparenting. Learn more about her books, school visits and critique services at http://www.brendareevessturgis.com.

Get Out and Live, Your Stories are Depending on You

by Brenda Reeves Sturgis

Ideas are endless, and everywhere! You can find ideas on a backyard walk, or at a trek to the zoo. You can find them in the news, or in the newspaper. Keep your eyes open and really look around. Listen to the chatter of little children, look at the bark of trees. Discover life around you through the eyes of a child.

Trees have faces if you look closely enough. Clouds can create castles. And in the humdrum of everyday activities, you can find a story just waiting to be told. While on my way to take my daughter to school, I was delayed by turkeys in the road. Instead of allowing a panic mode to overtake me (because we were going to be late), I simply enjoyed that moment.

And my debut picture book, 10 Turkeys in the Road, Marshall Cavendish, 2011, was born. I stopped to smell the roses, or better yet, to watch the turkeys. Soon after, I was awakened with the story of the turkeys in my head.

And after 3 major revisions and a year later, editor Margery Cuyler discovered 10 Turkeys at the RUCCL conference.

A trip to the zoo resulted in my story waiting to be sold, My Gorilla Brother, and an afternoon outing to watch my nephew play football, resulted in my story Touchdown! which won first place in the 2007 Smart Writers Contest judged by Verla Kay.

You can find ideas everywhere! A sight, or a smell, or a sound triggers them, but you must to get “out,” and experience life to find them.

One place that most initial ideas will not be found is in front of a blank computer screen. Ideas must first take root in your soul, and then once they are rooted, they are ready for watering, shaping, and pruning.

Yes ideas are endless, and they are anywhere and everywhere you can possibly imagine. Your stories are waiting for you, so get busy and get outside. Live and enjoy your life so you can first imagine, and then write your stories, as only you can.

Brenda Reeves Sturgis began her writing career four years ago, after meeting Lynn Plourde at a school visit. She bought every one of Lynn’s books and asked the question that would change her life, “How do I become a writer?”

Lynn directed Brenda to the CWIM (Children’s Writer’s Illustrator’s and Market Guide book, by Alice Pope), and also to SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrator’s). One of Brenda’s favorite sayings is, “When the student is ready– the teacher will appear!”

Brenda is generously offering a picture book critique as one of the PiBoIdMo prizes. Finish 30 ideas in 30 days to become eligible to win!

Want a great piece of writing advice? As a new writer, surround  yourself with more experienced professionals. You’ll grow and learn far more quickly than if you remain in a critique group comprised of writers on your level.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find an experienced critique group. However, paid critiques are one way to gain access to knowledgeable professionals and speed-up your learning curve. You can receive paid critiques at SCBWI conferences and through independent editors, and once in a while critiques go up for auction to benefit good causes. But these critiques, while thorough and worth every penny, can sometimes cost a lot of pennies.

I met award-winning author Brenda Reeves Sturgis at the 2008 Rutgers One-on-One Plus Conference and we had instant chemistry. Easy-going, lovely, and full of fun, Brenda possesses a great personality and a penchant for picture books. Her debut TEN TURKEYS IN THE ROAD releases fall 2011 with Marshall Cavendish, and her poetry appears in the SWEET DREAMS anthology later this year from Blooming Tree Press. And guess what? OK, you’ve guessed it, she has begun a new critique service for picture book writers (and for not that many pennies).

Hey–did you notice–critique service, Reeves Sturgis. That rhymes! Well, kind of. Maybe just a little? Huh?

But believe me, her critiques are far better than my rhymes.

Check out her testimonials!

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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