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tammiforsiteby Tammi Sauer

For me, the absolute hardest part about the picture book creating process is coming up with a good idea. A wow idea. An irresistible-to-editors idea.

One approach that has worked for me is to brainstorm a list of potential titles before I even know a single word of a manuscript. I keep in mind that I don’t want a book of mine to have just any title. I always try to have a title that pops. Why? The title is a writer’s first chance to make a good impression and hook a possible agent/editor/reader.

Two of my books started with a title.

One day, while waiting for my daughter to find a book at the library, I sat down on a bench. Next to me was a book on etiquette. I flipped through the book and came across the words “princess in training.” My first thought? That would make a great idea for a picture book….and…


…In fall 2012, PRINCESS IN TRAINING, illustrated by Joe Berger, made its debut.

Another day, I was playing around with words that rhymed with names. As I brainstormed, the words “Quiet Wyatt” popped into my head. QUIET WYATT recently sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR.

My latest manuscript is the result of a title that grabbed hold and said, “You must drop everything and write this.” So I did. A good title can be very pushy. And intoxicating.

If you want to come up with a title as a starting point, consider using these strategies:

  • Showcase a Main Character

examples: Vampirina Ballerina; Fancy Nancy; Scaredy Squirrel

  • Focus on the Setting

examples: Cowboy Camp; In the Small, Small Pond; The Library

  • Create a Sense of Suspense

examples: The Monster at the End of This Book; Do Not Open This Book

  • Utilize Fun Language Play

examples: Chicks and Salsa; Hush, Little Dragon; Llama, Llama Misses Mama

Side Note: I happen to be wildly jealous of the upcoming books There Was an Old Dragon by Penny Klostermann and Tyrannosaurus Wrecks by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen simply because I am gah-gah over those titles. Why didn’t I think of those titles?! Why?? WHY????

Your Homework Should You Choose To Accept It: Brainstorm at least five titles. That’s it. No need to know the nitty-gritty of what is to follow. Just jot down those titles and maybe, just maybe, a story will sneak up on you.

Extra Credit (because I am a true blue nerd who loves extra credit opportunities): Go to the bookstore and jot down the titles of the books you see. Perhaps one of those titles will be the perfect trigger to help you come up with your next big idea.


Tammi Sauer has sold 16 picture books to major publishing houses. Four of those books got their start through PiBoIdMo. In addition to winning awards, Tammi’s books have gone on to do great things. Cowboy Camp was developed into a musical in Katy, Texas. Mostly Monsterly was selected for the 2012 Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories program. And Chicken Dance was released in French which makes her feel extra fancy. There’s more fun stuff at

Sink your teeth into this prize pack that features Tammi’s latest release: one personalized copy of NUGGET & FANG, one super shiny poster with a teacher’s guide on the back, and two Nugget tattoos that look fabulous on any bicep (or fin).


Nugget & Fang is a 2009 PiBoIdMo Success Story!

And…Tammi’s also offering a picture book critique to another lucky winner!

This prize pack and critique will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for these prizes if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!

My #1 tip for PiBoIdMo 2009? Celebrate the Weird Stuff in life. It’s good material for stories.

cowboycampLate one evening a weird thing happened to me. After my husband and I tucked our kids in, we heard an unexpected knock at the door. I opened it and found a kid standing on my front porch. 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.

Another weird thing happened a few summers ago. I was visiting my sister who, at the time, lived in a gorgeous area outside of Plymouth, Massachusetts. I loved every bit of the trip—except for my early morning wake-up call.

Each day the sun would come up around 4:30AM and the rooster who lived on the nearby farm would let me know it. Each morning my dislike for that rooster grew. And grew. I got to hoping that bird was missing out on a lot of barnyard fun since he had to make sure he was ready to greet the early morning sun in such a loud and enthusiastic way.

Sooo…since I was up anyway…I started brainstorming. What did that rooster miss out on? What had the other animals been up to when he was catching his zzzzzs? Then I knew—a barnyard talent show.

chickendanceThe joke’s on me, though. In Chicken Dance the rooster didn’t sleep through the talent show after all. Instead, he ends up being one of the stars of the story as everyone who partakes in the competition is out for the grand prize—tickets to see Elvis Poultry in Concert: The Final Doodle-Doo.

Not all of my ideas show up at my door or wake me up at 4:30 in the morning. How I wish that were the case! But many of them do begin with Weird Stuff.

Today I want you to brainstorm some of the weird things in your life.

Do you live with a Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroach? Do you come from an enormous family? Did you grow up on a pig farm? Have you had a strange run-in with a squirrel? With a rhino?

Go on. You know you’re weird, too. Get some paper and let’s celebrate it.

Tammi Sauer is the author of seven picture books (and counting). You can find her online at and

Tammi’s Picture Books:
Cowboy Camp (Sterling, 2005)
Chicken Dance (Sterling, 2009)
Mostly Monsterly (S&S, 2010)
Mr. Duck Means Business (S&S, forthcoming)
Princess-in-Training (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming)
Oh, Nuts! (Bloomsbury, forthcoming)
Bawk and Roll (Sterling, forthcoming)

cowboycampTammi 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?

tammisauerIn 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.

chickendanceIt 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!

tammichicksI 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! 

And don’t forget to visit Tammi’s blog! You can order Cowboy Camp or pre-order Chicken Dance via Amazon.

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