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by Lori Alexander

DVD extras, artist interviews, author’s notes…I love going behind the scenes to learn how my favorite things were created. Here are some tidbits from the making of my latest picture book, FAMOUSLY PHOEBE, by the numbers:

24th idea:
In November 2014, deep into Picture Book Idea Month (now Storystorm), I jotted down my 24th idea: “A girl’s family takes so many pictures of her, she thinks she might be famous.” My daughter had been pestering me to take a picture of her new haircut and post it to Facebook. She was only seven! Kids these days. (Lesson learned: inspiration is everywhere.)

5 pitches:
After completing the month-long challenge, I had 30+ snippets of story ideas (some better than others). I selected my favorite five and crafted them into two-sentence pitches, like jacket flap copy. I emailed the five ideas to my agent, Kathleen Rushall, to see if she fancied any of them. FAMOUSLY PHOEBE stood out the most to her, so I expanded that idea into a complete story. (Lesson learned: a second opinion can be helpful, be it from an agent or a trusted critique partner)

9 critiques:
Once I finished my first draft, I sent it to various critique buddies, a few at a time. After receiving feedback and letting suggestions resonate for a couple days, I made revisions. Then the new draft went out to more fresh eyes. PHOEBE had at least nine critiques before I shared the completed story with my agent. (Lesson learned: take the time to get it right)

12 art notes:
Too many? Not sure, but there were lots of spots with little jokes and no way to understand them from the text alone. My critique partners didn’t seem bothered by them and neither did my agent. She loved the story and we were ready to submit. Hot dog! (Lesson learned: I’ll never know if I’m adding too many art notes)

13 rejections:
Ugh. Was it the art notes? We received no concrete feedback from editors on changes to be made. Some already had new-sibling stories in their pipeline. Others just weren’t feeling it. My agent continued to submit to editors, reminding me of her ever-encouraging mantra, “It only takes one.” (Lesson learned: don’t give up)

1 sale:
Sterling Children’s Books made an offer, about three months into the submission process. Hooray! (Lesson learned: rejection stinks but persistence pays.)

2 editors:
The acquiring editor for FAMOUSLY PHOEBE, Zaneta Jung, left Sterling about a year after the sale. Zaneta really “got” Phoebe and helped me revise the story into something funnier and sweeter than the original. I was crushed to see her go. But my new editor, Christina Pulles, has been amazing. She included me every step of the way, sharing sketches, color art, covers ideas. She listened to my suggestions and has been incredibly helpful on the marketing end of things. (Lesson learned: roll with the punches)

1 big thanks:
To Tara, for coordinating Storystorm and for sharing so much valuable information on her blog year-round, and for letting me celebrate the release of FAMOUSLY PHOEBE here, too. And get ready for your own success stories, picture book writers. Because…

89 days:
Storystorm 2018 is right around the corner!

1 giveaway:
Lori is giving away a signed copy of FAMOUSLY PHOEBE and a bunch of other Phoebe freebies. Leave a comment below to enter. A random winner will be selected in about two weeks. (Lesson learned: it’s fun to win free stuff!)

Lori Alexander is the author of BACKHOE JOE (Harper Children’s), FAMOUSLY PHOEBE (Sterling Children’s) and the upcoming ALL IN A DROP, a chapter book biography of scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She happily shares the spotlight with her husband and two children under the star-filled skies of Tucson, AZ. You can find out more about Lori on her website at lorialexanderbooks.com or on Twitter @LoriJAlexander.

September should be “giveaway month” here on the blog, since we’ve got a bounty of books ‘n’ stuff. The winner of THE LAKE WHERE LOON LIVES was Carol Nelson, who was notified, and who exclaimed that she never wins anything. I was tickled to prove her wrong!

And today we’ve got yet another giveaway, from a long-time blog reader and PiBoIdMo participant, Lori Alexander. Her debut picture book, BACKHOE JOE, is being released TODAY! A round of applause for Lori! I sat down with her to discuss the making of a debut. (Well, I sat HERE, while she sat THERE. We did not sit together, although I would have loved to. I mean, look at her! Isn’t she adorable?)

Author Photo_Lori AlexanderLori, there are many truck books on the market because they’re so popular with young children. (In fact, once an editor told me not to write a truck book because of others already out there!) Tell us what makes BACKHOE JOE different and special!

You are right, Tara! There are lots of truck books. When my son was younger, he was crazy about construction. He wore truck shirts and slept on truck sheets and had truck birthdays. We pulled the car over for close-up looks at construction equipment (which set an exhausting precedent on cross-country trips, with me wishing my son had been born a dinosaur fanatic instead. No stops!). We also sought out as many construction books as we could get our hands on. After a while, they all seemed similar to me: a bulldozer pushes, a dump truck dumps, an excavator digs. A playground is built at the end. To mix it up, my son and I had lengthy conversations about what we would do with our own backhoe. Our backhoe could scoop Legos into a pile, dump dirty laundry into the washer, and drive all the neighborhood kids to school (that front loader is roomy!). These dreamy discussions led to the kernel of the idea for BACKHOE JOE which is about a boy who tries to adopt a “stray” backhoe. So, like pirate books and dinosaur books and princess books, BACKHOE JOE joins a crowded subject, but I’m hoping he will dig out some space of his own on the bookstore shelves.

backhoejoeI’m sure he will! (I mean, look at him! Isn’t he adorable?)  And that’s what we all have to do, take a common theme and make it unique! I love the idea of a truck as a pet.

Is this the project that landed you an agent? How did you pitch it?

That is something you hear editors ask for…a fresh twist on a common theme! With Backhoe Joe, it took me a few years to get it right. My early drafts were about a boy asking for a backhoe for his birthday, through a series of letters to his parents, à la I Wanna Iguana. I received some positive feedback from a small publisher, who liked the concept, but wasn’t sold on the letter format. Many more months of big-picture revisions as well as tiny tweaks lead to the current version. I received some positive feedback from agent Mary Kole during a webinar critique, and that gave me the boost of confidence I needed to begin querying agents. I queried with BACKHOE JOE but had two other PB manuscripts ready to go, in case an agent was interested. Lucky for me, one was! And you asked how I pitched it. I believe in the cover letter I said something completely cheesy, like “it’s FANCY NANCY for boys!” Tweet:

Well, that would certainly grab my attention!

What can you share about your debut book experience that’s been most surprising?

While writing BACKHOE JOE, I really tried to nail the page breaks. I studied the page turns in my favorite picture books and read blog posts about layout (Tara’s “Picture Book Dummy, Picture Book Construction: Know Your Layout” is one of my favorites). I submitted BACKHOE JOE to my agent divided into 16 spreads. I thought she might want to remove the breaks and submit it to publishers in paragraph form, but it never came up. I was surprised (in a good way!) when my editor at Harper agreed and the final layout of Joe was exactly how I envisioned it. All that homework paid off!

Another surprise was, although I should have known better, having one sale under your belt doesn’t make it any easier to sell the next book. Rejection—a thing of the past? Not so!

Ha, don’t I know it! They never stop, but they do get easier to swallow. (However, I am not advocating eating your manuscript.)

What’s your favorite line in the book?

My absolute favorite line is on the last page, but I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say Craig Cameron did a fantastic job bringing Joe to life and he set-up the twist ending beautifully.

Aha, I LOVE a twist ending! I think it’s so important for a successful picture book, to surprise your audience, to extend the story beyond the story. Let them imagine what happens next (plus set yourself up for a sequel)!

My second favorite bit is when the main character, Nolan, tries to train Backhoe Joe like he’s a dog. But naughty Joe revs at the mailman, buries his cone in the flowerbed, and digs in the garbage. It was fun to think about the ways a dog and a construction truck might behave similarly.

Sounds hilarious!

OK, one last question. I have a list of fun words I posted recently, which has become quite popular. What’s your favorite word?

This time of year, my favorite word is monsoon.

Yeah, I love ooh sounds!

And now our readers are gonna make ooh sounds (corny segue, Tara) because Lori has a BACKHOE JOE prize pack to give away! Just leave one comment below by September 23rd!

The prize pack includes a signed copy of BACKHOE JOE, bookmarks, stickers, and squishy foam stress “rocks”. (Hey, I could use some of those! Remember, the rejections never cease!)

Thanks, Lori!

backhoejoe prize pack

Lori Alexander lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband and two rock-collecting kids. Her family always brakes for road construction so they can admire the dozers and diggers. Lori still secretly hopes a backhoe will follow them home. She is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. This is Lori’s first picture book. Visit her at LoriAlexanderBooks.com.

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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COMING SOON:

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Summer/Fall 2018

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