I talked to a writer friend today, let’s call her Donna, who wanted to read her query letter to me. She did. It sounded fine. Then she told me it took her nine days to write that query letter and she’s been waiting to hear from an agent for three and a half months, and she’d begun to worry that her letter wasn’t good enough.
We talked for a few minutes about query letters, and she referred to several writing books and a magazine article she’s been holding onto for a while, and as we talked I realized how unhelpful it had been to her to have any information at all. Really, did it matter whether she described her interest in the historical aspect of the story before or after the book summary?
I reminded Donna that slush piles are called that because people in offices where manuscripts are delivered let them pile up. And then by the time they go through them, it’s not always with a careful read, but with a feeling of having to clean the refrigerator before the sister-in-law’s visit.
Frankly, I was always worried that my query letters weren’t good enough. The first one definitely wasn’t. I typed in the heading the way I found in a book on writing letters. I typed “Dear (agent’s name).” I typed “Manuscript enclosed.” And I typed “Sincerely yours, my name.”
That agent took me on, so we know it wasn’t the query letter that did it.
He dropped me a year later when he realized I intended to write for young adults.
Donna’s been through this before, and perhaps should have known about query letters and slush piles. She’s been published once, some years ago, then got involved in caring for a family member with a serious illness, and because she wasn’t producing any writing, lost her agent.
Because we’d covered all of the above, I asked her what she was working on now. She said, “Well, nothing. I thought I’d wait and see.”
So I asked the pointy question: “Are you interested in publishing again?”
She said, a little indignantly, “Well, of course. Isn’t that what this whole conversation has been about?”
And I said, “Then you ought to be writing.”
If Donna worried the query letter was the reason she hadn’t heard anything, and if she actually thought the person opening the envelopes was going to give her any useful feedback on her work, I figure there are a few people out there who could stand to hear this.
I worked in an agent’s office in the nineties, and her instructions to me were to check first for photos, she wasn’t accepting anything that came with a photo of the author. And to check for a SASE, because that was a mark of professionalism. I read an awful lot of query letters that year.
And I’m convinced of these things: there is no one format (as one book suggests) that sells all books. Non-fiction buyers want to know why they should listen to what you have to say and why they should take your word for it. You should tell them. They are defensive buyers, whether they are editors or readers.
Fiction buyers are a more relaxed group. They want a good story, and all you have to do to win them over is, tell it. So be aware that the query letter doesn’t have to tell them how long you’ve been working on the brick foundation, or even that you went to Barnard’s bricklaying adult-education classes. Your letter also doesn’t have to summarize the whole novel. Think more along the lines of book flap copy. One paragraph.
You don’t need to drum up a hard sell, you don’t want to bribe them with your first born or your outstanding eggnog recipe, and you don’t want to scare them off by sending your picture. Keep it straightforward. Since you are generally not your character, you don’t have to create a strained effort to carry the story voice into the letter. Keep it simple.
They just want a feel for the writer you are, one holding out this hopefully promising manuscript with a minimal paragraph that invites them to look it over, and the information they need to return it, or even better, to speak to you.
Remember to enclose your manuscript and your SASE and a reasonable form of contact information should be part of the query letter.
And just between you and me, if you are unpublished, never listen to advice to send to one agent or editor at a time. Just don’t listen. Whoever gets back to you first, or gets back to you at all, they are your target. But a shotgun is more effective than a blowgun in the publishing world.
This seems a poor analogy to employ. Let me try again. . .I’m trying. I’m thinking of things that come in great excess. Water, as in floods. Haystacks. Traffic. Sand, as in storms. Grass hoppers in certain years. Hmmm. Thorns on the rose bushes I planted today. Well, anyway, don’t expect a rapid reply.
Also, don’t feel that if you’ve already gotten a no from an agent, that you can’t send something else to that agent. Not next week, generally, but that might depend on how long they took to get back to you. If they took six months, and in that six months, you’ve finished something you think is good, send it. You might get lucky and hit while he or she is still working through the slush pile. Or you might have to wait six months again for that window to open.
Remember, that agent I worked for said look for photos and the SASE. She didn’t say, be sure to wonder who sent that manuscript. It’s not that they won’t remember your name; they aren’t going to remember any of the names on the nine hundred envelopes they opened in a single week.
Meanwhile, move on to your next project, waiting to be written.
Don’t wait three and a half months, anxiously checking the mailbox, hoping. It’s reasonable to shake the cage (I’m sure editors would prefer I work on this analogy, too) after three or four months. Call and inquire about the work you sent. If someone hasn’t read it, assume they won’t. Just don’t stop writing.
Don’t stop writing.
Don’t stop writing.
For a fascinating read, and more useful advice than I can offer, please look for Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees. Except maybe for this advice on rejection letters: They happen. Just move on.
Don’t take six weeks of your writing life to recover from this disappointment. Don’t start racking up empty bottles of Southern Comfort. Also don’t stop breathing. And don’t give up hope.
Certainly you’re tougher than that. You’ll need to be.
You believe in what you’re doing and you’ve got something else partway along (nearly finished, right?) and that work will suffer if you set it aside to mope. Don’t waste that six weeks and don’t blame anybody else if you do.
Six weeks is maybe sixty pages, even if you’re only writing in the back seat while the kids are at karate class. Write them gladly. Gaily, even. Tack the rejection letter up in the outhouse as if you might need it when the Sears catalog runs out, but really, just keep it. You want to remember who to burn in effigy when you finally do get published. And if you’re making a really really really serious effort, you’ll have enough of these, that, yeah, really, you’ll have forgotten most of their names.
Write. So that they’ll have to remember yours.
Audrey’s domain name is out of jail!
Although you’ll still find me at audreycouloumbisbooks.com, I can once more be found at audreycouloumbis.com. and of course, I can be found in the garden.
Lost in Translation: Should Non-standard English be Used in Children’s Books? By Carol Higgins-Lawrence
Like all writers, I delight in language and love to play with it! The world's languages are rich and colorful. Language enables us to express our thoughts, feelings, and unique identities.
I have strong and proud Jamaican roots. One of my fondest childhood memories is sitting around our dining room table surrounded by my aunties and uncles listening to them speak and tell stories in patwa (Jamaican talk!). Patwa (patois) is an English-based Creole language with West African influences. Like many other languages in the Caribbean, it is an oral language that uses non-standard English forms when spoken and written.
Over the years I’ve written stories that feature characters with diverse voices. One of the keys to authenticity in any story is creating authentic voices. It can be tricky to use non-standard English especially in picture books. As is the case with patwa, there is no standard written form. Often times editors and publishers may be concerned with readability, and whether or not readers outside of the feature language group will understand the story.
An editor once commented on one of my manuscripts. She feared that the non-standard English text would misteach young children. I disagree. Literacy isn’t simply knowing how to read or spell a word. It includes those skills, but also a greater world of ideas, imagination, and comprehension of cultural mores.
I’ve realized that there is a delicate balance between maintaining an authentic voice while ensuring the story is readable and accessible. I’ve worked hard to incorporate different varieties of language in manuscripts. It’s not an easy task, but it is well worth the effort when a child proudly recognizes themselves, or their family and community in a book.
Here is a board book that does the job successfully. Check out Tickle Tickle by Dakari Hru (Author) and Ken Wilson-Max (Illustrator).
Carol Higgins-Lawrence wrote her first story at the age of five. Her father paid her a quarter for it and she's been writing ever since. She's taken a variety of courses in writing for children. Multicultural perspectives are of particular interest to her. Carol is of Jamaican descent and was born and raised in Canada. She has a BA in Communications and Sociology and she has completed coursework towards a MA in TESOL. She has worked as a literacy educator for the past 15 years. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two young children. You can visit her website at carolhl.weebly.com
Although most picture books are written for younger kids, my 13 year old happily listens to any picture book I read to him. Recently we’ve been reading a lot of picture books. We’re in the middle of Reading for Research Month and I’m reading at least 5 picture books a day. Since I’m homeschooling, I read the books to my 7th, 6th and 3rd graders and use them for learning.
Miranda Paul’s book, One Plastic Bag, generated an intriguing discussion about how one person can make a powerful impact for good. One Plastic Bag highlights the efforts of Isatou Ceesay in Gambia. She creatively cleans up her village, one plastic bag at a time. Reading this book generated a conversation about the good we can do for our community and how one person can make a difference.
The Day the Babies Crawled Away, by Peggy Rathmann is another of our favorites. Recently we used this book as a mentor text for poetry and illustration. The illustrations bring a depth and second story to the text that makes the book fun to study and reread.
Here is my 9 year old's poem inspired by this book:
Winter is out
The frogs jump about
My chickens are eating the flies
And I think that I hear
The screams of a Winter that dies
by Sydney Call
You Nest Here with Me, by Jane Yolen and Heidi EY Stemple is so lyrically written and beautifully illustrated that we’ve re-read it many times. Not only does it teach us about where different types of birds nests, but there are also mystery birds to find in the illustrations, and back matter with facts about specific birds in the text. What a wonderful way to learn about birds and love!
The more I read, the more I realize we can learn from each book. Just today, we read Mustache Baby Meets his Match, by Bridget Heos. Wrestling with competitiveness is something a family of seven can always stand to discuss!
What are you learning from the picture books you read?
Kirsti Call is a homeschooling mom of five. Her debut picture book, The Raindrop Who Couldn't Fall, came out December 2013. Her family band, Calling Out, plays songs written by her children. She contributes to Writer's Rumpus, and Kids are Writers. If you visit her house, you’ll likely find her reading picture books. You can find out more about her at www.kirsticall.com.
This month is Read Across America month and last Wednesday, March 4th was World Read Aloud Day. I was lucky enought to take part in both of these awesome events this year. It's my first time participating and I am having a blast! I have spoken with over 20 classes across the U.S. and even in New Zealand, Ecuador, and China. So much fun meeting new readers all over the globe.
So how did I get started doing this? LitWorld, the sponsor of World Read Aloud Day put out a call for published authors to participate in their event. Once I sent them an email, they put me in touch with Skype in the Classroom, the program sponsored by Microsoft, that puts you in touch with the teachers. Skype in the Classroom creates your author page and then teachers send you requests to Skype with their class.
When you receive the request, you respond and then set up a time to do a short Skype visit with the class. These Skype visits are FREE and are typically no more than 15-20 minutes.
Wait. Did you say FREE?
Yes. All Skype visits that are arranged through Skype in the Classroom are free.
Then why do them?
There's lots of reasons:
1. You get to connect with some pretty cool students all over the world who LOVE to read and talk to authors!
2. Most of these teachers will purchase a copy (or more) of your book(s) to share with the class. I spoke to several classes who held up 5 or more of my books.
3. You get your name out there and you may even get local publicity
4. The BEST part is YOU GET TO TALK TO THE STUDENTS! (Did I say that already?)
They are so very excited to meet with a real author and be able to ask questions. And they asked a lot of great questions!!
And they also blog about you, like the school in New Zealand did here: http://eblog.stac.school.nz/2015/03/05/making-global-connections-on-world-read-aloud-day/
And send you cool thank you notes like this one:
So what do you talk about in a Skype visit?
For my 15-20 minute World Read Aloud talk, I introduced myself, read a few short blurbs from my book Univited Guests and Tsunamis and talked about how science and writing work together. Then, of course I left time for Questions and Answers.
Skype in the Classroom runs for the whole month of March, and World Read Aloud Day is only one day, what if you want to do Skype visits at other times?
Check out Skype an Author Network.
You have to apply to be accepted. Once you are accepted, you may offer two different types of visits:
Here is where you can charge for your visits if you'd like.
Meet the Author Visits
These can range from a short intro of what you do and Q & A sessions, to reading a short blurb about your book, to simply discussing a pre-arranged topic with the teacher. Keep these short.
These can range from 30 minutes to an hour.
I recommend taking a look at the authors already in the Skype an Author program to see what they offer for these type of visits.
Topics could include:
Books they have written.
The writing process and how it works for them
A full-blown school visit that you might give in person (including slides)
The fees for these range from $75 to $150 or more. Make sure to include enough information to make the conversation worthwhile for your audience.
Put a section on your website where teachers can contact you to set up Skype visits, too!
Some Tips for Making Skype Visits Fun:
Be excited and animated about your topic.
Try to involve the students and ask them questions.
Pick a lively part of your book to read. (Mine was filled with Ewwwww facts)
Ask the teacher to prepare the students before the visit by having them talk about you and look over your
Request that they read one of your books before your visit
Keep the session moving. If it begins to lag, ask questions.
Be aware of the time. The teachers have usually allotted you a certain amount. Don't go over (or under)
Leave a time for Q & A -- the students LOVE to ask questions.
Finally, make sure you look good - check your teeth, comb your hair, etc.-- your face will be larger than life on the screen in front of them. So you don't want a piece of your breakfast stuck in your front teeth. :)
Most of all HAVE FUN WITH THEM!! Skype Visits are a FANTASTIC way to connect with readers all over the world and get them excited about reading, writing, and in my case, learning about science!!
Jennifer is the award-winning author of over 20 nonfiction and fiction books for kids. A self-professed science geek, she is always on the hunt to learn something new. How do submarines stay submerged? How do satellites work? Why do bedbugs live in beds? She has learned it all in the many nonfiction books she has authored. Like any good scientist and author, Jennifer is rarely without a notebook and she writes down her observations throughout the day. It is a practice she encourages many young readers and writers. You can visit Jennifer at her website www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com, her special place to explore the world around her. - See more at: http://www.childrensbookacademy.com/blogateers#sthash.mepoCssc.dpuf
I'm in the midst of finishing a book, and feeling sort of written out, so I thought I'd share a little piece of it with you, if that's all right. Any thoughts on it appreciated, of course, including the title, which i like for the right reason (it gets right to the point), and don't love, probably for the wrong reason (it's blatantly commercial), and yet, i've worked hard to become a more commercial writer. i feel less torn over its subtitle, Is a Children's Book a Movie in Disguise, which i think serves as the spot on introduction to the bit i'm offering here:
When you read, you’re often choosing from a type of story you already know you like best. in the same way, we tend to “like” actors who often personify a role that fits into stories of the kind we like to find in film. They reflect some part of ourselves, something familiar, or perhaps unrealized—a way we already see ourselves, or the way we would like to. As a writer, in the early getting-to-know-you period of working with my central character, it's helpful to me to have this basic type in mind. if we can glide past some sticky gender issues, as well as ageism, I think of central characters in three categories, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, and Jack Nicholson.
Tom. We always like Tom. Even when he’s playing a hit man, he’s still a genuine family man, he isn’t really despicable. He’s maybe even a bit of an underdog, and how often do we say that about somebody holding a handgun?
Bruce. The stand up guy. Paint him as a poor guy trying to get his wife to come back to him, or living in a ghastly dystopian society driving a cab, or, worse yet, he’s sacrificing his life on an asteroid—well, that’s it exactly. How many guys, or gals, do you see standing up to volunteer?
And Jack. Hmmm. We see things to admire, but they’re usually paired with something that makes us stand back and put on gloves before we shake hands. He’s often funny, frequently wise, mostly sharp witted and snappy of tongue. All while showing the seamier side of our life. And of the three, I still think he’d make the most interesting partner at a dinner table, don’t you?
Still, I mostly write about the Tom’s of life. Because that’s who I am, a regular guy, no fancy moves, and it’s who I understand best. Like me, my characters can step into other shoes for brief moments, but they generally regret those moments. As I often do.
You have to take a close look at your characters and decide where on this continuum they reside. There are, of course, characters that carve out a continuum of their own, and if you write them, you’re no doubt able to define the borders within which they live. Or after a couple of educational errors, you will be able to.
But these are characteristics to help you, the writer, get a firm grip on the nature of your character and his environment as you begin writing. You want to start out with a round peg that lets you get a good start on the story, they can develop quirky corners once you're both on the road to the middle.
Your reader isn’t thinking of character in these terms. She wants to care about your protagonist. She wants to get involved. She may want to love him a little bit, right from the start, or she comes to the story wanting to root for him, or wanting him to validate something of her own experience.
Rightfully so. A story is not so much about what happens as it is about who it happened to. Character takes us into the story, and if it works for us, holds us there. The right character makes us feel like we’re part of that story.
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