What was the inspiration for the two books you have published?
Thanks so much for having me as your Mystery Author, Carrie!
There was no real inspiration for 1 Zany Zoo. One day, the sentence, “You’ll never believe what I saw at the zoo” popped into my head and I thought it would be a great first line for a picture book. It’s actually the first complete picture book manuscript I ever wrote!
Cock-a-Doodle Oops! began as a “boy who cried wolf” type of story, where the rooster gets bored and crows at all different times of day. Then the story morphed into what it is now. I still think I might write the first story – it could be fun! So I’ve got dibs on it!
Where do you normally get your picture book ideas? Do you have a special way of organizing them?
I get my ideas several different ways. Most of the time, with rhyming stories, a line will pop into my head and I’ll like the rhythm and idea, so I’ll write it down. I’ve participated in Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) since it began in 2009 and I have files of ideas from that! If anyone is looking for a way to generate ideas, sign up for it this year – it’s always in November! I’ve gotten some ideas from news stories or things my students say. One time, a student told me his dog ate his hearing aid and that story morphed into A Monster Ate My Homework.
I save all of my ideas in files on my laptop. If I don’t have it with me when I get an idea, I write it down on anything handy or I record it on my phone and put it on my computer later.
I admire your ability to make rhyming look so seamless. Where did you first start studying this incredibly difficult craft?
Thanks! I’ve never studied writing in rhyme – I think I just have a good ear for meter. I took a night class about 20 years ago where I learned how to write, format and submit picture books, but she really didn’t teach us anything about rhyming. I’ve learned rules along the way, through conferences and reading things online, about what not to do in a rhyming story - like near rhymes, forced rhymes and rhymes that take the story in the wrong direction.
As an aspiring picture book author, I understand how important it is NOT to submit a rhyming story unless the rhyming is Perfect with a capital P! How did you know that your rhyming was ready for submission?
I think editors don’t like rhyming stories that have an uneven rhythm and rhymes that break the rules I mentioned in the last answer. To make the meter perfect, it needs to read as it would in natural speech, so the reader doesn’t have to think about how to read it. There are several ways to make sure your meter is perfect:
1 – Have someone read the story out loud and listen for spots where they trip up or have to pause or repeat to say the line correctly.
2 – If I’m stuck on one or two sentences, I’ll ask someone to read them ‘cold’ so I can hear where the natural stresses are.
3 – If there’s nobody around to read my story, I’ll print out the story and cut the sentences apart and read them in a totally random order. This way, I won’t have the meter in my head and I can hear how they’d sound in natural speech.
4 – I’ve also used TextEdit, which has a speech capabilities (under the “edit” tab. Although it’s not perfect, sometimes I can catch bad meter that way.
#1 and 4 can (and should) be done with stories written in prose. Because picture books are meant to be read aloud, you need to hear it for rhythm and flow.
Once my manuscript passes these tests – after several rounds of revisions – I know it’s ready to be submitted. Of course, there’s no guarantee it will be accepted – but at least I’ll know it won’t be rejected for bad meter or rhyme!
Tell us a little bit about the first story you submitted for “publication consideration”?
1 Zany Zoo was the first story I completed. Back then, it was called YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT I SAW AT THE ZOO. I made the same mistake I think a lot of new writers make and I sent it out before it was ready. I sent it out to one editor at a time, so each time I got a rejection, I’d revise it and send it out again. I sent it to seven different editors and got rejected seven times. Then I put it away for about 15 years when I went back to work and my kids were little. When I started writing again, I polished it up and submitted it to the Cheerios contest!
You are represented by Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary. How did you discover Karen was the right agent for you? Please tell us how having an agent has impacted your career.
I have an unusual agent history. I got my first agent, Jamie Weiss Chilton at Andrea Brown, after I won the Cheerios contest. Jamie submitted stories for me, though she didn’t make any sales. We parted ways amicably after three years. Then, I signed with Karen after I sold my Cock-a-Doodle Oops! manuscript (while in between agents). When I spoke with Karen on the phone (before signing with her) I could tell she’d be easy to talk to – and that’s such an important part of the agent-author relationship. She’s a really sweet and gentle person - but she’s not afraid to tell me when she thinks a story is not ready for submission! In my opinion, the best part about having an agent is being able to submit to closed houses! Karen has submitted six of my completed manuscripts to various agents and we’ve come close, but no offers – yet!
My first grade students are learning the importance of revision. Please tell us a little bit about your revision process before submitting a story. What gives you the inspiration to never give up?
I think the main reason I never give up is because I love to write! But, I’ll admit that, before my story won the Cheerios contest, I had questioned whether I should stop writing to be published and just write for fun. I’m so glad I didn’t quit! I think having writer friends who give me honest feedback on my work helped me keep going. They also play a big part in the revision process. I have to do the work myself but my friends let me know what things are working and what things aren’t (in their opinions). In the end, I have to decide what I think works, but I agree with them most of the time! When I do revision, the main thing I look for is word choice. I look for dull or average words and try to think of more interesting, unusual or exciting words to replace them. I also make sure every sentence in the story moves it forward and isn’t there just for filler. When I write in rhyme, I check, re-check, re-re-check . . . the meter to make sure it flows without any awkward spots. I also look at my rhyming words and make sure I don’t have boring or too-easy-to-rhyme rhyming words and no repeating rhymes.
What has been the most surprising thing you’ve discovered along the publishing journey?
I think the thing that surprised me most was how supportive and generous children’s book writers and illustrators are! I’ve made so many writer and illustrator friends, both online and in person, and I am always blown away by their selflessness and genuine happiness for others’ successes! You asking me to be your Mystery Author is a perfect example!
I agree with you 100%! Writing communities are the best! Thanks so much for being our Mystery Author this month. We look forward to reading your books!
The Cock-a-Doodle-Oops comical cast of animals was brought to life by illustrator Deborah Zemke.