Monday, August 29, 2016

Concept to Completion: Agent

Agents are busy people who only make money once a book is sold. I had many kind and generous agents who have agreed to interviews for this blog. Unfortunately none were available in time for this series. (We'll be seeing them in the fall.)

Since I wanted to keep this in order for when future readers go through the entire series, this is going to be a placeholder for an interview.

I will say that having an agent opens doors that you may not be able to get through on your own.

Some publishing houses are closed to unsolicited manuscripts and without an agent you can only sub to them if you've met them at a class or conference.

Also, a good agent is going to be honest with you about if your manuscript is ready. They may even be editorial and assist you in getting your manuscript to the next level before sending it on submission.

An agent will also be more likely to get you better terms if/when you get an offer. They are familiar with contracts and clauses, advances, royalties, rights, publishing houses of every size, plus they become a supporter of your work in many ways.

When subbing to agents be mindful that this is a professional situation. Letters should be organized, proofread, and polite. If an agent gives you any feedback, even if they don't offer representation, please appreciate it. They don't get paid unless they are selling books, so if they take the time to give you a personal rejection, then you should take it as a compliment to your work. And I do believe it is a compliment.

If you are querying agents, I wish you the best of luck.

Coming Soon: An actual Agent Interview

Up Next:  Concept to Completion: Editor

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Concept to Completion: Critique Partners

You know what you MEAN when you write. You know the pacing that the reader is SUPPOSED to use. You know the RHYTHM of the rhyme.

But is it obvious to the reader if you aren’t there to explain? Are you so close to your work that you didn’t notice a missing word? Did your point get across?  Are you ready to submit? HOW DO YOU KNOW?!?!

Critique Partners.

Good critique partners are worth their weight in chocolate.

Most writers are too close to their work. It is just a fact and we need to be real with ourselves. Others will judge the book, for better or worse, when we submit it to an agent or editor. So wouldn’t we want to know up front what people think? What we need to improve?

Phase One: Critique yourself. Try to go line by line and look at it from an outsider’s perspective. (Not easy! Takes practice!)

A trick I use is to read the picture book manuscript backwards so you are focusing on sentences individually. This prevents you from going autopilot through the story you’ve read 7,982 times.

Phase Two: Text to Speech. Most all computers have a text to speech capability. A trick if you don’t have it in Word is to copy and paste it into Excel. The computerized voice that is stilted and staccato reads much like a child would. It also may catch errors that spell check missed. You may have written loose when you meant lose. Spell check won’t save you there. But that computerized voice will shock you when you say, “That’s not what I meant.”

Phase Three: Other people. This is where the big fixes happen. They will help you with a number of things.

Big Picture Items:

Is your character’s motivation strong and apparent?

Is your story arc complete? Picture books still need a beginning, middle, and end in most cases.

Is the MC relatable to a child and do they react in childlike ways or is our adult brain seeping into the story?

Super Necessary Things:

Word chopping – Most contemporary picture books must be below 1,000 words and the sweet spot, currently, is less than 500.

Does it leave room for the illustrator? Do you really need to mention their hair color or their shoes? It better be a part of story arc if you did.

Is your word choice active or passive?

What energy is your picture book conveying? Is it loud and humorous or quiet and contemplative?

Smaller Things:

Line edits.

Word choice like ‘a’ vs. ‘the’.

Any word choices or clusters that make it difficult to read aloud or cause your reader to stumble. Read-Aloudablility is necessary for a good picture book. Ask any librarian.


Being a good critique partner yourself:

Some people like the ‘sandwich’ technique.

Bread –  Say what you like. (Positive)

Meat/Cheese/Veggies – The items that need work and will make your manuscript stronger and healthier. (Not negative per se, but the stuff that is harder to hear.)

Bread – Say more of what works and what you like. (Positive)

I personally like club sandwiches, so throw some of that bread in the middle too. Just sayin’.


Your job as a critique partner is to help others find weak spots in their structure, build on solid foundations, and polish a beautiful and strong story. An added bonus, when critiquing other’s work, is you may notice areas that you need to work on too. This will help you when critiquing your own work and will make you a stronger writer.

It may take a few tries to find a group or partners that are a good fit. If you write in rhyme, find other poets. If you lead a super busy lifestyle, find an online group that has more flexibility. Do you need accountability? Find a local group that you have to look in the eye every week or every month. Go find your people.

Happy writing and happy critiquing!



Sunday, August 14, 2016

Concept to Completion: Author

Last week, I gave a brief overview of the many, many hands that carry a picture book from concept to completion. Now we are breaking down each step. Step one is the Author.
I’m happy to introduce Tammi Sauer, author of picture books including Mostly Monsterly, Nugget and Fang, and Mr. Duck Means Business (one that I LOVE, I might add. Great ending!)

Welcome to Reading, Writing, and Reaching for Chocolate, Tammi.

So when you get an idea, like Mary Had a Little Glam, how to you start your process?

I start brainstorming! With this manuscript, I compiled a list of vivid verbs and specific nouns that tied into my character. These words included “click-clacked,” “accessorize,” “boa,” and “flair.” Also, I knew I wanted this story to be set in a school, so I listed other familiar nursery rhyme characters such as Little Bo Peep, Jack and Jill, and the kids who lived in a shoe to be her classmates.

That list seems like a fantastic idea. Love the shout out to the other nursery rhyme favorites too! How did you get your agent? Slush pile, conference, contest, ran into her at the grocery store?

I am a slush pile success story! When I was looking for an agent, I researched the names of agents who wrote some of my favorite books. In addition, I knew I wanted to find an agent who had a great reputation, who only accepted works she was passionate about, who was a good communicator, and who offered editorial feedback. I found all that (and so much more!) in Laura Rennert. We’ve been together since 2005 and have sold 27 picture books along the way.

TWENTY SEVEN?! And that’s just as of today. Think about that readers, it all started in the slush pile. What is your process with your agent? Sending only polished manuscripts or spit balling ideas to see what she loves?

I send polished manuscripts.

What is it like for you when a book goes on submission?

Oh, this is one of my favorite parts of the process! I know that at any moment I could receive an email or a call with good news. I love the feeling of possibility.

I’d have a strong possibility of checking my email every five minutes. J What is the shortest and longest time you’ve spent on the manuscripts you’ve sold?

I actually wrote one of my books in a couple of hours. That sort of thing is RARE for me. Longest? Hmm. That would probably be Nugget & Fang. I had written a few early drafts and thought the manuscript was okay. But okay isn’t good enough. I knew the manuscript just wasn’t there. So I closed the file and forgot about it. It was nearly two years later when, with the help of my critique group, I figured out how to make it work. It ended up selling at auction.

Once sold, who at the publishing house do you deal with and in what capacity?

Primarily, I deal with my editor. Sometimes an editor has suggestions for improvement. Sometimes an editor involves me in finding the right illustrator. Most of the time the editor asks for my input on the sketches and the first proofs.

Any advice for the aspiring picture book author?

When it comes to being a part of a critique group, find people who are at least as good as—if not better!!!!—than you are.  It’s nice to have people tell you how much they love your manuscript, but that doesn’t help you to improve. You want people who push you to make things stronger.

Preaching to the choir here. Good critique partners are coaches, teammates, and fans all rolled into one group and help you become a better writer. * What are you working on now?

Eek. I don’t like to talk about my current projects, but I will tell you that Your Alien Returns (Sterling, 2016), Caring for Your Lion (Sterling, 2017), and Truck, Truck Goose(HarperCollins, 2017) are my next three titles.

In my eyes, marketing your new releases count as current work. We won’t peak behind the curtain on the WIPS. So what fuels your creativity? Chocolate, caffeine, music, cake?

Oh, I love all of those things.

In addition, Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) provides a lot of fuel. Each November, Tara hosts dozens of writers and illustrators who offer posts on how they get their ideas. These posts are filled with wonderful suggestions. PiBoIdMo also challenges writers to come up with 30 ideas for potential manuscripts. I’ve been a part of PiBoIdMo since the beginning. Each time, at least one of those 30 ideas has led to a book.

Another great creativity boost is Linda Ashman’s Nuts & Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books. This resource is a goldmine of information, interviews, and exercises. One of the exercises suggested writing a fresh take on a familiar song or rhyme such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Out of nowhere, the words MARY HAD A LITTLE GLAM popped into my head. I knew I had to write Mary’s story.

Each time, at least one of those 30 ideas has led to a book.


I am a PiBoIdMo participant and winner too.  Readers, you can find PiBoIdMo here.

Thank you again Tammi for joining us here today. Best of luck with your upcoming releases. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.

For more about Tammi check out her website .

*Step two in the process of concept to completion is Critique Partners/Groups. I personally don’t see this as optional, but others may disagree. If you are looking for a critique group I suggest starting with SCBWI or any other groups you are associated with. Many have critique group match makers or online forums where you can find those who write in your genre, age group, rhyme vs. prose, etc.

Critiquing others work will also help you see what works and what doesn’t. So by helping others you are also helping yourself.

Join us next time for Concept to Completion: Agent
Current Hand Count: 1 author + Critique partners = approx. 5-10
Time: Hours to Years

Sunday, August 7, 2016

From Concept to Completion: How Many Hands Touch a Picture Book on the Publishing Journey?

When publishing traditionally, just what goes on getting your picture book out there?



Not quite.

During a talk with an editor recently, I asked just how many hands are on a picture book from concept and writing to completion and in the hands of the reader.  Here’s what I found out.

·         Author – This is the easy part. The creator of the manuscript. Sometimes this person is also the illustrator, but for this series we are looking at text only manuscripts.

**Hand count: 1**


·         Critique Partners/Beta Readers – Seriously-this should be a step. Find a critique group online or through groups like SCBWI. They can help you find what is working and what is not. They will push you to be a better writer. They will help you know when it is finally time to submit.

**Hand count: approx. 5-10 **


·         Agent – Not always necessary but I feel this is important to open doors and help you get your work extra polished before presenting it too publishers. Plus many publishers are closed to unsolicited submissions so you almost always need an agent to get into these houses.

**Hand count: 6-11**


·         Editor – Your agent, or yourself, will submit to an editor. If they love your story and see promise they will present it to their boss (or acquisitions team).

o   Inside the publishing house now: the Editor’s boss (or acquisitions team) will need to give the thumbs up to acquire the piece.

**Hand count: 7-12**


·         You and Editor – There will be back and forth during the editorial process. This may be a few simple changes and corrections or there may be a number of big changes. Each book is different.


·         Copy Editing –focuses on accuracy, formatting, and proofreading. Line edits people.

**Hand count: 8-13**


·         Design/Art Director – The art director does exactly that. They find and guide the artist in the direction to achieve the right ‘feeling’ for a book. They work with the editor and discuss what illustrators they think are right for the project. They are not just a stop on this chain of hands on you book, but more of a cog that is moving along with many other. They work with the editor, illustrator. Sometimes this is a team and not just an individual.

**Hand count: 9-16**


·         Illustrator – The partner that you may never even meet or talk to. This person will create concept drawings, work with the Design Dept/Art Director. After weeks, months, or occasionally years they will create the art that brings the text to life.

**Hand count: 10-17**


·         Production Editor- Production editors manage the publication. They deal with writers, editors, and vendors to ensure your picture book meet the house’s standards and that everyone meets deadlines. Sometimes these editors also proofread and edit the manuscript and offer feedback to writers and the other editors. (Notice ALL the editing to make sure your picture book is as perfect as can be?)

**Hand count: 11-18**


·         Sales – These are the people actively selling your finished book to vendors. Again not just an individual, but a team.

**Hand count: 12-21**


·         Publicity – These are the folks who create awareness for your book, gaining attention and interest.

**Hand count: 13-24**


·         Marketing – These folks, like with Publicity, create awareness and help sell the book. In some houses the Publicity and Marketing are one in the same.

**Hand count: 14-27**


·         Sub-rights- These are "sub-license" your picture book for various formats and adaptations in addition to the primary format. Additional sales could be film or television rights or translation to another language.

**Hand count: 15-28**


·         Book Sellers and Libraries – Such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Indy Bookstores. The places we know and love.

**Hand count: 20-way too high of a number for me to even guess.**


·         Reader – Finally. This quick and simple process can take around 2 years on average and, depending on the size of the publishing house you are working with, you can easily have up to 20-30 people who have their hands on your precious manuscript to get it out into the world.

Traditional publishing takes a real team to get a book from concept to completion.  Over the next weeks I’m tracking down people in these fields to get interviews so we can see what goes on behind the scenes when making a picture book.


People in the publishing field, let me know if I skipped any jobs.

Please note all of my counts are approximations. These numbers can vary greatly depending on the size of the publishing houses.