With a few more rejections and a lot of non-responses, we needed to try something different. The few friends and family who have read our manuscripts were saying it was brilliant but they might be biased. Perhaps we needed to talk to some strangers? With this notion, Bill and I attended a critique group for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCWBI) last week. It was held in the parish room of a community church west of Denver. It was a potluck and for the first half of the get together future authors munched on homemade goods as the speaker reviewed some important vocabulary in the literary world. In alphabetical order, a woman, who had at least one published book, expanded on concepts like archetype, beta reader, causality, emotional layering, as she slowly calibrated the untrained mind to talk the talk. After the lecture, we split up into 3 critique groups; two groups for children’s picture books and one for young adult. Bill took Forgetful Jerry to his group while I used Thomas Peters. We spent an hour critiquing each other’s books, following the etiquette of first offering what you like before suggesting what you don’t. When we finally debriefed, both books were received well in terms of how they were written, both were engaging, neither were deemed preachy however both Forgetful Jerry and Thomas Peters do not solve their own problems. They do not follow the arc of the hero and this was a literary rule not to be compromised. But why? I asked. Why must they follow the hero’s journey? Does everyone solve their own problems? The answer seemed a little more complicated than those critiquing could explain. We all follow our own hero’s arc in the course of our life, which is the common thread to which we can all relate. Their explanation came across as a formula for success, more popping a TV dinner in the microwave than making a home cooked meal. Yet I don’t know much about the hero’s journey except for a vague notion of a path embattled with trial and redemption. It would be silly to rely on other’s to define the arc of the hero because then I would not be solving my own problems. I’ve come across Joseph Campbell, the well known professor of comparative mythology at Sarah Lawrence College and have listened to him explain this journey in a series of interviews with Bill Moyer. I took out the Hero with a Thousand Faces from the local library, the seminal work on the hero’s journey. Hopefully this book will shed some light on why a squirrel who loses his nuts or a boy bogged down by others must be redeemed by the arc of their own heroic journey and not through the help of others.
Hiding amongst the superfluous was an email from an agent. A real email, not an automatic one after a submission. Her biography said she would get back to me by eight weeks and now, here we are. I tilted my head at it, intrigued by it’s presence. Ed never got back to me after his promised eight weeks. The mouse suspended over the email subject line before I clicked it. I read the email.
Thanks so much for thinking of me, but this one’s just not quite right for my list. Due to a very full workload, I have to be extremely selective about pursuing new projects.
Please know that this is a very subjective business and that tastes range widely among agents. Someone else may feel very differently—you deserve someone who is passionate about your work and is confident about their ability to position it.
Best of luck with this, and thank you so much for thinking of me.
I laughed. So this is a rejection letter? I didn’t have any expectations this moment, but I definitely did not foresee such a graceful exit. “So what you are saying is it’s not you Ryan, it’s me,” I said out loud into the silence. Good to know.
This whole children’s book pursuit escalated from a phone call. I had what I thought to be a final draft of my manuscript and started calling publishers. It was naïve in a way to call them directly but I was new at the game. By the third call, I was talking to a real person. She was a receptionist at Brown Books in Dallas, Texas and asked me what type of book I will be submitting. “Uh Children’s”, I responded most eloquently. She forwarded me to the head of the children’s book division. After ten nervous rings, I left a nervous voicemail. Over the course of the next few days, I replayed that message over and over in my head wondering if I lost the moment. Then, on a frosty Denver morning, that number appears on my phone. I was just about to walk in to work but quickly shot down the stair well to answer her call. After an awkward introduction, we talked about my book and she gave me the spiel on Brown Books. It’s different than most publishers because the author obtains all the rights. The author pays up front for all the costs of creating the book, however they are still very selective in who they choose to publish. It kind of ended there and she said I should submit my book to her via email. I was too excited to think of anything else as I walked back to work. This is awesome.
I heard back from her after a week. She laid out both the good and the bad. She told me I needed to work on character development but the rhythm of the story works. One minute I was the next Mother Goose, the next just another first draft. I furiously took notes and, after all the pros and cons, it was time for the haymaker. “With all that said,” she replied ending with a subtle yet dramatic pause, ” We want to publish your book.” I was pumped. This was my first submission and it’s going to be published by a seemingly legit publisher. No way universe. She asked if I was interested, I said yes, and then she told me the number. This was the number that traditional publishers invest prior to making a profit, the number that reflects the cost of publishing a book, and the reason why the author only receives a percentage of the sales after publishing a manuscript. A total of 24,000 dollars was to be paid in two installments over the course of 6 months to create a completed, illustrated children’s book. Well there goes that one. I tired to talk about it further but ended the conversation that I needed to think about it. Not that I could generate 24 grand in a week, but I was starting to get a little frustrated on the phone. After I hung up, I went from anger to despondent as this runaway train came to a grinding stop. But then, after some time to think, I realized that this isn’t so bad. It was my first submission and it could have been published. Twenty-four thousand dollars is a lot of money and I can’t be frustrated that I don’t have that lying around to pursue this dream of mine. There are other ways to do this, and after talking with her, those are the ways that must be pursued. With a little editing and a heavy dose of persistence, there has to be someone else out there who wants to publish it. There has to be and maybe they have a lower down payment.
It has been a while since I thought of this conversation but last night, I received a follow up email from the head of the Children’s Department at Brown Books. I was nice to feel wanted again, as I have yet to hear back from any agents on my current manuscript. It was a morale boost as well to exchange emails with a publisher, even if I have to pay for the service. She was checking in to see if I was still interested in publishing my book. Yes, ma’am I am still highly motivated to publish my book. Did you lower the price? We’ll see what she says.
It’s been a while my friend. Well actually it’s been 8 weeks since my email slipped into your inbox. Hope you are doing well but have you, uh, have you been on vacation? Can’t say I haven’t been thinking about you. Did you take a look at my query? I mean you’re not the only one Ed, it’s not all riding on you but you are my first. Yes sir. The first one in this journey of getting published. First agent I found, first one I pitched it to, first one I thought would dig the story, see the creativity of making a children’s story resemble a Socratic dialogue, a one up to the art of conversation. You know maybe my story doesn’t convey that Ed or maybe it’s not a good fit. Either way Ed, I haven’t heard from you. The first cut is the deepest homey.
I don’t mean to jump to conclusions here Ed. I am actually following up from my original pitch just to check in on you. The time frame on your website did say 8 weeks and well Ed, it’s that time. Can you just let me know what you are thinking? I know your busy. Everyone wants to be a writer these days Ed, I know that’s true. It promises so much freedom, the promise of creativity and expression. Oh man Ed you just can’t beat it. So let me ask, did you delete my email? For one second, did you rub your chin and think this could work? I mean c’mon Ed did you even read it? You have to at least have read it Ed because you never know. You put a spare quart of oil in your car because you’ll never know when you need it. You keep the Tupperware with no lid because you never know when you’ll find it. It’s ok if you’re not ready yet Ed. I get that. Just put it in a folder for later because you never know Ed, you just never know.
But you know Ed, I was hoping you would be there when I paint my masterpiece. It’s alright though. We can leave it at that. Just uh, just let me know if something changes…
Note: Picture taken from website below:
I’ve been ruminating on this post for some time now as my family welcomes a new, happy, healthy addition to the clan. Well maybe not ruminating as that implies an organized stream of thought. Nietzsche was someone who could really ruminate. Me, at this time in my life, it’s more like stealing moments on a weekday evening or on the train to work. I try to fit them in whenever I can because this pursuit, to pursue writing, is the one that makes the most sense to me. Recently, those snatched flashes of reflection have been concentrating on one word, a word that seems to wink at me as I research the criteria of many different agents. This silly, little, winking word is…. ready for it….. preachy.
In today’s lexicon, one can easily create an adjective by adding a y to the end of the word. The addition of the y implies too much of that something. To start, I am not a fan of this trend. As Bill and I have been discussing the adjective preachy, I have a hard time not snickering after saying it, a method of punctuation to pass along my opinion of this trendiness. However my opinion, regardless of how much I like it, is irrelevant here. The trend has caught on. We see it used in the biographies of agents across all genres when they are describing what they do not want. “Nothing too preachy” or “avoid being preachy”, a statement emphasizing the importance of the storytelling and not the lesson. That seems pretty obvious to me that a story should have a point or a “lesson” but it cannot be so overt that it insults intelligence. This is the balance we strive for in our work as I’m sure all writers do. To write with a pulse, a certain cadence that delivers the story as a punch in the face, letting the story linger with the reader as they are left to ruminate in the rubble of whatever moments they can seize. Those moments of contemplation, the ones by the reader, determine the lesson or lessons to be learned. In a great story, those lessons, I imagine, are different for us all.
While working on the many various projects for Pour on the Cool, we’ve been submitting a manuscript called The Troubled Times of Thomas Peters. This has been our learning submission as we craft a variety of query letters to pitch our stories, trying to see what works. Since we haven’t heard back from anyone, even Ed with the ear hair is playing hard to get here, we would appreciate any thoughts on the “preachiness” of the story below:
The Troubled Times of Thomas Peters
“Oh, my heavens” says Thomas Peters
On the verge of despair, he teeters
“What is wrong?”, his friend asks
“Do you just have too many mundane tasks?”
“Oh, my heavens it’s that and more,
School and life make my head feel sore.”
“Sit down,” he says with a slight chagrin
“I honestly don’t even know where to begin….
“The itch on my leg is definitely a skeeter
And I didn’t get an A because I’m not a cheater.
The runny eggs for breakfast was from my mom’s egg beater
And I’m cold because my brother turns off the heater.
“My sister’s room is always neater
And again, and again I’m told I ‘m not a good eater
And worst of all,” says Thomas Peters
“I get sloppy kisses from Grammy when I greet her
Thomas takes a pause and then a breath
Before he goes on with the rest
“My dad snores so loud I don’t sleep til dawn
And the neighbor’s let their dog poop on our lawn
All my secrets are told by my best friend Shawn
And even though Mom drinks coffee, she constantly yawns.”
And on and on goes Thomas Peters
Whose list of complaints measures in meters
But after much time has come to pass
And the complaints of Thomas Peters have run out of gas
His friend rises from her listening pose
To look him in the eyes after staring at her toes
And she says with the best of her kindest heart
Hoping to encourage a brand-new start
“Thomas my dear I think it’s time I said my part
And let you know you should change your heart
If your secrets are being told by Shawn
Just tell him that you think it’s wrong.
Ask the neighbors to respect your lawn
Because if you don’t tell anyone it will go on and on
Wear pants when you know you’ll be around them skeeters
Ask your mom to boil the eggs to avoid using the beater
And for goodness gracious just ask for another heater.”
Exasperated from her long-winded reply
She took a deep breath and looked towards the sky
“Thomas my dear,” she said with a coo
“You are getting mixed up with the wrong point of view
In life there are highs and in life there are lows
And up and down the journey goes
So find what you love and follow it through
Because the unfolding of life is the unfolding of you.”
Now she stopped and waited for Thomas to think
As his cheeks turned rosy and his ears turned pink
He looked down to the ground and shuffled his feet
Waited some more til his thoughts were complete
“I think I know now that you are right
It seems to be clearer, I can see the light.
Through all the silly things and all the apparent strife,
I see the importance of being grateful in life.
Because you can’t always choose the life you’re livin
You can only live the one you’re given.”
Note: Yes this is a picture of Putin winking. However, I did not take it. I found it on reddit.com and fell in love with it. Quick Joke:
What did the democrat say when three of his aides farted during a speech on Russia? We must stop putin…Good night