You write both picture books and chapter books/novels. When you first have that seed of an idea, how/when do you know which kind of book it needs to be?
Right away. The process for creating stories in those two genres is completely different for me. With the novels, I am mostly concerned with my main character. I start with an idea about a person and only later develop the story around her. In the early stages, I spend quite a bit of time just thinking about my protagonist. I carry her around in my head, imagining what she is like, how she thinks, what she looks like, where she lives. In a sense, I am getting to know her before I begin the process of writing about her. When I feel that I have a fully formed and real person, I put her into a situation and the story develops from there. I don’t outline and I begin with only a rough idea of what is going to happen in the story. I let the character control the plot. Sometimes I think I know what is going to happen, but when my character arrives in the situation I created, she behaves differently than I had originally imagined. It might sound crazy, but it’s like my character has a mind of her own!
With a picture book, instead of a character I start with a concept. In Memorial Day Surprise I wanted to introduce the true meaning of the holiday in a gentle way to young children. I used a special relationship between a boy and his grandfather in the setting of a neighborhood parade. I was inspired to write Abby’s Asthma and the Big Race by my youngest daughter. A talented athlete, she has suffered from severe asthma since she was a baby. Over the years, we’ve learned quite a lot about asthma. I was always impressed by my daughter’s grit and determination to compete and succeed despite her asthma and the doubts of those around her. Abby’s Asthma was my tribute to her. So while the character is, of course, important in my picture books, it is the concept that drives the story.
What were the most difficult and best parts of writing your first book? How long did it take you to write from concept to outlining to completion to submission?
When I do school visits, the kids are always amazed to hear that it took ten years for Kat’s Surrender to go from idea to published book. There are a number of reasons for that. First, when I started writing the story of Kat O’Connor, I didn’t realize that I was beginning a book. I was simply writing for fun. It is something that I have done all my life. Since the time I first learned to write in the first grade, I have kept journals where I jot down thoughts, poems, short scenes, remembrances – whatever comes to mind. One day while standing at my kitchen counter, I wrote a short scene between two girls sitting on the front steps of a house in Northeast Philadelphia. There was something about them that caught my imagination and stuck with me. So the next time I had a chance to write, instead of creating something new, I decided to add to that scene between the girls. I continued to add to it whenever I had the chance over the next several years. All that time, I was still writing only for fun and not seriously thinking of publishing.
The second and probably most significant reason the book took so long is that I wrote that first scene not long after the birth of my second child. A third soon followed. I had three very small children and not much time to myself. I snuck in an hour or so writing whenever possible, but there were many, many months when I didn’t write a single word. But all that time, I carried the characters around with me, thinking about them and their problems. As my children got older and became more independent, I was able to write more. One day I finally came to the end of my story and I had 200 typewritten pages. I began to seriously think about trying to get the manuscript published.
Last, but not least, finding a publisher and going through the editing process took a significant amount of time.
My favorite thing about writing is those times when I am writing well, am in the thick of the action, and lose myself in the story. Everything around me disappears and it is like I am the character in the novel. Aside from that, the best part of writing my first book was when I finished it and realized that I had actually written a novel. The most difficult part was learning to accept and deal with the editors’ comments. I lived with my first novel for many years. At first, I did not agree with plot changes requested by the editors. It is difficult to cut passages that you love and worked hard to create. I quickly learned, though, that the editors usually know best. They have always made my writing better.
As an established author, can you briefly detail your journey to publication after finishing your first book? (Finding an agent, an editor, promoting the book, etc.) How has the process changed since you have become as established author
After I finished my first novel, I spent approximately one year researching what to do with it. I began by reading as many children’s novels as I could find. I wanted to see if my own novel measured up and had a chance at being published. I also researched the publishing process, learning all about manuscript form, submission policies, query letters, and agents. And I joined a children’s writers’ group at my local library. What I learned during this year was that it would be extremely difficult to blindly submit my manuscript to the submissions department of a publishing house and have it accepted. Publishers are all overwhelmed with submissions and don’t have the time to read everything. I decided to target my submissions. Of the novels I had read in the past year, I chose the ones that I most liked. I then called the houses that published them and asked for the name of the editor of each book. I mailed my manuscript directly to those editors’ attention, making sure in my cover letter to explain that I was familiar with their work and was submitting to them for that reason. It didn’t work. I was rejected seven or eight times.
I went to the American Library Association annual convention in New York City one summer. All the publishers have booths there manned by editors trying to sell books to librarians. I was able to meet many editors face-to-face and to mention that I had a manuscript. All the editors were gracious and gave me business cards and encouraged me to submit my work. The very next day I mailed my manuscript to a man I had met at the Boyds Mills Press booth. One week later, he called me. He loved it! He couldn’t put it down! He wanted Boyds Mills to publish it! Hooray!
Unfortunately, that was not the end of a happy story. I was told it would take a little time while other editors read the manuscript and a contract was drawn up. I was patient. But three months later, I found the manuscript back in my mailbox with an apologetic rejection. The manuscript wasn’t quite ready. There were five plot changes that the editors felt were necessary. If I wanted to make those changes, I was welcome to resubmit. At first, I disagreed with every suggestion. But since I wanted to get published, I did rework the manuscript and it turned out much better for the changes that I made. I resubmitted it and was finally given a contract. More editing followed, of course, though it was much more minor and did not involve any plot changes.
My book was finally published in 1999. I had written the first scene in 1989. Happily, my other books have come much faster! It is easier once you have a publisher who likes your work. I knew who to send my manuscripts to. I knew they would be read. And all my subsequent novels were accepted and published. I recently submitted another young adult novel called Killing Miss Ellie. So I hope that streak continues!
Marketing is the last, but certainly not the least, part of the process. Publishing houses promote their books, but the authors must be active as well. I most enjoy school visits and talking with kids about my books. I love answering the letters that children send to me. I try to get word out by getting newspaper interviews. I send e-mails and posts on Facebook when my books are released. I also give talks to all different groups from librarians to teachers to college classes.
You are a writer for The Boxcar Children series. Is The Vampire Mystery your first book in this series? How did you get involved in this project? What is it like to work with the characters originally created by another author? How did your writing process for The Vampire Mystery differ from that of your other books?
The Vampire Mystery is my first Boxcar Children novel. I am currently working on a second one titled The Pumpkin Head Mystery. Albert Whitman and Company had published my Abby’s Asthma picture book. My editor there asked me one day if I would be interested in ghostwriting for their Boxcar series. I very much enjoy writing these mysteries. It is a great series for kids. I like working with the characters created by Gertrude Chandler Warner. Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny are smart, polite, kind children. Their individual personality traits and looks are all well-established. My job is to devise an interesting mystery and set the children to work on discovering clues and suspects. The differences between writing Boxcar Children stories and my own novels is that the former are for a younger audience, the main characters have already been created for me, and the story follows a familiar pattern of mystery, clues, and happy resolution.
What do you see as your greatest strength and your greatest weakness as a writer?
Yikes. Hard question. For the strengths, I’ll go with what some reviewers have said; that my writing about the trials and tribulations of growing up is “almost unbearably real” and that I “have an ear for kids’ dialogue.” One of my weaknesses is that I love writing long descriptive passages even though I know they slow down the action. I always have to go back and cut them out. I also have a bad habit of writing things and then never submitting them. I have several picture book manuscripts that I have yet to shape up and mail out.
What insights or advice can you offer to writers who are trying to break into the publishing world for the first time?
I think it takes talent, perseverance, and luck to get published. It’s easy to get discouraged when you are rejected. But don’t give up! Jerry Spinelli once said that he could have papered his whole room with rejection letters before he got his first book published. And he is enormously talented! It’s just a matter of your book landing in the right hands. And that can take a lot of tries. It is very important to make personal contact with editors. Go to conferences and meet editors. For those who write for children, Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature has a great conference in the fall each year. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They also have good conferences. Occasionally conventions come to our area that are worth attending. The National Council of Teachers of English is having its annual convention in Philadelphia on November 19-22. I have never been to this one, but my guess is that there will be plenty of booths with publishers and editors
Thanks for letting me share my experiences on your blog. Keep on writing!
Thank you so much, Theresa! To learn more about Theresa and her books, visit http://www.theresagolding.com/.