College Applications, Manuscript Submissions, and Lessons Learned

There was a big College Information Night at my son’s high school. There are still years to go before he’s ready, but he’s a planner.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So we went.

Approximately 50 reps from colleges all over the country were there. They ran from big and big name schools (UCLA–the most-applied to school in the entire Unite States) to so small I don’t know how else we would have heard of them (Holy Cross–921 students, total).

We talked to lots of them, asking most of the same questions about GPA needed, acceptance rate, majors offered, class size, etc. The school my son most wants to go to had one of the biggest lines (guess others want to go there too). We waited quite a while to talk to the rep, who patiently repeated the same information over and over. (Seriously, why weren’t the parents just listening in while they were in line? But I digress.) While we waited, we grabbed their college brochure and started flipping through it. We noticed some more obscure majors listed for the school, ones my son was sorta interested in, and wondered if applying for one of those would make sense, instead of those which were sure to be the most popular/crowded/competitive. So we asked the rep, if our son were to major in, say Japanese, would that up his odds of getting accepted, as opposed to him majoring in engineering.

The rep waited not even half a second before answering flatly: “Major what you want to major in. Don’t apply to something you aren’t interested in.” And we felt stupid for considering it, or even asking about it. I did, at least.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Now bear with me as I cut over to Manuscript Wishlist, an amazing resource where editors and agents tell you EXACTLY what they are looking for. And I mean exactly. It’s a website as well as a “hashtag” (which means you can do an internet search for “#mswl” and up will pop the most recent posts about it). It’s fantastic because if you are working on a book, say, about kids and frogs you can type in “#mswl kids frogs” and see if there is an editorial match. If so, you know who you should add to your sub list! The more specific the less likely you’ll get a hit, but hey it’s worth a shot. One recent post from an editor, I swear, read “High-tech elves with internet while everyone else is trying to figure out the Iron Age.” It’s that specific.

Scanning the posts or website can be a fount of inspiration. Even if you don’t find a perfect match for your current work-in-progress, it can give you manuscript ideas. Knowing there is someone waiting for that topic/character/etc means you’re one step closer to acceptance! I’ve found myself creating and re-creating all kinds of story ideas from trolling around. Sometimes, I’ll see an element an editor shares about him or herself, and I’ll add that character tag to one of my main characters just so I can add in the cover letter, “Emma loves jelly beans just like you.” I’ve raced to complete a final product since I can almost taste the sweet reward of publication from an already-ready editor. Any edge helps, right?

But here’s the rub. It’s never panned out. The problem is, those stories I was working stories weren’t really my stories. The ideas weren’t my ideas. Even if I can run with a concept, my heart isn’t in someone else’s idea of what makes a great plotline. Just like picking a major just to get accepted at the school you might want to get into, a school you might not otherwise have a chance at, writing a story just to get published at a house that might not otherwise notice you is a waste of time. No one wins. Not you, not the editor or agent, and not the story.

The reader suffers too.

In that moment back at the college fair, I was struck by the similarities of the college app and manuscript submission process. We both search and search for the best fit, then send our submission package after years and years of hard work. (We also fret and fret after hitting the send button, having no control and no idea when we’ll hear back…)

All the time I spent creating those MSWL story ideas? It took me away from MY stories, the ones in my soul, the ones I WANT to write. I’ve wasted my time. I thought I was being clever. But I screwed myself. (Is it OK for me to be frank?)

I hope I haven’t been wasting your time with this analogy.  All this is to say: write the story you want to write. Write the story you need to write. Don’t waste your time writing the story that you think will get you a leg up in the industry.

Write the right one.

Yours.

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Laptime with our little ones

This guest blog post originally appeared on The Bedtime Stories Blog on May 2, 2018 on https://medium.com/bedtime-stories-blog

Turning Classic Fairytales Upside Down

Keeping The Old, With New Modern Twists!


We all know the classics fairytales and storybook rhymes our grandparents taught us or read to us. But do our kids know them? Unless it was made into a movie or TV show, maybe not. If our kids have heard the rest of them, they probably think they’re dated. The challenge: How do we keep these classics, and traditions, alive? We make them relevant to today’s world.

When I think of storybooks or fairytales, I think of a cosy, dusty old room in the back of my grandparent’s house, where my grandmother kept the kid toys we’d play with and books we’d read over and over again when we stayed at their house. There was one book, in particular, that was thick, with gold-rimmed pages (so fancy!) and lots of, well, really weird pictures. Cats wearing tall black boots and kittens wearing mittens and butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. The stories were crazy too. A man that ate pumpkin all the time. He put his wife in a giant one! A lady that had so many children she didn’t know what to do. And get this — they lived in a shoe. A shoe!! A cracked egg that even kings couldn’t help. Princesses. Oh, the princesses. And riches beyond reason. I couldn’t get enough of that book. I read those pages over and over, the gold trim slowly fading wherever I tended to touch the most. The fact that my grandmother had so many of those rhymes and stories memorized blew my mind. How did she do it?

Year after year I realized she did it the same way I was doing it…by hearing them read over and over by my grandmother. She must have had them read to her over and over by HER grandmother too. As I grew, I was reading them on my own, over and over, to the point it became ingrained in my brain much the same way I can still remember her home phone number (Mohawk5–1104). Those stories aren’t just something written in a book, they are something I shared, and treasured, with my grandmother. I grew up without a mom, so she was the closest adult to me, and that bond over reading is absolutely life changing and irreplaceable. Parent to child, or grandparent to grandchild.

That’s how tradition becomes tradition, and classics become classics.

Yet somehow, we’ve lost that sense of tradition. The classics, unless they’ve been turned into a movie, Broadway musical, or (often unbearable) TV show, are no longer retold. Don’t get me wrong — I understand why. Those classics are often horrifying! They’re awful, and weird, terribly politically incorrect, and not something I ever read to my own kids. Lots of kids getting eaten. Child brides. I mean, some versions of the original Sleeping Beauty are so horrific, I can’t even tell you. And the very beginning of the Snow White movie when the queen sends the squire to bring back Snow’s White’s HEART?? Oh my gosh, when I bought that CD for my daughter I had to fast forward through that part every time, I had completely forgotten.

We have to admit the classics might not be worth retelling AS-IS in today’s modern world. I think we as parents realized we didn’t want our kids hearing that stuff anymore, and we stopped retelling the stories.

The bad part of that is we lost tradition. We lost that part of “let me tell you a story that I heard from my mom who heard it from her mother who heard it from her grandmother…”

What happened in the meantime is someone else started telling our kids stories. Some one, or some thing. Our kids are watching these stories on TV or on their iPad or reading it piecemeal off someone’s Twitter feed. They aren’t sitting on our laps anymore. Or not as much as they could be.

I think it’s time to take lap time back. Take those classics back, too. But hang on a second, let‘s turn those classics on their heads. Make them fun and relevant — something a kid today WANTS to listen to. Something that both parents AND kids can have fun with.

That’s why I wrote the Bedtime Stories series “Kid Joey: Fairytale Detective” They take conventional storybook rhymes and fairytales, but add a twist. So the story you THINK you know, the story you’ve heard over and over, has a new ending or new twist, or new angle — with lots of laughs along the way. It’s fun for adults because they don’t know the ending or details either, and they get to experience the story in a new way, together with the child.

I figured it would be fun to take those same stories we know so well, and add some unexpected perspectives and new twists. These “new” stories let kids of today relate to the classics while parents and grandparents get to see, and enjoy them, in a new light. And not be horrified! What if we met PRINCE Midas, before he was King and before he turned into a selfish jerk? What if the 3 Little Pigs were a set of chatty girl triplets? I mean, an egg sitting on a wall makes no sense, and it spilling its guts all over the places is terrifying. But what if Humpty Dumpty was a football player, and his defense strategy was called “The Wall”? What if there was another kid named Joey who made it his mission to make sure Humpty did NOT have a great fall? I mean, sure, it’s still a leap of faith that a giant egg is walking around school, let alone playing football, or that pigs can talk, etc, but there is a certain degree of creative license fairytales allow us. It works. The fun comes in when we turn those fairytales upside down, on their heads, and see what shakes out. Let’s have a laugh while we read these stories. (Spoiler alert: there are no guts splayed about! No evil stepmoms either. (You’re welcome.))

What’s extra fun about the series is it gives parents, grandparents, and caregivers the chance to open up a dialogue about the old fairytale and storybook tales. Maybe it‘s the chance to tell the story for the first time. For example, in one story, Jack Spratt is mentioned, but no reference to him eating no fat and/or his wife eating no lean is brought up. Ask your kids “Do you know who Jack Spratt is?” When they say “No,” which they are bound to reply, pause for a minute and recite the silly rhyme. Share the story with them. Embrace that laptime. We all know it’ll be gone in a flash.

Let’s start the conversation back up, and have fun doing so!


About the Author

You may have seen author Bitsy Kemper on CNN, profiled in Writing Children’s Books For Dummies, or in literally hundreds of American TV news programs, newspapers and magazines. Maybe you passed her at the airport and didn’t even know it! Author of over 16 books, from picture books to chapter books to YA, she has enjoyed resuscitating old fairytales and bringing Joey to life in these (hopefully charming!) bedtime stories.

She enjoys dark chocolate, yoga, and church — but is careful to never indulge in all three at the same time. Busy raising three kids (four if you count her husband), she loves presenting at schools, libraries, and conferences all around the world.

Find out more at www.BitsyKemper.com.

How do I Find an Agent?

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Google “how to find a literary agent for children’s books” and you’ll get 1,580,000 hits. Over one and a half million! And that’s just in the kidlit world. There are many, many theories on how to find one, just like there are many many theories on how to write the perfect picture book. Many roads will take you there, my friend. You just need to start walking. THEY AREN’T GOING TO COME TO YOU.
First things first. You need to make sure your manuscript is print ready. Never send something that isn’t perfect/finished! Has it been copy edited? Have you had more than one other person review it–do you have a reliable/experienced critique partner/group? Have you been working on it for longer than, say, a month? The ironic thing here is that the next thing I’m going to say is be prepared to make changes if necessary which contradicts the “make sure it’s perfect/finished” statement. An agent might have suggestions on how to make your manuscript better, and you might need to make those changes before he or she agrees to represent you. (It’s ALWAYS up to you to decide if and how those changes will be implemented. It’s your manuscript, afterall. Feel free to say “No, thanks” and move on to the next agent on your list if the recommend changes don’t feel right to you.)
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Second, you need to research the right agent FOR YOU, one that will like/accept not only your genre and age range but fits your style. That means your style of writing as well as your style of a working relationship. You do that by researching reputable agencies online and reading up on every agent that reps the kind of manuscript you have–based on what they have already sold and based on what they say they are looking for. Have they represented authors that have books similar to yours? That’s what you are looking for. This may be the only time you don’t want uniqueness. You want someone with relevant experience so they can get you the best deal and offer you the best, most applicable guidance. A super YA agent, for example, might be a crappy picture book agent. It’s a different world. Maybe it’ll work out–see what else they’ve sold. The good news is they will tell you directly on their page what they are looking for and have sold but that bad news is it’s a lot of work b/c there are so many agencies and so many agents.
How to get started researching, you may ask?
  • https://janefriedman.com/find-literary-agent/ gives an excellent overview on finding agents. It’s not specific to kidlit, but is worth reading every word. This post is from 2015 but still very much valid. Jane gives tips on checking an agent’s track record, what to expect from a good agent (are they members of AAR?), and explains submission guidelines piece by piece. READ IT. I’m not kidding.
  • The very first blog page on that Writer’s Digest site that I’d recommend you read is http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/pubtips. Editor Chuck Sambuchino culled advice from real agents, who Tweeted their top tips on what to do and how to do it. For example, some advice from 2013 that still stands is from agent Jacquie Flynn’s (@BookJacquie): “Check out an agent’s website, tweets, & blog posts to get a sense of her style & taste before you query. Customize for best results.”
  • Speaking of Twitter…I’ll go ahead and quote Chuck from that same blog, who says, “Many, many agents are on Twitter. And by reading their tweets, you can get a deeper understanding of what they seek as well as what kind of writing excites them. Use an agent’s online footprint and research them. Read their blog interviews. Review their website. This helps you better target agents to query, and it also helps you learn more about each rep, giving you information you can use to begin your query letter. For example, ‘Dear Ms. Flynn, I saw your tweet about how you seek irreverently humorous young adult books such as Spanking Shakespeare. For this reason, I think you would like my YA comedy of errors, [Title].'”
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Social media is your friend when researching agents

  • And speaking of matching up agents with what they’ve already said they like…Have you heard of MSWL? If not, write it down! There is a great website/resource called MSWL — Manuscript Wish List  — where agents regularly Tweet out exactly what they are hoping to find, and the results are tallied and searchable here: http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com You can do a search for exactly what you’ve written, such as #magic #chapterbook #unicorns, and see if there are any matches. It’s worth coming back to again and again.
  • If you’re a member of SCBWI (and if you’re not, don’t be an idiot, join already!), start looking up names and agencies with “The Book” that is online to members http://www.scbwi.org/online-resources/the-book/. Go to the Agents section. It lists websites for every agency that’s worth reviewing. [“The Book” also lists all major kidlit publishing houses, and gives websites and contact information as well as if they accept unagented or “unsolicited” manuscripts (unsolicited means you need to end a query first), if you decide against pursuing an agent.] Narrow down the agencies you like, then look at their agents, and if the agent reps your age range and/or genre and you think you’d get along, then give them a whirl. There are other sources online that charge for this information and may be worth looking into if you don’t have SCBWI access. Either way, always verify your searches with the agent websites and/or agent social media accounts. Do that with a basic Google search.
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  • Wondering about warning signs, such as contests disguised as paid editing services or agents asking for a reading fee? NEVER PAY AN AGENT TO READ YOUR MANUSCRIPT! RUN AWAY, RUN AWAY! [The exception is legit conferences where you submit your work for a fee in exchange for a critique/feedback, or fundraisers like #PensforPaws where agents (or editors) donate their time to giving you feedback and the money goes to charity. These are NOT solicitations for representation so don’r count as creepy agent maneuvers.] Tally up sleeze-meter readings with help from this list created by “Writer Beware” http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/agents/
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In all honesty, you don’t NEED an agent in the children’s book industry. If you ask me (and you did) I suggest you take all that time researching agents and spend it perfecting your manuscripts. You can submit to many editors and publishing houses directly.  The key is always quality writing, not the agent that submits it. 
The bottom line is: just like when writing your manuscript, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Perfect your work. Research out a few solid agents that will work FOR YOU, submit per their exact submission guidelines, and see what they say. If they all pass b/c they say your manuscript isn’t ready, well, you know what your next steps will be.
If they like it, well, wasn’t all that work worth it?
Write on!

Creating an Author Platform

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Quick quiz: You’re told you need to work on your “Author Platform.” You:

  1. Smile politely, then go back to searching online for cute cat outfits
  2. Nod, smile, then furiously Google “Writers’ d” hoping you’re not the last to know what the heck that is
  3. Think “Oh, yeah it really is time I update my Facebook, Twitter, blog and website,” then dig right in
  4. B or C but definitely not A (unless it was a really good sale)

Correct answer: D.

What is an Author Platform? And why do you need to care?

Let’s break it down. Author. Platform. It’s like a compound word. (Author Platforms or Writer Platforms, no matter what you call it, are the same thing, don’t get hung up on author vs writer. For the sake of ease, we’ll use the terms synonymously here. I’m also capitalizing the words here for effect, which is unnecessary elsewhere.) A writer or an author is someone who has written something. A platform is a raised surface, something you’d stand on for better visibility. Like a stage. Put the words together and you’ve got an image of a writer standing on a, well, platform, a little taller than everyone around them. They stand out; you can spot them in a crowd.

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That’s the writer you want to be.

You want to be the writer/author that people can find easily or can recognize…the one that stands out. And you’ll need a platform on order to do it.

“Author Platform: your visibility as an author, utilizing your personal ability to sell books through who you are, the connections you have, and the media outlets you use.” –Writer’s Digest

I think of the term as a less-commercial way of saying “author branding.” It means how you present yourself to the public, and how you are seen/viewed by readers, agents, editors, fellow writers/artists and anyone else paying attention. It’s a way of showing your unique qualities that “brand” you as a person, as a writer, or artist…with the ultimate goal of leading to book sales.

Don’t confuse it with image. Image implies something perceived. You’ll be putting the real, flawed you out there, just like you do for your main characters. An Author Platform should be based on truth. You’re not an actor hiring a publicity agent to get media attention. You’re you, showing who you are, with the ultimate goal that the likeable you is worthy of following or noting or reading or acknowledging, and it will at some point lead to book sales. Isn’t that why school visits, book signings, special promotions, launch parties and all that exist, to sell books? Well you’re the in-person version of that, the walking billboard, the neon sign, open 24/7. Except when you’re asleep. Or whatever. You know what I mean.

You are NOT shaking hands and asking people to buy your book all th
e time, oh no, you’re missing the point. No one is going to follow or buy the book from a guy that’s sending pestering Tweets or spamming Facebook posts or always standing up in groups asking people to buy their books after the meeting. Boy is that annoying or what? I hate that guy. What I’m saying is you are your brand. You represent you. So be respectable. Make me like you. Make me WANT to buy your book. If you do it right, you will probably never have to say the words “Buy my book.” I’ll decide I want to on my own.

 

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Note this is a Writer Platform, not a book platform. This is about you, not your book. Why?
Because you’re more than one book. If you brand yourself too closely with one title, on the next book you’ll have to do it all over again. That confuses people. They can handle lots of books, but they only want one you. Brand yourself correctly and all your books will easily fall under that one umbrella…you!

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Everything you post online becomes a part of your brand. Your Tweets, your FB posts, your blog updates. Your forwards, your shares, your likes. It all shapes the person people see. Those who have never met you can only form an opinion based on what they see. And that’s based on what you do. How you reply to comments. What you post or repost. It’s not always what you say, but how you say it. Continue reading

3 Ways to Rock Your Bio

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, right? Your bio may be the only time someone decides if they’re going to invest more time or energy into getting to know you, into hiring you, or into trusting you. So you want to put your best foot forward. Make that both feet.

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This image was brazenly and randomly stolen off the internet

1. Know Your Audience  What is the bio for? A book flap? Conference? Website? School visit? Who is reading it? Make sure your qualifications match the reason you’re there as a speaker, writer, professional. You’re a complicated (yet attractive) beast with many facets. You can’t possibly put everything down every time; nor would you want to. Play up your experience for that circumstance, adapting as needed. If you’ve written a piece on molecular biology, your stint in improv has no place in that bio. Your experience as a second grade teacher might, if the piece was written for grade schoolers. If it’s for college level, though, just mention being a teacher. Do you see what I mean? Highlight what uniquely qualifies you or makes you stand out for that situation. Do your audience the Continue reading

How Many Pages Should Your Manuscript or Book Be?

Sometimes it’s easier to see than explain:

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Revision: Taking A Step Back

 

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Have you ever been asked to read a friend’s manuscript, and, well, their work was borderline horrible? But that friend is so clueless that he/she thinks it’s PERFECT and is honestly thinks a movie deal will be offered any day now?

Well I’ve been that friend. My first drafts were horrible. In fact, I didn’t even know they were drafts. I thought I had a final product. And I thought I had a GOOD final product.

After the first pieces of feedback, I got busy rewording a few things here and there, changed a description or two. What I didn’t realize is I was waaaay off the mark in what needed to be fixed. It wasn’t a matter of copy edits. It was the story overall needed some attention. “Revision” was something that needed to sit tight while bigger issues were figured out.

Here’s what I wish helpful folks would have told me:

Dear Bitsy,

Thank you for the chance to review your manuscript. It’s a charming concept with some wonderful moments. But it needs a bit of work.

A book is a story, a destination. HOW you tell the story is almost more important than WHAT the story is. Both need to be solid.

A simple question to ask yourself is: My books is about _______ but underneath it’s about ________. Wanting to dance, for example, is really a story about wanting to find a partner, or wanting to belong. Knowing what your character wants is what your story is about. Continue reading