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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


This article is cross-posted on Beth Fehlbaum’s blog.

Every author’s journey to publication is different. Someone close to me once said, “No one cares where you’ve been or what you’ve done.” That’s true in many cases. There should be a take-away value for you in hearing my experience, or it won’t have practical value that you might apply to your own path to publication. Hopefully something I’ve done or shared can contribute to your own publishing success. Maybe it will shorten the path. Here are my four tips based on my path to publication with my novel NO SURRENDER SOLDIER (Merit Press/Adams Media/F+W Media, tbr January 18, 2014.)

1. WRITE – I had been a published for years in many genres before I started writing novels. Novels are a very difficult form, very different from writing other genres. When I committed to writing novels I wrote four novels in five years. The third novel I wrote was NO SURRENDER SOLDIER. This novel, set on Guam in 1972, was originally 35,000 words, 137 pages, two point of views (POV) both in 3rd person, no prologue and no framing in the first chapter.

2. CRITIQUES AND CONFERENCES -- Before writing novels I worked solo. But I knew novels would be harder to sell. So I joined Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and a local writers’ guild, including working as the Children’s Lit workshop director and on the guild board. I joined a critique group through SCBWI.

I went to SCBWI conferences and had a lot of interest from editors and agents in my YA novels. I landed the first literary agency I pursued. But despite this promising start, I wasn’t able to close a deal with an editor/publisher. Neither was my agent.

3. SUBMISSION STATEGY – One thing my agent and I agreed on was our submission strategy. Even before I’d partnered with her, I sent a manuscript out to only three editors at a time. When I got a critique letter from an editor then I used it as a revision guide. For example, Garen Thomas, then editor at Harcourt, sent me a letter saying I had a firm grasp of Guam history and culture but I needed to make sure it didn’t overload the plot and storyline. Thomas’s critique helped me revise NO SURRENDER SOLDIER as if I was carving a bar of Ivory soap.

After four rejection letters in 2001 and a termination letter from my agent in early 2002, I revised NO SURRENDER SOLDIER all during 2002. In February 2003 I took my novel to a Houston SCBWI conference and all three editors did not request to see it. As a result, I changed my strategy

4. WORKSHOPS -- I decided that maybe the problem was mine. Although I had degrees and experience in writing, and was teaching for the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL), a college-accredited writing course, I wanted to take my own writing up notches. So I quit attending conferences and spent the money instead on workshops. (Apply for scholarships if available.) The biggest problem was finding workshops that teach advanced craft. At that time most workshops in children’s lit circles concentrated on teaching basics in “Nuts & Bolts” seminars. I even attended some workshops that were advertised as advanced, and they weren’t. (That has since changed and there are good advanced craft workshops in children’s lit now.) One thing I learned was that just because someone is an excellent writer doesn’t necessarily make them a good teacher. I did, however, find some writers who taught advanced craft.

In October 2003 Christy Ottaviano at Henry Holt requested NO SURRENDER SOLDIER. In January 2004 Christy gave me a one-page critique and asked if I would revise on speculation. I should have laminated this critiqued because I used it as my revision guide from then on. I did revise on speculation and gave her back my manuscript May 2004. The editor held my manuscript until November 2004 when she went home to have another baby and cut back on her list. (Christy wow has her own imprint.) She sent me a rejection letter with another critique.

5. REVISE UNITL POLISHED – I used that critique to do another revision. I also went to a workshop again at Arkansas SCBWI with Michael Green, then VP of Philomel, who critiqued the first several chapters; I took his advice when revising. In 2005 I went to three workshops, although I only used NO SURRENDER SOLDIER in one. But in two of the Highlights workshops with editor Carolyn Yoder I started getting Carolyn Yoder’s editorial voice and style in my head. In teaching ICL, I found this is the best gift I could give students is to learn how to revise their own works. Although Carolyn and I worked on revising a MG Civil War novel, it’s her editorial voice I hear now when making decisions on what to cut and what to expand.

By 2006 my novel was 47,000 words, 182 pages, in third person, and no framing in the first chapter. Plus, I had added a prologue.

Meanwhile, I did not submit NO SURRENDER SOLDIER again until summer 2005. Although I still did not have an agent, editors requested the full manuscript and sent personal rejection letters. Most echoed what Lauren Velevis (Morphew), then editor of HarperCollins wrote, “You write well. Not what I’m looking for.” Lauren’s rejection was the last time I submitted NO SURRENDER SOLDIER until Fall 2012.
In 2009 I kept the prologue, added a framing to Chapter 1 and kept it sequential. I also changed Kiko’s chapters from third person to first person.

From Fall 2009 through June 20011 I was revising pre-publication the fourth novel I’d written, a contemporary YA. GRIDIRON GIRLS was in acquisitions at WestSide Books when the YA imprint was sold. I also had an agent from a top agency for two years (until Spring 2012). Although she never submitted anything she gave me great critiques, both on GRIDIRON GIRLS and NO SURRENDER SOLDIER. The changes for NO SURRENDER SOLDIER mostly deepened relationships. It increased the novel to 55,000 words, 205 pages. My agent left agenting Spring 2012.

That October I sent NO SURRENDER SOLDIER to Jacquelyn Mitchard, editor of a new YA imprint, Merit Press. It took two months and one week for the publisher’s committee to give Jackie and me a “yes” on December 23, 2012—a most splendid Christmas present indeed!

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