Thursday, March 23, 2017

Michigan KidLit Advocate: Ed Spicer

SCBWI-MI author Charlie Barshaw is here to present our second Michigan KidLit Advocate interview. (If you missed the first interview in our series, go here.) Introducing southwest Michigan educator, Ed Spicer. Enjoy their funny banter! 

I was tempted to subtitle this “An Improbable Journey”. It’s melodramatic but appropriate. You were a homeless teen, lived secretly in a church, and were on your own by the age of fifteen. What would you care to share about your early years?

ES: Well, I was homeless, lived secretly in a church, and was on my own by age fifteen and still managed to make it to 62! Other than that?

In an interview, you mentioned going to the local Federated Department Store. There you’d lose yourself for hours in the books of Beverly Cleary and the Nancy Drew series. What other books helped to shape the voracious reader and huge reading champion you are today?

I have mentioned A Wrinkle In Time before, but I do not think that I mentioned works by Diane Wakoski. I took a class from Wakoski. It was, perhaps obvious, a poetry writing class, but I learned a deeper appreciation for reading poetry too. This class prompted me to attend poetry readings and I can remember going to listen to Galway Kinnell and many others. It was around this time that I began reading Audre Lorde, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and many others. I had already fallen in love with Emily Dickenson, Shakespeare, and the romantic poets, going so far as to memorize hundreds of poems, many that I can still recite today more than forty years later.

You own a whole closetful of fish shirts. Can you tell us the significance?

I worked at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in its Aquarium Museum. One of my jobs there was to design clothing. I worked on hundreds of fish shirts, mostly T-shirts and I never gave up collecting them. They make me happy and make me suck my face up into fish faces, which usually gets folks to laugh. I count that as a win.

Tell us about your relationship with Pam Munoz Ryan.

I love Pam! At one time I was even (sort of) her boss. Pam was the director of our Episcopal Church preschool and I was on the Vestry that served as the Board of Directors. Pam did a ton of work to create a preschool that worked closely with the Helen Woodward Senior Center. The State was initially convinced that these small children would infect the seniors with all sorts of diseases and bump them off. When Pam actually documented the health benefit derived from mixing preschoolers and seniors, we were all pleased (but not really surprised). 

One day, however, Pam handed us her resignation because she wanted to go write books. We thought, “Good luck with that.” Pam did not need our luck, it turns out, because she has a ton of talent. It is interesting that it took me sometime to realize that this Pam Munoz Ryan from the Encinitas area is the same Pam Ryan I knew from Church. And when I did confirm the identity, it took me even longer to read Esperanza Rising because I was worried that I might not like my friend’s book (I ADORE IT). Since that title, Pam has written many great books. I was predicting she would win Newbery recognition for at least two books before Echo. Not only is Pam one of the nicest and kindest people I know, she is a great writer!

You left sunny California to reverse-migrate to Michigan. You had an unusual business plan in mind. Care to tell us about it?

This plan very much ties into Pam’s preschool, because I wanted to do something in Allegan very similar to what Pam did in Encinitas. I wanted to open a preschool that mixed seniors and very young children. I knew exactly where I wanted the preschool. Knew who I would have to get to donate the land and more.

You also had a goal: you wanted to be on the Newberry committee. Why, oh why would that be on your bucket list? And what did you do to try to make this goal a reality?

I was sitting on the Seventh floor of the GVSU Library madly trying to finish Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson before children’s lit class began that night. I needed to take this class to get my teachable major so I could enroll in the GVSU teacher education program. And there I was sobbing as I finished that book moments before class. I loved this book and was so happy it was an award winner. Ann, my librarian wife, asked me about class and I told her about Bridge to Terabithia and my new goal to be on the Newbery committee. I have been on the Caldecott Committee, the Printz Committee, the Morris Committee, the Margaret Edwards Committee, the Schneider Family Committee, Best Books for Young Adults, Notable Children’s Books, and others. I have NOT (yet?) been on the Newbery Committee.

Almost by accident you ended up being assigned to the first grade. It’s certainly a role that plays against type. But you excelled at it for how many years?  What did you find so satisfying in teaching the youngest of students?

I have always stated that we make a huge mistake when we argue, say, that early education should have a higher priority than middle school or high school. All are important. All have different needs and different challenges. This argument is like one part of the body feasting on another part—cannibalistic at best. However, it may well be true that we see the most visible academic growth with these young minds, just learning to assume responsibility for themselves. I love that! (See student letter to Ed below in the comments.)

You taught first grade, so you’re obviously familiar with all things picture book. Yet you review YA novels for SLJ, Hornbook, and the Michigan Reading Journal.  How does that jibe?

I have said before that we do not spend all that time working with young children just to see them give up on reading as a teen. A reading life should be a connected life through the grades.

You worked for decades with high school students to produce an annual compilation of writing called “Tiger Tales.” What got you started in that, and what kept you going?

Readers read writing and writers write reading. You cannot extricate the reading from the writing. Writing is thinking. I like first graders who grow up to think. This contest gave cash prizes, published a book with student writing, motivated thousands of students over the years. How could I not be involved?

You have a blog with the unfortunate name of Spicy Reads. Apparently, some visitors expected a different form of entertainment. The latest entries seem to be from 2012. Have you moved on from this format, or might you revive it at some point?

Look for a SpicyReads revision this year! AND the title, I beg your pardon, is JUST FINE! I cannot help what SNL does in response to certain unfortunately named press secretaries.

You are good friends with a huge list of children’s book creators: Gary Schmidt, Candy Fleming and Eric Rhoman, Lynn Rae Perkins, Nikki Grimes… the list goes on.
Each friendship, of course, is unique. But, how did you come to meet all of these kidlit stars?

I love people who care about kindness and care about words and art. My friends care about many of the same things. That, more than anything, explains any friendship. Each one has a uniquely personal story that typically revolves around words, kindness, art, and thinking.

You’ve taught college students at GVSU, presented at TLA about the homeless reader, presented at MRA and the Youth Literature Conference at Kalamazoo. I’m sure there’s a question lurking somewhere in there. 

Yes I have and let me know when you find the question.

Then you appeared at the SCBWI-MI conference at Mackinac Island. You closed the conference with a poignant story about Brycen and Snowman Magic. What was the takeaway for a bunch of children’s writers?

I think the most important take away is to stop working for awards and reviews and continue working for all the Brycens out there. They are more important anyway.

You've worked on the Printz and Caldecott committees, among others. Lots of anonymous donated work for no recognition. What’s the reward?

It is in bringing that magic book, like Snowman Magic, home to all the Brycens and all the Briannas in my area.

You say that your ideal vacation is the annual American Library Association meeting. What’s the attraction?

Smart, kind, funny, talented people and lots of books! What’s not to love!

I interviewed Travis Jonker and didn’t ask this question, and missed the scoop that he had just sold his first picture book. So, what are you working on now?

I am working on this interview!

Finally, tell me about your work on curriculum guides.

I have written curriculum guides for older teens, such as Jay Asher's 13 Reasons Why (soon to be a movie?). I have also written guides for much younger students, such as Il Song Na’s Welcome Home, Bear or the most recent guide I just finished for member, Leslie Helakoski’s Hoot & Honk Just Can’t Fall Asleep. I’ve written guides for The Dark Is Rising and The Grey King by Susan Cooper. I wrote a guide for the American Heritage Illustrated Children’s Dictionary! Most of my guides have been for the phenomenal series by Houghton Mifflin, Scientists In the Field. I have four more coming down the pipe soon. When I submitted Leslie’s that was my 47th or 48th paid guide for me. Soon I will have done more than 50! This both delights and scares me: I love thinking of possibilities for encouraging creativity, but I live in terror of that student with a big stick in hand who finds me late one night in a dark alley and accuses me of ruining his life: “My teacher mades us do every one of your stupid activities and now I hate reading! WHACK!"

Keep up with Ed Spicer's adventures on Facebook and Twitter, and stay tuned for his updated
Spicy Reads website.

Want to learn more? Check out these blog posts/interviews and videos:

Charlie Barshaw has four MG and YA novels-in-progress, three stories published by Amazon Rapids, two dogs and a gifted, supportive and encouraging wife. Ruth and I have traveled to dozens of schools during Reading Month. We are exhausted and fulfilled.

Coming up on the SCBWI-MI blog: Hugs and Hurrahs! We want to trumpet your success. Please send your writing/illustrating/publishing news to Patti Richards by March 28th to be included.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Michigan KidLit Advocate Interview: Colby Sharp

If you've spent any amount of time in the KidLitosphere, you've likely noticed certain bloggers popping up time and again. They're passionate about bringing quality literature to kids and deeply involved in the overlapping communities of writers and illustrators, teachers and librarians. And maybe, like me, you're curious to know more about their lives beyond their blogs, especially the ones that live in Michigan. So, today we have the first of our Michigan KidLit Advocate Interviews. Introducing Colby Sharp!

Tell us a little about yourself and describe a typical day or week.
I teach third grade in Parma, Michigan. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I go straight from school to my daughters' gymnastics class. On those days we get home around 9:45. I coach a fourth grade Destination Imagination team that meats Thursday after school. I am blessed to have days filled with things I love to do. 

My wife and I had our fifth kid in February, so right now we are just trying to survive.

Yes, dear readers, I've already apologized to Colby for unknowingly asking for an interview as he was expecting his fifth child! He was very gracious. Onward. You're involved in some special projects that have grown and attracted a passionate following. Tell us more about the Nerdy Book Club and Nerd Camp.
The Nerdy Book Club is a blog that I co-founded with Donalyn Miller. We started it because we were hoping to create a list of book awards filled with books that our students would love. People seemed excited, so we decided to keep it going. We asked our community what they wanted on the site, and we developed a weekly schedule around their feedback.

Nerd Camp is an extension of Nerdy Book Club. It is sort of like our annual meeting. Last year we had people from more than 35 states come to Parma for camp.

Authors and illustrators can contribute by writing a post for Nerdy Book Club (You can find a link on the site to sign up). Everyone is welcome to come to Nerd Camp, and we'd love to have anyone that cares about reading and books to join us. 

You also manage your own blog, Sharpread. What are your time management secrets?  How do you keep up with all of this wonderful work on top of full-time teaching?
I try to only do things I enjoy doing. Lately, I've been following the work of The Minimalists. They've helped me see the importance of only having things in your life that bring you joy. Life is too short to do things that don't make you smile. 

What are you looking forward to?
I'm really looking forward to publishing my first book: The Creativity Project (Little Brown, 2018). It is almost done, and I can't wait to hold it in my arms, and share it with kids. 

Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule for us, Colby, and congrats on your two new babies - your first book baby and your fifth child. :)

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Join us next Friday for another Michigan KidLit Advocate Interview. Who will it be? And then we'll wrap up the month with another dose of inspiration from our quarterly Hugs and Hurrahs. We want to trumpet your success! Please send your writing/illustrating/publishing good news to Patti Richards by March 28th.

Kristin Lenz

Friday, March 10, 2017

The SCBWI Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Grant by Joan Donaldson

In 1992, when Tasha Tudor illustrated my first picture book, it sold well. I believed that with hard work and attention to craft, editors would want my manuscripts, and I would develop a career as a children’s author. But instead, seven years passed before I signed another book contract. Editors often told me that I was a good writer, but they weren’t sure that there was a market for my stories. Like a car sputtering along on low fuel, I decided to invest in a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing so that I could hone my skills.

Earning a MFA at Spalding University was life changing.  I minored in writing for young people and majored in creative nonfiction. Mentors and fellow students encouraged my talents and suggested ways to improve my manuscripts. During the four falls that I attended Spalding, I sold a picture book manuscript, The Secret of the Red Shoes, and my young adult novel, On Viney’s Mountain. At last, my writing career was cruising!

When On Viney’s Mountain won the 2010 Friends of American Writer’s YA Award, became a finalist for the 2011 Bronte Prize for Romantic Literature, appeared on the Bank Street List of the Best Books of 2010, and represented the State of Tennessee at the 2010 National Book Festival. But even after promoting the novel, the book didn’t sell well. The publisher chose not to reprint it and my career at that publishing house ended.

When I read about the Jane Yolen Mid-list Author’s Grant, the description fit my writing career, especially the sentence about not selling a book manuscript in the past five years. Ms. Yolen created the grant not only to provide authors with a monetary sum that could be spent on hiring an editor or perhaps on marking, but also to encourage authors not to cease writing. I filled out an application that included a career summary and brief summary of my latest project, Mooey Bien, a middle grade novel about a friendship between a white girl and a Latino migrant girl.

When SCBWI informed me that Jane Yolen had awarded me an honor prize, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that Jane had affirmed my writing. On the stage with Jane at the New York SCBWI conference, I promised her that no matter what, I will continue to write.

For any Michigan SCBWI member who is discouraged because she or he hasn’t sold a manuscript in several years, consider filling out an application for the 2018 grant. Ponder how you would use the funds to fuel your career, and most of all, keep writing, dreaming and hoping that the next email will state that a publisher wants your book.

Joan Donaldson receives a hug onstage
from Jane Yolen at the SCBWI
Annual Winter Conference
Joan Donaldson writes from her organic blueberry farm near Saugatuck, Michigan. In the past, she has served on the SCBWI-MI board and as a judge for the mentorship contest. After earning her MFA in creative nonfiction, she has facilitated writing workshops at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. Learn more at

Congrats again on this wonderful honor, Joan, and thank you for sharing your inspiring story. To learn more about the many SCBWI grants and awards, go here. Writers and illustrators who are looking for an extra dose of inspiration this spring or opportunities to network and grow your craft, check out these upcoming events from SCBWI-MI and more:

March 15th: final deadline for the SCBWI-MI Written Critique Program. Receive feedback on your manuscript from your choice of agents and editors.

March 25th: The Michigan Writing Workshop, Novi, MI. (Not an SCBWI event)

April 1st: Rochester Writer's Spring Conference, Writing for Children and Young Adults, Oakland University, Rochester, MI. (Not an SCBWI event)

April 29th: SCBWI-MI Marketing Bootcamp in East Lansing, more info soon

September 15-16th: SCBWI-MI Fall Retreat, Grand Rapids, more info to come

SCBWI-MI Shop Talks meet monthly. Click here to find a location near you.
Special Opportunity: The Lansing Area Shop Talk will meet at the Charlotte Library, March 25, 11am, to see award-winning Michigan author Gary D. Schmidt.

Happy creating!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, March 3, 2017

The 2017 SCBWI Annual Winter Conference: So Many Feelings by Andrea Donahoe

If my trip to the 2017 SCBWI-NY conference was a movie, it would be “Inside Out” because it was filled to the brim with So. Many. Feelings. Here are just a few…

Frantically checking for flight updates in advance of the conference as word got around that a big storm was going to hit NYC and flights were being cancelled days in advance.

Boarding the plane and smiling out of the tiny jet window as I zoomed away from my husband, two kids, and three jobs for a weekend full of writing inspiration.

Bryan Collier delivered the opening keynote. His passionate exploration of the grief of losing a father felt by the main character in KNOCK KNOCK brought a room of twelve hundred people to silence. I was brought to tears by the power of his words and their echo of my own recent loss of my father.

-A panel on picture book types where Andrea Beaty described writing in rhyme to be like hearing music playing in another room and listening closer and closer to hear the words.

-A session on pacing in picture books with Silvie Frank that had me scribbling across the pages of my notebook as she walked through her editorial revision process.

The swirl of energy from the sessions of the day took a pause for the quietly powerful keynote address by Tahereh Mafi on the immense bravery it takes to declare yourself a writer, to keep going in the face of pain or rejection, and to remain vulnerable. She said writers must not develop a thick skin. We need a deep well of feelings in order to write, for “what good is a writer who cannot feel?”

Heidi Sheffield with her artwork
And then...

Portfolio Showcase Honor Awards

Joan Donaldson receives a hug from Jane Yolan
-The evening mixer to where I got to visit with our fabulous Co-RAs Carrie and Leslie, other Michiganders, and fun folks from all over the world.

-The Sunday morning awards ceremony where Michigan was well represented by Heidi Sheffield for a Portfolio Showcase Honor Award, and by Joan Donaldson who received a Jane Yolen Midlist Author Honor Award. Woohoo!

- A fabulous session on nonfiction picture books.

And Wonder:
The rousing final keynote was delivered by Sara Pennypacker, who reminded us to surround ourselves with people who respond to the world with positive acts of creation.

And that, truly, was the magic of attending this conference. It was wonderful to be surrounded by so many fellow creators; each one passionate about making the books that will shape the hearts, minds, and lives of children. I have followed the SCBWI conference blogs for years, enjoying the wealth of information, but being there in person was immensely inspirational and encouraging.

I’m grateful to Shutta Crum, for her generosity in providing the scholarship to the conference, and to the SCBWI-MI team, for the additional financial support. Thank you!

Andrea LeGore Donahoe lives in Petoskey, MI, with her husband, two children, a bouncy standard poodle, and far too many stacks of books. Find her at @allegore and

Shutta's scholarship to the annual NY conference is one of many SCBWI-MI opportunities. The Written Critique Program is well underway and the deadline is fast approaching. Four editors still have a handful of spots open - 
Alex Arnold
Alison S. Weiss
Kelly Barrales-Saylor
Nikki Garcia 
Don't miss this amazing opportunity to get written feedback on your manuscript, whether it be a picture book, MG or YA; fiction or non-fiction. For more information on all four editors and how to submit, click here.

But wait, there's more! Save the date for the SCBWI-MI Marketing Bootcamp in East Lansing, MI, April 29, 2017.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Joan Donaldson writes about winning a Jane Yolan Midlist Author Honor, we have interviews with two well-known kidlit bloggers, and we'll finish the month of March with another round of Hugs and Hurrahs! Send your good news to Patti Richards - the deadline is March 27th.

Happy creating!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, February 24, 2017

Between the Covers: An Indie Bookstore Interview by Kate Bassett and Alison DeCamp

Today's indie bookstore interview is a collaborative effort from the staff at Between the Covers bookstore in Harbor Springs, Michigan. Katie Capaldi has owned the store for less than four years, but she's already moved it to a better location, brought in world-class authors to both the town and schools, and had a baby!

Kate Bassett
Kate Bassett is the editor of the local paper, The Harbor Light, and the author of the YA novel Words and Their Meanings.

Alison DeCamp
Alison DeCamp has two middle grade novels under her belt, a third in progress, and she's part of the anthology, Funny Girl, that comes out in May.

Kate interviewed Alison for this special feature. Enjoy!

What's unique about Between the Covers? 
The owner, Katie Capaldi, is a bookseller. She's not a frustrated writer or a hobbyist, she LOVES books and loves finding the right book for every reader. She has created a store that feels curated--there are books we all love, books some of us love, books none of us love but we know a customer who will love it--all hand picked with people in mind.

How does this impact your role as a bookseller there? 
It's a fun and exciting place to work because it's such a good feeling to pair a book and a reader.

What's it like to both write books and sell them? Writing books has ruined reading for me. Ha! Just kidding. Kind of. ;)  Before becoming published it was a lot easier to simply read and enjoy a book. Now I'm constantly tearing a book apart to see how it works, thinking about techniques an author might use, and either wishing I had thought of an idea myself or baffled at how a book got published at all.

What are the most memorable author events you've experienced there...and why?
We had Andy Griffiths all the way from Australia as part of his U.S. tour and that was so fun. He's very professional, great with kids, and did not find me funny whatsoever. Regardless, it was fun having him and his publicist around for a couple of days.

What advice would you give authors before, during and after bookstore appearances?
I would first advise authors to create a relationship with a store (if possible) prior to asking for an event to be held. And, preferably, the bookstore asks you to come there rather than the other way around. Never, ever, ever act like you're doing the store a great favor by "letting" them sell your books/host an event/follow you around while you spill wine everywhere. During the event just be yourself. Also don't worry about the amount of people who may or may not show. I have found that even connecting with booksellers or a couple of attendees can be valuable--I've personally had events where two people showed up, but I got to know other authors or one of the people was a teacher or librarian. After an appearance it's always nice to get a thank you note, especially if the store has really gone all out.

What's the benefit of authors cultivating relationships with independent booksellers? Independent booksellers are an author's best friend. They know their customers, they know their books, and they know how to get the right book to the right reader. They also love to support authors they know and like.

As a successful middle grade author yourself, what's the best (and worst) advice you've been given when it comes to writing or publishing? 
The best advice came from my editor, Phoebe Yeh. She keeps reminding me that when it comes to middle grade, it's more of a slow burn. I had it in my mind that everything was going to be fast and furious. It's not. And my agent, Sarah Davies, always reminds me (and all of her clients, to be honest) to not "over egg the pudding." I think of that all of the time while I'm writing. And over egging the pudding. I don't know that I got bad advice, but I do think it's a good idea to only do the things that work for you--if you're comfortable on Twitter/Facebook/Snapchat/Instagram/Periscope/Doohickey (<---I made that one up, but something should be named that), go for it! But don't be someone you're not.

Any bookstore events you are especially looking forward to?
We, of course, are peripherally involved in the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book which takes place at the end of September, beginning of October. Last year's event was so much better than I even thought it would be, I'm even more excited for this year. And while it's not technically a bookstore event, it involves books and authors and that's always fun.

Thank you, Kate and Alison for sharing your insider's view! Please visit their author websites (Kate Bassett, Alison DeCamp) to learn more about their books, and like/follow the Between the Covers Facebook page to learn about their upcoming events.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Takeaways, photos, awards, and special honors from the annual SCBWI New York conference.

Have a great weekend!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, February 17, 2017

Writing Through a Slump by Nick Adkins

If a draft is written in a hotel lobby, and nobody is around to read it, does it really exist? 

I have been working on a chapter book since February 2015. The current iteration is "New Revisions 34." I don't know how many "Old Revisions" there were, but I do know that the new revisions started after I had named a file "August Adelaide's How to Make a Friend FINAL FINAL." Clearly it was not. 

Most of those drafts have never been read by anyone other than me. I don't like people seeing my work until I've read through it without making any edits. Then they mark it up in red and I start over. It’s crazy and endless. It's write and rewrite and think about it in the shower and in the car, and then start it all over again. 

But why so many rewrites? What is missing? Why have I deemed the 33 previous versions not good enough? Why haven’t I written “FINAL FINAL FINAL” yet? When I realized I didn’t have the answer, I sort of broke down. I stopped attending local writing groups. I stopped participating in the online writing community. After a couple weeks, I stopped writing.

I’ve heard this comparison that writers are like sharks. It’s thought that if a shark stops swimming, it will die. Likewise, if a writer stops writing, he or she will die. But it felt more like losing a friend. Like someone you’ve come to expect to be there day in and day out and then suddenly they aren’t. 

Fast forward. I dragged myself to a writing conference—Write on the Red Cedar. It was great last year, I knew it was going to be great this year, but I hadn’t written more than a few words in a few months. Did I really belong at a writing conference? A voice told me that I did not. I recognized it as the same voice that tells me I’ll never make it. But then I saw people I hadn’t seen in months. I conversed with them and it drowned that other voice out. Sure I sat at the table in the back of the room, but I was surrounded by writers. I was surrounded by my people.

And Michael Hauge was there. He taught us about emotion and conflict and structure. About a journey of transformation and inner motivation. I’ve heard of these things. I’m familiar with the hero’s journey. But I had always assumed it was better suited for an epic storyline like Star Wars. Then Michael showed us clips from Pixar’s Up and outlined Carl’s journey. That’s when I realized that part of August’s journey was missing. I left the talk. I sat down in the hotel lobby and I wrote. “How to Make a Friend FINAL Revision 1” was born.

If a draft is written in a hotel lobby, and nobody is around to read it, does it really exist? Will the first 20 minutes of Up have you crying like a baby? The answer to both questions is yes. Each draft lives on in its successor, getting better and better and better if only a little bit at a time. Anybody who works persistently at something knows this. Sometimes it takes a conversation with a friend to remind us. Sometimes it takes an 8 hour workshop with a Hollywood screenplay consultant. Whatever it takes, find it.

Nick is an author and an illustrator who has self-published two picture books. He illustrated The Great Big Scary Monster (by Saraya Evenson) and wrote and illustrated Sloth VS Turtle. Nick is currently working on a chapter book about an introvert, a robot, and the struggle of making a friend. Learn more at

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Interviews, interviews, interviews: a Michigan indie bookstore and a superstar librarian, teacher, and blogger. Plus, takeaways and congrats from the annual SCBWI Winter Conference in New York.

Happy creating,
Kristin Lenz

Friday, February 10, 2017

SUCCESS STORY: Patti Richards and Work-For-Hire Writing Projects

You all know Patti Richards as one of our Mitten blog editors. She trumpets the good news and hard work of our SCBWI-MI members in two quarterly features, Hugs and Hurrahs and Writer Spotlights. It's been awhile since we've shared a Success Story interview, and Patti is the perfect candidate. It's her turn to shine! Patti kicked-off the new year with the release of her newest non-fiction book, ALL ABOUT SOCIAL NETWORKING.

Tell us a little about your book.
ALL ABOUT SOCIAL NETWORKING (Red Line/North Star Editions, January 2017) is part of the Cutting-Edge Technology series produced by North Star Editions. There are eight books in all that cover everything from apps and coding to drones and social media. They had two titles for me to choose from and I took the social networking title because that’s an area where I’m very comfortable. Specifically, my book is written for kids age 9 to 13 and defines social networking, how instant messaging works, the social media choices that are out there for kids, how to stay safe while online and future trends in social networking.

This book was a work-for-hire project. What does that mean?  
Work-for-hire writing is a bit different from the usual way writers submit a manuscript and wait to hear from a publisher or agent. With work-for-hire, the publisher determines the titles they wish to publish during their editorial year. Then they reach out to writers who have submitted resumes and writing samples or who have been recommended by another writer. If the writer is interested in taking on the project, the company sends a contract that outlines the terms of the agreement and payment.

Once the writer signs and returns the contract, she receives instructions on how to proceed. For me, this included an outline, suggested subheadings, submission formatting and those all-important deadlines! I got all my instructions in late May and had two weeks to complete the first draft. I waited about a week after submitting the first draft for my editorial notes (which required a complete rewrite because I’d miss some important style-guide points…ugh), and then the final draft was due about two weeks later. So the entire process from start to finish took approximately six weeks. That was last summer, and the book was released a few weeks ago. For most picture books the entire process can take two years or more from the day the contract is signed.

Are there pros and cons for this type of writing?
I really don’t see a downside because work-for-hire projects accomplish some important things.
First, it’s a paying gig, and those can be few and far between in this business. There’s nothing like knowing the work you’re doing is work you’re actually getting paid for as a writer. It’s a confidence builder in an industry where “atta girls” can be scarce!

Second, it forces you to work to a style guide and deadlines. It’s very common for those new to the business side of writing to chafe under deadlines. For me, deadlines are a part of daily life, and basically, if you don’t get it turned in on time, you don’t get paid. Learning to write under this kind of pressure sharpens your writing and editing skills in a way nothing else can.

Third, you get a hold-in-your-hand book at the end of the process and a new credit for your resume. It might not be the next Newbery Award or an idea that was born in your writer soul, but seeing a project like this through to completion and getting to open the box with your author copies inside- well, there’s just nothing like it!

As far as cons go, it’s difficult to find any. You’ve done the work (maybe faster than you would otherwise), it’s a substantial credit for your resume, and you have a book out. Some might shy away from this type of work because there are no royalties involved in work-for-hire projects. Once you get paid you don’t earn any more money and you have no rights to the content you’ve provided. I would say, sometimes you have to be willing to do things that look a little different than your dream in order to realize that dream in the long run. Writing is a business and making smart business decisions as you go along will serve you well in the end.

How did this opportunity come about for you?
I’m constantly looking for sources of paying work since I write for a living as well as working to get my children’s books published. As I’m working on writing web copy for clients, I’m researching places that do work-for-hire projects, whether they’re in the children’s market or other markets. I submitted my resume to Red Line Editorial the first time in October of 2014. I never heard back from them, so I resubmitted my resume in March of 2016, and this time, within 24 hours I was asked to send writing samples. Once I sent those and they liked them, I was put on their contributing writer list. That means if they come across a title for which they think a writer would be well suited, based on experience and the writing samples, they reach out. That happened for me just a couple of months later.

Do you have a responsibility for marketing/promoting these type of books?
No, work-for-hire projects are usually for schools and libraries and are marketed to teachers and librarians directly by the company. I can certainly promote the book through social media and my website/blog, but there’s no official book release party or that kind of thing for these projects; although there’s no rule that says an author can’t do that.

Do you have any research tips? And what about organizing all of this information (and on a tight deadline!)? Do you use a program like Scrivener?
Research for me has to go pretty fast, so I don’t use a program like Scrivener. I stay organized by simply cutting and pasting the URL from my sources into a Word document so I can keep a running list. Then from there I use a free bibliography generator like Citation Machine to produce a bibliography in whatever the style the publisher wants- MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.

This project required footnotes/endnotes, and for that I simply used the reference option in Word. I cut and past the URL while I’m writing into the endnote and then go back later and format the note correctly. For me, it’s better than stopping and starting all the time.

I also had to produce a glossary of terms and provide additional reading options for the “To Learn More,” section at the back of the book. So for these types of projects it’s pretty old school when it comes to research and sourcing, although internet resources make the entire process much, much easier!

Do you have any advice for others who would like to find work-for-hire writing projects?
As with other types of writing, researching the kinds of titles companies like this produce can help you craft samples that show you can do the work. One of the first things I did when I got this contract was to order a book written by a friend of mine for this same company so I could get a vision for what the final product would look like. I needed to see it before I started on my own title. Learning to write to a particular style may seem restrictive, but being able to adapt at a moment’s notice lets editors know you are a professional and someone they want to work with again and again.

As far as finding this type of work, Google is your best friend. Use keywords like “work-for-hire writing,” “work-for-hire writing for children,” “educational publishers,” and “educational book publishers,” and you’ll get lots of hits. From there, the submission guidelines, FAQ’s, Contact Us or About Us pages will tell you how to submit or where to send your resume and writing samples.

Thanks for helping us learn from your experience, Patti, and congrats again on your new book! You can learn more about Patti by visiting her blog, Sensibility and Sense, A Perfect Blog for Imperfect Writers. Patti offers paid critiques, resources for writers and insight into the world of writing for children.
The annual SCBWI Winter Conference in New York begins today! Safe traveling to everyone attending, and we'll share some reports from our MI attendees when they return.

The SCBWI-MI Written Critique Program is underway and going strong! Learn more here.

Happy creating!
Kristin Lenz