Friday, May 29, 2015

YA Success Story: Ripple by Heather Smith Meloche

I can't remember when I first met Heather Smith Meloche, but it was many years ago through SCBWI-MI, and we've been on a parallel path ever since: writing, revising, blogging, entering contests, submitting manuscripts. When asked about professional jealousy among writers, the kidlit community overwhelmingly responds with examples of heartfelt support. And it's true.

A few years ago, Heather placed first in a contest when I only finaled. We both found our agents around the same time and went through rounds of revisions. Her novel sold, and mine... um, still waiting. Jealousy? No. Kick in the pants inspiration? Yes. Heather's winning entry in that contest blew me away and motivated me to dig deeper into my craft. She's had her share of setbacks, but she persevered and encouraged me every step of the way. I hope her success story inspires you too.

Tell us about your book and your journey to publication.
I’ve been writing for children for over fourteen years. Whew! That seems like a long time, but in this business, it’s not really that long. I had mentored with a poet in college and had been a writer for TV, newsprint, and marketing, but I had to sharpen my children’s/YA writing skills. So I attended a trillion conferences, took various classes, and published some short stories for young children before I discovered I’m truly comfortable in a sixteen-year-old’s voice. 

I wrote the first version of my Contemporary Realistic YA novel, currently titled RIPPLE, back in 2008. It was a very personal book that introduced teens dealing with some rarely discussed compulsions and struggles. I received some attention from it back then at conferences, but the comments on it were that it was long, wordy, and needed serious tightening. By the time I’d finished editing, TWILIGHT was out and paranormal was all the rage, so when I pitched it at conferences again, editors and agents wanted to know, “Is there a fairy in it? A werewolf? Living gargoyles?” 

Alas, it was just about a girl with some real-life issues, which made it a tough YA sell at the time. I believed in it, though, so I thought I’d use my poetry-writing background and turn the crux of it into a short story in verse. That story, “Him,” won the 2011 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing through HUNGER MOUNTAIN, the literary journal of the Vermont College of Fine Arts. That same year I won first place in the Children’s/Young Adult Fiction division of the WRITER'S DIGEST Annual Writing Competition for a different short story. Contests are such a great way to get your work noticed, and 2011 was a very good year for me in that respect.

How did you get your agent?
After I won the Katherine Paterson Prize, several agents contacted me via email. The first was Heather Schroder, an extremely seasoned agent, who at the time was with International Creative Management (ICM) and has since started her own agency, Compass Talent. We set up a phone conversation, and I really loved how she just got what I was trying to do with “Him.” She really connected with my writing style and my work, so I knew she was a great fit for me. 

I had already started working on a dystopian/fantasy-type novel when Heather contacted me, so she helped me work through several revisions of that. But again, the market shifted, and back came the popularity of Contemporary Realistic Fiction in YA. That old novel from 2008 had a shot now! So I revised RIPPLE to make the voice and the structure relevant for today’s YA readers, and Heather sold it to Penguin Putnam a short while later. It's scheduled to be released in Fall 2016.

What has been surprising or challenging about your experience?
I am an impatient human, and, I mean, like, really impatient. I want things done now and before now. So getting used to the publishing industry, which often moves at a glacial pace, has really taught me to take deep breaths, calm down, and curb my need for speed. I’ve even tattooed the reminder on myself. ;) 

What's next for you?
I’m just finishing work on my latest novel and getting ready to send it to Compass Talent for review. This latest book is very different from RIPPLE in that it is less about romance (though there is still plenty in there!) and more about socio-political issues in the U.S., but I hope it is as well received.

Heather Smith Meloche’s work has appeared in SPIDER, YOUNG ADULT REVIEW NETWORK (YARN), and ONCE UPON A TIME, and she has placed twice in the children’s/YA category of the WRITER’S DIGEST Annual Competition. Her short story, “Him,” won the HUNGER MOUNTAIN Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing in 2011. She lives in Rochester Hills, MI, with her husband, two boys, and more pets than anyone should ever own.

Coming up on The Mitten blog: the conclusion of Dawne Webber's Beyond the Book series, a new 3 part craft series on developing voice, an interview with Buffy the Poetry Slayer, Ask Frida Pennabook, and another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. Send your good news to Patti Richards at by June 21st.

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Happy reading!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, May 22, 2015

Let Me Hook You with Some Stories from the Conference by Charlie Barshaw

Here’s the thing about co-chairing an SCBWI-MI conference: you prepare for months, and then it’s over.

As for what happened between 8 am and 5:30 pm? Better to ask Kevin, the owner of Thomson-Shore and yoga partner of Deb Gonzales. Probably during some impossible pose, Kevin found that Deb was a member of the coolest kidlit organization in the world.

He graciously offered his facilities for our “Hook of the Book” conference featuring E.B. Lewis. Then, he sacrificed his day off and sat through the conference (when he wasn’t giving tours or answering TS questions). 

Sorry though. Kevin’s not available. (Heavy sigh from some of the attendees; he’s alarmingly handsome.) All I’ve got is scribbled notes and random images, but I’ll try my best to tell some stories:

Deb Gonzales and E.B. Lewis
“Uh, E.B., it’s after midnight.” Deb and John Gonzales graciously opened their home for a Friday evening BBQ, and by 10 pm only people named Gonzales and Barshaw remained, talking with E.B. The conversation flowed deep and easy, and though I often checked my dumb-phone clock, it wasn’t until pumpkin time that I spoke up. E.B. slept about 5 hours before the conference.

“We are storytellers.” With a dozen round tables, illustrators and writers found themselves neighbors. E.B. cemented their friendship when he assured us all that, no matter what language we use, our vision is to tell stories. And, like learning a new language, we are not truly fluent until we can tell a joke.

“You need to go down the rabbit hole.” Lewis Carroll brought Alice to life for readers because he didn’t just dispassionately describe the wild journey, he became part of it. In every story we tell, visual or textual, we don’t hold the snow globe in our hand, we are inside it, being shaken. “We,” said E.B. “are in the business of amazement.”

The picture book “is a movie between two pieces of cardboard.” Every element of the art and text needs to enhance the story. E.B. described a movie scene where the ultimate care was taken in choosing the curtain fabric, just so that when it fluttered in the breeze, the viewer would understand that something was coming.

Image: E.B. sauntering through the lobby in a tailored shirt. The conference finally over (E.B. stayed long to sign books, then longer to do more portfolio reviews), he had a moment to “freshen up” before we drove to the restaurant. Six foot three with a washboard stomach, I asked, with his hectic travel schedule, how he remained so slim. “I do 100 pushups and 250 crunches every morning.”

“I thought YOU were keeping the time.” From 9:40 till noon Sunday morning, E.B. offered seven illustrators twenty minute portfolio reviews. The first one ended exactly on time (no breaks for E.B.). However, the second ran over 7 minutes, because E.B. expected me to knock. From then on, I pounded as time expired, yet he stayed extra minutes with each illustrator, intent on giving each what they needed. He finished at 12:15 pm.

“Take it all in, then give it all back.” No time to even dine at a nice restaurant before he rode to the airport, E.B. ate a burger and laptop-played Ruth and Leslie and I the inspirational film he had mentioned, Celebrate What’s Right in the World. National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones espouses a positive life-outlook, and E.B. obviously embraces it.

E.B. Lewis gave it all back to us this weekend.

Charlie Barshaw has resolved to try E.B.'s workout regimen, though he'll start with 1 pushup and 2 crunches. His squirrel MG rests comfortably in a drawer as he enthusiastically tackles a modern YA version of Treasure Island.

Enjoy a few more photos from E.B. Lewis's visit with SCBWI-MI, and stay tuned for Ruth McNally Barshaw's illustrator's perspective of the Hook of the Book weekend.

E.B. Lewis and Ruth McNally Barshaw

Picture book Power: Leslie Helakoski, Shutta Crum, and Deb Pilutti

Happy birthday to SCBWI-MI Co-RA, Carrie Pearson!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Beyond the Book, Part 3: Agents by Dawne Webber

Now we get to the fun part of querying—hunting for agents. And it’s something you can do before your book is complete. Searching for agents before you’re ready to query has its perks:
  • Need a pick-me-up or a little break from writing or revisions? Spend a few minutes hunting for agents. WARNING: Sometimes you forget it was supposed to be a little break.
  • It moves you toward your goal of getting published. When you’re feeling like you’ll never finish writing the darn book, researching agents gives you a boost.
  • Each agent you add to your list is special because you realize This might be THE ONE!
  • When you decide your baby is ready for the bigs and you can’t wait to get the ball rolling, you have a list of agents ready.

What to look for in an agent:

The most important factor in agent hunting is focusing on agents that represent your genre. A pet peeve of agents and editors is getting queries for things they don’t represent. “Oh,” you say, “I want Diana Gabaldon’s agent. I know he doesn’t represent YA, but he’ll love my novel.”
No, he won’t. Stick to agents who represent your genre.

Before jumping into the agent pool, you need to weigh the pros and cons of the following and decide what qualities you want in your agent:
  • Editorial agent vs. non-editorial
  • Big list of author clients vs. small list
  • Large agency vs. boutique agency (smaller, specialized)
  • One book representation vs. career representation
  • New agent vs. established agent

Hunting for agents:
  • Literary Rambles, a blog written by Casey McCormick and our own Natalie Aguirre, spotlights agents and has tons of information about them. It was an invaluable tool in my agent hunt.
  • Search the internet for literary agents in your genre.
  • Find a book similar to yours and look for the agent’s name in the acknowledgements.
  • Find articles on agent stats, such as lists of top-selling agents. You can find lists like this for YA, PB and MG at Darcy Pattinson.
  • #MSWL—Manuscript Wish List. Agents and editors post what they’re looking for in submissions. Searching #MSWL will generate hundreds of results, but here are a few sites dedicated to it: MS Wish List, and Manuscript Wish List.
Look at more than stats and agent profiles. Find interviews with agents. Read what their authors say about them. On Google Books, you can search the name of the agent that interests you.
If he/she was mentioned on an author’s acknowledgement page, it’s usually in the search results. You can learn a lot about an agent by the acknowledgement (or lack of acknowledgement) in their clients’ books.

Query Tracker:

On Query Tracker (which I’ll be covering more in my next post) you can search for agents using a wide array of search filters, including genre. A search generates a list of agents meeting your criteria. You then click on an agent to get their profile. An agent’s profile has multiple parts. Here’s a list of some of the more pertinent information you can find:
  • Contact info including links to agency websites, agent blogs, social media accounts
  • Reputable links where you can find more information, such as Literary Rambles, Predators and Editors, and Google Books
  • There is a page for member comments concerning that particular agent. It’s very helpful.

A few things to keep in mind:

Legitimate agents will never charge a fee or try to sell you something. Also remember, information changes and becomes outdated. Always check the agency site and the agent’s profile one last time before submitting a query.

More resources:

Please feel free to share any resources you’d like to recommend.

Dawne Webber is represented by Steven Chudney of The Chudney Agency. Ask Me to Wait, her YA contemporary novel, is currently on submission. Dawne lives in Troy with her husband and five children. They keep her sane amid the insanity of writing. You can learn more about Dawne at DawneWebber.

Did you miss Part 1 and Part 2 of Dawne's Beyond the Book series? She'll be back next month with the final post.

The SCBWI-MI Hook of the Book conference is tomorrow! We'll share conference take-aways as soon as our reporters have time to gather their thoughts after the big event. 

Coming up on The Mitten blog: a 3 part craft series on developing voice, an interview with Buffy the Poetry Slayer, a YA Success Story, Ask Frida Pennabook, and another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. Send your good news to Patti Richards at by June 21st.

Happy reading!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, May 8, 2015

Scared in Seattle: A Conference First-Timer Shares Her Journey

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed one night a few months ago, and I noticed a Writer’s Digest link for something called Seattle Writer’s Workshop. It intrigued me, so I clicked on it. I read through the information and thought it sounded fantastic! Attendees could have their query letter critiqued by Chuck Sambuchino, listen to him speak all day about the ins and outs of writing and publishing, and pitch a manuscript to an agent. A REAL LIVE AGENT! AN AGENT! I thought that was huge! Where else could little ol’ me from the middle of nowhere ever pitch an agent? I signed up without delay and began searching airfare.

On the plane ride to Seattle, I was a bundle of nerves. What if I was making a mistake? It could be a very huge and expensive mistake. I tried not to think about it, I just kept practicing my pitch in my head, and of course, wrote a few new ideas down. I’m a picture book writer, and ideas are everywhere. I tried to sleep, but that was no use. I was far too excited.

The morning of the workshop, walking down the hallway to the workshop felt surreal. My heart raced, but I steadied my pace and adjusted my shoulder bag.

“What is your name, please?” the woman asked.
“Barbara Siemen.” I pointed to a name badge on the table.
“Oh hey, you’re Farm Barbie!” a man said, as he handed me a blue folder.
***Stunned and in complete shock with wide eyes and mouth hanging open***
“Yes, yes, I am Farm Barbie.” I managed to reply.

WHOA. I think that was Chuck. As in Sambuchino. The same Chuck Sambuchino that has written the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. The same Chuck Sambuchino that is presenting at today’s workshop. Sure, I had strategically interacted with him on Twitter prior to the workshop, but I did not believe he would recognize or notice me, let alone call me Farm Barbie! That was, by far, one of the coolest things that has happened to me in a long time. Thanks, Chuck.

The workshop was well organized; it was clear to me that Mr. Sambuchino is a seasoned speaker and an accomplished veteran in writing and publishing.

He spoke about the two publishing options today: traditional publishing and self-publishing. Both are good and bad in their own way and for very different reasons. 

He talked about agents; what they do, how you contact one, how to query and submit a manuscript to one, and how to pitch to one. 

He also touched on creating a writer platform and told us 10 things to remember to help us get published. I laughed out loud at one of them, “In the face of rejection, just keep moving forward. And eat ice cream until the pain stops.”

I also absolutely loved his comment about recognizing the value in yourself. Even if an entire manuscript is bad, don’t throw it away! There might be some good stuff in there you can reuse some other time. 

Finally, he told us to “put down the remote.” In other words, we need more butt-in-chair days, where we have no other agenda than to just write. He also facilitated a “first page critique fest," in which five agents critiqued the first page of several manuscripts. It was quite eye opening to see how quickly the agents blew through those first pages.

During the workshop, I befriended a few fine ladies. At first, we exchanged polite chitchat, and then over lunch we talked more about writing and I practiced my pitch on them. I confessed my nerves and they advised me to not tell the agent, Adria Olson, that I had never pitched before nor that I was so nervous I could barf up my burger.

When it was my turn to pitch, I sat across the table from her, introduced myself, and extended my hand. She, too, recognized me as Farm Barbie from Twitter, just as Chuck had in the early morning. I was flabbergasted. After I got over the shock, I began rambling my pitch to her. I’m sure I forgot a lot of key details, even though I had cheat notes written on all five fingers of my left hand, discreetly buried in my lap. 

She offered me a business card, and said I could email my query letter and manuscript. I was over the MOON! Even if the agency decides my manuscript isn’t quite right for them, I will still forever be grateful for this chance. It was an absolute pleasure meeting you, Adria! I think you are darling! If I ever write a mermaid tale, I am sending it to you.

No matter the outcome of this manuscript submission, I’m still proud of myself for the things I accomplished with this trip. The truth is, I’m a newbie writer that flew across country alone for the first time EVER (at 35 years old!), attended my first writer’s conference without knowing a single soul, and pitched my first manuscript for the first time. That’s a lot of firsts all in one weekend, ladies and gentlemen.

Barbara Siemen, also known as Farm Barbie, is a city-girl turned country-chick thanks to falling in love with a farmer. She and her husband Darrin, along with their three children, own and operate his family’s centennial dairy farm in Michigan’s Thumb region. Farm Barbie describes herself as a professional farmer’s wife and stay at home mom, an amateur photographer, chef, and fashionista, and an aspiring children’s book author. 

Barbara flew across country to attend her first writing conference and had a grand adventure, but if sticking close to home is more your present speed, SCBWI-MI's spring conference is only one week away. The Hook of the Book conference is on Saturday, May 16th in Dexter, MI.

Feeling jittery with nerves and excitement? SCBWI-MI member, Vicky Lorencen has attended conferences and workshops near and far, and she's written some excellent checklists to help you prepare:

Happy reading!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Member Spotlight! Meet Jodi McKay

It’s time for Member Spotlight! That special Friday when we get to learn about another talented member of SCBWI Michigan. And today’s writer is definitely that!

Jodi McCay came back to the Mitten from sunny, South Florida five years ago. When asked about what people from down under (south of Ohio, not Australia) thought of her choice she said, “Am I crazy for moving from the land of sun and sand? Maybe, but our family is happy that we are back and I’m sure my skin thanks me for it.” Along with being a writer, Jodi is married and is the mother of someone she calls, “one charismatic little boy.”

So let’s give a warm Mitten welcome to Jodi McKay!

Mitten: Jodi, when did you start writing for children, and how did you know it was something you wanted to do?

JM: I remember writing when I was in 2nd grade. I wrote a story about an amusement park of doom. It didn’t make it further than the classroom, but I was proud of it. I tried again when I was 20, this time writing and illustrating a picture book. I still cringe when I think of what I sent to the publishing houses. I spent a number of years writing for academic journals and work-related material, but none of that really did it for me. I started writing picture books 3 ½ years ago and I can’t get enough of it. It’s funny how you just know when you’re doing what you are meant to do. There’s that and the fact that I usually beeline to the children’s section of the bookstore to check out the latest and greatest before begrudgingly heading back to the grown-up books. I just love kids books!

Mitten: How did you find out about SCBWI and how long have you been a member?

JM: As soon as I decided to seriously write, I made myself take a step back and research what I needed to fully understand how to write. SCBWI popped up in my Google search and the rest is history. I have been a member for 3 years now and I have found it absolutely invaluable. 

Mitten: What genres are you most interested in and why? Picture books, middle grade, YA, chapter books, poetry, nonfiction?

JM: Right now I am strictly a picture book writer. I tried my hand at writing an early reader chapter book, but that is a completely different art form and I didn’t connect with it the same way I do with picture books. I’m a little too chicken to attempt writing for the older kids. I think my mind just works in under 500 words.

Mitten: Tell us about your publishing journey. Are you pre-published or published, and if so where?

JM: Ah, the road to publication. It’s been as I expected, yet still surprising at times. Does that make sense? I am pre-published, but happy to say that I will have a book out next year. The lovely people at Albert Whitman have decided to take a chance on me (forthcoming book title to be announced). I am also very lucky to have found my agent, Linda Epstein, who roots for my quirky stories and works to find homes for them.

Mitten: Congratulations on the contract and the agent Jodi! That’s awesome! Now, along with writing for children, many of us have day jobs. Tell us something about what you do along with your writing.

JM: Oh goodness, what do people call it? Domestic engineer? I told myself that I would go back to work after my son went to school, but my degree is in Psychology and I would rather make up alternate realities for kids than help adults come back to reality. So, my job is writing and I don’t write every day as some suggest. I’m afraid that will take the fun out of it and I can’t have that because I am having a lot of fun!

Mitten: Domestic engineer works fine Jodi! And trust me, it’s the hardest, most wonderful job in the world…and one of the best ways to inform your writing. Speaking of informing writing, where do you get most of your story ideas? Do you write them down, keep them in a computer file or just store them in your memory?

JM: Where do my ideas come from? Yikes! Do you have a couch and some time to spare to hear my ramblings? They hit me at odd times and usually begin with a character who does something off the cuff. I often find that the character doesn’t leave me alone until I have figured out his/her problem and how to solve it, which means I sit and type out the entire book at once. So what if dinner doesn’t get made right?

Mitten: Hey, I say pizza works! But back to why we're here:) We all have favorite writers that inspire us. Name two of yours and why you like them.

JM: Shel Silverstein is my number one. I remember reading Where the Sidewalk Ends when I was a child and feeling both entertained and curious about the way words, put together in such a way, can leave a person wanting more. Talk about re-readability!

I am also a big fan of Jon Klassen. His style of writing is simple and profound at the same time. Jon’s (I like to think we are on a first name basis) books are a bit on the dark side, and I like books that push boundaries. Bravo Jon!

Mitten: Besides hearing that eating dark chocolate while revising is a must, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer for children? Why?

JM: Be prepared to wait. Looking back, that was an understatement, but it is the one piece of advice that has permeated the entire process. From waiting for inspiration to strike, to setting the manuscript aside for a while, to sending that manuscript out, and finally to the book’s birthday, waiting patiently (maybe not patiently) has been a big part of my daily existence. This is why I have found it helpful to stay connected to other writers as we all share that same piece of the writing puzzle.

Thanks so much Jodi. This was fun! To learn more about Jodi and her writing journey, visit her at

And be ready! You may be the next SCBWI Michigan member standing in the spotlight!