Monday, June 27, 2016

So Your Book is on Submission.....

You've finished your book.

You and your agent (or perhaps you directly if you don't have an agent) have whipped it into magnificent shape.

You can almost hear the angels sing in gladness because you are about to send out THE BEST BOOK THAT HAS EVER BEEN WRITTEN IN THE HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE!


Hey, it might be, and who are you to judge? Your beta readers like it, as do your critique partners and your mom.

Best of all, your agent likes it enough to submit it.

He or she makes a list of which editors/houses you submit to. You look at the list and swoon.

A pitch letter is drafted. Calls are made, and then whoosh! Your manuscript is in other hands now.

It's all going to be great.


You thought all those endless queries to get an agent was hard, right?

But hey - you've got an agent. How hard is this going to be?

And then you wait. And wait. And wait.

No one ever told you that the submission process works at the speed of snail.


Wasn't it Tom Petty who once sang "The waiting is the hardest part?"

Amen, Tom, Amen.

I mean, it makes sense right? How many agents/authors are submitting their work to an editor at any one time? And sure, those editors might have assistants who do the first read-through, but they're only human. How many books could YOU read in a single week? (probably more than me - on a good week I can do two)


They not only have to read your book, they have to get other people to read your book, too.

Even if they love it, they need to determine if it fits the House's philosophy. Is it marketable? Are there too many books similar to yours out in the marketplace already? Do  they want to spend the next two years working on YOUR book?

And then they need to get their boss to love it and invest money in YOU.

That's a lot of questions.  And often, the answer to some of those questions is No.

Which sucks, big time.

Depending upon what you and your editor have decided in advance, those rejections will trickle in one at a time or they will be sent bundled together once every one or two weeks.

I was several months in submission for It's a Mystery, Pig Face!  And each rejection felt like "We don't love you, Wendy" even though that is a completely irrational thought, since they didn't even know me. (irrational thoughts are the gift that the submission process keeps giving)

You lose hope. You despair when you read about authors getting six figure deals. You despair when you read about other offers getting ANY deals.

You worry your agent will drop you in disgust ("What! I was sure Wendy was going to be the next J.K. Rowling!")

If you have a lovely and kind agent like mine, you will get little notes telling you to have heart, don't give up, and the like.

Regardless,  you will lose heart, wonder if they are still looking for someone for the graveyard shift at the local McDonalds, and want to write your agent a letter that says "Dear Agent, I am a fraud. I don't know what I was thinking, trying to get published. Please disregard.")

You question if there was some little thing you might have done to the book that might have resulted in everyone CLAMORING for your book!


The answer is probably not, and it's likely not a question worth asking anyway because if you find that thing, it's not typical that you can resubmit your work anyway, unless and editor has specifically asked you to do so.

I know how fortunate I am that my agent found my first book a publisher in the first round of submissions.

It takes many authors several books on submission before they find their first publisher.


But you mustn't lose heart.

I have come to the conclusion that the only thing that truly separates the published from the unpublished is luck and perhaps tenacity.

Oh sure, there's the whole issue of talent, but I've known many talented authors who just never caught a break or who decided they didn't have it in them to keep trying.

It feels like it's not worth it, like it's never going to happen. But if you keep writing, working on your craft, and submitting, it will happen.

And it so worth it.

I remember the day my agent called to tell me It's a Mystery, Pig Face! sold.

I cried.

First from joy, but then from the realization that the submission process was finally over.

But here's the thing. You may have to go through the process several times in your career. I am currently on submission for my second middle grade novel.

I thought I would find it easier this time.


You know: I had a book coming out soon, people would see that someone else had taken a chance on me, would be desperate to do the same. Well yes and no.

Just like in the querying process, some will love your work, some will not. Some will say you have a great voice, but not a strong plot.

Others will say your plot is amazing, but your characters are weak.

Some will be 'meh" about the concept you love so much and have spent months (or years!) refining.


At those times, I remind myself again and again, that this is personal, but not.

It's the personal taste of the reader, not personal to me. I remind myself of the books I've read and loved. I remember the books I've read and am just "meh" about.

Such is life.

In some ways this time is easier, because I knew what to expect. In some ways it was harder, because I adore the book that we're subbing.

How book #2's process ends will be determined soon enough.

What I know for sure is that you will always, always, hate the process, unless you are the most well-adjusted person ever. If you are that person, you should share your secrets with us right away!

And should they want your book or mine?


Anybody out there have good suggestions for surviving the submission process? I'd love to hear them!

For the rest of us: Good Luck!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Book Review: A Song For Bijou

Life for Alex Schrader has never involved girls. He goes to an all-boys prep school and spends most of his time goofing around with his friends. But all that changes the first time he meets Bijou Doucet, a Haitian girl recently relocated to Brooklyn after the earthquake-and he is determined to win her heart. For Bijou, change is the only constant, and she's surprised every day by how different life is in America, especially when a boy asks her out. Alex quickly learns that there are rules when it comes to girls-both in Haitian culture and with his own friends. And Bijou soon learns that she doesn't have to let go of her roots to find joy in her new life.

Told in alternating viewpoints against the vibrant backdrop of Haitian-American culture, Alex and Bijou take their first tender steps toward love in this heartwarming story.

When I first found this book I cannot explain how excited I was. A middle grade book with Haitian character? YES! 

Why was I so excited? Because I’ve been to Haiti, several times, and it’s a country that left a huge mark on my life. To see a cool looking, modern book for young people that represents that culture—was amazing. I was eager to see how it was handled, the voice, the culture, the history. But I was also so intrigued by the concept of a Haitian character in the United States and how she would cope.

Over all, I had HIGH expectations for this book.

Maybe that’s why I’m only giving it 3.5 stars. The idea behind this book could not have gotten better for me but I just didn’t quite relate to it. I didn’t connect. 


First, a few things about this book didn’t really strike me as middle grade. The character’s voice never felt quite authentic middle grade. Some points they sounded super young, some points they sounded like adults (there were some info-dumpy spots that didn’t help.)

Also, the entire plot is romance based which is a bit strange for middle grade. Not necessarily bad, just different. My problem with it was how the main character seems almost too focused on his crush. A hopeless romantic type character, I suppose. But from page one (okay, 2) he was in love with a Haitian girl he’d never met. He pretty much has zero goals or interests outside of meeting and impressing this one girl. I think it could have been cute, but his motivations felt unrealistic to me.


 Diversity! This book is actually a few years old so it was doing diversity before diversity was a hot trend. It has some bits of Haitian culture and shows the differences between two people from very different backgrounds but also how they can relate to each other. I think the entire point of this book was opening the eyes of one boy to the diversity in the city around him which was REALLY cool.

Bijou: The main female character was a young Haitian girl. Her, I found much more relatable than Alex, the male lead. She was less interested in dating and more about her family. Though of course she warmed up to Alex, I found her hesitancy to be endearing.

Her voice was also handled very well. When we jumped to her perspective her thought processes and language ability were very obviously different than Alex’s, in a good way. English isn’t her first language and even though she speaks it very well, the subtle differences made her feel very authentic.


In all this is a cute read. Great if you’re looking for a culturally diverse story for young readers, just know that if your readers don’t want a straight romance—there isn’t a whole lot here to keep them reading. The cultural aspects are fun, but they aren’t really plot central, at least in the beginning, so it’s not enough to keep an otherwise uninterested reader interested.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Google is Good Enough Right?

Shrine in Kyoto, Japan
Let's talk about research for a second. We all know it's important to do our homework when writing about other locations, times in history, cultures, and people different from us. And Google is a wonderful place, surely that gets me everything I need to know to write an amazingly accurate book right?

Here's the thing, Google is pretty awesome, and will get you a good chunk of the way there, but if you want something accurate you need to go to a source. Here's why.
Kobe, Japan
I expected a modern city, but I also expected cool temples, and shrines. You see those in the movies all the time right? They must be every where. Not so much. In fact the city I stayed in, Kobe, was more industrial than anything. There were shrines but they were few and far between, and often quite small. And that grand city I thought I'd see wasn't really what I expected at all.
Kyoto Street Corner
Sure when I went into Kyoto on the weekend, I saw castles, temples, and shrines, but they weren't on every corner there either. We walked about 10 miles toward one temple without seeing any other shrines, castles, or temples. What we did see, a modern city which was more of what I had expected to see in Japan.
Kyoto street on the way to a temple
Another surprise, cities in Japan don't appear to have a beginning and end like they do in the US. When riding the train, one city seemed to meld into the next with no apparent city line or less populated area in between. Buildings and houses just seemed to go on forever with no break. In the areas I visited, there didn't seem to be any places where there were large fields and open spaces. In fact space is a premium here. You will frequently see rice patties right next to houses and other buildings. Not an inch of space is wasted.
Japanese Rice Patty
And the cosmetic differences were just the beginning of my adventure in Japan. The more I explored, the more alienated I felt. I found myself in a world where I didn't understand street signs, because not only were they in Japanese, but they were in characters I didn't recognize. I didn't understand the words being said to me on a regular basis. Ordering in a restaurant often proved challenging and we frequently resorted to pointing to pictures on a menu. We often passed by numerous restaurants before stopping at one because we had no idea even from the pictures what that place was serving. And with a seafood allergy, I had to be extremely careful to make sure I wasn't getting things I shouldn't be eating. On the flip side, in a lot of places, there was more English than I expected. I was able to get by, but things were still challenging.

Even the little things put me on my toes at times I didn't expect. The Japanese drive on the other side of the road, so that means looking the opposite direction when crossing a street. You don't realize how much of a habit looking right is until you almost get run over by a car. And that means the escalators are backwards to, you go up on the left. I lost count of how many times I tried to go up the down escalator in the hotel. Even just walking the path around the edge of Rokko Island I was constantly playing chicken with people and doing the back and forth dance because I'd move the wrong way to allow them to pass.
Nijo-jo Castle - notice the people walking in on the left and exiting on the right.
Even queuing up for the train was an adventure. Yes, there's a line, and if you get in the wrong one, you either aren't getting on the train or you're going to make people mad. I'd like to blame some of my ineptitude on being a stupid American, but after a while I just felt like a complete idiot. I started to wonder if people here would hate me for being such a moron. But even that is hard to believe, with how incredibly gracious, polite, and accommodating the Japanese people are. They always say thank you, they speak quietly and almost never raise their voices, and I can count on one hand the number of times I heard a car honk it's horn while driving and walking around.
Rokuon-ji - The Golden Temple
So why do I make a big deal about all these seemingly inane details about every day life? Because those are the details that can make all the difference between writing a book, and writing a believable one that your reader can get an immersive, true experience in. And because I never would have known all these things without visiting Japan in person.

So the next time you write about a place you've never been, a culture you've never experienced, or people that are different from you, stop for a minute and think about the ways you can learn about the things you don't understand. Take a vacation to the place you are writing about, interview people from the cultures you know nothing about, find beta readers who understand the experiences you are trying to portray.

While the internet is a wonderful place, nothing can replace having lived the experience. If you can't live it yourself, I implore you to find someone who has. Writing without having the source at hand, is the equivalent of using Google translate on another language, it generally gets the message across, but some things are lost in translation. And is that really how you want your book to be?

Translated sign in the restroom. Funny but somewhat lost in translation.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Follow Your Weird or The Recipe for Pirate Rock

Meet Pirate Rockers Sharky and Bones:

These two fun-loving sea rats create the music for my daughter’s favorite show, Jake and the Neverland Pirates. Each episode has songs woven into the adventure, and at the end, there’s a live-action music video starring Sharky and Bones, (Loren Hoskins and Kevin Hendrickson to land lubbers) all bandana-ed, bootstrapped, and obviously having a fabulous time.

The music is silly. It’s catchy. I listen to it in the car by myself sometimes. Why? Because what these two musicians do is pretty rad and exudes joy. Absolutely jam-packed with fun.

I recently started wondering...who are these guys? Who are Sharky and Bones? I assumed they were some LA studio musicians Disney contracted with or something. You know, the commercial jingle type looking for gigs to pay the rent until their post-industrial ska band took off for real.

Think again, matey! These two are PROFESSIONAL PIRATE ROCKERS. They aren’t even from LA! They began their pirate rock careers in 1999 in Portland, Oregon with the band Captain Bogg and Salty. One of them worked as an IT Support guy at his day job while rocking out at night. Did I mention that they’ve been writing pirate-themed music as a passion since Smashmouth encouraged everyone at my Senior High School Skip Day BBQ to become Allstars?

They weren’t just looking for a gig to pay the rent, they were following their own path. Performing the weird thing that they absolutely love to perform and doing it so well, with so much commitment and joy, Disney found them. Now it's their job - full time. And that’s why the music is so good. These are not two dudes trying to shoehorn their sound into some pre-ordered product, they are musicians who love pirate rock.

This. Blows. My. Mind.

So, what does this have to do with writing Middle Grade? A lot I think. It’s so easy to get tempted by a trend in the market or write to an agent’s preference if you’re trying to snag one. But I believe that  your writing will shine the brightest if you just hold on like crazy to your weird thing. Your pirate rock. Be the best at writing the kinds of stories that live inside you - even if they seem too silly, or dark, or fluffy, or whatever.

So, don't you dare get down in the dumps, staring wistfully at the teenage vampire rom-com you poured your heart into. If that is your pirate rock - the thing that inspires you to sparkle and shine - keep writing it! Whatever it is, keep writing, keep loving your genre and get so good at it that the right avenue finds you. Sharky and Bones have become an absolute artistic inspiration to me, as funny as that might sound. I might even put an inspirational poster on my wall that says PIRATE ROCK SINCE '99 YA'LL.

Because, hey now, who turned out to be the real Allstars? These guys:

Friday, June 10, 2016

Agent Interview with Penelope Burns of Gelfman Schneider (Plus a Query Critique Giveaway!)


Penelope Burns is the newest member of Gelfman Schneider/ICM Partners. She came to the agency as an intern after graduating from Colgate University and the Denver Publishing Institute in 2012. Currently, as an agency assistant, Penelope is looking to a build a list of her own. She is interested in Literary and Commercial fiction and non-fiction, as well as a variety of Young Adult and Middle Grade. 

You guys, we are thrilled to have agent, Penelope Burns of Gelfman Schneider/ICM Partners on the blog today! Thanks so much for playing along, Penelope!

Get to know Penelope’s agenting style and enter our Rafflecopter drawing to win a query critique from her below.


I am currently open to submissions and actively looking to build my list! My response time is generally around three months, which is not as fast as I’d like it to be, but I do read and respond to every query.


One thing is that I consider myself an editorial agent (which I’ll explain a little more below). The other is that I’m looking to nurture a writer’s career; you’ll never have to “audition” for me with every new book you write.


My one pet peeve is queries that start with just “Dear Agent” or something else along those lines (or even the wrong name!). I know authors go on multiple submissions with queries, but there’s something so impersonal about that kind of error. A few typos won’t make me automatically reject a query, but if the query and the sample pages are riddled with errors, that would definitely give me pause.


I’m very hands-on, because it’s important that a book is in the best shape it can be before it goes on submission. You don’t want to give an editor a reason to turn a book down, especially if it’s something easily fixable.


Definitely equal! I’ve participated in a few contests and found some really great manuscripts that way, which I may not have seen otherwise! Contests also can have an extensive selection process, so I know the author has really worked on their query and opening pages. With traditional querying, it’s nice to know that an author has specifically sought me out as a good fit for their book.


I’m very excited to be taking part in Query Kombat hosted by Michelle Hauck, Laura Heffernan, and Michael Anthony!


Do your research! There are so many resources out there for writers these days, for all stages from writing the manuscript to actually querying. Also, keep an open mind. You may have a dream agent in mind, but there could be another agent out there who also has the same excellent qualities.




1. Passion!

2. An open mind.

3. Not afraid to ask questions.  


How diverse the clients and genres would be! I consider myself a primarily YA/MG reader, but I’ve gotten some REALLY good Adult manuscripts I wouldn’t have seen had I limited the genres I was open to.



I would love to see a story that features reality TV somehow—it’s my not-so-guilty pleasure!

Thanks again for playing, Penelope! We loved having you!

Enter our drawing for a chance to win a query critique from Penelope.

Querying writers, you are going to want this! She gives amazing feedback!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, June 6, 2016

Visiting a Young Authors Conference

From all the time I’ve spent on Twitter trying to build up my social media street cred, I’ve come to realize that writing conferences are going on everywhere and all of the time. I’ve never been to one so they’re all a little mysterious to me; I’ll read posts about people who are so excited to attend them, or I'll see pictures they take of people they meet up with, along with lists of the agents and authors amassing their collections of airline miles as they travel across the country to make appearances. Meanwhile I still wake up every morning hoping my lesson plans for the day will be adequate, and the school lunch menu will include something I can manage to choke down with minimal effort.

But not long ago I realized that this premise isn’t exactly true. It turns out there is one writing conference I’ve attended, and several times over.

Up here in the suburban sprawl surrounding the Twin Cities area, an organization known as Success Beyond the Classroom hosts a Young Authors Conference on several days throughout the school year. The school where I teach has sent students to participate for well over a decade. I’ve been fortunate enough to chaperone this event a number times, most recently just a few weeks ago. The conference was held at a local college with the campus all but abandoned between terms, making it the perfect place for a few hundred middle grade kids to spend their day moving from session to session and learning about many different kinds of writing. Our school had close to twenty fourth and fifth graders attending this year, chosen by their language arts teachers to be some of the most expressive and motivated writers in their classes. Usually these turn out to be some pretty interesting kids to hang out with on a field trip.

The day started in the Great Hall with a morning dance party that eventually evolved into a keynote address, from author Michael Perry, after which the students attending began rotating through their sessions. These were led by local artists of nearly every imaginable voice, including fiction, non-fiction, illustration, poetry, and songwriting to name a few. Luckily, as a chaperone, I was able to crash a few sessions and take in some of the excitement.

My first session was the one I was looking forward to the most, a talk on magical realism in fiction by Abby Cooper. (Her book Sticks and Stones will be released next month, by the way, and you should probably add pre-ordering it to your To-Do List for June.) Abby is one of several authors to get a break through Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars/Pitch Madness contests, which is also true for a number of us here at Middle Grade Minded. Because of that we all share a few social networking ties, and I was looking forward to finally meeting Abby in the real world. I messaged her ahead of time to let her know I’d be there and would do my best to find her. When I saw that one of the girls in my homeroom class had a ticket to her morning session, I decided that'd be a good time to tag along.

The room was nearly full when I arrived. We said a quick hello before the session began, then I found a seat in the back row and settled in to hear what she had to say. Abby was a very kinetic presenter, keeping the students engaged the whole time and encouraging them to share and discuss their ideas. It was a great way to warm into the day for the kids in attendance.

My second session was about telling life stories through poetic structure. I could only stay for part of it since I had to take care of some chaperone responsibilities, like knowing where the lunches were and helping our students find them. Right after lunch we visited a sizable book fair put on by The Red Balloon bookshop of St. Paul. While browsing, I found a stack of copies of Dan Geimenhart’s book The Honest Truth and added it to my stack. I felt pairing it with a bookmark I’d collected earlier for Brooks Benjamin’s My 7th Grade Life in Tights made a nice Middle Grade Minded traveling billboard to carry around for the rest of the afternoon. (I am nothing if not a supportive co-contributor.)

I had to pass on my original choice for the one session remaining after lunch due to a standing room only crowd in a small and stuffy classroom, and decided to find a quiet study corner in the hallway where I could start reading The Honest Truth instead. I had just enough time to get caught up in Mark and Beau’s story before the day was over, and we needed to collect everyone for the bus ride back to school. It was an amusing ride, because of the conversation I had with the student of mine who had been at Abby’s morning session with me. She hadn’t raised her hand to share the magical realism idea she’d worked on, so I asked what she had written about.

“I wrote about that thing you did that one time, with the lunch bag.”

“What thing I did that one time with the lunch bag?”

“You know, when someone forgot their lunch bag, and you wrote that thing on the board. I wrote about the stuff people forget at school when they go home, and then all the stuff has a party at night but the custodian finds out.”

“You should’ve raised your hand!" I said. "She would have thought that was so cool!”

She paused and looked at me, somewhat suspiciously. “Why were you talking to her after?”

“Well, we kind of know each other.”

“Kind of?”

“We’ve known each other through Twitter for awhile, but this was the first time we’ve met in real life. So we talked a little bit.”

She paused again.

“Wait: You’re saying…that you know…Abby Cooper?!

Finally I was able to impress a student.

I’ve chaperoned this conference four or five times now, and by far my favorite thing about it is always sitting in on the sessions and listening to so many creative and intelligent kids ask questions and share their ideas about writing. For someone who has spent decades on the front lines of public education, seeing such a heavy concentration of talent and enthusiasm congregate like that, and having the chance to witness it from the periphery, is truly inspiring. It gives you hope that despite all of the negative commentary about the electronic state of childhood in the 21st century and the broad criticism frequently directed at public education, there are still kids out there who can proudly own the label Best and Brightest.

It also reminds you that the stewardship of the yet-to-be-written books we’ll all want to read in the future is in very capable hands.