The Story: How I Got My Book Contract
A Bit of Backstory
Sometime before the year 2012, I got an idea for a children’s book, and I wrote out the rhyming stanzas, line by line, on my iPhone. I had also gathered a handful of other ideas, concepts, and book titles in a notebook, but this was the first story I’d ever completed. I don’t know exactly when I finished that first draft, but I remember reading it to my stepson, Conrad, in the kitchen of our old home, which we sold in November of that year.
I thought it was brilliant, but I was otherwise occupied by my overworked, underpaid career in the memory keeping industry, so I didn’t do much with it for several years. I’d occasionally pull it out, read through it, realize it wasn’t as brilliant as I thought, make a few edits, and decide it was brilliant again. It was called The Very Private Pirate. And it began:
The very private pirate
Lived on Thistleberry Lane
In a periwinkle house
Right next door to Jill and Zane.
I inflicted the story on various groups of nieces and nephews over the years, but it wasn’t until 2015, when I had established myself as an underworked, appropriately paid freelance writer that I got serious about children’s publishing. I researched the market online. I perused blogs. I listened to podcasts. I read Writer’s Digest. I bought two copies of Writer’s Market, 2015 AND 2016. I sent out a couple of queries to agents. And I didn’t write anything else, because this pirate story was PURE GOLD, you see.
Along the way, I came across a blog post from a published children’s author who said she wrote around 100 new stories per YEAR, although only a few would get finished, revised, and submitted. It occurred to me that my dogged commitment to my lone pirate story might not be the best strategy. So I started to build out some of my other storylines, but none were quite finished by the time I attended my very first writing workshop, Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers, in the summer of 2016.
It was a local conference, so I assumed it would be small potatoes. Homespun. Provincial. But there were authors, editors, and agents there from California and New York. There were attendees from Texas and Canada, and plenty of local talent too. This gem had been right in my backyard, all this time, and I had no idea! I signed up for a 3-day picture-book workshop taught by local author Kristyn Crow (creator of Zombelina, among other delightful rhyming stories). Kristyn shared her insights and expertise. We all shared and critiqued each others’ manuscripts, and I discovered that The Very Private Pirate wasn’t so brilliant after all. In fact, it violated a few cardinal rules:
the main character is an adult (although he is childlike, which is a plus)
it rhymes (there are MANY agent and editors who won’t even consider rhyming manuscripts)
it has a flashback scene (young minds have a hard time following non-sequential stories)
it didn’t have a great HOOK—or reason a parent would want to buy it for their child
To make matters worse, a fellow conference attendee had written a much better pirate story than mine, also in rhyme. And hers had a fantastic hook.
I wasn’t exactly discouraged, but I was certainly humbled. Contrary to my unspoken, barely acknowledged inner hopes, I wasn’t going to waltz right into a book contract with my very first manuscript. Nope, that wouldn’t happen until my third book. (And that was an absolute miracle.)
At that same conference, I signed up for an afternoon lecture from a picture-book writer I had long admired, Jennifer Adams, author of many books in the popular Baby Lit series. I’d been collecting Baby Lit board books for years (Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Alice in Wonderland, and of course Jane Eyre) and once again, I had no idea she was local! I walked away from that classroom with tons of insights into the publishing side of things, plus a list of topics Jennifer was actively looking for as acquisitions editor for a publisher in Colorado.
One of those topics was: stories that help children understand and deal with their emotions. It just so happened that one of the manuscripts I had started working on—after realizing I needed to stretch beyond my one-and-only pirate story—had exactly that goal. It was (is) a grief allegory about a little boy and an invisible dragon.
I spent the next couple of months refining my dragon manuscript, applying the insights I had gained at the conference, and I sent it through my brand new critique group, comprised of a handful of fellow Kristyn Crow workshop attendees. And then I took a deep breath and sent it off to Jen Adams in October of 2016. (As is typically the case with these kinds of conferences, all attendees got the privilege of submitting work to the editors/agents in attendance.)
Four months later, I had heard...nothing.
Apparently, as I heard again and again at the conference, there are established protocols for how you approach and interact with literary agents and editors. If you flout the rules, it shows you haven’t done your research, and it gives overloaded publishing professionals an automatic reason to reject your submission and move onto the next. They get hundreds of queries a month, so they can afford to be picky about which emails they’ll open—and whether they’ll bother reading past the opening line. And if you don't hear back within the timeframe they advertise in their submissions guidelines, take that as a NO. Don’t keep following up and pestering. If they liked your work, you’ll hear back. I had all of these messages swirling in my mind as I contemplated whether to follow up with Jen on my dragon query. And I almost left the matter there. But another little part of my brain remembered hearing that WIFYR attendees were guaranteed a personal response back, as long as we queried within the right timeframe after the conference. So I decided to be a pest. I gathered my courage, and on February 2, 2017, I followed up.
I received a reply within days this time, and it turns out Jen had not seen my original email (probably because I inadvertently sent it to her personal email vs her work email). She loved the manuscript and asked if it would be okay with me if she shared it with her editorial team. (Spoiler alert: it was okay.)
The editorial team approved it in March (yay!) and then on a Tuesday in April, Jen emailed to say that my manuscript would be presented to the acquisitions team the very next day. This was the final hurdle my little story needed to leap over in order to become a real book.
Even More Serendipity
That night, on a whim, I went to dinner with my friend Wendy at The Dodo, which is on the other side of the county from where I live. I don’t know why I picked this particular place on this particular night—it was a Tuesday after all—but it just sounded good. After a lovely dinner (I had the pulled pork sandwich), we waddled across the street to Sugarhouse Park (well, Wendy walked and I waddled, being nearly 7 months pregnant). And just guess who happened to be sitting directly in our path, on a park bench overlooking the duck pond, with her husband? None other than Jen Adams, the very editor who held the fate of my book in her capable hands and would be pitching it to her acquisitions team the next day! We both took it as a good sign, and it was.
The acquisitions team approved my manuscript on Thursday, April 6, 2017, nearly nine months after I sent my original query. Another two months after that, while I was attending WIFYR for the second time and about to share my success story on stage—I received my book contract by email. Now it was really official! I went from my first-ever writing conference to a book contract in a single calendar year.
Now, with yet another annual WIFYR conference under my belt, my original pirate story is still sitting in the proverbial drawer, as are dozens more by now (and counting). But there’s another story—one about a little boy and an invisible dragon—that managed to strike a chord with the right editor at just the right time, and it’s all because I summoned the courage to step out of my comfort zone and show up at a conference, and then follow up when I wasn’t sure whether I should. And…there’s no denying that fate, luck, serendipity, God, the universe, or some crazy cosmic coincidence played a hand as well. I mean, what are the chances that:
A writer I had long admired just happened to be teaching at the first writing conference I attended. Seeing her name on the website is what motivated me to stop thinking about it and just register already.
That writer just happened to be an editor as well (a fact I hadn’t known previously), who just happened to be seeking out books on one of the very topics I was working on.
I just happened to run into my editor randomly—at a park I rarely visit—on the night before the fate of my book would be decided.
I just happened to receive my contract while attending the very conference that started it all.
Now, in just 9 more months, I’ll be holding my first book in my hands. By then, it will have been almost exactly three years since I sat in that conference, listening wide-eyed to all the picture book conventions my one-and-only completed manuscript was fatally breaking. It’s a good thing I had another one waiting in the wings.