Week of January 27, 2013—Wisdom from FL SCBWI, Miami
Friday, February 1—My First-Books Panel Speech
As I mentioned yesterday, I was on the First Books Panel at the FL SCBWI Miami event. Below is the text of the speech I presented.
When I turned fifty, I was determined to follow my dream and become a picture book author. Some of my friends thought it was another hobby I was taking up for a few months or maybe a year, and that it would quickly pass. Others thought I was in a mid-life crisis, just with Fancy Nancy instead of fancy cars. They nodded their heads and gave each other the it-will-pass-soon-enough look. But this wasn’t a mid-life crisis, this was my dream. And I was determined to follow it. No matter what.
But some people did believe in me and my dream. My sister gifted me with a writing boot camp in Southern California with Linda Arms White and Laura Backas—complete with airfare and hotel. Soon I joined SCBWI and started attending regional meetings in Florida where I met other believers. I met Lisa Wheeler who immediately became a mentor and frequent critiquer. Then I met Joyce Sweeney, who took me under her wings and pushed me to the edge of my writing nest saying, “You can fly. Really you can. I believe you can. At least I’m pretty sure you can. Go on. Fly.”
Two years after my fiftieth birthday, I finally built up enough nerve and savings to fly to the opposite coast again, and to attend SCBWI, LA. I also paid for a manuscript consultation. Because if you’re going to go broke, you might as well go all the way.
After lots of rejection letters¸ this conference was important to me. I wanted to meet industry professionals, learn more about my writing craft, and hopefully land a book deal. But I soon learned there were a few doubters at the conference and every one of them found me. Helpful as they tried to be, these conference veterans were quick to point out my naiveté.
“Tell me about your story?” one woman asked as I waited for my consultation.
“It’s about cowboys,” I answered.
“Cowboys,” she repeated. “I’m not sure anyone is looking for cowboy stories any more. That sounds a little dated to me. But tell me about the main character.”
“Well, there are three cowboys . . .”
“Three? You have three main characters? That’s not what we do in picture books. We have one main character. These cowboys are children, right?”
“No. Three cowboys. Three adult cowboys.”
She cringed. “Main characters in picture books are always children. Adult characters are frowned upon.”
When I told her that I had a critique scheduled and really hoped it would lead to something concrete, she said, “Book deals never happen at conferences. Just listen and learn all you can during your consultation. That’s all you can hope for.”
There’s one thing you have to understand about me—I’m a Midwesterner. And Midwesterners follow rules. So this conversation had my mind reeling. But I believed in my story almost as much as I believed in my dream (and I am nothing if not polite), so I continued to answer the conference veteran’s questions and to listen to her responses: The characters names? Oh, dear, alliterated names are discouraged in the industry. The setting? The prairie wouldn’t give the illustrator much to illustrate, now would it. The plot? A Christmas story is the kiss of death. They have such a short selling season. Publishers hate holidays. Each cowboy tells a story within the story? Sounds like sub-plots. That’s too complex for a picture book.
When the time came for my manuscript consultation, I entered the room timidly and walked to my assigned table where a big-time editor from a big-time New York City publisher sat. (She was Diane Muldrow from Golden Books/Random House). Remember your dream, I told myself as I extended my hand. But mostly I remembered the conference veteran’s comments. The editor shook my hand and greeted me warmly.
“Tell me about your story,” she said.
I took a breath. “It’s about cowboys,” I said. I braced myself for her reaction.
“My father and grandfather were cowboys in New Mexico,” she replied. “I love cowboys. I’ve read your story and love it, too.”
The consultation continued and the editor gave me tips for revision and hints for developing the story further. At the end of the meeting she handed me her card. “I never give out my card, but I want to see this story again. Revise it based on our conversation and send it to me—no promises. We’ll see where things go.”
Two weeks later, I mailed the revised manuscript. Two months later I signed a contract with that big-time editor from the big-time New York City publisher. Two years later, my first picture book, COWBOY CHRISTMAS, was released. It’s a story about cowboys. And about believing.
The last few months have been busy ones. I’ve done book signings, school visits, story read alouds, blog interviews, my book was reviewed in the New York Times, and more. At one of my first book signings at the University of Florida Harn Museum of Art, a mother and her two sons approached the table. “We checked out your book from our library and have read it eight nights in a row,” the mom reported. I asked the boys, “What was your favorite part?” The older brother responded with a shrug, “It’s about cowboys and Christmas.”
My last book signing in December was in my home town, Springfield, Missouri. You know it’s going to be a good day when thirty of your aunts, uncles, and cousins show up along with your home church pastor, your youth minister (from when you were a youth), and tons of old friends, their children, and grandchildren. And you know it’s going to be a spectacular day when you see your third grade teacher in line for an autograph. Thanks, Mrs. Henley.
The last two years have been busy, too. I landed an agent—Rubin Pfeffer. We met at an SCBWI, Orlando, event. We signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins. And there’s even talk of another book about those cowboys. I’ve been encouraged along the way by members of my two critique groups—PB&J (my face-to-face group in Tampa Bay) and PBs-R-Us (my online group) and I am indebted to my mentors, Joyce Sweeney and Lisa Wheeler.
Bottom line—it pays to dream.