STOCKPILING STORIES THAT GRAB AN EDITOR’S EYE: A 12-STEP PLAN
I’m always ready to cheer when book deals are announced, especially if I know the author and/or illustrator. But honestly, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t wish I saw my name as well. So, when my name started popping up on PW, you can be sure I was dancing for joy.
But how did that happen? Was there some magic potion I managed to slip into the editor’s early morning latte? Or some secret formula for writing picture books that grab the editor’s eye? And how did I stockpile enough manuscripts to get four books debuting in 2019 with one of them a compilation book of nine full-length picture book biographies. Plus, I also have two R&R (revise and resubmit at the request of editors) manuscripts that may become other book deals. It has been a wild ride and I hope by sharing my process, you’ll walk away with the realization that it wasn’t magic, and you can do it, too!
MAKE THE DECISION
In 2012, at the age of 65, I decided to become a traditionally published picture book author. I had been blogging for a year. Julie Hedlund announced she was starting a challenge called 12x12…write 12 picture book drafts in 12 months. That sounded like it would align perfectly with my new goal. And by joining 12x12, I found myself connecting with many more serious writers.
READ AND WRITE
As a former kindergarten teacher and as a parent of three kids, reading picture books was like breathing for me. But now I made sure to read the newest releases so that I could get a feeling for what editors were looking for and what was selling in the marketplace. And I was writing. And writing. And writing some more. I was discovering my voice…my way of telling the story whether it was fiction or nonfiction, prose or rhyme.
Meanwhile, I joined critique groups. I embraced feedback. Sometimes, I’d get a manuscript back from Rate Your Story or from a critique buddy and the suggestions stung. I learned to give the critique a day or two to sink in. Then I’d go back to it and try to be objective. If several people pointed out the same problem, I knew it was advice I needed to take note of.
HONE YOUR CRAFT
I also enrolled in a few picture book writing classes. Being a good writer does not guarantee a person will be a good picture book writer. I wrote some more and started submitting. My goal was to get representation from an agent because I wanted to concentrate on the writing, not on the business end. Plus, I felt that it would be beneficial to have a professional in my corner.
In 2013, as part of the 12x12 challenge, I submitted to an agent just about every month, plus I used Rate Your Story to practice submitting as well as for feedback. In 2014, I continued doing that, in addition to submitting on my own to several editors and other agents. But from January through July of 2015, I ramped things up and submitted to agents, editors, Rate Your Story, and contests…a total of 47 submissions. I had one-on-ones and roundtables with editors and agents at my first-ever conference. I submitted to agents through 12x12. I participated in Twitter’s #Pitmad (there are several pitch challenges during the year on Twitter…writing a great pitch is a super way to discover the direction and focus of your story). I submitted through the #MSWL (manuscript wish list on Twitter where editors and agents sometimes post what they are looking for). And I sent a random submission to Storm literary agent, Essie White, who had just signed a Twitter acquaintance of mine. By early September, I had four agents who had fallen in love with Sweet Dreams, Sarah (a nonfiction pb about the first African American woman to secure a U.S patent), and who had asked to see more.
GET THE RIGHT AGENT
In the end, I decided to go with the agent who had been most passionately in love with my writing from the moment she read it. But I didn’t make the decision without doing my due diligence. Signing with an agent is a big deal because you want a partnership that will flourish. Essie was new to the business and her agency was very small. Those were not marks in her favor. However, I fell in love with what I read about her on the agency website. Then I asked if I could speak with her clients and she gave them my email. Within the hour, I had eight messages. Each client couldn’t say enough good things about her…stellar communicator, brilliant networker, compassionate person.
WRITE AND REVISE AND WRITE SOME MORE
Stephen King said that ‘writing is rewriting’ and I think that is true. The 12x12 Challenge gave me a great foundation in writing lots of rough drafts. Having many critique partners encouraged me to keep revising until I got each manuscript where it needed to be. And partnering with an agent who believes in my stories and works hard to get them in front of the right editors enabled me to secure those book deals.
BUT WHAT SHOULD I WRITE ABOUT?
My husband used to laugh at me…I couldn’t watch a TV show without a paper and pen nearby. Who knew what great idea I would get while watching CBS Sunday Morning? Or what awesome topic would be discussed on Mysteries of the Museum? And playing epic games of Monopoly with my grandson always produced more picture book ideas…just about everything kids say is material suitable for a story.
BE INSPIRED BY NATURE AND THE WORLD AROUND YOU
I write all types of stories. One of the first manuscripts I wrote was about a pristine river in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and the endangered animals who visit. It was a 2012 PiBoIdMo idea (that challenge is now called Storystorm and I urge everyone to get on Tara Lazar’s email/newsletter list, so you don’t miss signing up for it next January). I wrote it in free verse and got so much help from my critique buddies. And revised it dozens of times. My agent loved it and submitted it with art from one of her illustrator clients. FOUR OTTERS TOBOGGAN: AN ANIMAL COUNTING BOOK, illustrated by Mirka Hokkanen, will be published by Pomegranate Press next spring.
KEEP ALERT FOR OPPORTUNITIES
Another story I wrote early on was a little rhyme about a mouse who can’t find her Seder plate. During the 2013 PiBoIdMo Challenge, Kar Ben editor Joni Sussman put out a call for Jewish holiday stories. So, I wrote it and submitted it. The Kar Ben editor passed on it and I put it away for a couple of years because I got busy writing nonfiction pbs. But at the end of 2017, I showed it to an in-person critique buddy who happens to be an illustrator and she fell in love with it and showed it to one of her long-time editors. PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE, illustrated by Jill Weber, will be published by Holiday House next spring.
DON’T GIVE UP ON A STORY YOU LOVE
I mentioned that I began concentrating on writing nonfiction picture books. I love every aspect of the process…finding the topic, researching, writing, getting that first line so that it hooks the reader in, creating a satisfying ending that often echoes the opening lines. When I sent Sweet Dreams, Sarah to RYS in September 2014, I received an ‘8’…and went back to the drawing board. With help from my critique buddies, I revised and sent that to RYS the next month. They rated it a ‘3’…getting better. Many revisions later, it garnered 2ndplace in the RYS 2015 contest. I began sending it to agents, with many positive responses. As soon as I signed with Essie, she sent it out on submission and within a month, we had a contract for it. SWEET DREAMS, SARAH, illustrated by Chris Ewald, will be published by Creston Books next fall.
CREATE A PICTURE BOOK TEMPLATE
Talking about writing lots and lots of picture book stories brings me to the last book deal I got at the end of 2017. An editor really liked one of my nonfiction picture book biographies that my agent had sent her. And she had a wonderful idea…a compilation book with nine full-length fully illustrated picture book stories that would revolve around the same topic. Writing nine picture book stories (well, really eight because she already loved the one she had received) in less than eight months was going to be a challenge. We worked together to decide who the other eight would be about. And one by one, I researched each story, wrote a rough draft, revised, gave it to critique partners, revised based on their feedback, sent it to several other CPs, polished as per their thoughts, and sent it to the editor. Each story is different, but all have an opening line that pulls you in, fun action that will engage kids, STEM factoids that will educate them, and a satisfying ending that echoes the beginning. She has all nine now, plus an introduction, a timeline and a copious bibliography. FROM HERE TO THERE: INVENTIONS THAT CHANGED THE WAY WE MOVE, illustrator TBA, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next fall.
I do feel so blessed to have the opportunity to share my stories with kids…and so fortunate that these book deals happened. Getting the elements of a picture book right does take practice and skill…the opening line that gives the reader a way in, tension/drama that moves the story forward, and a satisfying ending that gives you a warm fuzzy feeling when you turn the last page. But one more thing needs to happen… the manuscript must cross the desk of the editor who is looking for just that story and falls in love with yours. Lady Luck has certainly been shining down on me and I can’t wait to see where this journey leads.
About the author:
Vivian Kirkfield constantly takes leaps of faith. She jumped from a perfectly good plane with her son, hiked to the summit of Pikes Peak with her husband, and parasailed over the Pacific Ocean with only seagulls for company.
Vivian is passionate about helping kids become lovers of books. A proud member of SCBWI, she presents literacy programs that entertain and engage parents, teachers and kids. When she’s not reading, writing, revising, or critiquing picture book manuscripts, Vivian plays epic games of Monopoly with her nine-year old grandson, shares stories on Skype with her five-year old granddaughter, and takes walks through the idyllic New England village of Amherst, New Hampshire where she currently resides.
2019 will be a busy year for Vivian with the launch ofFour Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book (PomegranateKids, Spring 2019), Sweet Dreams, Sarah (Creston Books, Fall 2019), Pippa’s Passover Plate (Holiday House, Spring 2019), and From Here to There: Inventions that Changed the Way We Move (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fall, 2019). You can find her on Twitter: @viviankirkfield and Facebook: www.facebook.com/viviankirkfield, or visit her blog at Picture Books Help Kids Soar: www.viviankirkfield.com.