Can you give us a little background about yourself?
Sure! I grew up in Walla Walla, Washington, got a degree in philosophy from Pomona College (to the despair of the Philosophy Department, I suspect), moved to San Francisco, became a street musician, then worked as an administrative assistant until the year 2000.
Along the way, I tried various kinds of writing--everything from magazine articles to puzzles to screenplays to greeting cards. It finally dawned on me that since kids' books are the books I love best, maybe that's what I should be writing. (Another hint was the presence of a Paddington Bear tape in my tape deck, especially combined with the fact that I don't have kids.) So in 2001, after my corporate job conveniently disappeared, I started writing for children in earnest.
How do you determine if a story idea is worth pursuing/revising?
Ooh, that's a good question! Often I just thumb through my idea file and see what grabs me. But then I usually do some legwork. Sometimes I'll run an idea by my agent to see what she thinks. I'll search online to see if similar books come up. And I might ask a librarian pal or critique friends whether the idea seems fresh to them.
But mostly I pursue an idea if excites me; in the long run, that's what matters.
What's a revision tip that you've found really helpful?
One picture book tip that I often share when I'm teaching a workshop: try to cut out half the words. Just try! You may end up adding back some words, but you almost certainly will find things you realize you don't need after all.
What makes a publishable manuscript?
Hm. That's a tricky question, because one editor might find a manuscript unpublishable, but the next editor might love it. There's an element--a BIG element--of personal preference, and that's something we don't have much control over (although by attending conferences and/or having a knowledgable agent, we might learn that Editor A loves cow stories, or that Editor B is dying to acquire a story about a tractor).
What we DO have control over is whether we're submitting the very best manuscripts we can--making sure we've gotten input from trusted writing friends and polished, polished, polished. Focusing on that feels more helpful to me than getting too caught up in the publishable/not publishable question.
Frankly, some ideas that grab me don't seem remotely publishable. Writing a book called THE QUIET BOOK when zillions of manuscripts are rejected for being too quiet? Insane! Writing a manuscript like HERE COMES THE EASTER CAT! that is so illustration-dependent that your agent submits your dummy to editors even though you're not an illustrator? Crazy! If I'd been trying to write only what I thought would be publishable, I might never have developed those ideas.
Any other thoughts for fellow picture book writers?
Be patient--with the industry and with yourself. Try to keep your focus on the one thing you have total control over: your current manuscript. Pay attention to what helps YOU in the creative process, and know that it may be different from what helps anyone else. Be kind to yourself.
And hang in there! I got my first "good" rejection letter from an editor a year or two after I started writing. The editor suggested I try her again, and I did--several times--over the next five years. And in 2008, she acquired THE QUIET BOOK. I am glad I kept trying!
Me too, it's a lovely story with adorable illustrations. Thank you Deborah!
Deborah Underwood's books include The Quiet Book, The Loud Book, The Christmas Quiet Book, Pirate Mom, A Balloon for Isabel, Part-time Princess, and the forthcoming Here Comes the Easter Cat! and Bad Bye, Good Bye. She has written 27 nonfiction books for the children's educational market. Her magazine credits include National Geographic Kids, Highlights, Ladybug, and Spider. Please visit her online: DeborahUnderwoodBooks.com.
To enter giveaway:
- Scroll down to the Rafflecopter widget at the end of this post.
- Under the prize listings, click on the “Revised PB MS Today & Commented on Today's Post” button. If you have revised a PB manuscript and commented on today's post, click ENTER. Remember you are on the honor system!
Each day you revise and comment (Jan. 12-18th) you can enter for chances to win. The winners will be chosen via Rafflecopter January 19th. There will be a final giveaway January 19th for those of you who revise 5+ days! Good luck everyone!