Friday, February 17, 2023

A New Year...An Upcoming Book - Anatomy of a Book's Journey

Moving Forward in the New Year!  

Here we go…2023 is here and I am on a speeding train toward the book launch of my first book that sold in July of 2018.  It’s been a long time coming and certainly not without its own story, replete with the twist and turn of not ending up being my debut book.  So where did it all begin?  Well, with my very own teaching author of course!  Here’s the anatomy of a picture book sale for an author who wondered if it really could be done. 

Chance meetings and serendipity have always been my friends. As a public school teacher in Los Angeles, Otis College of Art and Design allows teachers to take one free extension class a semester. In 2017, I attended an open house ready to sign up for a painting class.  It had been a long time since I had explored my ideas on canvas.  It was a life I had wandered away from once I had a child in 2001. I was ready to add a little pizzaz to my life, to reclaim that part of me that had slumbered through my child’s childhood. I meandered through the tables exhibiting the offerings, awake and alive to the endless possibilities of reentering a formal learning environment.  And then I happened upon Deborah Nourse Lattimore and my life took a new turn.  

I had been exploring writing for children and I had been putting the work in to learn the craft. It was work.  Enjoyable work…but work, nonetheless. I had no intention on that day to add to my workload. I was looking for delight. But, Deborah was pure delight and I found myself signing up for her class instead of the painting class I had intended.  I was about to find myself at a new level of a career that I had been dabbling with, wanting to be serious but unable to find the next level.

Deborah Nourse Lattimore is the author-illustrator of almost 40 children’s books and has taught writing for years. Her gift as a teacher is to recognize each students level and extend their reach in a non-judgmental, nurturing, and loving way.  Deborah creates the conditions for good writing to occur without the student knowing that it’s happening. The growth is organic and authentic and not performative, process over product. I thrived. 

After studying with her for months, I took a risk and randomly asked her if she ever recommended her students to an agent whom she was friends with. She said, “Sometimes.” I ventured further, “Would you consider recommending me?”  I braced for the very real possibility of a no.  But there it was.  My first yes.  

That December I travelled to Egypt to visit my father and extended family.  Egyptian Lullaby tumbled out of me as a full-blown manuscript. I could hardly keep up. It was my love letter to Cairo. 

Abigail Samoun of Red Fox Literary was still looking at some of my weaker manuscripts when Deborah encouraged me to send her Egyptian Lullaby. Abigail’s response was positive, and my timing was on point. Abi was traveling to New York that week to meet  with editors.  She asked if she could take my manuscript with her. It was a resounding yes from me which resulted in 5 interested editors from leading publishing houses. I naively expected an immediate sale.  


Some clean up and revisions were necessary.  Time passed…editors passed on it…and the manuscript stalled. Knowing that rejection is a part of an author’s lifestyle and accepting that every turn is an adventure kept me out of the trough of despair and imposter syndrome. But time kept passing and nothing was happening. Then we got a bite, but a full rewrite was required. I’m always up for the challenge and adventure so I jumped in and responded to the editor’s direction.  The manuscript was significantly different, but I liked the changes and was willing to let go of the original story. 

We were ready to cross the finish line when Emily Feinberg contacted us. Egyptian Lullaby seemed like it belonged at Roaring Brook Press. A different manuscript that I had in my collection of manuscripts seemed like it was better suited for the original editor whom I had worked with.  So, I ended up with two sales. 

As it turned out, my instincts were right.  The version of Egyptian Lullaby that ended up as a picture book was the original version, illustrated by the extremely talented Hatem Aly.  

Ironically, Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story became my beautiful debut picture book
stunningly illustrated by Fiona Halliday. It unfortunately came out on May 12, 2020, just as the pandemic lockdown kicked into full swing, almost three years before Egyptian Lullaby which is due out on April 18th of this year. 

It is a delight to revisit the journey of my first book and honor the people responsible for it. 

This blog post is dedicated to Deborah Nourse Lattimore, my unrelenting mentor who makes me feel like I can write anything, Abigail Samoun, my amazing agent who believes in me, guides me, supports my decisions, gives me the belief that there are unlimited possibilities always possible and helps me bear all the rejections that go with this path, and Emily Feinberg, who took my original manuscript and made it into something I could never have imagined it would be.  

My love for the three of you is immeasurable and my respect is boundless. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

By Zeena M. Pliska

Friday, February 3, 2023

But Ya Gotta Have Friends! (Sorry, Bette Midler!)

January 1st means a fresh start, new resolutions for many people. The Gregorian calendar insists the New Year comes in the middle of grey, grisly, winter, with short days and long dreary nights. I think that's a mean joke. The last thing I want to do this time of year is make resolutions or "move ahead" on a project.

So what do I do to jolt myself out of the midwinter blahs? I talk to my friends As I've mentioned before, some of my best friends are books. I consult my "writers on writing" shelf.

The first book I read about writing was Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit.  Ueland is the friend you talk to when you fall in love with writing, because she's in love with it too.  She gets it. If You Want to Write was published in 1938, but so timeless in style and advice, it could've been written last week. She believes that everyone is talented, original and has something important to say...just what a new writer wants to hear! "Try to discover your true, honest untheoretical self," says Brenda. Wow! Somebody wants to hear from the "real me"? All right!

How can you not love a book with chapters titled "The imagination works slow and quietly," and"Be careless, be reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate when you write." Then there is my favorite "Why Women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing." (Not a problem, Brenda!) I've written journals off and on since third grade, but when I read So You Want to Write in my 20's, I was encouraged to "Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary." Ueland set me free to write and write and write without fretting over what I was writing, or what it might be some day. She turned me into an enthusiastic observer and journal keeper. I re-read So You Want to Write when I need to fall in love with writing again. (Sidebar--Greywolf Press brought the book back into print in 1983...and it has not been out of print since. That should speak to the quality of Ueland's advice.)

Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird came into my life when I was trying to turn all that journal writing into actual stories...and having serious doubts that I could do it. Anne Lamott is the big sister friend, who has been there, done that and is going to tell you Get over yourself! Don't listen to your inner voice screaming, Who told you you are a writer.?You stink! Don't freak out. Take deep breaths. You can only write one sentence at a time, word by word. (Or bird by bird, as per the title.) Whatever writer's block you have, or how horribly you judge your own work...Anne Lamott has already done it, much, much  worse! (If you need a visual, think of Cher in Moonstruck, slapping Nick Cage and yelling "Snap out of it!") When I'm overthinking or hypercritical to the point of inertia, I pour a glass of wine and spend a little time with Anne.

After decades of plugging away, I began to publish. However, the myth that "once you get your first book published, the next one is easier" is just that. A myth. I sold my first book. The next one took four years. (Although in the wild and wacky world of publishing schedules, the second book came out before the first one!) I didn't have an agent. In fact, I was discovering that getting an agent was harder than getting an editor's attention.I was sure that J.K Rowling and Stephen King were not having my problems with a-hiccuping career. That's when I happened on Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. 

Personally, I'm not a fan of King's stories or style. However, I am in awe of how he has made readers out of people who don't like to read. I read On Writing, hoping he had some sort of magic formula. Of course he doesn't. However I discovered has a lovely conversational style when writing about his own life...and not homicidal Plymouth Furys or evil, sewer-dwelling clowns.

 King takes the "toolbox" approach to writing. If you don't possess and use these tools, you will never become a competent writer. His first tool: read a lot and write a lot. I'd been telling my own writing students that for years. I didn't know whether to be disappointed that his advice wasn't more exotic, or pleased that Stephen and I were on the same page, philosophically speaking. I didn't tell my students that by "writing a lot," King means that he writes every single day. That's a discouraging notion to a ten-year-old whose life is already scheduled to the gills.(He once told an interviewer that he wrote everyday except Fourth of July, Christmas and his birthday--but that wasn't true. He writes every day.) I also write every day, although not necessarily of the journaling-and-writing-project variety. I'm a moderator of a Facebook (OK Meta!) page that involves a lot of research and concise explanatory writing. This keeps my toolbox working between projects, and through the spells when my imagination seems to have dried up and blown away. (I tell my students to write on weekends and school holidays...and whenever they are happy or sad or mad. That winds up being pretty much every day...without them knowing it.)

The other "tools" King uses are so basic, I'm a little insulted he calls them tools; vocabulary and grammar. Vocabulary doesn't need to be voluminous (The last time I was required to know and use the word "salubrious" was in taking the ACT.),  varied and useful. If you get stuck, he suggests a thesaurus, preferably not the one that came with your word processing program. For grammar, nothing can beat our mutual old friend, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.  While King never does tells how he can turn out bestseller after bestseller, he does remind me that if you don't read, write, mind your vocabulary and grammar, you're never going to write anything. On Writing is that professor you regard with awe, but when you actually talk to them, find they aren't magical or mystical...just hardworking and focused. 

My last friend is my teacher friend, Ralph Fletcher. (I don't personally know Mr. Fletcher, but after reading everyone of his many books, I feel as if I do.) I rely on Fletcher to inspire me as a teacher.  He is a master teacher of writing as well as a writer for children. He knows how kids think, and how to jazz their imaginations, free them of their writing hang-ups. His books contain writing exercises and topics (he doesn't use the word "prompts") for every age group--including adults. I've never taught a class without Ralph Fletcher at my side, in spirit. 

No one gets through this writing life alone. As the great Bette Midler sings "'cause yah got to have friends." Please feel free to introduce me to some of your writing friends. 

Posted by Mary Ann. Rodman