It’s been a while since I highlighted a debut author. I've been busy with submissions this month and I will tell you about that journey in another post, but for now I am excited to introduce to you today’s featured debut author, Lori Alexander.
You may want to pay close attention to Lori’s interview because the steps she's taken to become a successful children's writer is what agents and editors have preached over again at conferences. Lori took the advice and ran with it. With hard work, patience, and determination, the formula works- that's no secret!
The Seven Habits of a Highly Effective Writer
Lori Alexander writes for young children and their exhausted parents. Her debut picture book, BACKHOE JOE, rolls out in 2014 from Harper Children’s, with a sequel to follow. Lori resides in Tucson, Arizona, with her scientist husband and two book loving kids. She runs when it’s cool (rarely) and swims when it’s hot (often). She grew up in San Diego, where she earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in psychology from UCSD and SDSU, respectively. Lori is a member of SCBWI and can be found on Twitter @LoriJAlexander.
Lori, please tell us how you got Kathleen Rushall as your agent?
Sure, Romelle! And thanks for having me on your blog. I found Kathleen online. She had just been highlighted on the Literary Rambles website. If you haven’t visited, this website is super helpful in researching agents. Kathleen was looking for quirky, humorous picture books. We also share the same hometown and college, which helped me add a pinch of personalization to my query letter. She got back to me quickly and asked to see more work. In all, I sent her three polished PBs and an idea for a four before receiving the offer of representation.
How did you get notified that your picture book sold to Harper Children's Books and what was your reaction?
Backhoe Joe was an exciting sale because we had multiple offers and it ended up “going to auction.” The auction took place on a specific day and Kathleen kept me updated by phone and email. We happened to be on a family vacation at the time and I will always remember getting the call of good news while ushering my kids through the beluga whale exhibit at Sea World.
With your book coming out in 2014, what has the process been like between contract signing and book release?
It’s been about a year since the book sold. In that time, I’ve spoken to my editor at Harper, the lovely Margaret Anastas (Fancy Nancy, Pete the Cat), a few times by phone. She explained that there wouldn’t be much for me to do “for awhile.” I had a chance to chime in when they selected an illustrator. And more recently, I’ve been able to view a complete layout (rough sketches with text in place) of the book. As far as revisions to the text, I was asked to tweak a couple of lines, but nothing major.
What is your upcoming picture book Backhoe Joe about?
|Lori with her children Max & Nora|
When Nolan finds a “stray” backhoe, he brings it home, hoping his parents will let him keep it. But his mom and dad say Backhoe Joe is not trained. He revs at the mailman. He digs in the garbage. He leaks on the driveway. Will Nolan get his disobedient digger on the right track? Or will Joe’s real owner come to claim him first? A twist ending will leave young construction fans laughing and wanting a truck pet of their very own.
How did you come up with the idea for your story?My son’s first love was construction trucks. Toys. TV shows. Themed birthdays. It was all trucks, trucks, trucks! I’m sure lots of other families have gone through a similar phase (trespassing onto construction sites to sit on parked excavators and snap pictures…anyone?). To fuel the fire, we read every construction book we could get our hands on. Most of them followed the same pattern: an excavator scoops, a bulldozer pushes, a dump truck dumps, etc. The story would end with a playground being built. I searched for books with construction trucks in different settings, but couldn't find many. So I started making up stories to tell my son. That’s when the tiny seed of an idea for Backhoe Joe came to be. I’d classified the story as “a new twist on a familiar topic.”
Do you have any upcoming picture books?
Kathleen has subbed a couple of new projects, but no takers yet. Backhoe Joe sold in a two-book deal, and I’m excited to begin work on the second story when the time comes.
What classes have you taken or books that you've read that helped you become a better picture book writer?
I took Anastasia Suen’s online “Intensive Picture Book” course when I was first feeling my way around writing and publishing. It was a helpful overview. Later down the line, I took a PB webinar from agent Mary Kole (offered through Writer’s Digest). It was extremely informative regarding the current market for PBs, what is selling now, and why it is selling. The class also came with a critique. It was Mary’s positive comments on Backhoe Joe that shifted me into query mode. But overall, I’ve probably learned the most by studying successful (current!) picture books and working with great critique partners to sharpen my writing skills.
Thank you so much, Lori, for taking the time to share your publishing journey with me. I love the fact that you heeded every advice given to children's writers at conferences and it brought you success! I know there were some low-lights along the way, but you overcame the road blocks and persisted. I wish you all the best and I look forward to your picture book, BACKHOE JOE, in 2014!
- # of agents you submitted to before getting a contract from Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency: I submitted to agents in small batches. I got passes from my first 4-5 agents. I found Kathleen and queried her in my second batch.
- # months or years before you felt Backhoe Joe was submission-ready: Years! The story went through complete overhauls in my mind and on paper.
- # of months it took agent Kathleen Rushall to sell your ms to Harper Children's Books: Maybe 3-4 months. Three editors made offers, so it went to auction.
- # years from acceptance by Harper Children's Books to publication (2014): Two years + a few months
In summary, here is what Lori did to help her get published:
- Bring a new twist to a familiar topic. Think mashup! That's when you mix up two unrelated ideas to create something unexpected and fresh. Lori combined construction truck story with lost pet story and voilà!
- Write what is dear to your heart or write what you know. Lori's son's passion for trucks fueled her creative fire.
- Hone your craft: Register for writing classes specific to your genre and join a critique group, also specific to your genre.
- Keep writing and have at least 3 of your best completed manuscripts ready before querying.
- Research agents and editors and compile a short list that is targeted towards your writing style and genre. Try to personalize your query.
- Submit in small batches so that if you happen to receive any feedback you can make the necessary changes and make your ms better for the next batch.
- Join writing groups and SCBWI! There you will find valuable information related to the industry of writing for children. Here are a few to get you started:
So there you have it. The 7 habits of a highly effective writer, Lori Alexander!