by Teresa Robeson
That may be the motto on Galaxy Quest (one of my favorite movies) but it’s also a good motto for writers and illustrators trying to get into publishing because everything takes forever in the business and you will very likely want to throw in the towel at least several times a year if not twice every hour.
I know this from personal experience. Just how long did it take to get my first book published?
Well, six years elapsed between the first draft to the release date. But, if you start from when I made the decision to be a writer, then I’d say it took me about three decades!
The year was 1990. My husband was having a blast doing his Ph.D. and I was stuck in a mind-numbingly dull job. I tried taking up creative hobbies to compensate: I developed an interest in origami...
and I signed up for a “fine arts for non-majors” class.
Both were fun, but something still felt like it was missing. I mulled this over while I was reading stacks of picture books and middle-grade novels.
What had I been doing on almost a daily basis since I learned English in third grade after immigrating from Hong Kong to Canada?
Eat good food?
Yes, that, too. But the answer was creative writing. Growing up, I wrote poetry, and jokes, and puzzles for my little sister to solve. And, in 1990, I wrote many, many letters to West Coast friends back home because I was stuck on the East Coast in that mind-numbingly dull job.
Letters were all right, but I needed more. As Isaac Asimov said, and I paraphrase, to have your writing published is the only good way to leave your legacy. So how does one become a published writer? I started reading Writer’s Digest magazine to find out and stumbled across an ad for The Institute of Children’s Literature.
Right after taking the class, I sent one piece I wrote for an assignment out to a couple of magazines, and received a call from Paula Morrow, then editor of Ladybug, asking if they could buy the story.
A sale! On my first try! I held it together long enough to finish the call and then screamed for joy.
When I made some more sales in the next few years I thought I was motoring along reasonably well in my publishing career. But then a dry spell hit. Between homeschooling my kids (my second child had special needs) and getting more rejections than acceptances, I cut back on writing. Drastically. I felt defeated and exhausted.
I tried to fill the empty feeling of not writing by doing other creative endeavors again. With kids in tow this time, I made paper (and some photography)
and dabbled in soap-making.
I also ate more good food (thanks to hubby who is as excellent a cook as he is a scientist).
But none of that satisfied the itch for something greater and more meaningful (my foodie self is incredulous, “What could be more meaningful than gastronomic delights??”). So, in 2010, I dove back in with greater determination.
I took more classes, for writing and for illustrating, and I took more chances, applying to any and all grants and opportunities that I qualified for, and joining critique groups where I had to bare my writing soul but, in return, got tons of good feedback that made my writing stronger. I still received a lot of NOs, but I also had some successes because I put myself out there.
Some of the lucky breaks include winning or placing in (runner-up, honorable mentions) a few writing contests, which boosted my confidence, signing with an agent (though she quit after we were together for just one year), and getting picked by Jane Yolen as a nonfiction mentee in the We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program. The story Jane worked with me on caught an editor’s interest, and with that interest, I signed with my second agent who has gone on to sell another book for me.
I’m not an overnight success, that’s for sure, but there are almost no overnight success stories. But I followed a path to success that anyone can take, and here are the 4 easy steps. Hah.
1) Learn the craft of writing. If you’re writing picture books, also learn the craft of illustrating or how a picture book is put together. Read as many how-to books as you can and take courses. Some of my favorite classes are listed on the Resources page of my website.
2) Start submitting. Bylines in magazines and smaller publications are a great way to build a resume and experience. Winning writing contests (go for the free ones unless you have money to spare) can help your self-confidence and also look good in a query letter.
3) Join a community. SCBWI provides great resources and support. My first ever illustration sale was to their Bulletin (with a lovely acceptance letter from Steven Mooser). Be a part of a critique group, or three, or at least get one critique partner. Your local SCBWI chapter can help you or you can join other organizations, free and paying, that can also connect you with creative, e.g. Kidlit411, Sub It Club, and 12x12 Picture Book Challenge. These places will also help you learn more about the business side of publishing.
4) Settle in comfortably for the long haul. The old song goes, “You can’t hurry love.” Turns out, this is twice as true for the writing world. Take a break if you need to when you get too down about it, like I did, but be sure to jump back in…because getting published is a lot about “right time, right place” and you never know when that will be for you.
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We are a group of writers and illustrators who have debut books (actual debuts , debuts as author-illustrators, or debuts with medium/large publishers) forthcoming in 2019. Thank you for joining us on our exciting journey!