Friday, December 1, 2017


After banging my head on my computer for more than five years of trying to entice an agent into representing me, I finally got one. Huzzah! But if you are looking for an account of the methodical researching of agents, crafting and polishing query letters to a brilliant shine, so that you can duplicate my effort, this will NOT be that post. 

Back in 2009, the recession and the slowed economy caught up with my art career. Rather than panic and get a day job (did I mention I’d been a self-employed artist for 21 years? Who would hire me?) I did what any sensible person would do. I started drawing pandas.

If you’re wondering what pandas have to do with getting an agent, be patient. I pinky promise that there is a connection.

When I moved to Whidbey Island 30 years ago, one of my first friends was writer Deb Lund. She had been working on writing for children for a while, and now has half a dozen+ published picture books. In that kind of offhand way that is the start of so many great things, she said, “You ought to illustrate picture books.” I said something like, “Oh sure, in my spare time.” 20 years later, I had more spare time than I wanted. 

When the economy crashed, I started drawing pandas to cheer myself up. Eventually this became a comic with a growing cast of characters, and I started a blog to inflict/share them with the world. I then remembered Deb’s comment of 20 years previously, took a Writing for Children class from her, joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), went to a regional SCBWI conference and started on a picture book project. That project became a wordless picture book called Pandamorphosis, about a cat who turns into a panda. It took me close to 4 years to write, draw, edit, and draw some more. I had several very useful critiques through SCBWI, including some with agents and editors. One of those lead to an extended back and forth, but alas, no offer of representation.

I made all sorts of mistakes querying Pandamorphosis, including after a very promising conference critique with an art director, sitting on my hands and not querying further for more than a year while this dream publishing house considered my book. In the end, I got so discouraged with the “I love your art, but this project is not speaking to me, but do contact me for your next project…” rejections, that I put Pandamorphosis away. Eventually I decided that if I didn’t clear the decks and do something with it, it would mentally block my doing anything else, so I got some editing and design help and self published it, funding those editorial and production services with Kickstarter.

Meanwhile, my internet comic The Panda Chronicles was burbling along, gaining readers and supporters. I started publishing collections of the comics through CreateSpace, but I still wanted an agent. As I traveled along the comics road, I started writing extended story lines that would last for 10 episodes or more. Finally, in 2014, I wrote a 47 episode Panda detective story. (each episode being roughly 4 panels) I thought that with some serious editing, it could be reworked into a middle grade graphic novel.

In one of those random cosmic things that sometimes happen, right around this time (now the spring of 2015) I chanced on an announcement for the Nevada chapter of SCBWI’s mentor program beginning in the fall of 2015, with application deadline and acceptances happening in the late spring to early summer. The announcement led me to their list of mentors and what genres and age groups each mentor was looking to work with. One of the mentors was an agent with an interest in graphic novels. There was another mentor who had worked in publishing as an editor, and was now working as an independent editor. He included middle grade in his lists of genre/age groups.

So, with these two possibilities to work with, I read the application directions…oh…about 347 times, got my materials together and sent them in. I spent three months obsessing over whether this would be the dumbest project they’d ever seen or the most brilliant work of genius. One day in early August, I got a phone call from Naomi Canale, the co-coordinator for the mentor program saying that I had been accepted. As it turned out, both my selections for mentors wanted to work on this project with me, but Gordon (the agent) won the toss.

Okay, okay already. When are you going to get to the part about how you got your agent? 

This mentor program was structured so that you met with your mentor in a weekend conference with all the other mentors and mentees, set up your work plan, then check in monthly with your mentor, sending work back and forth via email. The program concludes with everyone getting together again, and discussing where your project needs to go next.

I had initially applied to this program to up my writing/illustrating game, to where I could make the leap from “encouraging rejections” to actually getting an agent and getting published in the traditional sense. If I did not get into the program, I might have kept trying to enter through those guarded gates of publishing, but more likely, I would have continued self publishing my comics through CreateSpace (which I still do: 7 collections of The Panda Chronicles, with the 8th on it’s way) and selling books on Amazon to my loyal readers.

So here’s the cute, How I got my Agent, part of the story. We had all arrived at the final mentor program weekend in Carson City, Nevada. The first event of the weekend was meeting with your mentor to see what your WIP needed to make it submission ready.

During the last few months of our online exchange of revision notes, I could tell that Gordon was getting to know who my characters were, and he made several comments that made me feel like he really “got” what I was doing. He knew what my work habits were like, (not to mention my sparklingly witty personality!) and I got to know his editing style. So with all this in the back of my mind, when we came to the end of this meeting, he asked if I had any questions, the question that popped out of my mouth was, “ you want to be my agent?” 

He kind of smiled, and casually said, “Um…yeah.”

I spent the rest of the weekend in a bit of a daze. We didn’t talk about it again and I started running on the hamster wheel of anxiety. Did I do that? Really? Was he just saying “yes” so he could make a safe getaway?

During the weekend, each of the mentors gave a presentation to all the mentees. Gordon’s was the final one of the weekend, and his presentation focused on the projects of both his mentees and what each of our projects needed before being ready for submission. He finished his presentation, and then said, “I’m going to tell you a story that will probably embarrass Anne,” and then proceeds to tell the story of how I asked him to be my agent. And then he said, “Yes, Anne, I’ll be your agent,” and the whole room burst into applause.

Now, I have to say that I got lucky in several ways. First, that I discovered through the mentor process that I could take editorial direction, and second that I found  someone who “got” my work and my humor. I went into the program hoping to shape my book into something that could be traditionally published. I hoped to get help crafting a killer query letter. I had no assumptions that Gordon would become my agent (not that it hadn’t crossed my mind). I had decided to make this investment of time and money in my work and I’m really happy that it turned out the way it did.

So I think that the takeaway here is NOT that you should ignore the rules about querying through proper channels (my bad). But that when an opportunity to attend a program like this arises, be it a mentor program or an MFA program in writing for children, it would be a good idea to take it. You will improve your craft. You will meet people who will be your friends and support in the trenches of writing and publishing. You will connect with people who can move your career forward.

To date, I think at least six of our group of 22 have signed with agents over the last year and a half. My book is still out on submission, but it had an acquisitions close call at the end of the summer. I believe this book series will sell eventually. Meanwhile, you can find me in my corner of the enchanted forest, painting, drawing pandas, and watching panda videos.

About the Author: 
Anne Belov is a painter, printmaker, writer and cartoonist. You can find her panda satire at
Her yet to be published graphic novel, The Pandyland Mysteries: The Case of the Picturesque Panda is a detective story with fine art, a mysterious panda of questionable morals, and more than one panda behaving badly. She lives in a post industrial cottage in the woods on Whidbey island in Washington State. Her main regrets in life are that there is no MacArthur Foundation Grant category for Panda Satire, and that pandas are not among the wildlife that live in the woods behind her house.

Monday, October 30, 2017

ENJOY THE JOURNEY by Jenna Grodzicki

When I first decided to venture into the world of writing for children, I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought it would be magical. The words would flow out of my head and onto the computer screen and in no time at all, I would have a published book. Well, almost three years later, I now know differently. There are certain things about writing and publishing that are magical, but they can also be frustrating, disappointing, and, at times, soul crushing.

You have a polished manuscript, and you start submitting to agents. Or maybe you already have an agent, and your manuscript is being sent to editors. Then you wait. Several months go by. If you’re lucky, you receive a rejection, so you know to move on. But more often than not, you hear crickets. Rejections are hard and the wait can be unbearable. So how can you stay positive and confident? By celebrating the small accomplishments.

Put a positive spin on those rejections.
Each rejection means you are one step closer to that yes. I use a Hundreds Chart (why yes, I used to be a teacher) to keep track of my rejections. Coloring in a square actually makes me feel better. It’s a visual representation of hard work and persistence and reminds me how much closer I’m getting. Other writers play Rejection Bingo. Or, use the rejection as an excuse to treat yourself to an ice cream sundae. Whatever you choose to do, rewarding yourself in some small way will lessen the sting.

Take time to look back at your earlier work.
When I look at my earliest manuscripts, I inwardly cringe. But it makes me appreciate how much I’ve improved. When I compare a manuscript I’ve revised and revised with its first draft, I feel accomplished. As writers, we are always striving to improve our craft. Taking the time to see how far you’ve come is worth recognizing.  

Celebrate every word.
Completing a first draft or a round of revisions is certainly a cause for celebration. But don’t overlook those tiny moments. When you’ve added a sentence that has a powerful impact on your manuscript or you’ve found just the right word after its eluded you for days, applaud yourself. Don’t take each improvement you make for granted.

Celebrate the critiques.
Receiving a positive critique can help boost your confidence. Hold onto that feeling. Receiving a negative critique may not feel so great, but use it as fuel to push yourself forward. And recognize that every critique you give to other writers helps improve their work. That is a powerful feeling.

Embrace your tribe.
When I first started writing, I never could have imagined all the wonderful people I’d meet in the kidlit community. My critique groups, members of both SCBWI and 12x12, and fellow Clear Fork Publishing authors have become my support system. I value these friendships and am thankful for them every day. Reach out to other writers and keep those relationships close. They’ll make you feel less alone and lift you up when you’re down.

The path to publication is a long one. But each small accomplishment leads you further down that road. If you focus all your time and energy on the disappointments and rejections, you’ll miss all the successes along the way. Don’t forget to enjoy the journey.

About the Author: 

Jenna lives in Connecticut with her husband, two crazy awesome kids, a cat named Pixie, and a dog named Ozzy. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education from Boston College and a Master’s in Education from the University of New England. Her first book, PIXIE’S ADVENTURE, was awarded two Honorable Mentions in the 2017 Purple Dragonfly Book Awards. She recently traded in her librarian hat to become a full time writer. At all hours of the day (and night) she can be found at her desk, drinking iced coffee and working on her next story. When she’s not writing or spending time with her family, Jenna LOVES to read! She also enjoys skiing and cheering for the best team in baseball, the Boston Red Sox.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Truth Above All in Young Adult Novels
By: Nancy Stewart

Many of us are painfully aware that truth, one of the ultimate values that makes us human, is being eroded in this day of fake news and stories reworked to suit a particular audience. But does it matter?  Certainly, a resounding yes is the answer. One pivotal place where truth should be extolled is within the pages of a Young Adult novel.

Since the 1990’s, when this category of novel came of age (having begun in the early 1960’s), the subject matter of this novel type has steadily become edgier, more thought-provoking, more prone to take risks. Young Adult literature today reflects the developmental needs of is audience. If authors tell these stories with truth and candor, more young people will read the books, and more will be touched and influenced in the best possible ways. Without the authenticity provided in the pages of such novels, the young reader may find it more difficult to think critically or begin to deal with realities they will face in adulthood.

In my new Young Adult novel, Beulah Land, published by Interlude Press, November 16, 2017, the protagonist Violette Sinclair, is persecuted by a sociopathic bully in the Missouri Ozarks, where they both live. She also must deal with her mother to discover truths that are painful, and dangerous, and too important to ignore. Vi has to reach deep within herself to find an abiding truth which she hopes will sustain her in her struggle with her tormentor, Dale.  

When we, as authors, provide our young readers a framework in which truth lives, we give them role models who will help them make sense of their own personal world. In Vi’s case, her best friend is Junior, the star linebacker in their little town’s high school. It is he who literally runs interference for Vi and saves her life.  She returns the favor and saves his as well. Together, they discover truth; what is right, and what is wrong, and the ability to know the difference.

Only when a Young Adult novel, or any novel for that matter, is built on veracity and integrity, is the author able to find comfort in a story well told; a story brimming with interest, and fulsomeness, and abundance of spirit, and that most basic of human values, truth. One lives in hope that the very same comfort will occur within the reader.

For more about Nancy Stewart, and her new novel, visit her website at

Tuesday, September 5, 2017


After much deliberation and multiple rounds of judging, we are excited to announce the results of our 2017 Awesome Openers Writing Contest! There were so many wonderful entries and the decisions were difficult to make. Thank you to all of the talented writers who entered and congratulations to all! 

Young Adult 

1. FUMBLE by Sherry Howard
2. THE PARIS LETTER by Luan Pitsch

Middle Grade 

1. HOOFIN IT TO HOLLYWOOD by Kenda Henthorn
2. MIDGARD by Erin Ball 

Middle Grade Honorable Mentions

LONG DISTANCE CALL by Angela Calabrese

Nonfiction Picture Book 

1. THE GRIT OF THE FEET by Rupali Mulge
2. THE LITTLE MONK by Midge Smith

Nonfiction Picture Book Honorable Mentions


Fiction Picture Book

1. SWINGING OVER THE GRAVY BOWL by Julia Richardson 
2. WHEN PIGS CAN FLY by Kenda Henthorn
3. COOTIE PIRATE by Erin Ball 

Fiction Picture Book Honorable Mentions
DARLING DARLA DANE by Deborah Buschman

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


It seems one of the buzz words around the kid-lit hive these days is “Creative Non-Fiction”.  Creative non-fiction provides a great opportunity to get the most “bang for your buck” in producing a book! It’s a chance to both entertain AND educate. 
And if you struggle coming up with unique concepts and interesting plot lines in your writing, GOOD NEWS: You can often find stories greater and more interesting in non-fiction than ones you’d typically make up in fiction!  
So, if you want to give a go at creating creative non-fiction, here are some steps to follow to simplify the process (and how to avoid mistakes that l learned the hard way):
STEP 1:  Spend time making a list of things that YOU find interesting.  Think back to when you were a child and the things that fascinated you. You’ll be spending a lot of time with this subject matter, so make sure it is something you will genuinely enjoy researching. It also helps to check out what is being covered in classrooms, so that you can create a story that coincides with lesson plans to appeal to teachers. I used fireflies for my first story because I spent so many summers as a child chasing fireflies, and they are a great model for complete metamorphosis (there also happens to be SO many gross/fun/interesting facts about how they grow up!)
STEP 2: Do a quick google search on each subject matter just to see if anything catches your attention that you maybe never knew, or you think you could write a story around.  Jot some notes down for each item on your list.
STEP 3: Pick the one that sounds most interesting to you.  Then start to research more in depth. Check out books from the library. Read research papers online.  Keep track of all the fun things you find.
*TIP: You will probably find a LOT of exciting facts! Keep note of all of them, most importantly keeping track of the sources where you found them. This will be important later.
STEP 4: Get creative! Start brainstorming ways to you can put all the information you gather together that will appeal to kids.  You can do this by thinking how or why would a child be interested in your subject matter, or how they could relate to what is happening. A great example of this is the WHAT TO EXPECT series from Bridget Heos, or the DIARY series (of a Worm, of a Spider, of a Fly) from Doreen Cronin. Each of these appeals to kids in a fun and humorous way, different from straight non-fiction. For my HOW TO SURVIVE series, I used these books as inspiration.  What started for me as a “Survival Guide” format morphed into a day in the life of school for fireflies and sharks.  Because kids obviously have their own experiences in school, that is a direct entry point of interest for them. 
STEP 5: The most important step: fully research your facts.  Even though you are being creative with the delivery of your subject, your information MUST be correct. Much of the information out there has not been properly vetted.  Utilize the internet, universities and research facilities to find at least a couple experts or scientists to refer to.  It can be helpful to find websites dedicated to your subject matter and then reach out to the admin, who is typically someone really involved in that research. Explain to them that you are writing for kids and would like their help making sure you have your facts straight.  They are usually more than happy to share their knowledge, mostly because of the mis-information out there! This is where it is important to go back to your notes and sources to make sure they are indeed factual.  It was interesting to me that even “facts” I found in books already published sometimes turned out to be wrong.  Often disappointing, because you might find an amazing tidbit of info, and a great way to incorporate it into a story, only to find out that it isn’t technically correct.  I had to cut several fun parts of my stories upon finding out that the information I was using wasn’t factual. 
*TIP: These experts are generally busy people with a lot going on, so realize you may not get responses as quickly as you would like. Be prepared to ask them specific questions so you don’t waste both of your times.  That way once you have a full manuscript ready for them to read, most of the information should already be correct.  
Other things to be aware of:
*Identify your age group early on.  Make sure what you are writing isn’t above the heads of that age group. Much of my FIREFLY story had to be changed (especially parts relating to mating) to make sure it applied to grades K-3.  
*Create detailed notes for your future illustrator.  To make sure your story is truly based in non-fiction, you will need to make sure that the scenes and characters in your book are true to form, even if they are illustrated into fictional characters.  For example, the illustrator for my HOW TO SURVIVE AS A SHARK book first created the cover with the great white shark characters hanging out on a coral reef.  It was so cute! But, because great white sharks typically aren’t found on coral reefs, I had to request for her to change the whole background. I should have notified her before she began of the types of scenery to be included in illustrations!

By following these steps, you should be more than ready to compose your creative non-fiction manuscript! Have fun and be ready to entertain your audience.  And the best part is that you just might learn a thing or two on the way, too! 

About the Author: 

BLURB: Kristen Foote is the author of How to Survive as a Firefly and How to Survive as a Shark. With a degree in biology, she is a firm believer that learning about science can be fun (and funny!). She's a Colorado transplant who, when not writing, is enjoying everything the Rocky Mountains have to offer with her husband and two kids. How to Survive as a Firefly is her first book. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

FROM PICTURE BOOKS TO MG NOVELS: Tips on Switching Gears by Rosie Pova

If you're a picture book writer, what do you do if one day you get a story idea and realize it's too "big" to fit into a picture book format? Well, that's what happened to me and I had to switch gears. 
It was a process and it was scary at first. But don't panic if it happens to you, too. From my experience, I can tell you that if you follow certain steps and use a few of my tips, you might get more confident in the transition.

But first, let's backtrack a little. I'd been happily writing a variety of picture books when all of a sudden, a refrain popped into my head. It was something like that:

"If I need to be specific –
this is super funterrific!"

Or maybe something like that (it's been a while):
"But I'd say, to be specific,
this is super funterrific!"

I knew the story was about a girl who loved to pull pranks. And she wasn't trying to be mean or anything, she just didn't really understand why people weren't amused by her practical jokes. But there was something deeper behind her behavior. The more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed that her story would fit into 5oo-or-so words, plus a couple of subplots. That was not how picture books worked. No way! A complicated story and in rhyme?! Absolutely not.  

So I started drafting . . . chapters! Oh, my! That was so different from writing a picture book: long paragraphs, different vocabulary, no pictures to consider, a BIG picture to consider for both the character arc and the story arc, and so much more. It made me dizzy just thinking about it. I was about 5,000 words in when I realized I had no idea what I'd gotten myself into and did not really know how to pull off a novel-length book. I had to pause and consider my options: shove the manuscript in the virtual drawer or learn how to write a novel. Option number one was not an option – I loved how the story was going and I was so curious to know what happened to my heroine. Plus, how can I ignore the challenge? Can I actually finish a novel? I had to try.

And so for the five months that followed, I read a few books on novel writing. All this new information was so intriguing and I tried to soak it all up, creating a mental map for my novel. Around the same time, I joined my very first critique group and got some plot points figured out. I remember how excited I was to be able to talk to someone about writing and get some help. I kept reading craft books and slowly became more confident in my ability to figure out how a novel worked. But I still had a looong way to go. 

Next, I sought out writing workshops and attended Writer's Digest Chuck Sambuchino's seminar in Dallas, where I lived. I watched Martha Alderson's instructional videos on YouTube and learned a great deal from her. I joined the SCBWI and then another critique group. After my five-month long pause from writing while educating myself, I returned to my novel. I was lucky enough to have the support of my new critique group and the motivation to move forward, paired with accountability. I was committed to bringing a new chapter every time at our weekly meetings. 

Inconveniently, my fulltime day job didn't leave much time for writing, but I needed to make the time. Even if it meant a 5 a.m. writing session while the house was quiet and no interruptions were expected. And that's what I did. 

Including the five months of learning how to write a novel, it took me eighteen months to finish the book, but I did. I had a first draft and it felt amazing to write THE END of novel-length story! That was only the beginning, of course, for what would lead to a published book many years later. But that's another story. 

So here are the things I've learned and the tips I wanted to share:

1. Read craft books on writing novels.
I've assembled a list on my website under Resources to get you started. While you read them, take notes, create a map for your story and start an outline. Even if you're a pantster, I highly recommend outlining your first novel. It was very helpful to me to know the starting point and inciting incident as well as the ending so I can figure out how my character would change and what would need to happen in order for that change to be possible. 

2. Read recently published books in the same genre your novel is.
The craft books gave me the technical knowledge, but it wasn't enough. I still didn't completely get how to apply everything in the actual writing of the novel. That's where the fiction reading comes into place. But read those novels through the eyes of a writer – dissecting, analyzing, extracting the "juice" of good writing. 

3. Join a second critique group with middle grade writers.
Your picture book buddies might not be able to help you with useful feedback on your novel – don't expect them to, either. Novel writing is different – not harder or easier – just different. 
But join a group in which your critique partners will motivate you to keep going chapter after chapter until you finish your first draft, and not suffocate you with revision notes that will be so overwhelming, it gets you stuck. At the first draft stage, you'll need accountability in order to get to the end. At times, it will becomes very tempting to just back out. Don't struggle alone, but seek the support of your critique partners. 

4. Remember that you tell the whole story.
There will be no pictures to complement your words and so your writing needs to evoke the images in the reader's mind. Every scene needs to ground the reader in place and time, make it clear who the characters in the scene are, and avoid info dump at the same time. Your dialogue should be mixed with action so you don't give the impression of "talking heads", your pace should be just right, and the tension should escalate. Oh, and don't forget the stakes! 
*Sigh* That's a tall order. Take a deep breath. Take a short break. Then keep going.

5. Consider the big picture and keep track of things.
As mentioned above, there are no pictures, but there's a BIG picture. Are you clear on your character's arc? How about your plot – from beginning to middle to end? Can you keep your characters straight or do you forget important details mid-story? Create a journal and make a small portfolio for each character. Use character interviews to get to know these people as if they're real people (they should feel real to readers). Did you add subplots? Not enough or too many? Are they the right ones? The subplots should either support the main plot in some way or be in contrast with it. They can't be random lines of events with no other purpose but to populate your story world. Choose strategically. Don't forget to tie them all in at the end in a satisfying (maybe surprising) way. 

I hope these tips are helpful and I wish you an enjoyable novel writing!

About the author: 
Rosie Pova
Rosie J. Pova is a children's author, poet, wife and a mama bear of three. She's originally from Bulgaria, now living in Texas with her family. Ever since childhood, Rosie has been fascinated with the power of words. Her passion for writing took her on a long journey of discoveries, learning and growth through the ups and downs, but she is grateful for all experiences.

With her books, Rosie dreams of inviting many readers into her make-believe worlds, hoping to touch them with her words. Visit her at

Rosie's books include: 

Spork, Picture Book
2017 Spork, Middle Grade novel for ages 8-12 yrs

Fall 2017, Spork, Picture Book

Tuesday, June 6, 2017


You may have noticed the explosion of small press publishing in the last few years. Some small publishers are fantastic while others leave a lot to be desired. So how do you know if the publisher is reputable or not? Here’s a few guidelines to help you!

UPFRONT FEES: Is the publisher asking for money? If so, this is called a vanity publisher. Traditional publishers pay the author, not the other way around. Vanity publishers may request funds in the guise of providing marketing and publicity, but a traditional publisher will provide those tools to you at their expense. The amount of marketing provided by publishers varies from house to house but they will never ask you for money. Many authors might wonder what’s wrong with choosing to publish with a vanity publisher. For starters you will need to pay upfront fees amounting to thousands of dollars. Since the publisher hasn’t invested any money in the book (except yours), you’re the one that has now shouldered all the risk. Dorrance Publishing, Tate, and iUniverse are examples of vanity publishers but there are many others. If you’re going to spend money publishing a book, why not self-publish instead? At least this route allows you control of the project and you’ll keep a greater portion of royalties.

MARKETING: Does the publisher actively market their books? Social media and blog posts are easily completed by authors and their friends, so if this is the extent of their marketing plan you might want to think twice. A good publisher is submitting books for review (and following the guidelines of the reviewer to ensure the book has the best chance of being reviewed), they’re placing ARCs on NetGalley (and have those ARCs ready months in advance), and they have a marketing plan in place which targets the appropriate audience long before the book ever goes to print.

PW RIGHTS REPORT: Watch this place. If a reputable agent is willing to sell to the house, it could be a good sign. Granted, not all agents submit sales to PW so it’s not necessarily a red flag if the publisher is lacking reports in this venue. If you never see the publisher’s name in PW’s Rights Report though, that could be a warning sign that agents are unwilling to work with them. 

IN THE NEWS: Small publishers rarely make the news but when they do it’s usually not a good sign. You may recall this post about Month9 books or this one about Jolly Fish Press.  If the news looks bad, chances are it is.

NDA: Non-Disclosure Agreements really only benefit the publisher so definitely be cautious if you’re asked to sign one. You could be silenced into submission. A voiceless author can’t warn others.

DISTRIBUTION: Does the publisher have distribution? Anyone can claim to be a publisher but it’s another thing to have distribution and shelf placement in a brick and mortar store. Online availability is much different than physical shelf space, so do yourself a favor and check your local bookstore for any of the publisher’s titles. 

LIBRARY PLACEMENT: Can you find the publisher’s books in your local library? What about the library database (World Cat)? If you can find their titles, how many libraries have a copy? Is it 100, 1,000, 10,000? As writers for children, think about the importance of libraries and reaching your readers.

COVER DESIGN: Speaking of readers, there’s one thing that’s sure to grab their attention: beautiful, eye-catching covers! Readers react to great covers by picking them up off the shelf and reading the blurb. Which, in turn, could lead to a sale. So most authors believe that these beautiful covers are all they need. But be warned, great covers don’t necessarily equal fantastic content, good editing, or fair contracts.

CONTRACTS: Which leads me to the next point. Read the fine print in your contract. Are the royalties based on net or list price? If it’s calculated on net, how is the publisher accounting for the expenses? You’ll want an itemized list of their deductions so you’ll know in advance what you’re getting paid. Is the publisher asking for exclusivity to audio, film, and foreign rights? This might not be a bad thing if they’re actively pursuing these sales. But if they’re not, then your book’s potential could be tied up indefinitely. Is there a FROR (first right of refusal) clause?  If so, is the publisher one that you’d want to work with on your next book? Here’s a post on why FROR clauses (sometimes known as Option Clauses) are bad for authors.  

PHONE A FRIEND: Other authors are your lifeline so it’s vital that you enquire about their experiences with the publisher. Unless they’ve signed an NDA, they should be willing to share their experiences. Sometimes authors are hesitant to speak out as they fear being blacklisted, so there’s a chance they may be tight lipped. In that case, you will simply need to use your best judgement based on the criteria addressed above.

Working with a small press can be a great experience but, like anything, it’s important to do your homework. Authors in every stage of publishing, be it a debut or a seasoned professional, need to protect themselves from predatory publishers. So be cautiously optimistic should you choose a small press as your book baby’s home. There’s nothing worse than having a bad experience spoil your publishing journey.

About the author:

Amie Borst is the author of the Scarily Ever Laughter series featuring three books for middle-grade readers; Cinderskella, Little Dead Riding Hood, and Snow Fright. She is a PAL member of the SCBWI and a founding member of the group blog, From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Find her on her website and her blog 

Thursday, May 4, 2017


There's no magic formula, and it won't work for every story, but sometimes it's possible to turn what you thought was just a little tale into a much bigger deal. It all depends on whether you can make it happen organically; there's nothing worse than a novel that's wordy for no reason.

A few years ago I wrote a short story for the middle grade market. It happened to be a market that took 4000 words, which is rare. But fitting my story into that generous length was a major struggle for me. It should have been a warning: maybe I wasn't writing a short story after all.

The editor I sent it to very kindly rejected it with comments, which is also rare. She said she got the feeling I was trying to cram too much into my 4000 words.

I set about finding ways to expanded the piece. It didn't take long to find 30 chapters where once there had been one. The novel is fully outlined and about a third drafted at this point, and I feel like it's going well. Maybe one of your stories could use that sort of rethinking. But how can you tell?

Warning Signs

Keeping within a maximum word limit is a normal challenge for story-writers. But if you’ve cut out all the fat in the verbiage and streamlined in every possible way, yet your story is still not getting shorter, that's a sign you might be working on a bigger piece. 

Another thing to watch is reactions to the story, like I received from that editor. Do your reader’s eyes spin in her head when she finishes? Does her lip quiver as she admits there are too many characters to keep track of? Be honest: she’s reacting to issues you were subconsciously aware of. Listen to yourself and listen to your critique group or whoever sees your stuff before you submit it. Unlike a cat, which can sit in any box it believes it fits in, a story needs the right-sized vessel.

Also be aware as you're writing the story of a feeling of sadness, or a longing to tell the main character’s story more fully, or to flesh out a minor character. Or maybe you love the world you’ve created, and you really wish you could spend more time there. These are symptoms of novel-itis. Celebrate! Expand! There is no cure. But what to do now?

The Garden of Your Plot

Think of the story as a handful of seeds. Expanding it should be like watering and giving nutrients and sunshine to every element of the story. Just like a plant. No matter how big it grows, there is no "extra." Everything that exists is necessary to the plant. And every part of the story will need to grow and multiply: plot, subplots, dialogue, settings, characters.

If you can tell your story in 1500 words, and it doesn’t feel rushed and the characters don’t feel one-dimensional, then pat yourself on the back and start submitting. But if you feel like you’ve barely grazed the surface, then experiment with expanding in two ways:

1. Grow what’s already there. 

Take a sentence or paragraph, and see if you can imagine it as a chapter of, say, 600-1000 words. Mary walked her little brother to the store. That might do in a short story, but you could expand it. 

First, there are basic details you might add: Is she holding his hand? Do her sandals make a funny noise on the pavement? Is she thinking about something significant?

Then, there are added actions: Does she get distracted by something that delays her arrival at the store? Or maybe her brother runs off? Ooh! Now you have a scene, and Mary can wend her way back to the store eventually.

In other words, you want to find all the points in your story where things happen, and figure out how to enrich them. Don’t just make them longer; give them bigger and better purpose and meaningful new details.

Just be sure there’s a reason for the expansion. This takes planning. Why does the brother run off? What will it have to do with the overall plot? At first, you can just scribble whatever comes into your head, but eventually you’ll need to tie it all together. I’m a big advocate of outlining (some call it planning vs. pantsing) because it helps assure I don’t have loose ends in my novels.

2. Add stories to your story.

Consider writing related short stories about the same characters and setting. But you can’t just glue a bunch of stories together and call it a novel. There must be one or more over-arching storylines to keep the propulsion going and allow the whole thing to make sense. This approach means that your original story will become the first chapter or two or three, and you’ll extend the plot from there.

Even better, insert stories within the existing story, instead of after. This allows the original goal of your plot to remain the goal in the novel. Have your characters do something that they didn’t get a chance to in the original. And create new characters, letting them interact with the original folks. You’ll need to give them subplots that either bring about important actions or reveal something important about your original characters and their motivations. Again, I can’t do this without lots of planning, but I find it an effective way to open out the story.

Long story short (or in this case, short story long!), if you have a story that’s bursting at the seams, don’t be afraid to pick one of those stitches loose and let the words pour out until you have a novel. Your characters will thank you, and so will your readers.

About the Author: 

In addition to being a Rate your Story judge, Anne E. Johnson writes fiction in many genres. Her works include the middle-grade paranormal mystery Ebenezer's Locker (MuseItUp), middle-grade historical mystery Trouble at the Scriptorium (Royal Fireworks), and noir sci-fi series The Webrid Chronicles (Candlemark & Gleam). She has had dozens of short stories published in magazines and anthologies, and many of them can now be found in her book Things from Other Worlds: 15 Alien and Fantasy Stories for Kids. Visit Anne's website to inquire about professional critique services or to learn more about her books and stories.