Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Yarn Along: Chocolate Shrug

Joining Ginny's Yarn Along.

Hey!  I haven't posted my knitting in FOREVER!  That's because I've been a leisurely knitter of late.  I started a sweater and frogged it.  Then I started this shrug and took my pleasant sweet time with it.  Yanno how sometimes you just don't feel like knitting?  I had a couple months of that.

But I did finish - hoorah!  Here's my chocolate shrug.  (Details here on Ravelry.)

I've been reading Monkey Ono a lot lately because I've been taking it around on school visits.

(If you're joining me from Yarn Along I should probably note that I wrote and illustrated Monkey Ono.  It's a picture book published by Penguin Children's Group.)

I have a very high-pitched fun Monkey Ono voice that I use when I read it.  I will confess that I feel a little ridiculous doing it for a large group, but I sell it and the kids seem to enjoy it.  (Or at least they are too polite to laugh at me publicly.)

I have the yarn, needles, and pattern all set for another sweater.  At the rate I've been going I'll have it ready next winter!  :)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Picture Book Workshop #15: To Agent or Not to Agent

When I started submitting my work, I didn't pursue getting an agent at first.  I looked into it, but it seemed like a lot of work that I didn't have to do because there were places that accepted unsolicited manuscripts.  I focused on publishing houses instead.

And that's fine.  Actually, I think that's good. 

Because unless you're either really talented or really lucky (and perhaps both) you will need to write a few manuscripts* and send them out and get some rejections before you grow into the writer you will become.

*Now, when I say this, I AM NOT suggesting that you send out manuscripts that you consider to be practice or unfinished.  Always send out your best.  But, in retrospect to what I can do now, the ones I first sent out weren't there yet and were rightly rejected.

When I attended the SCBWI's Illustration Day in New York, I wasn't necessarily looking for an agent.  Editors go there too.  I wanted to grow, network, and hopefully put my work under the eyes of someone who saw potential.  And that's exactly what happened because that's where my agent, Scott Treimel, found me.

Now that I have an agent, I can tell you that it has made a big difference in my professional career.

1. Scott is a hands-on agent.  He works my stories with me.  He gives honest critiques - which can sometimes leave me trembling and considering a career as a bagger at a grocery store.  But his critiques are detailed and specific and have helped make me a better writer.

2. Agents know editors.  When you're sending your manuscript out to an editor.  Maybe you picked a name from a book, maybe you saw that person at a conference, but you don't really know them or their tastes.  Maybe you have a manuscript about a rainbow kitten and you send it to an editor who was attacked by a rabid kitten when they were three and are forever tormented but the cuddly cut-throats.  Agents know which editors are most likely to enjoy rainbow kittens.

3. Less wait time.  An agent will bug an editor if they haven't heard back from them in awhile.  Your 6 month slush pile wait was just cut down to 4 -6 weeks.  And, in keeping with point, if your work is contracted and you're having some kind of issue with your editor over something, your agent will represent you so you can be Ms. Nice-Pants and not seem like a whiner to your editor.

I could go on, but what it boils down to is a good agent is an important person on Team You. 

Do you NEED an agent?  You do not.  And it does take work to find your "perfect fit" agent.   There's just as much paperwork, guidelines, and rejection involved, but when you're ready, I think it's good move.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Awesome Author Visit at Duffy School

I had a wonderful author visit at the Louise Duffy School yesterday.
 I've been going yearly for a little while now to read Wink to the second graders who are studying Japan.  And it's one of my favorite gigs. 
One, the media specialist, Jill Dailey is top-notch awesome.
Two, the space itself is very, very cool.  It big, clean, open, and has some spectacular sculptures in it.
Three, the students are really great.  Respectful, interested, engaged.

Although my presentation dealt mostly with Japan and Wink, Mrs. Dailey had read Monkey Ono to the second graders.  So when it was time to make the sleeping ninja collages, a few students worked Monkey Ono into the art.


Thanks Duffy School!  It's always a pleasure!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Getting Crafty: DIY Business Card Holder

Have you ever been in the middle of your day and thought, If I don't make a business card holder right now I'm going to freak out?!


Weird.  That's what happened to me last Friday.  I decided that I NEEDED something cute to hold my business cards in.  (That rubberband just wasn't cute enough.)  So I went online, found directions, and PRESTO!  Cuteness!  Free-ness!

It was very simple and probably only took about 30 minutes.  This would also be good for a driver's license and some cash if you just need to hit the market or hate bulky wallets.

Here are the directions

Ahhhhh - feels good to get that craftiness out of my system.

Monday, May 20, 2013

M.I.T. Scratch Day

I'm skipping Picture Book Workshop today to tell you about a really fun thing Magoo and his father did on Saturday: M.I.T.'s Scratch Day.

"What is Scratch Day?" you ask.

Well, Scratch is a computer program that teaches computer programming.  And I have to write a disclaimer here: I've never done it.  I don't really understand it.  But Magoo LOVES it and it does seem really cool.  So if you have a kid who's into computers, you might want to check out Scratch.

Anyhoo, M.I.T. which created this program has a yearly Scratch Day where families can come and learn about newer versions of Scratch and participate in some cool programming exercises.

Here's Magoo learning how to use a Makey Makey board.

Check out this video to see what a Makey Makey board is.  (It's so cool.)

There were lots of opportunities for kids to share what they have been working on.  Here's Magoo presenting his project at M.I.T.  Not too shabby!

Here's Magoo going through some obstacle course.  I don't 100% know what's happening, but it sure looks like fun.

After 3 hours of programming, Magoo walked out of M.I.T. beaming like he's been to Six Flaggs.  He learned a lot, I think he was inspired a lot, and he had a blast.

Go Scratch!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Collection of Mastroyka Dolls

Collection of Mastroyka Dolls        2013        j.c. phillipps
As the June art show QUICKLY sneaks up on me, I'm trying to hammer out a few more pieces of work to fill the walls.

May has been much busier than I anticipated:  conferences, invoices, learning to make a newsletter, marketing, learning to write press releases, etc.  I had originally thought that this would be my big painting/collaging month, but no.  It didn't really work out that way.

This collection is painting #5 in my Collection Collection.  I want to do one more.  What's next?
Stamps?  Keys?  Bottles?  Snails?  Hats?


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Magoo's First Concert

Magoo performed in his first school concert on Monday evening.  If asked, I think the highlight for him might have been goofing around in the band room backstage (when his mother wasn't in there taking pictures, of course.)

But seriously, how could I not take pictures?!  He's wearing a bow tie!

Here's one of the songs he performed in the mixed 4th and 5th grade band.  (I apologize for the shaky camera work.  He was in the back of the stage and I had to angle my arms uncomfortably to get him in the shot.)  I think they sound quite good!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Picture Book Workshop #14: Query Letters

You have a manuscript all ready to go.  You've let people read it, taken in feedback, revised it twelve times.  You've researched a few publishers/agents you think might be a good fit.  Now what?

Now, my friend, you must write the dreaded QUERY LETTER!  Dum, dum, DUUUUUUMMMMM!

I don't mean to freak you out - but these are THE WORST.  Everybody hates them.  (And if not everybody, then I don't know the freaky person who doesn't.)  Queries are to writing as auditions are to acting as interviews are to jobs.

But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.  Do you know what a query letter is?

A query letter is a one page letter that introduces yourself to a potential agent/editor, gives the basics of your story (i.e. 350 word picture book) tells enough about your story to hook them (in the voice of your story) and thanks them for their time.  Boom - it's over.

If the potential agent/editor likes your letter, they will request more.  Now, since this is a picture book workshop, usually you can attach a picture book manuscript to a query letter b/c your manuscript is probably only 3 pages long.  But if you're writing a chapter book or a YA or something, then they'll request the first three chapters.

Let's get into the nitty gritty here.  Let's break down a query letter.
(Following content is from Huffington Post's Anatomy of a Query Letter b/c they're going t say it better than I would.)

1) Opening lines Skip rhetorical questions or flashy introductions. In the first few lines, agents are looking to get a sense of your book’s genre and marketability, not your sense of humor, and definitely not to ponder the answers to any broad questions.
Weak opening: Have you ever wondered what it would be like to star in your own reality TV show? What if you were the only one who didn’t know the cameras were rolling? Find out in my book.
Strong opening: Please consider my 60,000-word mainstream novel about a man whose seemingly ordinary life turns out to be the center of a well-crafted conspiracy.

2) Synopsis
Succinctly describe the plot of your story or concept of your book. This should be one paragraph and focus on the main plot, setting, and characters. Let the agent know where the story takes place, introduce no more than a couple of characters who are pivotal to the main plot, and vividly describe the arc of the story. Let the agent know what is at stake or on the line for these characters; give him or her something to get invested in.

3) Author bio
Now that you’ve shared the outline of your manuscript, it’s time to tell the agent about yourself. Mention publication credits, writing experience and activities, and education. Any excerpts you’ve published in literary journals or magazines should be mentioned specifically, and any expertise you have in the subject you’ve written about should also be noted. If nothing relates directly to the book you’re presenting, list the writing conferences and workshops you’ve attended, general publication credits, or even hobbies unrelated to writing. 

(Julie chimes in:  If you don't have a lot of credentials yet, don't try to pad it.  Keep it short and sweet.)

4) Appreciation
Now that you’ve gotten this far, don’t forget to thank the literary agent for taking the time to review your query. And remember to offer sample chapters (if the agent does not accept sample chapters in the initial query) and/or the complete manuscript (only if it is finished, of course). If mailing your query, be sure to enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the agent’s response.

(Julie chimes in again: Check with agent/editor's submission guidelines on their site about self-addresses stamped envelopes, etc.  You may be doing this digitally, after all.  Everyone has their own way of doing things.)

Thanks Huffington Post! 

That's your basic query how-to.  But I also really love what one of my favorite authors, Maggie Stiefvater, has to say.  I'm not going to put it all in my post.  I'll include the first tip and you can go here to read the rest.

1. People overthink queries. Okay, so they are the only thing that an agent or editor might ever see of your work. So they have to embody everything about your personality and your books personality in a single page. So you will get absolutely nowhere if your queries suck, no matter if you've written the Great American Novel. Still, people overthink them. 

She has another 9 tips.  Check them out.

There's a lot of information out there about queries.  I would suggest reading a few articles and knowing ahead of time that you will need to put some time and effort into crafting your query, just like you put time and effort into crafting your story.

Good luck!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Picture Book Workshop #13: Conferences

I was going to write about query letters today, but since I attended the New England Chapter of the SCBWI conference this weekend, I thought I'd sing the praises of conferences and how they can really help you hone your craft and get published.

The first thing - the most obvious thing - is you're going to learn stuff.  Want to learn how to structure your plot?  There's a workshop for that.  What to write meatier characters?  There's a workshop for that.  Want to learn how to make a teacher's guide for your published picture book?  Guess what?  There's a workshop for that!

Natalie Dias Lorenzi doing a workshop on Writing Curriculum Guides.*

There are a ton of workshops at every conference.  Some are going to be better than others - it's reality.  Not everyone gives a FABULOUS workshop - but MANY do.  Over my 10 years of writing, I think I've only been to one truly awful workshop.  The woman kept scolding us because we didn't know some of the authors she was referring to.  "Know your history!" she kept saying.  I wanted to yell back, "That's why we're here!"  It's like scolding prompt people because someone else is late.  Silly.  

But that was ONE workshop - only one.  75% are going to be informative and another 20% are going to knock your socks off.

Now if you're like me, the problem is too much information.  I can't handle 2-3 day conferences.  I have one day of input in me, and the rest is just mush.  So I just went on Sunday.  And I've also learned how to choose workshops that are going to work for me.  I like specifics.  If a subject is too broad, like "Plot," I probably won't get much out of it.  But if it's "How to raise the tension in a middle grade mystery" - that's the ticket!  There's going to be really specific advice in that one.  But some people can handle swimming in a 3-day event no prob.  You just have to learn what works for you.

OK - I could go on and on about the workshops, but that's only one part of a conference.

There's also NETWORKING.

I suck at networking.  I do.  No lie.  I have a hard time with small talk.  I have a hard time caring about what someone says if I don't, in fact, care.  I sometimes wish I could be like one of those people who really finds strangers fascinating and asks all sorts of questions and really cares about the answers.  But what I really wish is that everyone wore a tag with the top 5 things they like to talk about on their neck. 

Then you can find those people and slip into an easy conversation.  That would be awesome, right?! 

But, if one is starting out, it is good to go and try to meet people.  Try to find people who illustrate or write picture books, or have some kind of interest in common and maybe make a connection.  Maybe someone can tell you about a writer's retreat that is very cool, or a new book on craft that is blowing their mind. 

Take business cards if you have them.  You might be handing a few out and collecting some of your own.

Here's the biggest and best thing about conferences if you're pre-published: ONE-ON-ONE's.  Maybe you've signed up for a one-on-one manuscript critique with an agent or maybe you're meeting with an art director to go over your portfolio.   Whatever you're doing, you've signed up ahead of time and have something polished to show.  A professional is going to give you some personal information catered only to you and your work.  That is soooooo worth it, even if they don't like you.  (Which isn't usually the case.)

Here's the Best that can happen: An editor loves your picture book manuscript and wants to take it back to the office to an acquisition meeting.

Here's what's likely to happen:  Someone gives you good, solid feedback about what works about your piece and what doesn't.  Maybe they throw out some ideas as to how to increase the humor or deeped a character's motivation.

Here's the Worst that can happen: An editor has no idea what your story is about and can't give you any good information.

Now, this last one has happened to me, but it wasn't a waste.  It's always good to get your stuff in front of a professional's eyes.  If you get NOTHING else out of the experience, you're still getting the experience.  And it's good to get some rejections.  You need to build up your tolerance, b/c it's rough out there.  

But you know what happened when I was upstairs having an editor ask me what a ninja was?  An agent was downstairs looking at my portfolio.  That agent became my agent.  And that ninja book that the editor didn't like became my first published book, Wink the Ninja Who Wanted to Be Noticed

Conferences are a good way to get out of your shell and say hello to the world of publishing, whether you're a brand new beginner, someone on the verge of publication, or have a few books under your belt. 

*Natalie Dias Lorenzi wrote a lovely middle-grade book, Flying the Dragon, about a Japanese boy who moves to America and has to learn to adapt to this new culture while his Japanese-American cousin has to learn to embrace the Japanese side of herself.  Check it out.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Taking the Book to Boston

I'm so sorry I've been away for a whole week.  I had a visit from my mother followed by a trip to Boston and yesterday I had a big pile of catch-up work to dive into.  Busy, busy.  But I'm back, baby!

My fourth book, The Simples Love a Picnic, was packed up and delivered to my new publisher, Houghton Mifflin in Boston.

I love Boston.  I lived there between the ages of 23 - 30.  I went to grad school there.  I was Eliza Doolittle in a play there.  I was married there.  Out of all the major American cities I have been to, it's my favorite by far.  So, despite the fact that it was a very quick trip, it was a lovely one.

My new editor, Margaret, took me out to lunch at 29 Newbury at we both had lobster salad.  Mmmmmmm.

And I spent some time walking around the Public Garden.  It was a gorgeous day - perfection.  The the garden was filled with happy people.

There were signs of the marathon tragedy here and there, and by "signs" I mean signs of support.  I know that Copley Square has a big memorial going on, but I didn't really see more than a glimpse of it as I drove by trying to find the on-ramp to the Mass Pike.  One must watch the road when driving in the Boston, you know.  But the city as a whole felt, appreciative and happy.  Of course, when the sun is shining and Spring is blooming all over, it's hard not to appreciate the beauty around you.

Magoo was bummed that he couldn't go with me, but I promised him anther trip soon.  And maybe we'll take a spin on the swan boats!