This week's WOW Weds is a look back at lessons learned by Debra Gersh Hernandez, a former journalist and non-profit communications pro, who is looking forward to the publication of her first picture book for children. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DebGH. She is represented by the always dynamic, patient and encouraging Marisa Iozzi Corvisiero of the L. Perkins Agency in New York.
There's an old joke that asks: How do you know when you've finished writing? Answer: When you stop typing.
When I first had the idea to turn a silly poem I wrote for kids into a picture book, little could I have foreseen how the story would evolve. Moreover, after revising, revising again (and again, and again), thinking it was done and then landing a great agent, I couldn't have predicted that I'd stop and suddenly look at it with new eyes and realize although it was good, it could be — and needed to be — better. The best part was that now I know how to do it. The hard part is doing it.
While I'm still waiting for the Success-Beyond-My-Wildest-Dreams Fairy to visit (I think she's stuck in traffic behind the Publisher's Clearing House van), I do believe I've made enough mistakes to have learned something. Hopefully, by sharing what I've done wrong along the way, I can help you avoid the same missteps.
I think sometimes that a first-time author is like a toddler who's learning to walk. That kid sees other kids walking around. She knows she can do it, and she even has her own ideas about how it could be done better. No one has told her she can't do it and, in fact, she's encouraged to do it.
The kid looks around, watches how it's done and gets up to start walking. How hard can it be? She might get in a few steps, but the early result is always the same: down on her butt. This is going to keep happening for a while. Maybe she laughs and shakes it off, maybe she cries a little because sometimes it really hurts. Never daunted, she is driven to keep trying, and soon she's not just walking, she's running — right to the bank with her first advance check (smart baby!).
So herewith, in no particular order, are some things I've learned the hard way. Think of it as something to soften the fall, a little padding for the diaper (though please think of that metaphorically).
First, let's go back to the beginning. At the beginning, we find the end. My first piece of advice is: Read to the end. Of course I don't mean the end of your book. I mean to the end of every how-to book, blog, or article about publishing in general and your genre in particular that you can get your hands on. Learn about every aspect of the business, because nothing happens in a vacuum. Mistakes made at one level have a way of haunting you. Know what comes next — and what comes after that.
This can be coupled with another point of wisdom: Don't get ahead of yourself. Had I read to the end and not gotten ahead of myself, I wouldn't have thought it was a good idea to put together a fully laid out, illustrated product, complete with front and back covers. At the time, I thought it was a swell idea. I was wrong on levels both professional and personal.
Throughout my career, I've put together magazines, books, pamphlets, you name it. I know how they're laid out. So why not, I thought, bring in an artist friend to illustrate the book and present it as a whole package? Why not? Let me count the ways. And while I'm counting, allow me to add valuable advice nugget number three: Trust yourself and, more importantly, your work.
Had I read to the end, not gotten ahead of myself and trusted in my work, I would have focused more on the story, not the package. Now I realize that I should have thought of it like staging a house for sale. Potential buyers want to envision their own junior-high swim trophies on the mantle, not have their imagination limited by seeing your porcelain kitten collection there (no matter how cute).
Nevertheless, I plunged ahead with agent queries and ignored every article that said agents and publishers don't like to consider submissions with a different author and illustrator (by this time it was too late anyway). One agent, Marisa Iozzi Corvisiero of the L. Perkins Agency, loved the project as much as I did and took a leap of faith.
In its earlier days, the story underwent heroic revisions spurred by another agent who is also a dear friend and who spent hours helping develop the focus. The changes he suggested were great. But I limited myself in what I re-wrote because the illustrations had already been drawn and the book laid out. I wrote for what had been produced already, trying to make it fit with illustrations conceived for a different story.
When recently I stripped the text out to enter an online editing contest and had a chance to read the words alone, it was obvious — over time, competing ideas had morphed the book into two book ideas mashed into one. It was a true lightbulb-over-the-head moment.
So I put to you a very important lesson that goes hand-in-hand with believing in your work: Be your own Jewish mother. Believe in your heart that you are the most wonderful, "who-wouldn't-want-to-publish-you?" author in the world — but never fail to recognize your weaknesses and find ways to be better. Believe in your work, yes, but also be willing to rewrite. Accept criticism. Listen to advice (you don't always have to take it). Look at the work objectively. Have coffee with your Uncle Sheldon's third cousin twice removed who works as an assistant at Penguin. You never know.
This leads to another gem of wisdom: Join the conversation. The myriad blogs, tweets, articles, email newsletters, webinars and the like are an amazing, and free, resource and a great way to connect with and learn from others. By following Adventures in Children's Publishing on Twitter, I had a chance to serve as a judge in a YA query contest on this blog last year. Not only did I enjoy reading the fantastically imaginative story ideas, I learned a tremendous amount. My introduction to Martina and Marissa led to an invitation to post this commentary and "meet" you readers, for which I am tremendously grateful.
And finally: Know when to stop typing. That is, of course, until you get notes and revisions from the publisher!