Saturday, July 15, 2023

writing from the heart, publishable manuscripts, the uncertainty of publishing, crystal balls


How do we write a book from our hearts and make it marketable?  That's the millionaire dollar question.  

We writers usually write about things that move us and we want to share those feelings with others.  We don't know if our work can be sold.  Not even some well-published authors have figured it out.  At times, they are rejected, too.  

So, how can we write what we love and sell it?  Here are three ways that can help: 

  • Join a critique group 
  • Hire an editorial consultant
  • Work with a published writer who offers critique services 

I've done all three options.  I regularly receive creative and constructive criticism from my critique partners, who show me ways to improve my manuscripts.  And in 2016, I worked with editorial consultant Mary Kole, who helped me tweak a story that landed an agent.   

Recently, I had the opportunity to have a critique/Zoom session with Brian Gehrlein, an amazingly talented author.  He pointed out how to rev up the tension, how to develop the character arc, and how to improve formatting.  In addition, he showed me ways to beef up my query letter.  Overall, he helped me take my manuscript to the next level so it could be submitted to agents. 

Even still, doubt crept in.  

After Brian's critique, after suggestions from my critique partners, and after the revision of my manuscript, I wondered if an agent would like it.  Would my polished, well-crafted story resonate with her?  And, could she sell it to a publishing house?  It will take querying to find out.  

Brian tells me to showcase my voice and style, to experiment, to trust my gut, to be different, and to make the writing fun and authentic.  His optimism and advise gives me the courage and confidence to continue despite the doubts. 

He affirms what I feel:  write the stories that come from my heart.  To create a unique story, only a story that I can tell.  To get feedback.  To revise my manuscripts.  But the rub is, no one knows if the time or money I've spent will pay off.    

As you probably know, there are never any guarantees our work will be published.  We don't have a crystal ball to tell us yes, this is THE manuscript that will turn into a book.  Writers endure the pain of rejection while we hold on to the hope of success.  We keep going because writers must be patient and persevere.  Despite the uncertainties we must strive to write what we love and have faith that one day, an agent will love it, too.      

✌ and 

Thursday, June 15, 2023

not winning writing contests, are writing contests worth it
                                                                                                                                                                    Photo by:  Ariel


I'm beginning to have doubts about entering writing contests. 

For more than twenty years, I have entered contests as a way to build my resume.  Now, I'm unsure whether to continue the practice.  

The piece I entered in the 2023 Tennessee Mountain Writer's (TMW) annual competition had received compliments from several agents.  In fact, based on this piece agents have asked me to send them more manuscripts.  So, I know from their reactions and from the comments of my critique partners that this manuscript was strong.  I was sure this piece was going to win a prize.  But I found out that my story didn't win an award.  It didn't even receive an honorable mention.

At first, I was shocked and angry.  

I reviewed the contest guidelines and then checked my submission.  It looked fine. Then I went back to the contest website to double check the winner's names.  There were only two:  first and second place.  That was it.  No other prizes.  I've entered the Tennessee Mountain Writers Contest for over fifteen years and have always, always won a prize.  So, having entered a prize-worthy manuscript, I was stumped that it didn't receive any award. 

This slight, this insult got me thinking about writing competitions.  Some people believe it's important that winning a writing contest will impress agents.  But after querying for many years, I'm starting to feel differently.  I think that being a member of a professional writing association, having work published in magazines, attending writer's conferences, and working with critique partners make a better resume.  

I'm not trying to discourage anyone from entering a contest.  Getting your work before judges could give you some indication of the strength of your work.  That is, if you trust the contest and the judges.  I would urge you to look into contests that don't charge too much and those that state the names of the judges.  

I realize judging writing is subjective.  In my case, perhaps the judge* didn't like my lyrical writing style.  Maybe the judge didn't like the story because character change was too subtle.  Or because it was about cats.  Who knows?  I contacted the contest chairwoman asking why nobody won third place or honor mention.  She didn't have an answer, but she assumed that the judge felt no other submission was worthy of a third place or an honorable mention.

Writers pay money to enter a contest and have their best work judged.  Writers are proud of the pieces they've selected for a competition.  So, if I could I'd ask the judge to put herself in the place of the writers.  How would she feel if she had submitted her best manuscript to a writing contest and found out that it had not won a prize and no honorable mentions had been awarded?  Bear in mind, in most cases honorable mentions do not win a cash prize.  Then I would ask her:  Who would it have hurt to have given one or two writers this honor?  

After the winners had been announced for the Tennessee Mountain Writers Contest, I tried to find the names of the judges.  I wanted to check their resumes.  What were their credentials?  Were they published?  But the judge's names were missing.  Maybe they had been listed while the contest was running and now, the names have been removed.  I find this troubling.  Even after the contest, the names of the judges should be listed along with the names of the winners.  

You might think I'm bitter over this, but I'm not.  I've learned through this situation.  I don't need a contest to validate my work.  All I need is a decent bio, and I have that.  So, it feels like now after twenty years it's time to be more discriminating about contests.  It's time to enter contests that are fair to writers.  Sadly, after winning so many awards from TMW, it's time to accept the fact that I will never enter this contest again.  

✌ and 

*Arbitrarily assigning the pronoun her.

Monday, May 15, 2023

submitting manuscripts, rejection, mswl
                                                                                                                                                      Photo by:


Here I am at the beginning of this post, and I'm not sure where it will be going or what the point will be.  All I know is that I need to vent and I hope you'll hear me out. 

So, this is what set me off.  I sent a manuscript to an agent I had never queried before.  She runs a very small business and only works with two other agents.  According to QueryTracker, she accepts picture books and responds to all of the queries in her inbox.

To submit to this agent, writers are required to fill out a form on Query Manager.  This is no big deal—I'm used to these submission forms which ask for a query letter, the pitch, the word count plus similar books (at least two published in the last 5 years) and the intended audience.

But this particular agent wanted more.  She asked for the number this book represented in a series— which threw me off.  Like many other picture books, my submission was a stand-alone.  In addition, she also wanted to know who had edited the book and if you were participated in a critique group. 

I didn't pay to have this book professionally edited.  For crying out loud, it's a 300-word book, I'm a college grad, been writing for over 20 years, been published in the Christian Science Monitor, Highlights, Mothering Magazine and scientific journals.  But I answered politely:  Yes, I belong to a critique group. My critique partners and my first reader helped me edit this work. 

When all of the fields had been filled in and the form was carefully reviewed, I uploaded my manuscript and submitted the form.

Ten days later I heard back.  It was rejected.  Now, don't get me wrong, I wasn't too upset about her turning down this piece.  Rejections are part of being a writer.  Maybe this agent didn't like the fact that my book wasn't professionally edited.  Who knows?

But the thing that got me was the way she phrased the rejection letter: 

Dear Randi,

I'm sorry, but at this time your project does not fit what I am looking for, and so I will have to pass. Thank you for considering me and best of luck with your future queries.

Though the message was courteous, I got angry because of the vagueness:  your project does fit what I am looking for. 

Who in God's name would know what she's looking for?  This agent posted on her manuscript wish list that she's seeking a fun picture book, so I sent her a light-hearted and humorous piece.  Obviously, she and I differ on our take of fun picture book.  That's okay.  The business of writing humor for kids is subjective.

Here's the thing.  This would have been a great opportunity for her to mention in the rejection letter what she IS hoping to find in her inbox.  To give a brief hint.  A crumb, a morsel, a clue.  But her response was extremely vague and it reeked of arrogance and laziness.  How dare her say it's not what she wants and go no further to give an example of what she would like to find. 

In contrast, many agents go into great detail about their submission wants.  On the Official Manuscript Wish List agents spell out specifically what they hope to find in their inboxes.  This benefits both writers and the agent.  Writers have a better chance to match their manuscripts to the needs of an agent.  

There is something positive that came from this submission/rejection.  It reminds me to look for an agent who gives an explicit wish list.  It reminds me to make a better attempt at matching my manuscripts to an agent's needs.  More, I reminds me to use caution in submitting humorous picture books.  Ah, to live and learn.  To grow and move on.  

All is good.  Thank you for hearing me out.  Done venting.  For now.

✌ and 


Tuesday, March 14, 2023

writing picture books, the first 70 words, Mindy Weiss' picture book party, picture book writing challenge


I have a challenge for you.   

Take your picture book manuscripts (yes, all of them) and see if you can arrange the beginnings so that they are exactly 70 words.  Not a word over the limit.  The beginnings however, can be shorter than 70.  But you can't end in the middle of a sentence.

I learned about this exercise by taking part in Mindy Weiss' PB Party.

To participate, a writer had to submit only the first 70 words of a manuscript.  The idea is to set up the story and introduce the conflict in order to entice the judges to read more. 

For me, that required rearranging the beginnings of nearly all of my work and then selecting the strongest piece.  

Believe me, none of the first seventy words of any of my manuscripts were compelling enough.  I had to do lots and lots of tweaking to lower the word count.  Often, I'd get close but would always go over the limit by just one word.  It was frustrating and yet fun.  It was like working a puzzle, trying to restructure sentences so that the opening was clear and captivating.   After I had pared down all of manuscripts, I had to choose the most intriguing one so that the story would leave the judges begging for more.  

Sound easy?  It's not.  

But I will guarantee when you strive to make the beginnings of your stories shorter, your manuscript will be irresistible.  And agents will want to read further.    

So, I throw down the gauntlet.  What do you say? Are you up to it?  Are you ready to take the 70-word challenge?    

✌ and 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

writing, writing for kids, mentoring
                                                                                                                                              Photo: John Schnobrich


It's not easy helping friends with their writing.  Don't get me wrong.  I love supporting picture book writers.  But the ugly truth is, it can be trying.  Some friends ask too much of me.  It's getting to the point where I'm considering setting some ground rules.

I don't mind waiving my fees for my friends.  But sometimes, they may want me to line edit a chapter book.  They may want to meet multiple times and get feedback with every new draft.  They may even want me to help sell their self-published books.  

One friend asks me to take a look at her work and then gripes when I point out parts of her beloved stories that need attention.  She doesn't want to hear the truth about her work.  It's her nature to resist revision.  Though she'll make some slight changes, she really would like me to fall in love with the first draft.    

Another friend wants me to give him feedback on his work, but unlike my female friend, he never really listens to my advice and never makes a single change, even if there are grammar or formatting problems.  Ideally, he would like to find a publisher for his children's stories, but he always decides to self-publish his work.  Always.  He only wants my approval and for me to boost his confidence.    

These two examples are rare.  Most of the time, my writer friends don't abuse our friendship. They don't get frustrated and they are open to making revisions.  They make consulting fun and rewarding.

For instance, several years ago a friend needed help with a manuscript he planned to submit to a children's magazine.  I was happy to help him, and in the end, the piece got published in Highlights.  He sent me a copy and I found his story even retained some of my ideas.  Eventually he learned the ropes.  Now, he has been published by Highlights multiple times.  I'm thrilled that my advice has made a difference in his writing career.  

But there will always be a few friends who make my job challenging.  They may get defensive or disregard the suggestions.  Their attitudes frustrate me, and helping them feels like a waste of my time.  

Things have got to change when it comes to helping my friends.  We need to have a conversation.  I need to learn what it is they want from me and then they need to learn how I can help them.  So, here are some of the guidelines I'm thinking about:

  • discuss the goals for the consultation
  • limit appointments to an hour, whether on the phone or in person 
  • offer to look at the first draft, but charge for subsequent help  

I put thought and effort into reviewing manuscripts, and I don't expect all of my suggestions to be used.  But if friends contact me for help on a picture book, I expect that they do some editing and to do so without grumbling about it.  They will need to be considerate and respectful of my time.  I've got to put my foot down.  Would you agree it's time to clue-in my friends?  Would you agree it's time to set a few ground rules?    

 ✌ and  

Sunday, January 15, 2023


                                                                                                                                                 Photo: Hannah Olinger


How would you feel if a critic said your picture book manuscript was not a picture book?

Recently, that very thing happened to my friend Anne.  As you can imagine, she was upset.  The critic remarked it was more suitable for a magazine.  What's weird is I had worked with Anne on this particular project and I've always considered it a picture book.  

So, how do you know if you've written a magazine story or a picture book?  

Magazine stories have fewer illustrations, have one scene, and are meant to be read once.  

Picture books rely on illustrations, have scenes that advance the plot, and are meant to be read out loud and repeatedly.  

Specifically, picture books:

  • Are usually for ages 4 - 8 
  • Are usually 32 pages 
  • Are about journey and heart (those words that makes us feel)
  • Present universal themes (love, friendship, courage, hope, etc.) in a fresh way
  • Impart a message without being preachy.  
  • Have a rhythm and a flow of the language that invites adults to read the story out loud
  • Have an engaging plot that begs the story to be read again and again
  • Have well-timed page turns 
  • Have lots of visual opportunities for illustrations 

Some picture books are simply a lively romp with lyrical language and energy that’ll entice re-reading for the sheer joy of it.  More often, picture books are character-driven with a strong arc.  These stories center on an inner conflict which leads to character development.    

What if you're still unsure if you've written a picture book?  

You can separate the text of your manuscript into pages and try to envision the art that will support each page. 

When author Debbie Ridpath Ohi pages out her text, she does tiny thumbnail sketches using stick figures to check overall flow.  Debbie says, "You don’t need to be an artist to do this!"

So, what did my friend decide to do?  Anne realized the critic was entitled to her opinion, but she also realized the critic had made some good points, which inspired her to reevaluate her picture book.  Moving forward, Anne plans to edit her work by making the text more joyful to ensure re-readability and by developing more inner conflict that will lead to character growth.   

Anne has the right attitude.  She knows it takes determination to stay positive and to continue after hearing discouraging comments. But what would you do if someone were to give you a disheartening critique about your work, especially if you heard it's not a picture book?  I hope you would question that opinion.  You may need to find others for support.  You certainly have my support.  I will tell you to believe in yourself.  Believe in your writing.  Don't let one opinion get you down.  Be strong.  Keep on going and don't give up.  You know as well as me, it takes perseverance and a thick skin to write for kids. 

✌ and