Joan won a mentorship with author Laura Gehl. Here are a few words from Joan about the experience.
I had the incredible honor of being selected by Laura Gehl for the WWTS mentorship.
I applied to Laura because she clearly knows the craft of picture books; she’s got an impressive number of published books to her name, with more on the way, and all of them have a great voice, a clear vision, wonderful humor, and a compelling hook. I was hoping to absorb as much as I could from her about the art of storytelling, and that some of her skills might rub off on me!
Laura was a dream. Right off the bat, she critiqued the stories I had sent her, and then a number of additional ones. She has an uncanny knack for getting right to the heart of the issue for each story — what’s working, and what’s holding it back. After a while, I started to hear her voice as I revised or drafted anything new, and I felt I was able to better direct my stories from the start. She made herself super accessible; no matter how many questions I had or manuscripts I sent her, she never made me wait for a reply. I truly felt like she was in my corner.
About midway through the mentorship, Laura encouraged me to start querying agents and helped me craft my pitches and query letters. She has a phenomenal gift when it comes to crafting a pitch, and after a while, again with her voice in my head, I felt I started to get the hang of it, too.
One of my queries found its way to Natascha Morris at BookEnds Literary Agency, and shortly after my mentorship with Laura ended, I signed with Natascha. It was a dream come true and it wouldn’t have happened if not for Laura’s guidance.
Working with Laura propelled me to the next level in my writing career. It turbo-charged my revision process, and while I may have gotten to the same point with my stories eventually, it would have taken who-knows-how-many more months (or years!) to get there. I ended the mentorship feeling like I had a better grasp on the craft of writing, which is exactly what I had hoped for going into it.
I am so grateful to have had this opportunity. I want to give a heartfelt thanks to Tara for creating this invaluable program, and to Laura for believing in me. You are both incredible and the kidlit community is much indebted to you!
Laura Lavoie was the recipient of a mentorship with author Jason Gallaher. Here are a few words from Laura about her experience.
I’ll never forget the moment when I found out Jason Gallaher picked me to be his mentee. One of my critique partners sent a message to our group chat around the time Tara was making the announcement that read: Get. On. Twitter. My CP Jen Broedel, who is amazingly talented, had also applied for a mentorship, and I immediately saw that Tim McCanna had selected her. I figured that was the big news, so when I scrolled and saw that I’d been chosen by Jason, I literally slid out of my chair and onto the floor. Winning a mentorship felt like a huge vote of confidence for my writing career.
One of the best things about working with Jason was how he automatically got my sense of humor. I write funny picture books, so I knew I needed a mentor who would appreciate my cheesy puns and quirky characters. For the first six weeks of the mentorship, I sent Jason one manuscript per week for critique. After I’d read through his written feedback, we’d hop on a video call and discuss what was or wasn’t working. Jason is a fantastic brainstormer, and talking things through with him gave me so many “Aha!” moments. We then picked the strongest four manuscripts to revise, knowing that I planned to start querying at the conclusion of the mentorship. Jason also helped me with my query letters and let me barrage him with general questions about publishing. His genuine enthusiasm for my work meant the world to me. I felt like I had my own personal cheerleader heading into queries, and knew that I was absolutely putting my strongest work forward.
Shortly after sending my first batch of queries, I was offered representation by my now-agent, James McGowan of BookEnds Literary. I’d admired BookEnds for a long time, and had my sights set on James from the moment he announced he’d be taking on clients. I signed the contract a few days before my last video call with Jason, so we got to live-share our excitement!
Writing with the Stars was truly transformational. I feel like I’ve come leaps and bounds from the writer I was just six months ago. My first drafts feel stronger, and I’m able to absorb feedback more quickly and run with revisions. I’ve also connected with several of the other mentees, and it’s great to have a whole new batch of talented writing buddies! A huge thanks to Tara, Jason, and all the WWTS mentors who donated their time and expertise. I’m so grateful to have had this immensely valuable experience!
Leigh Anne was the lucky recipient of a mentorship with Author/Illustrator Melissa Iwai and author Denis Markell. Her are a few words from Leigh Ann about her experience.
As an author-illustrator, I was very honored to receive the mentorship with both Melissa Iwai and Denis Markell. My mentors provided illustration and writing advice on my manuscript.
We met over Skype, and while you may think two-on-one critiques of your work would feel overwhelming, I was pleasantly surprised by how wonderful, candid, and helpful Melissa and Denis both are. They guided me to focus my manuscript down to my main theme, advised me to amp up the emotions in the language, and also told me what was and wasn’t working in my illustrations. Not once did a reassurance go wasted, and my shaky author-illustrator legs found solid ground to stand on. My manuscript is now well on its way to being a completed dummy, which I will be querying soon to agents.
Another great thing about being on Skype was that Melissa was able to share on camera some of the stories she was working on—seeing another illustrator’s visual thinking was an added benefit of this mentorship.
The check-ins were great incentives to work extra hard, find the perfect word, and create the perfect image. Each time I got great advice, and that made me strive harder with each revision. Having a team behind my story and supporting my efforts was the icing on the cake.
Thank you, Melissa and Denis, for sharing your time, your talent, and your guidance.
Thank you so much, Tara and Becky, for all of the hard work that goes into creating this mentorship program and giving us the opportunity to grow and learn!
Danette Byatt was the recipient of a mentorship with the talented Deb Pilutti. Here are a few words from Danette about her experience.
I am thrilled to have been chosen by Deb Pilutti and am so grateful for all of the time and expertise she gave me as her mentee. Thank you so very much, Deb, for your insights; it’s been a wonderful experience! And thank you to Tara, as well, for making WWTS a reality.
I applied for a mentorship with Deb because I was immediately drawn to her work. She’s not only an author-illustrator, but like me she’s also a designer, and all three of those aspects are very apparent to me in her books. Sparse, poignant text combined with endearing illustrations are laid out so effortlessly on the page and paced perfectly throughout her books. Two books of hers that brilliantly capture all of these things (the pacing is so great!) are Bear and Squirrel are Friends and The Secrets of Ninja School. I was also lucky enough to see some sneak peeks of the printer’s proofs for an upcoming book of hers and I’m so excited for it to hit shelves! It looks so great.
Right off the bat we had a lot in common as author-illustrators (and designers!). We met a number of times over Skype during the mentorship to discuss my goals (what I needed help with most), her feedback on my stories, and things about the industry in general.
Going into it, I leaned towards needing more help with writing than illustration, since I’ve been writing for a shorter amount of time. But of course, as an author-illustrator, much of the storytelling is done through the illustrations as well, so while we were more focused on the writing side of things, we did discuss both. I also wanted her thoughts on which stories of mine I should scrap – I had a hard time discerning which were my best story concepts and which should be laid to rest. Of the initial 7 stories I sent Deb, she identified 3 that she thought were my strongest and we moved forward with those. Her feedback was spot-on! She was able to offer so many amazing insights I hadn’t noticed or thought of before, and I was able to go back and revise based on her suggestions.
I am now starting to query literary agents and am confident with my submissions, knowing that I have a strong arsenal of stories ready that Deb helped me to revise if an agent asks to see more of my work. I’m so appreciative to her for everything she’s done for me. She’s a kind-hearted person who’s friendly and easy to work with, as well, and I’m sending her much loving gratitude and joyful vibes from the bottom of my heart.
Pamela Couvignou was the lucky recipient of a mentorship from author/illustrator Lindsay Ward. Here are a few words from Pamela about her experience.
Writing With the Stars was a gamechanger for me. There was me and my work before WWTS and then there is me and my work after WWTS. I feel like I jumped a chasm.
I was extremely fortunate to be selected by Lindsay Ward, who is a generous, accomplished, kind, and talented mentor. I pinched myself constantly after our weekly conversations by phone or email. She was always available to me, even if that meant sneaking in a call between her son’s naps or school visits.
As an author/illustrator like my (aspiring) self, Lindsay helped me balance my words and images to tighten my stories and reach my goal of creating submission-ready work. I have attended critique groups for writing and illustrating, separately, and they always seemed to miss half the story. Finally, I was able to work with someone who knew how to combine words and images to create impact and emotions.
What I valued most was our honest exchanges. When reviewing my work, Lindsay was always insightful and direct, but supportive with practical recommendations on moving forward. I will never forget the generosity she exhibited throughout the process. When talking about the industry, Lindsay shared important insights that will probably save me a lot of time and heartache. As a novice, I had so many questions. Lindsay always responded with enthusiasm to help clarify and provide creative options. She has shifted my approach to storytelling and has freed me from some of the prior limitations of “must do’s.”
Now when I approach a new story, I recall conversations and notes from Lindsay and it’s like having a little mentor on my shoulder to guide and support. This makes it much easier to touch pen to paper.
Thank you, WWTS. And Lindsay, thanks to you I gained so much knowledge, motivation, confidence, and a valued friend.
Today we have an update from the 2018 contest. Vong Bidania won a mentorship with Jennifer K. Mann and is sharing her experience with us today.
I was really fortunate to win a mentorship with Jennifer Mann in 2018. Jennifer’s picture books are so charming and her illustrations are beyond adorable. I felt honored that she picked me as her mentee.
At the time of the mentorship, I had two manuscripts I was working on. One was a picture book that I was hoping to query.The other was a folktale chapter book I had submitted to a publisher. The publisher requested I revise this chapter book into a picture book. I had been struggling with this revision for months because I found it so difficult to cut it down to picture book length. Jennifer graciously helped me with both manuscripts.
First she gave me feedback on my picture book and query letter for that book, and then after some edits she said they were ready to go. Next she read my folktale chapter book. Jennifer talked to me about mentor texts, gave me incredibly helpful comments about paring down text, and asked me important questions about my character. After that, she advised me to scrap my original manuscript and start from scratch instead of trying to cut it. It seemed like this would be overwhelming, but because I had already answered the questions she provided me, I was able to rewrite the entire chapter book as a picture book in just a few days. I absolutely loved my new manuscript.
When I felt I had polished this manuscript enough, I resubmitted this to the publisher. They got back to me and said they were interested! They even asked for more picture book ideas because they wanted them to be part of a whole series. When I sent them my other ideas, I decided to pitch another chapter book series I had started writing. A few months later, I received a publishing offer for my chapter book series! Shortly after, I found an agent. I am now represented by Tina Dubois of ICM and my chapter book series ASTRID AND APOLLO is being published by Capstone in 2020. For now, Capstone is holding off on the folktale picture book series and they plan to relook at this at a future date.
This mentorship helped set off a chain of events that led to my publishing deal. Because I won the mentorship with Jennifer, I was able to revise my folktale manuscript into a picture book and submit it to Capstone, who requested more picture book ideas from me, and when I shared ASTRID & APOLLO with them, they wanted to publish it. This would not have happened if it weren’t for Jennifer’s comments and guidance. I learned so much about writing picture books from her. Her revision notes were extremely useful and I will continue to use the process she taught me for all of my picture books. I am really grateful for WWTS and for the time and thoughtful feedback that Jennifer gave me. She was supportive, kind and encouraging. I gained so much from working with her and I still can’t wait to publish that folktale picture book series someday! I will always be thankful for this mentorship, which helped set me on my path to becoming a published author.
Thank you Vong, for that update and I’m so happy for your success.
Jen won a mentorship with author Cate Berry in the 2019 WWTS contest. Here are a few words about her experience.
I was deeply honored to be chosen by Cate as her mentee. With the many rejections and downs of this industry, just being picked was a huge affirmation of my children’s book writing dream. It also meant so much that someone was willing to take a chance on me.
Cate was warm, generous, accessible, and fun. She’s a teacher of picture book writing, so she brought many gifts and strengths to the mentorship. Most of all, she impressed upon me the need to bring a sense of play to writing. For instance, she had me reading fifteen minutes of poetry each day and doing both poetry and free writing exercises. This helped boost my imagination, creativity, and language. She also helped me get in touch with my senses and emotions, which translated into richer picture books. Cate encouraged me to read and analyze many picture books in-depth.
I really hit the jackpot with having Cate as my mentor! During the internship, we emailed, texted, and spoke on the phone. Once per month, Cate critiqued several of my manuscripts and reviewed my picture book analyses and writing exercises. She gave me frequent recommendations of picture books and craft books to read, as well as new picture book structures to try. Cate also challenged me to query. Widely.
It was a privilege to work (virtually) alongside and get to know Cate as a mentor and friend. She expected a lot from me, but I was enthusiastic to soak up as much from our time as possible. What I loved most was how Cate kept telling me in a dozen different ways how much she believed in me. Her faith instilled greater confidence in my abilities. As I told Cate, now that I know I have the skills and talent, I will never give up!
We are thrilled to welcome Dev Petty to Writing with the Stars. Dev is the author of the hilarious I Don’t Want to be a Frog series and Claymates. She’s also a former visual effects artist and worked on The Matrix; how cool is that? She’s one of the top funny ladies in picture book writing circles and runs a critique service—so humor writers, take note!
You had a pretty awesome job as a visual effects artist on The Matrix. Do you think that has helped you as a writer?
Totally. Though it’s not as much because of any art skills. Those are handy since I understand a lot about composition and can develop my own marketing materials (bookmarks, trailers, etc.). What really informs my writing is having developed a sense of how a story comes together and what matters in a story and what you can strip out. VFX is really front-to-back—you sit in dailies and judge how the shot looks front-to-back. If there’s some wee thing in the way back that is wrong, you sometimes have to let that go and remind yourself that if the viewer is focused on that and not the big thing up front, you’ve failed. It’s a good lesson to focus on your characters and what matters. Picture books are really similar to movies in that they are entirely their own art form. Beginning, middle, and end through pictures and words.
You gave some advice to writers to “read more than you write.” What do you read that fires up your creative spirit?
I like to sit down once in a while with just a giant stack of picture books at the library and read one after another. From different eras, styles, you name it. You get a sense of how many different, interesting ways there are to tell a story, and it can get you out of a rut. I’m a ’70s kid and love that era of books—Silverstein, Charlip, Sendak, Steig, Pinkwater. So creative and funky!
I noticed that all your released picture books are all dialogue. I know that a lot of new writers are told that manuscripts consisting of only dialogue are hard to sell. How have you made it work for you?
Yes, it’s funny that everything out is all dialogue, since the next two are not. Dialogue is all timing and rhythm and using an authentic voice. I suppose my books in dialogue work because they mirror how I actually talk to some degree (which may not be such a good thing). Mostly, all dialogue really works for books that are somewhat less traditional and where the humor is the star of the show. It’s a great way to depict relationships but less suited for depicting elaborate plots and story points.
Claymates is a fun story and a collaboration with you and the illustrator Lauren Eldridge. How did that all come about?
That whole experience is a great reminder that creativity can bridge distances and differences. We became sort of “Twitter friends”, but didn’t know each other so well. She worked with clay and would make funny characters, and we decided we might like to work together. I couldn’t really think of a story of mine that would work illustrated dimensionally in clay, but the idea of the story being about the characters being clay was really interesting. It was fun to do something where the characters could be anything at all and totally elastic. I shared the idea with her and wrote it up. We realized the only way to pitch it to anyone would be to just do it …I mean, how do you explain CLAYMATES? So we did a full photographic dummy, all the while with her in Wisconsin and me in California. Once it was acquired, we did the WHOLE thing again, with lots of changes and lots more silliness. Now we’re the greatest of friends.
You write funny books. Why do you think women don’t get the credit they deserve for writing humorous PBs?
What an interesting and tricky question. I dig it! Well, the elephant in that particular room is that men are often perceived as being more funny. I think that perception is mostly so in most business, and in life, and certainly in media. But I think the greater issue, and the one that’s a little trickier to talk about in publishing, is about RISK. Flat out…men are given a longer leash to bend and break the rules and to take risks in their work than women are—especially in picture books. I may get some angry mail for that one, but I’ll live with it. And adding humor into the mix further complicates matters. I think the industry as a whole, even with so many women agents, editors, reviewers, etc., supports this inequity. BUT I think some recent discussions on this subject have been fruitful and give me hope—and I know SO many sharp, bold, funny women writers who are doing amazing work.
Was I Don’t Want to be a Frog written as a stand-alone, or did you have all three sequels in mind when you wrote it?
Honestly, FROG was one of the first picture books I ever wrote. I had no idea what I was doing at all and probably didn’t even know a series was possible. I just sat down one day, wrote it in an afternoon, and there it was. I’d love to say I had some elaborate plan, but I didn’t at all. I kind of built this plane (this career) in the air.
You also offer a critique service. If you could give a blanket critique, based on common mistakes you see, what would you say?
I do offer critiques, and I enjoy doing them very much. When I’m in a dry spell of my own writing, it keeps me engaged and my skills up. I would say the most common mistakes are writers not having a strong, punchy voice, especially in the opening. Sometimes writers forget that they’re spinning a yarn, telling a story and they—as the writer—play an important role in how that story is told. You get to have fun, be original, make an impression. There are SO many interesting ways to tell a story, and sometimes writers forget to do something original. I don’t mean weird for weird’s sake, but to take risks and be bold. A picture book can be rejected for a thousand different reasons and being sort of “meh” shouldn’t be one of them. Go out swinging!
As for finer points I see a lot: Too many dialogue tags or tags that aren’t just “said”—e.g., remarked, chortled, etc. Too long. Saggy middles. Muddy ideas. A lack of a takeaway/thread that is the central idea of the story. It needn’t be pedantic, but it should be present.
When do you know you’ve got an idea you want to turn into a picture book?
I have a LOT of ideas…too many, really. I keep various idea files here and there, and I know one is ready to write when it’s the one nagging me at night and it keeps coming back around in my head. But, that’s not really enough. For me to choose an idea, it really has to have legs—I have to have been able to really suss out what I’m after and the takeaway and the vibe before I get going.
Can you tell us about your upcoming book Moth and Butterfly?
Well, that’s actually not going to be coming out until 2021. It’s a really lovely book about a moth and a butterfly who become friends as caterpillars and naturally change in big ways after they go through metamorphosis. It’s about how friendships change and stay the same. The amazing Ana Aranda (THE CHUPACABRA ATE THE CANDELABRA) is illustrating. She lives near me and we’ve been able to connect a couple of times. I’m thrilled! In 2020, I have THE BEAR MUST GO ON coming from Philomel. I was a theater kid and my own kids loved to put on shows when they were little. This book is about a group of forest critters who put on an elaborate show, but forget one very important thing…to write an actual show. The bear has to save the day.
Do you have any writing/creative routines?
Besides reading more than I write, I think more than I do anything. I knock an idea around for a long, long time in my head before I put any words on the page. I play with ideas for the story, tense, POV, and don’t begin writing until I really have it sorted in my head…and I can almost hear it. I do a lot of this sort of thinking in the sun on my deck. I also almost always start with a storyboard/dummy and not in a document. I use Debbie Ohi’s templates and have a big stack on my desk at all times. When I’m ready to write, I start there…I do the first few spreads and see if it’s working, and if it isn’t, I crumple it up and start again. Working via a dummy allows for a lot more connection between the turns and the words.
Thank you, Dev, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.
Cate Berry is the author of the hilarious Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime (illustrated by Charles Santoso). She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and earned her Picture Book Intensive Certificate in the process. Cate loves teaching and offers many classes on writing picture books at The Writing Barn. You can visit her online at www.cateberry.com.
How or why did you choose a penguin and a tiny shrimp to star in your book?
You mean everyone
doesn’t write about silly crustaceans? Shocking!
These characters are a
loose composite of my kids, born fifteen months apart (not our best work but
now it’s peachy). They acted like a little vaudeville duo, the youngest riffing
off the oldest—NEVER sleeping.
My greatest love is
writing picture books with lots of heart, delivered in a fresh way. My inner
writer brain is one part four-year-old and three parts pink champagne so Penguin & Tiny
Shrimp popped into my head very naturally.
Do you have any writing rituals? If so, what are they?
All my rituals revolve around coffee. Coffee, coffee, coffee. I start my day with three espresso shots lovingly poured into a tall glass of almond milk, gently shaken over ice. Really, once I have that, I turn into Wonder Woman and the work flows easily.
Now that you’ve published your debut book (and with a sophomore book on the way), what are your writing goals?
That’s a great question. I’ve spent far too many hours plotting and scheming my next industry move only to circle back to what’s important and in my control: writing something every day. My wonderful advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts trained me to dabble and play, and interact with my work daily. It doesn’t have to be serious or even productive. But keeping my mind childlike keeps me connected to my work. Plus, sometimes a gem of an idea pops out as a bonus!
If you were stranded on a deserted island for the rest of your life and you could bring only one book, what would it be?
Ermergahd. Just ONE?
I’m a huge E. B. White fan so I’d probably take Charlotte’s Web. Recently, I fell in love with Melissa Sweet’s biography Some Writer, a near perfect picture book about E.B.White. It reminded me that art takes time. And that’s okay. Letting a manuscript “marinate” often leads to greatness.
(So, I’d probably bribe someone to let me take two books. Tee hee.)
If you were stranded on a deserted island for the rest of your life and you could choose an unlimited supply of only one food, what would it be?
My first thought is Twinkies because they have a shelf life of twelve years. But I hate Twinkies, so I’d probably choose the fun-loving pineapple. It’s got vitamins, a sunny disposition and it’s the universal symbol of hospitality. (My super power is being friendly, even on a deserted island.)
Are you an early bird or night owl?
Pre-motherhood: night owl. Oh, the work I achieved between 10 PM and 2 AM.
Post-motherhood: I’m embracing the early bird mindset begrudgingly and finding it: pleasant! Also, getting a day’s work accomplished before 11 AM is thrilling.
What are your favorite non-writing related things to do?
My husband is a composer and we host monthly music parties at our house. Lots of musicians and artists drop by and I enjoy singing with them (I was a songwriter once-upon-a-time).
I also love entertaining and connecting people. I would have had a rollicking career in 1920’s Paris hosting salons.
Can you tell us about your next book, Chicken Break?
It’s an Ocean’s 11-style, barnyard breakout counting book—told in rhyme!
I adore mash-up books, or books that do more than one
thing. This one includes counting, accumulation, wordplay and…going wild! (Plus,
chickens. Who doesn’t love chickens?)
This book took three years of revision before it clicked so I’m super excited about its publication in October 2019 (MacMillan/Feiwel & Friends).
What is the best advice you can give aspiring picture book writers?
Read, read, read and then read some more. I wrote a
blog post about reading at least three hundred picture books before you begin
writing them in earnest. It’s like learning another language, there is so much
packed into this short form.
But after reading enough of them, you start to absorb
the format into your subconscious. Picture books must have all the integrity of
a novel but accomplish it in six hundred words or less (if it’s fiction, that
is). It’s a tall order, but reading a LOT will give you a huge advantage.
What’s on your mind these days regarding writing?
I’ve self-appointed myself the modern Lorax: I speak
for the humorous and playful picture books. I often think funny books don’t get
the respect that they deserve. It’s hard
to write something effortlessly humorous. And our culture (myself included)
often rewards serious, hard-hitting books more “worthy” of our purchases.
Perhaps we feel our kids will be better educated if they read these? And, of course, that’s true.
I also feel
kids and grown-ups need levity, perhaps now more than ever. We need to unwind
and give our brains a hit of serotonin. Yes, laughter delivers “feel good”
I love helping writers develop fun, funny, playful
picture books—with heart, of course. Picture books are shared and read
together. Imagine starting and ending your day with a giggle and a hug? It matters.