I met Tara two years ago in our critique group while she was still polishing manuscripts. Shortly after, she had three picture book contracts and an agent. She’d been seriously writing for children for 18 months, but she’d been absorbing the craft of picture books for years. She’s sharing her story with us and announcing a few details about the upcoming WWTS mentorship contest. Thank you, Tara!
Tara, your debut picture book, I Am Famous, published by Albert Whitman & Co., will be released March 1, 2018, followed by Shark Nate-O (little bee*, April 3, 2018). You have a sequel for I Am Famous under contract with Albert Whitman (spring 2019), you also have a fourth picture book that went to a multi-house auction, and two more picture books under contract, none of which we can talk about yet. What did you do to get to this point?
Well, I put in a lot of time reading picture books before I ever started writing them. I owned my own toy and book store. I specialized ages 0-6, so the only books I sold were picture books. I loved them, and I had to learn what made them work in order to be a successful retailer. I would get ideas from the store, and I told myself that someday, I would try to write them. But with three little kids, a traveling husband, and a store, there was no time for that. Then my family relocated to the Charlotte area for my husband’s job, and I no longer had the store. Even though I had no writing experience (but tons of reading experience), I decided to bring out all those ideas and try my hand at it. I sent my first manuscript to my sister to review. She sent it back half changed, so we became co-authors. I joined SCBWI. I found the online kidlit community. I met critique partners. I studied craft. I joined 12 x 12. I attended SCBWI conferences. I kept up my knowledge of the industry by reading voraciously.
During this process, I became obsessed with the musical Hamilton. If you already have Hamalaria, you know how amazing Hamilton is. If you are not familiar with it, you need to be. There is a reason editors, agents, writers and creative types in general are obsessed with it. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a lyrical genius. And Alexander Hamilton was a bit obsessive in his learning and writing because he was “young, scrappy and hungry” and clawing his way up to the top. He did not rest on his laurels and never “threw away his shot.”
So this has been my mantra: “I am not throwing away my shot.” I have entered every contest, attended every conference, twitter pitch party, taken every webinar and everything else that has crossed my path. You never know what can come from a “shot,” and you will never know unless you take them. Sometimes it’s a shot in the dark, and you miss. Sometimes the shot hits the target in a way you didn’t expect, and sometimes, it’s a rare bullseye. Editors and agents are not going to come knocking on your door or inbox. You have to get out there. You can’t be lazy or scared. Sure, it is easy to say, “I’m too busy to do that contest,” or “that is a lot of time and money to go to that conference,” or “I’m too scared to get a critique.”
I am NOT advocating querying when you are not ready, or your work is unpolished, and I realize not everyone can spend money on conferences and paid critiques, but there are tons of free opportunities out there too (see below) The point is, when you have studied craft and are ready and are presented with a shot—you take it. I took every one, and it eventually worked.
It’s a bit unusual to work as a writing team but it’s worked for you and your sister. How has it been an advantage?
It is unusual! It is nice to have double the resources. We live in different cities so we have two SCBWI chapters, two local home turfs, twice the marketing efforts, etc. Becky’s background is in reality TV casting and all things drama so she brings a different angle of creativity and marketability to our stories. We just email stories back and forth. I Am Famous is the only one we wrote together in person, as she was at my house for Christmas, and we sat down and hammered it out. We usually attend one big conference together every year, and then each attend our home chapter’s conference individually. That said, it’s not something for everyone. Not every agent or publisher wants to deal with a team, and you also split the royalties that usually only one author gets.
Let’s talk about too, what you did at the SCBWI conferences that you attended. How did ‘take your shot’ with these?
My big break came from the Illinois SCBWI chapter’s Prairie Writers and Illustrator’s day. My sister lives in Chicago so she attended this one-day conference. A few months later, it was the deadline for the after-conference submission for publisher Albert Whitman. I looked at the publisher’s list and didn’t see anything we had that was an obvious fit. I thought it was fruitless, so I almost didn’t send anything. But then my inner Hamilton kicked in, and I took my shot. I dug deeper and researched the editor herself. I found out that she wrote a pop culture column. We had a pop culture manuscript! Maybe that tiny connection would be enough. My sister sent it in at the eleventh hour, and a week later, Wendy McClure from Albert Whitman reached out saying she loved it. That turned into our first book, I Am Famous, and its sequel. (And fun fact for your Hamilton fans, Wendy turned the project over to editor Eliza Swift.)
So you have the cover for I Am Famous, love it, you have an awesome story about how one book became two. I’d say it was a take your shot moment in that you didn’t turn down the chance to write a story in just weeks to make that deal happen, can you talk about this?
I Am Famous started out as just one story, and that is how we submitted it to Wendy. She came to us and asked if we could turn it into two manuscripts. After freaking out about how we were going to pull this off on a short timeline, we got to work and the second book was written. (I have great critique partners!) I Used to Be Famous will follow in Spring 2019. So this one little shot, that I almost did not take, turned into two picture books.
The story is about a little girl with moxie who is convinced she is famous as the paparazzi follow her around (her parents). She loves to perform wherever she goes. Her stardom is tested when she flubs her biggest show—Grandpa’s birthday party. Luckily her fans still love her no matter what. The illustrations by Joanne Lew-Vreithoff are absolutely amazing and somehow she was able to convey the sass of this starlet and keep her sweet at the same time. In the sequel, I Used to be Famous, she gets a new sibling and has to learn to share the spotlight.
Shark Nate-O is a cool story as well. How did that make it to publication?
Shark Nate-O is another “shot” story. I sent this to Sonali Fry at little bee* on a post-conference submission from that same conference. Once again, I almost didn’t send anything. But the deadline was approaching, could not miss the shot, so we sent something we thought would be the best fit. Sonali contacted us about two weeks after Albert Whitman did to make an offer on what is now Shark Nate-O.
You got your publication offers before you found an agent. Do you think the offers sweetened the deal?
I am sure it didn’t hurt, but at the same time it was not a guarantee of anything. I also had to find an agent who would take on two of us as a team. We still got rejections or no responses. When an agent says this business is subjective, it’s not just lip service. It really is subjective. Some people liked our work, some did not. There is a lot that goes into finding the right match.
I’d sent a query to Tracy Marchini the second day she was open for submissions. She was a new agent at the time, and I’d seen her manuscript wish list tweet for something we had. I’d planned on querying her anyway, but our offers forced me to act sooner. Shortly after querying her, I got an email asking if we could talk on the phone. She liked our work and wanted to represent all of it, not just the items we had offers for, and she was willing to take me and my sister as a team. Since then we have gone on to do great things together.
Why didn’t you just work with the publisher and forgo getting an agent? You already had three offers of publication—you really didn’t need one.
Yes, we could have forgone an agent, but I knew I wanted one long term for our career, and there are too many closed doors without one.
Moving forward, what’s on the horizon? Another Writing With the Stars contest?
Yes! I am in the process of getting everything ready for Writing with the Stars 2018. For those who do not know, Writing With the Stars (WWTS) gives aspiring picture book authors and illustrators the chance to win a mentorship with a published author/illustrator. You can read all about the 2017 contest here: http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/
The lineup is so amazing once again, I can’t wait to show everyone. The entry dates will be in January. And again, this whole thing started from another “shot.” I found a free opportunity to be mentored by Stacy McAnulty. A free shot! I entered and won, and that helped me on my path big time. As part of paying it forward, like Stacy has asked me to do, I created WWTS. In an ironic twist, Joanne, the illustrator for I Am Famous, did three of Stacy’s books including Beautiful, which is one we particularly love.
In summary, what’s your best advice for aspiring writers?
I want to encourage every writer out there to get your Hamilton on, and do not throw away your shot. Is there a conference coming up you are able to attend? Do it. Thinking about doing a Twitter pitch contest but not sure? Try it. Thinking about applying to my Writing With the Stars contest this year? Apply for it! Go through Kidlit 411’s weekly contest round up and see what you can do. Go to Kathy Temean’s blog and submit for her free first pages monthly event. Look at your local SCBWI chapter for opportunities. Sign up for a class with an agent or editor from KidLit College. Try Rate Your Story. Send subs to agents. Try an Inked Voices class. Check MSWL often. Follow up on the submission opportunities in Children’s Book Insider every month. Send a sub to a smaller house that is open. All of these things are shots you need to be taking. I am kind of a nag to my critique partners (yes she is 😉 about these things, but I have personally seen them get agents because of some of these very actions.
Free kidlit writing resources:
Harold Underdown’s site: http://www.underdown.org
Lin Oliver’s site: http://www.linoliver.com/videos/
Arree Chung’s free course: http://www.storytelleracademy.com/free/
Renee LaTulippe’s links to free stuff: http://www.reneelatulippe.com
Brandon Sanderson’s courses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbL-84SkT4Q&list=PL70TVzJA5SvhKvM3GZRsM9FJ_Zirm4AvY
Joyce Sweeney’s free podcasts: http://www.sweeneywritingcoach.com/traditional-publication/
Matthew Winners podcasts: http://www.allthewonders.com/podcasts/
Oatley Academy podcasts: http://oatleyacademy.com/shows/
Carrie Brown’s ReFoReMo: http://www.reforemo.com/p/reforemo-mission.html
Manuscript Academy podcasts: http://manuscriptacademy.com/ourpodcast/
Tara Lazar’s Storystorm: https://taralazar.com/storystorm/
Mira Reisberg’s blogs: http://www.childrensbookacademy.com/the-blogfish and http://www.childrensbookacademy.com/the-blogateers
Mary Kole: http://kidlit.com
Susanna Leonard Hills site: https://susannahill.com
Josh Funk’s resources for writers: https://www.joshfunkbooks.com/resources-for-writers
Marcie Atkin’s free resources for writers: http://www.marcieatkins.com/making-time-to-write/
Katie Davis’ blog: http://katiedavis.com/blog/
Tara Lazar’s blog: https://taralazar.com/2009/02/22/picture-book-construction-know-your-layout/
Writing With the Stars mentorship contest: http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/
WNDB Mentorships: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/aboutapply/
Kathy Temean’s blog: https://kathytemean.wordpress.com
Publisher’s Weekly: https://www.publishersweekly.com
Writer’s Digest: http://www.writersdigest.com
Rate Your Story: http://rateyourstory.blogspot.com
Sub It Club: https://subitclub.com
Agent Jennifer Laughran’s podcasts: http://www.jenniferlaughran.com/literaticast
Jessica Lahey’s #Amwritingwith podcasts: http://www.andreabrownlit.com/big-sur-writing-workshops.html
Heather Alexander’s blog: https://heatheralexanderblog.wordpress.com
Giuseppe Castellano’s site: http://www.gcastellano.com
MSWL articles: http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com
The Manuscript Academy’s podcasts: http://manuscriptacademy.com/ourpodcast/
Emma Walton Hamilton’s courses: http://emmawaltonhamilton.com/services/coaching-courses/
Emma’s links to other courses: http://emmasfavorites.com
Julie Hedlund’s 12×12: http://12x12challenge.com/about/what-is-12×12/
Picture Book Summit: http://picturebooksummit.com
Arree Chung’s paid course: http://www.storytelleracademy.com/making-picture-book-stories/
Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab: http://www.reneelatulippe.com/writing-courses/
KidLit College courses: http://kidlitcollege.org
Inked Voices Courses: https://www.inkedvoices.com/group/pro_groups/
Master Class Course with Judy Blume: https://www.masterclass.com/classes/judy-blume-teaches-writing?utm_source=Email&utm_medium=Email&utm_term=Aq-Lifecycle&utm_content=Pre-Enroll_Announcement_Lifecycle_B&utm_campaign=JBL
Joyce Sweeney’s courses: http://www.sweeneywritingcoach.com
Anastasia Suen’s course: http://asuen.com/workshops/
Mary Kole: https://marykole.com/
Mira Reisberg’s Children’s Book Academy: http://www.childrensbookacademy.com
The Manuscript Academy: http://manuscriptacademy.com/about-us/
The Writing Barn: http://www.thewritingbarn.com/upcoming-classes/
ABLA’s writing workshops: http://www.andreabrownlit.com/big-sur-writing-workshops.html
For illustrator’s Giuseppe Castellano’s courses: https://illustrationdept.com/classes
Please feel free to offer other free and paid courses you know of in the comments below.
*little bee spells their name in lower case.