I've had the privilege of getting to know Carrie Finison this year by being in an online picture book critique group for 12x12. I was thrilled when Carrie recently landed an agent. Carrie is an excellent writer and writes a lot of great rhyming manuscripts and poetry from her home in Massachusetts. Welcome, Carrie!
How did you get started in writing?
I always liked to write and took many writing classes, both in high school and as an English major in college. After I graduated, I worked in educational publishing, first at a print-based publisher, and then at a software publisher. Writing and editing were regular parts of my job, but still I never thought of myself as a "writer."
When my son was born, I left work to be home with him. We had a subscription to Babybug magazine, and after reading each issue 20 or more times, I thought I could try to write some poems like the ones they publish for very young kids. So that's where I started.
Have you taken any writing classes that have helped you in your picture book writing?
Yes, after working sporadically on short pieces for magazines like Babybug and High Five, I found out about a picture book writing class that was being offered at the arts education center in town. By that time, with two kids, I had been reading picture books every day for several years and I thought I could try to write one (see a pattern?). I took that class and wrote my first picture book story. I spent a LOT of time reworking that one story. I took it to a conference where I got positive feedback from an editor, but when she asked what else I was working on, I didn't have much to say.
So at that point, the light dawned - I needed to write more than one story if I wanted to be a writer! I signed up for 12x12 in 2012 and wrote a story each month. That same spring I also took Anastasia Suen's online picture book course which gave me some great insights into plot structures for picture books.
How did you know which agents to submit to?
There are so many agents out there, but it's hard to get one as a picture book writer only (not an author-illustrator). While I do want to expand into chapter books and middle grade at some point, when I started querying all I had ready were picture books. So that narrowed the field considerably. Also, some of my stories are written in rhyme, so I wanted an agent who liked rhyme and had a good sense for it. I tried to pay attention to which agents repped authors who write in rhyme. But I didn't discount other agents, unless I found an interview where they were categorically against rhyme.
How did you nab an agent?
I had decided to lead with a non-rhyming story, just to avoid any knee-jerk 'no rhyme' reaction from agents. I had a story making the rounds, and I got some positive feedback on it but no offers. One agent literally said, "This story is going to get you an agent…but unfortunately not me." I was getting ready for a round of submissions to about 5 more agents from my list before going on vacation. A friend posted Jennifer Starkman's name to a Facebook group for writers focused on submission (SubItClub). I researched her a bit, and she seemed like a good match for me and my writing, so I added her to my batch and sent off my submission.
In my cover letter, I included a brief description of some of the other manuscripts I had available. I heard back from Jennifer quickly. She said she was on the fence about the story I submitted, but asked to see the other stories I had mentioned. At that point, vacations for both of us interrupted the whole process. Maybe three weeks later I heard from her again. She expressed interest in two of the stories, but requested some revisions. These were fairly minor, but I thought her suggestions were good and they made me feel we were on the same wavelength with regard to editing. I addressed her concerns and also took the opportunity to scrub the stories one last time. She liked the changes I made and at that point said she would like to represent me.
Any advice to writers who are looking for an agent?
First of all, write the best story you can, and get some external validation that it's good (and not from anyone related to you!).
Second, once you have written one good story - write another one! I caught my agent's interest with the first story I sent, but if I hadn't had any others to back it up, I might not have gotten an offer from her. The general rule is 2-3 additional picture book manuscripts, beyond the one you are submitting.
And, while you're doing all that writing, take the time to connect with other writers! You'll hear tidbits about agents and agencies, including who's looking for new clients. There are many ways to connect. Facebook groups like the 12x12 group, PiBoIdMo, SubItClub, and WOW (for nonfiction) are great. I'm also a member of Verla Kay's Blueboards, and SCBWI. WriteOnCon is a great resource, too, especially if you can't attend an SCBWI conference in person. I'm not on Twitter much, but I know from others that it's a good way to find out what particular agents are seeking, and you can join in on pitch parties.
How do you know when your manuscript is ready to submit?
I rely on feedback from my critique groups and also my own feeling that I've done the most I can do with the story - further changes are making it different but not necessarily better. And - it's hard, but I try to avoid submitting too early. It helps to put things away for several weeks or months and come back with fresh eyes. That gives me more confidence that something is ready to submit.
Also, I think the strongest stories for submission have a very strong and unique idea behind them. It's not just the good writing, but the idea that sells the manuscript. Before I submit, and sometimes even before I write, I try to get a sense of how my story stands out from others with the same topic or theme.
Good luck with submitting everyone! And thank you, Tina, for having me on your blog.
Thanks so much, Carrie, for sharing your wisdom! And congratulations, again! You can find Carrie at:
web site: http://www.carriefinison.com/
My blog site received a face lift! What do you think? It's a new school year, and I've been taking new picture book classes, and so I figured it was time for a new blog look. So if you'd like to continue receiving my posts, please re-subscribe (located on the right). Thanks so much! And if you know of other links or perhaps your own blog that you'd like to have on my links page, please let me know.
And now for a special treat..one of my critique partners, Hannah Holt of Portland, Oregon, just signed with agent Danielle Smith of Foreword Literary last month. I'm so happy for her. I wanted Hannah to share her story, and so I interviewed her.
Thanks again for having me over. :) -Hannah
Tina: How did you get started?
Hannah: One Christmas during graduate school, my husband and I didn't have money for presents, so I created handmade comic books. While I worked I wondered: what if I gave myself year to write a children's book? That was four years ago.
Tina: Have you taken any writing classes that have helped you in your pb writing?
Hannah: I took a poetry workshop from Linda Ashman, and I'd recommend it to anyone. But overall I'm pretty stingy selective when it comes to classes. My favorite writing resources are books, like WRITING WITH PICTURES (Uri Shulevitz) and WRITING PICTURE BOOKS (Ann Whitford Paul).
Tina: How did you know which agents to submit to?
Hannah: In the beginning, I didn't. My first round of queries was a random selection of agents from THE CHILDREN'S WRITER'S AND ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. (Rookie mistake!) It felt like playing roulette and resulted a bunch form rejections. After that ill conceived initial batch, I took a break from submitting to work on craft. I joined a few writing groups, and this crazy thing happened: my writing got better, and I made friends with other writers. When two of my friends signed with agent Danielle Smith, I started following her on twitter. I liked her right away.
Tina: How did you nab an agent?
Hannah: Well, because I followed Danielle on twitter, I knew about events she was participating in. My first attempt to catch her attention was at the #PitMad twitter party. She didn't bite.
A few weeks later, I tried again during #PitchMas. This time she requested a manuscript. I sent it to her and heard nothing for over a month.
While I was waiting, I signed up for WriteOnCon and posted a query in the forum. Danielle saw it and recognized my name from my previous query. She requested the second manuscript and offered representation within a week.
Tina: Any advice to writers who are looking for agents?
Hannah: Keep hope. Start something new while you are waiting (something other than a sequel!). Challenge yourself to write bigger, deeper, fresher. Find a balance between researching, networking, and writing. If you only have time for one thing... always choose writing!
Tina: How do you know when your manuscript is ready to submit?
Hannah: Critique groups help. My critique group always gives me great advice. Their feedback usually falls into one of four categories:
1) Not much enthusiasm & major revision suggestions
2) Not much enthusiasm & minor revision suggestions
3) Lots of enthusiasm & major revision suggestions
4) Lots of enthusiasm & minor revision suggestions
Here is how I interpret it:
1) My idea stinks, and I executed it poorly.
2) My idea stinks, but I executed it decently.
3) My idea is okay, but I executed it poorly.
4) I am ready to submit.
Thanks for having me over, Tina. Best wishes to everyone actively submitting! Good luck!
Hannah Holt is civil engineer turned picture book writer. She's a two-time Barbara Karlin Grant Letter of Merit recipient and Phillip E. Rollhaus essay winner. She lives in the Portland, Oregon with her husband Josh and their four young children.
You can visit Hannah at her blog:
Kid Crafts | Kitchen Play | Children's Literature
Thanks, Hannah, for answering my questions. Hope this helps any of you who are agent-hunting! And thanks to all of you for stopping by!
Tina M. Cho, children's author
I'm a children's author and freelance writer for the educational market. Welcome!