How did CWILL BC members get their first big breaks in the publishing world? In this series of interviews with local writers and illustrators, we ask what advice they would offer and what mistakes they would never repeat — an inside look at the publishing process, from the creators’ point of view. Please feel free to tell your own publishing tales in the comments section below.
What was your first book?
My first-ever book was The Canadian Rodeo Book, co-authored with Thirza Jones and published by Western Producer Prairie Books in 1982. My first kids’ book was Super Crocs and Monster Wings: Modern Animals’ Ancient Past, published by Annick Press in 2008. However, my first for-kids/YA publication was a short science-fiction story, “The Lost Land” in the anthology Polaris: A Celebration of Polar Science, edited by Julie E. Czerneda and published by Star Ink Books, a division of Fitzhenry & Whiteside in 2007. By the way, both Polaris and Super Crocs won the Science In Society Youth Book Award from the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, in 2007 and 2008 respectively. There — long answer to a short question.
Did you have a mentor in the publishing world, or did you do it all on your own?
I’m not sure anyone does anything on their own. I was a book editor before I was a book writer. I edited about a dozen non-fiction titles for Western Producer Prairie Books, before they asked me to write a book about rodeo — based on a long-format radio documentary Thirza and I had done for CBC. So Rob Sanders, then publisher at Western Producer Prairie Books and now with Greystone, was a sort of mentor.
Colleen MacMillan, who has been my contact at Annick Press, was actually working at Western Producer Prairie Books when I wrote the rodeo book, so she really introduced me to non-fiction children’s publishing.
For fiction, BC writer Susan Mayse (from whom I took a creative writing course) and Julie Czerneda (who bought my first-sold piece of fiction and has bought another since then) both have been very supportive and certainly count as mentors.
Do you have a favourite publishing moment? A career highlight?
Dunno. Every new book or publication is exciting. Maybe the highlight was the first time I saw the page proofs for Super Crocs. That was the first time I had seen my plain old words-on-digital-paper transformed by a designer into a startling and entertaining piece of art. I think that experience is one only kids’ writers get — especially picture book or non-fiction writers because so much effort goes into design.
How did you find your publisher/agent?
I submitted a fiction proposal to Annick Press. It didn’t interest them (I realize now that it was a bit outside their fiction interests), but Colleen knew I could write non-fiction and complete a book so she called and asked if I’d be interested in trying some non-fiction. Sounded like fun, so we batted around ideas for a while. Annick had some that didn’t quite suit my style or interests, but they like my idea for Super Crocs, which is essentially about evolution, adaptation, and some extraordinarily cool animals.
How did you handle early rejections?
I’m easily discouraged with the fiction rejections, mainly because I have to fit fiction-writing in the cracks between non-fiction writing and the consultant-type science writing that is actually my bread and butter. However, I’m trying to buckle down and complete or rewrite some of the fiction that has slipped to the back burner. With non-fiction — I’ve been writing professionally for a long time, much of it as a freelancer, so I don’t take a reject proposal personally. Some ideas fly. Some don’t. Some suit one publication or form of publishing. Some fit elsewhere. I just plug on.
Do you think about trends/marketing when you’re developing a project?
I think about whether something has already been done, obviously. If it hasn’t, or not in the way I envisage, I plough ahead. Of course, with non-fiction, I’m only ploughing ahead with a proposal, not a full-blown manuscript. With fiction, I mainly write what appeals to me, in the hopes that it appeals to other people out there, whether kids or adults. I’m not good at second-guessing where the industry is going to go — but neither are publishers, I’ve noticed!
What advice would you give an emerging writer/illustrator?
Work at your craft. Get professional sales and publications wherever you can. Be flexible. Subjects change, ideas change, styles change, even delivery media change. You’ve got to be ready to try new things.
Is there a publishing mistake you would never repeat?
Just things that I’ve done through lack of experience or lack of skill. You can’t go back and fix them, but you can learn and improve. I do try not to make the same mistake twice and to write better all the time. Whether I succeed… dunno.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned since publishing your first book?
I don’t know if it’s a thing I’ve learned. I think the biggest benefit it has brought me, apart from simply having books on the shelf (which is pretty awesome), is meeting a lot of very enthusiastic, talented, and friendly people in both the publishing arenas I work in — kidlit, and science fiction and fantasy. Both are very supportive and collegial worlds.
What project are you most excited about now?
I’m in the final editing stages of another kids’ non-fiction book that’s coming out in 2013. It’s going to be illustrated by Sa Boothroyd, who did the illustrations for my most recent book, The World in Your Lunch Box, and she makes everything brighter, funnier, and just better. I’m also working on a comic fantasy novel for the middle-grade range. It makes me giggle as I write it — which is a good sign, I hope. And I’m actually quite excited about some of the reports I’m working on in my other life, as a science writer and editor. I know it’s totally off-topic here, but they are very cool stuff, and important.