Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

First book in print: Four children’s book authors share memories and advice

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Spring has blossomed into summer, and I’m taking the opportunity to ask four of our successful Canadian authors of children’s books how they first came to be published and what advice they’d offer writers wanting to have their first manuscript transform into that most wonderful of creations, a book. I’m pleased that Karen Krossing, Frieda Wishinsky, Karen Autio and Allan Stratton have agreed to take the time to speak with me!

Karen Krossing is the Toronto-based author of six successful novels for kids and teens. Her latest is BOG, a middle-grade fantasy novel featuring trolls. Visit Karen at www.karenkrossing.com.

Freida Wishinsky is a speaker, teacher, editor and the award-winning author of over 60 books, including her latest book A History of Just About Everything. Frieda lives in Toronto. Her website is www.friedwishinsky.com.

Karen Autio is the author of a trilogy of historical novels for young readers about events in Canada’s history that haven’t had much attention. Her latest book, Sabotage, is a 2014 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Juvenile/YA Crime Book finalist. Karen lives in Kelowna, British Columbia. Her website is www.karenautio.com.

Allan Stratton is the Toronto-based bestselling and internationally awarded author of Chanda's Secrets. His most recent novel, Curse of the Dream Witch, won the 2014 Canadian Library Association Best Book for Children Award. Visit Allan at www.allanstratton.com.

SUSAN: Tell me a little about how your first book came to be published.


KAREN KROSSING:  My first published piece was a story called “Dragon’s Breath,” which I’d entered in a Thistledown Press short-story contest. I was thrilled when it was accepted for publication in the anthology of winning entries, Opening Tricks, edited by Peter Carver (1998). I then joined a writing workshop lead by Peter Carver, who is also the children’s book editor at Red Deer Press. By work-shopping stories over the next few years, I learned how to critique a work-in-progress and how to polish a story for publication.

FRIEDA: I was attending an SCBWI Bank Street conference back in the late 1980s when I met an editor from Little Brown as we stood on line for lunch. We sat together and began to chat. At the end of lunch I asked her if I could send her a manuscript. She agreed. I sent her a story soonafter and she rejected it with a wonderful encouraging letter. She also rejected the next seven manuscripts I submitted but finally, manuscript number eight hit a home run. She called me from Boston and said, "Do you want a contract?" It was one of those magical moments you know you'll never have again. And that's how Oonga Boonga was born in 1990. (It's still in print but not with Little Brown. It's had three "lives" with three different publishers and three different sets of illustrations.)

KAREN AUTIO: In 2000, I was selected as a delegate to the BC Festival of the Arts, Children’s Literature Program, based on a 2000-word excerpt from my then unfinished first novel for middle-grade readers, Second Watch. There, author/mentor Nikki Tate led an intensive workshop and critiqued my entry. She recommended that I submit Second Watch to Sono Nis Press once I completed the manuscript. After many critiques by my writers’ group and extensive revisions, I submitted Second Watch and it was published in 2005. I’ve now had three historical middle-grade novels published by Sono Nis Press, and I have a contract for a picture book.

ALLAN: My original adult publishers (Attila Berki and John Terauds Riverbank Press) knew my work as a playwright, so I was pretty lucky with The Phoenix Lottery. One of the characters in that novel had kept a teen diary. Rick Wilks at Annick Press was wanting to start a line of YA novels and wanted to approach playwrights because of our ear for voice. He knew my playwriting too, and on the strength of that and the diary extracts from my adult novel, commissioned me to write Leslie's Journal. Dennis Foon and I were the first two authors on his YA list; right place, right time.

SUSAN: What essential advice would you give to a writer wanting to get a first book published?

KAREN KROSSING: Here’s my advice for new writers: Hone your idea before beginning to write. A brilliant premise, deeply developed characters and at least a rough plot are the foundations of great writing. Once you have an exceptional idea, remember that the craft of writing lies in the revision process. I like to get constructive feedback from fellow writers whose opinions I trust. I evaluate their feedback to determine how to polish the work to a professional level, including rewriting multiple times.

FRIEDA: 1. Read voraciously. Know your genre. Look at how a well-crafted book is written. See how that first sentence hooks you. See how the first chapter develops. Study the best books. Those books are the best teachers.


2. Join an organization like CANSCAIP or SCBWI and network with other writers. Learn about the market and the craft. Times are tough and getting through those first doors is harder than ever so you need to submit your best work.

KAREN AUTIO: Before submitting your manuscript to a publisher, be certain it’s your best possible writing. Get it critiqued by a supportive and honest writing group, then thoroughly revise your manuscript and get it edited. After researching publishers to find the most appropriate ones for your manuscript, submit your work, following each publisher’s submission guidelines exactly. Be persistent and have a plan for where you are going to submit next if your manuscript is not accepted

ALLAN: Write because it's a passion. So many doors get slammed in your face that you have to have the sheer joy of writing in your bones to overcome rejection and keep you going. If I were starting now, I'd apply for an internship at a respected publishing house or literary agency to help build my contact base. (That's how my playwriting career got started; I was acting for Chris Newton at the Vancouver Playhouse and so he more or less felt obliged to read my submission.) I'd also network and take classes with people active in the field; contacts are vital as in all fields.

SUSAN: And, finally, please finish this sentence: I wish I'd known then ...

KAREN KROSSING: ... before being published, that a rejection letter is not personal. It may be that a story is not the right fit for a publisher, that I need to perfect my craft or that I sent my manuscript out before it was polished. Mastering the art of writing is a continual pursuit. That’s what makes it fun and challenging.

FRIEDA: ... that my first published book wasn't going to change the world or even my life but that despite that I still love writing.

KAREN AUTIO: … to push past the fear of failure, press in to the writing, and ignore the temptation to research every last detail before writing. One can waste time on research that’s not required and interrupt one’s writing momentum. An outline helps you stay on track and write a better story. Stay true to who you are as a writer, writing the best you can do and writing the books you most want to read. Don’t try to emulate other writers. Discomfort from having one’s writing go public and be reviewed is far outweighed by the sincere feedback from readers. It’s a privilege and a joy interacting with readers online and in person.
ALLAN: Actually there's so much I'm glad I didn't know. I've had a wonderful life as a writer and am so grateful for everything that's come my way. But I also know I've been extremely lucky.

Thanks so much to Karen, Frieda, Karen, and Allan for sharing their insights.

And to my readers, have a wonderful summer and I hope to chat with you again in the fall!


Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children's books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island Horse, Off to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website, www.susanhughes.ca.

 

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