Thursday, April 3, 2014

What to Expect When You're Expecting a Debut

I’ve been getting all kinds of antsy lately, worried that I am supposed to be doing something to prepare for my spring 2015 debut. I’ve been plenty busy with other projects. I’ve sold a second book (woohoo!) and revised another for an interested editor (fingers crossed.) And there are the revisions on other projects, etc, etc. But, there’s something special about this debut experience. A first book is like a first child, right?
Some pre-release duties, like website updating, blogs, business cards, brochures, mailing lists, and library contacts, are predictable. Expected. But, how do we debut authors prepare for the unexpected?
I reached out to some pretty awesome EMLA (Erin Murphy Literary Agency) authors and asked them what they wish they’d known as they approached their debut release and what advice they would give to those of us stocking up on anxiety. I hope you will get as much out of their responses as I have.

What about that title? Jeannie Mobley, author of KATERINA’S WISH (McElderry, 2012) pointed out that authors often lose a beloved original title during the pre-release revision process. Your book will be around for a long time, so it’s important to negotiate, with your editor, a title that you will be proud of. Mike Jung, author of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES (Arthur A. Levine, 2012) expands on the notion, encouraging authors to be prepared “by writing up some alternative versions that you’ll be able to live with.

How about those blog tours? Jeannie Mobley suggests spreading blog interviews out over time, rather than clumping them all into just before and just after the book releases. Especially close to holiday seasons, and award seasons. Janet Fox, author of SIRENS (Speak, 2012) noted the variations in blog styles: “I’ve found the most value for time in doing a creative blog tour. Not just the answer-the-questions kind, but one that maintains a thread or through-line and informs. For my 1920’s historical, I wrote ten posts on different aspects of the 20’s, and got a huge response.”
Natalie Dias Lorenzi, author of FLYING THE DRAGON (Charlesbridge, 2011) says, “If your time is limited, be choosy about which blogs you agree to provide interviews for, and pay close attention to the audiences they reach. For YA writers, blogs that reach book club facilitators, readers and librarians will give you more mileage… For middle grade and picture book authors, reaching readers via blogs is highly unlikely (there are a few, like

“In my opinion, librarian and teacher blogs are the most worth your time (and I’m not saying this just because I’m both, I promise.) I say this because librarians and teachers are the most likely to get your books into the hands of readers…Think of a blog tour as a chance to make your audience aware of your book. Take a look at who leaves comments on a blog–is it mostly other writers, or do other folks chime in, too?”      Psst…Check out the below list of librarian and teacher blogs that Natalie has shared with us! Awesome, right?

School visits rock, but…- Pat Zietlow Miller, author of SOPHIE’S SQUASH (Schwartz & Wade, 2013) says, “School visits are a lot of fun, but they also are a lot of work in terms of preparing them, conducting them and decompressing afterward.” When she was faced with a flood of awkward requests for free school visits, Pat came up with a tactful and professional response similar to this: ‘I love doing school visits! What I charge depends on how long I’m there, how far I have to travel and what type of reading or presentation I do. I’d be happy to talk to someone from the school and see what they have in mind.’
General, but fabulous marketing advice: When it comes to choosing your marketing energies, Cynthia Levinson, author of WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH (Peachtree, 2012) encourages authors to go into the process with eyes wide-open: “I wish I’d known how much time it would all take–blogs, presentations, interviews, videos, library and school visits, trailer, website development, teachers’ guide, conference proposals, multiple trips, articles. It was fun but my recommendation is to figure out what you most like to do and focus on those. Feel free to set priorities, and decline the opportunities that cause you stress or distraction. Your book has value and stands on its own. It’s your publisher’s job to publicize the book. Yours is to write the next books.    “Most of all, enjoy! You deserve it.”

 “I also wish I’d known how many people would ask me, ‘So…where can I get a copy of your book?’ says Pat Miller,  “So I made sure to know which bookstores in town carried it.”

“As far as gigs,” says Jeannie Mobley, “try everything the first time around, see what you enjoy and what you don’t and then pare it down to the things you enjoy doing as you continue to promote (or better yet!) promote your second book.”

What about those reviews? They all agree that it’s a good idea to stay busy and distracted while waiting for reviews to trickle in. Rather than fretting, always be working on another book. Mike Jung reflects on the review process in a humorous way: “Reviews can be a mutant porcupine demon of anxiety. But do not forget how awesome it is that your book is published and how awesome you are for having written it!”

Stress? What stress? “Stock up on chocolate,” says Janet Fox. “Hug your dog. The launch day will come and go and you’ll think, ‘what, no fireworks???’ That’s okay. Your baby is out in the world and you made it happen.”

For the finale to this What to Expect post, Jennifer Nielsen, author of THE SHADOW THRONE trilogy (Scholastic Press, 2012), brilliantly sums up the debut experience with a healthy mix of optimism and realism.
Keep your expectations in scale. Some debut books are breakout hits (Divergent, for example), but most aren’t. For most debut books, the Amazon rank won’t skyrocket upon release, or if it does, it’ll slowly fall to a more average number. Most don’t hit the bestseller lists or take home the big awards. Most debut books won’t garner requests to speak at conferences, or even at schools outside of your home area (if that). And I sometimes think we believe that if our debut doesn’t do all of that, that it’s a sign we’ll forever be mid list, or that we’ll never be “big.”

It’s just not true. Don’t let yourself become discouraged. These things only mean that it’s your debut book and it takes a long time for word to get out about an author, even if the publisher is doing mad publicity for you, and even if all the reviews are glowing. The fact that you are finally a published author is HUGE and amazing and wonderful, but don’t be distressed if the world continues revolving as usual on your release day. You might find your book on an end cap at B&N, or not. Don’t worry if half your family doesn’t get around to reading it for a while, or if your kids’ school doesn’t ask to host your launch party for the whole school to attend.

The #1 best thing you can do for your first book is to write and sell your second. Every book raises your profile, which is particularly important with young readers because once they find a book they love, they go on a search to see what else that author has written. Do everything you can to get the word out pre-release, but put your best attention on your next project.

Everyone has to start somewhere. Publishing is like climbing a mountain. There’s no single trail to the summit, and always a higher summit waiting once you reach the one you were aiming for. The only thing that matters is you keep climbing, and with each book, you will. Let go of any worries about where you are on the mountain – because we’re all just climbing too – and just enjoy the climb, as every author should.
Many thanks to Natalie Dias Lorenzi for sharing her favorite teacher and librarian blogs below:
K-5 Librarian:
3rd Grade Teacher:
Elementary School Librarian:
Public Librarian (who is now a stay-at-home mom as of a few months ago):
Children’s school librarian:
Mother/Daughter Book Club:
Public Librarians for YA:
Youth services librarian:
Two teachers:
* Former teacher, current coordinator of instructional technology:
* Two teachers of reading (high school):
* These last two blogs co-host a meme called “It’s Monday–what are you reading?” that draws in lots of librarians and teachers, so check out their links each Monday and read the comments.

Note: This post originally appeared on on 4/3/2014.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

We Are Enough-With or Without Awards

It’s February now which means the two most celebrated events of the year have passed. What did I think about the commercials? Meh! But, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation, rooting for my favorite players.  Yes, indeed! (Oh, and I hear Super Bowl was pretty good, too.)

The ALA media and book awards featured some impressive titles this year. If you’ve been around the writing scene for any length of time, you know how much stock goes into earning a gold sticker. The bragging rights, the added publicity, the bonuses. Bully for winning authors and illustrators! Now, raise your hand if you’ve ever fantasized about being on the receiving end of one of these fancy-schmancy awards. Go ahead, don’t be shy. It’s human nature for “what ifs” and “if onlys” to dart through our minds when peers reach a pinnacle. Envy is empathy’s first-cousin, twice-removed. They will both show up to public gatherings.

 There’s a big ole risk to paying too much attention to awards, though.  It would be easy to fall into thinking that we are not enough without one. But, at the end of the day, the most important judges are young readers and they’re not looking for award lists. They just know what they like. Sometimes, the books they love and need reside in a different county from the awards table. Those books will inspire and give hope to young people. Some will be life-preservers. So, while award winners and honorees are announced, let’s give a mighty salute to the books, authors, and illustrators who are not mentioned. Gold stickers would be awesome, but our best heart-felt works are enough. We are enough.

 I’m always reminded of a line from the 1993 Disney flick, Cool Runnings, loosely based on the first Jamaican bobsled team to pursue the Olympics. The coach, Irv, is asked by a team member about his own early mis-steps in pursuit of Gold.

“Derice,” Irv says, “a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”

“Hey, Coach,” Derice asks. “How will I know if I’m enough?”

“When you cross that finish line tomorrow, you’ll know.”
Cool Runnings
In my mind, out ultimate finish line is our books in a child’s hands.

Just for the heck of it, I asked auntie Google the greatest related question ever asked in the history of the world. Why do writers write? Turns out, there are lots of opinions. One website, Authors Promoter, apparently polled 100 published authors. They posted their statistics: 15% of authors write to express themselves, 13% write to help others, 8% write because of their imagination, 6% write because they were influenced by authors they read, etc. You can check out the full pie-chart here, but may I just say that I like that last category.

Auntie Google was such a hoot, I pulled a few craft books off my shelves and thumbed through to find more answers to that question, why do you write? Thankfully, I read with a highlighter in hand, so these stand out quotes were easy to find.

Journalist/novelist, Joan Didion states, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”  

Smart lady, that Joan.

In her book, What’s Your Story? Marion Dane Bauer writes, “Stories help us to make sense of our world. They teach us what is possible. They let us know that others before us have struggled as we do.”


“The first and best reason for writing stories is to please yourself”
F. Scott Fitzgerald saw writing as a leap of faith when he professed,  “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

 Amen, sister!

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King reveals, “I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side- I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
And, as if coaching writers from afar, King adds a lesson about passion:

 “You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair-the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”

I think John Erickson, author of the Hank the Cowdog series best sums up the importance of motivation in his book, Story Craft:

 “It often happens that when we try to write something “important” such as a novel, story, or poem, we become self-conscious. We try to be profound and authorial. We concentrate on the elegance of individual sentences and forget that all writing is a communication between one person to another.”
So, there you go. It’s just us and the readers we are communicating with. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s quite enough.

This post originally appeared on the Emus Debuts blog, February 17, 2014.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A SALE! En Garde! Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words

A funny thing happened on the way to my publishing career. I spent years wishing, hoping, praying that I would one day see a book on the shelf with my name on the spine. I spent a small fortune on classes, workshops, conferences, and craft books. I read a bazillion books and talked to a whole bunch of professionals about writing and about their success. Those years piled up.

Today, I'm thrilled to announce that Peachtree Publishers has acquired my FOURTH book, En Garde! Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words. I couldn't be happier.

Some of you may be shaking your head thinking, not another Lincoln book. I can assure you, this is an angle on Lincoln that you have never heard before. He made a great big naughty mistake that threatened his career and his life. He did not let that mistake define him. I hope the book will leave young readers to ponder what would have happened if Lincoln had never been President.

Erin Murphy, Kathy Landwehr, and Cynthia Levinson congratulating me from Boston. I love these ladies.

Coming soon:

Saddle Up! Riding and Competitions for Horse Lovers (Capstone, 2014)

From Head to Tail: All About Horse Care (Capstone, 2014)

Step Right Up: The Story of Beautiful Jim Key (Lee & Low, 2015)

Engarde! Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words (Peachtree, TBD)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Letting Go: A Cautionary Tale for Control Freaks

originally posted on the Emu's Debuts blog.

I’m reflecting on the surprising angst that followed my book contract. The angst of letting go.
See, I love the inventive stage of writing. Don’t get me wrong, writing is damn hard. But, I love that evolving sense of possibility when worlds and characters spin out of thin air and land as words on the page. Imagination is magic. Even in nonfiction. From the moment I began writing my debut, STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY, I occupied the story. All writers do this. Before we can add depth and motion to our words, writers visualize until our stories unfold movie-like on the big screen of our mind. We are all eager to control the script and staging. We like telling our characters what to do, what to wear, how to stand. If we can’t visualize it, we can’t write it. In the case of nonfiction, it’s about telling the truth and filling in gaps. Sometimes, that means converting 125-year-old images from two-dimensional, dingy black and white to Technicolor. In panorama. And in 3D.

While writing, the world on the page is mine, mine, mine!

I am in control. Mwahahaha!

Until I am not.

My editor had suggestions on STEP RIGHT UP. Lots of them. Some of her suggestions were that I undo some of her suggestions. Add, cut, expand, simplify, redirect, rinse, repeat… In a way, my story became a collaboration. But, as the word weaver, I still felt a sense of control. Sort of.

Until I wasn’t.

Enter, the illustrator.

I am in awe of artists who can press “copy” on their mental printers and, voila! They sketch, sculp, paint, and pixelate their visual imaginings for all the world to see. More magic!  So, I was surprised to be so full of angst as I awaited the illustrator reveal. Seriously, y’all. Angst! And worry. And maybe a tiny speck of panic. 

An illustrator will have his/her own visual interpretation. Their own image of the world Doc and Jim lived in. Their own tinted lens through which the mental movie plays for them. Aaaaack! I found myself playing the “What-if” game. What if the illustrator can’t capture Doc and Jim as I see them? What if his/her art is too silly, too serious, too dark, too light, too cartoony, too portraity, too realistic, too unrealistic?

And, besides, horses are hard to draw. Just ask the people I forced, I mean asked, to draw for me. (Some of these people may be related to me. Except for the tile guy.)
photo copy 5photo
 Arin's horse 8
photo copy 6
Donna horse 1
photo 2
Thankfully, I can be confident that an illustrator will do better. But letting go is hard. As I peruse the books on my shelf, I’m reminded that it takes many creative perspectives to create visually stunning and memorable stories. Magic multiplied. Now, I find that my illustrator angst has given way to excitement. The kind of excitement I felt, not knowing what kind of wonderfulness was wrapped under the Christmas tree. There is a childlike wonder in this anticipation.

I’m ecstatic to announce that Coretta Scott King Honor recipient, Daniel Minter will bring Doc and Jim to life through his spectacular art. Better still, Daniel and I have been communicating. He would like my input. I think I’m in heaven. Check out his work, y’all. My little book baby is in very good hands.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

An Illustrator for STEP RIGHT UP

I am so happy to announce that artist Daniel Minter will be illustrating my book, STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY. It's been a long many months of waiting for this news. Now, I'm just plain giddy.

Daniel Minter is the 2013 recipient of a Coretta Scott King Honor for book illustration, he's also a fine artist of works featured in many galleries, and he's the creator of the 2004 and 2011 Kwanzaa stamp for the U.S. Postal Service. He has accomplished so much and has been involved in so many amazing organizations, I encourage you all to check out his website and his illustrated books.

I'm so very excited to see how he brings Doc and Jim to life through his art.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

It's a Birthday Party, All Year Long. Birthdayographies has Launched

So many wonderful opportunities have come my way in 2013. I sold my first trade book (yay!) I  wrote two books for Capstone, had a revision request from an editor on another trade book, and there's exciting news coming on yet another project. Whew! Busy, busy, busy.

The icing on my professional cake came when my dear friend Anne Bustard approached me with an idea. Her blog, Anneographies, has been very popular over the last five years, thanks to her fun and unique focus on birthdays- specifically, birthdays of historical and iconic subjects of picture book biographies. How cool is that? Well, Anne's focus has shifted more to fiction, so she offered to pass the birthday torch to me. It didn't take me long to consider it.

Come on over to We will celebrate picture book biographies one birthday at a time. Please be patient as construction continues on the site. I'm making a few changes, adding a whole lot of books and birthdays, and beefing up the search options. In time, you will be able to search the blog by person's name, book title, and birthday.

In the meantime, I'll be returning to regular posts on my regular blog soon. Once the deadlines and confetti settle down:)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I've been deep in my cave the last several months, creating books, revising books, and living a hectic life.

Check back December 1, 2013. There will be news to share: About a new blog, an illustrator reveal, and maybe some extra exciting breaking news, too.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Getting "The Call" and How My Contract Took Me Home

I'm honored to have a post on the Emu's Debuts blog today, about how my debut book sale came to be. And how signing the contract became an unexpectedly memorable and emotional event.


Here is that post, in its entirety.

Signing the Contract. Not Your Typical ESPN Moment.

We’ve all seen news snippets, featuring a young football player signing a letter of intent to play for the pros. It’s been a long (cough) four years for him. He walked into the spotlight a doe-eyed kid. He will walk out a bazillionaire with braun and bruises.  Cameras flash all around him. King for the day holds a fifty-cent pen that, with one indecipherable curly-que, becomes a collector’s item. Ta-da! Now he is a professional. People will know his name. He will drive a Ferrari and hire a publicist. He has arrived.

When I first started out on my zig-zaggy journey toward publication, I admit to having my own pie-in-the-sky visions of what it would look like, feel like to get “the call.” Or, better yet, to sign my first book contract. The only evidence I had ever seen of such an event involved unnaturally tidy desks and mile-wide grins. I always snickered jealously that cases of booze and chocolate must have been consumed in the making of those lucky authors. What would it look like when my time came? Would my family and friends gather en masse to watch me carefully pen my official author signature? Would the clouds part while sunlight beamed a cherubic halo around me (the perfect author photo, don’t you think?)  Would I be Queen for the day?

Time has a way of adjusting Pollyanna expectations. Honestly, nobody could have told me how twisty and arduous this journey could be. Maybe it’s enough to know that we change and grow between our Freshman writing stage and our first sale. As the wise Yoda of TV hunks, Ashton Kutcher recently recounted, “opportunity looks a whole lot like hard work.” I agree. But, to add a sentimental spin on the kid-lit topic, I believe our own inner child informs more than we realize.

It’s interesting how having a book newly under contract has thrown me into a nostalgic mood. Partly, I admit, there’s a sense of validation to selling a book.  There, I said it! Finally, I can respond to that blasted non-writer question, “Oh, you’re a writer? What have you written?” Grrr!! And, partly because I’ve realized how my first sale (not the first book I’ve written) has brought me full circle.
You see, despite my current suburban address, I’m still a horse-crazy ranch kid at heart. The best years of my youth were spent training and showing horses. A lot! They were my gentle giants, my first loves, my teachers. In some ways, during those awful teen years, horses saved me. Despite the myriad of other subjects I’ve written about, is it a coincidence that my debut book is about a once-famous horse and the remarkable man who loved and “educated” him? I don’t think so.
Many moons ago, this is what my weekends looked like. Lucky me! Today, “Pee Wee” is 31-years-old.
But I can assure you that my path to publication, like so many, was riddled with lessons disguised as speed bumps.
 Signing with my amazing agent, Erin Murphy, involved a four-year-long, twisty side trip of it’s own. (you can read that story here (Lesson #1- Be brave in approaching agents. And smile.)
 On first submission, my debut book immediately interested three Goldilock editors. One editor thought my picture book biography was too long and suggested I cut it in half. Another editor thought it was too short. She suggested I expand it to a chapter book. The third editor thought it was juuust right (well, sort of.) (lesson #2- Be flexible with revisions)
Two years and four revisions later, the offer came in, and lengthy negotiations began (thank you, Erin and Sam.) Nobody ever warns you about all the waiting involved in this biz. Editors, agents, and acquisitions committees are very busy people. And, as you know, authors just sit around in their pajamas making stuff up, buying cases of booze and chocolate, and crafting ugly sweaters. (lesson #3-Be Patient. Lesson #4- Always be working on another project.)
Oh, lest any romantic notions remained about how “the call” would come, I arranged to be stuck in Austin traffic when Erin called. “We have a deal,” she declared.  I didn’t care what the other drivers thought of my wacky behind-the-wheel-dancing. When they sell their first books, they’ll understand. (lesson #5- Don’t drive under the influence of hysterics.)
ImageWhen the EMLA envelope arrived, I took pictures of it and coddled it like a new baby. Don’t laugh- you might do the same. Inside were four copies of my shiny new contract.  Woohoo! My sweet family doled out just the right praise and I braced for the long-awaited hoopla- my ESPN moment in the spotlight. Where and how would I sign this hard-earned golden ticket to publication? How would I want to remember and document this pivotal moment? Instantly, I knew.
 My husband and son grabbed the camera as I dialed the phone. “Mom,” I said. “I need to come home.”
 My childhood home, where I first fell in love with the choreography of words on the page.
Home, where this zany dream of publication first trotted into my naïve young mind.
Home, where love, and land, and horses built me.
 I plopped myself onto various grassy patches, favorite purple pen in hand. While some very special old friends nuzzled over my shoulder and through my memories.  They seemed to approve.
 It was all the hoopla I needed.
A special moment with my late father’s 37-year-old stallion.
“Kat” stamped his seal of approval. Mine may be the only contract with a hoof print.
Donna Bowman Bratton’s debut nonfiction picture book, tentatively titled STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY, will be released in 2015, by Lee & Low Books.
Donna confesses to being a sentimental sap who has relied on chocolate (not booze) during the writing of this book and the many that will follow.