Monday, September 23, 2013

10 books - how did that happen?

Tomorrow my tenth book is officially released. Here they are, in order of publication.

BABY CAN'T SLEEP (Picture book, Sterling, 2005)
I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME (YA novel, Simon Pulse, 2008)
FAR FROM YOU (YA novel, Simon Pulse, 2009)
CHASING BROOKLYN (YA novel, Simon Pulse, 2010)
IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES (MG novel, Aladdin, 2010)
LITTLE CHIMP'S BIG DAY (Picture book, Sterling, 2010)
THE DAY BEFORE (YA novel, Simon Pulse, 2011)
SPRINKLES AND SECRETS (MG novel, Aladdin, 2011)
FALLING FOR YOU (YA novel, Simon Pulse, 2013)
FROSTING AND FRIENDSHIP (MG novel, Aladdin, 2013)

Ten! How did that happen? Although it would be fun to say little elves came to my desk every night and magically wrote stories for me, that did not happen.

No, it happened through hard work and perseverance, plain and simple. Oh, and lots of tea and cookies.

Today I thought it would be fun to take a look back and see how I got to this place where I am now a full-time author making a living doing that which I always dreamed of doing - writing books for kids and teens.

I started writing seriously way back in 2000 and 2001. Yes, I know, it was so long ago. And in case you're wondering, there were computers back then, thank goodness.

The first thing I ever wrote was a chapter book, because my oldest son was in second grade at the time and we had a hard time finding things he wanted to read. He loved the MAGIC TREE HOUSE books, but that was about all I could find that he enjoyed. I thought - we need more chapter books, especially for boys! So I wrote one, because, hey, how hard can it be? Ha - turns out, very hard. Turns out it's one of the hardest things to write. But I was stupid and I didn't know that, so I wrote a pretty bad, pretty weird chapter book. During the time that I was writing it, I was also finding out everything I could about the publishing industry. Back then, there was a message board at where I gathered lots of information about the industry, and ordered books they had on the subject as well. A few years later, Verla Kay put a message board up on her site, and everyone kind of gravitated there. It's still in place today ( although I think it's merging with the SCBWI message boards soon.

I found a critique group through the writeforkids site and that was really helpful in my early days of writing. I ended up being a member of some different groups through the years, and I learned so much from the various writers I met in those groups.

It's true what they say - you don't wake up and decide you want to be a brain surgeon and make it happen in a month or two, just like you don't wake up and decide you want to be an author and make it happen in a month or two. Writing a book that is good enough to be traditionally published takes *most* people years and years of practice. Of course there are exceptions to that rule (pretty sure those people have magical unicorns as pets or something), but I wasn't one of them.

After the lousy and weird chapter book, I focused more on picture book stories. Back in the early 2000's, many of the houses who publish books for children were still open to submissions from authors. In other words, I didn't need an agent to submit to editors, and so, submit I did. And I racked up a lot of rejection letters. I still have a file folder with many of them, as a matter of fact. Is this a little bit like a soldier showing you his battle scars? Yeah, kind of. I "battled" with the publishers, and here are the letters to prove it.

If you look closely, you can see the letterhead from houses like FS&G, Little Brown, Dial Books for Young Readers, etc. Yes, back then, submissions were done through the mail, and the author was required to include a SASE for a response back. I SWEAR WE HAD COMPUTERS, young people reading this and shaking your heads. Publishing is just slow to get with the times. Every day I'd go to the mailbox, wondering if there'd be an envelope there waiting for me. It was usually NOT a good thing to get a letter back, because everyone knew good news came via a phone call. But it was hard not to hope for a letter. If I was really lucky, I'd get a personalized response with encouraging words about the story. Every author hoped for something along the lines of, "I'd be happy to see manuscripts of yours in the future." I remember one rejection letter said, "Although this doesn't quite fit our list, I would encourage you to keep writing. You're very talented." I practically framed that rejection letter, let me tell you.

I was lucky in that I had words of encouragement from editors, both in person at conferences and in those letters, throughout those early years of rejection after rejection. I am so thankful to those people now who took the time to do that.

Here's a letter with the date, so you can see it really was over ten years ago that I began this strange yet wonderful journey. Please ignore the title of the book mentioned. It's gotta be a mistake. I mean, come on, WHO would write about teddy bears from another planet? Are you even kidding me?

I was working part-time at OHSU in their Human Resources department when I got the call from Sterling letting me know they wanted to publish my picture book story, BABY CAN'T SLEEP. It was a dream come true, getting that call. I still remember talking to the editor at my desk, pinching myself because it didn't seem real. Actually, that's not true. I was so glad the call came that day because I'd been up ALL night the night before with a vomiting child and before that call, I was literally falling asleep at my desk. How could I sleep after that call, right?

I started out writing picture books because I wasn't sure I knew how to write a novel. When I realized how hard it was to really make a career writing picture books unless you were Dr. Suess, I decided I wanted to try and see if I could write a novel. During those years of working part-time, I spent lots of time at home writing bad novels. I told myself they were good, but they were bad. I call those books the Twinkies of my career.

Eventually I took a full-time job at OHSU because we needed the money. I would get up early and write before going to work and write on the weekends when I could. Yes, people who want to write find a way, but it's not always easy. It was never easy. But I did it because I couldn't imagine not writing at that point. (Although I still went to bed every night hoping the magical elves would finally show up).

I look at the years 2004-2007 as my schooling, where I spent my time writing bad novels that would never be published. It's what I had to do to learn what not to do, I think. Things were changing, and it was becoming harder and harder to do anything in the kidlit world without an agent, so I queried agents on and off during those years with my wonderfully crappy novels (because I didn't really know they were crappy, dang it). Finally, in 2007, my wonderful agent, Sara Crowe, took me on and we sold I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME that same year. In 2010, things were getting crazy busy at the day job and with multiple books out and more coming out, I decided to quit my job. It was SO scary, giving up that guaranteed income. I was leaping, and could only hope the net would appear so we wouldn't have to sell the house and live on the street because of this crazy idea that I might be able to write stories about cupcakes and make a living at it.

Well, what do you know? Kids love reading about cupcakes (as is evidenced by the fact that since IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES came out, there are now approximately 4,237 books about cupcakes on the shelves for kids. Pretty sure mine was first. Just saying.)

This can be a hard, frustrating business at times. But it's also so fun, making up stories for a living. Hearing from readers, telling me my books have made a difference in their lives, is incredibly rewarding. Books and stories meant a lot to me growing up - it feels right that I wound up here.

I get asked often for advice on how to become an author. It really comes down to these five things (unless you can find those magical elves):

Read a lot.
Write a lot.
Find ways to learn about craft, through workshops, conferences, critique groups, etc.
Believe you can do it.
Don't give up.

Next year I have three middle grade novels coming out along with a YA novel. In 2015, two more books are scheduled. Will I make it to twenty published books someday?

You can bet your book-loving bippy I will!!


  1. Thanks for sharing, Lisa, from another author who started back in the days when you waited for something in the mailbox, even though you soon realized only rejections came in the mail box.
    Congratulations on your new book. I love cupcakes, so I am going to hunt down your books. :)

    1. Yes, it was like any news was better than no news, so we couldn't wait for the mail to come. And my husband wonders why I still get anxious if we don't pick up the mail every day. Old habits die hard! Thanks for reading, and best of luck to you and your writing!!

  2. I remember SASEs and waiting, waiting, waiting...sometimes a year and a half to hear something. So much better now. You are such an inspiration, Lisa, and a lovely role model. Congrats on your new release AND new sale!

    1. Thanks Caroline!! I remember I got a SASE for I HEART YOU after the book had already been sold. So crazy. :)

  3. This made me smile, Lisa! Congrats on your 10th book (and the 10 or 20, or 30 to come)!

  4. I love your publishing story, Lisa! :) Congratulations on your 10th book!!!

    1. Thanks Melissa. Too bad I didn't have a magical pet unicorn, it would have been much easier. :)