Monday, January 16, 2006

Puppy Cancer -Eve

“Puppy Cancer” has become an inside joke term between Jay, Robin and myself, a euphemism for the things that ALL newbie writers do. Ever notice that at every conference when editors speak at breakout sessions, there is always one person who raises his or her hand and says something like, “I wrote a 53 page funny picture book about a little puppy with cancer and an old lady who nurses it back to health. It’s really good, written in rhyme, I drew the pictures myself, and my grandkids loved it! Do you want to see it?”

That’s right, I said ALL newbie writers have done this type of thing…maybe not this bad. But close. Can you count how many “rules” the newbie above broke? That’s right: 8!

1: No one wants a 53 page picture book (unless you’re Madonna’s agent and you’ve got a Hell of a lot of pull…HA!)
2: Puppies with cancer…not funny. Ever.
3: Old ladies as main characters don’t sell.
4: Rhyme that a newbie describes as “good”…do I even have to go there?
5: Never illustrate your own book (unless you’re David Diaz or some other amazing, ridiculously talented, well-established artist.)
6: No one cares if your grandkids, hairstylist, goldfishes loved it.
7: Do you really think that editors come to conferences to hear book ideas get pitched?…It’s the Anti-Nike campaign…JUST DON’T DO IT!
8: If you have to ask a question at a conference, make it a good one that is applicable to other attendees and the business of writing.

After several years of attending workshops, conferences, and classes, editing, re-editing and submitting manuscripts, and reading/discussing every “How To Write For Kids” book on the planet, not to mention every middle grade, young adult and picture book we can get our hands on, I feel like we’ve passed the “Puppy Cancer” stage and can laugh at our past mistakes (while also politely snickering at the “Puppy Cancer” newbies out there).

Just to prove that I’m laughing at myself as much as I laugh at others, here is my “Puppy Cancer” story:

When I taught First Grade, I spent a lot of time writing stories for my students. After a while, I convinced myself that I was pretty good at it and should be published. So I polished up an early reader chapter book called “Endangered Friends”, about eight walking, talking endangered animals who travel the planet seeking refuge from the hunters, poachers, and trappers who want to kill them. It had it all…talking animals, violence, plenty of overly clichéd descriptions, adverbs and adjectives galore, and to top it off…(DRUMROLL)…My own illustrations! How could editors resist? It was brilliant!

I scooped up a copy of Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, didn’t take the time to actually READ it…after all, I had to get this masterpiece out there for the world to see…and simultaneously submitted to about 50 publishing houses that sounded good. Of course I addressed every cover letter, “To Whom It May Concern”, gushed about how my students just loooved it, and how I would be happy to sell my artwork to them with the manuscript…for the right price. Idiot!

Some returned completely unopened (closed houses, of course). About half returned with form rejections. And the rest are probably being used to wrap fish or line birdcages.

The funny thing about the “Puppy Cancer” stage is that we lived in this fantasy world of self-belief. We’ve all been there…”I love children’s books; how hard can they be to write?” It’s not until we truly start learning the craft that we realize the level of talent, perseverance, and education required. THEN we start doubting ourselves. Because writing for children is frickin’ hard!

The “Puppy Cancer” stage is really fun at first…the wide-eyed attitude and adrenaline rush of finishing a story. The fantasies of seeing your 86 page picture book in the front window of Barnes and Noble…the crowded book signings overflowing with well-wishers and ecstatic children…the congratulatory champagne and caviar parties on P. Diddy’s yacht…Okay, lost myself there in the land of self-belief for a spell.

What’s your “Puppy Cancer” story?
Stay tuned…next week’s blog entry:
“Bunnies With Aneurisms”



Anonymous said...

hey miss,
I just want you to know that my 53-page book about a cancer hospital for puppies will sell despite your criticisms...besides, I went to art school for 2 years, so I am practically a professional illustrator!

Te-he. It's JoanMarie. I love your essay. You are so witty! I think every person who says to me,"Your husband writes children's books? Do you think he would look at the one I wrote about (animal name here) and give me some pointers? The illustrations I've done are very original!" should read your blog too:)

I know your days of puppy cancer and, and the days of P. Diddy on the yacht are quickly approaching! Keep it up, and thanks for making Jay's journey through the churro that much more pleasant!


Anonymous said...

Oh my god! The Endangered Friends book sounds sooooooo awesome. Not puppy cancer at all. I am really fired up to read it, so could you send me a copy? If I like it, you get some gum.


Tonia, a.k.a. "a witty fool" said...

My puppy cancer story:

My first attempt at writing for children once I became seriously interested in doing so as an adult:

I wrote a Dr. Seuss-inspired story in verse (actually, the story doesn't completely suck, so I may redo it in prose and see if it's decent). Anyway, I thought it was wonderful, sharing it with family and gushing about how I was going to send it out to see about getting it published. No visions of P. Diddy, but I did think I was some hot talent.

Several months went by, I was busy, I finished my thesis, etc. Then I started seriously thinking about writing children's lit, so I began researching to find out the "how to" of shopping my "wonderful" story and all the others to come. I read Harold Underdown's _The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Literature_, and I learned all the newbie mistakes not to make (thankfully, before making them!). I kept reading picture books and other juvenile lit, and I drafted a bunch of new material. I think I "accidentally on purpose" didn't have time to get to the "Seussy" story for awhile. When I finally did, I was embarrassed for having written it.

More embarrassing, though, is the note about how I was writing "several children's books in the style of Dr. Seuss"--eek! in the byline for an article I wrote for a friend's company's website). (I've since asked her to remove that note, but I don't know that she can.)

A year+ of research (picture books through YA novels, books on writing, and then, recently, all the SCBWI materials I could handle) later, I feel like I know better. Just because I can rattle off a fun rhyme on almost any topic doesn't mean I should! (And just because I taught a composition course with a "Dr. Seuss" angle doesn't mean my shallow little pastiche--not forced in rhyme, but not truly my own voice--is meant for any editor's eyes!)

p.s. I'm also glad I know better than to send my husband's illustrations with my manuscript, even though they ARE good! ;) It's what every relative assumes I will do ("and Lenny can illustrate it!").

Your blog is cool, y'all. Glad Jay suggested I visit it. Great, now I'll have another on-line addiction to divert me from work. ;)

Disco Mermaids said...

Thanks for your "Puppy Cancer" story, Tonia. I don't think you're a fool, but you sure are witty! I don't know why I get such giddy joy out of hearing these newbie stories, but we all have 'em. I cringed the other day when I was at a baby shower with Jay's wife, JoanMarie, and the girl sitting next to us said, "Oh my God, you write children's books? I just wrote the cutest story about sea creatures and drew the pictures myself...who should I send it to?" Aaahhh...I didn't even give her our blog site address. She'd hate me forever if she read the "Puppy Cancer" post.

Good luck to you, Tonia. And keep in touch...we need more "witty fools" to laugh with!

Hainan said...

Puppy Cancer funny? Why not :-)

These days I also try to tell my less happy cancer story with some added humor.

Best of hugs,

You joke about your cancer?
... You must be sick! :-)
Metastatic Liver Cancer

Anonymous said...

I just so happened to have read the Endangered Friends story and loooved it. I especially loved the way the eagle carried the manatee around with its huge talons! Maybe I'm biased because I looove Evie so much.


P.S. make sure you check your spelling on Bunnies with Aneurysms

Graeme Stone said...

My Puppy With Cancer story is so humiliating and long, but I'll do a synopsis.
Happened to meet producer of Four Weddings & a Funeral through a guy I was dating. Was told not to drop off any materials. Met at the Four Season in NY where I'm sure my Ross Dress for Less wardrobe lowered property values. Come the shake-hands-goodbye moment, I deftly handed him my latest script, which I'm sure he's about to make an offer on. That was 12 years ago, and I still can't go near the door man at the Four Seasons without being sprayed with the fire extinguisher. This was followed by a surreal moment passing Fran Liebowitz right outside the hotel, and confusing her for Annie Liebowitz, which was only topped off when my Pakistani cab driver asked me if I were a man or a woman. Yes, the stake of humility had been driven in so deep I've only recently regained my ability to submit material. Is it ready? I won't know until I'm again refused hotel entrance somewhere.