“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”