Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Love-Hate (Ok, Mostly Hate) Relationship With Rejections, Plus What I've Learned Along The Way - by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

I've been getting rejections for many years. They started with form letter rejections that came via snailmail. Even after I started making money with nonfiction sales, I still continued to receive rejections....not just for some of my nonfiction, but also for my fiction.

Fast forward to SCBWI-LA in 2010, when a rejection made it possible for me to get my first children's book contract. I'll always be grateful to Justin Chanda and Simon & Schuster Children and Michael Ian Black for giving me a chance (see my post in defense of "celebrity books"). Illustrating I'm Bored has opened up so many opportunities for me, both as a writer and an illustrator.

It drives me a little crazy when people call me an overnight success, partly because of my many years of rejections but mostly because it sends the wrong message to others who are still struggling to get published. I believe there is no such thing as an overnight success. Whether it's through working hard on your craft, investing money and time to meet people in the industry, building up life experiences and your ability to convey the essence in writing and/or's a gradual process.

There are so many things I wish I could tell my younger self about what I've learned (and will be sharing some of these in my keynote at SCBWI-Montreal this October), but here's my positive take on rejections.

Why I'm grateful for rejections:

I may not have been grateful at the time but in retrospect, I'm glad for those earlier rejections. And while rejections still hurt when I get them, I have a better understanding of why they can be useful. Some of the reasons:

- Rejections help make me more resilient and better able to handle criticism and feedback. The more rejections I received (and I've received MANY), the thicker my "sensitive and insecure creative type" skin became over the years. It hurt like crazy, of course, and there were times I felt like giving up. I took some breaks.  In order to have a successful longterm career, however, I needed to learn how to get past the immediate ego-hurt/defensiveness and take an objective look at the criticism and feedback. Plus one of the editors was kind enough to take the time to give me detailed feedback on how to make my mss stronger...although she still ended up rejecting it, I learned so much that I can use for my other writing projects.

- Looking back, I realize that if those rejected pieces/works had been published, it would not have been good for my longterm career. I am a much better writer now. I've also learned how important a debut book can be. It's not enough to just get published (at least not for me); I want to make a longterm career from writing and illustrating books for young people. This means ONLY sending out projects that I believe in 100%, that I'd be proud to see on the bookshelves, that I'd be excited to promote.

- Rejections make me better appreciate any successes that come my way. Yes, it would have been cool to have my first MG novel published by the first publisher that my agent and I chose for submission. Or my second.  I've actually written a third but never ended up sending it out because I realized it just wasn't strong enough. When I eventually start getting my novels published (yes, I said when), I will not only be a stronger writer but I'll also be soooo much more appreciative.


Give yourself one day to wallow in self-pity, max. But then put it behind you and move on.


Be wary about how you post about your rejections online. If you want to post about it publicly, do so with grace. Posting in anger or whining self-pity helps no one, makes you look unprofessional and is self-destructive. Rejection is part of the business, before AND after you're published. Work on developing a thicker skin if your goal is a longterm career as a writer.

A better idea: to find a small group of writers you trust (like the MiGwriters!) and commiserate with them privately instead.


Rejections suck. Instead of letting them beat you down, make them work to your advantage. Think longterm, always look ahead.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi writes and illustrates for young people. Her illustrations appear in I'M BORED (NYTimes Notable Children's Book 2012, Simon & Schuster BFYR) and NAKED! (Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2014) written by Michael Ian Black. Other upcoming projects include books with Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Random House. Her blog for children's book writers/illustrators: Twitter: @inkyelbows.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Self-Pub Boom: Asking the Vets

With the explosion of e-reading, self-publishing e-books is becoming a popular way for writers to get their stories into the hands of readers faster and more frequently than the Big Five publishers. But is it for you? I asked two talented kidlit authors who have self published books I love about their experiences. I gave them both the same questions: why did you decide to self-publish and what surprised you about the process?

First up, Lisa Tiffin, middle grade author. Lisa is a freelance writer and children’s author who lives in Upstate New York with her husband and twin sons. Her work has appeared in the Democrat & Chronicle, Chicken Soup for the Soul, TWINS, WOW! Women On Writing and other magazines. Theft of the Star Tracker is her first novel for young people. Her website is

Lisa says, "I always thought self publishing was a great option and had been thinking about putting one of my books out there to test the waters. Theft of the Star Tracker was actually under contract once upon a time with a small publisher (fortunately we parted ways as the recession forced them out of business!). I learned a lot from that experience, and I realized that I might just be able to do what they were doing on my own."

"It took a couple of years of reading about self publishing – everything from blog posts to magazine articles to books – for me to make the move, but I finally felt like self publishing could be a viable option for me. I think for me self publishing is a way to get my work into the hands of readers, rather than let it languish in a drawer or the in-box of another editor or agent. I’ve had good response and feedback on Theft of the Star Tracker, but because it includes sports as well as science and technology, lots of people weren’t sure where it fit in the market. I’m hoping that by self publishing it, the right readers will discover it and eventually enjoy the entire series."

So what was the surprise? "How fun it is to check sales, rankings and comments each day! Okay, seriously, the thing that surprised me the most about the process of self-publishing is how easy it really is. There are so many options and ways to publish that it really is a matter of choosing the best option for you and committing to it. Once I made the decision, asked for help and advice from people who had gone through the process, it was really a matter of hitting send!"

"Some people will warn you off self publishing because it is too much work or is so expensive, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are options that fit what you want. For example, I didn’t want to learn all the technical aspects of formatting an e-book, so I found someone to do the work for a reasonable rate. On the other hand, I enjoy marketing, so I work a little bit each day to find new avenues to get the word out about my book rather than pay a PR firm. That flexibility of choice and sense of control might just be the best part about self publishing."

Deena Lipomi ( grew up in western New York with an older sister, younger brother, and parents who encouraged the creation of fictional worlds. She has a BS in Creative Writing and Communications from SUNY Brockport, and a Masters in Library Science from the University at Buffalo. By day she works as a Young Adult Services Librarian in a busy public library, and by night she dives into her novels. Besides reading and writing, Deena is also a fan of traveling, Muppets, Project Runway, and baking gluten free recipes. She lives near her home town with her musician husband and a large number of guitars, computers and, of course, books.You can read her blog here, and read her book reviews here. She might friend you on FaceBook, and she tweets for her library @bmlkidsteens.

Deena says, "Four main things made me decide to self-publish:
1. The YA market is very crowded and hard to break into right now, even if you have a solid manuscript;
2. Blackout is a commercial YA novel with a soft sci-fi element and a sequel, which seems to do well in the current market as self-pubbed e-books;
3. After seven years of working toward publishing MG and YA novels, I wanted to get something Out There so I could move on to my other works and not keep tweaking the same manuscripts; and
4. I'm not getting any younger." (Ouch, she's totally young, don't listen to this point!)

"I still want to be a traditionally published author, but with self-epubbing offering so many opportunities to indy authors, and with readers embracing ebooks and ereaders now more than ever, the time was right for me to set BLACKOUT free into the world.
I'm glad this wasn't a viable option even five years ago because I may have published something that wasn't ready, but I think at this point my craft is strong, my story is tight, and my critique partners helped me get this novel in great shape. BLACKOUT is something I can be proud of and won't wince over in six months."

What surprised her about the process? "How my library colleagues, family, and friends not involved in the publishing industry are so excited to see my book on e-tailer websites and don't care at all that it is self-pubbed and not traditionally published. I don't think a lot of readers outside of the biz see that much difference as long as the cover and formatting of the book look professional. The support has been amazing and I am grateful to everyone who has read the book or told someone else about it."
"I also never thought I'd be excited to have a book trailer, but whether or not they increase sales, it is fun to be able to direct someone to a free 'experience' (viewing a book trailer with cool original music) courtesy of Deena Lipomi. And it is a way to inform people about my book that feels less like I am hocking my wares."

The Blackout trailer is on YouTube at 
Blackout is available at:

Thanks a lot, Lisa and Deena, for answering my questions. Although I don't currently have plans to self-publish, that may change in the future. So I keep asking questions. And I'm glad that people are enjoying both these stories. They're great stories and they deserve readers.

-- Kate

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Creating Characters That Live Outside the Story

I'm not a character-chart kind of writer. I start with a general sketch -- place in the family, names of friends, an interesting hobby or two -- and a few of the character’s  strongest personality traits and skills. Add to that something the character wants and then I get writing. I mostly find out more about my characters through their reactions to situations and the other characters as I write.

But lately I’ve been thinking more about building characters that seem to “live outside the story”. To me, this means creating an impression or feeling that characters will live on after you finish reading. You might also have the feeling that these people existed before you jumped into the story. A third part of this is a hint that the characters have other things in their lives besides whatever is going on in the novel plot. Characters that have these rich “beyond the story” lives seem more layered and realistic.
The trick is to find the space in your story to do it, especially if you write middle grade fiction like I do. Some of the strategies I use include:

Memories. When a character goes to a familiar place or sees a familiar person, it might evoke an emotional memory that can give the reader a brief glimpse at events before the story took place. For example, in Kate Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, there’s a brief description of an a humorous event that happened two weeks before the story started, when Gianna’s brother Ian was banned from using his cell phone.

Mention in Passing. Even when the character spends most of their time in experiences and events that are related to the plot of the story, their life seems fuller when other places or events are quickly mentioned without a lot of detail. For example, your plot might not take place at school, but by mentioning school or homework, you create the sense of another part of your character’s life.

Leave a question in the reader’s mind. Most middle grade novels end with all the subplots resolved, especially for stand alone novels. But that doesn’t mean you can’t leave the reader with something to think about. A tiny question or the brief mention of a future event could give the reader a sense of continuity for the characters.
Do you have any good strategies for creating characters that seem to have a life outside your story? We'd love to hear them!