How To Get Your Book Published
S1: My intention as a mother, as a writer, as a lover of books was to surround my daughter with a library that was representative of her life and her upbringing and her family and the love that was going to be surrounding her. And it was near impossible to find.
S2: You’re listening to how to I’m Amanda Ripley. When you write for a living, people are always sending you quotes about writing, some of which are little too painfully accurate, like Ernest Hemingway, he once said, there’s nothing to writing. You just sit down at a typewriter and bleed. Or this line from Christopher Hitchens.
S3: Everyone has a book inside them, which is exactly where I think it should, in most cases, remain.
S2: Ouch. OK, so maybe not everyone should write the great American novel fine. But what about a simpler story like a children’s book?
S4: I’ve had this idea for a children’s book, and I have a manuscript and everything. I’ve been sending it out for the past couple of years, and I just feel kind of stuck.
S2: This is Shanimarie. She teaches first grade at a public elementary school, so she knows what captures the attention of squirmy little kids and what definitely doesn’t.
S4: I know that it’s a good story and a story that needs to be told and heard by other people. It’s something that I don’t want to give up on. And, you know, I need a way to just move the needle. So I figured maybe you guys can help me.
S2: OK, we will. Before we get to that, I’d love to hear, first of all. Tell me a little bit about the story.
S4: So it’s about a little girl named Sarita and her mom moved to the United States when she is like about seven or eight years old. But Sarita is in Jamaica with her dad and her brothers.
S2: In the story, Sarita really misses her mom and finds comfort in the care of Nana, a sort of neighborhood granny.
S4: Nana does this through like her cooking, her food and her gardening, especially when Nana is cooking Joe Chicken, and it helps the reader to get through, you know, the difficulty of not having her mother around her.
S2: She based the book on her own experience growing up in Jamaica.
S4: Yeah, my mother also left when I was young. She migrated and we stayed back. And then when I was, when I was about 11 or 12, we came to the US.
S2: Where did you move to first?
S4: We moved to New Jersey, in Bootle, in New Jersey.
S2: Aha. I know it. Well, I did. I’m a Jersey girl.
S4: Oh, wow. Now it’s funny. When we first arrived in the country, I saw like, you know, the big highways and the lights and all this. And I was just like, Wow. And then you know that while kind of like became sadness because it was it was a bit of a culture shock. You know, I remember specifically my music teacher saying to me, You know, when you sing, I want you to know, I want you to not have your accent.
S2: Shanimarie often found refuge in books.
S4: I was always in the library. That was like one of the things that was like the saving grace for me. And I just remember the librarian saying to me, Are you sure you want to read that book and see? I think it’s a little bit advanced for you, but I just wanted to read everything.
S2: That’s actually a big reason that Shanimarie became a teacher. She loves read aloud time when a really great story works its magic on her kids. One of their current favorites is the children’s book Giraffes Can’t Dance.
S4: Yeah, they loved it because sometimes they have a hard time was like, you know, not being able to do things. And I think it helps them to realize that you have to learn how to do things. Things take time. You know, it takes time.
S2: That’s a lesson that resonates for Shanimarie and the person we brought in to help her Denene Millner,
S1: the stand out to that story is also that Gerald is named Gerald the Giraffe. He has an odd way of dancing and so he doesn’t necessarily dance like all of the other animals in the jungle. And so when he finally hears the the music of nature, specifically the Moon, his knees start knocking and then his body starts swaying. It’s about finding your own rhythm and being your own person and understanding that even if you can’t dance like someone else, you’re still dancing. It’s really a beautiful story.
S2: On today’s episode, how to find your rhythm and your voice, even when other people don’t get it. Denene has written over 30 books. She’s a New York Times bestselling author, and she runs a children’s book imprint at the publishing house. Simon and Schuster, which is full disclosure, the place that published my last two books. Anyway, she has some wonderful advice for Shanimarie and really anyone who wants to write a children’s book or just tell a rollicking good tale to your friends. It reminds me of one other quote this one from the writer Zora Neale Hurston. She said There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.
S5: Stay with us.
S4: All right, ready. Nana’s house was the place to be. She was the matriarch of our community. An old lady who could cook like nobody’s business. Dark, smooth, creamy skin that would make a young girl jealous. Black and white pepper hair. And then over faith that showed her wisdom without wrinkled lines. Her posture is strong and sturdy, like a woman who could not be moved from her conviction and her smell like a mixture of spicy, tasty food and sweet sweat. This was manna. She was the neighborhood granny where all the children found a welcoming home. The soft breeze from her vividly green frank.
S2: When did you decide to write this story to write your own children’s book? How did that come to pass?
S4: Yeah, I think, you know, when I first started teaching, which was like 2008, 2009, a lot of the books they didn’t have like, you know, diverse, diverse characters. And so I always felt like it. You you know what? What would happen if children actually saw themselves in the books that we were reading? Because at the time and at the school that I was working at, we didn’t really have very many diverse books. They were either like animal characters or, you know, white characters.
S1: Oh, for sure. And you know, while it’s better today, in 1999, when I had my first daughter, it was abysmal. I couldn’t just walk into a store and find books that featured characters that look like my daughter. And so fast forward to like two thousand and three or four, and I had about 10 books adult books under my belt by then and just thought it would be cool to write some children’s books, the kinds of children’s books that I would like my to read to my daughters. And I came up with a couple of ideas and my agent shot them around. And you know, the the editors just didn’t get it. They didn’t care about them. They couldn’t identify with the stories that I was pitching. And so they fell on deaf ears. They just went nowhere.
S2: Denene went back to writing books for adults, but she never completely let go of the idea. She started a very popular parenting blog called My Brown Baby and eventually convinced a small publisher in Chicago to let her run her own imprint for children’s books.
S1: And I, I published in 2017 my first five children’s books. Two of them I wrote. One was the book that I had pitched back in 2004, called Early Sunday Morning, and I published it myself. And then I found a couple of other black authors who had stories of their own that were just sitting on their computer that nobody would buy. And I published those, and in my first year, one of those five books, Crown and Ode to the Fresh Cut won a Newbery Honor, a Caldecott Honor, and about five other top of the highest honors for children’s books in the country.
S2: So what do you know there was an audience? Well, you know, there was an audience. You know, I remember when I was a kid going to the library, my mom loved the library and therefore I loved it. And we would just look for that award, that medal in that category. And absolutely. And you’re right, they’re just they were all about white kids, except for like the snowy day, right? Which was great. That’s right. Did you? So it sounds like you noticed this Denene. You notice this void. Denene Can you tell us a little bit about early Sunday morning?
S1: Sure. Well, early Sunday morning is a book about a little girl who is going to have her first church solo, her big church solo, where she has to stand up in front of the entire congregation and sing a song. And while she doesn’t have a problem singing at home, standing up in front of a bunch of people and singing is a whole nother proposition. And so the book is about the community coming together and helping this little girl stand up straight and sing and to, you know, have the confidence to do so. Very much like what Gerald does and giraffes can’t dance. It’s learning how to sway to your own, you know, beat.
S2: Early Sunday morning is now in its third printing and one of her most successful titles, which leads us to our first insight for an aspiring author. Sometimes editors are right and sometimes they are just wrong. They just don’t know.
S1: Oh yeah. Some of the better editors will write you letters and tell you. Here is why you know this isn’t working for me, or here’s why I’m not going to buy it. Most of them just say no thanks, you know?
S2: Well, pass. Yeah, right? Shanimarie what kind of have you gotten letters like this? Rejection letters?
S4: Yeah, it’s been a while. Usually I just don’t hear back anything.
S2: Right, right. Do you know how many publishers you you’ve submitted it to? Roughly.
S4: I would say it’s at least 50, 50 to 100. At one point I was thinking, Is it the story? Do I need to just change it? But then I thought to myself. I don’t want to change the. The backbone of the story, the meat of the story is dealing with a lot is dealing with immigration, it’s dealing with grief, the, you know, parents separation, you know, they’ll be able to relate to, they’d be able to see themselves in this story and it can help them to understand a little bit better, you know, to feel to feel her, to feel seeing. When I, when I was younger and I was in the library, if I was seeing stories like that like, I’ll be able to better deal with difficult things as a child, you know?
S2: Yeah. So it’s like you’ve written the book you wish you had when you were a kid. Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Denene. I wonder you were also once on the outside looking in with your with your own children story. Any any advice for Shanimarie based on what you’ve heard so far?
S1: Sure. So very rarely do we see mainstream publishers publishing stories out of the Caribbean. And I guess it’s bizarre to me. And and I can’t for the life of me, understand why those markets are not being tapped. And so that’s that may be one of the reasons why, you know, it’s it’s it’s just a very hard and untapped market with so much potential. And it’s a story that. Most people don’t necessarily understand. Right? It’s like, I get it, you know, your mother has to make a sacrifice, a humongous sacrifice to leave her children behind so that she could open up a way to make a better life for them.
S2: Yeah. And but we are talking about. I mean, if I have this right, something like four million Caribbean immigrants residing in the United States right now and 45 million immigrants overall. So it’s actually not a small market because correct me, if I’m wrong, Denene, you can have a bestselling book and sell, you know, 30000 copies, right? I mean. Yeah. So those numbers are actually, you know, not small given the potential market, right?
S1: Absolutely, absolutely. For instance, last year I published a book called If Dominican were a Color. It is literally set in the Dominican Republic, and it’s about it’s a gentle story about colors that speaks to all of the the beauty of the colors of skin and compared them to all of the beauty of colors and nature in Dominican Republic. It’s really a gorgeous book. And, you know, I wasn’t afraid to to publish. I thought it was beautiful, and that book has done so well in stories. So well.
S1: And it is one of the top selling picture books right now on target. And so with surrealist flight, I think that it’s a really beautiful book, but there are technical things that you need to work on. Okay.
S2: When we come back, Denene gives a masterclass in what makes a great children’s book and how Shanimarie can get hers off the ground. Stick around. We’re back with writer and publisher Denene Millner and Shanimarie, author of a manuscript called Serena’s Flight.
S4: Rita then said while standing in Nana’s garden nana, these flowers remind me of my mama. Yes, the Rita, I planted this garden and your mom is planting a garden for you. What do you mean, Nana?
S1: So there are two things that I love that stood out in this story that I thought were really beautiful. One was Nana and Sarita cultivating the garden and Nana saying that the same way that they’re cultivating the flowers and how beautiful they are and they’re growing is the same thing that the mother is doing while she’s off away working and trying to make a way for her daughter. So I really love that, and I really loved the comparison of chicken that jerk chicken marinating to a mother’s love for her child and a child’s love for her mother, marinating and growing and becoming more seasoned. I think that those are the two concepts that you need to build up.
S4: All right now,
S1: when you’re when you’re thinking about your your book, you have to think of it in terms of what you see on the page versus what you see in the words. And so it’s really hard to write a children’s book because you have about tops 700 words to work with, right? And you have to tell the whole story beginning, middle and end in that 700 words. And so to buy yourself more words, you have to think about the story that an illustrator can tell. And so you spend about half of the story or about a third of the story explaining what Sarita looks like and what Nana looks like. All of that is something that can be done by the illustrator and operation more words write and see. And I think that that is one of the things that rookie children’s book writers do not necessarily understand.
S2: Here’s another tip, and it’s kind of the opposite of what most writers are told instead of show. Don’t tell tell. Don’t show the illustrator in a children’s book does most of the showing so your text doesn’t have to?
S1: I think that was really, really helpful for me was to take 14 sheets of paper and fold them in half. You literally are creating a children’s book. When you do that, right? He tries and your hand. And then you take each one of your lines and you put it on each one of those pages and then you can see the pacing of your story.
S4: Oh, that makes
S1: beginning to end, right? Because when I’m looking at your your story, it’s paragraphs. That’s not the way that you would see a children’s book, right? You don’t have paragraphs. You see it and lines on one page, two lines in the next page illustrations, you know, illustrating those lines. And so that’s the way that you need to present it to an editor.
S2: Tom, my goodness. So I mean, are you even supposed to know this?
S2: I mean, I know that.
S1: Yeah, yeah. So if you if you put it into. The correct format for them that sort of makes them, you know, more more prone to read it, but more importantly, it helps you pace your story, right? And it helps you see your words on the page and it helps you understand beginning, middle and end and how a child would see that story progressing. And I promise you, if you take your your words exactly as you wrote them and you divvy up over those twenty pages, you’ll see every mistake you made. I believe that
S4: I promise you will see
S2: them. Yeah. You’re saying like, first of all, the illustrations really matter, and they do a lot of the work for you and 700 words. I mean, my God, I wrote emails to my editor that are longer. The writing is actually much, much harder to write short and to write long. And yes.
S1: And, you know, think about a child who doesn’t know how to read. Picking up a book and not knowing what the words say or mean. What are they looking at to get to know what that story is? They’re looking at the illustrations and illustrations can tell the story just as beautifully as your words can. OK, so I have one more thing that I want to say, and that’s about the actual story. So we need to understand who Serena’s mother is to her, right? That’s never really explored in the story. We know what Nina means to Serena, but we also need to understand what Serena had in her mother so that we can understand the loss right when her mother goes away. Remember a child with need to understand, you know, like, well, who was Serena’s mommy to her? Did she like her hair? Was she? Does she think that she was pretty? Did she like to cuddle up with her in the morning? Did her mother cook jerk chicken? And she really loved it? And so now we understand what she what was lost?
S4: I see.
S1: And then perhaps and this is and this is a this is a black thing. This is a Caribbean thing. This is an African thing. Nana can be a little harsh, right? Like Nana’s like, Hey, your mom is like your mom is over there and she’s got a job and she’s going to do it. OK, so eat this jerk chicken and be OK
S2: with that, right? Sure.
S1: But for the sake of a children’s book, it cannot be, Hey, your mom is in America. She’s working and she’s building something there. So, you know, eat this jerk chicken and go nuts. That is not going to fly in a children’s book. And so there needs to be maybe a little bit more gentleness. And so Amanda needs Nana needs to relay that. She understands that this baby is hurting.
S4: Does that make sense? Yes, definitely. It makes sense.
S2: Here’s another tip. Just like with anything, you want to try out your product with its intended audience, so make sure you read your story to a group of actual kids who should theoretically love it. Notice when you lose their attention, notice which characters they love and which ones they distrust. Is that what you intended? Luckily for Shanimarie, she has a built in focus group, which she sees every day in her own classroom. Do you think that the ending needs to wrap up in some tidy Hollywood way?
S1: I don’t think that it necessarily has to wrap up any in a big Hollywood way, but I would love to see Mommy. Maybe it’s eating the food with Nana and then mommy calls. You know, this is the big kind of reunion over the phone, and she recognizes that there is a relationship that needs to be built in a different kind of way. You know, but a child needs to see her mother. A child needs to feel her mother. So I know Disney kind of kills off all the moms, but you don’t see in your book, OK?
S2: You know, one take away. For me, at least, is writing a children’s book is hard. I mean, do people underestimate how hard it is, Denene?
S1: I really do believe they do. I think people misunderstand and underestimate how difficult it is to write. Period.
S2: This is key. Writing is hard. I don’t think it’s going to be easy just because it’s a children’s book. A lot of friends of mine, they try to write a book and find out it’s a lot harder than they thought. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, though. It just means that you shouldn’t do it in isolation. That’s a bad idea. So get some help from a writers group or, if at all possible, a book agent.
S1: I will say that at the mainstream publishers or the top five that mostly editors won’t read your work unless you come to them with an agent. Some editors don’t mind unsolicited work. I’m one of those editors, but I’m rare. The beauty of an agent is that agent knows the lay of the land and who is looking for what like agents know not to come to me with stories about slavery or the civil rights movement or black firsts. Because, quite frankly, I feel like the landscape is already saturated with stories about Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman and Muhammad Ali. And I don’t need to, you know, do any of those stories here. They also know that I am very much into stories about the humanity of black children. Very much like your story.
S2: If you’re serious about pitching an established publisher, look online or ask around to find reputable agents who have sold children’s books like yours before. You can even try to reach out to an author you love and see if they can tell you who their agent is. If that doesn’t work, consider self-publishing. It’s easier to do today than ever before. But it does put the onus for the production, marketing and distribution on your shoulders, and Shanimarie is key as she’d rather leave all of that to the publishing house.
S4: So the last question would be like, OK, once I make the changes and I do all that, how do I know, OK, like I’m ready to start submitting again?
S1: Well, that’s the underbelly crappy side of this, right? You just don’t know until you you get it to the right editor who sees the vision and says yes.
S2: And here’s our last insight it takes an unreasonable amount of perseverance if you really want to get your story out into the world. But if it makes you feel any better, J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter synopsis was famously rejected by every major publishing house in the UK.
S1: Wow. And she just kept at it and kept changing and kept editing and kept writing until she got that. You know that? Yes. And look at the girl now. So I think your question Shanimarie really should be so Denene. Your email address. So when I finished this, how do I get that to you? That’s what it should be, girl. That’s what I would have been going.
S2: Oh, you, buddy.
S4: OK, yeah, that’s my next question. OK. You go.
S1: There you go. That’s what I’m talking about. So how do we hang up? I will make sure that I get that information to you. This is a story that I would that I would absolutely love to see. Once you go back and you edited it and you retool it. I would absolutely love to see this story.
S4: Oh, wonderful, wonderful, big. Thank you for the push for to tear the pieces apart. This was her heaven on Earth, Nana. Watch Sarita with a smile and knew she was comforted for that moment. The reader longed for this feeling of belonging to a mother. But Nana would always tell her, You might I love you even though she’s not here.
S2: Thanks to Shanimarie for sharing her story with us and to Denene Millner for all her great advice. Be sure to look for all of her books, from Easy Sunday Morning to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Written with Will Smith. Before we go, we got an update from Shanimarie.
S4: So I definitely took Denene feedback into consideration. And one of the ones that were really helpful was taking paper and putting all the sentences in that book, which really helped to improve the flow of the story. So I’m really grateful that I was on the show and I sent her the updated manuscript, so I’ll see what she has to say.
S2: Thank you, Shanimarie. That’s great news. We look forward to getting advance copy of your book one day soon. Do you have a story that needs to be told or a dream deferred? Send us a note at how to at Slate.com or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one and we might have you on the show if you’re a regular listener of how to. The best way to support this show is by joining Slate Plus Slate’s membership program. Signing up for Slate Plus helps us help all the people you hear on our podcast every week. It’s only $1 for the first month, and members will never hear another ad on our podcast or any other Slate podcast. You’ll also get free and total access to Slate’s website. Plus, you’ll be supporting this important work, so I hope you’ll join if you can. Again, it’s just $1 for your first month. To sign up now, go to Slate.com Slash How to plus again, that Slate.com slash how to pass How TOS executive producer is Derek John Rosemary Belson produces the show. Our theme music is by R.A. Brown, remixed by Mariah Jacob, our technical director. Special thanks to Amber Smith. Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.