How I Became a Middle Grade Author: It’s Not a Lone Pursuit | Guest Post by Jeff Anderson
This month, we are absolutely thrilled and honored to have the Jeff Anderson blogging here at Write.Share.Connect. Below, Jeff shares the process of writing and publishing his first middle-grade novel, Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth (Sterling, 2015).
By Jeff Anderson
I started writing for children in 1994.
Yep, that’s right. I know. It’s 2015. But every writer eventually wants to be published, and the good news is, in August I will celebrate the release of my first middle-grade novel, Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth (Sterling, 2015). It took me a winding road of over 20 years, but it happened…after a lot of practice.
Back to the summer of 1994: After teaching fourth grade for my third year, I made it my business to submit a mostly autobiographical novel, Leaving Familiar, to a publisher. And I did–to exactly one publisher. They kindly said it didn’t match their list. Next I thought I’d revise it, but my work changed and I moved, so I did revise off and on for a year or two. Then I started an adult memoir, Tethered, and later I tried my hand at picture books. A few sent. A few rejected. Then in the early 2000s, I started writing professional books for teachers and publishers, so I abandoned writing fiction and instead changed my focus to nonfiction for several years.
After a few years of success at nonfiction writing, I was at a teacher conference. I sighed and confided,“I wish I would get back in to my writing for children.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I let my desire be known to the right person, Lola Schaefer. If you don’t know Lola, she’s written over 200 books for children (Mittens, Frankie Stein, Just One Bite, and It’s Me, Clover). And for some unknown reason, Lola took me under her wing. A group of us started meeting every year (PA’s own talented Linda Oatman High, author of December, among them.)
At our first writing retreat in 2004, I returned to Leaving Familiar ten years later. But rather quickly I abandoned it for a new voice: Zack. The book poured out. I used some of my experiences as a child, but these were threaded in with the daily school life I witnessed teaching grades 4-8 in elementary and middle schools for over 20 years. I knew the problems middle grade children faced. The inner city children I taught in middle schools in San Antonio became the fabric of Zack Delacruz.
Other important things happened along the way. Back in 1997, Kathi Appelt, Newbury Honor and National Book Award nominee, (before she was any of those things) had told me about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. (SCBWI). Kathi suggested I go to a local chapter meeting. Her little shard of advice kept me returning to SCBWI over and over—sometimes years in between.
At SCBWI conferences and meetings, you hear about the biz, the do’s and don’ts. You meet editors and agents and hear firsthand what they need from you as a writer. Often they allow submissions right after the conference—access that is generally hard to get. Larger conferences also often offer at an additional fee—around 30 bucks—for a working editor to read the first ten pages of your novel or picture book. I used that service exactly three times. The first time I got someone from a large NYC publisher, who wanted to see the rest of the novel. After a year of waiting, it didn’t work out. I remember the deflating news because it came the week my dog died. That stung, but now I knew, “the one more phone call theory.” The difference between success and just wishing for it is making one more call. To me that means do the next right thing, even when you are tired and don’t really want to. Keep trying.
I researched agents, queried them, and even paid a fee again at yet another SCBWI conference for an agent to critique my work (This was the second time, and it was awful. The agent was dismissive and disinterested.) Undaunted, I went on. Okay, I was a little daunted.
It just so happened that our once a year writing retreat happened the same week as a huge Midwest SCBWI meeting. (Thank you Heather Miller, author of This is Your Life Cycle and Subway for telling the group.) At that conference, I finally met my editor from Brett Duquette who helped me share Zack and his quirky friends with the world.
The moral is: It can happen, but you probably have to write one more story, send it one more time, to one more place– until it does. And keep writing the whole time because if you do, you will get better. As Tom Romano once said to me, “If your passion is real, you’ll find the time to write.” It turns out, he was right.
Bio: Jeff Anderson writes and lives in San Antonio, TX. When he’s not writing, he’s talking about writing to students and teachers across the US, and sometimes New Zealand. Jeff hopes all writers will make time to write their stories, the sooner the better. Follow Jeff on twitter @writeguyjeff or find him on the web at writeguy.net. If you’re interested in the world of Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth, see your independent bookseller or pre-order on amazon.com, bn.com, or indiebound.com.