Rx for Writers


"Rising Above the Slush Pile" with Verla Kay

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Mel: is Mel Boring, moderator of this chat with Verla Kay, and editor of the ICL Web site.

Verla: is Verla Kay, one of ICL's most illustrious graduates. After graduating from the basic, then the advanced course in writing for children, Verla set her sights on publishing for children, and has never looked back. She is the author of seven published children's books, Gold Fever, Iron Horses, Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails, Tattered Sails, Broken Feather, Homespun Sarah and Orphan Train. Plus, Verla has three more soon to be published, Gold Fever (paperback version), Hornbooks & Inkwells and Drummer Boy.

Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails, Verla Kay's first book, was pulled from the slush pile and eventually published in 2000 by G. P. Putnam's Sons. So Verla knows well how to get out of and beyond the slush pile, and will be sharing her out-of-the-slush-pile secrets tonight.

Green shows the usernames of the people who asked questions of Verla Kay.

Interviews are held every other Thursday evening for two hours, beginning at 9 CANADA/ Atlantic Time, 8 Eastern Time, 7 Central Time, 6 Mountain Time, and 5 Pacific Time.

Mel: Hello again to you! We are fortunate to have Verla Kay as our chat guest in the ICL Chat Room this evening. This is the first time for Verla as our guest, and you will find yourself hoping it won't be the last as you listen to and chat with her this evening. Verla Kay is a graduate of ICL's basic course as well as the advanced course, and was right where many of you might be just a few years ago. After graduating from the courses, Verla set a swift schedule for her writing, publishing a book just a short time after her graduation. She is a children's writer, a teacher of children's writing, web editor of her own web site, and frequent speaker both to children and adults. Verla, a WARM WELCOME to our ICL Chat Room!

Verla: Thanks, Mel. I'm thrilled to be here tonight and eager to share whatever I can with everyone.

Mel: Verla Kay, tell us about your name. Is Kay your last name, or middle name, or is VerlaKay all one word?

Verla: That's a fun question, Mel, because I was born Verla Kay Deisenroth, got married and took my husband's last name, then used just my first and middle names for writing. Only after 9/11, when schools made reservations for me to come speak to their students, they were making them in the name Verla Kay and my driver's license had my married name on it, which caused problems. So in January of this year, I legally changed it to Verla Kay.

Mel: "What's in a name?" Shakespeare might've asked, but you've shown there's a LOT in a name! J You've been published for over ten years now. How long before you were first published did you study with ICL?

Verla: I started my ICL course in 1989 and had my first short story published in 1992. My first book was accepted in 1994 and I finally saw a book in print in 1999.

Mel: Did you take more than one ICL course? If so, which courses did you take? And who were your instructors?

Verla: Yes, I took both the beginning course and the advanced one. (At that time they only had the two.) Patricia Calvert was my first instructor (and she was FABULOUS!). I had three instructors for the second course because for various reasons, we kept switching around—but they were all wonderful!

Mel: Was the ICL course instruction helpful to you, not only during the course, but in getting started in publishing?

Verla: Absolutely! I honestly believe I couldn't have gotten where I am today as fast as I did without ICL's helpful instruction. The first course gave me the basics of what makes a good children's story, and the second course augmented that. Plus the courses taught me to write and submit on a regular basis, something I was able to carry over into my daily life when I started submitting to publishers.

Mel: What special advice do you have for students just graduating from an ICL course?

Verla: Pay attention to what you learned. Remember that the most important thing in submitting is to have a GOOD STORY.

Mel: Even before your ICL courses, how did you get started writing for children?

Verla: I didn't write for children before then. As soon as I made the decision to write for children, I started the ICL courses.

Mel: Did you always want to write, even as a child, perhaps?

Verla: NEVER! I hated writing as a child (and as an adult, too!). In fact, I thought I was the "world's worst writer" because I could never write something just once and have it be any good. I was constantly revising what I wrote, and thought that made me a bad writer. It wasn't until I was an adult and took the ICL course that I realized I was actually a very GOOD writer and that my "compulsion" to continually rewrite until I'd perfected what I'd written was what made a good writer.

Mel: WOW! Then the ICL courses really WERE your beginning!

Verla: Yes, they were, indeed.

Mel: How old were you, then, when you started writing?

Verla: I was 43, and at first I thought it was too late for me to start, that I should have started writing years before. Then I realized that in ten years I'd be ten years older, whether I'd started writing or not. And I figured I might as well spend those ten years learning to write. I did. And have never regretted it.

Emily: Did any seasoned writers mentor you, as you have for so many?

Verla: Linda Joy Singleton, who is a series writer of many wonderful books was the first author who "took me under her wing." Later on, Paula Danziger was very helpful in supporting me, too.

Mel: How long did it take you to get published after you started writing?

Verla: My first sale was five years after I started writing, and that book was published six years after it was accepted. The two books I sold second and third actually came out before the first one I sold came out. (And that's a story all by itself!)

Mel: Verla, that first book must have been Covered Wagons, Bumpy Roads. Why was the book published six years AFTER it was accepted?

Verla: We had two illustrators for that book. The first illustrations just didn't work with the book, so a second illustrator was picked, and he needed to do Gold Fever first, in order for that book to be published in time for the 150th anniversary of the gold rush in California.

Mel: How many books have you written altogether then?

Verla: I've written way over 30 books, but only ten were accepted for publication, and one of the those was recently cancelled (after I waited five years for it to be published!) because of a change of focus in the publishing house. They cancelled 36 of their 40 books in progress.

Mel: I would say that ten out of thirty is a VERY good "average," Verla! Did the ICL courses actually help you to get published?

Verla: Yes. ICL taught me not only how to craft a good story for children, but also how to market what I wrote. And marketing is at least half the battle of getting published.

janel: Hello from SCBWI-San Diego: How have you managed to break the stigma of writing rhyming stories so successfully?

Verla: I once heard an editor talk who answered this perfectly. Someone asked him how he felt about talking animals in stories and he said, "It all depends on what the animal has to say!" I think my answer about the rhymes is pretty much the same, janel. Rhyme is wonderful, but what really COUNTS is the story BEHIND the rhyme. The best compliments I ever get are when people look at me and say, "Oh, it's almost like rhyme (or poetry), isn't it?"

Mel: Verla, time to ask what is the "cryptic rhyme" that is unique to your books?

Verla: Actually, that's just my own name for my style of writing, Mel. I've never taken a poetry course, or read a "how to" book on poetry, so I wasn't fettered by technical terms. Therefore, I felt free to make up my own name for my style. For anyone that wants to know what it is exactly, I'll give you a verse out of my Tattered Sails book (which was named a Best Book of the Year in 2000 by Child Magazine, by the way):

Tainted water,

Slimy vats.

Wormy biscuits,

Lice and rats.

That's one verse, and you can see that it's very descriptive and cryptic in nature, as it leaves a lot up to the readers' imaginations.

Mel: I'm PROUD to know a writer who invented her own kind of rhyme! Did you have any previous contact with Putnam before you got pulled from the slushpile?

Verla: None at all. I'd never submitted to them, didn't have any friends who were published with them, nothing. I got their information out of the CWIM (Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market) guidebook and liked what I saw of them. So I submitted to them. But they were not the first place I'd ever sent my story to. I'd been submitting it for three and a half years before it was accepted by Putnam!

Mel: Why do you think your manuscript got pulled from the slush pile?

Verla: Several reasons. I'd carefully crafted a strong, solid story with a definite beginning, a middle full of big problems for my characters, and it had a satisfying, complete ending. I made sure the grammar and spelling and formatting of the manuscript were as perfect as I could make them. I crafted an informative and interesting cover letter, but I think the main reason it got pulled from the slush pile was because it was "different." I'd developed my own style of writing (the cryptic rhyme) and put it together with history for children that were younger than what most people were targeting historical stories for. So a good solid story told in a unique style was the key for me.

Mel: Verla, will it help me to use special papers or envelopes to get noticed in the slush pile?

Verla: Absolutely NOT. Most editor don't even see or pay attention to envelopes, so as long as they are addressed correctly. It doesn't matter what's on them, and using colored papers or anything other than good solid white paper (I like 24-lb) can actually hurt your chances because editors I've talked to want something "easy on the eyes." They don't want fancy formatting or fonts, either. Just a simple, easy to read manuscript on crisp white paper, but mostly, they want a good story! One that will make them laugh or cry or heave a sigh of contentment.

Vijaya: Verla, I like your picture books so very much. Homespun Sarah and Orphan Train stick with me. I would LOVE to do rhyme the way you do, but, alas, I'm terrible at poetry. (Sometimes a wonderful couplet comes to me and the rest is work, work, work.) Tell us, did these books "come" easily to you? Or do you first have the bare bones of the story and then work, work, work at the rhyme? The words flow beautifully.

Verla: Oh, I really work at the rhymes, Vijaya. And thank you for letting me know you like my stories! It took me one day to write Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails, and two years to get it perfected so it was ready to send out! I worked for three years on Homespun Sarah and five years on Broken Feather. Orphan Train was actually my fastest book. It only took me seven months to write that one, but I think that was because it had a "built-in" story line, as it was loosely based on a real family's experience.

albertine: Were you involved in choosing the right illustrator for your books?

Verla: No, Albertine, as a matter of fact, I have absolutely NO SAY whatsoever in the artwork in my books. Which is one reason I wanted to publish with Putnam. Their books all had art in them that I LIKED for my stories. Since I would not get to have any input at all I wanted to pick publishers to submit to that had artwork for the majority of their books that I felt I'd like. Writing a picture book and sending it off is a lot like raising a child. You raise them up, then they go out into the world and become whatever they become and you love them no matter what they turn out like. Your picture books are the same. You write them, and send them to a publisher, who decides what they will ultimately become and you can either love them, or hate them. And if you're like me, you will love them no matter what. :-)

Mel: VERY WISE WORDS, Verla--thanks!

Vijaya: Did you get to see the illustrations before your books came out? They are beautiful, too.

Verla: Yes, I did, Vijaya. My editor has been WONDERFUL about sending me illustrations every step of the way so that I can check them for historical accuracy, which is the only input I have on them. And even then, my comments aren't always listened to by the artists! The artist and the art director have the final say on art, just as the editor and the author have the final say on text.

shellyb: Hi, Verla. How many publishers had you sent your manuscript to before Putnam?

Verla: At least six, shellyb, and two of them held it for ten months before rejecting it. It can take a long time to sell a story! You have to be absolutely persistent!

Vijaya: Did you know the name of the editor at Putnam?

Verla: The editor that actually bought my manuscript isn't even the one I sent it to, Vijaya. I got THE PHONE CALL (on December 10th) from another editor.

Vijaya: Did you know any of the orphans' descendents for the book Orphan Train? Did any of them ever contact you about it after it was published?

Verla: Not afterwards, Vijaya, but I interviewed the granddaughter of one of the Orphan Train riders before I wrote the book and her family's story was what I used as the "basis" of my fictional story, although, I used it very loosely!

Mel: Vijaya has to go fix supper now, Verla, and she told me to tell you her kids LIKE your stories!

Verla: Thanks, Vijaya!

t green: Good evening, Verla. When you had an author take you under her wing, was that before or after you were published?

Verla: Linda Joy Singleton was extremely helpful to me before I was published, t green. She gave me unbelievable amounts of moral support, and really "believed" in me, which helped me to keep up my spirits in face of so many rejections and kept me writing and submitting. (ICL did that, too!) Paula Danziger gave me some invaluable advice after I'd been published and was a friend to me. I have very warm feeling for both of those authors!

Mel: Do you have any guess at the number of rejections you got before your first acceptance?

Verla: Not really, Mel, but I have a huge, thick folder of them that I take to school visits to show kids how many rejections it can take to get published! I had planned to wallpaper my bathroom with them at one time, but now I have so many, I'd have to wallpaper the entire house, I think. LOL!

Mel: Did you submit to magazines before you submitted book manuscripts?

Verla: Yes, I started submitting to magazines while taking the ICL basic course and got my first acceptance from Humpty Dumpty's Magazine.

peanut: Hi, Verla. I would love to write picture books but everyone says that they are the hardest to publish and that I should work at magazine writing first. Why is that?

Verla: Picture books ARE hard to get published, peanut, and it IS easier to get into a magazine. Book publishers have a very large investment in their authors. for instance, it takes an average of $35,000 to $50,000 to publish one print run of about 10,000 to 15,000 copies of a full-color picture book, so editors have to REALLY believe in a story and love it, as well as believe it will sell well, before they can take a chance on a new, untried author. Magazines don't have nearly that kind of expense so they can take chances on new people more easily. That's why it's easier to get published in magazines, and it IS exciting to see your words in print, no matter if they are in magazines or books. It's also very encouraging to see your work in print and magazines usually come out much sooner than books.

Mel: You mentioned full-color picture books. Are there less than full-color picture books? Three-color? Five-color? And would those be less expensive to publish?

Verla: There are other kinds, Mel, but I'm not a publisher, and don't know anything about any books except my own, which were all done in full color. So I can't talk much about the other kinds.

cup: Is it ever worthwhile to write for flat fees?

Verla: Certainly, cup! I was once told this about that kind of "proposal". It's like being offered a cookie. How much do you want the cookie? How much will the cookie cost you? What are the advantages of eating that cookie? And what are the disadvantages? But the bottom line is: What would you lose if you took the cookie? So look at the flat fee and decide if it's right for YOU at this time in your career. Will you get your name on the book or will it go under someone else's name? Are you going to have any input over the editing, or will someone else be able to change your words into anything they want? And if they do, will your name be on it? You might not WANT your name on something edited when you have no control over what has been done with your words! I would never discount a flat fee, unless I had something I felt I could sell myself later to a publisher with royalties, and it was something I felt I could ultimately do better with. If it was just an "assignment" for a publisher and they were giving me a decent amount in the flat fee, and especially if I needed the money (LOL!) I'd be very inclined to accept the offer.

Mel: Yours is one of the BEST answers I've ever heard about flat fee, Verla--thank you!

Verla: Thanks, mel. :-)

shelley souza: Do you submit an entire manuscript or just a synopsis? Thank you.

Verla: That depends entirely on the publisher, shelley souza. Your market guidebook (and the ICL and CWIM are the two best, in my opinion) will tell you exactly what each publisher wants. Some want only queries, others want a full manuscript. Some want full manuscripts for picture books only, others only accept agented material. You need to research each publisher carefully and follow their guidelines exactly. That's one of the best ways to "rise above the slush" because not following their guidelines is a very fast way to get a rejection!

carol2u_2004: Is it better to use an evelope versus a box when submitting?

Verla: All the editors I've talked to prefer envelopes, unless it's a very large manuscript. But again, if you aren't sure, check with the publisher, and if it's not in their guidelines, feel free to write to them and ask, or even give the receptionist a quick call and ask what the editors at that house prefer.

janel: I saw two of your galleys in Los Angeles in August. Titles again, please?

Verla: Homespun Sarah and Orphan Train were my last two books published, janel, one came out in April and the other in May. I also had sketches from my Rough, Tough Charley book, but it was cancelled just before it went to print (a casualty of Millbrook's change of focus).

Mel: Verla, "galleys" is a term some of us may not recognize. Could you tell us what they are?

Verla: Galleys are the actual pages of a book before it goes to print. With picture books, you see the galleys, then you get F&G's, which are folded and gathered sheets, the actual printed pages of your book, but before they are bound.

janel: Do you spend much time working with an editor?

Verla: I have spent a lot of time working with my editors. They are wonderful! It's great when you have a good working relationship with your editor, and that relationship starts when you submit your first story. You want to make your story as perfect as it can possibly be before you send it out. When I read one of my stories out loud, and think, that's good!, then I know it's not good enough for publication because stories have to be more than just "good," they have to be really, truly spectacularly GREAT. So I revise and revise until I read my story and think every word and every line in this story SINGS to me, then I know it's "good enough" and send it off. And sometimes, I'm even right!

Mel: What a GREAT test for a manuscript, SINGING it!

suesunflower: Hi, Verla, it's SuzzyQ2. When your stories were rejected, did you rewrite or tweak them before sending them to another publisher?

Verla: That depended on a lot of things, SuzzyQ2. If the editor made comments on the story that I felt would strengthen it, then I would make changes. If I got all "form" rejections (just printed rejections to "the author") then I would figure the story wasn't ready for editors. But when I was getting personal comments from editors telling me, "I love your story BUT," then I figured the story was going to sell sooner or later and I wouldn't change it, but would just send it back out.

peanut: Verla, how many stories or articles have you sold to magazines?

Verla: I only sold two to magazines, peanut, then I started selling my picture books to Putnam and concentrated on that. (There's a lot more money in books than magazines!)

harleygirl: Did you have a party when your first story was published?

Verla: No, actually I didn't, harleygirl. I paid my mortgage and got it caught up with the advance, though. <GRIN!> If not for my book sales, we'd have not been able to keep our house.

shelley souza: Verla, did you work with a critique group on your manuscripts?

Verla: Shelley, I have always used critique groups for my stories and feel they are VERY important! I feel it's vital to get outside input if you want your work to be professional quality. I've never found a story of mine that couldn't benefit from a good critique. The best story can be made even better when an outside eye looks at it.

dianna: Do you ever do critiques of picture book manuscripts other than your own?

Verla: Only when I'm speaking at a conference, as part of the conference "service," dianna. I'm so busy working on my own stories, I try not to do them (although I know I could be making extra money that way). But I have enough to do just keeping up with my own critique group's submissions and my stories.

janel: Do you work with an agent?

Verla: Now I have an agent, janel, but I sold my first two books without one, and had an offer about to be offered on my third book before I got my agent. (I've also had a very BAD experience with an agent, which is a whole 'nother topic!)

jansgrandma: How important is it to have an attorney look over a contract?

Verla: You don't really need one, jansgrandma. On my website, on the Getting Started page, there is a book listed that I HIGHLY recommend for contracts. It's by Tad Crawford and the title is Business & Legal Forms for Authors & Self-Publishers.

segh: Becoming published seems to be a long process, how do you prevent becoming discouraged?

Verla: segh, that's where things like this chat are invaluable! I wish there'd been Internet resources like this when I started out. Surround yourself with other writers who understand the ups and downs. Go to workshops when they are available in your area. The SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators) is a wonderful organization and I highly recommend joining them. Their website is
http://www.scbwi.org. I found it helped a lot to make sure I always had manuscripts (at least one) "out there" to help me not be so discouraged, too. Because when you have something out there, you still have hope!

pbr: How has your web site helped promote you and your work?

Verla: I think my website has been a great help, pbr, and would recommend all writers get one put up at least one year before their first book comes out. It got my "name" out there in the world and generated interest in my books, and in me. I know a lot of people bought my books because they'd "met me" through my website and we tend to buy books of people we like and know! :-)

soradina: I looked at your website and I am in the process of planning a writing website of my own. My first question is do you have any suggestions on how I should get started and what content should I include for my site? Second, do you do your own HTML coding for your site or does someone else do the coding and web development for you? Thank you for your answers to my question.

Verla: soradina, that's a tough question to answer! But I'll do my best. The best content, in my opinion, is something that will draw in a specific group of people, in other words, focus on one thing, and do it thoroughly and well. (Example: My website is focused on Writing for Children.) Then make your website something that changes frequently, to bring people back again and again. For the second half of your question, I designed and built my own website, but I used a website creator program to do it. I don't know HTML, and don't think I want to know it! LOL

janel: Verla, your site has grown so and become soooo informative!

Verla: Thanks, janel!

shelley souza: Verla, why have some of your books taken five years to write?

Verla: It took that long to get the words to "sing" to me in them, shelley. The books I'm working on right now (The last two I sold haven't been written yet!) are taking forEVER to write. I got one done, and my editor wants massive changes in the story line, so I'm back to square one with it, and I've been working on it for about four years, now. But I know when it's finally done, it will be a GREAT story and much stronger and better for all the revisions.

del: Would you share your revision process (the steps you go through to make your manuscript the very best you can)? Thanks!

Verla: Since my stories are written in rhyme, they go through a little different process than I use for prose, del. First I write a verse, anything. Sometimes the words don't rhyme, and have no rhythm, but they SAY what I want them to say in the story to make the story strong. Many times, they are so bad, I have to grab a barf bag, but I get the "bare bones" of my story line down on paper, then I start working on the rhymes. It's taken me as long as six months to find one word for some of my rhymes. Sometimes, I can't ever find the right word, and then I go back a step and rework the whole line, or two lines, or even sometimes a whole verse. Often I have to change the entire focus of a section of a story because what I want to say simply will NOT fit into the tight format of my cryptic rhyme. It can be a long, and sometimes frustrating process, but the end result is worth all the effort. Especially when someone looks at something I wrote and says, "Oh, that looks so easy!"

Mel: I LOVE that barf bag idea, Verla, I'm going to use it on my own manuscripts. LOL!

dara: What are your thoughts about first being published with an e-zine?

Verla: I think it's a GREAT idea, dara! You get some experience working with an editor; you get your work out there, too.

carol2u_2004: In regards to research, is it okay to just use the internet?

Verla: I don't think I'd depend totally on the internet, carol2u. I find the Internet a wonderful resource but you have to be VERY careful what sources you use from it. Museums, colleges, etc., can be great, IF you aren't just using student work that can't be verified. I find it best to use the Internet, then back it up with printed and primary sources. Primary sources are sources that go right back to the beginning. For example, if you were researching a disease, you would contact a specialist in the field of that disease for information—that would be a primary source. When researching history, if you can get ahold of diaries of people from that time period, that would also be a primary resource. Publishers are very excited when they get stories based on primary resources, rather than just encyclopedias or other book resources.

janel: Verla, I'm anxious to experiment with your process of rhyming to lay out the story line, first. Hope you're enjoying your new home. Thanks, Happy Holidays!

Verla: Okay, thanks!

Mel: Verla, the two hours have passed like two minutes this evening. And still, I can tell there are many eager questions to be asked of you. We deeply appreciate your being our guest, and sharing such helpful tips with us all, beginners as well as those who are published. Since there are more questions than we have had time for, I am really hoping you will come back and be our guest again some day. And I know this chat roomful would appreciate it if you would return and continue further with the good job you've begun tonight. Will you come back some day, please, Verla?

Verla: I'd love to, Mel. Just let me know when you want me. :-) And I'm so happy to have been able to be here tonight!

Mel: Our next chat will be in the New Year, on Thursday, January 8, 2004. That evening Kristi Holl will be joining us for a rousing New Year's chat. Kristi's enthusiasm always warms our chat room, and you can bet she'll have some excellent pointers to point you toward more productive writing in 2004. So make it your first resolution for 2004 to be here with us to welcome in the New Writing Year, and to welcome Kristi Holl into our chat room. Between now and January 8, be thinking about questions to ask for which the answers will give you more GETupGO in writing for children!

cup: Many thanks, Verla.

Mel: Verla Kay, our WARMEST THANKS to you again for all the wisdom you have shared with us tonight about how to get out and stay out of the slush pile. We will look very much forward to having you back as our guest again in the future. You have been an inspiration to us, giving us encouragement that we can go from beginner to pro in children's writing. Happy Holidays to you, Verla! And to all of you, I wish you THE HAPPIEST OF CHRISTMASES AND THE BEST NEW YEAR OF YOUR ENTIRE LIFE! Thanks for being here this evening, and I'll be eager to see you back in the chat room in the new 2004! Good night, everyone!

Verla: Thanks, mel. :-) It was fun.

Vijaya: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to Verla and Mel and everyone!

windy: Happy Holidays, everyone!

Verla: Thanks, and night all!


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