Last year I attended the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) South Coast Winery Retreat and met Merrily Kutner at one of the round-table seminars where she was leading the talk on eliminating unneeded dialogue in our stories. Merrily is an instructor with the UCLA Extension Writers Program and an award-winning author. She is a great editor and writer and I am so happy to feature her as she is a real pro! She helped me with both Gerry the Giraffe and Clarence and the Traveling Circus and provided some great advice on how to cut back on unnecessary words in the story. This skill to only use words that help push the story along is something that can take years to develop for a writer. We had a chance to talk about her inspiration and process.
Tell us a bit about your journey of becoming a children’s picture book author?
It was a long journey and it took many years to get my first book published. I started writing picture books quite by accident, after I couldn’t find a book for my son. He was definitely a reluctant reader. I spent a lot of time in the library trying to find books for him that would hold his attention. One day, I became frustrated because I knew he liked monsters and rhymes but I couldn’t find any book like that in the library. I kept looking at so many books until I thought to myself (half kidding and half serious) “Hey, I can do better than these!” What an epiphany! I suppose that must have stirred something deep inside me. Or, maybe because I loved my son so much I became inspired to write a book with monsters and rhymes just for him. Whatever the reason, after that I began making up stories and I was hooked!
After ten years of persistent writing, learning my craft, attending many S.C.B.W.I. (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) seminars and conferences, and what I call three different ”incarnations,” my manuscript eventually became my first book entitled Z IS FOR ZOMBIE. The book was selected as an IRA/CBC (International Reading Association/Children’s Book Council) Children’s Choice Book for the following year. Validation from the children at school visits and bookstore signings motivated me to continue writing. By the time Z IS FOR ZOMBIE was published, the little boy who I wrote it for had already grown and was seventeen years old. Now that little boy was only in my mind’s eye and in my home movies. But, the book is out there for all those little boys who love monsters and rhymes. To this day, that little boy is still the one I write for.
What changes have you seen in the industry over the past few years with eBooks and Apps becoming popular?
The publishing industry has changed a lot since I started writing picture books, that’s for sure. Currently, it’s very hard to break in and get published in print by “traditional publishers.” Once you didn’t need an agent, but with almost all publishing houses not accepting unsolicited manuscripts now it would probably make more sense to try and get an agent first. And, with very few “brick and mortar” stores (book stores) people are getting their books other ways.
However, it is now easier to get your work to the public through other publishing means. Self published books and eBooks are readily available which is giving the “traditional publishers” a run for their money. Although eBooks and Apps are on the rise for middle grade books and young adult novels, at present, most parents still prefer printed picture books for their kids. Many feel that eBooks are too much like games and the very young need the whole “reading” experience: an adult or caretaker reading the book beside the child (which promotes bonding with the person and with reading) and the child is able to touch the book which helps to make the story come more “alive” for them as turning the pages is part of the sensory experience a picture book provides. Many children get distracted with eBooks and they can’t follow the story as well as they can with a printed book. So reading picture books is essential to help children learn how to follow and understand a story. And, there hasn’t been enough research to discover if staring at a screen for extended time is a good idea for the very young. As much as I believe in progress, I prefer to think of eBooks and Apps as another format…one for convenience and variety—they can exist alongside printed books but not necessarily replace them.
What would you recommend to a person just starting out in the business? What organizations and groups would you recommend an aspiring writer join?
I would suggest setting aside a specific time to write and setting doable goals and also joining a professional writing association (each genre most likely has one.) I write for children so I belong to the S.C.B.W.I. (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). But there is a mystery writers association and a romance writers association etc. It is vital to join a writer’s critique group. There are even online groups if you can’t meet in person. But, what’s important is to immerse yourself in the genre you want to write in and keep writing and reading others’ work. If you do this consistently, subliminally you will begin to get a handle on what “works” and what doesn’t. At first you’ll see this more clearly in others’ writing before you can objectively see it in your own. That’s why being a part of a writer’s group is invaluable. It also acts like your writing family and you’ll need them for advice and support.
Any news you want to share with Penelope’s mates?
My book THE ZOMBIE NITE CAFÉ is in the process of becoming an eBook. The audio is done but the company my agent arranged it with is still working on completing it. I’m still waiting for my book ALPHABET MAGIC to be published. The contract was signed in 2008. A picture book can take many years to be published…this commonly happens with picture books. I’ll be at the SCBWI’s (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) 5/3/13 Winery Writer’s Retreat in Temecula. It should be 2 days of informative and inspirational workshops and seminars; and a chance to meet and network with editors and other authors.
To read more about Merrily and her books go to: www.merrilykutner.com