C.J. Omololu (left) & Heidi R. Kling (right)
Young Adult authors Cynthia J. Omololu (Dirty Little Secrets; Walker Books, 2010) and Heidi R. Kling (Sea; Putnam, 2010) might want to consider doing presentations together more often. These two ladies made a marvelous team at a recent SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) event that took place yesterday in Walnut Creek, California.
There really is nothing like being around the like-minded sentimentality of other children's book writers. Something in the air changes, something makes sense as one writer discusses her manuscript pitfalls or triumphs with another head-bobbing scribe, or when someone sings the praises of the latest How To Be A Better Writer life-changing book. This shift, from the ordinary world to the world of congenial peers, couldn't have been more evident than when these two ladies, perched behind big rectangular tables with their books on display, uncloaked the tales of their journeys into becoming published writers.
C.J. Omololu began the discussion saying that she fell into writing accidentally. At the tender age of 7 she penned her first manuscript, but it took her many more years and several more stories - like close to 30 - before she was finally able to sell her words. Now her second book, Dirty Little Secrets - about a 16-year old girl who lives with the secret that her mother is a hoarder, and must make a critical decision to call 911 or keep a new terrible secret to herself after discovering her mother's body inside their crowded house - has been getting great reviews since its debut. My favorite part of C.J.'s story was how she serendipitously met her agent, Erin Murphy. "I researched an agent on Verla Kay and found Erin Murphy, who didn't take queries except if she met you through someone or at a conference." Turns out Erin Murphy was going to be at an upcoming conference in Kansas City, Missouri, so guess where C.J. went. Agent and writer had a freak encounter in an elevator at the hotel where the conference was being held, but C.J. says she blew her chance when all she could discuss was pleasantries and not her in-progress book. No matter though, because back at home she composed a self-described "ballsy query letter" which she shared with us, and sent it off before her novel was completely done - something she says to never, ever do! Her dream agent loved her query, signed her, but they had a difficult time with selling her first book. Eventually the idea of hoarders came along, also quite serendipitously, while reading an article in a gossip magazine, and with that C.J. was on her way.
Now, something I have to point out were the groans and sighs of familiar frustration as C.J. described how when she first started writing seriously, she was going to storm the market of children's books! - pause to look dreamily into the sky. I'm fairly certain that all beginning, hopeful writers think that they're going to nail their first book, land the first agent they query, secure a six-figure advance and a three book contract, and sit at signings with hoards of screaming, young fans begging for their autograph. Yeah, this typically isn't how it works. You're lucky if you can get an agent, land a $5,000 advance and get your own family members to attend your signings. But, like anything worthwhile, writing a good book takes time, and many, many, many tries - for most.
Next, jubilant, easy going Heidi spoke about her debut novel, Sea. Taking inspiration from the pages of journals her husband wrote while working on humanitarian efforts in Indonesia after the catastrophic 2004 tsunami, Sea is the tale of a young girl who reluctantly travels to the disaster-ridden place to aid her father in his own volunteer efforts, and discovers love and the truth about her mother's mysterious disappearance three years before. Heidi's road to published writer was speckled with writing musical theatre, protesting the potential loss of the creative writing major at UC Santa Cruz, where she attended college, moving to New York City and earning a writing degree from the New School, and naively passing on the opportunity to ghost write books as offered by an editor at a major publishing house while in NYC. She eventually learned more about the publishing industry, joined a critique group with the likes of Nancy Farmer (not bad) and after participating in a "speed-dating" for agents event back in San Francisco, was presented with three requests from different agents for her book also before she'd had it done. Like C.J., another no-no they say in the timeline of finding representation for your novel. Eventually, Sara Crowe became Heidi's agent. Heidi says she literally stood on her back deck and screamed when she got the call.
Main points the two authors said to take from their experience:
1) Do your research before submitting to an agent. Don't submit blindly.
2) Surround yourself with other writers.
3) Don't expect to sell your first book, or for that matter, your second or your third.
4) Pay attention to the reactions of people when reading your book. If they're yawning or spacing out, looking bored, then you may be working on the wrong project.
I would be remiss not to mention that both ladies sang the praises of Twitter. C.J. was admittedly anti-Twitter at first, but once she got into it, and got a tweet back from YA super-author, John Green - squeals of delight - she was certain its benefits outweighed anything negative. And Heidi is the "queen of connections." Getting herself on the radar had fellow Tweeters changing their profile photo to the cover of her book, and generating pre-press buzz.
There was a short break to pause for cupcakes to celebrate another SCBWI member's birthday, and that's when I stole over to snap the photo at the top of this post. A Q & A section followed (but this post is getting too long so perhaps I'll mention more on that another time) and then the event was over.
I don't always make it to every local SCBWI event, not all of them appeal to what I'm working on - but I'm really glad that I attended this one. Not only were C.J. and Heidi gracious, funny and forthcoming, but I gained more insight into the mystical world of what it would be like to be a paid, published writer. Oh, and for future projects, both ladies are working on YA paranormal romances, moving away from the seriousness of their last books.
As for me, I'll tell you what's next on my to-do list: reading Dirty Little Secrets and Sea, and getting myself an account on Twitter.