Author Feature: Margot Finke

Margot Finke hosts a writing for children website, critiques fellow writers (for a fee), and is the author of a series of fun, educational e-books about U.S. and Aussie animals. She also has a monthly writing/publishing column, “Musings,” which appears on The Purple Crayon. In addition, she covers “Writer’s Retreats and Conferences” for SmartWriters. She’s an Aussie, who’s lived in Oregon for the past 25 years. She discusses e-publishing, writing about children’s writing, being part of the children’s literature community and more.

Let’s start with your own writing for children! Could you tell us about your educational series and the latest of the books?

My rhyming series of seven picture books features wild critters found in the U.S. and Australia. The rhymes are fun and educational, allowing kids from kindergarten to higher grade-school levels to enjoy learning about animals. They can be bought direct from the publisher, Writers Exchange E-Publishing or from the BOOKS page on my website.

All seven books in the series are published by Writers Exchange E-Publishing using the FlipBook system. This means that each one looks like a book, and kids can hear the pages as they “flip” over–totally cool! Kids can also link to my “Down-Under Fun.” This is where they go to read more about the Aussie animals in my books and giggle at the “Nutty Notes.”

“Wild US Critters” is where kids can read more about the US animals in my books, “Nutty Notes,” and link to other in-depth animal sites.

My first, “Kangaroo Clues,” published in 2004, is beautifully illustrated by Turkish artist Mustafa Delioglu. It received great reviews. After that, there was a year’s delay. My second book, “Never Say BOO to a Frilly” (+ 2 other rhymes), has cool illustrations by famed Turkish artist Aysin Eroglu, published late 2005.

The next three in this series were published early in 2006: “Don’t Eat Platypus Stew” (+ 2 other rhymes), charmingly illustrated by Rebecca Holdsworth. “Humdinger Hummers,” delightfully illustrated by Amy Morano. And “Mama Grizzly Bear,” with striking illustrations by Gloria Swan.

Your books are electronically published, and I don’t know enough about that to fit in a thimble. What advice would you give a writer considering e-publishing? What are the benefits? What are the challenges? Where can readers learn more about e-publishing (on the Web or elsewhere)?

Oh dear, mate, this is a HUGE subject. I feel there are three vital elements that make up a quality e-book:

# 1 – Choose your e-publisher with care. Do in-depth research on those you select as possible publishers. Ask questions of your listmates, and scrap any e-publisher that pops up with too many complaints against them. The web is a great tool for gathering information. It is up to the author to weed out e-publishers that are unreliable or scammers. When you have one or two finalists lined up, go to town on them. This is when you look for others who have gone the e-publishing route, and pick their brains. Ask your finalists the hard questions, and make sure the answers are clear and understandable. If they waffle, cut them loose.

# 2 – Know the services your e-publisher provides, which ones are free, and which ones you must pay for.

# 3 – One of the main reasons e-books (and self-published also) have a bad reputation, and like Rodney Daingerfield, “get no respect,” is the lack of polish. A good edit provides polish and professionalism. Unless your publisher offers good editing services, have your book edited by someone professional. A PB won’t cost much, but editing midgrades or YA will take big bucks. Don’t wimp out because of the money. If you want a quality book that stands up to hard copy competition, a good edit is mandatory.

Also: Make sure you have a contract, and understand and know the small print. If in doubt, wait. Have someone who knows about such matters check your contract–a literary lawyer or such. Ask on the CW or other writing list for a referral to someone who can help.

Sandy Cummins, CEO of Writers Exchange E-Publishing, is based in Northern Queensland, a small town I know very well from my youth. It sits on the edge of the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world. I don’t know about other e-publishers, but I lucked out. Sandy is easy going, never gets ruffled, and is honest to a fault. I am a perfectionist and a do-it-yourself freak.

When Sandy discovered I had a good eye for illustrations, she let me look for my own artists. After I found them all (it’s amazing what a few posts to the various CW lists will offer up), I sent each artist the stories they were to illustrate, with my suggestions attached. At first, I sent Sandy sample pieces of artwork for her approval. Time passed, and Sandy told me that my judgment was excellent, and to just send her each final illustration for approval. (This might not work for everyone.) The artists and I worked together, with Sandy having the final say. I don’t know how we managed it, but the problems that cropped up occasionally were sorted out amicably. Sandy also did a terrific job of setting up and laying out each book in the FlipViewer program.

This all sounds idyllic, I know, and maybe, if I had tried another e-publisher, or different artists, things would have turned out differently–snarky and angst ridden. Who knows? I got exactly the sort of illustrations I wanted. With a traditional publisher I would have had no say at all. The thought of that freaked me out! The experts in my rhyming critique group helped me with editing. Sandy sent me each finished book, and I proofread it before publication. The whole process took far longer that I hoped–I thought e-books were published in weeks. LOL! And all that work. Doing tweaks & rewrites on all 7 books, as well as keeping track of multiple artists and illustrations, was monumental. Whew!

Hey, I would do it again in a moment. You can read all about these wonderful artist/illustrators on my site.

The plus side of e-books is that they are great for kids. Children today are immersed in school programs that make them computer savvy. They have grown up with computers the same way we grew up with the telephone and the radio.

I feel strongly that many e-books get a rough deal. Sure, some are terrible–but so are a lot of hard copy books. Check out those e-books before you turn up your nose. Like mine, some of them are darned good!

I’m a fan of your “Musings” column. What was your initial inspiration for launching it? For those unfamiliar with it, could you offer them some insights into the kinds of subjects you discuss?

Thanks for those kind words, Cynthia. The credit for “Musings” goes to Jan Fields. She suggested I write a column for beginning writers, something like. . . “Margot’s Musings?” I was nervous at first, and I had Jan look over each one before publication. She was a terrific mentor. Time passed, and Jan needed the space for her new and wonderful, Kid Magazine Writers. I dropped my name from the column’s title, and “Musings” is now under the umbrella of Harold Underdown’s Purple Crayon. Harold is terrific to work with, and his website is a treasure trove on writerly information, great interviews, plus snippets of his own wisdom.

I wanted to pay back, in some useful way, all the help and advice I received when I first joined the Childrens Writers (CW) list [at yahoogroups], way back in the days of Linda Smith and her PB critique group, “Stars.” This list helps so many writers get ahead, and I felt it only fair that I do something for those coming behind me. Everything I write for “Musings” comes from my experiences as a beginning writer, struggling to discover the secret of success. Yeah, I know the rules for success: hard work, a basic knowledge of grammar and punctuation, a little talent, patience, the ability to paper walls with rejection slips, plus a dab of luck – right?

You report on “Writer’s Conferences and Retreats” for SmartWriters. Are you an avid conference-goer yourself? What events have you enjoyed most and/or learned the most from and why?

I go to two conferences a year. The SCBWI Fall Retreat, in Silver Falls, Oregon, and the SCBWI, one-day Spring conference near Portland [visit SCBWI Oregon].

As a fan of conferences, I approached Roxyanne Young, of, and asked if she was interested in a column on conferences. She was, and my monthly column, Writer’s Retreats & Conferences (WR&C), was born.

These days, with so many of the big publishing houses closed to unsolicited manuscripts, and even queries, meeting an editor at a conference is the only in many newcomers have. Writing is lonely work, so meeting occasionally with other writers is a boon to my confidence and creativity. Sharing manuscripts, and having my work critiqued by writers who know what to look for, is a huge plus. And the friendships I’ve developed at these once-a-year gatherings span the years, with e-mails keeping them fresh and alive. Go to as many conferences as you can afford. Unfortunately, if you live in isolated areas, going to a conference can be expensive, what with air fare, gas costs, and hotel expenses. Still, save your pennies and go! Doing so will energize your creative spirit for months afterwards.

You also offer a critique service. Do you normally work with beginning or more advanced writers? What do you offer to them? What should a writer consider when selecting a critque service?

Again, the credit for this goes to Jan Fields. Critiquing was something I had done as a freebie for newcomers to the CW list. I guess it was another way of repaying the early help I received. Jan convinced me to charge a reasonable fee for my services.

Critique requests come from newcomers, as well as more advanced writers. I offer suggestions and comments, and always give examples, so that clients know exactly what I’m getting at. I stress that nothing should be set in stone, and that looking at their characters and plots, from a variety of different angles (out of the box), often opens up much better writing possibilities. Active and powerful verbs are a must. In the end it is their baby, and the final choices are theirs. I have kept my fees reasonable.

What I hope to impart with an In-depth critique is summed up in an article I wrote on my Critique Service page. It is titled, “What to Aim for When Writing.” The contents include: Focus, Story Elements, Plot & Character Development, Sentence Structure, Tight Writing, Character Enrichment, The Art of the Hook, Pace & Tension, Suggestion.

It is always a thrill when a story I helped polish is accepted. And it never ceases to amaze me how nice all these writers are. Here I am, telling them (as tactfully as possible) that their writing is not tight, their verbs need more power, and their dialogue would never come out of any 12 year old’s mouth – among other things. Yikes! And they write back thanking me, telling me how they are going to rework it all just like I suggested. I keep waiting for the day when I receive an e-mail that tells me I don’t know @#$%, and my advice stinks.

I love how supportive you are of other writers, how community oriented. Your Wahoo page is a tremendous example of your joyous heart! Tell us about your writing world, how it fuels you and inspires you to so graciously give back.

I have always been grateful for the help, support, and encouragement I received from early members of the CW list. I remember vividly how lost and uninformed I once felt about everything to do with writing for children. My website and “Musings” column gives me an opportunity to help newcomers bridge that information gap. The WAHOO page is fun! It helps celebrate writers’ successes. Newcomers, or old hands alike, they all get WAHOOS when they sign a contract, their book is published or wins an award, or their article is published. Like the saying goes, “They’re worth it!” I love shouting about a writer’s success – mine too.

What’s on your horizon? Anything you’d like to add?

Only to thank you for this interview opportunity, mate. Your website is a treasure trove of writing insights and valuable information. I have three mid-grade manuscripts out at the moment, each one with a different publisher. I have high hopes for one in particular–part memoir and part fiction. My ultimate goal is to have the three mid-grades published before my eldest daughter has the chance to do it for me posthumously, as she promised she will do, if necessary.

Other than that, I guess it will be more of the same – writing, having patience, hard work, and encouraging WAHOOS whenever possible.

Cynsational Notes

See reviews of Humdinger Hummers and Mama Grizzly Bear, both by Margot, from Suzanne Lieurance.

Cynsational News & Links

Thanks to LJ syndication reader Kellye Carter Croker at Dear Diary for recommending my recent interview with children’s/YA book publicist Rebecca Grose of SoCal Public Relations.

ChicagoWrites: debut website from the Chicago Writers Association. “The mission of the Chicago Writers Association is to serve as an incubator for writers. To that end, we strive to encourage a supportive community in which writers at all levels of professional and personal development feel free to express themselves and try out ideas.” Note: In the past, I’ve lived in both in high-rise in Streeterville and a loft in the South Loop/Printers Row. My husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, was born in Evanston and raised in Chicago.

Jo Whittemore, debut YA fantasy author of Escape from Arylon (Llewellyn, 2006) is hosting her first signing at 7:30 p.m. April 5 at the Barnes and Noble, Sunset Valley at 5601 Brodie Lane in Austin. The sequel, Curse of Arastold, is due to hit stores in July.

Wordswimmer: Come dive into a sea of words and swim toward a new understanding of the writing process. “This wordswimmer searches for words and stories on Florida’s west coast, only a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico. A writer, editor of children’s books, and writing instructor, Bruce Black’s stories for children have appeared in Cricket and Cobblestone magazines. See his recent discussion of Barbara O’Conner’s writing.