New Voice: Rebecca Janni on Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse

Rebecca Janni is the first-time author of Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse, illustrated by Lynne Avril (Dutton, 2010). From the promotional copy:

In Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse, Nellie Sue does everything with a western flair.

Whether it is cleaning up the animal sty (picking up her stuffed animals) or rounding up cattle (getting the neighborhood kids together for her birthday party), she does it like a true cowgirl. All she really needs is a horse.

So when Dad announces at her birthday party, “I got a horse right here for you,” Nellie Sue is excited. But when her horse turns out to be her first bicycle, it will take an imagination as big as Texas to help save the day.

Could you tell us about your writing community – your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

My husband tells me I would get more writing done if I were a shy, introverted writer, living alone with a small tribe of cats. But that would never work for me, and he knows it. I love the revolving door that is our home, and everyone who walks through it supports me emotionally and professionally, beginning with my husband and family.

Iowa has a rich writing community, one that I first discovered at the local library. At the Des Moines Area Writers Group (DAWG), I found a wonderful and talented group of people passionate about stories. We’re an eclectic bunch of published and not-yet-published writers who write everything from early picture books to YA murder mysteries. But even with such varied interests, everyone agrees on one thing.

Must. Join. SCBWI.

So I did. Right away. I love the conferences because there are always opportunities to work on craft and to learn about the publishing industry. Plus, I meet more amazing people. I decided early on that, even if nothing ever came of my writing, I would never stop. I enjoyed the act of writing too much, and I was making lifelong friends along the way.

Three of those friends make up my magical critique group – Sharelle Byars Moranville, Jan Blazanin, and Eileen Boggess. We exchange our works-in-progress online and meet in person once a month to share critique and cookies.

Our lives and writing styles are very different, but we share a singularity of purpose and a mutual admiration. The end result is a lot of growth and grace . . . and cookies.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Hmm. Not well, I’m afraid. Our family of five grew to a family of six this summer, when we adopted our son from China. Now the muse in my life often masquerades as one of the kids. Life is full of joy and our entryway is full of shoes! Since our youngest is deaf, we’re also becoming a bilingual family – speaking and signing.

When I do manage to carve out time for writing, it usually involves my mother, a doting grandma who’s recently retired! I’m also quick to snatch up school time, nap time, and bedtime.

My best advice is what others have given to me, so I’ll pass it along.

(1) Find childcare, even if it is just once a week. If Grandma doesn’t live nearby, hire a babysitter or find a friend to help. Before my mom retired, a friend and I took turns watching each others’ kids.

(2) Make good work of school hours and nap times. If you have just a few hours between drop off and pick up, consider stopping at a library instead of going home. There will be fewer distractions.

(3) Attend SCBWI conferences. You’ll be inspired by the editors, agents, and authors who speak, and you’ll learn valuable information about the market. Plus, you never know what might happen . . .

(4) Take an occasional retreat – alone or with other writers. Writing weekends always give my productivity a boost. I’ve stayed at hotels, retreat centers, and even a friend’s farm. The benefits are huge – focused time to work on writing projects, immediate feedback from other writers, and inspiration that lasts long after the weekend is over. (At my friend’s farm, we even saw a calf being born!)

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

I met Jamie Weiss Chilton of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency at (you’ll never guess) an SCBWI retreat right here in Iowa. While there were no calves born that weekend, it was a magical retreat – crisp October days, bright sun, vibrant colors, and leaves crunching beneath our feet. I had landed my first book contract about six months earlier, and I was ready to begin looking for an agent.

As Jamie presented, she struck me as kind and smart – a winning combination. Since I was so new to the business, I appreciated her willingness to do editorial work, to offer feedback on manuscripts before submitting them to editors. I knew I would love to sign on with Jamie, but I had just begun my search. How could I be so lucky?

I mustered up the courage to ask her a few questions, and we found ourselves chatting about my works-in-progress. She asked to see those manuscripts, and not long after, she offered to represent me. I was thrilled! I wanted to say “yes” then and there, but I took a step back and followed her advice, composing a list of questions for a follow-up phone interview.

One magical connector for us was the main character in my first book, Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse. Turns out Jamie has some cowgirl in her, but growing up in L.A., she could never have a horse. When she was little, she used to tie a jump rope to her bike handlebars to use as reins for her imaginary horse!

My best advice? I sound like a broken record, but I’ll say it again. Attend SCBWI conferences.

I was really glad to meet Jamie in person. Also, as giddy as I was about finding an agent, I’m glad I slowed down and thought through all of my questions up front. Somebody told me to remember that I wasn’t just being interviewed – I was also interviewing. When I did sign the dotted line, I felt confident that I was doing the right thing – no doubts or regrets.

Now, two years and three book contracts later, I couldn’t be happier to have Jamie as my agent!

7 thoughts on “New Voice: Rebecca Janni on Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse

  1. Great interview. It's always interesting to hear about the different journeys that take place behind the scenes. Rebecca is right — the SCBWI is so (SO) very helpful.

    Also, I'm going to try your tip this week, and do some writing outside of the house. I used to be able to ignore the distractions, but…it's getting harder.

    Thank you Cynthia and Rebecca!

  2. Another of Becky's many talents is that she is an insightful critiquer. I always feel as if my works-in-progress are blessed by her fertile mind and thoughtful eye. And while I'm sure I will never write a picture book (don't have that precision in my psyche), I have learned so much about picture books from hanging out with her.

  3. Amanda, I'm going to third SCBWI as a godsend once again. And you know, public libraries can be really inspiring places, if you're shopping for a locale.

    Sharelle, how wonderful that you and Rebecca work on mss together! And never say never–that perfect picture book idea may be right around the corner.

  4. What a great article! Thank you for sharing that interview and all of the helpful information! I especially benefited from the parts about how the author obtained her literary agent.

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