Guest Post: Linda Joy Singleton on Novels to Picture Books, the Long & Short of Writing for Children

By Linda Joy Singleton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I joined SCBWI, my biggest dream was to sell a middle-grade novel. I attended as many workshops as I could and was excited when there were speakers who wrote MG or YA.

But often I had to sit through talks on writing picture books.

It seemed like writers all around me were in love with the picture book genre. I enjoyed reading picture books to my kids, but I was writing for the kid in me and preferred thrilling middle-grade mysteries.

My most exciting day ever was when I got The Call. Yay!

My middle-grade novel Almost Twins sold to a small publisher. More sales followed, mostly YA and MG paperback series.

I was living my writing dream!

All along, I kept going to SCBWI conferences and learning everything I could about the industry— which usually included many, many workshops on picture books.

I learned so much that I could give a talk on writing picture books. Still, writing short seemed like a magical talent I lacked. So, I happily continued writing longer books.

And then it happened—I got the itch to write a picture book.

My picture book friends encouraged me and critiqued my first attempts. I rewrote and cut and rewrote then submitted.

The rejections rolled in, smothering me in disappointment. While my friends thought my picture books were great, editors were not impressed.

Years passed, and while the ups and downs of writing MG and YA series often frustrated me, I kept selling novels.

I’d made nearly 40 book sales, when a photograph changed my career course.

My writing friend Verla Kay, came to visit and I tagged along to her school talk. She gave a power point presentation, starting off with photo of herself as a child. The photograph showed two girls building a snow dog. This photo stuck in my head—and words followed:

“More than anything, Ally wanted a dog, but dogs made her ACHOO.”

The next day, I was driving to a writing conference when more words danced in my head. I couldn’t ignore them.

When we stopped for lunch, I grabbed a pen and scribbled the first draft of Snow Dog, Sand Dog, illustrated by Jess Golden (Albert Whitman, 2014) on a napkin.

Now I’d love to say this book sold immediately, but it went through many rewrites and two agents before it was published five years later by Albert Whitman.

Still I thought it was a fluke.

“I’m not really a picture book author,” I’d say because writing picture books was so challenging and I was in awe of talented picture book author friends.

Delighted with the sale, I considered myself very lucky. And soon I was working on my 7th series for older kids, Curious Cat Spy Club (Albert Whitman, 2015).

Then a money game I created for my grandson, inspired me to write another picture book, Cash Kat, illustrated by Christina Wald (2016) which I sold to Arbordale. And a year later, A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin (June 13, 2017) sold to Little Bee.

I started thinking maybe I did have some picture book skills, especially when my agent sold two more of my picture books: Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, 2017) and Crane And Crane (2019).

Now I consider myself a novelist and a picture book author.

These genres seem opposite with word counts around 50,000 words for novels and usually under 200 words for picture books. But the genres complement each other, too.

Here are some thoughts on being a multi-genre author:

  • Writing short can be more difficult since every word counts. But to be honest, I spend about six months of daily writing on a novel and probably only a few weeks on a picture book. The challenge for me with a picture book is coming up with a good idea.
  • Inspiration is a big difference in genres. If I waited for inspiration for a novel, I’d never finish the book. Instead, I have a routine of writing most mornings until the novel is done. But with picture books, inspiration is elusive. If I force a picture book idea, it’s rarely any good. I like to tease that I’ve averaged one good picture book idea a year. So, when that idea strikes, you can bet I stop everything to write it down.
  • Word play is part of the fun with picture books. Sometimes I find myself playing with words in my novel writing, too. Smash, crash, boom! I can’t resist using fun sound words, poetic rhythm and even alliteration in longer fiction. 
  • Fun fact: My longest novel, Memory Girl (CBAY Books, 2016), was nearly 100,000 words. My shortest picture book, Crane & Crane (2019), sold with just 19 words.
  • Don’t limit your creativity. Genres are just boxes that shape the story. For a long time, I told myself I wasn’t a picture book author, but then I became one. Make a routine of writing, and say “yes” when inspiration strikes. And you can become the writer you want to be.

Cynsational Notes

Linda Joy Singleton wrote her first story when she was eight about a mischievous kitten.

Two decades later, she pursued a career in writing and joined SCBWI. She’s sold over 45 books, including series: Curious Cat Spy Club, The Seer (Llewellyn/Flux), Regeneration (Berkley Books) and Dead Girl trilogy (North Star Editions).

Two new picture books come out in 2017: A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin  (Little Bee Books, June 13, 2017) and Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, December 2017.)

Guest Post: Linda Joy Singleton on Reinventing & Rebuilding Your Writing Career

By Linda Joy Singleton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

A few years ago, I thought my career was over.

Due to slow sales and a changing market, I’d lost both my publisher and agent—and I was devastated. Also, a science fiction/mystery YA that I’d been positive would sell when it went to acquisition meetings at major publishers had ultimately been rejected.

After over 35 published YA and middle grade books, I was on my own.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

“I feel so sad when I think back on how high my hopes were but now everything has led to this point of failure. I am so sad…discouraged…mourning the loss of dreams.”

I moped around for a few days, doing things like eating chocolate, reading comfort books and hanging out with my family. But I couldn’t sit around—I had to write.

So instead of giving up—I got busy.

I researched publishers that accepted unagented manuscripts. I polished then submitted my manuscripts—including a few pictures books. This format was new to me since I’d mostly written novels, but I’d sold one picture book–Snow Dog, Sand Dog, illustrated by Jess Golden (Albert Whitman, 2014) and that gave me hope. So I wrote more picture books.

One of these, Cash Kat, seemed like a good fit for my friend Danna Smith’s publisher Arbordale, so I sent it to them. A year later they offered me a contract—and now Cash Kat (2016) is a beautiful hardback picture book, illustrated by Christina Wald! It teaches how to count money and celebrates the special bond kids have with their grandparents.

More books I submitted on my own sold: Never Been Texted (Leap Books, 2015) and Curious Cat Spy Club series to Albert Whitman (2015). The third book in this CCSC series, Kelsey The Spy, comes out April 1—and I can hardly wait.

Also, I got a new agent—Abi Samoun of Red Fox Literary, who recently sold two of my picture books to Little Bee for 2017 publication.

And remember that YA science fiction/mystery I’d tried so hard to sell? Well, it’s coming out in September 2016 from CBAY Publishing under the new title of Memory Girl.

Instead of my career being over, it’s taking a new shape.

Being discouraged is part of the writing game. Most writers deal with the lows of rejections, losing agents or editors, low sales numbers and having books go out of print. A writing career is like riding a roller coaster, going up and down then up again.

Here are some tips to help you ride the painful downs:

  • It’s healthy to grieve a disappointment or loss—but then get busy. 
  • Network! Writer friends give great advice and publishing tips. 
  • Small publishers can offer big opportunities. 
  • Keep busy writing: books, articles, reviews. Name recognition counts. 
  • Try new genres! You never know when magic will happen. 
  • If you aren’t in a critique group, join one—or start one. 
  • Don’t give up—as long as you’re writing you are a writer.

Cynsational Notes

See more on Linda Joy Singleton’s books and writing tips.

Author Interview: Linda Joy Singleton on The Seer series

Linda Joy Singleton on Linda Joy Singleton: “As a kid, I was always reading and writing. I even played writing games with my best friend Lori. We made up weird titles, put them in a bowl, and we had to write a story based on whatever title we drew out. I still have one of these stories: ‘Angel in the Bathtub.’ I kept many of my childhood writings, although I had more beginnings than completed books. Mom used to complain that I’d read her the beginning of a story then never finish it. But when I was 14, I challenged myself to write a chapter a day over Christmas vacation and finished an entire mystery called ‘Phantom in the Mirror Maze.’ That same year I wrote a fan letter to my favorite author, Margaret Sutton (Judy Bolton mysteries)(learn more), and she wrote back. We became pen pals and she even shared one of my short stories with her adult writing class. We finally met at my high school graduation party.

“Now with this start you’d think I’d sell my first book before I could legally drive. But I lost confidence and was side-tracked by life experiences like a teen marriage, divorce, a good marriage and two great kids. When I rediscovered my passion for writing at a local writer’s conference, I went after my writing dreams with obsessive persistance.

“For the personal stuff…I love cats, chocolate, nature walks, boating, camping, reading, writing and collecting girl series books (I have a library of about 5,000 books from Anne of Green Gables to Zanballer). I live on twenty-five acres in a house that my husband built. I am very lucky and feel grateful every day.”

What about the writing life first called to you?

Books have been dear friends for as long as I can remember. I started writing around age eight, and I still have one of those stories about a cat named Taben. I have a second version of this same story rewritten a year later, which is really fun to show at school talks (teachers love when I talk about the wonders of rewriting). When I was fourteen, I submitted short stories to American Girl Magazine and received some encouraging rejections. My biggest dream was to have my own published mystery series. Two decades later this dream goal came true.

What made you decide to write for young adults?

The first writing organization was Romance Writers of America and I worked hard on romantic suspense novels. But for fun I read books from my girl series collection like Trixie Belden, Beany Malone, Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton. One morning I just woke up with the idea for a teen sleuth character named Penny-Candy and wrote an entire chapter. That was a lightbulb moment which made me realize I was meant to write for kids (and for the kid inside of me).

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I had many rejections (and I keep them all in a big box). But two years after joining RWA–and then SCBWI–I made my first book sale, Almost Twins (Willowisp Press 1991). I sold this book on a proposal and did a lot of rewriting. The book was postponed and almost cancelled. When it finally came out, I took it with me everywhere–even to bed (at least the first night).

For those new to your work, could you briefly update us on your backlist?

I wrote five Sweet Dreams romances (Bantam) and #59 Sweet Valley Twin (Bantam). Then I got an agent who sold my first original series, My Sister the Ghost (Avon 1995). With disappointing bumps and blissful bursts of publication, I sold four more original series: Cheer Squad (Avon 1997), ReGeneration (Berkley 2000), Strange Encounters (2004) and The Seer.

Congratulations on the success of the Seer series (Llewellyn, 2004-)! What was your initial inspiration for these stories?

The first version was called “Psychic Sleuth,” about a spoiled, rich girl named Tessa who suddenly got psychic visions after a car accident. When Llewellyn expressed interest in this series idea, I read psychic biographies and learned most psychics are born with the gift.

So I tossed out everything and started over with Sabine Rose. I based her loosely on psychics I’d researched but mostly she felt like someone standing next to me sharing her story. She’s blond with a black streak of hair that’s a family mark of a seer. She’s afraid of the dark and desperate to fit in at school. She’s cautious, yet open; she’s genuine and a true friend. She feels like my friend.

What was the timeline from spark to first publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Okay, let me check my journal…

Feb 2003 I queried Llewellyn with the idea for The Seer series.

March 10, 2003, submitted a detailed series proposal.

March 28, 2003 The Call!

June 28, 2003 I turned in my first draft of Don’t Die Dragonfly.

September 2004, The Seer #1. Don’t Die Dragonfly was published.

The Seer #2 Last Dance came out in 2005; #3 Witch Ball in 2006; #4. Sword Play in 2006; and #5. Fatal Charm will be released in August 2007.

(In 2007, Witch Ball was selected as a YALSA Quick Pick.)

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Research is the fun part. I’ve gone to psychic fairs, enjoyed a seance, taken fencing lessons, watched jousting at a renaissance fair and interviewed a friend about astral traveling. The Seer is set in fictitious Sheridan Valley which is a compliation of Galt (where I used to live) and Calaveras County (where I live now). I mention real places that are nearby; a mall in Sacramento and theater in Lodi. I chose to invent Sheridan Valley for the freedom to create streets, schools, and businesses. My favorite business is Velvet’s Trick n’ Treats Shop where candy is sold in the front room and New Age secrets are sold in the back room.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Join writing groups, attend conferences, read a wide variety of genres, pay attention to the publishers that write your favorite books since those editors may be a good match.

Don’t submit too soon; polish your work and make sure it’s submitted professionally.

I always recommend www.verlakay.com, which has so much writing information it’s like a free writing college online.

Also sign up for some writing listservs from yahoogroups. I’m subscribed to nearly thirty listservs and enjoy sharing, learning, loving everything related to writing. I also connect with readers and other writers on MySpace (visit Linda Joy Singleton’s MySpace).

How do you balance your role as a writer (research, writing, revision) and as an author (marketing, contracts, promotion)?

I work full-time as a writer. At least five mornings a week, I get up early and work on my current project. I exercise at Curves then after lunch return to my computer for emails, blogs, mailings, research, etc. I sometimes spend nearly my entire day at the computer. (Okay, this sounds like I’m dedicated…but seriously…I goof off a lot, too. Did I mention I’m addicted to reality shows? I’m watching one as I write this…!)

What do you love about your writing life?

Everything. Writing makes me crazy a lot but it’s all good. Sure, I have rejections and disappointments like books going out of print. But it’s a joy to work in worlds that I create, with characters I’ve created. Sometimes I almost burst with passion for writing; the thrill of taking a blank page and bringing it to life is wonderful. I was born to write…and as long as I’m writing, I’m truly alive.

What is its greatest challenge?

The industry. Sometimes it’s like extra gravity weighing me down; the uncertainty of sales and marketing. I’m always worrying about “the next book.” My fifth The Seer isn’t even out, and I’m already getting fan letters asking me if there’ll be a sixth book. I’d love to do more but it’s not my decision.

So I focus on what I can do–which is write. I’m currently writing an edgy urban science fiction YA (four-book) series with a heroine who was “born to kill her boyfriend.” Once I match it with a publisher, I’ll share the details on my blog.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Not writing? You must have me confused with someone else (g). Seriously, I put my family first, always. When my hubby gets a day off, I drop everything and go out with him. We love to take walks at a nearby lake, go boating, watch movies or go on wild drives in stormy weather.

What can your fans look forward to next?

The fifth The Seer, Fatal Charm, is due out August 07 (and available for preorder now!). In Fatal Charm, many of the mysteries from previous books are solved. Sabine spies on her secret half-sister, searches for an antique book with hottie Dominic, camps overnight on a horse-back trip, and witnesses a murder while astral traveling. There’s romance, too, with both Josh and Dominic. Sabine finally makes her choice.

And in 2008, my first hardback/midgrade mystery will be published by Blooming Tree Press (publisher interview). Into The Mirror is about an artistic foster child who runs away from her group home to a mysterious mountain community of scholars and dark secrets. She makes surprising friendships, climbs a hidden pyramid and discovers the real definition of home. This book is very special to me because it was inspired by my best friend and son. I can’t wait for Into The Mirror to be published!