Posted by: Robin Koontz | February 28, 2018

When to give up on a story.

joan1

Writers love their stories. It can be a love-hate thing throughout the writing process, but when a writer reaches the end and declares the story is done, they are hopelessly in love with it. Does anyone remember the intro scene from Romancing the Stone, when the sobbing Joan Wilder types in the final scene in her latest novel and all her tissue boxes in the house are empty, and she says, “This is SO GOOD?” That’s me. I really love my story when it’s done. It’s a serious story crush, and I am oblivious to its flaws or potential problems down the road.

At the beginning of my career I was over-confident at that giddy moment, and learned hard lessons. I soon stopped immediately sending my story out to an editor thinking they too, will run out of tissues because it was SO GOOD. I’ve learned to move on and come back to it later. And every time, even within a couple of days, I see lots of flaws, and start revising.

This goes on for varying amounts of time depending on the story. Eventually I will send it out to expert eyes for a critique or two. And then revise again. Finally I love the story even more than before. It’s no longer that first romance crush thrill with all the tears and tissues. Now this story and I are in a serious relationship, and I am committed to it for life. And it’s time to take the relationship to the next level: trust the story enough to send it out to the world.

During this often very long process, sometimes an agent or editor agrees that they will look at it again if we make certain changes. The thought of revising again after all the work we’ve put into a story can be excruciating. But we remember our solemn vow to love this story forever, and we revise it again. It can be very tough on a relationship. Rejection challenges our faith. Therapy is almost always required. But we stick with our beloved even as it changes and often grows into something we barely recognize. And, like a long-term relationship that goes through rocky times, love prevails.

One possibility is the story sells and we live happily ever after. But there is also the other possibility. What about a story that has been through it all with us? It has been revised countless times. Perhaps it made it to more than one interested editor’s desk, even to an acquisitions meeting or two! But alas, as we waited patiently, fantasizing about the award speeches we’d need to write (don’t tell me you never do this), our story was ultimately rejected. And now, our beloved has made the rounds to all of the possible markets, and has not sold. An agent will say it’s time to let it go, and after a lot of tears, we know she’s right. Sigh.

There are probably just three options:

1. Table it. A lot of successful authors have put a story or idea aside and revisited it later, sometimes years later, and sold it. That’s happened to me more than once, I’m happy to report. And sometimes, a story turns out to be just a story seed that needed to grow in a different climate to really flourish. A new story is born.

2. Self-publish it. If you choose the self-publishing route, do make sure you have a marketing plan and that your book is professionally edited and produced. Unless you are using a pseudonym, your name as an author is on the line. And while a lot of wonderful stories are rejected, a lot more not-so-wonderful stories are rejected as well or more often, have never even sat on an editor’s desk. Your book will be competing with a huge slush-pile and it will have to stand out. Do your research and honor your story.

3. Let it go. Kiss your story goodbye and call it quits. It’s like a friendly but nevertheless sad divorce. You will always love each other, but it’s never going to work. It’s time to move on.

While I have always chosen option 1, recently, I chose option 3. I gave up a story that was dear to my heart, called Lucy’s Little Church. I’ve never received so many beautiful editorial comments on a single manuscript that was not accepted for publication. So, since a descendant of the founders of the church that inspired the story also loved it, I gave Lucy’s Little Church to her. She had mentioned, after reading it, that she would love to have that opportunity, and I was humbled and flattered. Here is some of what she wrote when I released the rights to her a few months ago:

“We may never see each other face to face but we will always share Lucy’s experiences at Glendale Chapel. She may get a new name, Annie, for my sister who fell in the creek, Annie my mother, and Annie Shields who brought Glendale Chapel back to life.”

11986978_10207760295675214_5107976400581954905_nSo this time, I didn’t so much as give up on a story, I feel that I gave the story to its proper owner. I hope to see it come to life someday.

 

 

Posted by: Robin Koontz | January 11, 2018

Changing with the times – how I stayed published.

This piece is from the May 2006 issue of our local electrical coop’s Ruralite Magazine. I interviewed myself actually, and was very easy to talk to. I also took the photos, hence the cut off head. The gist of the interview was how we creative types struggle in our careers. Getting published doesn’t mean we’ll stay published, for instance. Keeping up with the changing, often fickle market is a must. So is keeping doors open and networking either via conferences or online contacts. And perhaps most importantly, for me anyway, is determined willingness to try something new and possibly fail. For example, the last book mentioned that was scheduled never happened. That editor was laid off and the project was cancelled.

To note, I was also sort of slyly advertising our upcoming SCBWI Oregon spring conference. It’s a lot easier these days to get the word out at no cost, thanks to the internet, but we had to be pretty creative to get free publicity back in the dinosaur age!

c-17 pp 4-5 May.inddc-17 pp 4-5 May.indd

Posted by: Robin Koontz | January 7, 2018

Families torn by a mean regime.

snowcreekMy 96-year old aunt has been a dyed-in-the wool Republican for as long as she knew there was a choice. She worked for the party when she was young, and after retiring, she volunteered for them again.

My aunt’s incredible knowledge and recall of American history can make it interesting to talk politics with her, even though we’re polar on most things. We often reach an impasse and change the subject, but nobody was ever mean or disrespectful of the other’s opinions.

While my aunt was not real keen on the 2016 Republican candidate for president, she is embracing him now. No surprise there. But something new has happened. Recently, our weekly conversations had her prefacing with, “Excuse me if I’m being *politically incorrect* but…” and I could feel the sarcasm that was not there before. The story was usually disagreeing with whatever us “liberal snowflakes” had our panties in a bunch about. Recently I finally told her that she’s not being politically incorrect, she’s being mean and disrespectful of things people feel very strongly about (civil rights, the ME TOO movement, etc.). She said, “I’m sorrrrrreeeee if I oh-FENDed you,”  and promptly sent me a letter defining the words political and correct in her defense.

My aunt is a kind woman. She has always looked out for her family and has been there for all of us in her world. It finally dawned on me today that this woman, who has always stuck to her beloved party, is starting to parrot the infectious vitriol that Trump introduced to the limelight and has made acceptable. And she doesn’t realize it.

Trump and his supporters at FOX are encouraging the very worst in people and showcasing it as some kind of justified retaliatory movement against the “liberal crybabies.” I hate that my aunt is letting that rub off on her just because she’s a follower of the party. It makes it difficult to talk to her. and I know families all over the country are in a similar boat. It’s depressing, isn’t it?

So, here’s what I sent to my aunt, as a definition of a liberal. It’s a lovely piece I saw on social media, without an attribution:

I am not a liberal snowflake.
My feelings aren’t fragile; my heart isn’t bleeding.
I am a badass believer in human rights.
My toughness is in tenderness.
My strength is in the service of others.
There is nothing more fierce than formidable, unconditional love.
There is not a thing more courageous than compassion.
But if my belief in equity, empathy, goodness, and love indeed makes me or people like me snowflakes, then you should know: Winter is coming.

 

Posted by: Robin Koontz | November 15, 2017

DIY Picture Book Query Letters

Rabbit1

Illustration from Samuel’s Garden, 1981

When it comes to picture book submissions, editors and agents nearly always ask for the entire text. For novels and nonfiction, they generally ask for a synopsis, the first three chapters, and/or a proposal and outline. It’s a no-brainer that one should write a query for novels or nonfiction to get the prospective publisher interested enough to want to read more. But a lot of people skip writing a query for a picture book, because after all, a picture book is so short!

Or it should be. Most picture books published in recent years tend to be well under 1,000 words. The illustration above is from my first picture book, which was about 2,500 words. The query letter, which I’ve since trashed, was a hand-lettered, photocopied “Dear Editor” monstrosity. Believe it or not, I sold the story, but the publisher (Delair) went belly-up before the book ever saw the light of day. And that’s probably a good thing.

But anyway, a query is needed for a picture book unless the guidelines state otherwise. You are querying the reader to see if she wants to read your story, so obviously a query is actually a pitch, like the teaser on the book jacket which is the lure to get someone to buy and read the book. A lot of writers find that a query for a picture book is far more difficult to write than one for a novel or nonfiction. I’ve done all of them, and agree.

So I decided to dig up the query letters for my recent picture books and share them here. One of the books sold, and the rest are making the rounds. A couple of them had input from my amazing agent, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary.

Merilee Wiser, Master Advisor loves to give helpful advice to everyone. But Ziggy, Charlie and Trevor don’t think she can solve a real problem, like building a clubhouse. Merilee proves them wrong of course. But when the clubhouse is done, they will not let her inside because she is a girl. Her solution to that problem offers the best advice of all.

In Aneesa, Go Outside!, Aneesa is not happy about the strange sights, sounds, and smells she encounters at her new home in the city, and she misses the natural beauty of the home she sadly left behind. Nanni does her best to coax Aneesa into going outside with her to explore, but Aneesa will have nothing of it. When Nanni gives Aneesa a pot of soil and a seed so she can have her outside inside, the seed also burrows inside Aneesa’s heart and sprouts a tiny glimpse of hope for her.

Autumn Spawn follows a single salmon’s historical life journey from stream to ocean and then back to her ancestral spawning grounds, where she lays her eggs and soon dies. Her amazing quest is much like all species of Salmoniformes in the world whose populations have drastically declined in the last century. Autumn Spawn is a story of relentless survival that has evolved over millions of years.

Onomatopoeia is a popular and fun way to describe and remember bird sounds. In Chirp!, Mia Louise interprets a variety of bird voices that she hears on her walk. But suddenly the music stops: one bird has a problem. Once the problem is solved, the symphony resumes.

BUG! is a quirky little girl who loves bugs, loves to draw, but hates math. When challenged to pass the big math test, Bug finds a unique and clever way to finally understand math concepts. And bugs have something to do with it. All goes well, at first. This humorous, character-driven story will show children who struggle that there are many ways to get to the correct answer, and it will encourage them to use their own imaginations to find the solutions.

These pitches are not perfect by any means, but my goal is to succinctly describe the story and provide a hook to encourage the editor to want to read it. I hope these examples give you some ideas for your picture book query.

Be sure to check out my books, many of which you can find at Rourke Educational Media. A complete publications list is on my wiki page.

And, stay tuned for the spring 2019 publication of BUG! to be illustrated by Amy Proud and published by Sterling Children’s.

Posted by: Robin Koontz | September 10, 2017

Sock-sock-shoe-shoe? or sock-shoe-sock-shoe?

I had this discussion recently with a Millennial, who felt that the first option was the only answer that made any sense whatsoever, and, he didn’t want to hear any discussion about the alternative. The discussion recalled a hilarious scene in one of the best sitcoms ever made, All in the Family, which aired in the early 1970s:

For those who don’t know, Archie Bunker was very set in his pretty rigid conservative ways and thought anyone who disagreed with him was a knucklehead. But his liberal daughter and her radical husband (who Archie called Meathead) often showed him the other side of things.

Many of the issues raised in this 30-minute groundbreaking show – such as race, homosexuality and war – reached a wide and diverse audience via humor, and I do think opened a lot of minds. We eventually learned that Archie was a kind, big-hearted man who was brought up a certain way, was taught to believe certain things, but wasn’t completely closed to alternative ways of looking at the world. Even in this ridiculous sock-shoe discussion, Meathead finally concedes that Archie has a point while Archie seems to bend a bit as well.

So anyway, as a former sock-sock-shoe-shoe, I’m now a sock-shoe-sock-shoe. For me, there were too many good reasons to just deal with one freaking foot at a time. For instance, when drying off feet after hanging out in a creek, what would someone do with a foot in a sock while they put the other foot in a sock? Never mind, Archie and Meathead already explained it all.

sock-shoe

By the way, my newest picture book, BUG!, is about a little girl who can’t figure out math concepts. Like most kids in school, Bug is being taught math in a certain way, and all the kids are expected to understand it. But poor Bug just doesn’t get it. Happily, she stumbles upon a unique way she could use to finally understand math! Her method of learning math leads to the correct answer, so who cares? She got her socks and shoes on, and that’s all that matters.

BUG! is being published by Sterling Children’s Books, will be illustrated by Amy Proud, and is scheduled for Spring 2019.

 

Posted by: Robin Koontz | April 27, 2017

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Those are the infamous words spoken by the Majority Leader of the Senate recently as his reason to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren for things he didn’t wish to hear. His invocation of a seldom-used rule backfired and gave a whole lot of us a new battle cry. It goes along with my long-standing mantra: endeavor to persevere. I got the t-shirt.

PersistedRobin

Then I thought about my own persistence when I ran across two report cards from long ago.

#1

2ndGradeReport-2This glowing report is from my second grade teacher. I clearly remember a lively classroom, full of activity and fun.

#2

FourthGradeReport2This is my fourth grade report. I recall a lot of yelling to sit down and shush.

If you look at the comments from each teacher about the same child within a two-year span, you might get a feel for the classroom environment:

#1 “reads orally with expression and ease…volunteers in all phases of our program…uses art media and words to show her lively imagination…actively participates and contributes to our science and social studies program.”

#2 “work is always completed on time…sometimes she is careless about spelling…and handwriting…the letters are not each formed carefully. We need more practice with this.”

Elementary school is often the first time little girls get a chance to overcome obstacles in the real world. I remember my attitude at the time, which isn’t that different today, many decades later: independent, headstrong, curious, mischievous, and always getting into trouble for talking in class (now I just interrupt Marvin). It was impossible to sit and listen to a lecture when the teacher said something that was exciting and interesting! I wanted to comment, or nudge a friend, or ask a question. I persisted in doing that with mixed results. The 2nd grade teacher seemed to allow the behavior; the 4th grade teacher did not.

So, 4th grade was a warning that if I persisted in my unacceptable behavior, I would get into trouble in the future. Just shush and listen. Let us shove information at you and don’t ask questions, just answer when asked. And make sure you shape your letters correctly.

Nevertheless, I persisted in my trouble-making ways and muddled through public school. But I eventually lost interest in everything except for art. Did the child only find freedom to persist in art class and nowhere else?

This is one big reason that I am so happy to be asked to write exciting and interesting books for kids that encourage critical thinking and discussion. These books pose questions that allow the reader to think about their own experiences and how they relate to the subject. Kids are even invited to question the author (or the teacher) and make suggestions for better ways to approach problems. How cool is that?

Here’s a clip from “Poop is Power,” one of my books with Rourke Educational Publishing:

pooppower© 2016 Rourke Educational Media

These kinds of hands-on, welcoming books allow a child to be curious and talk freely about their ideas. They are invited to contribute to their own education, and overall get a chance to learn how to persist in the real world in spite of the obstacles. I think that’s a good thing and am delighted to be part of it.

Posted by: Robin Koontz | April 11, 2017

Judging a Cover by its Book?

A few years ago, a friend, who was about to self-publish a nonfiction book, asked for my opinion of the title and cover design since I was a published author. I commented that it was lovely, but I knew nothing about the book by its cover. The title seemed odd to me, the font almost unreadable, and the image was kind of hard to decipher based on the title. The displeased response was, basically, “You have to read the book to understand the title and cover.”

When Marvin and I decided to self-publish a book about building our suspension bridge, we came up with a very long and revealing title: Building a Small Cable Suspension Bridge with the Cable Locking System. It’s a little cumbersome, but had we not also been marketing Marvin’s patented cable locking system, the title would have been shorter, but it would still be pretty obvious that the book was about building a small cable suspension bridge. We used key words that exactly described what the book was about. Sales have been beyond our expectations and even paid for the patent, although nobody has bought it, alas. We’re working on our next DIY book. Stay tuned.

BridgeCoverFINAL-COMPRESSED

So, back to our friend. I thought about my not very helpful critique, and realized that maybe a mysterious title and design might just draw in a reader. And to the author’s credit, he wound up describing the content on the back cover, which would be jacket copy in a hardcover book. I definitely would have bought the book based on the back cover description if the subject interested me.

The problem remains that many readers shop online, i.e. Amazon, and they browse book covers, quickly. Actually they don’t even browse, they scroll, and the book covers are postage stamp size. The book that makes them stop and learn more needs to have both a title and cover design that grabs them and tells them something about the book before they move on to the online description (which by the way, the author of a self published book also determines). Be it mysterious, obvious, or shocking, as Frannie Jackson writes in her Paste article about book covers, “The simple reality is that a striking design can influence whether we’ll pick up a title or leave it untouched on a shelf.”  That includes the cyber shelf.

You can check out Paste magazine’s best book covers of 2016 here and some nicely designed nonfiction book covers on ‘s site here. There are other terrific designers showing their creations out there, but these are a good start.

If you are self-publishing a book, remember that unless you are a big name author or you are publishing a book about a hot or familiar topic, most people will judge your book by its cover, including reviewers. Did you know that Goodreads does not require someone to read a book to give it a review? I have a letter from them that explains that’s fine with them because they trust their members… So. Given the huge onslaught of self-published titles, potential readers may be doing that decisive quick perusal more than ever. Make them want to stop and read more!

Posted by: Robin Koontz | March 4, 2017

Just another day in rural Oregon

liberty

From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.

I needed postcard stamps, and our local post office had sold out. The mail clerk commented that it was unusual to run out of them. Maybe a lot of people are mailing postcards? Maybe on March 15? Anyway, with tears in my eyes, I drove off into the sunset looking for another place to buy postcard stamps.

The Veneta post office is yuge compared to our little P.O. in Noti, but still pretty cozy. I arrived to find a large family waiting to the side while two family members were talking to the clerk. One spoke Spanish and the other translated. I started visiting with one of the women waiting, who also knew English; just stuff about the weather and the usual waitin’ around babble. The two family members joined them with paperwork and it was my turn. Dang, they were also out of postcard stamps! But, the clerk called for the person who controls the stash, and said my stamps would just be a minute or so.

Meanwhile, a woman about my age came in. She glanced at the family, parked next to me at the counter and slammed down her purse. Then she glared at the family and sneered, then rolled her eyes at me as if I should be as disgusted as she obviously was. She muttered something as well, but thanks to my hearing issues, I didn’t hear what. My stamps were taking a while so I stepped back while the Nasty One got a money order and looked back at us with pure malice as she stormed out. I chatted more with the woman and smiled at the kids, wishing I knew how I could help these people, or how to even ask. I don’t even know what one does at the post office that has to do with being from another country. I did notice one family member showing the clerk her passport.

Finally my stamps were found, and as I paid the clerk, an old guy came roaring in and butted in front of me, yelling, “CAN I ASK YOU PEOPLE A QUESTION?” The clerk said of course, what, and the man said, “HOW COME YOU DON’T FLY THE AMERICAN FLAG HERE ANYMORE? WHAT’S UP WITH THAT?” I glanced back at the family and they seemed to have huddled closer together.

The clerk began to explain that they just hadn’t had time yet this morning to hang it, trying to assure the angry man that it was normally up by now (it was about 9:30 a.m., they open at 9). I didn’t stay to hear his response, I’d heard enough for one day. I said goodbye and good luck to the family, and left.

Rural Oregonians traditionally don’t trust anyone who isn’t white. That’s not news. When Marvin and I first arrived (by wagon train) 40 years ago, I felt the culture shock. We joked that we better get a gun and a pickup truck right away or we’d never fit in even though we were the right color. To this day, I don’t get people who feel so threatened by someone who doesn’t look or talk like they do. But I do get why these folks in our communities are loudly expressing their hatred and disgust more today than this country has seen in more than 50 years.

So now I’m stamping my postcards and sharing them with friends. I only asked my friends to be sure and mail them on March 15. I didn’t suggest what to tell our new president.

But I know what I will tell him.

 

 

 

Posted by: Robin Koontz | January 8, 2017

Leap into Literacy! A Printable Poster

Someone asked about buying a printable copy of this painting I did in 1991, called “Leap into Literacy.” It was a winning entry in a poster contest and also my promo piece back when we mailed things like this to editors and art directors. This is what it looks like. Since WordPress reduces file size, I put the original on Flickr.

leap-into-literacy-5x5

I realize there are a few unscrupulous people who will see nothing wrong with taking this printable image, obliterating my tiny little signature, and doing whatever they want with it. And others, in all innocence, will copy and share it minus my little humble credit. That bothers me a lot, and people who know me on Facebook know it’s a personal quest to get people to stop sharing cartoons and other copyrighted art where the owner’s name has been cut off or obliterated. See my blog about that if you like: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

So here you go, a free poster or other something to print out by the not -very-famous but generous author and illustrator Robin Koontz. Share it with your students and kids. Hang it in your bathroom. Make greeting cards and sell them on Etsy (and later be avenged by Karma). But please leave my little tiny signature on it and tell people who love it to maybe go buy my books. Thank you, and Happy New Year!

Posted by: Robin Koontz | December 17, 2016

A Rotting Paradise

We’re a few days from the 2016 winter solstice, and like many around the country, we’ve had some pretty frigid temperatures lately. So we complain about frozen roads, worry about losing power, and moan about water pipes freezing. In the beautiful Northwet, we also whine about endless days and weeks of dreary clouds and rain. Poor us. Meanwhile, imagine living outside in that mess.

tomatocorpses

Providing a naturescape for wildlife isn’t just for spring and summer when we give them pretty flowers, bird boxes, and water sources. Wildlife is still around the rest of the year, and winters are tough, especially for birds. So I try to provide a winter garden for them along with some supplemental food.

I don’t pull out my tomato plants or flowering annuals at the end of the summer. Instead, I let most everything go to seed and then rot, including all those useless tomatoes that show up too late to ripen. It’s not pretty to most humans, but is appreciated by the ones that matter more to me anyway. The seed eaters enjoy the seeds, and the bug eaters get after whatever little things are chewing away on the rotting remains.

tomatocorpses1

I also plant low-growing perennials that stay lush through the winter. We’re in Zone 8, so we have lots of options such as cat mint, lavender, rhododendrons, hellebore, and rosemary. Ground feeding birds like to hide in plants, especially close to the food.  I plunked down a large platform feeder near some shrubs so that a lot of species can share food without getting overly territorial. I keep the birdbath nearby and ice-free. I also have a heated water dish that I’ll put out if we get a serious prolonged freeze. Just remember the three things they need to survive: food, water, and shelter.

birdfeeder

There are no critters in the above photos because well, I was stomping around taking photos. But here’s a blurry one I took from inside my office, which happens to look out at the scene. That’s a song sparrow. We also see fox sparrows, creepers, robins, flickers, Oregon juncos…

sparrow

…and the rufous-sided towhee, who like to chase away the smaller competition. Luckily these bullies aren’t overly piggy and there’s enough for everyone.

towhee

 

 

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