Today I’m pleased to be interviewing the StoryQueen, Shelley Moore Thomas. An author, storyteller and teacher, Shelley is also a regular fixture around the blogosphere.
Her first book, PUTTING THE WORLD TO SLEEP, received a starred review in School Library Journal. Publishers Weekly called GOOD NIGHT, GOOD KNIGHT a “magical bedtime tale,” and when Booklist reviewed TAKE CARE, GOOD NIGHT, they said “the story is written with a keen ear for language and a good understanding of what makes young children laugh.”
Not too shabby! Especially when you consider that Shelley has successfully published eight books for children at three different houses…all without an agent.
Today Shelley talks about working with different editors, fighting the slush pile, figuring out who you are and why she loves her grandmother’s rhinestone jewelry. Not too shabby at all 🙂
So tell me, Shelley, how did you get your first contract?
My first book was published by Houghton Mifflin. I sent an editor there the manuscript for PUTTING THE WORLD TO SLEEP because I liked her name, Matilda. She asked to keep it for a bit and my husband bought champagne.
Me: But I didn’t sell the book yet.
Him: Well, yeah, but, what if….never mind.
Him: Well, what if this is as good as it gets?
So we drank the champagne. I mean, why not? He was right. It is important to celebrate the small victories. I mean, somebody was considering my work. How cool was that? In a few weeks, she decided to buy the book, which was even cooler.
What a sweet husband!
Was it smooth sailing from there?
No way! Or maybe I should say, I wish.
Selling every book is just as hard* as the first. Maybe a little harder because if you are already published, an editor (especially if they bought your first book) wants to like your next. But sometimes they don’t.
I have worked with three great editors from three great publishing houses because the truth of it is, different people like different things. I don’t hold it against any of them if they don’t like a particular manuscript, because often, someone else does. However, I think having an agent helps get manuscripts into an editor’s hands, which is very important. I have never had an agent, but am looking into the possibility now. The slush grows and grows and if you have no agent, you have to dig your way out every time.
*The reality is that “hard” is a very relative term. I have been very lucky. It’s not been that hard, because I get to do something I love. But I would never describe getting published as easy!
I’m pretty sure that a lot of people (writers included!) look at picture books and easy readers and think, “I could do that in a bout an hour!” How long do you typically spend on a manuscript?
It totally depends on the manuscript. Some have come out very easily, some I have struggled over. The experience is different for each. Some books took months and months to get right. Plus, I am not super fast since I usually work on about 5 books at a time.
Which book took you the longest to write? Why?
A BABY’S COMING TO YOUR HOUSE took the longest because I wanted to write a book for my third daughter the entire time I was pregnant with her. The drafts were dismal. Then, after I had her, I realized what I really wanted to say, and I wrote the draft in a few hours.
Which one was the fastest?
I’m not sure. Usually, if I am struggling with a piece, I just put it on the back burner for a while and work on something else until it is ready.
I write a LOT of stuff. Not all of it is book-worthy, believe me. But everything I write helps me to understand my process better, which I think is very important. I have been trying some different genres, MG and YA, so we’ll see what happens…
Your GOOD KNIGHT series has done really well. You have five out and a sixth on the way. Did this start out as a series?
The first Good Knight was a stand alone. My editor, Lucia Monfried at Dutton, said that they really loved the dragons and couldn’t I think of another adventure for them. Well, I loved the dragons, too! So the dragons and their Good Knight got to have a little more fun. Each dragon book is kind of a stand alone. They are a series, now. I think there could be even more in the future. I’ll have to see what happens in the old inspiration department.
Many of your books are based on real-life experiences with your children. Do they know which books are theirs?
Of course they know which are theirs…although from the dedications, you would never know. (Isabelle’s is dedicated to Noel, Noel’s is dedicated to Cali and Cali’s is dedicated to Isabelle…there is a weird-but-not-very-interesting story there as to how that came about.)
This photo of you guys on Space Mountain is hilarious! How old are your kids?
I have three daughters: Noel, 20, Isabelle 17 and Caledonia, 11
I love how your website tells the stories behind the books. What are some of the other ways you’ve promoted yourself and your books?
Sherrie, you are so sweet to mention my not-so-great website. I don’t really know how to make one, so I have my blog then I have a blog/website. Eventually I’ll figure it all out. I do love my blog, though. It is a fun place for me to think about writing and connect with other writers.
As for promotion, well, that’s a tough one. I am a storyteller locally and do story times for book fairs and such. And a big part of my job is being the StoryQueen. However, it’s important to spend as much time writing as “promoting” (which I feel kind of weird about. “Oh, buy my stuff” and all that).
How did you become the StoryQueen?
There’s the long version and the short version of this story.
Short version: Summer was coming up and since I was a teacher, that meant a bit of a break. There was a new locally owned bookstore in town that was awesome. They had a kid’s area with a boat in it! I wanted to tell stories in that area. So I made an appointment and talked to the owner, saying basically that I wanted to dress weird and tell stories in their store. (Yeah. I know). But she said yes. (It was probably more like, “Um, okay….sure….if that’s what you want……). I started a weekly story time that summer. (I think it was 1997?) It caught on like crazy.
The long version deals with what inspired my decision. I was feeling a little hurt that there was a children’s author panel for a big event in my city (which was Albuquerque at the time) and I knew the people in charge and they totally did not ask me to help out with the event, be on the panel, or anything. I felt kind of awful.
Then I had an epiphany. Did I really want to present to adults THAT badly? The truth was, no. I write for kids and I wanted to perform for kids. So, the StoryQueen came into being. (Plus, it was an excellent excuse to wear all of my grandmother’s rhinestone jewelry, a crown and a velvet cape!)
Sometimes things happen in you life that help you discover who you are. The StoryQueen is, well, she is the most fun part of me.
I love how you turned your disappointment into such a positive outcome. That’s perfect! And it ends up being rewarding for you and for the kids at the story time!
How many years have you been teaching?
I have been teaching since I was 21….so that’s a long time. (I’m not going to tell you exactly how long, though, because it would blow your mind.)
Do you try out your stories on your students?
Yes, my students are my guinea pigs. (Brutal critics/enthusiastic fans, which ever the case may be.)
What book gets the best reaction when you do a story time (yours or someone else’s)?
Well, when an author reads her own book, that is a very special thing. Kids pick up on this. It’s very close to magic.
Now I know from reading your blog that you’ve been working on a story with a great title: The Chicken Wizard. Those two words alone have sparked my curiosity! How’s it going?
Don’t ask. I’m on my 4th completely different draft and it’s still not resonating. Some ideas are like that. They take a bit longer to hatch. (yes, pun intended.)
You are such a crack up 🙂
Thanks so much for stopping by, Shelley.
This was fun Sherrie! Kept me from doing the dishes for a bit!