By Gloria G. Adams
This week we're featuring an interview with author and former Northern Ohio SCBWI Regional Advisor Jean Daigneau. Jean has found success writing magazine articles as well as picture books and middle grade novels.
1. How long have you been writing?
As a kid I always had pen pals and loved writing long chatty letters. I wrote poetry in high school and actually enjoyed having long term papers to do for homework. But my biggest connection to writing and my childhood is the middle grade novel that my friend Claire and I wrote in 6th grade. It was called Billy Bixby and it was a story about a boy and his dog Mopsy and the trouble they got into. The first line was, "Fetch it, Mopsy," yelled Billy Bixby, one bright sunny day as he threw a stick across the yard. We thought we were so creative because the first chapter - about Mopsy getting loose and running into a corner grocery store and knocking down a display of eggs - was called "The Egg-cident." Unfortunately, we both had fires at our homes at some point during our childhood and assume that Billy Bixby was lost somewhere along the way. I'd love to see that manuscript again.
2. What made you decide to try to get published?
I started writing professionally around 2000 when my best friend Linda encouraged me to submit a rhyming story that I had written for my first grandson Ty for publication. I knew absolutely nothing about writing for children or publishing, but I sold the manuscript within five weeks of submitting to a small publishing house in California. And a couple months later I sold another picture book to them. Ultimately, neither book was ever published and I withdrew the manuscripts on the advice of Jane Yolen…yes, THE Jane Yolen, because the company was having a lot of problems and I was hearing some well-grounded stories about their troubles and people, like me, not getting paid. The company is still around and while I've always questioned whether or not I made the right decision, the whole experience gave me the confidence that I really could write children's books, so that's my silver lining to the whole thing.
3. What is your process? Do you have a regular schedule? When do you write?
My process is pretty scattered, but when I'm in the throes of a project, I'm quite obsessed. I've learned to write in short snippets because I work three part-time jobs and my days are pretty full. I'm not good at disciplining myself to write every day or write at a certain time every day, but someday I hope to have the luxury to be more focused. I have a lot of interest in nonfiction, especially history, but some of my ideas have come out of nowhere and have started with something as minimal as a title. I like to have at least two projects going on at the same time - preferably something longer like a middle grade novel and then a picture book - so that as inspiration flows I can go back and forth.
4. What was the first thing you published?
My first publication was a short piece called "Nice Surprises" for Clubhouse magazine back in 2002. It was a list of random acts of kindness that kids could do for neighbors, classmates, and their family. I remember the thrill of opening the magazine to my piece and finding that they had misspelled my last name!
5. What it is like writing for Highlights magazine?
I love writing for Highlights because I enjoy doing nonfiction. It was especially fulfilling for me because I worked with editor Debra Hess for the four pieces I sold to Highlights for their "What a Pro Knows" feature and another for "Gallant Kids". It was wonderful to have a personal connection with an editor - I loved calling her "my editor" - and I'm hoping that I can establish the same connection with Judy Burke, who has taken over for Debra. While I have been published in other magazines, writing for a magazine with the reputation and credentials of Highlights is especially fulfilling, because I know how difficult it is to get accepted by their editorial board.
6. Why did you decide to look for an agent?
I had had a number of "near-misses" with several picture book manuscripts and have a notebook full of rejections, many of which are extremely positive and include personal notes from editors. But I never quite made the leap to getting published in the book market. When Vicki Selvaggio, former regional advisor for SCBWI Northern Ohio became an agent, I was given the opportunity to meet with her and discuss my work. Vicki had heard me talk about one particular historical fiction manuscript and really liked the story. So, she asked to see it. I was very clear when we met that whether or not she accepted me as a client had nothing to do with friendship and everything to do with feeling like I was the kind of client she wanted to represent and that she could sell. I say that fate and luck brought us together, but hard work and perseverance got me my agent.
7. What is it like to have an agent?
For me, having an agent is a dream come true. I know that Vicki is working hard for me and that she wants exactly what I want - to sell writing that is the absolute best that it can be. It's also encouraging to know that as things change in the field of publishing, that she can open doors that I would not find open on my own. That, for me, is HUGE. But, I will tell you that Vicki knows her stuff and she is not afraid to push me to the upper limits of my skill. The picture book that we both love went through at least 9 or 10 revisions after I submitted it to her, and that was after it had previously won an SCBWI Barbara Karlin Award Honorable Mention a number of years ago. But, I think many of us assume that when we get an agent, the contracts are going to start flowing in and that's just not true. It's just as hard to get published whether or not you have an agent, because children's publishing is still a changing field to break into. And the agent now has to be sure that the project s/he is representing is the absolute best since their name is tied to it as well, so there's a lot on the line for them, too.
8. What is the most frustrating part of being a writer?
For me the most frustrating part is not having the time that I'd like to put into my writing. And sometimes when I do have the time, I don't always have the discipline to stay focused. Writing is hard work, plain and simple, and even extremely short projects (like the 46-word picture book I just resubmitted to Vicki) can cause a lot of stress, self-doubt, and frustration. The words don't always come together as easily as I'd like. But the knowledge that I have found success in the past and the hope that every new project that I send out might find a home reaffirms the importance of all that hard work.
9. What's the best part?
Being in two critique groups and having another one-on-one writing partner have been the best parts of writing for me. I would absolutely NOT be doing this or finding the success I've had without them. Hands down. Of course, getting something accepted and seeing it in print is extremely rewarding. But the friendships and connections I have made with my critique groups and with people that I have met over the years through the SCBWI and as the Regional Advisor for the organization have definitely been wonderful. Then, too, the hope that one day something that I have published might somehow touch the life of even one child in a positive way is something that I dream about.
10. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
I would say get into a critique group or find a writing partner and don't submit too soon. I sent out plenty of stories that I worked very hard on and that I thought were my best. But when I continued to work on them later or as I continued to revise and submit with the suggestions of my critique partners and/or my agent, I am always amazed at how much better they can be. I see a lot of authors self-publish, and while I have no problem with that, I think the ease with which that can be done nowadays makes it way too easy to turn out work that really is not a writer's best. And, isn't that what we all want to show the world? Our best?
Jean, thanks for stopping by and taking time to share your experience with us. We wish you much success in your future endeavors!