Our readers are often curious about the process of writing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts! In the first post of our Publishing U series, agent Joanna Volpe explores an important question with two of her clients: author-illustrators Lori Nichols and Elizabeth Rose Stanton. As you’ll see, there are many paths to publication.
Joanne Volpe: To this day, my father, a successful business owner, still says, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” He’s only half-kidding. Most young people feel like they’re in trouble if they don’t have everything figured out the moment they graduate from college. But realistically, most people I know continue to figure out their place in the world for years after college: switching careers, getting married, moving far away, etc. And for writing, this is especially true. It doesn’t matter if you’re 12 years old or 80—creativity can come from anyone and anywhere.
Lori Nichols: I’ve always had a strong creative curiosity. As a kid, I marveled at how light moved across the yard, how my hand worked under my skin, and at the way pages with images and words could bind together to make a full story. I knew that I was bound to create things, and that led me to illustration. Through my 20s and most of my 30s I spent time as an editorial illustrator for a newspaper, a magazine designer, and an art director for women’s health and beauty magazines. They were good jobs but didn’t fully satisfy my creative self. So I created outside of work. I painted. I planted. I sewed.
Soon, I found myself holding a newborn, then a second and a third. (My husband helped hold them, too.) Each week we’d wade into piles of library picture books. It was a sacred time for us as a family.
I wanted to create something for my kids, for me.
One day at work, as I was retouching an image for the magazine and then rushing to pick up my girls from daycare, it hit me. I wanted to create something for my kids, for me. I started by joining SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). I went to as many conferences as my family and work life would allow. I developed ideas, and built up my confidence before going to the national conference in New York. It was there that I met Jo. She encouraged me to believe in my writing as much as I believed in my illustrating. I started to slowly find my vision and my voice.
JV: I remember picking up Lori’s portfolio and instantly falling for her adorable little critters because it was immediately apparent that she knew how to create a strong sense of character. I wanted to know what her little pig was up to, and what adventure her kitty was going on. She captured me with just a few images! I had a similar experience with Elizabeth Rose Stanton, but in her case, I was captivated by her sense of humor. Her quirky illustrations were hilarious, but they also had a lot of heart. And once I met Henny, her little chicken born with arms instead of wings—I was hooked.
I wasn’t the only one.
Elizabeth Rose Stanton: The first time I met face-to-face with my editor and publisher at Simon & Schuster, she said to me, “Where have you been all this time?” I was terribly flattered but wasn’t quite sure how to answer. Then I realized that six decades of life experience had led to this moment. I’d been an architect, designer, portrait artist, fine artist, and scientific illustrator. I’d had paid jobs and unpaid jobs, and I’d raised three kids—the ultimate unpaid job. And now I had arrived, finally, where I felt I was supposed to be: as an agented and published children’s author and illustrator.
But that’s the long story.
It felt like I was standing around in my underwear.
The short story is how it actually happened: I didn’t have a plan, per se, nor did I have expectations—but I had hopes. I didn’t query agents, send out samples, or submit manuscripts. But I did take action. I blogged. I posted. I tweeted. I attended workshops and meetings. I talked to people and I made friends. Finally, I submitted my portfolio to the big SCBWI NY conference. It felt like I was standing around in my underwear. Then, a few weeks later at our local SCBWI WA conference I screwed up my courage and showed my Henny book dummy to a faculty art director from Simon & Schuster. The next thing I knew, I had an agent and a book deal!
Looking back on it, I realize that working hard, being prepared, and putting it out there (in spite of feeling vulnerable) turned out to be just the right combination for having my planets, after all these years, align. That long life’s orbit led to the short trajectory that has put me where I’m supposed—finally and fully—to be.
JV: Working with talented authors and illustrators is the very reason I got into this business. And I love discovering new voices, no matter what point of life they’re in. Talent is talent is talent.
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Lori Nichols (Maple & Willow Together, 2014) grew up in Western Pennsylvania marveling at everything from acorns to frogs to big sisters and now makes books about them all.
Elizabeth Rose Stanton (Henny, 2014) began her picture-book writing and illustrating adventures after a brief career as an architect and long career as a parent and fine artist. She lives and works in Seattle with her husband and three Scottish Fold cats.
Joanna Volpe is a literary agent and president of New Leaf Literary & Media. She represents everything from children’s books to adult fiction and nonfiction, and she has a weakness for great picture books.