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Happy Monday Everyone! Today I have debut picture book author Beth Anderson and her agent Stephanie Fretwell-Hill to share about Beth's picture book, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. It sounds like a fun story that combines words and history.

Here's a blurb from Goodreads:

Once upon a revolutionary time, two great American patriots tried to make life easier. They knew how hard it was to spell words in English. They knew that sounds didn’t match letters. They knew that the problem was an inconvenient English alphabet.

In 1786, Ben Franklin, at age eighty, and Noah Webster, twenty-eight, teamed up. Their goal? Make English easier to read and write. But even for great thinkers, what seems easy can turn out to be hard.

Children today will be delighted to learn that when they “sound out” words, they are doing eg-zakt-lee what Ben and Noah wanted.

Now here's Beth and Stephanie!

The Elusive Premise   

Thank you so much for all the great content you offer on Literary Rambles! One of the most difficult concepts for me as an author on this writing journey has been the elusive premise. I’ve concluded that the author’s concept of premise differs from that of an agents and editors. I think my biggest challenge is to learn to see a story as an agent or editor would. And I think it’s a major factor in moving from rejection to offer.

I started to get my head around premise when I signed with agent Stephanie Fretwell-Hill of Red Fox Literary and was able to bounce ideas off of her and get feedback on my manuscripts. I wanted to share some of my learning and her thoughts with you. My first revelation was when she referred to my debut picture book, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, BEN FRANKLIN AND NOAH WEBSTER’S SPELLING REVOLUTION, as a “slam dunk.” I didn’t fully realize what I had. (I think it was a lightning strike.) I just knew I loved it in my own way as it connected to my students and personal interests. So what was it? And how could I do it again…with informed intention!

I could define the words "slam dunk,” and others I’d seen in rejections like “compelling," and "entry points for kids," but I needed to understand it all on a deeper level. So I began asking questions…

Stephanie, what exactly makes a manuscript a “slam dunk?” What makes a premise “compelling?” How would you explain “hook” and “entry points for kids” on a deeper level?

This is kind of a tough topic to talk about, because I think for many editors and agents, it’s a matter of
“knowing it when we see it.” It’s very hard to tell someone how to make a manuscript more compelling or hook-y or however you want to describe it.

And I think because this is a gut level response, it’s seldom explained, making it really tough for authors to understand.

In any genre, there are trends in publishing that agents and editors are aware of, even if we can’t always articulate what they are. Right now, people are looking for biographies of subjects who are either well-known but have a part of their story very few readers are aware of, or subjects who are lesser-known (or even overlooked by history) but played an important role in a relevant or timely story. In general, editors and agents are shying away from the traditional “cradle to grave” treatment, and are looking for a single incident or story arc brought to life.

What I saw in AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET that made me get excited was a combination of factors: well-known subjects engaged in a lesser-known story from history; a direct application to something kids can relate to on a daily basis; a fresh format that is in line with current trends in picture book biographies; a fun and approachable voice; your trademark meticulous research and attention to detail. The “entry points” are Ben Franklin, Noah Webster (and his dictionary), the history of our language, the American Revolution, the fact that young readers are learning to spell right now and wondering why it isn’t so simple, the idea that everyone fails, and of turning those failures into future successes. Each of these are subjects that might come up in a classroom setting, and some might even be part of retail displays for the Fourth of July, revolution, stories about Ben Franklin, or another category of books that stores might group together for some promotional reason.

There’s an industry side of all of this that writers and consumers don’t always see—how will I pitch this book to an editor? How will the editor sell it to his or her acquisitions or sales team? How will the sales rep convince a bookseller to take a few copies? How will the bookseller decide to shelve the book or include it in displays? What will make a school librarian feel that this is the book to spend part of the budget on instead of that one?

The truth is, the answers to these questions are never long—they are sound-bytes. Unique, exciting, fresh. Easy to explain in a single sentence. Easy to remember after the sales conference is long over.

How does all this differ with fiction and nonfiction? With picture books and middle grade/YA?

I don’t know that it does differ so much with fiction and nonfiction, except that some books are more school- and library-driven and others are more commercial or trade-oriented, so each of those categories will affect how it is viewed. So, for example, a really commercial topic might be one that ties in directly with a hot current event, whereas the school and library markets will be looking for stories that fit with age-appropriate curricula and will stay relevant for some years to come. And then, of course, so many imprints say they want to “straddle the line” between the two—meaning, they want it all! Curricula connections, classroom value, hot, current, popular subjects…that stand the test of time. Easy, right?

And the hook has to appeal to readers of the appropriate age group. So, for example, what a preschooler finds meaningful—dinosaurs, magic, potty training—is not the same as what a YA reader will find meaningful—breaking out of one’s family and becoming a person in your own right, finding romantic love, exploring what it means to be you in the wider context of the world.

As an exercise, look at how the same writer could frame a single subject in different ways to appeal to different readers. Take, for example, THE LITTLEST MARCHER vs. WE’VE GOT A JOB, both by Cynthia Levinson, both on the same subject, approached in completely different ways for different age readers. Or WONDER vs. WE’RE ALL WONDERS by RJ Palacio.

I’ve learned a lot from Candace Fleming and her “vital idea” and Barb Rosenstock and her “so what?” and know they are key to this process of honing the premise. What has helped me most of all, I think, is when you offer suggestions on manuscripts in terms of “reframing.”  I understand this as seeing the story through a new lens, from a new angle that directly connects to kids.

I had written LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT earlier in this journey. After 91 revisions I finally found the right frame in an article lamenting that our “hero” stories lead kids to believe that all we need to do is wait for that one exceptional person to save us. The reality is that no one does it alone; we all play a role - whether it be action or inaction. I had a morsel in the story already
but the article expanded that into a frame. My takeawayread widely on a topic or theme.

As I researched “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES, I found lots of interesting history, a fun character, and a mysterious setting. But it wasn’t until I saw his incredible sense of smell as a super power that it fell into place with a strong kid connection. I’ve learned that my “frame” often emerges in my author’s note, and I need to bring it into the story deliberately. 

I was starting to get it. With a child main character, entry points came easier for TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE, as I found an endearing father/son story featuring a boy with learning differences. But when you helped me identify one element, learning differences, to frame how we view the characters and action, it made the story more focused.

Stephanie, could you explain this concept, how it relates to the premise, and how to find new ways to frame a story?

I read lots and lots of manuscripts that include various interesting parts, but are never really able to bring those parts together into a meaningful whole. In the case of LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT, for example, it wouldn’t be enough to say “gosh, did you know there was another transportation-related civil rights case 100 years before Rosa Parks’s, which many people have never actually heard of?” That’s interesting, but it’s like trivia—it’s just a snippet of a thing you might say to someone at a dinner party. Your job as a writer is to draw larger connections—tie that trivia to something that matters to kids right now, in our moment in time. That’s what I love about your frame in LIZZIE. You’re saying change happens over time through collective action, not just through the most famous single moments in history. It’s inspiring—to me, to kids reading the book, etc—to think that many people’s small actions can add up to something bigger.

So now this story is more than just an interesting “did you know?”—it has a heart, it has meaning, and by extension it also fits some categories now that might help in selling it: civil rights, activism, civic responsibility, etc.

One thing I often find myself asking writers is “why did you choose to write this particular story?” I’m trying to find out what was so meaningful for the writer that he or she decided to dedicate so much time to it. I’m asking them to include that meaning in their story (oh—but without becoming didactic or preachy. It’s a fine line!) And this part is key: how does that meaning relate to bigger themes, and are those themes big enough to find a wide audience?

It’s kind of the same thing as asking why I should care as a reader, except that I’m turning the question back on you as a writer. Why did you care enough to sit down and write a whole manuscript? Why does this story matter?

Thanks for sharing all your advice, Beth and Stephanie!

Links and Bios:

Stephanie - Website: www.redfoxliterary.com Twitter: @SFretwellHill 
Stephanie Fretwell-Hill is a literary agent with a sales and editorial background. After starting her career in foreign rights at Walker Books in the UK, Stephanie moved home to the US as an acquiring editor at Peachtree Publishers. In 2016, she joined Red Fox Literary where she represents authors and illustrators of picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction and non-fiction. Some of her fabulous clients include Beth Anderson, Michael Belanger, Carolyn Crimi, Brenda Maier, and Christina Soontornvat. Stephanie lives in Asheville, NC with her husband, two spirited little girls, and a very clever border collie.

Beth - https://bethandersonwriter.com , Twitter and Pinterest: @BAndersonwriter
Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. Armed with linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Colorado where she laughs, wonders, thinks, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same.
Beth has generously offered a hardback of AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET and Stephanie is offering a query critique for a giveaway. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower (just click the follow button if you’re not a follower) and leave a comment through May 18. If you do not want to be included in the critique giveaway, please let me know in the comments. If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, you must leave it in the comments to enter either contest.
If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog or follow me on Twitter, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry. You must be 13 years old or older to enter. The book giveaway is U.S. and the query critique giveaway is International.

Here's what's coming up:

Tuesday, May 14th I'm participating in the Love Is in Bloom Giveaway Hop

Monday, May 20th I have a guest post by Rajani LaRocca and her agent Brent Taylor with a query critique and MG contemporary MIDSUMMER'S MAYHEM giveaway

I'm off May 27th

Wednesday, June 5th I have an interview with debut author Shannon Shuren and a giveaway of her contemporary YA THE VIRTUE OF SIN and my IWSG post

Monday, June 10 I have an interview with author Lamar Giles and a giveaway of his MG fantasy/adventure THE LAST LAST-DAY-OF-SUMMER

Wednesday, June 12 I have an agent spotlight interview with Kerstin Wolf and a query critique giveaway

Monday, June 17 I have an interview with author Brenda Rufener and a giveaway of her YA contemporary SINCE WE LAST SPOKE

Hope to see you on Tuesday!


nashvillecats2 said...

A lovely write up and review Natalie, loved the book cover and info about the author.
Have a good day.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

The title is wonderful! And such important advice about knowing the premise before querying.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I imagine it is something you only know when you see it.

Brenda said...

A valuable piece Natalie. I so enjoy historical fiction that takes a lesser known fact and presents it in such an engaging way to children. Hope you have a lovely week. No need to enter me.

Joanne R. Fritz said...

So much helpful information here, Natalie! Thanks for this very thorough author and agent interview. It really is a fine line, as Stephanie said, between including the meaning without becoming didactic or preachy.

Greg Pattridge said...

I loved the idea of a meaningful whole. Great interview once more with many helpful pieces. Thanks for sharing.

khadijahnm said...

Thank you for showing us an example of an admirable agent/author relationship.

khadijahnm said...

And I just followed you on Twitter Natalie. I'm @LVanBrakle

Pat Hatt said...

Knowing when you see it must be hard to explain to some indeed. Tying all together and making it interesting is sure the way.

Computer Tutor said...

What an enticing book. This is history I never ever thought about. RT.

Lynn Baldwin said...

This looks like a fascinating book! I really enjoyed this dual interview and liked hearing that Beth did 91 drafts of one of her books!

Donna Cangelosi said...

Thank you so much for this informative interview! This book is a wonderful example of making nonfiction come alive for children!

Linda Herold said...

Thank you for the info and the chance to win!

Carol Denton said...

Asheville! Where I lived for 20 years and raised my kids. My story is even about a girl growing up on a CSA farm, something all we Western North Carolina people understand. Hoorah for ugly veg!

Snuffalupagus said...

Love this article! So interesting.

Julie K. Rubini said...

I enjoyed meeting Beth at a nonfiction writing retreat this weekend. Great subject and story! I'd love a query critique from Stephanie! Thanks for all you do Natalie!

Sturgell Illustration said...

Thank you so much for this interview! My current project is a fiction PB with non-fiction elements and the details about the hook and understanding trends is so helpful. Tweeted about this, too!

Danielle H. said...

Thank you for the interview and helpful writing advice. I shared on tumblr: https://yesreaderwriterpoetmusician.tumblr.com/post/184716086632/beth-anderson-and-agent-stephanie-fretwell-hill

Carl Scott said...

Looks like a very informative and fun book for interested kids. I'd love to have a copy.
I've tweeted a link to this post: https://twitter.com/carlrscott/status/1125828163152404482, and pinned an image on Pinterest with a link: https://www.pinterest.com.mx/pin/336573772150570920/.
A query critique would be wasted on me but thanks nonetheless. Have a great day everyone!! crs(at)codedivasites(dot)com

Carol Kilgore said...

What a cool book! And lots of great information shared, too. Thanks, Natalie :)

Cathy Ballou Mealey said...

Fantastic post! I learned a great deal about developing that "slam dunk" premise! I have (and love) my copy of INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, so please do not enter me in the book draw, but I'd definitely love a query critique from Stephanie. Thank you!

cathy54321 (at) hotmail (dot) com

Sherry F said...

Great information! I love AN Inconvenient Alphabet!

Rosi said...

Another wonderful, informative interview. Thanks for that. I'll step aside on the giveaway.

suetwiggsbooks said...

beth and Stephaine,
a great interview. Thanks for giving me the facts about finding my agent and revising for a sellable book.

Suzanne Morrone said...

I can't find the follow button...but this was a great interview. Thank you!

tricia said...

Thank you for this informative interview!

An American in Florence said...

Great interview and amazing book!

Sabrina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sabrina said...

I first heard about this proposed alphabet in Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy. What a great concept for a non-fiction picture book!
Also, I follow you on Twitter, Natalie!

Elizabeth Curry said...

This was such a great post for understanding premise and framing. And I love An Inconvenient Alphabet! Thank you and congrats!

sheri radovich said...

This was a very interesting chat and lead in to the story about the alphabet that Noah Webster and Ben Franklin came up with. I wanted to google the alphabet. Interesting subject and basis for a non-fiction picture book. Sounds like the "ita" reading system I studied for my master's degree.

The Littlest Dunham said...

What a fascinating topic for a picture book and how interesting to learn about the trendspotting part of agenting! Thanks for this interview!

Lauri Meyers said...

Such a great interview - Thank you Beth and Stephanie on your insights on finding a hook and the elusive slam dunk!

Michelle Lord said...

Great insight from agent and author!

Elizabeth Seckman said...

I always imagine agents have the same dilemma wading through the slush piles as I have in the book store. So many good books, but I'm only there to choose one.

Janet, said...

I loved the interview. I got some very helpful advice. Thanks!

TerryMac said...

Wonderful interview. Great insight to the back and forth, collaboration, and relationship between agent and author.

TerryMac said...

Whoops! forgot to add my email for the contest: terrymac3@icloud.com

Helen Kemp Zax said...

I love the idea of making myself articulate why I cared enough to spend time writing a particular manuscript and why that story matters to me. I have shared this interview on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HelenZax/status/1127970410803257344. Thank you for this terrific interview Natalie, Beth, and Stephanie. My email for this contest is Helen dot Zax at vcfa dot edu.

Angie Quantrell said...

Excellent interview! This is very helpful for picture book writers. I can't wait to read this book. Congratulations! Also sharing on Twitter @AngieQuantrell. angelecolline at yahoo dot com

Nick Wilford said...

Great interview with both. I like Beth's approach to picture books. Sounds like adults would learn a few things from them, too!

Christine Rains said...

Congrats to Beth! It sounds like such a fun story.

DMS said...

What an interesting interview. I learned a lot and I am sure reading the book I will read even more. :) Best of luck to Beth.

Jess said...

Thank you, Natalie! Great conversation. I just found your blog & followed you on twitter, too. Happy to share this there.

Jess said...

Oh, I just realized this was last year:) Thanks all the same!