This week, we have the phenomenal J. C. Phillipps, who goes by Julie in regular non-author life. Julie has degrees in theater and art. She never took courses in writing or illustration, but realized her playwriting experience and art background might mesh well into picture books. Because she was twenty-five at the time and the thought of writing picture books seemed like something an older person might do – she bought a leather jacket instead. But a few years after that she jumped back on the picture book bandwagon and started reading book after book on the craft.
(Snoop says, um … can I have the jacket?)
Attending the Summer Moon School for Young Ninjas is a dream come true for Wink. He has mad ninja skills – he can kick, punch, and tumble – but he’s too excited to be stealthy. Master Zutsu, Wink’s teacher, is not pleased. When Wink is expelled from school, he stumbles upon a family of circus performers and finally finds a place where he can shine.
Now let’s start the interview. When you received your offer, what happened?
First, my potential editor at Viking sent me a few pages of notes and lots of enthusiasm for the project – which was great. This was at Thanksgiving so I got to show the letter to my family and receive many “oohs and aahs.” Who doesn’t love that? The notes were solid so I made adjustments to the story and sent it back. Within a couple months, my agent was on the phone telling me we had an offer. I was all alone but so excited. I bounced around for awhile then called my husband at work. Then I got back to whatever it was I was doing.
So now that you have a contract, what’s it like to be on the other side-on the verge of publication? What does it feel like to be official?
It’s funny but I still don’t believe it. When I got the offer, I thought ‘When the contract comes in, then I’ll feel it.’ When I got the contract I thought, “When I take the illustrations to New York, then I’ll really feel it.” And so on. Even when I held my advanced copy in my hand, it still seemed so unreal. But it is very cool to be standing around with other moms and have them ask me what I do. “I write and illustrate picture books. My first one is coming out in March.” Outside I’m calm and collected. But inside I’m a cheerleader.
Tell us a little bit about your path to publication.
When I got serious – I had read up on the craft and the business and I was ready to put myself out there – I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I joined a critique group and I went to my first conference in New York. That’s where my agent, Scott Treimel, gave me his card. He looked through my projects and thought the ninja book was the best bet, then he worked on it with me for about four months. (He’s a hands-on kind of agent, and he’s awesome!) Then he sent it out. I think he showed it for another four or five months before Viking showed interest.
And here’s our favorite question. How many rejections did you receive IN GENERAL (not just for this book) before you landed your first major publishing contract?
I have to say, it wasn’t too bad. I sent some dummy books off to publishers and got some nice notes like, ‘This story isn’t for us, but please feel free to send other projects.’
Tell us about one of your most heart-breaking rejections and about one of your best.
One of the biggest disappointments was working on a book I love called Annabelle’s Art for years and thinking (and still do) and it’s very solid – both in story and art. But my editor didn’t think it would sell and I understood her reasoning. It’s a tough business. But I continue to love Annabelle and I still think of ways to make it better. That project got put on the back burner – but I haven’t abandoned it.
Now, my best rejection. While at the same conference where I met my agent, I had a one-on-one dummy book review with an editor. I brought an early version of Wink. The first thing the woman asked me was, “What’s a ninja?” I knew right then and there she was not going to have a lot of positive things to say about the book. She was rather apathetic about it. Then it sold to Viking and it just got starred review in the School Library Journal. It’s not lady-like, but it feels good to say, “In your face!”
How long did it take to sell your books, from putting the first words on the page to receiving an offer?
* 0-3 months
* 3-6 months
* 6 months to 1 year
* 1 year – 2 years (Closer to 2 years)
* 2 years – 3 years
* 3 years+
* The manuscript has been around longer than I have.
Prior to selling your books, you were …
* A stay-at-home mom and a freelance artist
I had worked as an after-school teacher for Kindergarten and first graders before I had my son. That gave me a lot of experience with an ideal age group and exposure to children’s literature. After my son was born, I stayed home with him and had more time to develop my illustration style and learn about writing and the publishing business. (But not much more. Little kids are a lot of work!) I taught night classes in drawing and watercolor painting and I sold the odd piece of art here and there. When my son turned three and started pre-school that freed up a lot of time for me to get serious about picture books. That’s when things really started to get going.
Now that you’ve sold some books, you plan to …
* Not change a thing
My son is now in Kindergarten so I have more hours in my day to work on my books. I still teach an evening watercolor class and I now have a gallery in town that shows my paintings. I’m under contract for a second picture book with Viking, but my editor and I have yet to settle on what that project will be. So I’m doing just what I’ve been doing for years – balancing being a good mom/wife/teacher/cook/writer and artist. (My husband wanted me to add ‘maid’, but I’m not very good at that.)
What are some of the new things you worry about now that you have a contract?
My biggest worry is hoping the book sells. I’m trying to get myself out there at book signings and school visits as much as possible, but it seems people don’t come out for signings much as they once did. Unless you’re a big name or have a fan base nearby, some stores don’t even want to bother. I’m also not the queen of extroverts so approaching people in general is a big deal. (Fortunately there are awesome online interviews for me to do while I’m squirreled away in my little house. 🙂
If you’ve already begun or have finished the editorial process with your publisher, let you us know what that’s been like.
It was great. There were some compromises along the way. There’s a part in the book where Wink sees some pink curtains and wants to make them into his ninja outfit so he can be silent and still be noticed. My editor wanted me to write a line about them so the reader would know what Wink was thinking. I wrote, “Those are bright.” She wanted something more positive, like, “Those are nice.” I didn’t think Wink would care if the curtains were nice or not since he only wanted something visually stimulating. We agreed on “Those are nice and bright.” I got what I wanted. She got what she wanted. It was very much like being married. Then, when the text was settled, I worked on the illustrations with the art director. I sent her scanned images both in color and black and white and we’d discuss layout and artistic details. They were very cool about making suggestions, but allowing me to discuss them if I had a different opinion or felt strongly about something.
Describe a typical day in your writing life.
I usually try to get up around 6am and get some initial writing done before I have to shift into Mom mode and get my son up, fed, and off to school. Then I try to meet my writing/illustrating goal for the day. Maybe that’s one extra hour – maybe it’s three. There’s usually a bunch of “household management” stuff to do; laundry, bills, phone calls. And these days I also have to schedule school visits and send out post cards for events – publicity stuff. Before I know it, it’s 3:00pm and I have to pick my son up from school and then it’s Mom time until 8:00pm when I melt on the couch before going to bed. I’m busy – but I love it. I love having time for me – to be creative – and I love being available to volunteer in my son’s class and spend a bunch of time with him while he’s young and still likes me.
Any advice for aspiring authors?
Get into a good critique group. When I first joined, there were some solid members and some not-so-solid members. (You know the lazy ones who leave two comments through ten pages and say, “It was really good.”) Now my group is filled with dedicated writers who support one another. I’ve learned a ton about my own writing through their kind and honest comments, and about writing in general through critiquing theirs. Every time I think I have something perfect, they point out flaws or come up with ideas to make it even better. And yeah, it’s always nerve-wracking to put your work out there and ask people to rip it apart. But if it’s going to be torn to shreds, better by a group of people who want to make it better then by an editor who will give you a polite, “No thank you.” My critique group rocks!
Any inspiring quotes you live by?
I like a small line from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish – Fun is Good.
Finally, Snoop wants to know: If you won the lottery, what major luxury would you indulge in?
I would get a maid! I hate cleaning the house. I never do a good job – only just enough to get by. The kitchen cabinets need to be scrubbed down in the worst way, and I’m just not going to do it.
(Snoop says, that’s easy. Get the kindergartner to do it. I’ve already whipped Baby Liu into shape over here–HEY, Baby Liu! Get me a drink while you’re scrubbing those cabinets. Thanks.)
This concludes our interview with our latest author, J. C. (Julie) Phillipps. We wish her much success with her debut book Wink, The Ninja Who Wanted To Be Noticed. To see what Julie is up to these days, visit her website at www.jcphillipps.com or her blog, Ninja Woman at www.ninjawoman.blogspot.com.