Tuesday, September 4, 2012

HIGH FIVE #20: Published After Writing for TEN Years

It's time for another HIGH FIVE interview to spotlight a debut picture book author. Today, please welcome Brianna Caplan Sayres, author of Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?. With two active boys, I think Brianna might wonder sometimes Where Does Mommy Sleep at Night? Today's interview is chock full of tips and advice. Enjoy!

So, here’s a big HIGH FIVE congratulations to you for your debut picture book.

Title: Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?
Author: Brianna Caplan Sayres
Illustrator: Christian Slade
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Release date: May 22, 2012
Word count: Approx. 300 words

Short summary, blurb, excerpt, or jacket flap:

Diggers dig, fire trucks race
and tow trucks pull stalled cars.
But what happens when the sun goes down
and the sky fills up with stars?  

Question ONE: What are three of your favorite picture books? Just three mind you.

Oooh, tough to choose just three! :o)  For now, I am going to say:

  1. Library Lion written by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes—This story makes me happy every time I read it.
  2. Art by Patrick McDonnell—Everything about this story is perfect, especially the last line.
  3. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak— Oh, how I love Max and his wild rumpus!
I haven’t read ART yet, but I’m intrigued.

Question TWO:
How do books play a part in your bedtime routine with your children?

I have two boys- ages 3 and almost 6. Books play a big part in our bedtime routine. We love to read books just before bed.

My older son has gone through many picture book favorites.  Most recently these favorites have included Bailey by Harry Bliss (which he was rooting for in the Children’s Book Choice Awards) and Duck Sock Hop written by Jane Kohuth and illustrated by Jane Porter.  He has also gotten into some really fun chapter books lately and has loved hearing chapters from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and My Father’s Dragon just before bedtime (and all day long).

My little guy likes some beautiful bedtime board books. Lately his favorites have been Down in the Woods at Sleepytime written by Carole Lexa Schaefer and illustrated by Vanessa Cabban and Snuggle Wuggle written by Jonathan London and illustrated by Michael Rex. (He gives me such a nice hug when we get to the last page of this one, which asks “How do you hug?”.)

And, of course, both boys like Mommy’s bedtime book, Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?.  (My older son enjoyed it for a bedtime story long before it was published… or even illustrated.)

Of course... how sweet! 

Question THREE: How might teachers use your book in the classroom?

I think that teachers could use Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night? as part of a classroom study of transportation or as part of a class pajama day.

I was a classroom teacher for many years (K, 2nd and 3rd) and I also taught reading and was an adjunct faculty member at Bank Street College of Education, so I had fun coming up with a teacher’s guide to go with the book. It is available for download at my website. I hope teachers find the pre- and post-reading activities helpful!

I have had a great time doing school visits since the book was published, and the truck slumber party described in the teacher’s guide has been very popular with teachers and with kids!

Sounds excellent! I bet it’s a big hit especially in Kindergarten and 1st grades.

Question FOUR:
What was your road to publication like? Can you talk a bit about revisions, submitting to publishers, and how you feel about agents (and if you have one)?

I wrote for more than ten years before I got my first book published, which just happened two weeks ago. Hurray!

Revision used to be really tough for me. I had written something and I didn’t want to make changes to it. At least not major changes. But once I learned that revision was an important (and even fun!) part of the process, I really grew as a writer.

That understanding was really helpful because after Random House acquired my manuscript, I went through three rounds of revisions with my wonderful editor.  In the first round we cut some verses entirely (not bedtime enough) and polished others (they didn’t read smoothly enough).

In the second round we polished some more (the garbage truck and crane verses were particularly tricky and this was when I changed Old Macdonald to Old Truckdonald in the tractor verse). 

And, in the third round, my editor pointed out a critical question.  In a book called Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?, I had never answered the question: Where DO diggers sleep at night?. So I added in some verses that suggested an answer (though still in question form like the rest of my book).

And, of course, this doesn’t count the many revisions I went through before it was accepted. 

(Revising a book in rhyme is tricky because every time you change something, you need to make sure you still have good rhyme. That means that the rhyme has to work, the rhythm has to flow naturally and the whole thing has to be said in a way that would sound perfectly natural, even if it wasn’t a rhyming book. No inverted words or unneeded words can be included just for the sake of a rhyme.)

As for submitting to publishers and agents, I feel very lucky to work with my amazing agent, Teresa Kietlinski. Teresa is a wonderful advocate for me and my writing. And she is a pleasure to revise with so my books are as polished as can be before she sends them out into the world for consideration by editors.

For picture book writers who are not illustrators, I know it can be very difficult to find an agent.  (Currently, Teresa is now only open to submission from picture book artists.) For many years, I submitted my manuscripts on my own. I did get some very nice rejections (only a fellow writer can understand that odd-sounding phrase), but the process was much, much slower than it is now.

4b. Did you use any illustrator notes? Did your title evolve? Did you keep count on how many revisions you did?

I did not use any illustrator notes in this manuscript. While I occasionally use illustrator notes, I try to use them as rarely as possible. I only include them if something essential to the story is not included in the text of the manuscript. With DIGGERS, the rhyming verses showed everything I needed to. Then Christian Slade, the book’s wonderful illustrator, took those verses and brought them to life on the page.

Early in the process of writing, my title was, “Where Do Dump Trucks Sleep at Night?”.  This was the actual question that my son asked me that inspired the book. But when I began writing, I thought that the diggers verse made a stronger first stanza. And I liked the way “Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?” sounded as a title.

For revisions, I count 36 saved versions of my manuscript.  I am always saving because I never know if I will want to go back to some earlier wording.  And I saw that I actually went through a fourth round of revision with my editor (even though in my earlier recollections, I just remembered three.) We were really working to get every word just right!

You really got it right! So much of writing is really about revision! I'm glad Question FIVE: What are your top three writing tips you can offer to writers seeking publication?

Hmmm, let me see…

1. Write! This one is obvious but key. For years, I dreamed about being a writer, but I didn’t write very much. If you want to be a writer, you need to write.  And don’t worry if it’s bad. That’s okay. Once you get something down on the paper, you can polish it to make it better. But if there’s nothing on the paper, there’s nothing to polish.  (And the more you write, the better you will get.)

2. Submit! For years I would ask my husband, “Do you think I’m going to get published?”. And for years, my husband would say, “Yes”.  Then one day, I asked him and he said, “No!”.  “What!?!?!” I asked. “You’re not going to get published unless you write and send your writing to editors,” he said. And he was right. No editor was ever going to look in my desk drawer and send me a contract!

So I got over my fear of rejection and started sending off my writing. In fact, I turned rejection from a fear into a goal. I made it my goal to get 100 rejections. (I had heard this idea elsewhere, and it really worked for me.) Once rejection became a positive thing instead of a negative one, I got much better at being able to send my manuscripts out into the world. After all, I could only get published some day if I took a chance on being rejected.

(And rejection does not mean a manuscript is bad. At least, it doesn’t have to mean that. Many good manuscripts get rejected. Maybe the publisher just accepted a similar manuscript. Or maybe they no longer want that type of manuscript. Or maybe it just didn’t click with that editor. While you might think you want any editor, you really only want an editor who loves your manuscript.)

3. Make your manuscripts as good as you can! Before you submit, be sure to make your manuscripts as good as you possibly can. This is an extremely competitive field and sending in a quickly whipped off manuscript to a publisher is an almost sure path to rejection.

For me, the eyes of my wonderful critique group and agent have been invaluable. They have spotted areas to improve in manuscripts that I never would have spotted myself.  (And while I have heard that feedback from family members is often not very useful, my husband has been a very helpful first reader. His feedback on my earliest drafts helps me to polish my manuscripts before I send them to anybody else. :o) )

Also for me it was super helpful to join SCBWI (where I have attended incredible conferences and found my wonderful critique group) and to become a part of the super helpful community on Verla Kay’s Blue Board. Learning about the writing process from fellow writers really helped me to improve my writing so that it would be noticed by editors.

Okay, so now I’m going to cheat. My friends will tell you that I’m usually very good at following rules (too good some would say), but I just thought of a fourth tip.

4. Don’t be afraid to be different! It might not show from DIGGERS, but some of my manuscripts can be pretty wacky. As I said before, this is a competitive business, and I think it is really helpful to stand out from the crowd. Don’t worry if your manuscript is like everything else out there. Yes, it’s important to know what’s out there, but that’s not going to get it published. (Everything else out there has already been published.) But writing something that’s uniquely you just might. Good luck!

Thank you so very much, Brianna, for being with us today! You have shared so much with all of us. Congratulations, again, on your debut!


  1. What a cute sounding picture book! And lots of great advice too, thanks Brianna and Christie.

  2. Great interview and excellent advice. Thank you Brianna for sharing your story with us and taking the time to provide your insight.

  3. Great advice, and way to be persistent, Brianna. I'm glad it paid off, and I can't wait to read the book!

  4. Thanks so much for interviewing me, Christie! You asked such great questions! They were a pleasure to answer! And Catherine, Lauri, and Laura-- so glad you enjoyed the interview! (I wasn't sure how much to share, so I'm glad to hear the advice was helpful. :o) )


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