For aspiring authors, getting their work published is a quest that can elicit as many goosebumps as reading a Stephen King novel.
Many dream of being the next J.K. Rowling, but realize after a few rejections that writing a happy ending is much easier than scoring one in real life. On the page, the writer controls their book’s plot from conflict to resolution. Off the page, outside forces in the form of literary agents and publishers are crucial to getting their novel in the hands of readers.
“Hopefully, writing and telling stories is your goal because it serves a purpose in your life,” says Kristen Mohn, a senior editor at Mankato-based Capstone Publishing, which publishes children’s books. “If publishing is your goal, that’s different. The writing should be what drives you, and being published is the icing on the cake. If that’s your sole goal, you might be disappointed.”
Despite the obstacles, six Lake Minnetonka–based authors in different chapters of their careers say the journey to get their work on bookshelves has been more than worth it. Success, they say, starts with a good idea. From there, the author needs large doses of patience, persistence and thick skin to craft their story, then try to sell it to a publisher. “Creative work is not as easy as it looks, or as romantic,” says children’s book author Catherine Urdahl. “It’s hard work.”
“The minimum goal is to write it,” says Christopher Johnston, who is currently searching for an agent to represent his first novel. “The top end of the goal is to be an icon of American fiction, and the reality is going to fall somewhere in between. I’ve written [my book] now, so I’ve accomplished that very base goal.”
We sat down with Urdahl, Johnston and other local authors to learn about their writing journeys.
When Minnetonka children’s writer Jonathan Bing was in Japan adopting his son, he began work on a story, “sort of a love letter,” he says, for his daughter. She was 8 years old at the time and back in Minnesota with his wife, Tracy.
Bing wrote five chapters of the story, then came home with his new son. Years later, his daughter asked him what happened to the story. “I kind of walked away from that, so I went back and read it,” says Bing, whose daughter Ellen is now 22; his son Simon is 14. “I realized there was something there.”
Bing completed the magical fantasy aimed at middle-graders (ages 8–12) called The Contraption of Elsewhen. In his novel, a girl finds a flying machine on the edge of a town much like Excelsior, that’s been there for 150 years.
Bing, the owner of a strategy and marketing consulting firm, is now hunting for a literary agent to pitch his manuscript to publishers. As a way to stand out, he’s meticulous in crafting personal query letters to each agent. “They’re looking at [the writers] for their future,” Bing says of agents. “It’s different from saying, ‘Can you tell a good story?’ It’s, ‘Can you tell a good story that’s going to support me?’ Can it sell?”
After writing his children’s picture book, Jimmy Jonny Brownie Stays Up All Night, he decided to start his own publishing company in 2000 to print it. Bing—Jonathan Bing is his pen name for his middle-school work; Bing Puddlepot is his pen name for his picture books—soon discovered he loved writing and creating books, but not the publishing part. He worked tirelessly marketing his self-published book around the Twin Cities. He knows how hard it would be to replicate that work in different markets across the country without the backing of a publisher.
“In reality, me getting 1,700 books sold was miraculous,” he says. “It shouldn’t have happened. But it did because I was out there pounding the pavement.”
Bing has a word of advice for aspiring authors: If it’s your passion, keep writing. “For me as a writer, who has written for other people my entire life, I get to write for myself,” he says. “I get to do the thing I like to do.”
Nina Victor Crittenden
Early in Nina Victor Crittenden’s journey into illustrating children’s books, the Deephaven resident received a sobering lesson on the publishing business. She brought her portfolio to a conference, where an editor at a major publishing house offered a steely and brusque opinion of her drawings. “She flipped through my portfolio and was like, ‘Don’t like it, don’t like it, don’t like it,’” Crittenden says. “There was one picture in the whole thing she liked. But I wasn’t going to give up.”
Crittenden, who had dreamed of illustrating children’s books as a girl enchanted with Richard Scarry’s Busytown series, persevered. She has illustrated two books—Cedric and the Dragon and Chicken Lily—and she wrote and illustrated a third, The Three Little Pugs, which came out in March.
Though illustrating is her first love, she would like to write more, too. “There’s a lot about the craft of writing that is a bit beyond me yet,” she says. “But I’m learning as much as I can, and I have a writing group that I belong to with some Twin Cities authors.”
Crittenden began illustrating after she left her job as a veterinary technician to stay home with her second daughter. That’s when she and a childhood friend joined the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), a professional organization providing resources for those in the genre. Crittenden started taking some children’s book illustration classes, then was mentored by an established illustrator through the Minnesota chapter of the SCBWI.
Her manuscript for The Three Little Pugs received an offer from a publisher on the same day her agent sent it to a handful of publishers. “[That happens] sometimes,” she says. “I did not think it was going to happen for me. Sometimes when you send your work to publishers, you wait for ages and ages. Sometimes you don’t ever hear.”
But, she says, you can’t take the rejection personally. Many people want to illustrate and write for children, but just so many books are published each year. “It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” she says. “It’s not like anybody’s directly competing with anybody else, because every writer’s style is different and every illustrator’s style is different. It might just be the publisher is looking for a style of artwork you don’t do.”
Cracking Open a Career in Books
Capstone Publishing, based in Mankato with offices in Edina, publishes children’s books, primarily for kids between preschool and middle school. “We let the librarians be our guides,” says senior editor Kristen Mohn, who lives in Shorewood. “They tell us, ‘My kids are really into skateboards, or they’re really into the Titanic, or whatever, and we publish based on what they’re telling us kids want to read.” Here are Mohn’s tips for aspiring writers.
Read widely. Familiarize yourself with what’s currently on bookshelves for your target audience. “Too often, writers will claim, ‘There’s nothing like it out there, so I decided to write it,’” she says. “While that is occasionally true, a statement like that generally comes off as sounding like you’re not very up to date with what’s out there.”
Do your homework when submitting to a publisher. “Understand what kind of books they publish, what age ranges they serve,” she says. Find other books on the market you admire or you feel target a similar audience to yours, and then reach out to those publishers.
Before sending anything out, check a publishers’ submission guidelines on its website. Many publishers will only work with agented authors. However, some publishers are open to unsolicited/non-agented submissions.
Work for hire. Often, publishing houses are willing to give writers a try on small nonfiction projects assigned by the editors. Good work could lead to other projects and establish a relationship with an editor who might then invite the writer to pitch their own projects.
Don’t be afraid of constructive criticism. Participate in writing groups where classmates critique your work. “When you’re reading the same thing day after day, you’re bringing the same perspective day after day,” she says. “To get somebody else’s perspective is invaluable.” The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis is an excellent resource.
For those who choose self-publishing, Mohn has seen some writers do well, while others are left with boxes of their books taking up space in their garage. For self-publishing to work, the author has to be a “marketing machine,” she says.
“At a publisher, you have a marketing and publicity team behind you,” she says. “Then again, all the reward is yours [with self-publishing]. It could be very lucrative, and it can also get you the attention of a publisher.”
Before being published, Shorewood picture book author Catherine Urdahl recalls how one rejection especially dismayed her. That is, until she scanned the “to-do list” her youngest daughter—who was 8 or 9 at the time—wrote. One line encouraged “Mom to get a book published.”
“I couldn’t quit then,” says Urdahl, who is married with two grown daughters and a granddaughter. “They’re watching me. What does it say if I quit?” She didn’t give up, eventually getting two picture books published: Emma’s Question (based on her family’s experience dealing with her mother’s cancer) and Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten.
Urdahl was fascinated by children’s books as a child and remained so as an adult working in corporate communications. Lunch breaks would be spent browsing in the children’s aisle at a nearby bookstore. “It was a dream of mine to write them,” she says. She finally decided to pursue it, first taking classes at The Loft, then becoming a member of SCBWI. Attending an SCBWI conference led her to the editor instrumental in publishing her books.
For those wanting to write, Urdahl has some advice: Just do it. “Don’t make the mistake I did and just dream about writing and dream about being published without doing much writing at all,” she says. “At first it will sound brilliant; a few days later it might sound awful. That’s just the process. Get it down on paper.”
In the years since her two books hit the shelves, Urdahl has completed a few unpublished picture book manuscripts and has one slated for publication in 2020. She is also beginning a chapter book for children and has sketched out an idea for a children’s novel.
“I’m still trying,” says Urdahl.
“It’s always a long shot. That’s something people have to accept going into this business.”
For those starting out, Urdahl remembers some advice she received from a writing instructor in a class at The Loft: It isn’t just “willing to learn;” it’s “willing to be taught.”
“A lot of people—me included—will come into a first class and think, ‘I am the one who has the manuscript that is so exceptional that the instructor is going to give me the name of an editor,’” says Urdahl, who has taught at The Loft, too. “That’s the hope, but that isn’t the reality.”
In her books, Minnetonka mystery writer Marilyn Jax enjoys catching the criminals. “The bad guys don’t always pay for what they’ve done in real life,” she says. “But in a mystery, you can always tie up the loose ends.”
Jax wrote her first mystery in 2007, The Find, and now is working on her sixth book, I Heard Everything. All six are part of a series following Caswell and Lombard, an investigator duo in Miami Beach. Jax is a self-taught writer. But her ability to conjure up a good whodunnit is rooted in her nearly 20-year former career investigating such violations as real estate and franchise fraud for the state of Minnesota. “I don’t write about actual cases I’ve worked on,” she explains. “My investigative skills come through in my writing.”
And she admits going from writing reports into fiction is quite a leap. “When I first attempted to write my first book, I got through the first draft, and I sat down to read it and thought it was way too stiff,” she says. “When you write a book that makes you turn pages quickly, they say it sings. My book was not singing. I went back and rewrote it myself several times until I finally got it.”
Jax teaches workshops for aspiring mystery writers in Minnesota and the Caribbean, where she spends her winters. She doesn’t have an agent, and she uses a local hybrid publisher, a middle ground between traditional and self-publishing, to get her books out. “It works for me. I’ve been very fortunate. I have a loyal following that reads all my books and waits for the next one each time,” she says.
He wrote in hotel rooms and airports, anywhere he could carve out a few moments to himself around his job. All that work has paid off for Christopher Johnston in the form of a finished manuscript for his first novel. It’s a literary fiction tale about a family in northern Minnesota who run a mink farm and a commercial fishing business. “Among the issues at play is this idea that, even if you do all the right things, sometimes things don’t turn out right,” Johnston says of his book, which he calls, ultimately, a tragedy. “And if you do the wrong things, sometimes they turn out well.”
Johnston, a consultant who works with distribution and manufacturing businesses, has a mechanical engineering degree. Writing, though, is his passion. “It helps me understand the world,” he says. “Why people do what they do. Why things are the way they are.”
After a few attempts at a novel, he heard about a novel writing project at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. “I knew I needed to be in it,” he says. “Without it, I wouldn’t have what modest accomplishments I have so far,” he says.
Johnston is now querying agents. An agent, he says, “can go to the [largest] publishers and do an effective job of selling the book and saying it has a nationwide appeal, even though it’s set in a very particular place and time.” His writing group—formed by members of the novel writing project after the class ended—helped him polish his manuscript. “That’s an invaluable thing to have, a writer’s group where you can pass your work out and have some moral support,” he says.
It’s important for beginning writers to seek out other writers, attend writing conferences and find a community in which they feel comfortable. So says Joyce Sidman, an award-winning children’s book author and poet who lives in Wayzata. Sidman has written many children’s poetry books, including the Newbery Honor–winning Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night.
“I believe that, to become a successfully published author, one must cultivate both an inner writer and an inner reader,” Sidman says. “As a writer, you pour your heart and soul out on the page—an important first step. But when you come back to your writing (perhaps after letting it sit a few days), you must look at it critically, as a reader. What is working here? What is unclear? What feels like the heart of the story? What am I really writing about?”
Every day, Sidman walks a remnant of the Big Woods, marking the seasons as they pass. “I’ve seen some amazing things, and they raise questions in my mind which I try to answer in my writing,” she says. “What lives under the lake water? How can animals survive a Minnesota winter? Why does color give us such joy?”
Her most recent book, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science, combines her interests. It’s a biography of a 17th-century female naturalist who helped document butterfly metamorphosis for the first time. “This book required a lot of fascinating research; it taught me so much,” she says. “I often feel I have the best job in the world.”