Author Debra Kempf Shumaker on the Art of Perseverance

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Hello world!

Welcome to my Blissfully Bookish book blog. For this Q & A, please welcome author Debra Kempf Shumaker. I’ve known her for some time, and was always amazing at her patience and level of perseverance. In November 2019, she posted about her upcoming book deal (FREAKY FUNKY FISH, published by Running Kids Press in 2021) in the KidLit411 Facebook group. Here’s what she said, which may inspire many of you.

But first, exciting news- Debra is generously giving away a FREE PB critique! It could be fiction or nonfiction, and/or rhyming. Simply comment below. Contest ends May 4, 2020. Good luck!

When I signed with my agent in July of 2017, I shared in this group that I had been subbing for about 7 or 8 years, had subbed 11 different PBs, and had about 160 rejections before I got that first YES. Well, I finally had my second YES:
My debut PB was announced last night. BUT, this was the 13th or 14th (maybe 15th) PB that I had written and revised enough to feel it sub-worthy. (I won’t count the rough drafts that I wrote that I never went back to.) AND, it’s the 5th PB that my agent went on sub with. Two others had gone to acquisitions a few times but didn’t sell.
Bottom line: Don’t give up. Be willing to revise, revise, revise. And work on craft. BUT—also be willing to move on and write new things. When I first started, I spent 2 or 3 years revising the same 2 stories over and over again, thinking I just needed to tweak them and they would sell. Sometimes, some stories are just practice and that’s OK.
For those of you who are pre-published, hang in there! I hope that my story and my long journey to two “YESes” encourages you to keep pushing forward!
PS: The first thing I should have said is that I owe a million thanks to my critique groups and various CPs! None of my stories would have been ready without all of them!

During your many years of writing, editing, and receiving slews of rejections, what kept you going? (And how did you stay sane with all the waiting?)
Math. I knew I had a 100% chance of failure if I stopped writing. The only way to get a book deal was to keep writing. I knew that my writing would get better if I kept reading and analyzing picture books, being open to feedback, and being willing to revise. My critique partners were crucial as cheerleaders and for helpful input into my stories.

Was there a turning point or an “aha” moment, or was the process of learning your craft slow and steady?
Actually, it was a combination of the two. My “aha” moment came during a local SCBWI conference early in my writing career. In a Q&A session, someone asked an editor, “After you submit your story, how long do you wait to hear back?” He replied, “You don’t. You forget about it and write something new.” That’s when it hit me. I had been rewriting and revising the same two PBs for over a year. Those two were my “big ideas.” Where was I going to get more ideas? I was depressed and thought about quitting.
Thankfully, the next day, somewhere online, I read about Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month, now known as StoryStorm) which was starting within a few days. From there I found Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 (a challenge where you attempt to write 12 rough drafts in 12 months) and those two groups changed the way I approached my writing. From there, it was a slow and steady journey, dotted with many peaks and valleys. It was at least 6 or 7 years after that “aha” moment before I signed with my agent.

What are your top 3 pieces of advice for querying authors?
One: Develop thick skin and do not take rejection personally. Agents and editors are not rejecting YOU, they are rejecting the story you have written.
Two: The odds are high your first story won’t sell. Or your second. The 11th story I subbed caught my agent’s eye in 2017. And we never sold that story. It was the fifth story we went on sub with that finally sold. (That doesn’t include the dozens of rough drafts I’ve ever written.)
Three: Write something new. When you send one story off, write another one immediately. Fresh new projects help me to forget about the waiting.

How long did it take you to get your agent? What was that process like?
It took seven or eight years after my first query. In that time, I took several “query sabbaticals” when I realized my stories weren’t up to par and I needed to revise or write new stories. Though I had several close calls with both agents and editors in 2014 and 2015, I didn’t sign with my agent until July 2017. And it was January 2019 before we sold a book. This submitting process is not for the faint of heart!

Please share a few details about your forthcoming book.
FREAKY FUNKY FISH is a rhyming NF PB with Running Kids Press. From zapping, stinging, even singing, to playing dead or a see-through head, discover the funky, even freaky, ways fish look or act to survive in the rivers, lakes, and oceans they live in. It is scheduled for publication in Spring 2021.

Where do you see your career headed? Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
Hopefully lots more published picture books! I love picture books so much and can’t imagine writing anything else! I write both fiction and nonfiction and we are out on submission with a few manuscripts. Hopefully I’ll have news to share again soon!

Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. Pick one classic and one contemporary book. What is it about them that moved you?
I’m going to cheat a bit and instead give you authors that inspire me. I love science related NF PBs and three authors’ books that I study over and over again are Laura Purdie Salas, Melissa Stewart, and April Pulley Sayre. Their words flow off the page and seem effortless, though I know that every word was chosen carefully and probably with blood, sweat, and tears!
For a classic, when my teens were little, we read seasonal alphabet acrostic books written by Steven Schnur and illustrated by Leslie Evans. The pairing of the poems and art just spoke to me and I decided I wanted to write words that would inspire art like that!

What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to aspiring writers?
Type up the text of picture books you love, especially if they’ve been published in the last 3 years. You’ll learn so much about pacing and word choice. Seeing the words separated from the art give you a better idea on what editors read and love when they buy books.

And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any flavor of ice cream, which one would you be and why??
Mint chocolate chip. Mint, because it’s refreshing, and chocolate because you cannot get through rejections without chocolate.

I write both picture books and magazine articles. My magazine articles have been published in Spider, Fun For Kidz, and Boys’ Quest. I also cohost #PBPitch, a Twitter pitch party for picture books held three times each year. I am repped by Natascha Morris with BookEnds Literary.

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26 thoughts on “Author Debra Kempf Shumaker on the Art of Perseverance

    Dianna said:
    May 23, 2020 at 9:49 am

    It’s always encouraging to know that other people get rejections too! We all need to hang in and just keep writing. Thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    tracivw said:
    May 1, 2020 at 10:14 am

    Great interview. Debra, your journey sounds very much like mine. 12X12 and Storystorm have been so helpful in jogging me loose for those 2 or 3 overworked, reworked, retold, regurgitated stories. Freaky Funky Fish sounds delightful. Congratulations! And well done in being persistent and keeping at it.

    Liked by 2 people

    Aileen Stewart said:
    April 29, 2020 at 9:05 am

    What a great interview. The key is definitely the three p’s:practice, patience, and perseverance! Best wishes.

    Liked by 2 people

    Linda Evans Hofke said:
    April 28, 2020 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks for all the advice and inspiration.
    I can’t wait to read Freaky Funky Fish. I love books about animals.

    Liked by 2 people

    Ruthie Kirk said:
    April 25, 2020 at 4:41 pm

    You made me curious about Steven Schnur’s books, so I just ordered a copy of Summer: An Alphabet Acrostic. Your writing journey inspires me!

    Liked by 2 people

    Blair said:
    April 23, 2020 at 2:04 pm

    Great article! Thank you for the critique giveaway as well!

    Liked by 2 people

    David McMullin said:
    April 23, 2020 at 12:00 pm

    Debra is my new hero!! Congratulation on your successes and hard work. This post is providing me with inspiration to keep working.

    Liked by 2 people

    nataliecohn0258 said:
    April 23, 2020 at 9:37 am

    This is so informative and helpful for writers who are unagented. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    Mary Ann Blair said:
    April 23, 2020 at 12:06 am

    This sounds like such a fun book! And thank you for this great reminder to never give up!!

    Liked by 2 people

      Lydia Lukidis responded:
      April 23, 2020 at 10:29 am

      Yes, and the journey may be long and full of winding paths, but so worth it!

      Liked by 1 person

    phyllishemann said:
    April 22, 2020 at 10:29 pm

    Thanks for sharing so many insights. Definitely what I needed to hear right now!

    Liked by 2 people

    Kim said:
    April 22, 2020 at 6:34 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this article, Lydia. Some great information and encouragement here.
    I would love a PB critique from Debra.
    Thanks for the opportunity.

    Liked by 2 people

    jjohnsonvet said:
    April 22, 2020 at 6:10 pm

    This is so helpful. Thank you so much. I’d love a critique!

    Liked by 2 people

    Elia Ben-Ari said:
    April 22, 2020 at 5:58 pm

    I’m glad you persisted! Looking forward to seeing your new book.

    Liked by 2 people

    Laurie Carmody said:
    April 22, 2020 at 4:14 pm

    It is so incredibly motivating to hear about Debra’s perseverance and grit. I look forward to reading FREAKY FUNKY FISH!

    Liked by 2 people

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