Posted by: Robin Koontz | July 28, 2016

Don’t over-pluck your picture book

If you write picture books, you know it’s a lot easier to tell your story in more words than probably anyone wants to publish. It used to be that 1,000-1,200 words was the limit. Now, it’s more like 700. Or even shorter! But that does not mean you cut all but the first 700 words of your 2,000 word story. It’s trickier than that.

One of my picture books, Why a Dog? By A. Cat was a 2,000+ word picture book manuscript that I knew had to be seriously trimmed before I could submit it to a publisher. One summer evening, apparently feeling I should be clearing out the junk in our house but wasn’t about to do that, I sat on our porch swing with that manuscript in hand. And in about thirty minutes, I cut it back to exactly 100 words. All I remember is thinking that this 100 word rhyme had all the elements of my story and could stand on its own without the rest. I soon sold it to Scholastic and it did very well. It’s still in print as an ebook.

But that kind of brutal cutting doesn’t always work. I was very lucky with that particular story that it worked so well, and so easily.  Many times when we try to cut a manuscript to the bones, as they say, we cut the entire skeleton away. We leave things that won’t survive without the underlying structure. A wonderful speaker at one of our SCBWI Oregon conferences described the problem this way (I guess she noticed most of us were women): So when you’re plucking your eyebrows, sometimes you just keep pluck pluck plucking. By the time you’re all done plucking, the essence is gone. You can paint in your brow until it grows back, but unfortunately for your over-plucked picture book, your reader can’t benefit from what isn’t there. Somehow you have to trim around the edges and leave the center, the part that shapes your story just as a brow shapes your face.

I thought about that today while I considered mowing our front yard. I refuse to call a yard in the country a *lawn* but I do get caught up in having a pretty green lawn in the spring and early summer. I mow and trim fairly regularly and my spousal unit yells “Fore!” when he walks through the short grass. But we only provide water to our vegetables, potted flowers and landscape plants, so once the rains stop, the grass dries out and turns brown. And, amazing drought-resistant flowering plants (that some call weeds) start popping up! Grass and thistle seeds are plucked by sparrows and finches, dandelion flowers are nibbled up by rabbits and chipmunks and their seedpods are snatched by swallows, and Queen Anne’s lace flowers are visited by the many kinds of bees we have living around us.

Here’s what my summer yard would look like if I kept it all mowed.

grass lawn

Here is my summer meadow when I leave it alone.


Now I better get back to letting some of my manuscript flower and go to seed while I trim carefully at the edges.






Posted by: Robin Koontz | May 15, 2016

Can you handle the truth?

In the world of publishing we (hopefully) agonize over a project until it is perfect and present something we believe in our hearts is an incredibly awesome work of art. So it’s never any fun when our projects are rejected by an agent or publisher. In 30+ years of publishing children’s books, here’s my take on the R word.

When I first started submitting projects and portfolios, the responses were almost always personal, and most of them were rejections. The rejections were not exactly what I wanted to hear, but I relished the feedback and still have some of those helpful and encouraging letters from the 1980s-90s. I was glad that someone important read my story and had something to say that might make it better! I knew their opinion was subjective and that someone else might feel differently, but I was also aware that they knew more about what I was doing than I did. I felt lucky that these people gave me those precious minutes of their time and expertise. I learned a lot from their feedback and have since sold projects to a couple of the editors who rejected earlier projects!


A very helpful letter about Pussycat Ate the Dumplings, Cat Rhymes from Mother Goose. I eventually sold the revised version to an editor who loved cats.

However, not everyone relishes or at least appreciates the value of rejection letters. They don’t realize that maybe their project came close and this could be an editor or agent who they might eventually work with. Editors I wound up knowing well enough to talk about these things told horror stories of writers who gave them a lot of grief for daring to reject their brilliance. There were nasty responses, hastily written revisions sent without being invited, insistent and frequent phone calls, personal confrontations, and even lawsuits over assumed promises of publication when the editor requested a revision and ultimately rejected a project. I experienced similar problems when I used to critique manuscripts or listened to table talk at conferences. Some folks just couldn’t handle the truth, even if it was sugar coated until it shined.

I did talk about the R word in my SCBWI conference workshops. I wanted people to feel good that someone took the time to read their work and respond, even if it was not what they hoped to hear. But alas, many people missed the point of how valuable that professional criticism could be. And in time, most editors stopped sending out personal rejection letters unless they knew the writer or her work, or it was submitted through an agent. To note, the reasons also had to do with increased workloads and cutbacks.

So these days, a “no response means no” policy or a form rejection with no comments are the standard responses un-agented authors get unless the editor or agent is interested enough to publish the work or sees enough promise that they go out on a limb with a request for a revision. It’s a sad state of affairs, for sure. How can an un-agented writer or illustrator get that valuable feedback their work most likely needs before it’s truly publishable?

Learn to handle the truth. Pay for a professional critique, either through a conference or by finding a qualified freelance editor, and learn to deal with what they have to suggest. While it is true that their opinion is subjective, remember to consider the source. Probably at least something they tell you is worthy of pondering. Don’t get defensive. Don’t ask for your money back or rant on your social media outlets (I’ve seen this done, it amazes me!). And please, don’t self-publish your work in defiance. While some very wonderful books have been given a pass by publishers for a variety of reasons, and we’ve all read those stories, most all of the projects that are rejected can use some rethinking – i.e. research on the appropriate market, consideration of the audience you are hoping to reach, genre, word count, reading level, etc.

We can always use some constructive criticism from other professionals, regardless of how much our loving and mostly clueless friends and family love everything we do. All of our projects require a brave, mature creator who can handle the truth, embrace it, and learn from it.

Addendum: the day after I posted this, Jessica Faust of Bookends posted yet another horror story. You can read “How Not to Impress an Agent” here.

Posted by: Robin Koontz | April 21, 2016

Are You Done Yet?

RobinWorkingWow, it’s been thirty years since my first children’s book contract. So… what have I learned in thirty years?

I’ve learned that people often don’t respect or understand just how long it can take to accomplish a task that might appear, to the one not doing it, to be easy. I think everyone has experienced the boss, friend, or family member who has no clue what it takes to do a job, but feels justified to ask, “Are you done yet?” and scoff if you are still at it after what they conceive to be a reasonable amount of time to be done already. I hear you.

As a children’s book writer and illustrator, the belief that this is easy, fast work has always been an unjustified assumption about our business. I used to tell a friend what I was working on, but I stopped telling her because she would ask, “Are you done yet?” usually the day after I told her about a project. I often felt like a failure because I couldn’t write or illustrate what my friend thought should be easy to accomplish in a day or two, maybe a week. It doesn’t take that long to read what I create, so what’s the big deal?

There was even more guilt when I was working on a spec project that may or may not sell to a publisher. People don’t realize that we might spend weeks, months, even years on an idea that never sells, for whatever reason. It can make us feel ashamed when we are asked, “So, did you ever sell that book you spent all that time on?” and the answer is, “Not yet.” (We never say “No,” because “Not yet” still shows promise). Selling, after all, is how our work is ultimately validated and hopefully helps pay the bills.

What I finally learned after a few decades of guilt is this: take all the time you need and ignore the outsiders who cause you to have any self-doubt. Surround yourself with like-minded people who understand your journey, and just hum a happy tune when you are questioned by anyone else and change the subject. Do your thing. Enjoy the ride. If you get somewhere, cool. If not, whatever, as long as you enjoyed the ride.

That’s one thing I’ve learned in thirty years in this bunny-eat-bunny business. I’ll try to think of something else and share that later. But now, I better get back to work. This project is going to take a while. Hey, don’t ask me if I’m done yet. I’ll let you know. Thanks.





Posted by: Robin Koontz | November 10, 2015

What Was Hurricane Katrina?

KatrinaCoverMy book about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans was released by Grosset & Dunlap this past August, marking the 10th anniversary of the most destructive hurricane in history. Today I finalized and published a book trailer about the book. Many thanks to the publisher for permission to include some images by the illustrator, John Hinderliter, and the okay to promote the book here.

This project evolved from my proposal about engineering disasters. I offered up eight titles that dealt with the the worst engineering mishaps in history and the editor asked if I would write the one about Hurricane Katrina. And, to not only talk about the engineering disaster, but the human disaster. I agreed, and then spent the subsequent months researching and writing the book. While I was writing, I recalled worrying about New Orleans when the Category Five hurricane was blasting into the Gulf of Mexico that terrible weekend. The powerful winds would very likely level the city and nearby communities. Like many of us, I was relieved Monday morning when all was well. Not great, but not as bad as it could have been. And then the water began to rise.

It was not an easy book to write. My first books for children were happy stories. All the books I’d done up until that point only brought tears to my eyes when I was tired and/or feeling triumphant. They didn’t make me sad, but this one did. And not everyone was happy that I took on the project. One dear old Alabama relative asked what I was working on, and when I told her it was a book about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, she didn’t want to hear about it. She mentioned being disgusted with how the *liberal media* was unfair to the president, etc. so we didn’t discuss it further. I usually send her copies of my books, but when I offered this one a couple of weeks ago, she passed.  That also makes me sad.

But I’m proud of the book, glad that it is reaching kids through schools and libraries and hopefully bookstores. I hope to write more books for the series and have proposed another idea to the publisher. Whatever happens, happens, but I’m pleased at how this book came to be and the true and tragic story it tells. I’m delighted with the illustrations and the “Big Head” cover that identifies the popular series. And I hope you add it to your collection. Here is a link to the book trailer: What Was Hurricane Katrina?

Here is a link to the book with ISBN information: What Was Hurricane Katrina?

Posted by: Robin Koontz | October 19, 2015

Evolving Stories

How does a story evolve? aka Where do you get your ideas? We’ve heard lots of answers, and they all sound pretty convincing. However I think the honest answer from most authors and illustrators (and perhaps the other creative sorts) is that we really have no idea where ideas come from.

For me, the only way ideas evolve is to just keep messing about until something comes to life. And sometimes that something fizzles, and something else happens. And that something changes, and something else evolves.

And so on.

Today there was time to pursue an evasive idea that’s been simmering for a while. It’s about a girl who loves bugs. I have some ideas for the story at this point and am working on it. But! There is also the quest to learn new styles of illustration, so this was inspiration. The latest media I wanted to try was scratch board. Remember coloring a sheet of paper with crayons and then covering it with ink, and scratching a drawing?

It’s not that. But something like that.


So I bought the special paper and the tools for scratching, and studied what other artists have done. Then I got on the computer and used Photoshop to create the sketch above. It was a fun new way to draw, cutting white out of black rather than drawing black on white. And the computer was a neater way to do it. I will try the real thing next.

Then I went back to collage, with hand-painted paper that I scanned and incorporated using “clipping paths” in Illustrator. This is the incomplete cover for the non-existent book called BUG that doesn’t have a story. But it was a fun way to wrap up the day.


Tomorrow, back to the story.

Posted by: Robin Koontz | August 24, 2015

Never give up when you have a quest. Even a small one.


Vintage photo by Jane Wilson, inset photo by Marvin Denmark

In 1967, my dad gave me a beautiful Martin 016NY guitar. It was the last birthday gift from him, as he died less than a year later.

Since I’d never seen any paperwork on my guitar, I decided to get it registered. C.F. Martin & Co. was founded in 1833 and their guitars are still handmade in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. And like a lot of fine instrument makers, they give a lifetime warranty to the original owners of their creations. I sent in the paperwork and it was rejected because of no original receipt. I contacted the Washington Music Center in Wheaton, Maryland, where the Martin was purchased, and a nice guy wrote back that they don’t keep records from that far back! I asked the Martin folks what else might work, and they said they could accept a vintage photo of me and my guitar. So now I was vintage. I liked that. However, I had no such image.

A few months later, without even asking, a friend on Facebook posted a bunch of photos of us hanging around together, and go figure, one was a photo of a Halloween party where I was sitting on the floor playing my Martin. I sent a copy to the Martin folks, and I never heard another word. I followed up a few times, even sent a certified letter, and they continued to ignore me! I fumed for a while, gave up, then tried again. I wrote again, whimpering more than usual, and a different guy responded. He said he’d take care of it right away. He told me that only about 15% of Martin buyers bother to register their instruments, and he was glad to be of assistance. And a few weeks later, my official Martin registration arrived.


Today I convinced Marvin to try to replicate that photo of me. He did the best he could given the vintage subject matter. I mean, really, look how aged that guitar is! Anyway, more proof that we must all endeavor to persevere. Or as in this case, pestervere.

Posted by: Robin Koontz | June 16, 2015

More about bats.


I worked with the third spread for my book idea about opposites and this is how far I got. Lots of tweaking yet to go, but it’s so fun to carve out some time to illustrate. Now it’s time to get back to writing. I’ve put one client off for three weeks, so I better get back to it!

Thanks for your comments!

Posted by: Robin Koontz | June 12, 2015

Bats Rule!

It was a very long winter and spring working on “work for hire” writing projects along with the usual spring gardening, greenhouse and yard chores. I have eight (8!) books coming out in August, which you can find by searching my name as the author. My latest Boxcar Children Mystery was released in March, which you can see here: The Mystery of the Stolen Dinosaur Bones

I’m also excited that What Was Hurricane Katrina? is on the August list. I’ll post more about it once it is released.

So that’s a total of nine books, egad. Only one other recent project isn’t on the Amazon radar yet, but it will be soon. I finally got hired to write about robots! I am totally fascinated with them. I guess my engineer genes rear up once in a while. But I miss illustrating, which was after all, the original career quest.

And to note, so far, it pays better. Sorry, writers. And I’ll also tick you off by saying it pays better because it’s HARDER. It is. For me anyway. Especially when I stop practicing.

So it was fun when the writing work dried up to carve out some time to get back to illustration. These spreads (a spread is two pages with the book spine down the middle) are from a project I haven’t sold. It’s a concept book of opposites, with a nonfiction theme about the world’s smallest and largest mammals on the planet: bumblebee bats and blue whales. So the backdrop, somewhat abstract, is Thailand, where bumblebee bats reside. And blue whales appear just about anywhere if they feel like going as long as it’s an ocean, so I think it works. Here are the first two spreads from Bats Inside, Bats Outside:



The text for the next spread is:
We spy a PRICKLY turtle,
And a SMOOTH little snail.
(spiny turtle, green snail, both of which reside in Thailand)

As always, I have no idea if this project will ever sell, but it’s been fun playing with the new style of illustration – designing a page, painting lots of paper, then using computer programs to put things together. Let’s face it, I’m too lazy and indecisive to cut and glue paper down permanently.

Happy almost summer!

Posted by: Robin Koontz | April 6, 2015

Updated Portfolio for Spring 2015

PrintI deleted a few pieces and added a few pieces, so now my design portfolio is all about collage. As soon as time opens up, I’m going to start working in scratch board. Just call me an old dog that loves new tricks!

Here’s the link to my portfolio.

Posted by: Robin Koontz | March 4, 2015

Free Range Children

It was on the CBS morning news – parents who were put on notice by the CPS because their children, ages 10 and 6, were allowed to walk to the playground by themselves. The children were “at large” which was, according to the CPS, a case of neglect. The couple has chosen to fight the charge and all the nasty ramifications that came with it. Here is the story if you’re interested. This particular case is happening in Maryland.

I grew up in suburban Maryland, with a few years and summers in Alabama tossed in. Back in my day, kids basically had a few simple rules: do your homework, don’t talk to strangers, and be home for dinner. That was pretty much it.

Are things worse than they were when I was a kid? I don’t think so. But I do think, as usual, we can thank the mass media for hyping every bad thing that happens in the world and basically scaring the spit out of all of us and making us paranoid. Kids are monitored on their smart phones with instructions to call every hour. School buses around here drop off the kids at their front doors or else a parent meets them at the end of the driveway. I understand the fear, but I worry about what all the paranoia and limits on freedom do to a child’s spirit.

But anyway, this is not an opinion piece. The news story actually made me a little nostalgic. I recalled the house where I grew up and how very easy it was to slip out when I was supposed to be in my room doing homework or some other quiet task. So I checked out the street view of my house via the Google Spies:


My bedroom window is upstairs on the far right – over the retaining wall and rock garden that my mom built back in 1954 or so. There used to be a set of casement windows under a large picture window. You get the plan? I opened a window, climbed out and landed on that wall, dropped to the ground and headed on to whatever trouble I was hoping to find, usually finding my friend Annie and spying on neighbors, or heading to the local mall. Then I’d climb back in later, or just sneak in the unlocked front door.

But alas, there is no more escape route. The windows are gone, and I’ll bet the front door is locked with an alarm.

I’m glad my mom was never arrested for letting us grow up and take our chances. I’m glad she never knew all the stuff we did. I’m glad we got to be free range kids.

We still turned out okay.

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