School Visits Turned Out To Be The Highlight Of The Tour

When the contract for publication came in the mail, the first people to know were my friends Sheryl and her mother Virginia. We had a babysit swap worked out, so I gushed out the news as soon as I pulled in the driveway to pick up my kids. Sheryl's sister sat in the garage staining chairs and overheard. She had come for the week from Kansas City where she worked in the school system.

"Let me know when it's out," Sheryl's sister said. "I can bring you in for a school visit."

"A what?" I asked.

"A school visit. Schools pay authors to come visit the kids and talk about how they became an author. You can also sell a lot of books."

"They do what?" Schools pay authors to talk about themselves and what they love?

She explained the process, insisted I'd need a website as I mentioned before in a previous blog entry, and gave me a few examples of authors who had been to her school before.

I could do that. I had experience in theater, loved public speaking, and am a master of creating props. I could do that. I wasn't sure how to get invited into schools, but her connection was a beginning.

As the book release drew closer, I put together a fun program geared not just at my book, but at the business of being a writer. This was my niche. It was what I was excited about. I started out reading the book to the kids, varying my voice based on the age group. Then I went on to talk about me, how I began writing as soon as I could shape my letters, and how I went on to be published at eighteen -- oops, see confession #2. Then, I launched into two games: the Rejection game and the Money game. I won't tell you exactly how each game works, but I will tell you that the kids love it. They learn about how authors handle rejection and they learn where the money goes when you buy a book. In the meantime, they laugh, ooh and aaahhh, and say, "No way!"

The biggest surprise of my whole first year? I love entertaining kids. I have hopes in the older market, but I can say for certain that I'll still publish in children's and YA just for that chance to stand in front of a group of school kids. I love to make them laugh. I love that moment when you know they can't wait for your next word. I love the controled chaos as we move through the games and the realizations that spread across their faces when they discover how money flows to everyone involved in the making of a book. I love walking out of the school building without my voice but with hundreds of new found fans.


My Guest Appearances' Wardrobe Came From Gifts And Goodwill

When an author signs her first book deal and gets an advance on royalties, the money is not “sold” money. When the books start to sell, that money is paid back to the publisher before the royalties start rolling in. This is a “payback” phase. In the meantime, the author uses that money to get ready to sell books. That money is not, I repeat NOT, blow money to be used on a big vacation and a new car. Sometimes authors get burned with this little tidbit of publishing. They get a big check, spend it on playthings, and then get a rude awakening when the book doesn’t “Payback” in the first six months and the publisher asks the author to return the remainder. Ouch!

Lucky for me, I got a small advance and knew enough to dump that small cache into marketing. The book quickly reached “Payback” during presales. By the time my first royalty check came through, I was able to use it in other ways. We did get a car around this time, but that had nothing to do with my book contract. That came because my husband got a raise.

Before the royalties rolled in, however, I moved from stay-at-home mommyhood, complete with a closet full of sweatpants and workout bras, to fulltime author/saleswoman/public speaker in sad want of professional clothes. I knew this would take careful planning because I absolutely had no money and would have to arrange babysitting while I worked full time marketing this book.

First of all, I gave a Christmas list of sizes to relatives so that they could shop for me. Second, since the book would come out in the fall, I hit one clearance sale at a department store in the spring. I walked away with a suit jacket. That’s it. Even on sale, prices were too high for my budget. Finally, I headed over to the second hand consignment stores and Goodwill. They work the same as the department stores. They clear out winter suits in the spring and everything gets ridiculously cheap. Big Score!! I walked away with several outfits that have served me well. I even found that red dress, the one I’m wearing in this publicity shot.

In that first year of marketing, I had to cut lots of corners. I still do. My publisher had warned me to find as many ways to get the word out without spending my entire royalty check. He was doing his part, following through with marketing through the company, but I got out  there, speaking here, writing articles there, ready to appear anywhere people wanted me.

Oddly enough, it was all the years at home with my kids that taught me to sacrifice and how to manage finances creatively. Hubby and I have sacrificed a great deal over the last ten years in order to follow our dreams and pay down the debt we brought with us into marriage. You can find out all about that on my site Live Cheap, Love Life.


While marketing a candy book, my nine year old started the GF/CF diet.

Our oldest son struggled from day one with gross motor delays and social skill delays. Simultaneously he endured chronic stomach pain. We weren't surprised at all when he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism. I am continually surprised, however, that mainstream medicine knows the stats: 88% of children with Asperger's have intestinal distress of one type or another, yet continue to ignore significant treatment by passing the intestinal pain off as an inevitable aspect of the syndrome.

This year, in the midst of online marketing, I connected with several parents who loved Defeat Autism Now! Most of what I had heard about this organization came from the traditional doctors I relied on: that DAN! was just a group of desperate parents. I was surprised to find that DAN! is actually a compilation of parents and doctors reporting on what's working and what's not working.

After being told all our son's life that his intestinal pain was a result of his anxiety, we decided to believe the anxiety was a result of his chronic intestinal pain. We bypassed the anxiety drugs and decided instead to try the Gluten Free/Dairy Free diet. Several friends from my support group were getting good results from it. Although it wasn't a great marketing strategy to dive into a group of friends who probably wouldn't be interested in a book about chocolate (dairy and gluten) and caramel (dairy), it was a great idea to give this diet a chance. I knew it wouldn't hurt Samuel if it didn't work, and the chance that it would work was too irresistible.

Within two weeks we saw results. His chronic stomach pain went away first. He stopped wetting the bed (an every night event) within a week. His anxiety dropped from several "freakouts" a week and several irrational fears controlling him to more natural fears and being able to calm himself down when he got upset. A month later, we tried to reintroduce gluten on three separate occasions and it caused vomitting each time. I had been scared to begin the diet because I felt like it would be a lot of hassle in the middle of an already hectic life, but the hassle of the diet is so much easier than living with the symptoms of Asperger's.

After several months on the diet, our son tells me what happened at school when he gets home. He remembers friends’ names. He plays with others on the playground. His verbal skills blow us away. He has only had one trip to the principal's office this entire year and never throws a tantrum or goes into "freakout" mode. Our pediatrician had been against the diet to begin with, but recently she told me I've made a believer out of her. She said Samuel was the calmest she's ever seen him in his entire life and she has been there for him since day one.

We still have more bridges to cross. After a lifetime of intestinal distress, his immune system is still extremely low. Over the last month, he's had Strep throat, Influenza A (despite having Flu Mist), Pneumonia, and Shingles. He's missed days of school every week this month. Thank God, he currently has the best teacher in the entire world, who has been understanding and supportive all year long despite his absences. We're currently hoping to see a DAN! doctor to get a better idea of what needs to happen next to heal his body. His primary physician now thinks it is a great idea.

If you'd like to learn more about Defeat Autism Now! or the Gluten Free/Dairy Free diet, you can visit www.autismwebsite.com or check out my Listmania page on Amazon concerning Early Childhood Delays. Thanks for reading!

Three Year Update: Our son is in middle school now. He made the transition without a speedbump. Last year, he proved he's over the sensory/social problems by earning a spot in the high school play both semesters even though he was in fifth grade. He endured complicated make-up and grueling dress rehearsal weeks. That's victory! Two years ago, he became a superseller at a scholarship level for selling $2,000 worth of Cubscout popcorn. This year, he asked to go to the junior high dance. He's still GF/CF.


Dodging Agent Scams

As an author who successfully sold a book to a publisher without an agent and negotiated my contract myself (if you like to call, “Yes, I’ll sign whatever you’ve got,” a negotiation,) I thought an agent would be the puppy on a leash route. I didn’t want to be at someone else’s mercy and really had no idea what an agent would do outside of negotiating a contract.

Not long into my book tour, I met other authors and got a good look through the fence at the doggy park. Let me tell you, it didn’t take me long to develop leash envy. So I’ve got my eye out for an agent that would fit my personality and goals. Oddly enough, even though I’ve been in the freelance business quite awhile, I still find a lot of agencies out ready to scam the hasty writer.

My first big taste of this came this week through the WL Children’s Agency, which I have since learned goes by lots of different names. I found it by clicking on a link from a reputable children’s authors guild, but I made the mistake of clicking a Google ad on the site. I should have known.

But I did click. I clicked and found myself at a professional looking site that said all of the right things and admittedly some of the things I wanted them to say, like, “You don’t have to spend your child’s physical therapy fund to come to New York and get rejected. You can get rejected from the privacy of your own home.” That sounded good.

I sent off a query and got a positive response right away, which isn’t actually out of the norm for me. If I get rejected, it usually comes a little later. I sent off the manuscript and only a week later got a positive response. That actually sent up the warning flags. I read over the e-mail skeptically. They were interested in representing me so they wanted to send me a “preliminary” contract, (a wha-?) but they wanted me to pay for a formal critique, not necessarily them, but they did have people they "recommended." The e-mail made the contract sound like this was the next step in being considered for their agency and after this round I would be up for an interview with the actual agent. They had a very informative e-mail as to why this was necessary and they would accept a critique from anybody with credentials, but it twanged like the only critiques with acceptable credentials came from the company they were recommending, a company that strangely shared similar initials to their own name, and had similar logos. Huh.

I called my friend Angela from Wicked Wordsmith http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html/ref=cm_plog_item_link?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.angelawilson.typepad.com%2Fwickedwordsmith%2F&token=563F38995AA2F46DCD2D7E97C2EB679D2AD4A7FE
and had her look it over, too. The same warning flags went off for her and she offered leads to research their validity. I decided to start with the guild site through which I had found this agency. Since they did not have any warnings about the company, I turned to the BBB. Still no warnings. I still wasn’t satisfied. The BBB at least recommended reputable agencies and this agency did not fall in that category either.

Finally, I checked out the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Of America, Inc site. They, thankfully, list the scam agents.


I immediately found warnings about the agency in question: WL Children’s Agency and all the other names the agency goes by. They have been under question for quite some time for referring people to their critique agency. They also have no reported sales with any major publishers although they make claims to such sales.

On the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America site, I also found sample contracts to compare for legitimacy. The contract I would have been required to sign as a “preliminary” contract for their process of being considered--before speaking with the agent in question--was an actual contract. Should I have agreed to go further with the process, I would have been contractually bound to their agency.

So I’ll peer over the fence at the doggy park and try to figure out which therapy fund to raid to pay for a flight to New York. In the meantime, I write and speak at conferences. I'll work my way through the game instead of paying my way through. Someday, when I'm really ready to do this again, I’ll find an owner. I’ll have a nice pink leash and a collar with purple rhinestones. Of course, just posting this makes me a target for more scam agents. I'll ignore the phone calls and hordes of slick contract wavers beating down my door. A good agent doesn't have to seek me out.


Why The Cub Scouts Don't Like Me Anymore

Long, long ago, with my marriage fast approaching, Oprah handed over this advice: even the greatest marriage is six weeks from divorce. Meaning? If you go without significant conversations and emotional connections for six weeks, then you will suddenly want to yell, scream, cry and wish you'd never gotten married. Hubby and I kept that in mind. We made it through the long distance dating and long distance wedding planning. We made it through two complicated pregnancies. We made it through digging ourselves half way out of college debts larger than two years of our combined salaries. We both made sacrifices to see the other succeed in his/her dreams. We made it through learning our son has a form of Autism and all the medical appointments and therapies attached to that diagnosis. We thought we had this staying-together thing all figured out.

Then I had to promote a book.

“You have to have a website, if you want to book schools for school visits,” a friend from the school systems warned me as I put together my marketing plan for my book. “The more interactive, the better.” I called around to several design companies and gasped in sticker shock.

“You need to do this yourself,” hubby said a zillion times. “How hard can it be?” He said the same thing when he was sure he could teach me how to ski. I still have the scars to prove the value of a ski instructor. Finally, one night as the whole family collapsed through the back door, he just said the words we’d both been thinking: “We can’t afford to put this much money out front.”

I blinked at him, standing there in our small 9X9 kitchen. “I don’t know anything at all about designing a website and the book is going to be out in four weeks. It has to be done sooner than that.”

“We don’t have a choice if you want to make money at this.”

“Fine, but if I’m going to do this, you have to be completely in control of the kids. You’ll have to cook. You’ll have to clean. You’ll have to do homework. And no running off to plan Cub Scout events!”

“Whatever it takes!” he promised. “We’ve come too far to let this get away from you.”

I headed toward the office. He headed downstairs to plan all the activities for the coming campout. He’d already forgotten.

Over the next three weeks, I let the dishes pile up. I ignored the flowerbeds. I didn’t check the kids’ bags when they came home from school. I forgot to schedule flu shots. When they said they were hungry, I said, “Go ask your dad.” I focused on the mind-numbing ambition of getting the website not only figured out, but assembled from scratch, still trying to keep an upbeat voice whenever the kids came around to tell me bits of their day. I plowed through, pulled together any friends who were willing to give pointers, and learned over and over why website designers get paid the big bucks.

Hubby, the-always-willing-to-help-out-guy-who-promised-etc., however, proved to be the-always-willing-to-help-out-the-person-who-asks -nicely.

Bill, the Cub Master, could ask nicely.

While the fiery storms of getting the site buttons to click back and forth blazed around me, Bill would call and say, “Hello, Sara Ann. Is Hubby-O there?” I wanted to reach through the phone and strangle him with all the campout props piled all over my boxes of books. But I didn’t have time.

“Sure, Mister Bill-O.” I’d hand the phone to Hubby with that don’t-you-dare-say-yes glare, but inevitably he’d tell Bill-O, "Sure. No problem."

So as I continued to plow through the website, then the school visits, the online marketing, mailers, and all of the hundreds of other jobs that were required to market this book, Hubby continued to plan Pack costume parties, sell popcorn outside of Wal-Mart, work the Christmas tree lot, help the boys make the cake for the cake decorating contest, and sneak wood into the basement for the derby car – sneak because by that time my reminders of his promise had become more than warning glares. He was worried I might drive away and never look back.

But I didn’t. Who could really leave the dad who allowed his son to make a derby car that looked like Sponge Bob body-surfing down the hill, thereby loosing all aerodynamic properties and forfeiting the trophy he won the year before? Who could leave the guy willing to build a cardboard Mystery Machine and dress up as Shaggy so the kids could be Fred, Daphne, and Scooby Doo?

I did remember the six weeks rule. After six weeks of not understanding each other’s goals you have to reconnect or fall apart. By this time the school was calling with concerns and the eating-out bill had skyrocketed. Hubby-O was just as worried as I was that our marriage may not make it through this new phase of our lives. I think he was probably a little scared that I would murder him with a forty-pound box of children’s books. We had to start talking again rather than throwing schedule updates over the kids scarfing down more McNuggets.

Boyd made the sacrifice to call Bill and resign his post as assistant Cub Master – just until we got past the worst of the marketing. Bill tried to understand, but I think he resents me secretly. I even think I see a little bit of anger flash through all the Cub Scout eyes when I pass them in the halls at school. “There goes the mom who didn’t want her husband to help with Cub Scouts. She’s the evil woman.” All the while, I secretly missed Bill’s chipper voice on the phone, ”Hello, Sara Ann. Is Hubby-O there?” Weeks of sleepless nights and being too busy to see even my best friends led me to appreciate that chipper voice.

The worst of the marketing passed. Hubby called Bill up again and started volunteering. Though I was relieved when he resigned, I was just as relieved when my schedule eased up and he could go back to helping the pack.(Albeit, I made him promise not to neglect homework for the sake of popcorn sales and he forgot that promise, too.) The other Cub Scouts eased up on the glares, glad I finally “released” Hubby back to regular duties. Best of all, Hubby brought out the super-seller in our son. I came back from an out-of-state book tour to find my son had sold more popcorn merchandise than I had sold books. I’m taking our little scout with me next time so that he can ask, "Would you like to buy a book?" In the meantime, Hubby and I are finding pockets of time together. He's taking me out tonight without the kids...to use that restaurant coupon we received for referring people to our chiropractor, who incidently is also a Cub Scout Dad.


Life Fact Fiasco

So, as promised, I have to confess why you should always, always, always, always, a million times always, double check your facts, even when it comes to your own life.

In my school visits throughout the year, I have shared with the kids about how my creative writing class in high school led to three big breaks for me. First of all, we had to write a poem for a local magazine and submit the poem. I did and they loved the poem so much they put it on the front cover of their magazine. The magazine was Chalkdust Magazine, the October 1992 issue. For another big assignment we wrote to our favorite author. I chose Bodie Thoene who, I am still ever so grateful, actually took the time to write me back. Based on her advice and the final important assignment, I wrote an article and sent it off to a national magazine, Campus Life. They accepted my article, paid me thirty-five dollars (the kids are always so impressed) and mailed it out to teens all over the nation--all before I graduated from high school at eighteen years old.

At least that’s how I remembered it happening.

When I filled out my publisher’s bio slip, I mentioned that I have been a nationally published author since the age of eighteen and this in turn found its way onto the book jacket. I also included it in the “How A Boy-Crazy Little Girl Who Sneezed A Lot Became A Writer” feature on my website for kids.

After the book printing, after the book headed to bookstores all across the country, and after I finished my website, proud as punch, I e-mailed everyone in the world who contributed to the crazy, sneezing girl becoming a writer. I received lots of congradulation e-mails back from people. Including, bless them, Bodie Thoene and Chris Lutes, editor of Campus Life. Chris Lutes immediately wrote me back; he remembered me, so kind of him, and decided to reminisce by pulling up the article. He asked me what year that was and I e-mailed back 1993.

He e-mailed me back that he couldn’t find it.

That can’t be. I took the class my senior year . . . And then it dawned on me. What my crowded memory had failed to recall is that the publication process takes six months. I had submitted the article before graduation, but it was accepted just after I graduated. Chris Lutes had written me a letter in August (which I framed) of how much he enjoyed working with me.

I e-mailed Chris back to have him check 1994.

He found it. I had turned nineteen on January 1st. The article had come out when I was in college, exactly two whole weeks after I turned nineteen years old. I finally remembered the moment I carried it up to my dorm room. All the girls crowded around me for a look. We all sunk to the floor right there in the hallway, reading it together and passing it around.

So the book jacket tells an altered tale. I have not been a nationally published author since I was eighteen. It feels good to come clean, after keeping up the charade all year to avoid explaining the long story over and over. Some people know. In fact, we’ve made a joke of it at the local library, using our fingers to put quotes around how I’ve been a published writer since I was “eighteen.” And I’m keeping up the charade as I speak to schools and conferences and libraries and teacher’s meetings . . . It’s too time consuming to fit the whole long winded explanation into my speeches unless I speak on the significance of fact checking. Only here in my confessions will you find the truth.


I'm What?

This year has been absolutely amazing, filled with once-in-a-lifetime experiences, light bulb moments, and--most of all--embarrassing "I can't believe I'm going to tell you this" moments that definitely fall on the learning curve. But I'm a writer, so of course I have to blab it all, if only to enjoy the karma from distributing laughter and lessons for emerging writers. I’m starting at the beginning, so here goes. . .

My first confession is that I had no intentions of being a children's author. Not that I thought it was beneath me—it's actually a pretty demanding form—but the truth is that my mother had an in-home daycare throughout my high school years and always wanted me to be a children's author. No one wants to be what their mother wants them to be. So instead I worked as a freelance magazine writer and as a playwright. Then shortly after marriage, motherhood completely caught me off gaurd. My hormones went so completely nuts that I actually didn’t reply to two job offers, one from Phil Vischer of Veggie Tales and one from Michael Zietner of Everland Entertainment. I still have the evidence to prove it. Just didn’t reply!! Jobs of a Lifetime!! I just went all-out zombie and sat on the couch watching the old B.B.C. “Emma” for three months: over and over. When the first trimester was over, I dragged myself off the couch, stopped praying to the porcelain alter, and took a temp job until the baby arrived. I slipped out of the business then and into comfortable clothes for the next phase of my new life.

During those years at home, I wrote just enough to keep my name out there, committing to one project at a time during times I knew I could be reliable and then when things got really tough--when my second child was born and we learned our older son had a nervous system disorder they would later call Asperger Syndrome (Autism)--I resigned myself to barely writing at all. My kids had to come first.

Then, when naptimes finally coincided, I began writing again. I didn't take on a writing assignment though, because again, I didn't want to adhere to deadlines when I was knee deep in therapy appointments for my son. However, I refused to stop dreaming. I decided this was the time to do what I really wanted to do, without the pressure of the writing business crushing over my shoulder.

I wrote. I wrote in my head. I wrote in my heart. As soon as the kids were asleep, day or night, I ran to the computer to put the words, floating through my head like the froth of a cresting wave, onto paper. During the next several years, I completed five screenplays and one novel. This was absolutely crazy-girl heaven.

Then as the kids got older, I had to face the challenge of getting someone in New York or L.A. to pick me out of the crowded piles laying about their office. I entered a few contests, came out with fairly good standings and great reader notes of admiration, but not a top win. One reader even went so far as to write me a personal note, suggest some formatting changes, and tell me that if I made those changes and shopped the manuscript around, I’d certainly pick up an agent. I then got some great input from Dave Trottier, format guru of the industry, made the changes, but shopping it around became the problem. Hmmm. How DO you get notice in Hollywood when you live in Missouri? An interest from one producer who ended up saying "no", just one trip to Hollywood, could have pushed us over the edge financially and the contest fees, printing, and postage to interested parties were not exactly pocket change for us. I decided to go back to magazine writing for one summer, just to earn the money to market myself to Hollywood.

One of the stories shifting through my mind that summer was a story about my grandmother's tradition of planting pecan trees for each of her grandchildren. My grandmother had made her last batch the year before and decided to hand the responsibility over to me. As I made several batches over the summer and froze them to save for the big Christmas get-together, I couldn't stop thinking about how much she had loved us, how much work goes into making them, and how her diabetes had prevented her from EVER, EVER tasting the turtles. I also couldn't stop thinking about how our days with her were growing slim. I knew I had to write the story. It started out as a draft for a magazine, but as I wrote the manuscript I couldn't get the images out of my head that should go along with the story. I knew it had to be a children's picture book.

On a whim, I again avoided New York publishers, picked out the best Midwest publisher on the Internet and wrote out an e-mail query. I received a response within a few days. They wanted to see the manuscript. I had been in the business long enough to take this as a compliment but not to get too excited, so I mentioned it to no one but my husband and sent off the manuscript.

A week later, I received an e-mail stating they loved the story, but they didn't buy holiday stories over the summer. If they bought it, it would be a whole year and a half before publication. They wanted to know if I had anybody else interested that I would choose instead if they waited to make up their mind. I e-mailed them back, not mentioning that I thought they were the best in the Midwest and their other books were stunning. That would have put too many cards on the table. I just told them I had several other projects I was working on and could wait for their decision.

They e-mailed me back a few days later. They decided they loved it enough to buy it in the off-season. They were sending a contract. It had been about three weeks since I decided to send out the manuscript. Blown away by just having made the fastest sale in the history of publishing, I read the e-mail over and over, my eyebrows furrowed, one thought mulling over in my head:

How in the world did I end up as a children's author?!?!?

We met my parents in St. Louis shortly after for a planned trip to the Railroad Museum. Grandma came with them and the boys were rushing about in line ready to see the trains. That's when I told them.

"A publisher bought my book."

"Your novel?" my mom gasped.

I shook my head. That was still in the closet, in dire need of more editing and now on hold indefinitely. "No, it's a children's book I wrote." Then I turned to my grandma. "It's about you, Grandma, and your chocolate turtles." She smiled really big and nodded her head -- she has such a great smile that speaks volumes of how pleased she is, even when she doesn't say a word. She gave me a big hug as everyone else rushed in to hug me, even the boys who had no idea why everyone was hugging Mommy. My mom of course was stunned, but as soon as she recovered she began giving me ideas for all the other books she thought I should write. It took her months to stop. Oh, Mother!

My mom now holds the record for having sold more of my books than any single person. Probably more books than the entire marketing team at Purple Sky Publishing. Thank you so much, Mom, for being so proud of me that you aren’t ashamed to pull out the book in restaurants, the teacher’s lounge, doctors’ offices, even the ones you’ve sold talking to people in the check out line at Wal Mart. You’re amazing!!
Tune in next time when I confess why you should always, always, always, check your facts, even when the fact is from your own life history and going on the book jacket.