Hello, wonderful Picture Book Builders people!
Today, I had planned to invite a purple monster named Dennis for an interview, but, it turns out a Dennis situation involves lots of rules, and, since I’m not 100% sold on my abilities to follow directions, I thought it was a safer choice to invite the author of The Book of Rules instead.
TS: Welcome, Brian.
BG: Thank you, Tammi. I think you made a safe bet. Dennis has been known to devour people in the middle of interviews. It’s very rude…we’re working on it.
TS: Congrats on your debut! Typically, I chat with interviewees about their books. Not today! I wanted to chat with YOU about your path to publication.
BG: Bah! Thank you so much, Tammi! I can’t wait for Rules (and Dennis) to be out in the world. It’s still all so surreal to me. And thanks for having me on Picture Book Builders. Love this site. Super trying not to fangirl over here. Cause…Tammi Sauer…is asking me stuff.
TS: Yes. She’s a Very. Big. Deal. 🙂
Tell us about your early days as a writer. What was it that made you want to create books for kids? A teacher? Your kids? Perhaps the influence of aforementioned Dennis?
BG: Well, Tammi, I penned my first sonnet as a fetus so I’ve been at this for a while…No, in reality, I think I’ve seen myself as a writer for almost as long as I can remember. The common denominator in my artistic and social endeavors centered around my desire to make people laugh. To make people laugh with words. I liked being a class clown ham and entertaining friends, teachers, and family. So I come by it honestly. Entertaining children is another animal altogether–it’s far more challenging and far more rewarding. My background is in theatre and acting in front of children teaches you one unforgettable lesson. Children never lie. They are BRUTALLY honest with you. If they don’t believe you or like what you’re doing, they let you know. They aren’t socialized yet to politely lie like adults do. Anyone who has acted or read to or entertained or taught children know exactly what I’m talking about. So, I guess once I found my jam as a writer through writing picture books, it was just another way to entertain like I had been doing my whole life. Another way to entertain the toughest crowd. I know that if I win them over…I’m doing something right. Survey is still out on whether Rules will achieve that. Eagerly awaiting that audience feedback…
TS: Do you remember your first manuscript? I sure remember mine! It involved banana bread. I wrote it on a Monday, sent it out on a Tuesday, and expected multiple offers by Friday. Unfortunately, that did not happen, but I certainly admire early writer Tammi for her optimism.
BG: Oh, early writer Tammi sounds like fresh-outta college Brian who discovered picture books as a special education paraprofessional at an elementary school. It was my first real teaching gig and after being saturated up to my eyeballs in kidlit, I started getting meddlesome thoughts that I could write my own picture books. Prior to that, I wrote a few parody picture books in college that I think pointed to my fascination and interest in them even then. There was No-Tears Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (for literal babies). And a rather intentionally didactic “choose your own adventure type book” called, LET’S MAKE A DECISION! If you chose “wrong” it led to disappointment, dismemberment, and death. Those books were out of control. Facetious dribble. My first real manuscript was about a square named Eugene who lived in a town of circles who was tired of being different…it was called THE ROUNDEST SHAPE. Looking back, it was total garbage but I was convinced it would make me an overnight Robert Munsch. Oh, fresh-outta college Brian. Silly, silly…
TS: How did you push yourself to improve?
BG: I play. That’s how kids learn and I think that’s how I approach writing. I’m a naturally playful and curious person who genuinely likes to learn. So I’m always playing with language and concepts and form. Also, the writing is better when I’m taking myself less seriously. On top of that, I try to hone in on where my weaknesses are. Like theme. I’ve been working on developing a better sense of theme in my manuscripts for like a year and to do so without accosting my readers with too heavy a hand. Additionally, I’ve more recently become fascinated by authors who build intentional gaps and space into their narratives to appeal to their reader’s ability to infer and fill in those gaps. And to learn to let go of spelling everything out for them. Another concept I’ve had stewing in the crockpot is the comedic principle of building to the absurd. I love absurdity. Whatever concept I’m trying to master, the only context I’ve found that really works is through play. Play is where discovery and epiphany and surprises and learning and fun happens. If it’s not fun…why do it?
TS: Give us a little background on your agent search. Do you have a tip you’d like to pass along to those who are currently seeking representation?
BG: I first started with a copy of the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market Guide (super recommend). I think I read that year’s edition cover to cover in the late fall of 2016. From there, I jumped online and started documenting agencies and agents who repped picture books. Manuscript Wishlist, kidlit blogs, Google searches, and resources through SCBWI were instrumental in my learning. Querytracker wasn’t something I ever connected to but I did have a nifty Excel sheet to keep track of everything. I included links to websites, notes on agent’s interests or recent sales, what I sent and when. Whatever system you develop to capture your research, make it work for you. Simple is best, I think.
TS: Tell us about getting that first YES!
BG: By the time I actually got my yes, I had reached 600 rejections. While some may be embarrassed by that sad fact, I wear it like a badge of honor for hope. Because even someone like me, the maybe most rejected guy in kidlit, can get published. Even though it worked out, I don’t recommend my technique. There were something like a mix of two dozen manuscripts queried to around eighty-five agents and a handful of editors who accepted unsolicited manuscripts over a period of two years. Looking back, it’s kind of like I took a handful of darts and threw them at the wall, hoping something would stick. So maybe don’t do this? Unless you like pain, of course. And drinking your own writer’s tears. Knowing what I know now, there’s many stories I shouldn’t have queried because they were actual garbage. At the time, they were less garbage-like but I think I was just in a headspace where I was learning a ton, experimenting, finding my voice, actually, really trying for the first time, and also not afraid to put myself out there…a dangerous combination. Eventually, through enough listening to feedback and gaining wisdom, I slowed my pace and got pickier with my manuscripts. Melissa Richeson (my first agent) worked with an agency I had sent two other manuscripts to and I suppose my third time did the trick. She liked my voice and wanted to see more manuscripts. Then she wanted to set up a time to chat…what?! Not no!? More stories?! A phone call?! Nothing was happening then everything was happening. In my brief time with the publishing industry, this seems to be pretty par for course. Nothing then everything. Always waiting. And nothing. Plus more waiting. Add some anguish. Still with the waiting…then everything. ALL THE THINGS. Dear God, all the things at once! Oy vey…Long story short, I was her first client she took on and she was my first agent. We took a chance on each other…and I’m very glad we did. Even if I had to endure 600 rejections, I’m very glad we did.
TS: What three things do you wish you could go back and share with just-starting-to-write-picture-book-manuscripts Brian?
BG: Just stop, man. Pump the breaks and slow the frick down. Sure, learn your craft and play and write but maybe don’t send out every new idea you get! Spend more time in the invaluable school of critique groups and really start believing in the power of revision. I’d also ask him to look into his heart and identify what was driving and motivating this insatiable need to get an agent and be published. That’s something we probably all need to do. What are we hoping for? Why are we doing this? What’s at stake and what story are we telling ourselves as we journey on? I don’t know if that was three things but just-starting-to-write-picture-book-manuscripts Brian needed to hear all of that and then some.
TS: Give us a brief PSA about Picture Book Spotlight (what it is, where we can find it, what it offers).
BG: Picture Book Spotlight is just a space online where I interview authors, illustrators, and agents to share industry insight and help dig into great books. I try to ask interesting questions and make the interviews conversational and fun. Most of the time there is a giveaway associated with each post. Sometimes it’s book giveaways, sometimes critiques by agents or authors or illustrators. Each fall I also have a one-time massive “critique fest” where we raffle out around 30 or so critiques, pairing industry pros with anyone who wants to toss their name into the digital hat. Different than a mentorship, PBCritiqueFest offers a one-time critique to celebrate the critique and revision process. One of my favorite things on interviews is to include a fake bio for myself and to hide a “secret emoji code” to give people a higher chance at winning a giveaway. They usually have absolutely nothing to do with anything but are usually entertaining (so I’m told). You can find the website at pbspotlight.com Also…we need to fix the fact that I’ve never gotten to spotlight one of YOUR books. This egregious error must be mended soon!
TS: Scoop time! What’s next for you?
BG: Scoop time! The next task is to continue building the airplane in the sky and figuring out how one navigates a debut picture book. I have no idea what I’m doing but I’m sure having a blast going along for the ride! Especially when I’m tweeting as Dennis (follow @RulesofDennis)! Aside from The Book of Rules, my new agent, Jennifer Mattson (Andrea Brown Literary Agency) and I are going on submission with some new work. Hopefully, there will be some book sales in the future! Best case scenario there will be some waiting. And a lot of nothing. And some more waiting. Then…everything? Let’s hope for everything.
Brian Gehrlein lives in Liberty, Missouri with his wife, Katherine, and their two sons, Peter and Albee. The Book of Rules is his first picture book. Brian does his best to follow the rules and has (so far) avoided being eaten. He hopes this trend continues. When Brian isn’t avoiding being eaten by fictional monsters, he can be found teaching high school English or attempting to make himself uncomfortably caffeinated. Sometimes he tweets things. You can read the things by following @BrianGehrlein
For a chance to win a copy of The Book of Rules, leave a comment. For another chance, share a link on Twitter. Please tag @SauerTammi and @BrianGehrlein.