On Tuesday, July 12, we hosted our latest #ConnectChat, "Breaking into Writing for Children and Families," with our guest Karl Beckstrand, an award-winning author of 15 multicultural books and more than 40 ebook titles (reviews by Kirkus, School Library Journal, The Horn Book blog, ForeWord Reviews).
Karl discussed finding ideas and inspiration, working with illustrators, finding a publisher, self-publishing, marketing your book and much more.
Can you please tell us about your background?
I was raised in paradise (San Jose/Silicon Valley) —the perfect climate, much like Valparaiso (Chile, where I lived for two years [LDS mission]). I have a bachelor’s in journalism (never planned to be a reporter) and a master’s in International relations. I teach media at a state college in Utah, and am an arts/media junkie (music, art, films, books, theater—oh, and history!)
How did you begin your writing career and have you primarily focused on children’s stories since then?
This was a complete accident, because I hated writing (and reading) as a kid. While I should have been doing homework in college, I would get ambushed by ideas for kid’s books and write them—thinking I’d get published when I retired from a “real” job.
I joined a writer’s group and met a gentleman who wanted to publish one of my manuscripts. Unfortunately, he died the day we were to print. I got a crash course in publishing/marketing. One other publisher asked me to write a true story about an immigrant child. I knew about a girl in my family history who arrived here alone, not knowing English. I found the account—and then got hooked on family history. So, now I’m writing other true immigration stories. I have ideas for novels—but only one is published so far.
What’s the first thing a writer with an idea for a children’s story should do (besides write it)?
Hire a professional editor (even for kid’s books). They are affordable and will save you grief!
Karl, where do you get your ideas and where can other writers find inspiration?
This is a hot button (for someone who works in perhaps THE most competitive genre). If you’re not constantly hit with ideas, then “I’d like to write a children’s book” is probably not justification for entering the field. My desk is covered with folders and papers filled with ideas that come at me all the time; things people say, scenarios that explode in my mind, phrases that have a fun meter ... I may never get them all published.
How can a writer find and work with illustrators? Should a children’s book be illustrated when you submit a manuscript?
Only get an illustrator if you self-publish (which I recommend). Otherwise, find a good children’s lit agent and let the publisher to match your work to an artist. I find illustrators through networking (LinkedIn writer/illustrator’s groups, alumni groups, people whose work I’ve seen and fallen for—I just persuaded a genius artist I’ve been stalking for years to do one of my books!)
Once you have your book written, how do you find a publisher?
You must be unafraid to communicate (phone, mail, email, online, in person) and you must be unrelenting (but get an editor before you drive agents/publishers crazy—which you will. The idea is that when they finally look at your stuff, it’s wonderful).
How is the process different with books for children and families compared to books for adults?
I try to write to entertain adults--regardless of the target age range. They are the ones who are going to buy the book, and I don’t want them to cringe when a kid asks them to read a Karl Beckstrand book. I want them to get the humor that the child may not get. I want the parent/teacher/librarian to stay awake and read my books even when they are alone.
Do you prefer having your books published by a publishing house or do you prefer self-publishing?
What are the pros and cons of each? After learning so much from publishers (learning isn’t always a good experience) I realized that I would rather control content, MARKETING, and revenues. Publishers make lots of promises, but the author is—really--always the engine for fulfillment, even if a large publisher promises the moon. I don’t like to spend 50% of my time marketing, but I would have to do it even with Penguin-Random House.
Once you have your book published, how do you market it, and does it make a difference whether it’s self-published or not?
No big difference: you must post it on social media; do giveaways on goodreads, bookbub, Authorsden, Librarything (give it in exchange for a sincere online review—these are important); send press releases—and call the media afterward to see about being a guest/article subject; if you self-publish, Amazon’s Createspace.com can get you on the major distributors’ lists (but you must still contact distributors about truly getting your work in front of booksellers.
I don’t usually pursue book signings for two reasons: Bookstores are not the best place to stand out, and, unless you have a large following in a particular city (which you might) you won’t sell a lot of books. Presentations to groups/schools are great.
What are the biggest challenges in the publishing process?
Getting reviews/getting your book noticed.
Can you tell us about your latest novel?
It’s Young Adult suspense set in the Nevada silver rush: To Swallow the Earth. It won a 2016 International Book Award (also a Laramie finalist). I inherited the manuscript from someone who grew up exploring the Sierra Nevada Mountains on horseback nearly a hundred years ago. My challenge was to develop the characters while preserving the action and authentic language.
It’s about a man and a woman who clash in a land scheme that leaves both unsure who to trust—and scrambling to stay alive. In addition to a tough outcast (half-Mexican, raised by Indians), there’s a gutsy female who’s unintimidated in the worst kinds of opposition.
How can a writer prepare for writing stories aimed at multicultural audiences?
Yes, they’re not really aimed at a certain audience—they’re not even about racial diversity. They are exciting/fun stories that just happen to reflect the diversity of the world in a natural way.
You speak Spanish?
Yes, my mother spoke broken Spanish to us as kids, then living in South America made it my second language. I’m learning German.
What are some of your future projects?
I’m working on a graphic novel, an audio book, and more kid’s books.
Where can we find your many books?
Amazon/Kindle, Nook, PremioBooks.com, and the major distributors (Ingram, Baker & Taylor/Follett, Brodart, iBooks, Kobo, OverDrive, SCRIBD)
How much of your personality and life experiences are in your writing?
My books are my life laid out in color (my food obsession has found its way into most of my works).
What is your writing schedule?
I write or research every day—usually in the morning—though half of my work is marketing and business correspondence.
Who were your early writing influences? Who or what has inspired you during your career and ignited your imagination?
When I got the measles in the third grade, my grandmother bought me a chapter book: Bicycles North: A Mystery on Wheels by Rita Ritchie. I learned that books can transport and excite. I love Shel Silverstein.
What is your favorite genre to read?
I love suspense.
Do you have a favorite comment or question from a reader?
I love it when someone says a book I wrote held them captive—or that the twists were totally unexpected.
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