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Interview with Rob Sanders (Picture This!) about COWBOY CHRISTMAS

Rob Sanders does not work as a telephone sales rep, loading dock worker, trophy engraver, photo stylist, or editor. But he used to. Rob Sanders is not a cowboy, ballerina, chicken, twin, or rockabilly star. But he writes about them. Rob Sanders is a picture book author, a writing teacher, a blogger, a great uncle, a dog owner. And he loves it all.

I’m a big fan of Rob’s Picture This! blog, a wonderful resource for picture book writers, and I’m thrilled to be illustrating his new RUBY ROSE series, which is coming out from HarperCollins in 2014. Rob’s COWBOY CHRISTMAS picture book (written by Rob, illustrated by John Manders) came out from Golden Books in September.

Rob was kind enough to answer a few questions about his recently released book:

How did Cowboy Christmas begin?

The idea that became Cowboy Christmas came to me when I was driving home from a picture book boot camp with Lisa Wheeler. As I drove along I-75, random thoughts flooded my mind, including memories of the GALA Choruses Festival I’d attended a couple of months earlier. (NOTE: Let your mind wander. Some of the best story ideas come when you’re not trying to think of story ideas.) In particular, I remembered a song entitled “Hannukah Hoedown” which was performed by an ensemble of “Orthodox cowboys.” I thought, “I’ll write a story called Hanakkuah Hoedown!” Of course, I don’t know much at all about Hannukah, so the story quickly morphed into Cowboy Christmas.

I worked drafts through my critique groups and, truthfully, it stunk. But after a few critique group cycles (and a couple of paid critiques), the plot firmed up and the story got better.

Diane Muldrow, Golden Books

I sent the manuscript for a consultation at SCBWI, LA, and I was assigned to Diane Muldrow, of Golden Books/Random House. Diane began our consultation by saying, “My dad and granddad were cowboys.” What a serendipitous connection! Diane gave her critique. I listened, learned, and asked questions. Then I hauled out my latest revision of the piece which we went over it. Diane gave me pointers about making the story more “cinematic” and said, “Send it to me after you’ve revised—no promises.”

Two weeks later, I mailed off the revised manuscript, and two months later we had a signed contract!

What was the editorial process like? How did the manuscript change from when you first submitted it?

Most of the revisions Diane wanted were already in my “second” manuscript (the one I whipped out during our consultation). The Golden Books/Random House team wanted me to “up the cowboy” even more with lingo, expressions, and dialogue. I also revised the verbs over and over.

Diane and I had a couple of phone-call editing/revision sessions. One of them came after she had finished sketches in hand. At that point, we were able to tweak some lines, simplify a passage or two, and we even cut out one whole block of text because the illustration on the two-page spread showed what the words said, so the words were no longer necessary.

When Diane snail-mailed or emailed me the latest version of Cowboy Christmas, I poured over every word, every line, every scene. I charted out words (especially my verbs and dialogue tags) to make sure I wasn’t being redundant and that I had the just-right word every time. Then I collected up my ideas and saved them for the next time Diane asked for input, or we had a scheduled conversation. There are many times to revise during the process leading up to publishing and a wise writer seizes every opportunity.

Working with Diane was a blast. She’s funny, talented, and knowledgeable. She not only valued my input, but went out of her way to ask my opinions.

Have you met the illustrator, John Manders, in person yet?

A family photo from Christmas 1959. I’m the little one on the end. From left is my older brother, Butch; sister Pat; and my cousin Kem. Could these cowboy outfits planted the seed for Cowboy Christmas?I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting John Manders in person. When Diane Muldrow told me John would be the illustrator, my first response was, “The spine will say Sanders/Manders! I love the rhyme!” Diane replied, “It rhymes? We hadn’t even thought of that.” LOL!

When I received Diane’s email about John I had just used a book he had illustrated with some of my student writers. I sent him a fan email immediately, and told him how excited I was that he was going to illustrate Cowboy Christmas. We also passed emails back and forth a few times at the end of the process and after the book was published.

Some people ask if the illustrations look as I had imagined them. That is so-o-o-o difficult to answer. Diane likes her writers to give lots of art notes. (It’s like art directing a movie.) And John did follow the intent of most of the notes—HOWEVER, I could never have imagined the characters and settings and hilarious scenes he created. The book really is a collaboration between story and art, and the illustrations definitely tell the other half of the story.

Picture This! is such a wonderful resource for picture book writers. When did you create it? How did it begin?

Debbie Ohi, you are precious to mention my blog! Picture This! (http:// is my blog for picture book writers. The blog launched January 2011. The whole reason I started the blog was to make myself study and learn more about picture books and Picture This! gave me structure and a schedule to do that. I blogged daily for a year and a half and nearly wiped myself out. (I tend to overindulge in things I love.)

Now I post less frequently, and only when I really have something important to share or say. I’m trying to work smarter, not harder these days, so I’ve created an archive (or directory) for Picture This! so folks can easily find writing craft topics, interviews, inspiration, creative challenges, and so on. I’ll update the directory every six months or so. You can find the directory for Picture This! at: PICTURE%20THIS%20DIRECTORY.pdf.

Do you have any advice for those who are considering attending their very first children’s book writer/illustrator conference?

Stop considering it, and do it! I suggest going to a conference in your SCBWI Region first—that will be more manageable and not quite as overwhelming. Take full advantage of everything—every session, breakout, informal critique time, cocktail hour, paid critiques, etc. After you have a regional event under your belt, go to LA or NYC for a national conference. There is one word for one of those events—AMAZING!

Some folks say they can’t afford to go to conferences. Believe me, I understand. I work as a teacher for my full-time job. I know all about money constraints. But if you’re serious about writing and/or illustrating, you simply cannot not go to conferences. Start saving your money. Find roommates. Share a ride. Ask if there are scholarships or reduced rates in your region. As my Granny always said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”

Rob with friends at the SCBWI Summer Conference in LA 2012

What advice do you have for writers when it comes to handling rejection?

Develop tough skin. Rejection is part of the process (and part of life). In our fantasy worlds editors open our manuscripts and fall in love with us and print our books without a single alteration. But in the real world, there are thousands of rejections for every one published book.

Can I tell you the truth about what I do when one of my writing projects is rejected? I revert to seven-year-old Rob and I say to myself, “I’ll show them. They’ll be sorry. When I sell a million books they’ll wish they’d bought this one from me.”

Then I set out to prove them wrong.

Some of my best writing has been I’ll-show-them writing. Turn your rejections into motivation. Learn from your mistakes. Listen to what people are telling you. And try, try, try not to take rejection too personally. Remember, they rejected a particular manuscript . . . they didn’t reject your writing as a whole, and they certainly didn’t reject you as a person!

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

I have two picture books coming from HarperCollins in 2014. The books are based on my character, Ruby Rose, who dances her way through life and in and out of trouble. (By the way, Ruby Rose grew out of a big-time rejection.)

The first book is entitled Ruby Rose on Her Toes. The other Ruby Rose book is still in the works. Oh, guess who the illustrator is? None other than the world-famous Debbie Ohi!

(Note from Debbie: WOOHOOOOOO!!!!!!!!)

I have several picture book projects out with my agent right now and he’s shopping those around. I’m working to promote Cowboy Christmas and have book signings, readings, and other appearances coming up in the next few months. I’m beginning to be asked to speak at conferences in various locales. And (believe it or not) I am working on an edgy middle grade novel—a real departure for me—but very, exciting, too. What can I say? I just can’t stop writing!

Any advice for aspiring picture book writers?

Advice-R-Us! I always have advice, ask anyone who knows me. Let me give you a quick list.

1. Write more than one story. As you write more and more, and experiment and learn, the practice of doing so will make you a better writer. It takes many stories to find one that is publishable.

2. Join a critique group AND participate by submitting your work for critique and by critiquing others.

3. Join SCBWI and attend regional and national meetings. Almost every book is sold through a personal contact, a link, a connection.

4. Pay for professional critiques from other authors and professionals. Choose the people you use for critiques from those you meet at conferences, or people whose work you respect and admire.

5. Learn your craft. Good writing doesn’t just happen.

6. Don’t try to find short cuts or take the easy way out.

7. Don’t give up! I know many writers who have stopped because they received some rejections, or life got too busy, or they thought another genre might be easier. Keep at it! Success will come!

8. Visit my web site and have some fun looking around.

9. Buy a copy of Cowboy Christmas and support my retirement fund!

10.Look me up on Facebook, through my blog or websiteTwitter, via email, or at conferences. I’d love to meet you!

Rob’s Events and Appearances

October 19-21, 2012

Florida Writers Association

Orlando, FL

Speaker and Critiquing

November 3, 2012

2:00-4:00 p.m.

Inkwood Books

Tampa, FL

Book Launch Party and Signing

November 4, 2012

Horn Museum of Art

University of Florida

Gainesville, FL

Reading and Book Signing

November 9, 2012

6:00-8:00 p.m.

Mintz Elementary Night at Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble, Brandon, FL

Reading and Book Signing

November 17, 2012

10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

Parnassus Books

Nashville, TN

Reading and Book Signing

December 1, 2012

1:00-3:00 p.m.

Barnes & Noble, Dale Mabry

Tampa, FL (Near Kennedy Blvd.)

Book Signing

December 15, 2012

1:00-3:00 p.m.

Barnes & Noble

Springfield, MO

Reading and Book Signing

January 18-20, 2013

Florida SCBWI Winter Meeting

Miami, FL

First Books Panel and Critiquing

For more insights from book creators, see my Inkygirl Interview Archives and Advice For Young Writers And Illustrators From Book Creators.