CAROL GORDON EKSTER: I met Rebecca through a #kidlit group we were both part of. She’s a talented writer and a lovely lady and I wanted our Writers’ Rumpus readers to get to know Rebecca and her wonderful book that just released.
Rebecca, let’s start with your telling us about your journey into becoming a picture book author.
REBECCA GARDYN LEVINGTON: Thank you so much for having me on Writers’ Rumpus! I’ve been a fan of the blog for a long time and I’m honored to be here!
I’ve always loved writing. As a child and teenager, I was always scribbling something – poems, jokes, stories, inspirational sayings, etc. (In fact, I’ve kept a journal since I was 8 years old!)
Eventually, I turned that love of writing into a career as a professional journalist. I wrote feature stories and articles for many national and local newspapers and magazines. When I gave birth to my first son, I naively believed I would “just write while the baby sleeps” but, alas, new motherhood is all-consuming (and exhausting!) and those naps were far too unpredictable. Before I knew it, a decade of full-time Mommying to two little boys had gone by and I hadn’t written a word (other than in my journal, of course!).
I missed writing so much, but didn’t want to go back to journalism, so I enrolled in a local writing class called “Where Do I Begin?” The teacher gave us weekly prompts and for some reason I kept coming to class with silly rhyming poems. I was having so much fun! Turns out, the teacher was a middle grade author, and she thought some of my poems could be fodder for picture books. She told me about SCBWI and I went to my first conference in New Jersey that summer (2016). I knew immediately that these were my people! I began enrolling in classes, reading craft books, found critique partners, and joined 12×12 as soon as it opened for registration in early 2017. I’ve never looked back!
CGE: Your debut picture book, Brainstorm!, illustrated by Kate Kronreif, came out on August 3rd with Sleeping Bear Press. It’s such a clever book and as a former fourth grade teacher, I can tell you all elementary school teachers will love to read this title before any writing time. Can you tell us the story behind the story?
RGL: I’m so glad to hear this, Carol. Obviously it is my hope that teachers and homeschooling parents use BRAINSTORM! with their students to help inspire them to have FUN playing with ideas!
The story behind the story begins on one dreary late October day in 2019. I had been sitting at my desk, much like the little girl in my story, with a terrible case of writer’s block. I was doing my best to keep my B.I.C. (“Butt In Chair”), but my brain felt like the weather — cloudy, gloomy and gray.
Instead of staring at the blank page, I found myself staring at the rain outside my window when I felt the drop of an idea…
What if…IDEAS poured down from the sky?… Like a…rain storm?… No! Wait! Like a….
I immediately began writing what I thought would remain a short little poem. But it kept calling to me and over the next few months, I kept tinkering and expanding it. I thought: what if it wasn’t just IDEAS that fell from the sky, but VERBS and NOUNS, and PHRASES and SENTENCES and CHARACTERS and PLOTS…. Suddenly, I found myself deluged in this amazing world where stories drizzled down and swirled all around us. I loved watching my MC [main character] play in the puddles! And, eventually, that brainstorm became BRAINSTORM!
CGE: Do you write all your books in rhyme? Tell us more about your process and writing schedule.
RGL: Yes! For the last few years I have focused solely on writing rhyming picture books. To me, writing in rhyme just feels “right.” There’s nothing more satisfying than finding the perfect metered word to fit into a line of verse. (It’s hard to explain if you aren’t a rhymer, but if you are, I bet you know what I’m talking about!) It’s like an amazing brain puzzle! And I LOVE playing with words and adding lyrical language (assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc.) to my work.
When I first entered the KidLit world, all I heard was: “editors and agents DON’T LIKE RHYME,” so for a while I fought against my instincts, but those manuscripts never sang the way my rhymers did.
I soon realized that the “anti-rhyme hype” was more about there being too much “bad rhyme” by writers who hadn’t taken the time to learn the technical ins-and-outs of meter. So I made it my mission NOT to be one of those “bad rhymers” and I began learning every thing I could about it. The absolute BEST thing I ever did for my career was enrolling in Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Langugage Lab course. I can’t recommend her class enough.
In terms of my “process,” I’ll just say that I’m a complete “pantser.” I never outline. I go with my gut, every time. And because I’m a perfectionist with anxiety who finds starting first drafts extremely stressful (and therefore is constantly procrastinating), I have recently given myself permission to NEVER write a first draft. Instead, when I sit down at my computer to write something new, I tell myself I’m ONLY writing a POEM. That’s it. Not a draft. A poem. If that poem turns into a picture book manuscript – great! If it remains a poem – great! Either way, I’m creating something new that wasn’t there before, and to me that is progress.
As for my schedule… After getting my kids off to school, I usually spend a couple of hours working, then take a break to exercise and have lunch, then I work again for a couple of hours before the kids get home. Sometimes I can sneak in some time at night and on weekends, if I’m lucky. I’m grateful to have my own office (with a door!)
CGE: In your journey as an author, what has been the most surprising for you?
RGL: How much WAITING there is! Waiting for agents to respond to queries, waiting for editors to respond to submissions. Then, once you have an interested editor, there is waiting to hear back about acquisitions meeting and deal point negotiations, waiting to receive edits, waiting for the contract, waiting for the illustrator to be chosen, waiting for the announcement, waiting for proofs, and waiting for the actual books to arrive (That’s where I am now — STILL waiting for my author copies for BRAINSTORM! – although, I’m writing this in mid-July so hopefully by the time this blog goes to print, I *should* have them!). To distract myself from the waiting, I start or revise other projects, but still am constantly refreshing my inbox – always WAITING for something!
CGE: Ha! That is the truth about publishing. Be prepared to wait! Besides learning to be patient, do you have any advice for new writers wanting to break into the world of publishing children’s books?
RGL: My two biggest pieces of advice are:
- Put yourself and your work out into the world as much as you can. Enter ALL the contests (Susanna Hill’s holiday writing contests, Vivian Kirkfield’s #50PreciousWords, Madness!Poetry, etc.), enter ALL the mentorships (#PBChat Mentorship, etc.), do ALL the Twitter parties (#PBPitch, #PitMad and #PBParty, etc.), go to as many conferences and webinars as you can and join ALL the groups! Take advantage of professional critiques when possible. If you don’t have an agent and have an opportunity to send your work to an editor, DO IT! (I sold my second book to HarperCollins via a submission opportunity after a conference and that also helped me find my agent!). Be as active as you can in the KidLit community and always, ALWAYS be kind, respectful and supportive. The connections you make along the way will lead you to opportunities you can’t even imagine!
- While you should, of course, write stories that come from your heart, it is crucial to remember that children’s book publishing is a BUSINESS. An editor may think your story is “cute” or “funny” or “heartfelt,” but before she can acquire it, she has to prove to all the financial and marketing people that your story will SELL. So you MUST think about “hooks.” Who is buying your book and WHY? Can your book be sold during a holiday? Can teachers use your book in a classroom? (if so, consider adding back matter!) Does it have social-emotional themes that make it easy to explain a difficult subject matter? Etc. One thing I always do now is, once I’ve created my first draft, I stop everything, write my pitch and logline and research comp titles. As I continue to revise, I have a very clear idea of what the book is really about, what the hooks are, and how I will sell the idea to an editor.
CGE: Great advice, Rebecca! Now tell us, what does the future hold for Rebecca Gardyn Levington?
RGL: There’s so much I wish I could tell you about! What I can say is that I have four more rhyming picture books coming out in the next two years. Only two have been announced so far. Whatever Comes Tomorrow (Barefoot Books, Spring 2023) is a lyrical picture book about strength, courage and resilience in the face of the unknown, inspired by my own lifetime struggle with anxiety. And I Will Always Be… (HarperCollins, Winter 2024) is an inspirational concept book that encourages kids to always celebrate their passions, whether or not they ever make it to Broadway or the big leagues. “Doing what you love and loving what you do” regardless of what comes of it is a motto I really try to live by, especially in my writing.
I have a bunch of new poems coming out soon in magazines like Highlights High Five, Spider Magazine, and several of The School Magazine’s publications (Blast Off, Countdown, and Launchpad). And I have many other picture books in the works or on submission, including a poetry collection, that I hope will find their forever homes soon!
CGE: Thanks, Rebecca! We wish you many more successes and appreciate your inspirational responses.
If you’d like to connect with Rebecca, you can do so here:
**To order a personalized, signed copy of BRAINSTORM!, please click: https://bit.ly/3PXJUVU Or buy wherever books are sold!**