Author of Little Lena and the Big Table
PJ McIlvaine is a prolific kid lit writer/author/screenwriter/journalist. PJ is also a co-host of #PBPitch, the premiere Twitter pitch party for picture book creators. She’s been published in numerous outlets and is a regular contributor to the Children’s Book Insider newsletter, writing about the path to publication and featuring interviews with established and debut kid lit authors. Her Showtime original family film MY HORRIBLE YEAR was nominated for a Daytime Emmy. When she’s not running after her pack of wild grandkids, she can be found on Twitter at @pjmcilvaine or hibernating at her website https://pjmacwriter.com/ devouring premium vanilla ice cream with brownies or chugging down an extra thick chocolate milkshake.
P.J.’s debut picture book, LITTLE LENA AND THE BIG TABLE (Big Belly Book Co.), with illustrations by Leila Nabih, is about a determined little girl who learns the hard way that being at the big table isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. *Read to the end of this post for a details about how to win a free copy of LITTLE LENA.* PJ also has an upcoming picture book, DRAGON ROAR, about a lonely, sick dragon.
Thanks for agreeing to talk to me about your debut picture book and your writing process.
First of all, how long have you been writing, and writing picture books in particular?
Too long! I’ve been writing since I was a baby in diapers, or maybe it just feels that way. Grocery lists, poems, song lyrics, short stories, essays, you name it. In our family we’ve always been avid book readers, but I became passionate about picture books with my young grandchildren. Seeing their little eyes light up when I read to them, the way they point to the pictures and laugh, and the way they use the books as projectiles when they don’t get their way. Kids, gotta love them even when you want to kill them.
Hahaha! So true. Tell us more about your writing process.
My writing process is pretty simple: I try to write every single day come rain or shine or tsunami. Sometimes life gets in the way, but I’m very disciplined and when I go a day or two without writing, I get anxious. Now with the grandkids, it’s usually a matter of writing when they’re napping, otherwise engaged or when the house is quiet late at night, but sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and write through the chaos and noise, otherwise, you’d never write at all. And yes, I’m a pantser. I’ve tried plotting but by the time I plot the thing out, I’m better off just writing it. I also revise as I go along. And through trial and error, I’ve discovered that I get my best ideas/brainstorms when I’m not writing. If I’m stuck I do something else and usually my subconscious solves the problem for me ASAP. Another tip is to get the first draft down, even when you think you’re just writing garbage. Writing is revising, and if you don’t have that first draft as your foundation, you’re just whistling in the wind.
Great advice. Do you have a specific process or tools you use to make revisions?
Printing the manuscript out and going through it line by line. I wear glasses but even so, I miss things. It also helps to have a Grammar Nazi for a husband, not that I married him for his skill set in that department. But it sure helped!
Who are your partners in the revision process? (critique group/agent/editor?)
Right now I have a trusted core of readers/crit partners, my daughters who are also writers, and my hubby. We’re all on the same level writing wise pretty much. I don’t mince my words and I expect them to do the same for me. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to add my dream agent to that mix, fingers crossed.
I hope so, too. How do you know when your manuscript is “ready” to submit?
Ha! That’s the 64 million dollar question. You never know. It’s taking a leap of faith and letting the Universe do the rest. It’s hard. I get it. But sometimes you have to let it go and see what happens. Sometimes it’s brutal and sometimes you’re in for a pleasant surprise. For example, I thought LENA was in pretty good shape when I first submitted it, but my astute publisher/editor pushed me further on it and I’m glad that she did. But you have to get the material out there and develop a thick hide.
Do you write full time? How do you balance your family/home life and your writing career?
I may not physically write full time but mentally, I’m writing all the time. Balancing family life and writing can be a challenge, especially since I watch my grandkids on a daily basis while their parents work. But I do it. Sometimes I don’t know how I do it, but I do. It’s not easy, it’s not supposed to be. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and usually with a bowl of ice cream to help me through the rough spots.
Ice cream is the best. What about marketing? I know you co-host #PBPitch on Twitter. What else did you do to market yourself and your writing prior to publication? Has your marketing process changed since Little Lena came out?
Marketing and PR doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m not a showperson. I’m not an extrovert. I’m a writer. If I could write all day in my air conditioned dungeon and not have to deal with marketing, I’d be a happy girl. But the reality is you have to put your big woman pants on and push yourself, especially if you’re with a small publisher and not a bigger outfit. Luckily I love social media and I can do that from my dungeon. And the kid lit community is so open and accepting. It’s not a chore, it’s my passion.
Let’s talk about what happened for you post-acquisitions. Your publisher found Little Lena’s illustrator, Leila Nabih. Did you have any input in the illustration process?
Only to the extent that my publisher showed me some of Leila’s sketches and portfolio. Of course, once I saw them, I was thrilled beyond words! Leila is amazingly talented and she brought Lena to life in ways that exceeded my expectations. I’m blessed that Leila agreed to do it, honestly.
It seems pretty typical for an author not to be involved in the illustrations and layout. Was it hard letting go of your manuscript and not having control over the final product?
Not at all. I knew I was in good hands. I was more worried about how the final product would look, the actual book itself. Would it look professional? And it does, and I’m thrilled. Everyone who has seen the book loves it.
Including me! How did it feel to see Little Lena in full color for the first time?
After I got over my initial shock and awe, it was fantastic. I saw Lena in my head, of course, but to see it in color and as a book was great. Somebody believed in Lena enough to actually bring it to fruition, it’s inspiring and humbling at the same time. I don’t take it for granted. And I hope to repeat that experience!
What advice would you give to aspiring picture book authors like me?
Patience, grasshopper. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Writing for yourself is one thing, but if you aspire to be a published writer, it doesn’t happen overnight. And let me assure you, the stories you hear about “overnight successes” were usually years in the making. Read. Read widely. Read outside of your genre. Push yourself and your writing to the next level. Develop a core group of like minded writers who will be with you through thick and thin even when it seems the world is against you.
Thank you, P.J.! And congratulations on your debut picture book!
One lucky reader will win a copy of LITTLE LENA AND THE BIG TABLE. Please follow @rachel_funez on Twitter and @pjmcilvaine on Twitter, and comment below by Sunday, August 4, 2019, to be entered to win. Winners will be chosen on Monday, August 5th, 2019,* and announced here on my blog and on Twitter. (*Prize must be claimed within 2 weeks of announcement.)