Teachers Write 7.25.18 Q&A Wednesday with Phil Bildner and Tanya Lee Stone

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we have some fantastic guest authors visiting to answer questions. Today’s author guests are Phil Bildner and Tanya Lee Stone.

Phil Bildner is the author of numerous children’s picture books including the Margaret Wise Brown Prize winning Marvelous CorneliusMartina & ChrissieTwenty-One Elephants, and The Soccer Fence. He is the also the author of the Rip & Red middle grade series — A Whole New BallgameRookie of the Year, Tournament of Champions, and Most Valuable Players. A former middle school teacher in the New York City public schools, Phil spends much of the year visiting schools around the country conducting writing workshops and talking process with students. In 2017, Phil founded The Author Village, an author booking business. He lives in Newburgh, New York with his husband and dog.
Tanya Lee Stone is known for telling true stories previously missing from our histories. Her work has earned an NAACP Image Award, Sibert Medal, Bank Street’s Flora Straus Stieglitz Award, Golden Kite, and numerous other honors including Parents Magazine Best Nonfiction Picture Book, YALSA Nonfiction Finalist awards, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, Jane Addams Honor, NPR Best Books, NCSS and ALA Notables, YALSA BBYAs, Kirkus Best Books, and NCTE Orbis Pictus Honors. Stone is a frequent speaker at schools and conferences.

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Note from Kate: I usually try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. Please be patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

41 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.25.18 Q&A Wednesday with Phil Bildner and Tanya Lee Stone

  1. Good morning. Thank you both for giving of your time and talent to be here. My question is, did you ever put a time limit on how long you would query a book,either one you were looking for an agent for or one an agent had. I know the wisdom about keep writing while you wait, but when do you say
    “This manunuscriot isn’t going any where?” And move on.
    Thanks again.

    1. Hi Martha! Great question! Actually, I’ve never thought about that. There have been books of mine that have never sold, and so I put them away. But just the other day I pulled out a manuscript from several years ago and thought, “There’s something really good here, and the timing is now right.” So I got to work revising it. It will go back out into the world soon, so perhaps the answer is, as long as you are still improving something, there may not be a time limit. In general, since I’ve been in publishing for 20+ years, I am always writing and I’m hardly ever thinking about time limits. I think for me the question isn’t how long should we keep trying to sell something but more “How long tll I finally get this thing right?”

    2. Hi Martha…


      I have so many manuscripts that have never gone anywhere. Many of them I’ll probably never revisit, but I won’t rule it out.

      I know there’s one picture book manuscript I started in 2011 that has gone through many versions and rewrites. I keep returning to that one because I know at some point, I’m going to figure it out, and an editor is going to see that I have.

  2. When writing for a particular book/ story, what’s your average amount of time for a writing session?

    1. Hi Shannon! My short answer to that is: I don’t have an average time amount. Here’s my more complete answer: First, I have never been a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of writer. Instead, for the past 20+ years I have paid attention to my changing rhythms. When my kids were small, for example, I wrote in the wee hours of the morning, before anyone could call, “Mom!” Those hours were extended when they were both (finally) in school. 🙂 . Now, with MORE time on my hands in that respect, I have to be more disciplined about finding the time that works best for my brain.

      Over the years, I have found that respecting my own process is more important than any other idea about time. I have lots of writer friends who swear by a certain number of words or hours a day, and that works for them. It doesn’t work for me, for whatever reason, so finding your own process and sticking with that is paramount to completing projects. Some days I am a couch potato and other days I am the Tasmanian Devil.

    2. Hi Shannon…

      Like Tanya, I don’t have a set amount of time for writing. I write in bursts. If I’m feeling it, I can sit at the computer for hours. Also, I sometimes do my best “writing” when I’m stretching or working out or going for a walk. In these different settings, I find it helps me problem solve sticking points.

      When I’m at a certain stage of my writing process, when I’m focusing on voice, I will need to read most or all of the manuscript in one sitting. I want to make sure I have consistency of voice. Those are definitely my longest sessions.

  3. Dear Tanya Lee Stone….wow! Taking a moment here. I really love your work and so appreciate that I can put your books into the hands of kids that don’t think they like to read until they find one of your books to be JUST RIGHT! Over and over again, I’m surprised and delighted by the power of non-fiction.

    My question for you today is this: Have you ever contemplated writing more than one book from the research you’ve collected on a topic? Or, have you thought about writing more than one manuscript in different formats because there’s just so much? Sarah Albee addressed this in an earlier post. I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

    Phil, I just want to hug you for not only your books but for your shining presence in Kidlit and for young readers. Thank you for being there for all our kids. I hope you can feel the hug from your screen. Alas, this is not a question…..I just want to know that you will keep writing? Always? Promise?

    1. Hi Linda…

      Thanks for the virtual hug! I’m feeling it. I’m feeling it!

      I love the question. Right now, I’m working on a middle grade novel that started out as an idea for a picture book. Once I finish the novel, we’re considering a picture book as a companion to the novel.

      Another project I started and put aside for awhile — a picture book that really wasn’t gelling. When I return to it, I’m considering writing it as a graphic novel. I’ve never written a graphic novel, so this will be something new for me.

    2. Hi Linda, Thank you so much for your kind words; that means the world to me! The timing of your question is perfect! I am currently working on a book that stems from Courage Has No Color! The whole Japanese balloon bomb portion of that book is a story unto itself with lots of twists and turns and human joys and troubles that would have taken my focus away from the Triple Nickles. So, stay tuned for that!

      Also, I often choose my topic before I choose my structure/genre. So, for example, Almost Astronauts and Courage both started as picture books. Their stories were too complex and large to work for that audience, though, so I had to rethink the right formats for those stories.

  4. Thank you for answering questions today. Tanya, my question is for you. How do you find information about the people you write about when they are not well known?

  5. Hi Diana, That is an excellent question and one that takes up a lot of my time! I often tell kids that in order to be a good journalist you also have to be a detective. I spend a lot of my time sussing out primary materials and tracking people down. That’s often why my books take so long to complete! (Courage took 10 years for this very reason.) I also do all my own photo research, which is just as important as that is my visual storytelling layer. I use all manners of sneaky research techniques; some more general and some specific to each topic. I look for any kinds of primary documents I can find, and follow leads anywhere I can find them! I’ve cold-called many a person to track down my next clue. It takes time and patience, to be sure!

  6. Hi Tanya! Hi Phil!
    Thank you both for your participation today! ❤️

    What’s you’re “go-to” advice for student writers (and their teachers), especially those in the elementary grades? Anything you wish you’d known/done as a kid writer?

    1. Hi Lesley…

      I’ve had this EXACT question asked of me several times this summer, and my answer is constantly evolving. Right now, I’m telling kids (and teachers and everyone) to write about what you care about. I think it goes a little deeper than simply telling someone to write about what you know or like. It really gets you thinking about the things you care about and why you care about them. The “why you care about them” opens up the writing opportunities.

    2. Hi Lesley! Like Phil, I get this question all the time. I feel strongly that anyone, kid or adult, who is trying to write, will have a more rewarding experience if paying attention to whatever really lights you up as a human. With kids doing assignments for school this can be trickier because the act of writing isn’t necessarily starting out as a “want” but more of a “need.” But even in that situation, it’s important for kids to be given the freedom to have time to explore and notice what they are drawn to.

  7. Thank you Tanya and Phil for taking time to answer questions today. I’m extra excited because I’m a fan. 2 of my favorite read alouds last year were Marvelous Cornelius and Sandy’s Circus. Also, RIP and Red are so popular that their books never return because they are always being read by a student.
    My questions are for both of you. You both have amazing picture books and novels. How do you determine if a story needs to be a picture book or a novel? Have you ever wished you had gone the other route with a story, or started with a picture book idea that turned into a novel?

    1. Hi David, Thank you so much! Yes, I have had several ideas that started out as picture books (Almost Astronauts, Courage Has No Color, etc) that ended up as longer-form books. It’s all about, for me, what my angle in to a story is going to be. Sometimes the picture book form does not allow for the expansion and complexities I ultimately decide I want to do with a story, and sometimes I just want to focus on the essence of someone or something, and therefore the picture book structure will work better for me.

    2. Thanks, David! It’s always nice to hear the books you write are well received.

      So the current middle grade I’m working on actually started out as a picture book, but it kept on getting rejected. I love telling kids sometimes what you start out with looks nothing like what you end up with, and that is certainly the case with this project!

  8. Phil and Tanya, good morning. So wonderful that you’re both here – between the 2 of you, you cover almost every type of writing there is for kids!
    For Phil, did you purposefully choose to make the Rip & Red MG? I have a ms that I wrote as a CB, but it feels too old & I’m not sure how to revise it “up” or “down.” (I’m a former school librarian, so I’ve read tons of CB & MG.) Any tips?
    For Tanya, I’m writing a PB bio and am just beginning to “cold call” some sources. I’m a bit nervoust, though the 1st one to a family member went well. How do you set up interviews? Call/email first? Do you record the chats if in person/on the phone? Curious about your process in this point of the research. TY both.

    1. Hi Kathy,

      Great question! I’m glad your first call went well. Yes, whenever possible, recording interviews is best–just make sure you get permission from the person before you start interviewing them, and have that be at the beginning of the recording so you have a record of it. I do email first, if possible, so the person I’m contacting can orient themselves to what I’m doing and what I’m asking, giving them the opportunity to think about it and respond without putting them on the spot in a cold call.

      1. TY, Tanya. Good advice. I feel they need to be aware of the project and relaxed. This helps me. Woot.

    2. Hi Kathy…

      Yep, I made a conscious decision to make the Rip & Red series middle grade. I like writing middle grade. It’s also the audience I see most when I visit schools. Career-wise, I want to write more upper middle grade, so the series was a logical step toward that. I also was (and am) extremely fortunate to work with an editor who tends to look at the bigger picture. We don’t just work on one project. We think about how that project fits into my grand scheme.

      1. TY, Phil. I want to be a more versatile writer and have written mostly PBs. (Love your CORNELIUS.) I need to sort through what the book needs to be. Career decisions and big picture – always important.

  9. As a school librarian, I appreciate how much each of you has contributed to our shelves. Yes, it’s true that some of them never make it back often because the kids are passing them on. Speaks volumes about engaging texts!

    Question that might not fit for 2 such prolificwriter’s but one that so many young writer’s struggle with: what do you do when you have writer’s block or just need to step back and take some time to refuel?

    1. This is a great question, Barb, thanks for asking it! I always tell kids (and teachers) that if they are experiencing what we sometimes call writer’s block that if at all possible they should change up their environment and stop thinking/worrying about the task at hand. Nothing kills the creative spirit more than worry!! Get up, walk around, do some jumping jacks. Stop thinking! Then take some deep breaths and go back to it with a clearer head.

    2. Hi Barb…

      So I tell kids that I never get writer’s block, which I don’t. In fact, a growing part of me doesn’t even believe in it. If I ever feel stuck, I go for a walk or allow myself to daydream. I step away from my screens and let my mind go. My problem is I don’t have enough time to write all the things I want to write about!

  10. Thank you both for your time today.
    I’m forever wondering which comes first, the agent or the publisher? I have queried small publishers and met with a few agents at SCBWI NJ/PA events, but I never feel sure which should be getting the most attention. (And by attention, in some ways I mean the biggest spot on my vision board.)

    1. Well, the most revised-as-possible manuscript is what really comes first. ;-p

      And then, it’s a bit of a chicken and an egg thing. I do believe the best bet is to be envisioning both simultaneously! Remember that agents will generally want to be able to evaluate more than just one manuscript in order to have a sense of a potential writer’s career–and especially if your focus is picture books.

      1. Thank you! I have one polished MS and a few more WIPs to get ready before I start submitting. Patience has been a learned trait in their process too.

    2. Hi Maureen…

      I think the question you’re asking has a constantly evolving and changing answer. I also think many agents and editors will give you different responses (and their answers may change over time, too). It really is a person-specific. I do think the closer you have to a finish product will attract the most eyes.

  11. Good morning! Thank you both for your time! My question is what are strategies you have taught or observed that help students understand the importance of revision? Thank you!

    1. Hi Michelle! I tend to break down revision in manageable chunks for students, in the same way I break it down for myself. I used to be an editor, and I always approached revision in layers. If you try to everything all at once, it’s much harder than choosing things to look for and doing them one by one.

    2. Wow!

      I always remember when Tracy Mack (author of Birdland, editor of Echo) visited my 8th graders when I taught middle school. She told my students, “the real writing takes place during the re-writing.” It’s a message I share with students everywhere.

      I’ll echo what Tanya said. Revising and editing can’t be done all at once. It takes more than one round. When I speak to students, I’l share with them the steps I have to take. In addition, even though I’m not an illustrator, I’ll show them the steps an illustrator takes, beginning with thumbnails and ending with the final piece of art.

      1. Definitely, and I also show kids that once I’m working with an illustrator I continue to revise based on the collaboration with the art. There are things I take out, things I clarify, etc, after seeing sketches and paintings. I love that part!

  12. Many people talk about adding good description when writing, but I figure not all events in a book need that, if that makes sense. When, when writing a story, do you know if you do or don’t need lots of description for something that’s happening? Thanks!

    1. Hi Kelly…

      I find many of my decisions regarding description comes down to pacing. When writing middle grade (which I’m doing primarily these days), going overboard with the descriptions slows the pacing and risks losing the reader. Often, I’m finding less is more. With that said, I tend to spread out my descriptions. I can introduce something in one scene and add to it in the next and the next.

      1. I agree with Phil. Also, the amount of exposition depends on the age range, format, etc… less is always more with a picture book as you need to leave plenty of room for the illustrator to bring his or her own ideas to the story and not try to direct traffic regarding every little detail. In middle-grade or YA, I may put more description in while I’m figuring out the story, the characters, the setting, etc, and then trim back in revision as my story gets stronger and stronger.

  13. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions today! I’m so excited to have the opportunity to “chat” with you both!

    I currently have several projects that I’m juggling. I’m working on both kidlit and academic writing projects and I worry that I’m neglecting one for the other. How do you balance working on multiple projects at the same time?

    1. Oh gosh, I have to use different tricks all the time to stay disciplined and motivated. And when I don’t succeed, I try not to beat myself up! Different things work at different times for me. Sometimes, I use one project as the “carrot” for getting through the other. Sometimes I set aside an hour each day to work on one thing that isn’t as pressing as another, but that I don’t want to let drop by the wayside. It’s a constant challenge.

    2. It’s a constant struggle!

      I have three jobs — I’m an author, I’m a traveling teacher (I visit over 60 schools a year), and I run a not-so-small-anymore author booking business. It’s a non-stop juggling act. I’ve found that I’m at my most creative early in the day, and as a result, I follow the advice of teen author, Jeff Zentner. I aggressively find the time to be creative every day. I make it a non-negotiable.

  14. I have a few more questions for both of you that I forgot to include in my original post. Which word processor do you prefer to use? Did you try out several before settling on that processor? Is there something that makes that processor special for you?
    This is more for curiosity than anything else. I prefer Open Office because it has several sidebars that I like to use. (And it’s free) I have dabbled in Scrivener, but not enough to know if I like it. Thank you again for the Q&A today.