How I Got My Agent - Nancy's Story

I got my agent within an hour of sending her my manuscript for what became THE WILLIAM HOY STORY.

But it took me 10 years to send her the manuscript.

Let me backtrack.

While I had long dreamed of becoming a children’s book writer, that dream seemed consigned to file cabinets and boxes where I kept piles of started and rejected manuscripts. Then, in 2003, I became friends with Steve Sandy, a Deaf man who is a friend of the family of the late William Hoy, the late great Deaf baseball player, who taught umpires signals so he could play the game he loved. Steve reached out to me after reading an article I did for The Dallas Morning News on a play, THE SIGNAL SEASON OF DUMMY HOY, co-written by Allen Meyer and Michael Nowak, that was performed at Garland High School in Texas. We became email friends. Steve shared with me that he was sad that more people, Deaf and hearing, didn’t know the story of Hoy. He also shared his dream that Hoy would be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as the first Deaf person honored there.

The more we emailed about it, the more I realized Steve was right. That’s when I got the brilliant idea to write a children’s book about William Hoy. If the children are moved by Hoy’s story, they will help by writing letters to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Hoy’s behalf, I told Steve. I asked if he would help with the research and he said he would. Now remember this was in 2003. I started with confidence. After all, I am a journalist — a professional writer — how hard could it be? Sure, I had stacks and stacks of started and rejected manuscripts gathering dust, but this would be different, right? Well, it turns out I wasn’t any better at writing children’s books after making this promise to write William’s Hoy Story, but there was one way key difference between this story and all the others I’d tried. I’d made a promise. I was all in on the promise and I was all in on William Hoy deserving the very best book I could write about him.

So after trying and failing as I had done so many times before, I knew I couldn’t consign the manuscript to the file cabinet and move on. I had to figure out what I was doing wrong and I had to make it right. I had to do it for William Hoy. I had to do it for Steve. I had to keep my promise. I thought about what made Hoy succeed. He wasn’t the biggest and the strongest. But he worked hard. He practiced, practiced, practiced and he never gave up. Clearly I needed to follow his example. I needed to work hard and, with William on my shoulder guiding me, I could not give up.

If what I was doing wasn’t working, I had to find out what did work. So I sought out people who did know. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I found an online critique group. I went to SCBWI conferences. I took online classes, starting with Mira Reisberg’s Children's Book Academy to Susanna Hill’s Making Picture Book Magic and Kristen Fulton’s Nonfiction Archaeology. I joined Miranda Paul’s Rate Your Story, so I could hear from objective judges on a scale of 1-10, how my story was perceived. I joined the Children’s Book Insider to get tips and advice on the industry. I took on the free writing challenges offered by Tara Lazar and Paula Yoo and joined Facebook groups like KidLit 411.

Then, 10 years after I started my journey with William Hoy, I discovered Julie Hedlund’s 12X12. The idea behind this group was that you would work on 12 picture book manuscripts in 12 months. If you joined at the Golden Book level as it was called at the time, you could also send a manuscript to the agent that had agreed to read manuscripts that particular month. The site was filled with learning opportunities. That’s where I learned how to write query letters. That’s where, combined with my classes, critique and other learning opportunities, I really started breaking down what was and wasn’t working. The first six months I was in the group, I pitched different manuscripts — not William Hoy — to the agent of the month. I was rejected each time. Then in July, all the collective learning from all the sources where I had sought knowledge, came together like a cloud descending from the heavens and dictated how I should write William Hoy. It was four in the morning, but I got up and wrote it down.

That was the version of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY I sent to the agent of the month, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary, on July 4 of 2013. She got back to me within the hour saying she wanted to send out the story. Coincidentally, I had also sent the story to Rate Your Story and Miranda Paul herself got back to me a few days later asking if I would consider sending this to her agent, Karen Grencik. Great (and kind) minds think alike!

That’s how I got my agent. But that’s not the end of the story. That version of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY received a round of rejections. I studied the rejections to see if there was a common thread of what wasn’t working. It turns out I had written a birth to death biography — which is not what anyone wanted. I thought and studied and worked and came up with a new way to tell the story — a way that kept the focus on how William’s Deafness, which made him different, was also his gift, which I hope would leave kids with the message that we are all different, and that those differences are to be cherished, because in our differences are our gifts — the missing elements for which the world has been waiting.

In 2014, Karen sent out the new version of the story to the wonderful Wendy McClure at Albert Whitman & Company and the answer was YES. We signed the contract in 2015 and THE WILLIAM HOY STORY came out in 2016. I have been thrilled by the response. It is on four state reading lists (New York, Texas, Illinois and Connecticut), has gone through multiple printings and has recently been turned into a resource for Deaf education by the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin https://texasdeafed.org/professionals/classroom-tools/the-william-hoy-story

Most importantly, I see how children take William’s story to their hearts and they have written many, many letters — more than 1,000 now — to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on William’s behalf, just as I promised Steve they would.

So, it took me 10 years to get my agent, but the time was well spent. Karen has since sold five more books for me. MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN, which came out in 2017 with marvelous Marissa Moss of Creston Books, just won the 2018 South Asia Book Award among other honors. CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT (Albert Whitman) and IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING (Creston Books) came out in 2018, with THE QUEEN AND THE FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE, QUEEN CHARLOTTE’S GIFT TO ENGLAND (Albert Whitman) due out in October. MARTIN & ANNE (Creston Books) comes out in spring of 2019.

If I have gleaned any wisdom from my experience, it’s this: Books, like everything else, take as long as they need to take. If you take the time to get things right, the rewards will be greater in the end. And if you want a faster journey than mine, seek help and your tribe faster than I did. I stayed in one place for longer than I may have needed to, because I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. Seeking knowledge and knowing how to receive and process it is the key to growth. For writers who work in solitary ways, it can take a while to fully absorb how much we need others on our journey. That’s something I understand and embrace now. I also know that even though I know more than I did at the start of my journey, I am still learning. I hope to always be learning. The joy is in the learning and in sharing what we learn with others.

Nancy Churnin

My wonderful agent: Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary

Nancy Churnin with one of her many fans

Nancy Churnin is the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News and author of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME (Albert Whitman), on the 2016 New York Public Library Best Books for Kids list, the 2017 Texas Library Association's 2X2 and Topaz lists, the 2018 Illinois School Library Media Association's Monarch Award Master List and Connecticut's 2018 Charter Oak Children's Book Awards list. MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN (Creston Books), winner of the 2018 South Asia Book Award is also a finalist for the 2018 Children and Teen's Choice Book Awards, a 2017 Junior Library Guild selection, a Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2018 and a Silver Eureka Award-winner. In 2018, CHARLIE MAKES HIS SHOT: HOW CHARLIE SIFFORD BROKE THE COLOR BARRIER IN GOLF, which came out in 2018, was presented at the Ruby Bridges Reading Festival at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis on May 19. IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING was released in May of 2018 and THE QUEEN AND THE FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE will be released in October 2018. In 2019: MARTIN & ANNE. A native New Yorker, she's a graduate of Harvard University, with a master's from Columbia University Journalism School.

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