Coming of Age by Kathleen Schrenk, author of A Dog Steals Home
I assume the challenges of becoming a published author are often similar, but sometimes quite different, depending on the age at which one begins the journey. I began writing my first manuscript at the age of sixty-six. My debut middle grade novel, A Dog Steals Home, was released in February 2017—six months after my seventieth birthday.
I have loved dogs since the age of eight when I brought home my first stray—a soft-eyed spaniel mix. It wasn’t until six decades later, inspired by the bond between my young grandson and our old dog, that I decided to write my first book.
I sent the manuscript of my picture book text to an editor I had met for a free evaluation. She was gentle in her criticism, telling me I needed plot, dialogue, and conflict—no problem, right? She also suggested I join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and search out a critique group in my community.
I took her advice and joined the SCBWI, Louisiana/Mississippi chapter, which meets in my hometown of New Orleans. I have to say, this was one of the best decisions I have made.
Through SCBWI, I met like minded authors seeking publication, editors, publishers, illustrators…the full gamut of professionals dealing with the craft and business of writing children’s literature. I receive a bimonthly bulletin with informational and inspirational articles about the writing process. I have attended, learned from, and networked at SCBWI conferences and events. I also connected with my current critique group through my SCBWI chapter. We have met monthly for over two years now, moving from ten page critiques to whole manuscripts.
After eighteen months of writing, rewriting, sharing in SCBWI critique, and revising my story again, I had completed my first children’s book, A Dog Steals Home. The story, which had begun as a picture book without dialogue, plot, or conflict, had grown into a middle grade novel. I decided to send it back to the same free lance editor who had seen it in its infancy. This time she was interested, so I hired her.
That editing process took six months. After multiple revisions, she and I felt the manuscript was ready to go out into the world. I looked for agents and publishers who would accept unsolicited submissions and who would be a good fit for my manuscript. SCBWI publishes a book for members called The Essential Guide to Publishing. It provided valuable information for me during this process of query and submissions. I learned to read each agent’s or publisher’s rules for submission carefully and follow them exactly. I received my fair share of rejections but continued to submit.
In January, 2015, Nina Kooij, editor in chief of Pelican Publishing company, spoke at the monthly meeting of SCBWI. After hearing her speak, I visited Pelican’s website, reviewed their guidelines for submission, and mailed in the required query letter, synopsis, and first two chapters of the book. In August 2015, Pelican offered me a contract for my coming-of-age novel, A Dog Steals Home. Sales have gone well since the February 2017 release, and the book is in its second printing.
As an older rookie in this business, I find social media, computer skills, and internet savvy to be my biggest challenges. I have reached out to young friends and relatives who have been willing to help me maneuver through these waters. I’ll never be as quick with these skills nor as comfortable with them as my younger colleagues are, but I’m getting by.
Age does give me an advantage in some areas, however. First, with age has come the realization that many people know a lot more than I do. I’ve learned to listen to those who are more experienced and consider their advice. Second, I have the luxury of a flexible schedule. I can plan my volunteer commitments, social time, and visits with my grandchildren around my writing schedule. I don’t need to balance the demands of writing, working a full-time job, and raising three children. No writing at three in the morning for me! Finally, I think the financial pressure is less for older writers. If I look at writing as a retirement sport, I have to admit it’s a lot cheaper than playing golf. If I don’t sell books, we won’t starve.
I’ve worked as a speech and hearing pathologist and as a middle-school English and science teacher. Since taking early retirement in 2001, I have been a community volunteer in the schools, in City Park, with animal welfare, and working to restore Louisiana’s wetlands. Writing a book was the next adventure, because whether a person is twelve, like the protagonist in my novel, or seventy as I am, life is not static. We are always coming-of-age.