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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Interview with Diana Murray, 2010 Winner of a SCBWI Grant

Every year SCBWI sets up a variety of grants and awards. One of them is for new writers and is called the Barbara Karlin Grant which is underwritten by Amazon. This is for a new unpublished picture book writer. All entries for this grant need to be postmarked by February 15th. You can find more information on this award and others at As the deadline for grants is nearing, I thought it would be interesting to interview Diana Murray, who was the winner of the 2010 SCBWI Barbara Karlin Grant.

Books on writing always discuss the importance of having writing credits prior to submitting a book to a publisher, but prior to winning the grant, your bio shows just a few publishing credits.

At first, I wasn’t too concerned about getting magazine credits. But then I realized that an editor might spend an extra second reviewing a picture book manuscript if I had a few reputable credits on my cover letter. I had heard that Highlights and the Cricket magazines were among the most well respected (by editors and agents) and the most difficult to get into, so I made it a personal goal to get into those. I was very excited when I broke into those markets, and it was fairly recently. I didn’t submit much to magazines after that because I decided to focus on my picture book projects instead. Another reason is that I’m working on two poetry collections as well as an anthology, so many of the poems I write end up being allotted to those projects.

How many submissions did it take you to get accepted in the Highlights and the Cricket magazines?

I had about 4 rejections from Highlights and 2 from Spider. Highlights is quicker in responding. Spider can take 6 months. I could tell I was getting closer when I started getting personal rejections and invitations to sub again.

When did you decide to join SCBWI?

November 2007. That was a huge turning point for me. I came across the website while surfing the web. I feel that the moment I joined is the moment I became a “real” writer. Before that, I dabbled, but didn’t take it seriously. It took a while for me to be serious enough to educate myself about writing in meter and to educate myself about the market in general. Participating in the manuscript exchange area was huge too. It was scary to put my work out there, but getting feedback was like taking my first steps to becoming a writer. It was also extremely helpful for me to critique the work of others. That helped me become a stronger writer. I also started to familiarize myself with the submission process and all those nitty-gritty details. It took a while to get up to speed.

What motivated you to apply for the grant as some might be intimidated by the process? Have you applied for any other grants?

That was the second time I applied for that grant. It’s the only one I have tried. I didn’t really find it intimidating. Either you win or you don’t. Getting your work read during a first page session at a conference is a bit scarier, for example, because then you can see people’s reactions. At least for me that was more scary. But scary mixed with exciting. I applied for the grant because I wanted to have something shiny to put on my cover letter and the money was a motivation as well, since I started going to conferences and they can get expensive. I also wanted a sense of validation that I was on the right track.

How did you on which story to use for your application as you can submit only one book idea?

This past time it was very easy to choose because I had one story that was clearly my strongest. I could tell from the reaction of my peers, and I even felt it as I was writing. Based on my research, I knew editors often liked character-driven stories with a strong plot, with conflict, and with a final transformation in the main character and/or a twist, and my story had those ingredients.

Could you give me a short synopsis on the story you entered?
The title is “Grimelda, the Very Messy Witch”. The version I sent in was about 450 words. It’s a rhyming story about a messy witch who is constantly losing things. When she finally loses her trusty spell book, Grimelda is forced to do the unthinkable. Her frenzied, all-night cleaning spree uncovers surprises. I’m sorry to say, it was inspired by my messy apartment!

Tell me about the process. What happened after you submitted your story?
I just kept on writing and working on other projects. I honestly didn’t expect to win so I wasn’t anxious about it. I almost forgot about it. In June I got a bunch of calls from an unknown number. I thought it was some annoying telemarketer and kept ignoring my phone! Then I listened to the message. They were calling in regards to the SCBWI Barbara Karlin grant and asked me to call them back. I’ve never been so shocked in my life! I gasped, I screamed, and I did a little dance around the living room before calling back. I had to leave a message and then the organizer called me right back and told me the news. Aside from family events, that was probably the happiest day of my life. I posted my news in my critique group, on the blueboards, and on facebook. That was the first time I really went public about my writing in front of friends and family. I sort of felt like I was coming out of the closet.

After getting the grant, did that open new doors for you in writing? If so, how?

Yes. For one thing, I get a lot of hits to my website from the SCBWI site. I was able to submit to an agent who is normally closed to submissions. I've been asked to do interviews or guest posts on a couple of pretty prominent blogs, such as Tara Lazar’s blog. I also made some new writer friends as a result of winning. I noticed Deborah Diesen was on the list of past winners of the grant and I read in an interview with her that it was a big confidence boost. She later wrote “the Pout Pout Fish” which I believe is a NYT bestseller now. It was inspiring to see some names I recognized on the list. I can only hope that it opens the door to future successes. There certainly aren’t any guarantees!

The story you wrote is it under contract with a publisher now?

Not yet. Right before I found out that I won, I met an editor at a conference. She loved my story when it was read during the first page session and asked me to mail her the full. She emailed me about a week later and was very enthusiastic about it. It went to one editorial meeting and I sent her some revisions. Now I’m still waiting. It’s a slooooow business. I heard from someone else who is published by that house (it’s a big one) that it took 9 months to get an offer after she sent in revisions. And there's still a chance this editor will reject it.

What are your weekly writing goals?

Nothing specific, but I write every day. I have several projects going on at once and I often write short poems. I feel that the more you write, the quicker and easier it comes. It's like exercise. I also critique A LOT. I belong to two critique groups

What do you know now about writing that you wished you had learned sooner?

I wish I had read books on craft sooner. Books like “All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing” (about writing in metrical verse) and “Writing Picture Books" by Ann Whitford Paul. Also Harold Underdown's website and other writing related blogs and sites. I also wish I had joined Verla Kay’s blueboards sooner. But really, there’s no way to rush things. It’s just a matter of doing, and learning over time. I’m still learning new things every day

What is it that you like about Verla Kay’s blueboards?

The blueboards is extremely active and you can always get pretty immediate answers to your questions from experienced writers and agents, or search for similar topics. It's very comprehensive. There is a lot of insider information. You can also get info on response times for agents and publishers which is really handy to know. The longer and more active you are as a member, the more sections you have access to.

What is it that you like about Harold Underdown's "Purple Crayon" website?

Answers to all the basic questions, like the difference between a cover letter and a query letter. Also, I often use his "Changes" page to see who's moving where and who has been promoted.

What advice would you give someone who is a new writer?

Don’t be afraid to experiment or make mistakes. Give yourself permission to write something that stinks. It may or may not stink in the long run, but you will learn from it either way. Keep an open mind to criticism. This is very important. Sometimes you have to "kill your darlings", as they say. And the more you write, the more confident you will become in your abilities and your choices. In the beginning, it may be hard to know when to change something based on a suggestion or stay true to your original vision.

Try to write everyday, even if it's just a short poem or story. Sometimes, write just for fun. It may not be something you submit, but you will learn from it, and in fact, when you write for fun, it may end up being your strongest work. Keep a notebook handy and jot down ideas as they come up. Even near your bed! Also, write down lots of ideas and then choose the best ones to concentrate on. For me, this kind of focusing works better than just writing anything that pops into my head (which is what I used to do). But any idea that truly inspires you is worth exploring. Find a good critique group or a few good critique partners. Don’t be discouraged by rejections.

Being part of the writing community helps. Everyone understands what it’s like. Always research publishers before you submit. A carefully targeted submission makes all the difference. Finally, don't get too attached to one project. It's OK to put something aside and start something new, and sometimes it's for the best. It's not about one story, but about the process of writing and just being a writer. Don't get stuck. Just keep moving forward.

That’s it for the interview today. I hope it encourages you to not only write, but also submit your writing! Don’t forget, if you want to know more about submitting for the current grant go to for the complete details.

Here are the links to the other websites that Diana mentioned in the interview that you might find helpful as well.

1 comment:

  1. Wow...great advice from Diana. Thanks, Christine.
    Even an old post gets read, and is priceless, to those new writers out here. I was browsing the Barbara Karlin award winners and searching, and found Diana's interview with Tara Lazar, which had her link to her website, and thus this interview...almost two years later than the post!
    HA! All kinds of treasures out here to be discovered in the kid-lit world.
    Thanks for this interview