In 2015 Virginia Law Manning began chronicling her journey as a children's book writer and illustrator, hoping to educate, humor and connect with other like-minded souls.
Happy New Year, my fellow creators!
Ahhh… 2017! A fresh start! There’s no time like the present to take on some new writing and/or illustrating goals. If you’re not already in a critique group, why not join one now? If you're a member of SCBWI, you can find local critique groups on your chapter's page. Take a peek. If you find a group that meets your needs, contact the group’s leader and inquire if you can observe a meeting.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR, recently posted a list of four questions you should ask yourself about critique partners. Here it is:
• Do I trust this person's taste and judgment?
• Does this person understand what I'm trying to create here?
• Does this person genuinely want me to succeed?
• Is this person capable of delivering the truth to me in a sensitive and compassionate manner?
It might take some time to figure this out. Be patient. In the meantime, you can work at being the best critique partner for your group’s members. If you’re already in a group, great! 2017 can be your year to engage in the process more enthusiastically. Submit more frequently! Revise more deeply! Network more vigorously!
I’m a big believer in critique groups. My critique partners help me see flaws in my work, encourage me when I’m frustrated, share important industry information and keep me from going batty!
I hope you'll leave a comment below and let me know how your group is going or ask a question if you’re not sure if a critique group is right for you.
I’m a member of four critique groups: two for author-illustrators, one for chapter book authors and one for picture book authors. Sometimes I joke that I’m a glutton for punishment, especially since I prefer critique partners who offer lots of constructive criticism. I even welcome nit-picky feedback because I strongly believe that critique partners need to be critical if they’re going to help me improve my writing.
I’ll even go so far as to say I think it’s dangerous to be in a group and only hear praise of my work, because I don’t want to submit a manuscript before it’s ready. I only have one chance to make a first impression! Now that said, there are times when I find myself gravitating towards one group—the least critical of the four.
This group showers me with compliments. The members are more appreciative of my scribbles than my own mother. Sometimes I want to shake them, yelling “No, tell me what you really think!” But, this is the group I turn to when I’m feeling blue—when I’m questioning if I’ve made any progress or I’m dreading going to a workshop because my illustration will be on display. At those times, their praise, even if it’s unwarranted, is a comforting security blanket.
As critique partners, we need to be sensitive and realize there are times when it’s best to soften our critiques because our partners are at a treacherous juncture in their journey. It’s important to be in a group with writers/illustrators we respect, because if a member wants to quit, we need to prop them up and do whatever we can to prevent that outcome.
Have you heard the statistic that on average it takes a writer 10 years to get a book published? Pretty scary, right? I think one of our jobs as critique partners is to make sure our members stick around for the long haul. After all, you’ve got to be in it to win it. So, take a moment before meetings to get a sense of members’ general spirits and then tailor your discussion to help them at that moment.
Editors and agents often say the number one thing they are looking for when reading manuscripts is a distinct and fresh voice. But, what is voice?
In her book VOICE LESSONS, Nancy Dean describes voice as the “fingerprint of a person’s language.” She suggests a writer’s voice is created by his/her choices of diction, detail, imagery, syntax and tone. She goes on to describe each of these elements and then offers exercises to help writers become more aware of their choices in their writing.
Diction is the writer’s word choice. It’s “the foundation of voice and contributes to all of its elements.”
Detail are the facts, observations and incidents the author choses to include.
Imagery is the verbal representation of sensory experience and helps to make these experiences immediate.
Syntax refers to grammatical sentence structure and “controls verbal pacing and focus.”
Tone is the expression of attitude.
When critiquing others’ work, the question arises, how do we critique a writer’s voice? The answer: carefully!
An author’s voice is their personality. As readers, we will be drawn to some voices more than others, just as we’re drawn to some people more than others. I find when I love an author’s voice, I want to read the lines out loud. And then I want to read them out loud to other people. But, I find those people don’t always agree with my assessment because voice is personal.
It’s important we allow our critique partners to develop their own personal voice and not be swayed by our tastes. That said, we can and should critique the consistency of an author’s voice.
For instance, does the author use very simple words or sentence structure except in one section when the vocabulary or syntax becomes more formal and mature for no apparent reason?
Is the story written in the voice of the 8-year old main character, but a fact is mentioned that only an adult would know?
We’ll also want to ask ourselves, does the voice feel appropriate for the genre.
For instance, if the book’s main target audience is preschool teachers, an author may want to avoid words or details that would be a turn-off to this audience. On the flip side, if the book is written for reluctant readers, the voice may need to be more edgy to appeal to this hard-to-please audience.
When we first start writing, we need to focus on the basics. Does the story have a problem or is it a list of events? Later we may focus on character development, making sure the protagonists have real flaws and the antagonists aren’t villain stereotypes. Voice is probably the last piece of the puzzle. Hopefully, by the time the rest falls into place, our voice will have naturally developed. But since it’s such an important part of the equation, I know I’m always looking for resources to help me develop my voice.
In the comments section, I’d love to know if you’ve found any articles, books or courses that were helpful. Please share this information and/or any other questions/feedback in the comments section below.
Good luck with your writing!
This month, I thought I’d acquaint you with a critique group I admire. The six founding members: Mike Ciccotello, Deborah Cuneo, Diana Ting Delosh, Barbara DiLorenzo, Patricia Keeler and Jason Kirschner, are all brilliant author/illustrators well on their way to stellar careers in the industry. In addition, they’ve got marketing smarts. In January this year, they started a blog cooperative “Drawn to Picture Books,” or D2PB, whereby they take turns writing about their process and artistic journey under the same blog umbrella. I hope you’ll spend time on the D2PB website, register to receive D2PB updates and check out their individual websites.
I now have the pleasure of introducing one of the group’s members, author-illustrator and funnyman, Jason Kirschner.
I feel a particular connection to Jason’s success, as I witnessed his agent Rachel Orr perusing his portfolio for the first time in September 2014. Then WHAM! KAPOW! KABLOUIE! 18 months later, Sterling Children’s Books released his first book MR. PARTICULAR: THE WORLD’S CHOOSIEST CHAMPION. This spring Jason has created a book trailer, appeared on national TV and in stores, and been interviewed online to promote his book.
Jason, congratulations on your success! My son and I are big fans of MR. PARTICULAR. His persnickety character appeals to characters like us who want things just-so. I’m also thrilled that three more members of your group: Barbara DiLorenzo, Patricia Keeler and Deborah Cuneo, have books coming from Viking Children’s Books and Sky Pony Press in 2017. Can you tell us a little about your critique group? For starters, how did you meet?
We all met at a NJ SCBWI conference a bunch of years ago. As conference buddies, we realized we were at similar places in our careers, and so starting a critique group made sense.
Our group is loosely structured--no rules or procedures. The lack of rules makes it hard to break them. When members want feedback on a project, we share it using Dropbox and send an email to alert everyone to take a look. We tend to write a lot of emails about cookies and other dessert food which is generally off topic but beyond that we seem to do OK.
There are also no deadlines or obligation. Sometimes we’re being asked to review material daily. Other times there are large gaps when no one’s sharing because we’re all slack or busy busy busy. When there’s a lot, it can be a time suck. But, either way, we tend to handle it really well.
What do you find the greatest benefit of being in a critique group?
I think the advantage of any critique is having your work looked at with a fresh set of eyes and a perspective that is not your own. If you can get partners as talented as mine, so much the better! I also tend to learn some by critiquing others so it's really a win/win.
Do the different members of your group have particular strengths that assist you with a personal weakness?
Yes. Absolutely. There are many superpowers at play here --almost too many to name. My obvious one is being particular (couldn't resist), but you'd never put me in charge of the calendar or time management, or grammar check. It's not what I do well. We have some members that are great at that. Some are brilliant promoters. We have anatomy experts who can spot those kind of drawing errors and those who are really industry smart. Some are super sassy. I'd like to think that I'm good at finding story logic flaws, and I give a good pep talk now and then. Truly all are talented artists/authors all around.
Plus, we all have different styles and methods so no one steps on each other's toes. I think what makes it work and what makes it special is that we really believe in each other and have a real desire to see the others succeed.
I’m looking forward to witnessing your group’s continued success as well. You’re an amazingly talented group of artists! Thank you for this opportunity, Jason! Is there anything else you want to tell EPA members?
Keep checking out “Drawn to Picture Books.” We've got some exciting posts coming up. We’re learning to make our posts more personal. It can be unnerving to put yourself out there but we hope to show more of an inside view of our individual processes of making books. We also mention cookies a lot.
Please remember to sign up to receive “Drawn to Picture Books” updates!
The other day I was talking to a friend about an upcoming SCBWI conference. During our conversation, she said, ‘I’m just looking forward to going to one of these conferences someday from the other side of the table.’ I wasn’t sure what she meant, so she explained, ‘you know, when I’m published--established.’
I reminded my friend that: 1) she has an agent, 2) after signing with this agent, she was offered a two-book deal, and 3) she could look forward to the publication of these books in the near future.
‘Yes, but I mean when I’m published by a trade publisher.’
This is when the ‘wow, us kidlit people sure are messed up’ light bulb came on in my head, and I started thinking about the wall we build between ourselves and our vision of true children’s book creators. It’s the same wall that causes us to introduce ourselves as “trying to write children’s books,” rather than as authors.
I wonder if this disconnect is partially related to how we see the journey. Do we see it as linear, and published author and illustrators are on the trail ahead of us, perhaps even out of reach? Are we hoping to follow in their footsteps?
From hearing enough artists tell their road to publication stories, I’ve learned that no two paths are the same. Some artists are talented or lucky enough to merge onto a secret expressway to the quick publication of their debut book. While others spend a decade or longer writing, revising and submitting before securing a contract with a publisher. Some have success getting published in magazines but find book contracts elusive. Some are thrilled when they get an agent, only to discover later it was the wrong agent.
What I’m coming to believe is it doesn’t matter which path we take. They’re all good, because being an artist is about the journey. It’s not about the end result.
So, how do I see my journey?
When I decided to become a children’s book author-illustrator, I entered a ballroom filled with other artists with the same goal. At first, I wandered about this room, a bit lost and definitely alone. But then, I started going to children’s book events—book festivals, SCBWI meetings/conferences/workshops, illustration classes, etc.--and I started to meet other authors and illustrators.
We swapped business cards, emailed, became Facebook friends, formed critique groups and went to exhibits. In this grand ballroom, we dared to hold hands. At first, our chain was still floating. But, as our knowledge and network grew, we became grounded and this gave us permanence.
I love introducing my children’s book friends to each other, and, in this way, we’ve formed a circle. Some artists in my circle are agented, others have contracts, and several are published, but we’re all on this journey together and my circle continues to grow. As we learn, write, and create, we take steps towards the center of the circle. (Obviously the center is a fun place to be, right?) And, when we share our knowledge, we pull the others in our circle towards the center as well.
Of course, I hope my debut book is on the horizon. But I’ve learned to see myself as a writer without an agent or contract. I write. I revise. I dig deep to tell stories that will have an impact. I enjoy my time at the computer and relish feedback from friends, editors and agents. In the center of my circle, it’s not a published book that awaits. It’s me and I’m the best writer I can be.
Last month my blog post gave the basics of becoming a good critique partner. Now let’s dig deeper by,
Identifying the Core Emotion
The core emotion, or core motivator, of a story is its heart. It’s the ‘why.’ The driving force that makes us care. The universal truth that helps us, as readers, empathize with the main character.
In order to identify the core emotion, agent Heather Alexander suggests drilling down past the details of the story to the heart by asking “why” until you reach the story’s core.
Let’s identify the core motivator in Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.
Begin your analysis by asking:
What’s the story about?
It’s about a boy Max who sails off to a land of wild beasts where he becomes King.
Why does he sail off?
Because he’s mad at his mother.
Why is he mad at his mother?
Because he didn’t think it was fair that she sent him to his room.
What didn’t he think it was fair?
Because he wants to be able to do what he wants.
Because everyone wants to have power in their lives, even children.
And there we have it, this story is about power. Max wants to have control in his life. Don’t we all? Who wants to feel powerless? Not me.
Your question chain might take you on a different path. You might have asked “Why did he become king of the beasts?” But that’s OK because if the story is tightly written, you’ll end up in the same spot. If however, the story meanders or is just a chronology of events, it may be difficult to find the core motivator.
If you’re not connecting with a story and find yourself asking ‘who cares,’ see if you can identify the core motivator. If you have trouble, run through this exercise live during your critique session. Have two readers perform the Q&A, while the author listens. This way the author can see where the character’s motivation is vague.
In her KidLit College webinar, Heather Alexander confided that, as she reads manuscripts, she often wants to strip away plot to get to the core emotion. But that doesn’t mean you want the message to be obvious or the story preach-y. I find this is a common mistake of new authors. Most stories do have a message, but the best way to get there is to write a great story and let a universal truth be revealed. I hope this makes sense to you. When my mentor author-illustrator Barbara DiLorenzo explained it to me that way, a lightbulb went on in my head. I’m writing a picture book now and the story has changed dramatically over time but the core emotion has remained the same,
Everyone wants to feel special, especially on their birthday.
But when you read my story, I never say those words. I don’t even come close.
Understanding the core motivation will help you write and critique work because it’s the destination. The text of the story needs to get us there. After you’ve identified the core emotion, look for scenes that are detours—moving us in the wrong direction. By eliminating these lines/scenes/chapters, we can add clarity to our work.
I hope you’ll let me know if you found this post helpful in the comments section below. Thank you for reading my post, and good luck on your journey!
I’m a big believer in critique groups. I’m in four—two for illustration and two for writing. What I’ve learned is how important it is to be in a group with people who work hard. Not just at their own writing, but even more importantly who work hard at being great critique partners CP.
So how do you become a great CP? It starts when you receive the manuscript. You’ll want to know what age child your CP is targeting.
Next, you’ll want to read the manuscript TWICE with a pen in hand.
The first time through, read the work for enjoyment but when you get to sections that you like or don’t understand, that take you out of the story or make you want to put the manuscript down, make a small notation. (Do NOT spend a lot of time writing notes at this point.) :
: ) Something you liked or made you laugh
? Something that confused you
~ A bump in the road. Something that pulled you out of the story.
) The moon is a slow section where your attention drifted
After you read the manuscript the first time, try to answer the following questions. They will help you focus on the big picture. (If you’re reading a few chapters of a longer story, not all of these questions will apply):
a. Who is the main character MC? Describe the MC at the beginning of the story?
b. What is the MC’s problem?
c. How did the MC try to solve the problem?
d. What were the obstacles in the MC’s way?
e. What was the climax of the story?
f. How was the problem resolved?
g. Describe the MC at the end of the story? Did the MC change or learn anything?
Then read the story again and mark up the manuscript at the points where you can answer these questions. You’ll want to help the author see where there might be problems. For instance, did it take too long to get to the problem? Did the main character play a passive role in her story or was she actively trying to solve the problem?
1. Type up your comments. Use the comments section for specifics within the text AND general comments at the end.
2. Critique the work, not the writer. Never start comments with “you,” instead, refer to specific words/lines.
3. Create an easy to digest critique sandwich, using specific examples from the text. Start your critique with what worked in the manuscript, next discuss areas that you thought could be improved, then end on a high note with more positives!
4. In terms of the constructive criticism, be diplomatic. Avoid using strong negative language. Frame things in a positive light, “this scene would be more exciting if…”
5. Leave your personal taste out of it. Critique the work and how well the author accomplished his/her writing goals.
I learned a lot from watching Heather Alexander’s KidLit College webinar “Be a Better Critique Partner.” Stayed tuned each month for more tidbits.
I hope you’ll leave a comment below, sharing some critique group wisdom or asking a question. I’ll randomly select one winner and offer a free, online private critique on up to 10 pages of one manuscript. You’re not obligated to accept. I know some people are already hooked up with great CP, agents or editors. Either way, I hope you’ll leave a comment!
Thank you and good luck!
In February I wrote “Love at First Sight,” the story of how I fell in love with Greg Pizzoli’s THE WATERMELON SEED at a bookfair in Princeton in September 2013. I asked my readers to tell me about a book they fell head-over-heels for; below is the list of titles that curled their toes. (Names of the contributing blog readers are in parenthesis.) Thank you everyone for your recommendations!
***Congratulations to Lynn A. Davidson, the winner of THE WATERMELON SEED!***
***And a huge thank you to Greg Pizzoli for your inspiration and support!***
THIS IS NOT MY HAT by Jon Klassen (Steve Silbiger and hmmmmm)
HENNY by Elizabeth Rose Stanton (Rose Cappelli)
FINDING WINNIE by Lindsay Mattick (Ali Earle Pichardo and Teresa Robeson)
THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY by Adam Rex (Annie Raulerson)
THE PHANTOM TOOLBOOTH by Norton Juster (Annie Raulerson)
WHERE BEAR? by Sophy Henn (Heather Pierce Stigall)
TO THE SEA by Cale Atkinson (Heather Pierce Stigall)
LEAVES by David Ezra Stein (Monica Carnesi)
THE SNOWMAN by Raymond Briggs (Adrienne Wright)
THE LORAX by Dr. Seuss (Robin Jordan)
SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE by William Steig (Elisa Kleven)
THE AMAZING BONE by William Steig (Elisa Kleven)
ROTTEN ISLAND by William Steig (Elisa Kleven)
A HOME FOR BIRD by Philip C. Stead (Teresa Robeson)
A SPLASH OF RED, THE LIFE AND ART OF HORACE PIPPEN by Jen Bryant (Helen Kitrosser)
GRANDFATHER TWILIGHT by Barbara Berger (Chrissa Pederson)
SOPHIE’S SQUASH by Pat Zietlow Miller (MD Knabb)
WHEREVER YOU GO by Pat Zietlow Miller (MD Knabb)
NO DAVID! by David Shannon (Kathryn Howard)
BRIEF THIEF by Michael Escoffier (Lindsay Bandy)
CLOUDETTE by Tom Lichtenheld (Lindsay Bandy)
ALL THE WORLD by Liz Garton Scanlon (Lindsay Bandy)
HOW TO DRAW A DRAGON by Douglas Florian (Merrilees Brown)
HERMAN AND ROSIE by Gus Gordon (Patricia Keeler)
CHARLIE’S SUPERHERO UNDERPANTS by Paul Bright (Kristen C.S.)
RODEO RED by Maripat Perkins (Kristen C.S.)
EMMA BEAN by Jean Van Leeuwen (Lynn A. Davidson)
CAN’T SLEEP WITHOUT SHEEP by Susanna Leonard Hill (Lynn A. Davidson)
RAINBOWS IN THE DARK by Jan Coates (Lynn A. Davidson)
OLIVIA by Ian Falconer (mermaidrain)
THE DARK by Lemony Snicket (mermaidrain)
MOTHER BRUCE by Ryan T. Higgins (mermaidrain)
MOLE MUSIC by David McPhail (bjleepoet)
OSKAR AND THE EIGHT BLESSINGS by Tanya Simon (ritaborg)
MONSTORE by Tara Lazar (ritaborg)
LOOKING FOR A MOOSE by Phyllis Root (ritaborg)
MEG THE EGG by Rita Antoinette Borg (ritaborg)
ELEPHANT & PIGGIE series by Mo Willems (hmmmmm)
OWL MOON by Jane Yolen (Angela Turner)
DARE THE WIND by Tracey Fern (Angela Turner)
WATER IS WATER by Miranda Paul (Angela Turner)
GOOSE THE BEAR by Katja Gehrmann (Connie Stradling Morby)
STICK AND STONE by Beth Ferry (Cathy Stefanec Ogren)
BIG PIGS by Leslie Helakoski (Judy Sobanski)
LENNY & LUCY by Phillip Stead (Keila Dawson and Heather Pierce Stigall)
DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS by Mo Willems (Stephanie Salkin and Heather Steffens)
ONCE UPON A TWICE by Denise Doyen
THE DEAD BIRD by Margaret Wise Brown (waengel2002)
MR. SQUIRREL and the MOON by Sebastian Meschenmoser (Mary McClellan)
THE SNIFFLES FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker (Mary McClellan)
THE DIARY OF A SPIDER by Doreen Cronin (Mary McClellan)
THE DIARY OF A WORM by Doreen Cronin (Mary McClellan)
SCAREDY SQUIRREL by Melanie Watt (Andrea Allen)
LOVE MONSTER AND THE LAST CHOCOLATE by Rachel Bright (Andrea Allen)
I YAM A DONKEY by Cece Bell (Andrea Allen)
CHICK ‘N’ PUG by Jennifer Sattler (Andrea Allen)
A BALLOON FOR ISABELLE by Deborah Underwood. (Doris Fisher)
THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES by B.J. Novak (Mel Vickers)
Do you believe in love at first sight?
The moment I saw my son Thomas I fell in love. All I could say was, “He’s so cute.” “He’s so cute!” I said it over and over.
But that day in the hospital wasn’t my first time falling in love. Or my last.
In September 2013 I fell in love with Greg Pizzoli’s THE WATERMELON SEED. I was at the Princeton Children’s Book Festival when I saw one single copy sitting on display. Sweet googly-eyed Croc and his luscious, salmon-pink slice of watermelon caught my eye and I couldn’t resist.
Days later I wrote a love letter about my book. I told the author, “It didn’t take many pages for me to become quite attached to your delightfully silly character and captivated by your deceptively simple screenprint illustrations… When an artist can create a book that has a unique point of view and a purpose --whether to humor, to educate or to comfort a child—and is enticing and reader-friendly then this book deserves its place on the shelf and the artist will have earned my respect.”
Two years have passed since I wrote that letter, you might wonder if I’ve remained faithful to this love.
Hmm… I do still adore THE WATERMELON SEED, but it hasn’t been a monogamous affair. There have been others. Most recently MISTER AND LADY DAY by Amy Novesky and Vanessa Brantley Newtown, VEGETABLES IN UNDERWEAR by Jared Chapman, and WOLFIE THE BUNNY by Ame Dyckman and Zachariah OHora.
These books give me goosebumps. They make me want to pick up the phone and tell all my friends about their enchanting characters and creative details. They are the last things I want to see before I fall asleep at night. They drive me to be a better illustrator and writer. Most importantly, they inspire me to read.
I hope you’ve fallen in love. Will you tell me about your crush? I’m a sucker for a good book romance.
One of the great things about children’s publishing is that it’s a small world. If you attend conferences, book fairs and other children’s book events, you’ll see lots of familiar faces and have the opportunity to meet the authors, illustrators, agents and editors you admire. But such a tight knit community also means it’s even more important to act professionally and understand the unwritten rules.
So, what are these rules? Here are a few Heather and I picked up along the way.
Rule #1 Say thank you!
In person. By email. On Facebook. By mail. Just do it!
Rule #2 If you ask for a critique, listen to the critique.
Don’t defend your work. Listen. If you don’t understand something, it’s OK to ask questions to clarify but don’t even think about contradicting what they’ve said to you. For instance, “No, what I meant was…” And, be sincerely grateful. Say thank you! Even if the author/illustrator/agent/editor doesn’t like your work, it was kind of them to try to help.
Rule #3 Stay calm and carry on.
This is a fuzzier. But try to use sound, sober judgement. Here’s a rule I broke.
Minutes after I had the first really harsh critique of my work by a published author/illustrator, I met up with a friend at an SCBWI meeting. Before the presentation began, sitting in the front row, I very dramatically told her the story. “No, you don’t understand. He HATED it. He said, ‘there is absolutely, positively no market for the book.’” Finally, after I’d gone on, my friend said to me, “who is this guy?” So I pulled out two of his books from my bag. The woman behind me then tapped me on the shoulder to let me know she knew the artist. Ugh…
And from NJ author-illustrator Patricia Keeler, “Years ago, after showing my portfolio to an Atheneum Art Director, I was too nervous to wait for the elevator, so I took the stairs and set off the fire alarm for the whole Macmillan building!”
Rule #4 If they don’t ask for it, they don’t want it.
This is a tough pill to swallow and another rule I didn’t know starting out. If an editor or agent reads your work and they like it so much that they want to offer you a contract, they will tell you. If they like it but think it needs revision, they will ask you to resubmit. If they like your writing, but the story isn’t right for them, they’ll ask if you have another manuscript. Not in code. They will ask you outright. But, whether it’s a yes or a no, remember to say thank you!
Rule #5 Don’t try to write or illustrate children’s books because you think it will be easy, fun, make you a lot of money or make you famous.
The truth is it’s hard work. It’s a tough market and there is LOTS of competition. Do it because you have to. Because you won’t be happy unless you’re doing it, even if you are never published.
Rule #6 Don’t give up!
From EPA author-illustrator Mônica Carnesi, “When I first started getting back into drawing and writing stories, I made one of the most common rookie mistakes: writing a very personal story (about my dog!) without doing my research (really studying picture books to learn about pacing, page turns, character development, commercial appeal) AND before joining SCBWI. Long story short, I wrote “A Day with Constance” and Mark, my husband, loved it (of course he did!). A friend of his family was an author of children’s books and he convinced me to send the dummy to her agent, Tracy Adams. Needless to say, it was VERY EMBARRASSING! She was very kind, but basically told me what I know now: that it was not even close to being ready for submission. Argh! She did suggest that I join SCBWI, which I did, and that made all the difference.”
From EPA author Steve Silbiger, “With a bit of bravado coming off the success of my non-fiction adult books, I thought that children's writing would be a snap two years ago. With a high concept topic and much fewer words than adult non-fiction to produce, nothing was in my way. “Willy the Woolly Bear Caterpillar” was ready for quick Barnes & Noble shelving. Well, straight out of the box, I broke many of the unwritten rules of picture books: don't tell the moral, keep it under 500 words, the main character solves his own problem (agency) and makes only 3 stops along his journey (rule of 3's), One thing I did get right, I did not have my ‘Aunt Mary’ illustrate it for me and did not force a cute series of rhyming couplets to tell the story. With hard work, I have rounded my square peg and hope that “Willy…” finds its publishing home in 2016!”
We hope you’ll share your funny/rookie mistakes and the lessons they taught you in the comments section below. Did you pay an artist to illustrate your manuscript not realizing that the publisher would do this? Or send an author-illustrator you just met a 1,200 word email and ask if he’d critique your dummy? (Why are you looking at me? OK, fine, but I only did it once!)
Here are a few more for the road!
From NJ author-illustrator Barbara DiLorenzo, “I was eager to see an art director speak at a Metro NY SCBWI meeting some years ago, and spent the day preparing my portfolio should it be chosen by lottery for her review. Although my work looked professional, I neglected to take the same care in making myself look good before I left the house. I prepared a small bag to give to the AD with promotional postcards–even a mug with one of my drawings on it. The bag was a frilly paper bag meant more for a birthday, but it looked nice. When I got to the event, I sat in the front row–eager to soak in the information, smiling like an idiot. My socks didn't match. My hair may have been brushed, I'm not sure. But my clothes were definitely something of an eyesore. If the AD noticed me in the front, it wasn't for the right reasons. My portfolio wasn't picked for review, but I wasn't deterred. At the end of the event, I walked over to the AD by the snack table, and held out the frilly bag with my promotional materials, all the while saying (cringe), ‘I love your sense of humor so much. You are the best!’ Now, I think this is what I said. Maybe I just said the ‘I love you...’ part louder than the rest. Whatever the case, she smiled nervously, and responded, ‘Thank you. My husband likes my sense of humor as well.’ I thought that was odd. I sort of smiled, then stepped back as other people filled in around her. I didn't know anyone else at the event, so I called my husband to see what he thought of the exchange. He simply said, ‘Barbara, I think it's time you left and came home.’
So, I guess if I could rewind time, I'd dress better so that if the AD thought I was hitting on her, she wouldn't have been quite so horrified.”
From NJ author Brittany Orrico, “I submitted my first manuscript on heavy weight resume paper. It certainly wasn't catastrophic, but I thought the resume and manuscript should match, so I sent it all in on resume paper. I suspect it screamed, ‘rookie!’ when they opened it.”
From EPA author Wendy Greenley, “I signed up for an editor/agent critique at my first conference (the Fall Philly) thinking that I should take a manuscript I was having trouble with. Something an editor could help me with. WRONG!! I learned that agent/editor critiques aren't like critique partners or peer critiques. I was supposed to have brought polished work. Lesson learned.”
From DC author Katharine Manning, “When I attended the national SCBWI conference in LA a few years ago. I was completely jet-lagged and overwhelmed by excitement and nerves. The first morning I ended up sitting next to a published author who happened to know a friend of mine. This is a friend I've had for TWENTY YEARS. We’re friends from college. We went to each other's wedding. We know each other's kids. We visit each other, talk on the phone and email. But sitting there that morning, I could not remember her name. I ended up just describing her. Finally the author came up with her name and said, ‘so you don't know her well?’ Actually, I know her quite well, it's just that my brain is completely paralyzed with anxiety at this moment. Sigh.”
MD romance writer (yes, romance novelists make rookie mistakes too) Robin Covington has these words of wisdom to share, “Don’t ever let a critique partner steal your ‘voice’ – only you can tell a story like you can and if you take everyone’s advice and write like they would, then it’s not yours. And keep reading. Broadly and widely. It will fill your will and keep you fresh. And don’t worry about writing crap. You can’t edit a blank page.”
And finally, EPA Illustrator Coordinator Adrienne Wright shares a really important lesson, (one that Heather can relate to). “I regret sending something before it was ready. I was so anxious to send something to an editor after attending an event where attendees could submit up until a deadline, but, in hindsight, it was just too early. The manuscript wasn’t ready. Now, even though I’ve revised it, I feel I can't send the same manuscript to the same editor so I feel I blew it. Needless to say, I never heard back from the editor.”
Good luck making 2016 a mistake-free year! Or go ahead and make some mistakes. Sometimes it’s the best way to learn. But, remember...
Say thank you!
The authors would especially like to thank our story contributors: Mônica Carnesi, Robin Covington, Wendy Greenley, Barbara DiLorenzo, Lee Harper, Patricia Keeler, Katharine Manning, Brittany Orrico, Steve Silbiger and Adrienne Wright.
January 5th. My son is back in school. My husband is out of the house. I’ve done a few housekeeping chores this morning and now I’m ready to work. In the last few days, I’ve set myself up to achieve a few of my 2016 goals.
I received comments back from my new Chapter Book critique group on the first 10 pages of my manuscript. I’m anxious to pour through the members’ comments and see what I need to focus my attention on next. This feedback comes at the perfect time.
This morning I registered for Kidlit College’s “Unlocking the Mysteries of Writing Chapter Book and Middle Grade Series” webinar and critique with Eve Adler, Senior Editor Grosset & Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan, Penguin Random House. Prior to sending my submission, I’ll make revisions based on the critique group’s feedback and any takeaways from the webinar. Unfortunately, it may take up to two months to get Ms. Adler’s feedback. During that time, I’ll put those chapters on the back burner. This way when I receive her critique, I’ll be able to look at my manuscript with fresh eyes.
I registered for a course on Photoshop at the Princeton Arts Council that begins next week. I’m so excited to start exploring this program. My fabulous illustration teacher Barbara DiLorenzo once did a Photoshop demonstration for us. She took a jpeg of a student’s watercolor illustration and was able to fix several mistakes and improve the scan’s colors to better resemble the original. How satisfying to make corrections to a notoriously unforgiving medium! I’ve also had a lot of difficultly reproducing watercolors—colors can be washed out and change the warmth of an image. I’m hoping by tweaking the jpeg in Photoshop I can compensate for scanning discrepancies.
I hope you’re off to a successful start as well! Leave a comment and let me know how you’re faring with your New Year’s Resolutions!
Since I wrote my first post, I’ve been thinking about what value my blog can offer the children’s book community. I hope to help other writers and illustrators like myself—unagented/ unpublished newbies—by sharing what I’m learning on my journey.
So, as 2015 comes to a close, I thought I’d talk about five courses/programs I participated in this year and something I learned from each.
1. In January I made a New Year’s Resolution to learn Scrivener. It took me about 7 hours to complete the free online tutorial. After I learned the program, the Eastern PA SCBWI regional advisors asked me to write a blog post about Scrivener for our chapter. I was excited to write my first blog post and took the opportunity seriously. Then, later in the year, they asked me to run an informal workshop on the program at our spring conference. They’ve recently approached me about running a similar program in 2016. This one New Year’s Resolution had a ripple effect and helped me become more involved in my SCBWI chapter.
- Lesson Learned: Make another New Year’s Resolution!
- 2016 Goal: Learn Photoshop
2. In February I began Mira Reisberg’s Children’s Book Academy’s online course “The Chapter Book Alchemist.” The course didn’t focus as much on the art of writing (ex. character development) as I thought it would. It focused more on certain technical aspects. Some of our assignments included writing a 30-word book pitch, a chapter-by-chapter summary, and a series pitch. Later in the year, when I was preparing to go to the Rutgers One-On-One Conference, I felt so prepared. Because I was prepared. And I would have felt prepared if I was going to a meeting with a prospective agent or editor.
- Lesson learned: Spend time each year to develop my professional image.
- 2016 Goal: Update my profile (including author bio and portfolio images) on my website, SCBWI and CBIG’s websites, FB and Twitter. Link to my various pages/accounts.
3. In April I began a six-month mentorship program Evolution Resolution offered through the NJ SCBWI chapter. Our faculty mentor was Annie Ericsson, a designer at Penguin. Annie offered everyone in the group wonderful feedback on their work. Her comments never felt like criticism. She gave clear, strong direction. I felt so fortunate to have her input over the six month period as I revised my manuscript, created thumbnails and developed a dummy.
- Lesson Learned: When I find professionals whose opinions and direction style I admire, seek them out at future conferences to get their feedback over the course of my career.
- 2016 Goal: Keep Annie and target agents apprised of my work as I complete each stage.
4. In October I attended the Rutgers One-On-One Conference for my first time. I LOVED it. My mentor Gail Carson Levine was very direct when she spoke with me about my writing. Her questions and comments made me realize how thoughtful an author must be, how precisely we must use words to create a seamless world. We can’t leave gaps or create illogical stumbling blocks that take our reader out of the story. The path must be clear.
- Lesson Learned: Seek out professional criticism of my work, in addition to participating in critique groups.
- 2016 Goal: Attend Rutgers again!
5. In November I attended the Children’s Book Illustrator’s Group Review. 2015 was my first year as a CBIG-NYC member. Membership costs $45. Most of the events are fee. To participate in the Review is an additional $25. As participants, members chose two faculty members to critique our portfolio or dummy. I chose one agent and one art director. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. Ninety percent of the agent’s comments focused on my writing, while 90% of the art director’s comments focused on my art (in particular compositions and layout). Where their comments overlapped, they agreed! In my revised dummy, I can address all of the agent’s comments and all of the art director’s and my book will be vastly improved. All of this for $25! Even if I include the cost of the CBIG membership, it was an incredible value!
- Lesson Learned: For illustrators in the NY area, CBIG is a great organization!
- 2016 Goals: Take advantage of more CBIG opportunities!
2015 was a great year for me. In this blog I would have loved to discuss the amazing Eastern PA SCBWI Pocono Retreat and Illustrator Day, my experience interviewing author-illustrator Elisa Kleven and the NJ SCBWI Craft Weekend and Holiday Party. But, since I hope to do all these things again, I’ll write about them in 2016.
If you participated in an amazing program this year, I hope you’ll leave a comment!!! Perhaps you took a great online course or participated in a writing challenge. I’d love to know what you found worked!
In early December, I invited a group of fellow authors and illustrators over for a holiday celebration. Most of the guests were members of my various critique groups; others I’ve met over the last two years while taking classes, attending SCBWI meetings or participating in the Rutgers One-On-One Conference. Everyone who attended is passionate about children’s books.
It was wonderful to spend time with this group and have the pleasure of introducing my friends to each other. I believe there is something to be said for the power of the pack.
As artists, we spend a great deal of time alone—at our drawing boards and in front of the computer. The journey to get our first book published will be long, the road littered with rejections and unreturned emails to editors and agents. The costs of the three Cs--courses, conferences and critiques--add up and this financial burden may cause some artists to exit before their final destination.
If we surround ourselves with other writers and illustrators who are training for and running the same marathon, we have a better chance of crossing the finish line. By critiquing my work, these friends help me improve my writing and art. They recommend books, articles and courses on the craft. They support me when I’m doubting my talent or find life has sprinkled speed bumps in my lane.
Let the road be winding. I’ve traded in my motorcycle for a comfy school bus. My friends are on board. We’ve got a good map and will sing show tunes along the way.
I’m with my pack and feeling good!
Elisa Kleven is an award-winning author and illustrator of over 30 books for children. Her picture books include one of my all-time favorites THE PAPER PRINCESS (Dutton, 1994). The story is beautifully paired with Elisa’s mixed-media collage illustrations that create a world filled with light, joy, and an abundance of details for readers to discover.
In the story, a little girl makes a paper doll. But before she can finish, the paper princess is picked up by the wind and sent on an unexpected journey. What has kept the book fresh in my mind after two decades are three words that the paper princess boldly calls out to her maker.
WHOOSH! The wind sent the princess flying.
“Wait!” The girl chased after her. “I didn’t finish you!”
“I’ll finish myself!” the princess called in a voice as thin and new as she was.
“I’ll finish myself!” How brave!
Virginia: Elisa, I want to thank you for bringing the paper princess to life! Can you tell me about the origins of the story?
Elisa: The story began in my own childhood. Growing up in Los Angeles, I spent hours drawing and cutting out paper dolls, and making up stories about them. Sometimes, on windy days, one of my paper characters would blow away. As it disappeared in the sky, I wondered how it would fare in the world, who it would meet, where it might end up, and whether it would ever find its way back to me.
The story also captures the feeling I have as an author-illustrator. Like the girl who creates the paper princess, I put a lot of love and details into my books. One day, when they are “finished," I send them off into the world. Each time a reader opens a book, my work is finished anew, like the paper princess. The book becomes enriched by the act of being read, and readers are collaborating with me as they bring their own experiences and interpretation to the story.
Virginia: Your mother, Lorraine Art Schneider, was also an artist who packed big ideas into small packages. Can you tell us how her life and work has inspired you?
Elisa: My mother was an etcher and a print maker. Her prints were embossed, which means that she added textures and materials to the plate (the surface on which the prints are printed). She would collect all sorts of found materials -- scraps of metal, broken bits of machinery -- and form new shapes from them. I grew up watching an artist turn throwaway objects into magical, lively new works. As a collage artist, I also collect bits and pieces of scraps -- softer, more delicate materials than my mother used, to be sure. However, the process of creating a new assemblage is similar.
In the early sixties, my mother created a small etching, the "War is not healthy for children and other living things" sunflower image, which was later adopted by the group Another Mother for Peace as their logo. The original etching was smaller than two by two inches. My mom packed a lot into that small space. I also work on a very small scale, often filling every inch of my paper with details (though I have yet to create a powerful anti-war slogan).
My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was eleven, and died a few weeks after my fourteenth birthday, but her potent image went on to have a very public life.
Virginia: How has writing stories about loss helped you grieve, or understand your mother’s life in a new way?
Elisa: I'm not sure if it has helped me understand my mother's life in a new way, but I suppose it has helped me grieve. My stories are a way of making sense of certain losses, and they have given me the opportunity to give sad, real life events a happy ending. For instance, after I wrote THE PAPER PRINCESS, I realized that I was talking about my own young life. Like the paper doll, I had to go out into the world without my artist "maker" before I was quite finished, and far from ready.After my mother passed away, I did a lot of travelling at an early age. I stayed with a wonderful Danish farm family and studied at crafts schools on the East Coast. By letting the paper doll return to the girl "who made her" at the end of the story, I fulfilled a deep wish of my own, in symbolic language. The paper doll reunites with her maker at the end, and the maker gets to enjoy the princess, who has become wiser and more complete. Another loss I reconciled with in the story was the death of my brother, who I was able to bring back as the character of the girl’s "brother in the meadow." "My grandmother, Eva Art, was a sculptor, and, like my mom, a great inspiration to me. During the Holocaust, she lost her parents and seven brothers. Years later she was able to re-create her long lost friends and relatives, forming their likenesses out of clay. They emerged just as she remembered them, hugging their children, reading their books, patiently knitting their socks. She was able to turn loss and nothingness into tender beauty and life.
Virginia: For authors, who are trying to write stories about events in their childhood that were profoundly important, do you have any advice?
Elisa: Just write about the events, if you can. If they loom too large or are too overwhelming, try to put them in symbolic language. For instance, turn a real life bully into some kind of ridiculous monster. Looking at my losses was like staring at the sun, but over time they worked their way through my mind and into my hands in the form of a fairy tale(s) and pictures.
Virginia: Any advice for the not-yet-published author or illustrator?
Elisa: Read a lot. Try to write and draw each day. Stay open to all kinds of experience. Don't think of anything as too trivial to serve as the inspiration for a story. My book THE PUDDLE PAIL was inspired by the sight of a striped fence reflected in a rain puddle. The idea for THE LION AND THE LITTLE RED BIRD came to me as I observed a real lion's tail, and noticed how similar it looked to a paint brush.
Virginia: Thank you so much, Elisa, for sharing your stories and your heart with us. You inspire me to tackle the important stories in my life—to allow my writing to be honest and vulnerable.
As authors and illustrators, we are all on a mysterious and treacherous journey, and, while we have our communities of support, we also face these challenges alone. I hope when life and/or writing is difficult we can summon the paper princess’s courageous spirit and continue to grow.
Just a few of Elisa Kleven’s amazing picture books:
THE APPLE DOLL, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007
GLASSWINGS, A BUTTERFLY STORY, Dial 2013
THE LION AND THE LITTLE RED BIRD, Puffin 1996
THE PAPER PRINCESS, Puffin, 1998
THE PUDDLE PAIL, Tricycle Press, 2007
SUN BREAD, Puffin, 2004
For more information about the author, you can visit her website at http://www.elisakleven.com/
For more information about Lorraine Art Schneider, visit http://anothermother.org/
For more information about Eva Art, visit http://www.papertigers.org/wordpress/authors-remember-their-grandparents-my-grandma-eva-and-what-she-found-in-clay-by-elisa-kleven/
This month I made a New Year’s resolution to learn about Scrivener’s benefits and decide if it was worth the investment in time and money.
Here’s what I discovered:
Cost—Scrivener costs $40 to download. They offer a free 30-day trial and free online tutorial. (It’s 30 days of actual use, rather than 30 consecutive days.)
Learning Curve— It took me under four hours to complete Scrivener’s tutorial. For the most part, I found it pretty straight forward. FYI--I’m not particularly tech-savvy.
The training is a written document (not a video), but you complete exercises as you’re learning. Later I printed the 52-page PDF for reference.
After finishing the tutorial, I found it easy to upload and format my 5,000-word manuscript into Scrivener’s Binder system. The longer the manuscript, the longer this will take you.
I had little difficulty using the simple features, like Snapshot, but I’m still struggling with some of the more obscure ones like Meta-tags.
Benefits—Scrivener admits it’s most useful for first drafts.
If you’re writing a book with many scenes, the program makes it super easy to rearrange their order. This ability comes from Scrivener’s organizational Binder system and Corkboard view. It’s as easy as rearranging slides in Powerpoint.
As you work, you have the option of selecting a particular scene, chapter or the entire manuscript to edit, export or print. At the bottom of the screen, Scrivener provides the word count for that selection. Useful if you want all your chapters to be equal length.
Scrivener also acts as a storage space for all my research (Excel files, movies, audio clips, etc.). Here, in the Research folder, Scrivener provides Character and Setting profile templates. They aren’t elaborate, but I can customize them. And I can view my research, while I’m writing, by taking advantage of Scrivener’s easy-to-use, split-screen technology.
My favorite feature is Snapshot. At any time, I can take a Snapshot of a scene or chapter. These Snapshots are saved automatically and labeled with the date. I can add a title and later access these Snapshots with just two clicks. Scrivener’s Split-Screen technology allows me to compare a Snapshot to my current version. Reverting to an earlier version takes one click. The only negative is that I must remember to take the Snapshot before revising.
I also like the Comments feature. I’m writing a chapter book. In red, I’m highlighting all the words that are above my target audience’s grade. Then in the Comments I’m indicating what grade these words are considered appropriate for. In yellow I’m highlighting words and passages that my critique group members have suggested I change, but that I’m still unsure how to fix. There are as many colors as I need. When I export or print, I can tell Scrivener to remove the Comments/highlights.
Scrivener also lets me indicate a Status for my scenes, for instance, first draft, revised draft, final draft. Or I can add a Label. I might create a Label “Anger” and then use it to identify all the scenes where my protagonist gets frustrated to see if there is a satisfying build and arc.
I’ve just started using this program, but I’m already singing its praises. If you’ve been using it for a while, let me know what your favorite features are. Anyone use those pesky Meta-tags? If you’re just starting out, pick a month when you have the luxury of time. It’s probably not something you want to take on during NaNoWriMo.
Good luck and let me know what you think!