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I awoke this morning and thought, “What a fine day for a new blog post.” Of course, I also thought, “What a fine day to go swimming” and “What a fine day to finish reading that book.” Sensing that I have packed today’s schedule, I decided that said blog post would have to be ultra-short. (I would have said “uber” short, but that word has been bogarted by some taxi service.)
So here I have pieced together quick quotes and sage snippets from the SCBWI events I attended in the spring—New England SCBWI and New Jersey SCBWI.
I hope you enjoy while I do the backstroke with a soggy book.
“A picture book is an amazing thing, a world unto itself. You can do anything in those 32 pages and that is the thing I love about it.” ~David Wiesner
“As I create, I am continually asking myself ‘why is this happening?’ You know you are desperate when you go to the ‘magic button’ solution.” ~David Wiesner
“Be nice. Be resilient. Set goals. Adapt & learn. Your biggest achievement is just around the corner.” ~Jarrett J. Krosoczka
“Don’t do a $50 job like a $50 job, you’ll get $50 jobs your whole life. Do it like a $500 job and you’ll start getting those.” ~Jarrett J. Krosoczka
“It’s not necessarily ‘write what you know.’ Write what you want to know ABOUT. The passion for that subject will come through.” ~Wendy Mass
“When it comes to the nitty gritty marketing of your book, always remember, something is better than nothing.” ~Laurie Wallmark
“A postcard is the best way to get our attention. I get 60 emails a day…it’s too much. I like the tactile nature of a postcard. I love feeling them and looking at them…if they hit anything in me, I keep them.” ~Laurie Brennan, Associate Art Director, Viking
“Characters who make interesting mistakes are inherently interesting. The kind of mistakes your character makes defines her. How a character acts in the wake of a mistake should be unique and personal to her. Failure is fertilizer: a world of things can grow from the mistakes your character makes. Someone who is always right is BORING.” ~Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
“I wanted to write a book where my daughter could see herself—that’s me!” ~Suzy Ismail
“Writing from a multicultural perspective is no different than writing. All writing is about crossing boundaries.” ~Suzy Ismail quotes Debby Dahl Edwardson
And, finally, my favorite quote…which is still making me think long and hard:
“How are you creating a literary world besides being a literary creator?” ~Donalyn Miller
Every year the NJ-SCBWI conference holds a Juried Art Show for illustrators. Back in 2013, the theme was “Down the Rabbit Hole”. I strolled the exhibit and stopped in my tracks at this image:
How marvelous is this? It immediately reminded me of Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge series, with field mice living in homes carved into the trees.
These bunnies were so busy in every room of their carrot cave, so much motion and expression and general giggly cuteness. Just delightful. The illustration made me smile. I took note of the illustrator’s name, Jason Kirschner, and vowed to seek him out that weekend.
I’m always looking for talented new illustrators. After all, an illustrator makes my words and characters come alive. They make me look good. I want the best artists to break into the business so that one day I might be able to work with them.
I’d like to think that Jason and I hit it off. We became friends. (Note: I did fall at his feet. Literally. But quite by accident.) He won the Juried Art Show in the unpublished category and became noted as an up-and-comer. He soon landed an agent. And I am so pleased that his debut picture book, MR. PARTICULAR, will be published next month…and that he’s chosen to premiere the trailer right here, right now!
Picky kids everywhere, rejoice! Your choosy champion is swinging into action–as long as there’s nothing sticky or gooey in sight. In Jason’s hilarious debut, this discriminating daredevil wants to save the day, but he’s got a few rules and restrictions to work around first. Any kid who pushes peas around his plate is gonna relate.
The story is funny and soaked to the core with truths about particular kids. We all know them and their demands. Why it took so long to recognize them in a picture book, I’ll never know. But, luckily, MR. PARTICULAR was a 2013 PiBoIdMo idea!
Here’s the proof:
The other interesting thing about Jason, besides being a former Art Director for Late Night with David Letterman, is that he has twins. And those twins provided the voice-overs for the trailer. I decided to ask the talent a few questions…
Mr. Particular is one persnickety person. How did you prepare for this challenging role?
[Abe]: I am already persnickety, so I didn’t have to do any preparing.
Your fans will want to know, as twins, are you anything alike? Who is the more particular of the pair?
[Syd]: Abraham is more particular and some similarities are that we both like to go swimming and we both love pizza and ice cream cake and finally we both LOVE Harry Potter.
Why do you recommend kids and parents read Mr. Particular?
[Syd]: Parents might want to relate Mr. Particular to their kids and kids might want to read Mr. Particular because there are some funny parts and some exciting parts which makes it more fun to read.
[Abe]: The parents might want to read Mr. Particular to their kids so that they can teach them that it is okay to be particular.
Congratulations on MR. PARTICULAR, Jason, and on having such smart and funny kiddos.
Everyone, be on the lookout for this particular picture book on May 10th from Sterling!
This morning I thought I was still at the NJ-SCBWI Summer Conference because I stumbled downstairs expecting to find fresh-baked coffee cake and a fruit platter. Instead, I found a slumbering adolescent who never got up for middle school and missed the bus. Hence, I was rudely thrust back into the life of a mom. Sigh. So I decided to ignore my life for a while and write this post. Relive the glory days!
The weekend was chock full of good friends, like author extraordinaire Tammi Sauer, whom I’ve known for SEVEN YEARS but had never met in person. I wanted to make a good impression upon her, so I picked her up from the airport…and then proceeded to get hopelessly lost in Newark. We did spy a ’57 Chevy during one of our dozen-or-so U-turns, so perhaps all was not lost.
And then, we got cut off by a rumbling, muffler-roaring Racini. RACINI, PEOPLE! Only in Jersey.
Of course, there were also the usual suspects present: Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, Kami Kinard, Marcie Colleen, Ame Dyckman, Adam Lehrhaupt, our fearless RA Leeza Hernandez, and newly-signed talents like Jason Kirschner, Colleen Rowan Kosinski and Kelly Calabrese. (For those of you with bets in the pool, Ame’s hair shone bright blue this year, bordering on periwinkle, stylishly accented with a coral red bow.)
Katya Szewczuk from KidlitTV let us know that her last name is pronounced “Shove Chuck.” Sadly, Chuck Palahniuk was not in attendance. What a fight club that would have been! (P.S. Isn’t Katya adorable? I call her Ame Dyckman Jr.)
Carrie Charley Brown, Kirsti Call, Lori Degman and Robin Newman were there, too…but the Witherspoon Grill couldn’t get us a table for 10. For shame! But they did get us a bottle of Prosecco. Next time, it should be on the house.
My editor from Sterling, the smart and lovely Meredith Mundy, made an appearance with a stack of NORMAL NORMAN cover designs from which to choose. Tammi, an author of eight Sterling titles, offered her expert opinion, too. And guess what? We all agreed on two favorites. (Now do we eeny-meeny-miney-mo?)
I only saw critique partners Corey Rosen-Schwartz and Mike Allegra briefly. I waved to Mike from my post at the registration table. Then he promptly dissolved into the crowd. This became a new picture book idea. Thanks, Mike!
So I bet you’re like ENOUGH ALREADY, TARA. GET TO THE NUGGETS.
Opening Keynote by Denise Fleming
Denise encouraged us to find out what age we really are. No, this isn’t a plug for how-old.net. Go back to your childhood and discover the age of your true voice. Denise never aged past Kindergarten. Me, I’m perpetually 8.
So that’s what you write. Dig down to emerge as a child, forever locked in a state of wonder.
Denise told us an impromptu paper-making class inspired her to choose this art form as her picture book medium. She evolved from precise watercolor paintings to a more loose, bold, colorful style. HER STYLE. Her illustrations set her apart. She asked us to ponder what makes us each unique. You’ve got to offer something different and not be like everyone else. Stand out, don’t blend in.
Oh, by the way, Denise thinks you’re pretty.
Writing Picture Books that Sell! by Tammi Sauer
With 23 contracts in 10 years, you’ve got to listen to and respect Tammi’s advice. She presented her top 12 tips for picture books, citing from her titles as examples. The quirkiest thing I found out is that she loves to use the name “Louise.”
Tammi recommends reading A LOT of picture books. You will begin to absorb information about their structure and format without even realizing! This knowledge will then seep into your manuscripts.
Tammi also wants us to write titles that POP. Up the tension in your stories and use words that SING.
Me? My name sings. I shall hereforthto be known as Tra-la-la Lazar.
Writing Mainstream (BUT COOL!) Picture Books by Ame Dyckman and Adam Lehrhaupt
This dynamic duo demonstrated a lot of energy, pizzazz and “special sauce.” No, we’re not talking about McD’s. Their “cream of creativity” is a mixture of unique elements that add up to writing a hook-y, mainstream winner. Slather on your own writing style, stir in heart and humor, and you will concoct a winning picture book recipe.
But remember, that’s just the sauce—an accent. Your picture book still needs meat! Pick popular subjects, relatable situations and age-appropriate “big picture” messages to make your story its most delish.
Thinking Outside the Box to Market Your Book with Jen Malone
I call this presentation “How to Sell Your Book Without Being Creepy.” As natural introverts, we writers don’t like going outside to deal with “people and weather.” We abhor the uncomfortable, used-car-like sales pitch. We don’t want to plaster the interwebs with “BUY MY BOOK!” Ick.
So what’s an author to do? Jen presented unique, creative ways to market by simply being you. Look outside your own book community to find opportunities for connections. Offer others what they want and they might just offer what YOU WANT—an introduction to a new audience. Jen has been doing work with the Girl Scouts and a famous bakery to reach her target audience, tween girls. (And, there are CUPCAKES involved. Win, win, stuff yer face.)
7 Revision Tips to Take your PB from WAAH to WOW! by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Marcie Colleen
Don’t let the high-heels distract you. These two PB experts offer furlongs of fabulous advice. (Furlongs? I gotta stop the alliteration.)
They emphasized reviewing your picture book to ensure visual variety. This refers to textual elements as well as compositional ones. Think story AND layout. Think page turns. Think scene changes. Dump anything that’s repetitive or passive without purpose.
Is Your PB Worthy? by Marie Lamba
Oh, how I regret not getting a photo of Marie hugging her presentation easel. Adorbs.
Marie, an author and agent, bubbles with enthusiasm for picture books. She brought some of her all-time favorites to share and exclaimed, “Isn’t that HILARIOUS?” while doubled over in laughter.
We all want that—a reader who loves our book five, ten, even 20 years after first reading it. So how do we get that?
Be different. Don’t just write the first idea that comes to mind. Write five ideas. Then another five. Use the tenth one. Applying this tip from Donald Maass means you’ll arrive upon something no one has done.
Marie also shared the top 10 mistakes she sees in picture book submissions. For example, she doesn’t want to see “just a schtick.” (Don’t you LOVE Yiddish words?)
Your picture book can be ridiculous, but quirky humor isn’t enough. She cited her own manuscript about a girl who wears gloves on her feet and pretends she’s a monkey. It’s cute and funny, but it’s not enough. Marie didn’t have a story, she had a schtick. Your manuscript needs a plot to matter.
Other common errors include rhyming NO MATTER WHAT and writing a slice-of-life vignette—a set-up instead of a story.
Sunday Morning Keynote:
Top 10 Things You Need to Know About the Children’s/YA Market by Harold Underdown
Harold! You have to love him. (You have to follow his Purple Crayon website!) He’s bursting with kidlit experience and wisdom.
First, he told us some great news: the children’s publishing market rose 20% last year!
Hard copy books are not disappearing and ebooks are not replacing them. In fact, the ebook market has hit a plateau and represents only 15% of the children’s market, but that number leans heavily toward YA. Picture books are preffered in hard copy by a wide margin.
Bookstores (both online and brick-and-mortar) are now the biggest sales channel (40%), as opposed to schools and libraries in years past.
Know that diverse books are hot and that writers and publishers are taking this issue seriously.
YA remains a boom area, MG is very healthy and PBs are experiencing renewed interest. Some are even calling this time “the golden age of picture books.”
However, Howard emphasized that you should always do your best work and not focus on what’s hot. This is what will get you published.
Marrying the Right Manuscript with the Right Publisher by Steve Meltzer
Steve is a welcomed, popular mainstay at NJ-SCBWI. He emphasized doing your research when searching for a publisher. It’s important to seek out comparable titles published within the last three years, those that are of a similar subject and format, but not famous or mega-selling. No one’s gonna believe your series is the next Harry Potter. Query with a reasonable comp, not an outrageous claim.
The Changing Face of Humor in Picture Books by Steve Meltzer
Do I even have to talk about this? Steve and I disagree. I respect his opinion immensely, but I think a popular recent title missed the mark and had opportunity for so much more humor than it presented. He nudged me on the lunch line, “It’s a great book.” I topped my salad with bleu cheese and thought about it.
How to Be a Writer Without Losing Your Mind by John Cusick
John Cusick said much about life as a writer and agent, how he uses an Iron Man figurine on his desk to distinguish agent-time from writer-time, and how to balance our life roles.
He reminded us that our job is to “sit down and start.” Don’t worry about writing the whole book. Write a little bit for now. (This resonated with me. I tend to panic about writing AN ENTIRE NOVEL when I should really just put one word in front of the other.)
Also, no one cares if you stop writing. YOU MUST be the motivator.
Have a writing friend you can complain to…and let them know that this is their purpose. (Not their sole purpose, of course. We all need to kvetch and we need a kvetch catcher.)
Bottom line, it’s irrational and childish to make things up for a living. It’s crazy-making. So embrace it. Be crazy. It’s crazy that anything can be this good!
“Don’t worry about being normal because what you do is extraordinary,” John said.
I couldn’t agree more. How about you?
Wanna know how I got published? The NJ chapter of SCBWI is to thank. I began attending their events years ago, soaking up all the craft knowledge and publishing tips I could like a piece of garlic bread hungrily sops up the last bits of gravy (yes, my Italian grandmother called it gravy, not sauce).
This year the conference will be held June 28 & 29 in Plainsboro, NJ at the Crowne Plaza/Holiday Inn Conference Center. (Hmm, I wonder if they’ll be serving pasta with gravy?)
Hope to see you there!
It’s NOVEMBER ALREADY?
Well, almost. October will whip by in a sugar-induced haze. Especially because a) I’ll buy candy way too early and eat it all; and b) my kids will change their minds about their Halloween costumes umpteen times. “I wanna be Frankie Stein! No, Draculaura! No, a zombie mermaid! Ooh, I know, a picture book author! I can trick-or-treat in my jammies with a story stuck to my forehead! You’re sorta like a zombie, right, Mommy?”
October is NOT the month of jack-o-lanterns, candy corn (BLECH!) and costumes. It’s the month of PiBoIdMo-eve!
Our 5th anniversary logo, banners and badges have been designed by the kawaii-cutie, author-illustrator Joyce Wan.
Joyce knows my penchant for hot-air balloons. (My husband almost proposed on one. But I think he was afraid I’d drop the ring.)
So this year’s theme is IDEAS TAKING FLIGHT!
WAIT A MINUTE! DID THE BANNER UP TOP SAY 5TH ANNIVERSARY?!
Yep, it sure did. Which means I’ll have to come up with something super-snazzy for this year. So how ’bout JANE YOLEN?
Besides the legendary Ms. Yolen, here are some of the authors and illustrators who’ll be blogging all November long, helping you to fill your idea notebook with 30 picture book concepts:
- Drew Daywalt
- Michael Garland
- Melissa Guion
- Leeza Hernandez
- Lenore & Daniel Jennewein
- Renee Kurilla
- Mike Allegra
- Elizabeth Rose Stanton
- Bitsy Kemper
- Julie Falatko
- Adam Lehrhaupt
- Wendy Martin
- The McQueen Brothers
- Pat Miller
- Pat Zietlow Miller
- Anne Marie Pace
- Betsy Devany
- Paul Schmid
- Annette Simon
- Tammi Sauer
- Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
- Kami Kinard
- Dianne de las Casas
- Dorina Lazo Gilmore
- James Proimos
- Marcie Colleen
- Karen Henry Clark
- Maria Gianferrari
- Laurie Keller
- Katie Davis
- Ryan Sias
- Zachariah Ohora
- Kelly Light
- Steve Barr
- Greg Pizzoli
And even more to be announced…
Official registration will begin on this blog on OCTOBER 24th and run through NOVEMBER 4th. Watch for it! (It’s easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy if you just follow this blog. See left column.) Only officially registered participants will be eligible for PRIZES, like a consultation with a picture book agent!
But you can grab the “Official Participant” Badge NOW and proudly slap it on your blog or social network site. Kindly link it back to taralazar.com/piboidmo so folks know where to join the challenge. You can also grab the “Ideas Taking Flight!” slogan above.
And here’s some adorbs lightbulb balloons! Use them when you’re blogging about PiBoIdMo to express yourself!
The only thing that’s missing is the PiBoIdMo 2013 merchandise to benefit RIF—like your official idea notebook—so I’ll be announcing that soon.
In the meantime, let us know how YOU’RE gearing up for PiBoIdMo. Blog about it or leave a comment below. What are you looking forward to this November?
Me? Tonight I’m hosting one of NJ-SCBWI’s PiBoIdMo kick-off parties at the Manville Public Library. Maybe I’ll see some of you there? I promise I won’t be a zombie.
The title of this blog post is a misnomer because no one has a crystal iPhone to see into the future. All I can report upon is what I heard at the NJ-SCBWI conference this past weekend. But I can say with certainty there is good news, not portents of doomsday.
In fact, according to Steven Meltzer, Associate Publisher/ Executive Managing Editor at Penguin Group USA, with every new technology, from the gramophone to the radio to the TV, came a prediction of the book’s demise. But the book continued to thrive and grow despite innovative forms of electronic entertainment. And today, Americans purchase 8 million physical books daily. In the 4th quarter of 2011, Amazon’s sales of physical books rose by double digits. It surprised them, too. But you cannot give an ebook as a holiday gift. Well, you can, but there’s nothing to wrap—and more importantly—unwrap. So physical books won out in the season of giving. Plus e-book sales remain a relatively small percentage of book purchases: 26% of adult fiction and 11% of children’s books.
Moreover, 74% of today’s readers have never even read an e-book, and 14% of those who own an e-reader have never read a book on it. The digital book market, despite what seems to be the e-reader’s ubiquity, is in a nascent stage.
Stacey Williams-Ng, author of the digital book ASTROJAMMIES and founder of Little Bahalia, a book app developer, also demonstrated how poorly imagined some digital books currently are. A swipe of the finger on an iPad screen blew the wind in one book, but the same motion also turned the page. This meant a child playing with the app could be easily frustrated with the next page when they really wanted to manipulate a tornado.
Also problematic, the vertical orientation of most e-readers creates double the page turns of traditional picture books, throwing off the timing of a story. Creating digital horizontal spreads is preferred, but then you’re also dealing with a much smaller version of the original. Sometimes the solution is to make digital books (that do not have a hardcopy counterpart) shorter than the traditional 32-page picture book.
But Williams-Ng learned the hard way it’s difficult to do traditional promotion with a digital book. She has a great relationship with her local bookseller, but when it came time to do an ASTROJAMMIES appearance, she realized she had no physical book for the store to sell. Moreover, there was nothing to sign. Williams-Ng warned, “You need a hardcopy book to sell the digital book.” She self-published the hardcopy version of her digital creation so she didn’t have to wait years to find a traditional publisher.
Right now there are three main forms of e-books: e-pubs, which are similar to PDF files and have re-flowing text (which means you can change text format and size); enhanced e-books, which are e-pub with embedded features like audio and video; and book apps, which can be anything that can be programmed, from a movie to a game and beyond. “The sky’s the limit with book apps,” said Williams-Ng.
However, the Big 6 are picking and choosing which picture books to digitize; one publisher is no longer making e-pubs of their entire list because most e-books do not sell. The ones that are popular now are the classics like Dr. Seuss—books everyone knows. A new picture book has to lend itself to interactivity for a publisher to consider the book app investment, which can run approximately $25,000, according to Williams-Ng. So if you, as an author, WANT to have a digital book, you should think about interactivity at the very start of your creative process.
Digital publishing is about five years behind the music business in terms of figuring out new distribution and pricing models. In 2011, digital music sales surpassed physical music sales for the first time. Album sales were up for the first time since 2004. The industry is adapting. Publishing will adapt as well.
Steven Meltzer believes picture book sales will escalate because parents will buy a hardcopy book for the home, and if their child enjoys it, they’ll purchase the digital version for their mobile device. “Bundling is coming, too,” he said, referring to the practice of selling a hardcopy and digital book together at a discounted price. “It’s good news for picture book authors.” (Insert Snoopy dance.)
So what’s next for digital books? The future could be digital readers with foldable layers, multi-screened with high definition graphics. The future might even be Xenotext: “encoding textual information into genetic nucleotides, thereby creating ‘messages’ made from DNA—messages that we can then implant, like genes, inside cells, where such messages persist, undamaged and unaltered, through myriad cycles of mitosis, all the while preserved for later recovery and decoding.”
“Remember M.T. Anderson’s FEED?” Meltzer asked. “Wouldn’t it be ironic to be fed FEED?”
No matter what the future holds, “people are still writing and reading…ain’t nothing ever going to change that.”
Thanks, Mr. Meltzer, I needed that reassurance.
This is the fourth in a series of posts about the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference. Visit all this week for insights from this first-class children’s book writing event.
The first piece of Kate’s final writerly contradiction—listen to what others say; don’t listen—was demonstrated by a conversation between Kate and her agent, Holly McGhee.
Kate finished a picture book manuscript and sent it off to Holly. The conversation began with Holly:
Kate didn’t understand. “Huh?”
“No.” Holly repeated.
“I don’t care about the main character.” Holly didn’t even think it was a picture book. “This is a novel,” she said.
Slowly Kate realized that Holly was right. Kate wanted to write a picture book but a picture book is not what emerged. Deep down, she knew it was something more, but darn it, she wanted it to be a picture book. She was trying to get away with something, but Holly caught her.
Kate then explained “don’t listen” by circling back to the time after she had released THE TIGER RISING and BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, two southern novels. She received many accolades. People loved her work.
So she began to write another “novel set in the south about nothing really at all,” like her two previous books. Once people loved her work, she felt compelled to continue along the same vein. She wanted everyone to keep loving her. But what was coming out was not genuine. The love and joy and play in her writing was gone. She was forcing herself to create something she did not want to write. And all to please everyone else, not herself. (Remember contradiction #2?)
Instead, she began a fairytale about a princess and a mouse. She showed it to a trusted friend. The response? “It’s not what you do best.”
Again, people expected her to write a southern novel.
But she pressed on. The princess and mouse was where her heart led her, and that is where she would remain. “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”
Damning those torpedoes was an excellent decision, for THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX won the Newbery.
In the end, Kate DiCamillo assured us that a life of a writer can be “terrible beyond all imagining, but it will be okay.” Another contradiction. We know this business is tough, but we still choose to write because we can’t NOT write.
I, for one, will try to embrace the terror from now on, because that’s what writing is—being in the depths of the unknown…and yet in a constant state of discovery. The final contradiction.
This is the third in a series of posts about the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference. Visit all this week for insights from this enlightening children’s book writing event.
She repeated a story about Kafka walking in the park and encountering a little girl who was crying. He asked “what aileth thee” and discovered she had lost her doll. Kafka told the little girl not to worry, that her doll was fine. “How do you know?” the girl asked. “Because I have a letter from her telling me so.” Kafka promised the girl he’d return the next day with the letter, which he went home to write. In fact, he wrote an entire series of letters for the girl. The letters explained that the doll appreciated all the girl had done for her, but it was time for the doll to be on her own.
A writer’s purpose is to deliver the truth, yet make the truth bearable. The little girl was never to reunite with her doll, but at least she knew the doll was having a good time on her journey and was doing well without the girl.
At the same time the writer is comforting humanity, the writer must not write to anyone else’s whims. Not write to the market trends. Not write to please anyone else. In order to grab the truth, the writer must write what is in his or her heart. In doing so, the joy and love of the words will flow honestly, truthfully, genuinely.
But when writing the truth, the writer can be pained, digging into their own dark vault of emotions. The writer must be naked to the world. And this is when the third contradiction is borne: you must encase yourself in armor to survive the raw emotions, but you must take the armor off in order to write.
You must expose yourself—“here is my heart”—but never let the reader know you are writing about yourself.
Kate’s friend in the theatre said that you must “allow 50% of the audience to hate you”, for that is when you can reveal the hard truths.
When speaking about compromising yet never compromising, Kate said that the story in your head is always better than the one you actually create. Therefore, the very first words you write are already a contradiction. They will never be as good as you imagine.
But as you move on and submit your work, there will be people who ask you to change things—your critique group, your agent, your editor. You have to bend but you also have to know when it’s not time to compromise.
Kate told a story about a picture book manuscript that was due to be published. She wanted to leave the last two spreads wordless, but her editor did not agree. The editor had her write some final words to go with the spreads. Meanwhile, as they were waiting for the illustrator, her editor left and a new one was assigned. Three years had passed. Kate looked at the manuscript again and hated it. The words at the end were all wrong. She told her agent they had to pull the deal. She eventually discussed her displeasure with the editor. The editor didn’t like the last lines either. The outcome was that the final spread was left wordless.
This is why you have to bend but know when not to. It’s a fine line, but “if your heart, soul and mind are in it then you’ll know where the line is.”
This is the second in a series of posts about the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference. Visit all this week for insights from this incredible children’s book writing event.
After seven years, Kate decided she wanted to live a life in which she was always making art. She had fear as a writer, especially in revision, but instead of the terror paralyzing her any longer, it motivated her.
Kate introduced writing’s first contradiction: “you go on a long journey but stay in the same place.” The writing can take you anywhere, but you are still a lonely writer sitting at a keyboard.
Kate explained that a career in writing means you have to “chart a course through the contradictions.” She revealed five pieces of contradictory writing truths:
- Be absolutely rigid; Be loosey-goosey.
- Write only for others; Write only for yourself.
- Hide yourself; Reveal yourself.
- Compromise; Never compromise.
- Listen to what other people say; Don’t listen.
Kate had a good friend Oscar during that not-writing-but-wanting-to-be-a-writer seven-year stretch. One day they discussed belief in miracles and Kate told Oscar that she wanted to be a writer.
“Baby, that don’t take a miracle. That’s all on you,” Oscar said.
She had never realized that the whole of the task was on her. You have to do what you promise yourself. After years of brooding, she came to know that it was “easier to do the work than to NOT do the work.” Just in case we didn’t get it, she repeated this several times.
Yes, art and fear always go together. The constant feeling of uncertainty creates a tolerance for uncertainty. In other words, embrace the terror. It’s a prerequisite for success.
As I sat in the balcony, I had my own epiphany. Writing picture books is my comfort zone. My middle grade novel has been sitting untouched for more time than I’m willing to reveal. And it’s languishing out of pure fear: fear of ruining what I already adore, fear of not knowing what comes next, fear of writing more than 600 words IN A ROW. Why have I not embraced the fear before? Kate DiCamillo says she never works with an outline; “an outline kills it.” She writes to know what happens next. And that’s how I write, too. I enjoy discovering the story as I write. But I thought writing a novel like that was WRONG. Now I understand that nothing is wrong, it’s just the way I like to work.
So when Kate says “be absolutely rigid”, she means to commit yourself to the work. But when she contradicts this advice with “be loosey-goosey” she means the stories want love and joy and play. Go ahead and write without an outline, don’t plot where you’re going and you’ll journey somewhere totally unexpected. She equates this first contradiction with standing at a door and knocking. You must stand there, but how you knock is up to you. Shave and a haircut? A rock riff? Gentle tapping? How will you knock?
This is the first post in a series about the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference, held in Princeton, NJ this past weekend, June 8-10. Visit all this week for insights from this stellar children’s book writing event.
Kate DiCamillo began her NJ-SCBWI keynote speech warning us that it was long and full of contradictory advice. I am certain no one minded. I mean, if you have an opportunity to hear Kate speak, wouldn’t you want it to last forever?
After college, Kate’s family asked, “So what are you going to do now?” Of course, the answer was simple: “I’m going to be a writer.” Simple and yet complicated—a contradiction. She didn’t have any desire to actually write, she just wanted to be a writer.
Instead, she worked in a greenhouse and came home with dirt crusted under her fingernails. Her mother would ask how her day went. “I’m a manual laborer!” Kate would yell. “How do you think my day went?!” Then she’d storm to her bedroom and slam the door.
After a few minutes, her mother would knock gently. “What are you doing now?” she’d ask.
“I’m writing,” Kate would answer. But Kate wasn’t writing, she was just sitting on her bed.
“I don’t hear anything,” responded her mother.
So Kate would turn on the typewriter with its gentle hum. “There! Are you happy now?”
But she let the typewriter hum away and sat on her bed, reading. The book that changed her life? It was THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST by Anne Tyler. One scene with Macon and Muriel lying in bed struck her:
“Just put your hand here [Muriel’s caesarian scar]. I’m scarred, too. We’re all scarred. You are not the only one.”
Those words made Kate want to get up off the bed and work that same magic. Those words transformed—they were broken-hearted but they also healed. Again, a contradiction. But one that Kate could not ignore.
So she began to look around her room. She watched the curtains flutter in the breeze and she noticed how their shadows looked like wings. She began to imagine a story about a woman who was paralyzed, lying motionless in bed, but staring at the same curtains and imagining how they could lift her up.
Kate began to write. Everything else disappeared. “It was like I was playing a piece of music I already knew, as if my fingers knew exactly what to do.”
But as soon as she realized her own dreary reality—a girl alone, sitting at a typewriter, she thought “wait—I can’t do this.” And she stopped writing.
The scary thing is that she realized this was the work she was meant to do. And the fear of that epiphany paralyzed her. She didn’t write for another seven years…