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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.

continued from previous post

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.

“But why?”

“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.

continued from previous post

Explaining the second contradiction—write only for others; write only for yourself—Kate quoted the phrase “What aileth thee?” A writer must ask this question and then answer it. She must ask others what ails them, then reach for the “heart of humanity”, the universal emotions that bond us all.

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.”

continue to the final part

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.

continued from previous post

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:

  1. Be absolutely rigid; Be loosey-goosey.
  2. Write only for others; Write only for yourself.
  3. Hide yourself; Reveal yourself.
  4. Compromise; Never compromise.
  5. 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?

continue to part III

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.

My daughter with Kate DiCamillo

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…

continue to the next part …

As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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