Steering the Craft

It’s been a struggle of mine from the beginning.  I love to learn, I’ll soak up every chance I find to hone my skills and expand my knowledge on writing for children.  I keep hitting the same roadblocks, however, and in my most honest moment yet… the biggest one is cost.  I desperately want to learn from the greats.  I would devour any and every piece of wisdom that these prolifically published authors can share if only I could afford it.  You may or may not understand the struggle, but for me, it’s become quite the ‘hamster wheel’.  How am I ever going to find success as a picture book writer if I don’t learn more from those who’ve done it well?  How am I ever going to be able to afford these courses if I don’t sell (a few) books first? But, I can’t sell books that aren’t sellable, so I need to improve… but in order to improve, I need to find a way to afford the fees… and on, and on, and on.

My first venture into the picture book world came by way of a deeply discounted webinar package that included a copy of Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books.  Since then I’ve remained on the hunt for the literary version of clearance rack deals: webinars offered at a discount, free courses and social media communities that offer guidance and expertise.  Truth be told, some of what I was hearing started feeling repetitive and I couldn’t help but feel that something big was missing from my toolbox though.  In a moment of clarity, I realized that I can hear the same lessons over and over and over again, taking something different from each… but only if my writing is good enough to handle the challenges.  I think I allowed myself to get so bogged down in writing the perfect picture book, that I jumped ahead of myself.  All my energy focused on the picture book end, and I am still missing key components of basic writing.

So, what do I do when I’m feeling down and discouraged? I take myself to the library!  Down at the very bottom of a shelf, taking up only a small section of space, I found the books on writing.  (Seems ironic to me, that in a building filled with writings, there were so few books on the topic, but I digress.)  I only had about ten options, and the attention span of my three cohorts was waning, so I quickly chose two and we checked out.  Fast forward to the following weekend and I realized that I held a gem in my hands.  One chapter in to Steering the Craft by Ursula K. le Guin and I ordered my own copy from Amazon. (On sale, no less!) I also stumbled upon an idea, and after sleeping on it and fleshing it out a bit, I created an online book study via Facebook.  There, a handful of critique partners, kindred spirits, new friends and I will take one chapter at a time, and reset our focus on basic writing skills.  (Are you interested? Email me or find me on Facebook if so… we start Oct 1!)

I think so highly of those who see a void and take actionable steps to fill it.  So, that’s what I’m trying to do with the book study, even if it’s only my own personal void.  I hope all the group members benefit from the book, I also hope we connect a bit more as a small community who can support each other on this journey. I have no doubt that my time and energy (and money) will be well spent, once I sharpen my skills a bit more. And there are numerous communities and opportunities out there at little/no cost to help writers along the way.  I’ve included a short list here of the ones I’ve found helpful… If you have other suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

  • Kid Lit College offers webinars for a small fee ($20-$40 range) and some have been incredibly helpful… one, in particular, ‘Be A Better Critique Partner’ by Heather Alexander I keep on repeat, for myself and my critiques.
  • On Facebook, a group called ‘Debut Picture Book Study’ takes one debut picture book each month and breaks it down and holds a discussion to help readers learn from it. I’ve not been able to participate as much as I’d like, but the conversations are enlightening and I’ve learned a good bit, even if from the fringes.
  • Susanna Hill’s blog is a treasure chest of all things Kid Lit, she runs many different series… ‘Would You Read it Wednesday’ is a great segment, that allows readers to submit their PB pitch and then allows other readers to comment/critique. Pitches are so important to the PB process and something I struggle with in a big way. I think I’m going to try… (update: I did it! I’m on the books for November 8!)
  • Podcasts! I’ve fallen in love with the wisdom these audio gems provide. I really need to start taking notes…
  • SCWBI’s webinar calendar offers a wide variety of topics and all are very well priced. I haven’t dug into these but I’m eager to do so.

I know there are other opportunities, some I’m not even familiar with yet (and some are going to be discussed in another post!) To wrap up, I want to include a quote from the Introduction of my new favorite book…

“A skill is something you know how to do.  Skill in writing frees you to write what you want to write…. Craft enables art.  There’s luck in art.  And there’s the gift.  You can’t earn that. But you can learn skill, you can earn it.  You can learn to deserve your gift… but first of all-it is an art, a craft, a making.  And that is the joy of it.  To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit.  To learn to make something well can take your whole life.  It’s worth it.”            

Ursula K. le Guin Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story 2015 edition, pg.xii

 

Here’s to leaning to deserve my gift, your gift, all our gifts.

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

PS- I have a couple of exciting interviews coming up! Stay tuned for the next couple of Tuesdays for an extra Let’s Talk posts (one of which is about a certain ‘PB How-To’ book I mentioned earlier!), and then soon after the October edition of Paper People with Liz Wong!

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Timesheet

The beauty of this whole writing life, is that it happens at my home, on my time, right?  So, despite the fact that I’m not getting paid for any of this time, otherwise, it’s a pretty sweet gig.  I couldn’t agree more, except it’s really not as easy as you think.  (Well, not YOU, because if you’re reading this then there’s a good chance you know what I’m talking about… I’m talking about non-writing folk).  I realized over the course of the past couple of weeks that I hit a wall.  Not a writer’s block kind of wall, one of those little brick half walls that takes some effort to climb over but allows you to see the other side?  My day job right now is also one that I do from home.  I’m a great self-motivator.  I’m goal oriented and I love deadlines.  I’m fairly efficient and feel confident that I can be effective at whatever is in front of me.  But I struggle so much with applying those same principles to my writing.  I decided enough was enough, I needed to traverse the wall and make some adjustments. Over the course of the past few days, I had some ‘Aha’ moments, that I think will prove to be significant.  In no particular order, here they are:

  1. I account for the time I get paid for from my employer, every minute of it and I can tell you how I spent my time and what I accomplished on any given day… looking back on my time spent writing, and I have no idea how much, or when, or what I’m working on. I am not keeping track of anything when it comes to my time spent writing. In fact, though I feel like I’m writing every day, I haven’t worked on a new manuscript or revised one of my WIP in quite some time.  Which leads me to my next revelation…
  2. Social Media is sucking my productive time! I don’t get on Facebook when I’m ‘on the clock’, I’m careful not to check Twitter or Instagram while I have a project to finish, but as soon as I start ‘writing’, I do. And not only that, I waste such precious time and scrolling mindlessly through that it zaps all of my creative energy and leaves me restless and unsettled.
  3. I used ‘writing’ in quotes just earlier because I’m actually not writing! I’ve not written anything in the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking of writing… intending to, planning on it, and carrying around a notebook, but except for a weekly blog post, nothing creative or productive has made it onto paper.

Mixed up in all of this, is a self-proclaimed ‘identity crisis’; but more on that another day.  (Trust me, it’s not nearly as dramatic as it seems.) With all this new awareness came the understanding that if I continue down this writing path, I need a process.  I can’t keep shooting from the hip, that’s not how I operate.  I don’t shoot from the hip in any area of life, (except parenting, I guess, but don’t we all?) my writing life should be no different.  I’ve established new rules for myself and am trying my very best to hold myself accountable to these…

  1. Set a goal each week for time spent writing… this week I aimed for 8 hours. I finished nowhere close, but I know that because I’ve started,
  2. Keeping track of when I write and what I’m doing, generally speaking at least. And now I have an idea of what I did accomplish and what I need to work on next, not to mention I have a goal to keep aiming for. And finally, probably most importantly,
  3. Limit social media time! I gave myself a very small allotment of time (2 hours/week), and I’m keeping track of how often/how long I spend on social media. On top of that, if I’m going to spend time perusing Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, I must be productive.  In some way, I must be building my network, watching a webinar, posting a critique… something productive, no mindless scrolling allowed.

So, here’s my time card for the week:

Monday, I spent 30minutes on Social media & 1-hour writing (which was actually, catching up on Storyteller Academy webinars)

Tuesday had 20 minutes of Social media time & 30 minutes writing (revisions of a manuscript, recording myself reading other manuscripts)

Wednesday looked a lot like Tuesday. (Completed my Master Studies homework for Storyteller Academy)

Thursday, unfortunately, had similar Social Media time, 30 minutes and ZERO writing minutes. (so, nothing to report here)

Friday, well I wrote this post on Friday, so that’s a good chunk of writing time, I also finished some major revisions on a delicious little manuscript I’ve been working on, and spent ZERO time on social media.  I’m giving myself 2 hours of writing credit and a pat on the back for staying on track.

That’s a grand total of four hours writing… 2 hours on Social Media, and the rest of it spent working, mom-ing, and wife-ing. Next week I’ll do better… I hope. It takes two weeks to create a new habit, right? Wish me luck.

*Important footnote- There is so much wonderful benefit to social media, the entire Kid Lit community resides there and we’re all just the click of a button or the touch of a screen away from each other.  I’m grateful for it!  I just need help with my own boundaries… I need more time being productive and less time perusing.  I think there will be a post expanding on this in the not too distant future.  Also, stay tuned for more on Storyteller Academy/Master Studies, my Querying Conundrum, Developing a Process and the above mentioned, Identity Crisis.

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

 

Paper People: Jason Kirschner

This month, I’m thrilled to share another great interview with you.  Jason Kirschner, author/illustrator of Mr. Particular was kind enough to ‘join me’ for a chat.  This book is just as captivating as last months only sillier and full of comic book charm. If you haven’t read Mr. Particular, you really should… like now… wait, actually, after the interview.  Here goes…

I’ll start with an icebreaker in honor of my southern roots, “Can I get you something to drink?”

Thank you kindly. I’m not a fancy drink kinda guy. I’m writing this about mid-morning so I’m still finishing my coffee which is fine for me.

Ahh, coffee is my trademark and quite possibly my first true love.  I’ve had people tell me that anytime they think of me, I have a mug in my hand.  I’ll gladly join you for a cup…or three.  Would you mind telling us a little about yourself, and how you started writing for children? 

At first, I really wanted to draw for children. I still do. I don’t care if it’s comics (my first love) or graphic novels or picture books. I’m a set designer by trade and the kind of sketches I do towards that end are radically different from what children’s illustrations should look like. I started to draw nightly, reinterpretations of old stories or new inventions in order to create a portfolio I could show around.  At a certain point, when I felt ready, I wanted to try a book dummy. Since I had no manuscripts to work from, I started making my own.  In retrospect, I should have just written out the words from any of the hundreds of books on my shelves and tried to illustrate those, but I tend to take the long way around.

 You still juggle a day job and a writing career.  Can you speak a little on that, and how you find time to juggle both of those and family life? 

I’m afraid I don’t do it very well yet. I start my day job pretty early in the morning so most of my drawing is at night after the kids are in bed. Admittedly, it’s not a great system because I’m pretty wiped by then. I do get a second wind though and push through most nights. Also, I’ve had the last couple of summers off while my shows have been on hiatus which is a nice chunk of time to work on book stuff.  I think I actually get more done when I have more on my plate. When I have absolutely nothing to do, I have a hard time getting started.  My studio is in our attic so if my kids ever forget what I look like, they just need to walk upstairs–which they do more often than you’d think. (Check out Jason’s post on ‘The Day Job Rule’ here)

I thought it was just my kids who don’t ‘need me’ when I’m right in front of them, but the moment I step away and try to be productive, are clamoring for my attention.  I hadn’t ever thought to hide in the attic though, you might be on to something there.  I’m assuming your attic was where Mr. Particular was created?  Is this the first picture book you’ve written? 

It’s the first one I published but not at all the first one I wrote. Since I come from the illustrating side, it took me a while to build up my writing chops. (Still building, by the way.) I’ve completed about four or five manuscripts that I’ve taken all the way through book dummy stage. I always have a zillion story ideas but getting them into a perfect under a thousand word picture book manuscript is really tough!

You aren’t kidding!  I instantly fell in love with all your characters.  (Daring Duck maybe most of all!) I’ve always been a bit envious of those who can wear both hats.  Let me ask you: what came first, the words or the images? 

Thanks so much! I love her too.  There are bits and pieces of all the different kids that pass through our house in all my characters. As for which came first–I generally come up with the gist of a story first. Then I start designing characters. For me, the manuscript is much easier to write once I know what the characters look like. I can hear their voices better.   Once I can see the assembled cast, I start writing. I generally don’t start drawing again (with the exception of tons of doodles) until the manuscript is done. And when I say done I mean my agent and critique groups have seen it and given me a thumbs-up kind of done. Then it feels almost like I’m drawing someone else’s manuscript and I don’t need to fiddle with the words anymore for a while. I do revise text again once the pictures are in place. Some text becomes superfluous once the images are there.

You seem to have a knack for both. And comedic timing on top of that! My kids and I giggle every time we read Mr. Particular. I love that he doesn’t like anything squishy; I feel his pain!  I also celebrate his love of ketchup.  Though not to the extent of my three-year-old who dipped apple slices in ketchup last week!  

My kid will also eat ketchup on ANYTHING and he’s 10 so you may have a few more years of that ahead of you! Sorry if I’ve reinforced bad behavior.

Well at least I know what my future holds. I am trying to reign him in a bit.  For instance, I put my foot down when he tried dipping his Oreos in ketchup. But, I really think he does it just to watch me squirm! Okay, back to the good stuff, I read that Mr. Particular was a PiBoIdMo (aka Storystorm) success story.  How was it that Mr. Particular, out of all 30 ideas from that experience, made it as a book?  Yes! PiBoIdMo!  Well…different people attack that thing different ways. I generally try to cheat by knocking out the first 10 or so with things that had been floating around in my head. (Don’t tell Tara.) Some things on my list might be a title, a turn of phrase I like, or a character idea. Mr. Particular came to me as a more complete idea and so I was more eager to work on that one when that particular November ended. (See what I did there?) I’ve also written up other ideas from Storystorm and I think it’s a great think to participate in.

I missed it this year but that won’t happen again!  I find myself always wanting to learn more about different marketing strategies.  How did you promote the release of Mr. Particular?  What worked well for you?  

Ooh. This is a tough one. I simply did everything I could think of. I did book signings. I made activity kits with book info in them and handed them out to local kid friendly restaurants. I think school visits are a great way to get a big group of kids excited about your book and to sell a bunch of copies. And it’s fun to tell kids how your book got made. I did a blog tour. I even got the book and myself on the Meredith Vieira Show (Full disclosure: I worked there at the time.)

Getting the book on the shelves is hard but I think selling your book is harder. I’d also add there are a LOT of books out there. I think there’s a small window when your book is new to get it out there and make it stand out. I don’t think I did enough to get it out there in that window.

Well something worked because it’s still ‘face out’ on the shelves of my local B&N.  Which brings me to my next question, do you remember the first time you saw your book on a bookstore shelf? 

Yes!! Words bookstore in Maplewood, NJ. It was a Friday afternoon and my wife and I were having a rare lunch without kids. We went in to say hi to the bookfolk because I had a signing scheduled there a few weeks later. I always check out the picture book section and there it was!! It was CRAZY bananas to see the book on a bookstore shelf. I mean it had previously only existed in the form of sketches on my drawing table that served as primary lounging material for my cat

Oh, that’s so fantastic!  May 10, 2016 was Mr. Particular’s book birthday! I know I’m late, but Happy Book-iversary! Did you do anything special to honor the day?  Um…no?  It slipped right past me. I wish I’d remembered. I’m usually good with dates too. I did remember a week or two later so I sat down at my computer and went through some of the original sketches just to commemorate the journey.

 

What’s been the most surprising thing about dropping the pre- from pre-published and making it to the published side of the industry? 

Hearing people tell you they like your work has been amazing.  Especially when you hear it from kids. Seeing other kids draw or dress up like my characters has got to be the best thing on Earth. I don’t get that kind of feedback from a viewing audience on a tv show. Still, the best part of being published for me, is walking into my local library and seeing my book on the shelf. (They’ve got three copies.) Actually, the best part is getting to the shelf to find that all the copies have been checked out!

Oh I love the costumes.  That’s probably something that not many authors get to see, how great.  Are you writing now? Do you have anything in the queue that we can get excited about?  

I’ve got a few things that are in progress but nothing sold yet. I feel good about the things I’m working on. I’m working on a few picture books in various stages. I’m also trying my hand at a chapter book. It’s great to be able to use more words than a picture book. I like words.

 

Jason, this was great!  Thanks so much for sharing your time and your talents!   Where can we find you on social media, so that we can help celebrate your next release? 

I’m so thrilled that you and your kids connect with the book! And I’m glad the humor comes through. I worked really hard to have gags for the kids and the parents.

As for social media, I’m on twitter at @jason_kirschner. I’m on Instagram at @jkirsch118 and I’d LOVE more followers there. I’m trying to do a sketch a day post. (I don’t always make it.) Recent sketches have included bunny belly flops, roller skating elephants, and Harry Potter fan art.

Thanks so much for having me!

IMG_2371

Ladies and gentleman, Jason Kirschner! (insert applause)

Again, I’m so thankful that all of you joined me here for my second edition of the Paper People series.  Come back next month and we discuss all things Quackers, and a bit about conferences and making a dummy with Liz Wong.  

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

 

Twitter & Truths

I had a topic in mind for today’s post… #PitMad is this week and I am completely Twitter illiterate.  So, I was going to delve into the abyss of my Twitter knowledge and talk about the ‘140 character struggles of a wordy girl.’  But sometimes, and this week included, the words just won’t come, despite my intentions and best efforts.  At the eleventh hour, I didn’t even have 100 words.  If you write, then I know you know the struggle.  (The irony of it all isn’t lost on me… the fact that I can’t find enough words to write a post about my struggles with Twitter and its 140-character limit.)

Thankfully for my bloggers-block self, I did find inspiration in a different form this week, so if you’re interested, read on!  As a blogger of the ‘Aspiring Kid Lit Author’ variety, I know I’m not an original idea.  There are countless posts each week, from prolifically published authors, pre-published authors and everyone in between discussing their struggles, strategies, and successes. I love it and I consider myself blessed to be in good company.  Every now and then, a post or an interview comes through that’s refreshing in its honesty and its approach.  This week, the Kid Lit world was blessed by not one but two, and I can’t get enough of them.  If you haven’t checked out KidLit411’s Author Spotlight interview with Katey Howes, or 12×12’s Featured Author post by Anna Forrester, you are sorely missing out.  I’m lucky enough to have ‘met’ (in the polite, electronic form) both women.  They’ve been kind, encouraging, friendly and informative.  But in this interview and this post, they are both vulnerable, authentic, and real.  It’s always great to read about a books release and an author’s success, but maybe it’s even more helpful to know that even for the ones who seem to have it figured out are still sloshing about in slush piles, or adjusting their expectations.  I’ve been lapping up the wisdom that both authors have imparted on the rest of us and you should too!

And just to clarify… I do get the premise, I need a good, punchy pitch for my picture book manuscripts. I need to get my point across in a few words, saving enough for the necessary hashtags, and then hope to attract the interest of an agent.  I’m close, very close to sending out a round of queries.  I’m waiting on a couple of contests to announce their winners, and then I’m moving forward.  So #PitMad falls at a great time for me.  Maybe one of the agents from my shortlist will take notice, or maybe I’ll be introduced to someone I hadn’t had the chance to consider. Either way, that’s my mission for this week… I have three MS that are ‘ready’ and I get to tweet a pitch for each, three times. That’s nine tweets, with 18 hashtags and a total of 1,260 characters… whew, I just reread the instructions, just three tweetes total, can be for the same or different manuscripts.  Still, what am I hanging around here for? I have to get to work! See you later alligators!

Before I go, next week is the second installment of Paper People and I. Am. So. Excited. (Does it bother you when people add periods for emphasis?) But seriously, I had the chance to talk with Jason Kirschner, author/illustrator of Mr. Particular and the whole experience was a blast.  Please come back and check it out, I guarantee you’ll learn something and laugh a bit along the way.

 

Okay, that’s it. I’m really finished now.

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP