What’s the question?

Almost every day of the week, for the past 36 weeks I’ve helped my daughter with her homework. This week, as we started the fourth and final quarter of the school year, something on her study guide caught my eye.  Right smack dab in the middle of the page her teacher had written, just like every week prior two words: essential question?  If I had been in a movie, it would’ve been the scene where my head started spinning and it all came together. The essential question.  Ann Whitford Paul wrote about this very thing. Professional critiques have touched on the same concept and last week a critique partner of mine challenged me to dig deeper into a work in progress and build up this one element of the story… The essential question. IMG_1012

I’m a member of a wonderful group of wise pre-published picture book writers and we’re in the middle of an online book study of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul.  (You remember how much I love this book, right?) Early on, in Chapter two, she challenges her readers, assuming we’re all aspiring picture book writers of course, to find their ‘Story Question’ and soon after, their ‘Story Answer.’  These two concepts, she argues, are fundamental to guiding the course of a picture book from point A to the finish line while keeping a reader actively engaged. (I’m not doing this concept any justice though, you really have to read it for yourself)

For the sake of the book study, I wrote a new story rather than slowly working through one of my many existing manuscripts.  It’s a silly little story about socks and its one of the reasons I’m so in love with my current genre.  (Where else can you write an entire story about SOCKS?) I hammered it out one afternoon and then per the book study guidelines, posted it for the other members to review and discuss.  All of our stories were very different, and Story Questions for each varied greatly.  Some were silly and shallow, others dove deep and broached the subjects of acceptance and authenticity, all of them were eye-opening and stimulated great conversation.  It was a great exercise but, for some reason, I haven’t done it again.

Why did I show this brand, new, baby manuscript enough love and attention to probe with these deep, though provoking questions, and not do the same for my older, more polished manuscripts?  It was a critique partner of mine that I should really give the lion’s share of the credit to.  I talked to her about my love of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS weeks ago, and on my recommendation, she bought and started reading her own copy. We’ve been trading manuscripts for a few months now and are starting to know each other’s style well.  This month, my submission to her was weak, rough and scattered. She honed in immediately and challenged me to ‘find my question’ and give my story more direction. So, imagine my surprise when I found these same words on my daughter’s study guide.  My eight-year-old has a better handle on this then I do! She knows the ‘essential question’ for every story she’s studied. Do I know these questions for each of my works in progress?  More importantly, if I know the question, do I know the answer?  If I don’t know the question and answer, will my reader? My daughter has read my stories more than anyone else, every draft of every story even.  Would she be able to pinpoint the essential questions of each?   Truth be told, I’m nervous to find out because even though it’s essential to the process, it’s a deceptively difficult task.

I had given myself the assignment of creating a(nother) dummy for my nearly-submission-ready manuscript, but first I have to start asking questions for all of my works in progress. 

          What if you don’t love the work you’re expected to do?

          What do you do with a broken heart?

          What will it take to change a stubborn, little, picky-eaters mind?

          What can you do if you aren’t appreciated for being you?

          Who (or what) determines your self-worth?

          What is making that noise?!?

Do you know your ‘Essential Question’?

Next up, I will be making a dummy because the submission window for the SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant ends on 3/31! Plus, as of the end of this month, I’m determined to be ‘submission-ready’. My story has been critiqued many (many, many) times, my word count is down, my illo notes are almost non-existent, my query letter was critiqued, my ending is tighter, my opening is stronger and my mind is made up. Look out editors (and contest judges) here I come!

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

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The bridge.

 

Two scary things happened to me on Friday morning. Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I don’t mean life-threateningly, earth-shatteringly scary, more like ‘public speaking’ scary. The second scary experience happened about one hour in to a three-hour drive.  I had my radio cranked up, cruise control set and a glorious amount of windshield time before I arrived at my very first SCWBI Regional conference.  What else do you need on a Friday morning? I can tell you what you don’t need… TRAFFIC. Bumper to bumper traffic, and the kicker? The traffic crawled to a stop about a mile before the tallest bridge in the entire world! Okay. So, it’s not actually the tallest in the world, but for me it’s the stuff that nightmares are made of.  Fun fact, I have a strong distaste for anything that takes me higher than a step stool. I find heights to be disorienting, distracting and incredibly disconcerting.  The bridge in question was going to get me across the Mighty Mississippi. There’s no way around it, under it, or through it… only over. Believe it or not, I had never been stuck in traffic on the Mississippi River bridge but just the thought of it has caused a healthy amount of anxiety. What if I roll backwards? What if people are speeding past me and I’m stuck with the bridge bouncing beneath me?!? What if my car gets a mind of its own and drives itself over the side without warning? Right, all very rational concerns.  So, there I was with a solid fifteen minutes to stare straight at the brake lights inching up the bridge and psych myself up for what was about to happen.

Pause.  Let’s rewind about four hours to the quiet moments after I dropped my kids off at school. I came home to pack, print out query letters and hit the road. Everything was just as I planned it, except I was on the verge of tears.  The conference that had been beckoning me for months had finally arrived and I felt distressed. It wasn’t about leaving my family, my husband had things well under control and my kids were excited I was going. It wasn’t the road trip. It wasn’t the cost of the conference or about missing work. For a moment I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was very real and spreading fast. Thankfully, I’m a pretty self-aware girl, not to mention I’m a nurse, so self-diagnosing is kind of my ‘thing.’  It didn’t take me long to realize that I was riddled with a terrible case of insecurity, maybe even my first touch of the imposter syndrome I’ve heard so much about.  My lack of formal training, poor grasp of grammar and countless technical short-comings haunt me on a daily writing basis. Those things are easy enough to hide when I’m in the privacy of my home and I was about to leave the comfort of my hiding spot behind.  I was momentarily frozen with fear that I would be sniffed out as a fraud during the conference.  That I would be overpowered by intelligent conversation and blown away by the skill and success of the writers around me that I would run home on Sunday with my tail between my legs. 

You’ll be happy to know that neither the bridge, nor the worry got the best of me.  When I was crawling towards the bridge I thought back to the tears that fell and the conversation that ensued.  I realized that this was only the beginning.  Hopefully, the beginning of a long and illustrious writing career. More likely than that, though, is that this was the beginning of really believing in myself.  It’s one thing to ‘talk shop’ hidden behind a computer screen, but it’s a whole different ball game when you’re doing it in person.  I was putting myself ‘in the arena’ in a very new and real way.  Just like I was going to have to suck it up and cross the Mississippi River bridge at a sails pace, trusting that I wouldn’t get smashed, or bashed or splashed, I was also going to have to find a way to pump the brakes on my pity-party before it was too late. I know I belong there. I belong there just as much as you belong there and you belong there just as much as the writer across the table from you, and the one sitting behind her, and they one sitting behind him.  We all belong there! I had a conversation with myself at the bottom of the bridge, remembering that there are always two camps, spinning their own version of the same story.  I could continue listen to the self-depreciating, self-doubting, self-conscious version, or I could choose differently for myself, at least for a weekend. So, that’s what I did and I let the bridge help me do the work.  I decided that when I reached the very top I would look to the left and down at the river down below.  (I NEVER look over the side!) Sure, there were trucks driving past, cars switching lanes and the bridge was wobbling more than I care to discuss. But in that moment, looking out on the Mississippi River, I was okay! I let go of my worry and allowed myself the glorious opportunity to embrace 72 hours of full-time writer-mode.  That’s all I really needed, anyway, to just be me and tell the stories that I have to tell. 

The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators is a gracious, warm and welcoming group of people who are driven by a passion for telling stories aimed at a young audience.  The group of individuals gathered in New Orleans this weekend was no different. I reconnected with old friends & made a few new ones.  I soaked up the information that was given out like a sponge and I ate INCREDIBLY well. I laughed a lot, jotted down notes and had a query letter critiqued. I know that I said that I was trying to write more pointed picture book information here and ramble a little less, but I also said I wasn’t making any promises.  I figured if it happened to me, then maybe it happened to you and if was important to me, it may be an important conversation for you, too.  Whenever your self-doubt creeps in, please know, for what it’s worth, that I don’t buy it.  I’ll be your cheerleader! After all, the greatest gifts we can give each other are support and encouragement, regardless of where you fall on the spectrum from pre- to prolifically published.

I’m still digesting so much of what I learned, but I came back encouraged, excited and inspired. Is anyone surprised? Of course not! That’s what happens when you surround yourself with like minded people.  That’s the beauty of talking shop and sharing stories with people who know EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT. In BIG MAGIC, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about making room for our fear. Instead of fighting it, she suggests we invite it along for the ride but insist that it sit quietly and doesn’t get a voice in any major decisions. Well, insecurity is just fear in a costume, right?  Right.  So, it can’ come along, but I’m banishing it to the back seat, locking the windows so it doesn’t get sneaky and going to keep blaring music and crossing bridges.

Would you look at that? I’m 1200 words into this post! I don’t mean to be rude, but would you mind showing yourself out? I have a stack of revisions calling my name.

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

 

 

Paper People: Camille Andros

One of my favorite things in the world is stumbling upon a book that seems to be written just for me, but I get an even bigger rush when I find a book that is PERFECT for someone else.  That’s what happened with CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST IS SQUISHED.  One busy afternoon, I stopped in at  B&N with this Paper People interview in mind. It took me all of ten minutes to find it, check out and rush from the store, eager to share my newest treasure with my daughter. As the oldest she is spirited, strong and selfless with an insatiable thirst for all things science.  This adorable bunny book belongs on my daughter’s shelf as much as my trusty copy of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS belongs on my own. Since the beginning of Paper People, I’ve been so grateful that the books I’ve read introduce me to their author by way of these interviews. In CHARLOTTE’S case, I feel blessed that reaching out to Camille helped my daughter and I to know Charlotte. Trust me, if you don’t already, you’ll be glad to know Camille and CHARLOTTE, too. They’re powerful women!  So, what are you waiting for? Read on!

Camille, thanks for being here! Before we get started, can I get you something to drink?  You’re such a great hostess, thank you Jennifer J I always love a cup of cocoa on a cold winter day.

Cocoa it is! Although it’s not wintery here, anymore, there’s just enough of a chill in the air that I think I’ll join you.  So, it seems you are a woman of many hats. Your website mentions that you garden, have six kids and are an EMT along with being an author. Plus, you’ve lived all over the country (and Israel!)  You must have countless stories to tell!  How did you start writing for children? I’ve always loved picture books, never out grew them and always wanted to write them. When my youngest was finally sleeping through the night I decided see what it would take to make that dream a reality.

Elizabeth Gilbert (BIG MAGIC) gives full credit for her writing career and deep-seated respect for creativity to the fact that she watched her mom live a creative life.  Do you see your writing having an impact on your children? The impact I hope for it to have on my children is that they have seen firsthand how I had a dream, set goals to achieve that dream and then worked really really hard to make it happen.

I wish the same for my own! I don’t have a publishing contract in hand, nor one in the foreseeable future, but I keep reminding myself that if I’m helping my kids to embrace their creativity and understand what it means to work towards a dream, then I’ll consider myself a success.  I’ve ‘met’ some of your Picture the Book-mates over recent months and read an interview you did with Anna Forrester. In it, you mention that you’re the oldest of 7 kids! Basically, you have first-hand, life-long experience being ‘squished’.  Where was your favorite place to retreat to when you need a minute alone? My bunk bed. I would walk to the grocery story, buy myself a candy bar, snuggle up in my bed, eat my candy and read. My grandparents also had a tree I loved to climb and read up in the tree. It always sounded like a good idea, but in practice it was actually kind of hard to balance a book up in a tree.

Let’s talk about CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST IS SQUISHED! I love science (my background is in nursing) and so does my eight-year-old daughter.  We read it often!  Was this story your first picture book manuscript?  How long was it a ‘work in progress’? This wasn’t my first manuscript. I had several I was working on trying to build up a body of work that I could share with an agent, but it was the first book I sold.  My first picture book manuscript I wrote is THE DRESS AND THE GIRL and will be coming out this August illustrated by Julie Morstad.

Not long after we first ‘met’, I saw your cover reveal for THE DRESS AND THE GIRL! It’s beautiful and simple and rich.  Can you give us a taste of what this one is about? Does it have a similar feel? THE DRESS AND THE GIRL is totally different from Charlotte. It’s a story about a little girl and her favorite dress, the power of memory, and how a life we think may be ordinary is actually quite extraordinary.

Tomorrow, March 14, you’ll have been a published author for one whole year! Happy Book-iversary!  Do you have plans to celebrate? Thank you! I hadn’t actually thought of celebrating, but I do love any excuse to celebrate, so now you’ve got me thinking…maybe I’ll have a birthday party with my kids for Charlotte the Scientist! J

 Do you remember the first time you saw CHAROLTTE on a bookstore shelf? Yes! A friend texted that she saw it at Barnes and Noble so after everyone got home from school we loaded all the kids up in the car and went to make it official. It was a pretty fun night!

I can imagine! So, tell us, how did you get it on those shelves? Oh my. I think I had zero to do with the book getting on shelves other than writing it. There is so much out of our control in this business and that is one of them. I think you just do the best with the information you have and don’t look back. You can “should-a, could-a, would-a,” yourself to death, but it’s not productive. Spend your time writing more great books.

I’m a member of an online book study and we’ve just started making our way through Ann Whitford Paul’s WRITING PICTURE BOOKS.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with her book or not, but in the first chapter she recommends typing out a ‘picture book you love’ as a guide. I can tell you that CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST was one of them… for a couple of us! It is so cleverly written.  Where did you get the idea to use the Scientific Method to guide your story? Thank you! In the early drafts of the book the scientific method was only mentioned in passing. It was only after the book was sold that we decided to add in the specific steps of the scientific method.

 It’s spot on! I don’t think we’ll ever study the scientific method the same way again. Now that you have one year and (nearly) two books under your belt I’m curious: What’s been the most surprising thing about making it to the published side of the industry? I’ve learned that most people feel like they are an imposter and are just waiting for everyone to figure it out. I’ve also learned that it’s not productive to compare yourself to anyone else. It’ll only make you feel bad. The world is wide enough (to borrow from a Hamilton reference;) for all of us and all of our books and ideas, so our time is best served writing good books, and helping to cheer others on to do the same.

 Yes! Just write good books; so simple and so powerful. Can you remind us when we can expect THE DRESS AND THE GIRL?  Anything else coming down the pipe?  Where can we find and follow you on social media?  THE DRESS AND THE GIRL will be out August 7, 2018, another CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST book will be out next year, as will a picture book biography about ELIZA HAMILTON.

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Instagram: @camilleandros

Twitter: @camdros

Facebook: Camille Andros

Thanks so much for visiting with me!

#50PreciousWords

Tommy’s Two Wheels.

“It’s broken, buddy.”

“My training wheel? This is the worst day.”

“Want to try riding without them?”

Tommy’s stomach flipped.

          “Two wheels? But, will you help?”

Dad smiled, “Foot on the pedal.”

          “Don’t let go!”

“Push!” Wobble.

          “Don’t let go!”

“Pedal!” Wobble.

          “Don’t… let…”

“Go!”

         “This is the BEST day!”

 

Well there you have it! That was HARD.  For a lot of reasons, one, 50 words is a lot less than you think. Two, I really wanted to rhyme… really, really, really, but in the end, the story didn’t, so I let it go.  Three, I’ve been feeling a little creatively tapped out. I nearly gave myself a brain cramp trying to get this story down on paper and four, did I mention it was only FIFTY WORDS? The struggle is real for a naturally wordy person like myself.  I will almost always use 45 words to say something, when I really only need 5.

Here’s a fun fact! This story is loosely based on true events.  My five-year-old (MC) had an unusually tough day at school, last Friday. You know, in the big picture, the day wasn’t so bad for him, but as his parents it was tough on us.  As my husband and I tried to shake off the events of the afternoon and start the weekend MC took a minute to survey his options. He was punished… from a lot, but he’s the pragmatic sort and quickly settled on a bike ride. After a couple trips up and down our street, he parked to his beloved hand-me-down bike and declared, “I think I’m ready to take my training wheels off!” And he was.

In a moment, the day was transformed by the pride on his face and the squeals he let out as he quickly got the hang of riding on two wheels.  Any lingering frustration and frazzle, my husband and I were still feeling melted away as we watched him conquer the open road.  In the end, it was a great weekend and we all survived the punishment. It’s been ten days and every evening it’s still an act of Congress to get that kid off of his bike and inside for supper. That fateful Friday will forever live on as the day he rode without training wheels (after earning himself a trip to the principals office).

There are so many incredible entries, head on over to Vivian Kirkfield’s blog here and check out the comments section for a plethora of short and sweet stories. I give myself and everyone else who entered an A+ for completion. I’m not kidding- That. Was. Hard.

The End.

(Also, I think I’m going to give myself bonus points for using the words plethora and pragmatic after 9pm on a Monday)

Stay tuned for my visit with Camille Andros next week!

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

 

Be My Guest, Megan Jones!

I interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to introduce you to another dear friend! My first ever ‘new writing friend’ actually.  It’s only fitting that I introduce you this weekend because we ‘met’ thanks to #50PreciousWords, and guess what’s going on right now?!? I guess to be fair, we met because I found her blog (during NaPiBoWriWee), but the first post I read was her award winning #50PreciousWords entry and I knew right at that very moment that I wanted to be her friend! (Creepy much?) So, I watched her blog from afar, low and behold she did the same thing! We swapped comments, for a while and finally connected (via The Writers Match). The rest, my friends, is history.  She writes a wonderful combination of silly, refreshing picture books that will make you giggle along with the sweet, simple kind that tug at your heartstrings.  I simply adore her ‘voice’ (the writing kind, because I’ve never heard the real thing, of course) and I know you will too! Read on, I invited her over for a drink, and she was kind enough to remind her forgetful, southern friend “I’m LDS (aka Mormon) as well as expecting my 3rd child, so my beverage options are very boring.  I should ask for a green smoothie or something healthy, but I’d rather have a chocolate milkshake or a tall glass of milk with a side of cookies, of course.” Done and done. Grab yourself some while you’re at it and read on.  In the words of Mrs. Jones, “Welp, here goes nothing….”

_____     _____     _____     _____     _____

In 2016, I rediscovered my childhood love of writing.  I started with reading every kid lit blog, writing book and website I could find. In 2017, I forced myself out of my comfort zone by joining Twitter and participating in writing contests, one of which was Vivian Kirkfield’s #50preciouswords.  Vivian is a gold mine of kid lit knowledge and one of the nicest people to boot.  If you haven’t yet, you need to read her website ASAP https://viviankirkfield.com/

 In a nutshell, for the #50preciouswords contest you only have 50 words to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  Sounds easy, right?  Bahaha!  This contest forces you to edit and analyze every precious word in a new way.  Oh, and after all that editing, you need to have a strong story that can stand on its own.  The idea for my 2017 #50preciouswords story was a Storystorm idea (https://taralazar.com/) I was itching to tell.  Tara’s website is another treasure chest of kid lit goodness.  #50preciouswords seemed like a perfect time to take this idea and try to mold it into a story.  After a few days of revising, analyzing and a few helpful critiques, I felt I had a story that was ready to enter.  Also, knowing how I do things, the contest was probably about to end.  I put the story on my very neglected blog and had some sweet comments.  I spent the rest of the day reading all the talented entries I could.  I felt a connection to fellow participants/complete strangers also following their dream of writing for children.

 The day the results were posted, I was shocked to see I had placed 19th! I screamed like I’d just won the HGTV Dream Home (also a life goal of mine).  I’d entered a few other contests without any success.  This was the boost I needed to get through a few more months of writing disappointments.  The next week Vivian sent me a personal email congratulating me and letting me know it was time to pick my prize.  Seriously, after 251 entries how did she have the energy or time to send a personal message and feedback on my story? 

 I have two young sons that love to be anything except little boys.  My boys never respond to their names.  Depending on the day, we have Marshall the dog, Pup the puppy, Charlotte the cat, and Godzilla the T-Rex.  It seemed only appropriate I chose as my prize HELLO, MY NAME IS TIGER written & illustrated by the very talented Jennifer P. Goldfinger. https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062399519/hello-my-name-is-tiger

  Vivian put me in contact with Jennifer, and she graciously offered to personalize the book.  Yes, please!  I live in a rural area where the opportunity to attend book signings and meet authors or illustrators is nonexistent.  I screamed again (the neighbors were starting to get worried about all this screaming) when this arrived in the mail…

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 How cute is that?  I’m sure this package spread smiles and sunshine from the East Coast all the way to mountains of Utah.

 I appreciate the kindness of the kid lit community.  I wouldn’t be where I am today without the knowledge and encouragement of authors and these amazing events they sponsor.  Thank you for donating your precious time/resources/books.  It means the world to us newbies trying to navigate our way into the world of kid lit.  Now if you haven’t yet, go write your #50preciouswords story!  I can’t wait to read it.

_____     _____     _____     _____     _____

She’s not kidding either, go find your 50 words, put them together and tell us a story! I’ll be forever grateful for that award-winning story.  Do you want to read it? Check here and stay tuned for this year’s entry. You won’t be disappointed!  I just want to point out, did you catch that she’s expecting? An interesting bit of foreshadowing, don’t you think!  My life has become infinitely more interesting since I added a dash of the Utah mountains to my deep-south Gumbo. In case you want more Megan Jones in your life, your best bet is twitter @rubycargirl. Her tweets are my favorite! She blogs too, rather inconsistently and quietly but they’re always a great read.

On Tuesday I’ll be posting MY #50PreciousWords entry and the following week I get to share my Paper People Interview with Camille Andros!

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP