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

 

 

The Meaning of Magnolia.

In January of 2017, I decided to take a leap of creative faith.  The idea of starting a blog had been following me around for about six months, though I had seriously been avoiding it.  For one, I didn’t really understand the point of blogs.  Second, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would read what I had to say. Third, a few parenting/lifestyle/mom blogs and their ‘expert point-of-views’ had left a bad taste in my mouth. But like I said, it was persistent in its pursuit of me.  All the while this was happening, I was struggling to find a sense of community and direction as an aspiring picture book author.  So, I agreed to consider the blog.  I realized that the blog itself might just be the answer to what I was searching for. My one major roadblock?  I didn’t have a name for it. The short version of this long story is that I stewed over possible names for weeks, without any obvious frontrunner. Until one night in early January 2017, in a moment of sheer shower brilliance, I claimed Magnolias & Manuscripts as my very own. It was perfect, it scratched my alliteration itch, incorporated the obvious writing reference and the icing on the cake was the nod to my southern heritage.  The more I worked through it in my brain, however, I knew there was a deeper connection to magnolias that had nothing to do with the state flower of Louisiana or flipping houses. (I’ve never seen the show.)  

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I also know myself and knew that I needed to set a few ground rules before I started.  For one, it’s not in my nature to draw attention to myself; I am a very introverted extrovert. I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t going to blog to generate a following, but to make connections. I wasn’t going to offer an expert point of view, but rather it would be told from the viewpoint of an amateur, aspiring author, with little formal training but a whole lot of tenacity.  And finally, I committed myself to six months of weekly posts. As my first post formulated in my brain and then on paper, I received a wonderful confirmation that this was the right move and it came by way of my precious little Australian Magnolia tree.

My parents are avid and excellent gardeners.  Ask anyone, their yard is a beautiful display of seasonal foliage that always seems to bloom at just the right times, in all the right colors. It really is a masterpiece.  My take on flower beds is decidedly simpler.  I need evergreens, annuals and sun-loving plants that don’t require any attention whatsoever.  I don’t have much of an opinion on flowers.  I don’t know what most of their names are, anyway, and I rarely remember that they are living things in need of some ‘tlc’ (tender, loving care). There was an obvious empty space in the front corner, though, too close to the house for a shade tree and too big for a shrub.  I wanted an ornamental tree that would flower but was as low maintenance as the rest. Finally, after years (literally) of talking about it, my husband went to a nursery and came home with a baby Australian Magnolia.   

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This plucky little tree is just what the doctor ordered for my south Louisiana flower beds.  For the second year in a row, this tree bloomed earlier than any other magnolia I could find and it did so enthusiastically.  It suffered bouts of disease and drought and somehow pulled through. As an aspiring writer, I hope I have many of those same characteristics.  I hope that I can maintain an eager, determined, and vibrant disposition in this field I call my own.  I hope that I continue to find a way to bloom, whenever the time is right for me, surrounded by others who are working just as hard as I am.   

By all accounts, this past year and my blogging experiment has been a smashing success.  I have 83 followers! (WHAT! I’m speechless!) I’ve blogged often. I’ve branched out. I’ve made connections and I’ve put down roots.  I can’t wait to see what this next year will bring! Without a doubt, I’m going to continue Paper People, my interview series (second week of the month), and Be My Guest, my newly released guest-blog series (last week of the month.)  I’m also going to hone the focus of my other posts in on my current genre, picture books.  I hope to have fewer ramblings and musings and more posts with purpose.  But then again, look at today, I’m not sure if that’s even my style.   

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Today marks the ceremonious start to my second year as a blogger! Thanks for joining me here, this week and every week.  Since everything has a way of coming full circle, let me close the loop for you.  We planted our Magnolia tree right around the time that I wrote my first manuscript.  It bloomed for the first time right as I was working on my first blog post.  It wasn’t always pretty, much like many of my drafts.  And the tree now? It’s a little taller, a little fuller and still my favorite.  You could call it a coincidence if you want, but I don’t believe in such things.  We are traveling similar paths, this tree and I, and I’m so grateful to have company.

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!
-JP

 

 

Hindsight & Forecasting

I’ve been wrestling with and working on this post in my head for weeks now but every line I tried to open with sounded cliché and I keep talking myself out of it. (Hence the reason I didn’t even get it posted in 2017.) Like so many others, I’ve been in a reflective mood. Here are the facts: 2017 was an interesting year for my family, one filled with opportunities, challenges and celebrations. We hit a few mini-milestones (All of our kiddos can put on their own shoes! Everyone can ride a bike! We took our first plane ride as a family!) and added one adorably enthusiastic chocolate lab to the mix. From a writing standpoint, it was a year of great success, a few rejections (5/5) and wonderful connections. Because I believe in the power the importance of celebrating success, big, small or otherwise I challenged myself to list out all of my Kid Lit accomplishments for the past year. I need this on paper, so I can refer back to it anytime I feel like I’m spinning my wheels. I need it to serve as a reminder that I’m laying the foundation now, so that hopefully I can have a prolific writing career one day. I need to know exactly where I am now, where I’ve come from and where I hope to go.

So, in 2017, I…

  1. Started a blog, which was something I had been thinking of for months. Since I started on February 9, I’ve posted 61 times and found 73 followers. (I’m grateful for each and every one of you! I never dreamed I’d get more than about 10.)
  2. Participated in 5 contests, (KidLit College Board Book Contest, Sparkhouse Contest, Susanna Leonard Hill’s Hallowensie & Holiday Contests) generating 2 honorable mentions.
  3. Participated in 3 writing challenges, NaPiBoWriWee, WOW-NONFICPIC and #50PreciousWordsforKids (well, technically my daughter gets credit for that one.)
  4. Wrote 6+ manuscripts, brainstormed another 15+ ideas.
  5. Joined and have remained active in 3 critique groups, and have met an incredible group of dear friends along the way (This one holds the most weight, my friends are the greatest… It starts with a few MS swaps and before you know it you’re adding them to the Christmas card list!)
  6. Facilitated an online book study. We started working through Steering the Craft by Ursula le Guin. Sadly, the holidays interrupted our plans, but I hope to resume once we settle in to 2018… and maybe even start a new book!?!
  7. Started Paper People, a monthly debut picture book author interview series plus three lagniappe interviews (one being ANN WHITFORD PAUL!)
  8. Completed my challenge to read 100 Picture books in the course of one summer… (#100PictureBookSummer)
  9. Attended my first writing conference (Bayou Writers Group Fall Conference) P
  10. articipated on a book launch team (Maggie and the Summer Vacation Show and Tell by Randi Mrvos)
  11. Joined SCBWI

I’m proud of my list, considering how much I did not now at this time last year. And now its time to look ahead at this new year. When it comes to making resolutions, I’m like a kid in a candy store! In a wonderful podcast a few weeks back, Katie Davis (Writing for Children) gave pointers on how to set attainable goals and set yourself up for success in the 2018. My favorite nugget was something along the lines of “don’t set a goal that you have no control over.” So, in 2018 I plan to…

  1. Complete Storystorm (registered, 1 idea in the books!), ReforReMo, #50PreciousWords, NaPiBoWriWe, & (apply for) Writing with the Stars.
  2. Attend JambaLAya SCBWI Annual Conference (registered! Bonus points if I make it to another!)
  3. Continue Paper People, 12 interviews in 12 months (Stay tuned for Annie Silvestro!)
  4. Enter 6 contests
  5. Continue blogging, at least weekly, on a set schedule. I also hope to sprinkle in a few guest posts from other pre-published writers that I’ve met. (Week 1, check!)
  6. Focus submissions energy towards magazines and publishing houses.
  7. Attend local in-person SCWBI critique groups.

I hope you made your own list. I hope you’ve taken a moment to pat yourself on the back and I hope you have a very Happy New Year.
Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Paper People: Sue Gallion

The second Friday of the month is quickly becoming my favorite! Today, I’m sharing Sue Gallion and I’s conversation.  I had the chance to pick her brain about not only her debut picture book (and a little about her second) but also all things SCBWI. I’m just starting to get involved and find my place within my local chapter.  I am so excited about being a card-carrying member so, I had no shortage of questions. I hope you learn as much as I did… I should warn you, there’s an awful lot of cuteness in between the lines. Proceed with caution!

Sue, thanks for joining us here! Can I get you something to drink? Coffee or a whole-milk latte would be even better.  Thanks for your hospitality!

Certainly! We finally have another “cool front” around here, so coffee sounds great. It had been so warm the past few days that I almost opened a lemonade stand! Oh, well. The struggles of the south.  Let’s get started, would you mind telling us a little about how you started writing for children?  My background is journalism and public relations, but I got re-hooked on children’s books when my kids were young. I took a children’s literature class about 12 years ago with the thought of becoming a reading specialist, but the assignment to write my own ABC book took me in a different direction. And here I am!

I’d like to jump right into SCBWI.  How did you become involved in the first place?  How did you find your place? What’s your favorite part of the organization? (Can you tell I’m a new member and just a little excited about it?) I found out about SCBWI from another writer’s group. One of the scarier things in this business to me (which you have to do over and over again!) is walk into a room where you know no one and start a conversation. The first SCBWI event I attended was a full-day workshop in Kansas City with Harold Underdown and several other top speakers. I mentioned to one of the volunteers helping with lunch that I was willing to help out with a future event. The next thing I knew, I was coordinating cupcake donations and stuffing packets. I became Assistant Regional Advisor in 2011 to Colleen Cook, who was the person I introduced myself to at the coffee station at that first event.

I could tell you a thousand favorite things about SCBWI. Many of the people I most respect and admire I’ve met through SCBWI. It is an extraordinary creative community with so many opportunities to learn and grow in our craft. I am certain I never would have been traditionally published without SCBWI. More importantly, I have grown as a writer, as an advocate for children’s literacy, and as a person through SCBWI and the people I’ve come to know.

I encourage people to be brave and pursue this dream by connecting with others, and then be sure to pat yourself on the back for being brave! It takes guts to share your work with others. It also takes a lot of humility and perseverance.

How serendipitous! You’re totally right, somehow as an adult, it’s still a bit nerve-wracking to be the new kid on the playground.  How long were you involved for before you sold Pug Meets Pig? About five years. The sale of the manuscript actually came directly from a manuscript consultation at the SCBWI LA conference in 2013.

Of course, it did.  You and SCBWI have quite a sweet love story. Was Pug Meets Pig your first picture book manuscript? No way! I worked on many manuscripts before it, and I revised it over several years. I do wish I had moved on from some of my first manuscripts sooner, though. I think lots of us get too caught up in that one first story and revise it over and over again, rather than move on to new ideas.  Lin Oliver of SCBWI has solid advice to think of your career and your body of work rather than just one book. We all have more than one idea in us.

That’s excellent advice. It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that I needed to move on past my first manuscript and start working on others. Do you remember the first time you saw it on a bookstore shelf? You bet! It was shelved right next to Josh Funk’s Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast. Also a thrill!

Ohhhh, that’s a great shelf to be on! Surely you took a picture? Then to have your second picture book follow so closely must’ve been the most delicious icing on the cake. Pug & Pig Trick or Treat is equally as adorable. Not to mention, now you have a series!  Was writing Trick or Treat more or less difficult than you anticipated?  Will we have the chance to follow this pair on more adventures? The second story was inspired by my dog’s reaction to the dog next door dressed in a skeleton costume. I had no plans to write a second book, and I had no idea if Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster would ever buy it. It was a thrill when Andrea Welch acquired it right away. Stay tuned for more adventures for these two!

9781481449779 copy (2)I can’t wait to tell my kids! They’re going to be thrilled. So you must’ve done something to get your book on that incredible shelf.  Can you tell us how you approached the release of your debut picture book?  What worked well for you from a marketing standpoint? That’s a whole other blog, but I took every approach I could imagine, including mailing books to celebrity pugs and pigs around the country.

I’ll just have to invite you back one day and you can tell us all about marketing, pigs and pugs, debut and seasonal books.  Can you tell us about your experience working with an illustrator? The animals are so adorable… I could just reach out and pinch their cheeks! Seeing this story come to life visually was one of the most thrilling parts of this whole process. Joyce Wan is an incredible artist and visual storyteller. The team of Andrea Welch and Allyn Johnston, Beach Lane editors, and Lauren Rille, the art director, is simply brilliant. It’s been an honor to work with them and I’ve learned so much from them.

That reminds me of the quote I heard once on a podcast, ‘it takes a village to make a picture book.’  Within the words of your story, there’s a profound message about adapting to change and accepting others into ‘your space’.  With three kids, very close in age, that’s a lesson that gets lots of practice at my house!  Did that drive your story, or did the theme come along as you wrote it? The issue of change was at the heart of the story from the very beginning. Whether you’re a young child with a new sibling or an adult with a new colleague or family member, change can be hard! The themes of empathy and acceptance of others and their differences are very important to me. As I study picture books and work to improve my own writing, I look for that layer of emotion and heart, and I hope it’s part of my own books.

I appreciated the heart in this one so much and there’s an equally great message in Trick or Treat. Your one year anniversary as a published author just passed on September 26!   If a release date is considered a book birthday, seems fitting call that your First Book-iversary! Did you celebrate the day? I did a story time for the second Pug and Pig book at a local toy store with a real pig that day, which was a wonderful way to celebrate.

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What’s the best thing about dropping the pre- from pre-published and making it to the published side of the industry? The most rewarding part has been the interaction with kids and families and their responses to the book. What a joy!

Not to mention the fact that you get to hang out with the super cute pig! (Did you spot Eva the pig in the picture???)  Is there anything you’ve learned in the past year that you wished you had known in advance? I wish I’d been more organized day by day. In addition to a good writing winter, I need to do a giant office cleanout! And I wish I had attended more story times at libraries or school visits by other authors before this year. Watching someone else do a story time and seeing how kids respond is a great learning opportunity for a writer, and it’s very good preparation for library and school visits in the future.

I just went to my first, obviously to be supportive but mentally I was taking notes.  What’s up next for you?!?  Where can we find, and follow you on Social Media? I’m looking forward to a good writing winter, with lots of coffee! Find me on Twitter (my favorite!) @SueLGallion, or on Facebook at Sue Lowell Gallion. My website is suegallion.com.

Thanks for taking the time to visit with me!

Thanks for the opportunity! And best wishes for your writing winter ahead, too!

Wasn’t she fantastic?  Next month, come back for more fun! I’ll be talking to Jodi McKay, author of Where Are the Words? and  I’m equally excited about sharing that conversation! I also had a lot of excitement this week.  I made it on to Susanna Hill’s Would You Read it Wednesday! Next week I’m going to rebuild my pitch right here, using some of the fantastic feedback I received. Until then, I hope you’re writing/building/doing something fabulous!

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Create.

For most of my life, I considered myself one of the unlucky ones. I thought that if someone wasn’t artistically inclined in an obvious way then the creative bug missed them (and me) completely. It only took me 30 years to realize I was wrong. For starters, I learned to recognize and embrace my writing as a wonderful creative expression. Second, I’ve discovered that creativity begets creativity. As my writing journey has gathered steam over the past year the number of manuscripts and story ideas I have continues to rise and writing gives way to more writing. The more often I write, the more likely I am to find inspiration for a story and the more smoothly the stories flow from my brain through my fingertips and on to the page. Then I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Have you read it? You should. I’m not going to review it. I’m not going to get into any of her nitty-gritty details, I’m just going to tell you that I bought myself a copy and you probably should too. I’m not just talking about writers either. I’m talking to anyone who has any ounce of creativity and guess what, that includes you. One of the main themes of the book is that if you open yourself up to ideas and creative inspiration then they will find you. I’ve seen it with my writing, and it’s starting to manifest itself in other ways as well. I (not so) jokingly told my sister last week that I found myself so overwhelmed with ideas that I’m at a loss for where to start.

It also helped me to take stock of the people around me. When’s the last time you looked around and counted how many creative people you know? One of my neighbors is ripping pallets apart as we speak to start making holiday decorations for her extended family. Across the street from my house you’ll find a woman who can transform a few pieces of wood, a little vinyl and some paint into something you’d love to hang on the walls of your home. Two of my friends from high school, neither of whom we’re the obvious creative choices are making waves and providing for their families with monogramming machines and fondant creations. There’s an elementary school teacher who lives down the street and one bite of her Lazy Tacos will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about them, and then order a tray full. A sorority sister of mine from college/dear friend and kindred spirit just started her own photography business.  You see what I mean? Creative people are all around me, and I’d be willing to bet they’re all around you too.

In her book, Elizabeth Gilbert also encourages you to trace your creative lineage and find the connecting threads. Mine is easy; I consider myself blessed. My mom just undertook a new hobby/business venture and is overflowing with creative energy. Her mom was a whiz at so many things, and had so many creative hobbies in her lifetime I’ve lost count. I’ve talked before about my dad’s writing and the walls of his parent’s house are lined with paintings by my grandfather. Opening my eyes up to the creative energy around me, has inspired me in so many ways. For one, I find myself drawn to spend time with people who are living creatively in their spare time. To be creative is to make the world a more beautiful place, whether that’s through words, paint, pillows, quilting, cross-stitching, gardening, music, movement, home décor, or whatever your medium is. I hope you know what your creative outlet is, and I truly hope you honor it.

As I continue writing, searching, submitting and hoping, I know that the words won’t always come easy. There are days when they don’t seem to flow and inspiration runs short; but I know that I just have to keep at it. When I first started writing stories for children’s books, I was incredibly productive in the first two months and then it all came to a screeching halt (in a good way.) I spent the next few months revising, rewriting, editing, revising and rewriting those same stories over and over again. Honestly, most of those stories will never be good enough to have a chance at publication, but I have always wondered how I found so much inspiration in those first few weeks when I knew so little. Now, I get it and it has nothing to do with how much I know (or don’t know). It’s simple, inspiration feeds inspiration, writing prompts more writing, creativity begets creativity. As of today, my manuscript count is up to twelve, with another five I hope to “finish” by the end of the year. (For those of you who are wondering… I mean finish as in first draft, ready to send to a critique group. I have three, almost four that are “finished”.) It’s a tall order for sure. If you need me, just follow the smoke that’ll surely be coming from my poor, tired, overworked computer. Or, better yet, don’t come find me, go create something yourself (and at least think about reading Big Magic.)

 

Guess what, it’s almost Paper People time! Come back on Friday and read my conversation with Sue Gallion about pigs, pugs and everything SCBWI!!

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!
-JP

Hooray for Halloweensie!

One of the most enjoyable parts of this writing community comes in the form of contests & challenges. This is my first year participating in Susanna Hill’s Halloweensie contest, but surely not my last. I’ve included a snippet from her blog, explaining the rules below. (Oh, I also borrowed the jack-o-lantern from her blog! I wanted to keep with the theme, you know?)

The Contest: write a 100 word Halloween story appropriate for children (title not included in the 100 words), using the words candy corn, monster, and shadow. (Candy corn will be counted as 1 word.)  Your story can be scary, funny, or anything in between, poetry or prose, but it will only count for the contest if it includes those 3 words and is 100 words (you can go under, but not over!)  Get it?  Halloweensie – because it’s not very long and it’s for little people 🙂  (And yes, I know 100 words is short, but that’s part of the fun and the challenge!  We got nearly 150 fantastic entries last year, so I know you can do it!)  Also, you may use the words in any form – e.g. monsters, monstrous, shadowy, shadowed, whathaveyou 🙂  NO ILLUSTRATION NOTES PLEASE! (And yes, you may submit more than one entry if you’re so inclined 🙂 ) https://susannahill.com/2017/10/16/bic-folks-announcing-the-7th-annual-halloweensie-writing-contest-guidelines/  

And without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to…. (drumroll)

Candie’s Monster Shadows

Candie Corn was excited; it was her favorite night of the year!

She loved everything from costumes to yummy treats.

Her problem was the scary shadows.

This year will be different, she thought, putting on her costume. I’ll pretend they’re something else.

Later, when trick-or-treating was over, she headed home.

One shadow looked like a spider. “You’re just a hand,” she said, giving a wave.

The next resembled a bat, “but I’ll make you a butterfly!”

“And you’re not a monster you’re a monkey!” she giggled.

She tricked away every shadow until she was Home Treat Home.

 

I hope you’re all having fabulous fall weather! Best of luck to all the other Halloweensie participants. I can’t wait to read your fabulous posts!

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

 

The hat.

I spent all of Monday with a baseball cap on my head.  This is strange for two reasons: First, I don’t wear hats more than a handful of times in any given year; but Monday was unusually blustery and my hair was ten kinds of dirty.  Second, the logo on the hat was for a company that had long been one of my husband’s biggest competitors but they recently purchased the company he worked for.  Now they aren’t the competition, instead, they pay the bills. If you’ve been a part of something similar, then you can imagine the stress we’ve been living with.  Thankfully, the unknown and instability of the past few months have smoothed out and the future looks promising. (No pink slips here!) Monday was a turning point for me, and I wore the hat as a concrete symbol of embracing this new chapter.  I’m going to pause here for a second, and tell you about last weekend.

Last weekend I attended my first writers’ conference. It’s a little ridiculous that I’m so far into this journey and hadn’t made my way to a conference, but that’s the truth. So, my first conference was the Bayou Writer’s Group Conference.  It was a perfect first time. I learned so many lessons that I could fill my next six weeks of blog posts. In addition to my first conference, it was my first in-person pitch session. My performance was less than stellar. You and I don’t know each other well enough yet for me to be completely candid, but truly, I did not do well.  If I’m being honest, I didn’t expect to. I hoped to, of course, but I realize that it was uncharted waters and what I needed more than anything was just to jump in and get the first one over with. (I consider myself an optimistic realist.) I’ve affectionately named those fifteen minutes as “the first pancake”.  You get the analogy, I’ll spare you the details.

As I was unpacking and digesting the experience over lunch, a couple hours following my pitch. I had an interesting revelation, which continued through the week.  I did not pitch well, that’s a fact. More importantly, what I did not do well, was ‘talk the talk.’  I think that somewhere along the way I decided that I’ll only feel validated and confident as a writer once I have an agent/sell a book, aka once I ‘have something to show for it.’.  I’ve talked to enough authors, both debut and veteran to know that is far from the truth, but that’s still what I was trying to believe. It was during that lunch, talking to a YA author, whose debut book is due out next summer that I realized what I was so desperately lacking. She held herself with such confidence. She delivered her pitch to me perfectly, without stuttering, while holding perfect eye contact and using the right inflection and emotion. It was an inspiring performance.  As I commented to her on her confidence, she gave me the most wonderful, real-life advice, “It takes practice.”  Light bulb moment, folks. Of course, it does! Not only the pitch itself but talking the talk of a writer.  I have a ‘writers’ hat, but unlike the cap I wore Monday, I’ve been reluctant to wear it well.  My pitch did not go well because there was no confidence behind it.

I can’t sit around waiting for someone else to validate my journey. I can’t search for confidence anywhere else aside from inside of me. I’ll never land an agent, or a publishing deal if I can’t be ‘the whole package’, and that includes doing the hard work, both on paper and in person.  In all fairness, I consider my pitch an ‘ugly win.’ I accomplished what I hoped, I left with her business card and a trunk full of lessons of what to do differently.  I did it, I dove in.  Until my next conference, I can (and will) practice my pitches so that I’m ready. More importantly, I’ll walk with more confidence, at conferences and otherwise, even if it’s the fake-it-till-you-make-it kind.   I’ll find a way to wear that writer’s hat and wear it well.

I’m so excited to be participating in Susanna Leonard Hill’s Halloweensie contest, so stay tuned for my itty-bitty Halloween story to be posted here on Friday.

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Let’s Talk, The Writers Match!

If you don’t mind, I’d like to go back to last May for a moment… It all started with NaPiBoWriWee, and a serendipitous blog connection.  I was clicking and scrolling through comments that other participants were leaving on the daily blog posts.  I clicked on a name and felt compelled to comment on her blog… she returned the favor… and for a while, that’s how it went.  Then one day she told me about The Writers Match and how well it fit into her (relatively) social media free life.  She talked highly about the critique partnerships she’s made and I found my own way there.  Every connection I’ve made, thanks to The Writer’s Match, has been fruitful and founder Megan Ur-Taraszkiewicz has been a kind and gracious host.  She agreed to join me here for a conversation about her ‘brainchild’, her projects and her place in the Kid Lit community. I’m always inspired by innovators; people who see a problem and take steps to make a change.  That’s exactly what Megan did in the creation of this website designed to create critique partnerships.  If you aren’t familiar with the website, check it out here…. but first…

Megan! Thanks for playing along, I’m so happy to have you here! I’m going to start with a question I’ve been dying to ask you… HOW in the world do you pronounce your last name? Thanks, Jennifer! As you can imagine, I get that question a LOT. We pronounce it TUH-RAS-KA-WITZ. The Polish pronunciation is more like TARA-SKEHV-ITCH. I always know the people with a Polish background because they’ll pronounce it that way and I mentally give them extra credit. Technically my last name combines my maiden and married name so my full name is Megan Ur Taraszkiewicz. Yes, my maiden name was only two letters long (It’s Hungarian) and I repeatedly asked my husband if he’d rather take my name to no avail. So now I’m Megan Ur Taraszkiewicz!

Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you started writing for children?  It took me a LONG time to realize that I wanted to write for children. Looking back, though, the signs were always there but I ignored them. I never spent my days writing or reading but I always made up stories in my mind. After college and a brief stint as a daycare teacher, I got my graduate degree to become a media specialist. I got married, became pregnant, lost my job while we were in the midst of buying a house and my brother was dying of cancer. Life was a rollercoaster. Losing my brother in 2009 was difficult but losing my son in 2013 was devastating. My son, Owen, died after a virus triggered a rare disease called HLH that we didn’t know he had and the doctors missed. It was after Owen died that I committed myself to pursuing the joys and passions in my life. I began writing more and more and attended my first SCBWI event a few months after he passed. I felt like I finally had a purpose and direction for my life.

Such a profound lesson, and beautifully poignant journey.  With it being such a deep-seated awareness, I have no doubt you’re writing from a rich and fertile place.  How would you describe your writing style? What kind of stories are you drawn to tell? I write humorous stories with lots of wordplay. I love clever and funny stories that are also short and sweet. Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal is one of those books that I feel like is as close to perfect as possible. I was equally enthralled by it and mad that I wasn’t the one who wrote it when I first read it. I feel similar about Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry. Just so simple and yet complex at the same time. I use Bob Shea’s books as mentor texts all the time, too. Love his humor! I have a goal to write a nonfiction picture book one of these days. I have a draft done that I’d love to get out there one of these days.

Oh, I do love Bob Shea! I’ll need to put those others on my list.  I’m a new member of SCBWI, but you’re very involved with NJSCBWI.  (Which seems like a force to be reckoned with.)  When did you get involved?  How have you found your place? Well, I’m involved with NJSCBWI as a participant only. I do not organize anything with them. They are an amazing group of hardworking individuals who create awesome opportunities for the kid lit community. Their Fall Craft weekend was my first official writing event that I went to in November of 2013. Boy, have I come a LONG way since then. If anyone ever gets the chance to go to a NJSCBWI Spring Conference, it’s a must! As far as finding my place, I feel like I’m still doing that. I do have a reputation for wearing quirky dresses to events and people remember me from that. I think it helps me stand out and is also part of my “brand” as far as being an author who writes humorous stories.

Brilliant!! I mean I do love dresses, but I’m talking about your ability to set yourself apart from the crowd, in a way that’s perfectly authentic.  Bravo!  Now I’m rethinking my outfit for my conference this weekend. Okay, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of why you’re here… The Writers Match.  Tell me all about it!  The idea for The Writers Match had been swimming my head for a while. When I went to the NJSCBWI Fall Craft weekend in 2016, I was lamenting about how hard it was to find good critique partners to another writer and I explained my idea for a “match.com for critique partners”.  I decided to just make it happen. I can’t remember the exact date the website went live because it was “live” for a bit while I worked on it with my web developer. I had my trusted critique partner, Nicole, sign up first and be our guinea pig in all things TWM. We have 116 members today which is great considering I have not been able to advertise the site as widely as I want yet. I am hoping to get some ads in Writers Digest soon.

I love the profiles, the message system and the ability to filter members both by genre and by experience.  (Picture Books and Unpublished for me!) What do you think the best way to use the website is? Me, too! I really wanted it to be easy for people to search for suitable critique partners based on whatever criteria they wanted. For example, if you are writing a book that takes place in Florida but you live in Alaska, you should be able to search for a critique partner in Florida to help you with your setting. Or if you are a male writer writing a female character, you can search for women to give you feedback.

I think the way to get the most out of the site is to spend some time really writing out what you want in your profile. Write down if you love romance but hate historical fiction or if you are a sci-fi expert but would like to read a contemporary middle grade. It helps other writers get a sense of who you are and if you might “click” as critique partners.

Ah, I saw what you did there! Bonus points awarded for play-on-words! What is your vision for the future of TWM? I firmly believe that having good critique partners is the key to success as a writer. I would love to have a site where thousands of writers are swapping stories daily and making connections. Ultimately, I’d love to offer in-person critique partner meet-ups or critique conferences.

That’s a wonderful, big picture idea.  Then we can all support each other in the big (conference) and little (critique) ways.  Speaking of support, I know that in addition to TWM and SCBWI, you wear a lot of hats and seem to have many irons in the fire in your community.  How do you juggle writing and the rest of your life, raising an adorable young family and all that good stuff?   Thank you. My most important hat is “MOM”. I have two young daughters that take up a lot of my time. My older daughter just entered kindergarten, which has freed up the time that my younger daughter naps so I can do some work. I also try to get up at 6am so I can work for about an hour before they get up.  Last year when my older daughter took a dance class, I went to the library and worked while she danced. I squeeze it in wherever I find the time. I love my community so I try to be as involved as possible. I work with my son’s former school and PTO to organize a race every year to raise money for his school in memory of him. It takes months to organize and plan the race. We just had the race last Saturday so in the weeks leading up to it, I got no work done and that’s okay! I try to be gentle with myself and not put too much pressure on my writing self.

Sounds like great, healthy boundaries.  Slowly but surely, I think I’m getting there. What phase of your writing journey are you in now?  I feel like I am just on the threshold of being published which has made me a bit more impatient. It’s sort of like the third trimester of pregnancy; so close but it feels like a really long time and it’s hard to get sleep-ha! When I meet with agents and editors at conferences and events and they have positive things to say about my writing and stories, it’s a great feeling. When I submit those stories and get nothing but the sound of crickets in my inbox, it becomes frustrating. I recently had a great agent say, “I love this story! It’s perfect…but I’m not representing picture book authors at this time.” In those moments, I just shake my fist at the sky and yell, “NOOOOOO!” But, like life, publishing is a rollercoaster and I’m in it for the long haul. I currently have 10 queries out to agents and I’m trying to write as much as possible while I wait

Oh, I love that analogy! I feel your pain… but only in the actual pregnancy sense, not in the publishing way. Maybe I’m close to the end of my first trimester? Hmm… Interesting.  Since you’re so close, can you share what you consider the most valuable writing tools in your toolbox?  I recently won a scholarship for the 12×12 Challenge (12x12challenge.com) and it has helped me have the most prolific year of writing possible. I’ve written at least one draft each month and a few of those have been good enough to start querying with. I want to make sure I have a deep well of drafts from which to draw from when an agent comes knocking.

The program offers webinars, online support, critique partners, and unique querying opportunities each month. Other than that, I participate in Read for Research Month or ReFoReMo and StoryStorm. I will do anything that’s offered for free and I am always reading new books. I get huge stacks from the library every week or so. My kids love all the new books and they don’t realize it’s mom’s “work” to read them.

12×12 and ReForReMo are both on top of my to-do list.  I missed both in 2017, but don’t plan to let that happen again.  Do you have anything on your Kid Lit wish list that you hope to accomplish in the next year? Well, the ultimately goal is to have an agent, right? Fingers crossed that I get one soon! I plan to do at least one conference next year. As I said before, I love the NJSCBWI one and I really enjoyed going to the NESCBWI this past year so I may try to get there again. I’d LOVE to do a retreat but it may not be in the financial cards. I’d love to organize a retreat through The Writers Match with lots of critiquing and a professional to help. I think that would be awesome! As always, though, the goal is to just keep writing and to keep growing as a writer.

That sounds like a great plan, keeping sights set on both the ‘big goals’ and day-to-day writing at the same time.  Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us! I wish you all the best and look forward to crossing paths with you.  One day soon we’ll be celebrating your debut picture book, I can feel it! Thank YOU! I can feel it, too. I know the hard work will get me there!

And that’s not the only interview I have on-tap for this week! Come back Friday for the next installment of Paper People with Liz Wong.  Her debut picture book is the adorable Quackers and it’s a hot-ticket item right now.  Have you heard about Read for the Record? Are you signed up? Check out this video clip! You won’t want to miss our conversation! See you soon!

 

 

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

The Search for Mentor Texts

“Read more books about this topic,” she said, “Some of the best writers read 50 comp titles.”   I’ve heard this before, probably too many times.  “But I read picture books all the time!” I thought with frustration and also, “How the heck  am I going to get my hands on that many books?”   But in the spirit of critique group etiquette, I slept on it.  I thought it over.  I did my best to detach from my manuscript and read it with the same critical eye that she did. Guess what? She was right.  (That seems to be her pattern.) I am reading LOTS of picture books, but rather than reading with intention, I’ve fallen back into the habit of quickly casting a wide net that includes some new titles, a few old favorites and a couple that my kids grab on face value alone.

The challenge that my kids and I undertook this summer was to read 100 Picture Books.  But knowing myself and my tendencies to grab-&-go, I followed a list, as closely as possible, to guide us to stellar books we hadn’t yet read.  It was a smashing success, but since the summer has ended (early August around here), we’ve slacked off on our library runs and I’ve been a lot less intentional with my selections. Now that I’m writing more and polishing up a handful of manuscripts to begin the querying process, I need to hone in on the topics that I’m writing about now.  I need mentor texts. I need comp titles.  I need help.  Just a quick Google search usually reveals a good starting point.  If I’m lucky, there will be a Goodreads list on the topic.  Just for the sake of experiment, I searched for the following lists on Goodreads and was blown away by the results: Picture Books about… Seasons, Food, Family, Friendship, School, Geography, Emotions, Holidays, I could go on and on.  (Addendum, I just listened to a podcast that talked about utilizing Amazon searches/filters to find comps, another great idea.)

I also set off to the library as soon as it opened. Low and behold, there it was, the very book that my critique group facilitator suggested, waiting for me on display.  I read it and it was brilliant.  Having comparable titles has always been a bit of a struggle for me.  I understand their importance, but it just doesn’t come naturally. I could give you the laundry list of reasons why,  but  I’ll spare you the details.  They’re just excuses anyway.  Just because something doesn’t come easy, doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.  In fact, that’s the very reason I need to submerge myself in mentor texts.  Thankfully there are a number of social media outlets and though I had only heard of it, I knew it was time dive into the world of ReForReMo.  Reading for Research Month Challenge, held in March, “was developed to help picture book writers reform writing by reading and researching picture books.” (http://www.carriecharleybrown.com/reforemo).   I’m a few months early to sign up for the challenge, but there’s a Facebook group… request to join, sent and accepted.

The most wonderful thing happened, I found exactly what I was looking for!  Taking it further than this manuscript, I posted a question looking for mentor texts for another project.  For this second one, my searches weren’t producing much fruit but the members of the ReForReMo group sure did in a hurry.  Here’s just another great example of the Kid Lit community looking out for each other.  I know this world is filled with fantastic writers, many of them who still carry the pre– in front of published.  The fact is, I I feel blessed to be writing in this day & age (cue Full House theme song). So as I sit and soak up the goodness of this latest library haul, guided by suggestions, I’m sending up grateful vibes to the kid lit universe; grateful for the chance to just sit and read picture books on a Saturday morning, grateful for this new tool in my toolbox and especially grateful for my new ReForReMo friends, and the brains behind its wonderful operation.  Happy reading and happy writing!

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP