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

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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

Let’s Talk, Writing Picture Books (and so much more)!

It was one of those surreal moments that will forever be embedded in my brain.  Right in my inbox, an email from the Contact Me page here on my blog. She read my recent post and thanked me for mentioning her book.  This line was the kicker, “If you ever want to interview me for your blog, I’m available… “ANN WHITFORD PAUL, Y’ALL!  I started this blog to make connections, but this was more than I dreamed of.  You see there was a time at the end of last year when I decided that it was time to invest in myself and my writing journey.  Being a one (and a half) income family with three small kids, a mortgage and a life, I had to spend wisely.  At that time, I wasn’t fully aware of the expansive Kid Lit online community, but I did come across a deeply discounted webinar package that came with a copy of Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul.  I had been eyeing this book for months, and the price of the whole bundle was exactly what I was looking for.  As soon as the book came in, I devoured it and it has since found a permanent spot on my nightstand.  For me, this book was the beginning of my education as a writer; it’s my kid lit foundation.  In addition to her impressively informative book, my kids and I are also huge fans of her picture books and she has another coming out soon! So, I invite you to come along for my conversation with Ann as we talk about her writing career, including books for both children and adults.

Thank you so much for agreeing to visit with me, Ann! This is such a wonderful treat.  Can you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you started writing for Children?  I was born and lived mostly in the Midwest, Chicago and Madison Wisconsin, with interludes in Philadelphia.  Graduated from the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University School of Social Work.  I worked for several years in a hospital where I met my husband.  Our honeymoon was a drive across country to California where he had taken a job.  I stopped doing social work when the first of my four children were born and would have loved working part-time but Ronald Reagan was governor and cutting back on social programs.  I had to find something else and it was that lovely quiet time of reading with my children that inspired me to try writing books that other grown-ups and children could share together.

Your first picture book was published in 1985, and you have upcoming books scheduled for the next two years, how tremendous! How do you keep up with the changing industry?  How do you keep your writing skills sharp? I think I keep up with the changing industry badly.  It’s been a special challenge when editors are looking for “edgy”.  That’s not me, but I do try to add a little more humor to my writing and to think outside the box.  Still, I’m me and it’s hard for me not to write who I am.  I keep my writing skills sharp by writing every single day and I belong to a monthly kid’s lit group where we discuss a new middle-grade or YA and a picture book.  That keeps me up with the latest publishing trends.

What is the most interesting shift in the children’s book market that you notice happening now? When I started out in the business, most sales went to the school and library market.  Now on-line and independent stores are where the sales are going.  That means the books have to appeal to parents who are not necessarily savvy about what makes a good story.  Art is becoming much more important and especially what appears on the cover to attract buyers. 

In 2009, 24 years after your debut picture book was released you published Writing Picture Books.  What prompted you to put this book together?  Was there anything new about the publishing process in writing for adults? I had been teaching for over ten years at UCLA Extension and at numerous conferences.  One of my students suggested, no pushed and prodded, me to write a book.  It was certainly a challenge, but once I told myself to look at each chapter as a long picture book, I was able to fool myself into thinking I could do it.  One of the super-nice things about writing for adults is that I didn’t have to split my earnings with an illustrator.  And I hear back from so many writers about how the book has helped them.  I love getting those notes and e-mails.

I have to tell you, my critique partners and I call your book ‘The Picture Book Bible’. Writing Picture Books is filled with such invaluable information and advice.  How did you organize and compile all your thoughts for the book?  See what I mean about hearing back from writers.  Thanks so much!  The organization was actually fairly easy, because I tried to organize my classes around those chapter subjects.  Also, because I’d given many talks, I was able to adapt some of those into the book.

 It sure seems to have a life of its own. Has the book accomplished everything you hoped since its publication?   What does the future hold for Writing Picture Books?I’m so glad you asked this question, because right now I am deep into doing an updated and revised edition of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS which will be published fall 2018.  There will be some new chapters, all new examples and all new books cited.  Also, Writer’s Digest Books (the publisher) and I are partnering to fund the SCBWI Most-Promising Picture Book Award to recognize and encourage the work of aspiring picture book writers.

Ohh, that’s very exciting!  I can only imagine the wisdom those pages will hold.  Since you’ve taught so many of us HOW to write, I’m curious, what is the most important piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer?  “Write what you know.”  I’m aware that’s mundane and everyone has heard it over and over again, but I’m an insecure writer and have lived a fine and thankfully uneventful life.  I’ve never saved a child from drowning, never stopped a bank robbery and never swam the English Channel, (but my son did) so I worried, and still sometimes do, wondering what on earth I have to write about.  But years ago at an SCBWI conference, hearing those words made me think about the patchwork I loved sewing and about how the names of the patterns spoke of long ago life.  I was so inspired, I finished the manuscript for EIGHT HANDS ROUND: A PATCHWORK ALPHABET IN six months.  That my hobby, my love of history and how people lived, could resonate with others (the book is still in print after twenty-five years) has made me less likely to push aside my ideas that might seem pedestrian.  I accept that my ideas might be boring to me, but exciting and fascinating to others.  Write what you know and are passionate about and your stories will touch others.

 Such great advice!  I try to remind myself often to be authentic in my writing, I can only tell my stories, not someone else’s right?  Speaking of my stories, I’ve learned from more than just your book, in your webinar for Kid Lit College, you talk about the importance of making a dummy.  That webinar is still one of my favorites. It completely reinforced what you wrote about in Writing Picture Books and totally transformed my creative process.  Why is making a dummy such a crucial step for writers? I’m glad you found making a dummy so helpful and transformative.  It was, and continues to be, the same for me.  There’s something about seeing your words cut out and pasted onto pages that you have to turn that shows you where your story weaknesses are.  Invariably when I make a dummy, I find words that can be cut.  Recently I’ve noticed in my writing that I tend to go on a bit too long after the problem has been solved.  That usually means I don’t have enough in the middle of my story or that I can delete or tighten the wrap-up at the end.  The act of reading my dummy aloud and turning the pages helps me to create stronger page turns also.  I would never submit a manuscript without making a dummy first.

Next month (October 2017) you’re scheduled to release If Animals Said I Love You.  This makes your Animals an adorable series. Congratulations!  Can you tell us a little about how the second book came about, eight years later? (If Animals Kissed Goodnight, 2009 was the first) On a trip to New York, I decided it would be a good time to meet the editor, Janine O’Malley, who had taken over for my original editor on IF ANIMALS KISSED GOOD NIGHT and had a lot to do with making it into a board book.  I arrived at an auspicious time for that very day, FS&G had ordered a huge reprinting of the book.  The board book, much to my joy and delight, had taken off in this new format.  In that meeting, Janine had suggested writing a follow-up, which I did.  I wrote TWO!  One about animals bathing in tubs and another about animals wearing clothes.  She rejected them both and suggested I write IF ANIMALS SAID I LOVE YOU.  I was doubtful.  Wasn’t that very close to IF ANIMALS KISSED?  However, my son Alan and his family live in South Africa and we were headed there for a visit and I determined to at least try and write that story while there.  We went on several safaris where I made notes and wrote couplets about them.  Also we went trekking to see Gorillas.  Something I would never do again—three hours straight up to find them.  I ached for days afterwards.  To make this story a bit different, I decided not just to have parents and children express love, but grandparents and cousins and siblings.  The manuscript was completed during our three week trip.

That sounds like the trip of a lifetime, and it was productive to boot! Fabulous! I actually have a safari themed manuscript and going on safari is on top of my vacation wish list, now my wheels are turning… Hmmm… Okay, before I get carried away let’s get back to the good stuff… The rhythm and rhyme scheme of If Animals Kissed Goodnight is one of my all-time favorites.  Was writing the second book more, or less challenging than you anticipated?  It was both.  When there’s a first book, the format is already determined, so you’re kind of locked into it.  The challenge for me was to work to differentiate the two since they were both about ways of expressing love.

While I was preparing for this interview, I read a 2013 interview you did with Henry Herz and I realized we share a love of Jane Austen! Just to make sure my daughter started her little life off right, I read Pride & Prejudice to her as a newborn.  Are you reading anything now?  Who’s your favorite author? Jane Austen is definitely my favorite author.  I’m also hooked on Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mystery series.  I belong to three different book clubs so am always in the middle of a book—one is a couples reading club, another women only (and you wouldn’t be surprised to discover that co-ed book clubs are drawn to different books than the single-sex ones.)  In addition, I belong to a book club of teachers, librarians and writers and illustrators that read one novel (middle-grade or YA) and one picture book each month.  We post our discussions here:http://bookchatthursday.blogspot.com/

Is there anything else you have coming out soon?  Where can my readers find you if they want to follow along?

There are two more books upcoming in the animal series.

IF ANIMALS SAID MERRY CHRISTMAS will be published in the fall of 2018

IF ANIMALS WENT TO SCHOOL will be published in the fall of 2019

WRITING PICTURE BOOKS—New and Revised edition will be published in the fall of 2018.

I publish a monthly (sometimes less frequently) newsletter that you can sign up for here:

Sign up for my e-mail newsletter

Check out my web-site www.annwhitfordpaul.com.

Thank you so much for sharing your time, energy and wisdom with me! I had such a hard time narrowing my questions down to these 12.  Congratulations on your upcoming releases! Happy Writing! 

 Guess what? I have ANOTHER exciting interview coming next week… actually, make that TWO.  First up, is my chat with Megan Ur-Taraszkiewicz, founder of The Writer’s Match.  Do you have enough critique partners? Do you have a go-to place to find and connect with more?  If you answered ‘No’ to either of those questions, stop what you’re doing and check out The Writer’s Match.  It’s a free website that creates critique partnerships and allows you to search based on genre, experience level, and more.  I’ve had great success, and I know you will too! And after I share Megan and I’s chat, it’ll be time for Paper People with Liz Wong, author/illustrator of the adorable Quackers.  She has so many exciting things happening, you definitely don’t want to miss it.  Okay, that’s all for now.

And after I share Megan and I’s chat, it’ll be time for Paper People with Liz Wong, author/illustrator of the adorable Quackers.  She has so many exciting things happening, you definitely don’t want to miss it.  Okay, that’s all for now.

 

See you Friday!

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

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!

Turning the spotlight

There’s one thing that I take almost as seriously as my writing, and that’s my critiquing.  For those of you not familiar with this aspect of the Kid Lit world, I’ll fill you in because it’s a curious but necessary process. You can pay people to critique your manuscript, join critique groups, and/or establish critique partnerships.  It’s a swapping of stories, suggestions, and constructive criticism, from people across the industry.  Think of it as “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” but instead it’s “You read mine, provide feedback, I’ll gladly do the same.”  Many published authors provide critiquing services for a fee since they have the industry insight and personal success to stand on, but there are countless free opportunities as well.  I’ve talked about it before, I have a group, a few partnerships and some experience with paid services.

I enjoy critiquing, and as I said, I take it seriously.  If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a posse to publish a book.  I try hard not to use empty words, keeping my comments productive and never shy away from the hard/awkward/clumsy/obvious questions.   I approach every critique as a way to help another writer, and I’m hopeful that those who look at my work for me do the same.  It’s all about karma, folks. I want to be an active and engaged member of this community. I want to contribute in a way that helps me to find success but also helps others on their way to publication.  I want to be known as a good and effective critique partner.

Every chance I can, I learn something about writing, and the same is true for my critiques.  I make notes and follow a similar set of questions/prompts.  I always give it more than one look, and usually ‘put a sleep cycle on it.’ Do you know what I don’t do?  I don’t do a very good job when it comes to critiquing myself.  This glaring truth surfaced this week, as I was getting ‘final’ thoughts from a couple of different partners, and they each sent stories my way.  I thought about the WIP that I’m readying for a contest, and realized that if I looked at my own work, I would have comments for days! What’s the deal? Why is there a disconnect in my brain?  How is it that I can hold others to higher standards but my own story slips by with major structural/formatting issues? Thankfully this came to light in time to shine the light on my own work.  I took my critiquing process and turned the tables, forcing myself to look at my WIP as someone else would.  To make a long story short, it was a roller coaster and my self-esteem took a hit.  Thankfully, I’m resilient and I was able to work through it.  I think, and hope, that I elevated my story to a new, and necessary level.  As soon as I hit ‘publish’, I’m sending in my contest entry.  He’s as ready as he’ll ever be.  Wish me luck!

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Finding his voice

Nathan.  The beloved main character of my precious, first manuscript.  I know him better than anyone, obviously, and sometimes refer to him as my fourth child.   It’s been over a year since I wrote his story and am constantly trying to do him justice.  I am a significantly better writer today than I was one year ago, at least when it comes to picture books,  so I know it’s improving.  There’s still something missing though; a disconnect that I haven’t been able to put my finger on.  He actually came close to getting shelved, since I last blogged about him, except I promised him a contest entry at the end of this month.  That makes me panic because he’s still not ready.

I have a critique partner who often says, “I love your voice!” when we swap emails about writing, mom-ing and all kinds of other unrelated randomness.  If this weren’t an electronic friendship, I’d think she was making fun of my thick Cajun accent. (Which thankfully not many of you have heard that yet! (I hope you find it ‘charming’ when you do.) I know what she’s saying, I’m animated and excited when I’m writing authentically.  I use A LOT of exclamation points, and I write what I speak when it comes to easy correspondence. I’ve known for a long time, that when I start trying too hard, my writing comes across as serious and stuffy.  It’s the difference between polite birthday party conversation and having a cup of coffee with a good friend.  It wasn’t until she said this, and did so more than once, that I had a bit of a writer’s revelation.  I think his voice is missing.

Sure, you could argue that his voice is actually my voice, but it’s missing none the less.  Here’s what I realized, going way back to the beginning.  I thought that writing in rhyme, which is how Nathan’s story started, was a good disguise.  A cute, rhyming rhythm was a way to glaze over the fact that I have a serious tone and limited knowledge.  Fast forward a few months, I learned a lot and shed the rhyme.  No doubt, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done, but it left holes in my story.  I’ve filled in many of the holes but never made it around to this one. Like all great critique partners, she issued a challenge.  Write the story from his perspective; tell it in his words.  So, that’s what my next move will be.  I’m going to take my third person story, and write it in first person, from the angle of a five-year-old boy.  I don’t imagine it’ll stay like this, but I do believe that it will reap great rewards.  I’m even cutting this short and sweet so I can get to my homework assignment.  The contest opens July 15, I’m writing on borrowed time!

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Happy Birthday-ish!

This week I’ll celebrate a birthday of sorts.  Not my actual birthday, though today is my sisters …Happy Birthday, AC! But this coming Thursday, June 15 will mark one year, to the day, that my first picture book manuscript was written.  I had been struggling with the desire to write for years, although at times I couldn’t identify the urge.  I started with a novel.  Eesh… then for a while most of my reading was Lifestyle/Parenting Blogs… I tried my hand at that too.  It took me entirely too long to realize that I was completely avoiding the genre that called out the loudest to me.  If I’m honest, I probably ignored the internal call to write picture books for six months before acquiescing myself to the idea. Even then I waited for the inspiration but to bite. Then one day, while traveling home from a business trip, enjoying the summer sunshine and the quiet car… BAM… it happened and Nathan’s story was born.  In fact, I remember being so overwhelmed with excitement and inspiration that I started talking out loud to myself and did so for the rest of the drive home.  For the next few days, I was completely preoccupied with the story, until I finally sat down and on June 15 put in on paper.  The preoccupation hasn’t lessened, and my desire to write has only grown.  It’s been a wonderful year. It’s been a stressful year.  I’ve been fortunate to make some exciting connections and have bigger, more exciting adventures on the horizon.

I love the original draft of Nathan’s story, and I can still recite it in its entirety.  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that it could be a poster child for’ Everything You Shouldn’t Do When You Write a Picture Book’.  I literally made every mistake in the book.  The ones I didn’t make, I can promise you I made in the second draft.  The Original, as I’ve affectionately named it, rhymed with no reason or method to it, opened with a terrible cliché, had almost no conflict, and his mother was the protagonist.  It held no character development, no story arc, a preachy-theme and too many words.  It was a hot mess.  Thankfully I’ve learned a lot, though I still do love the mess.  What I love more, however, is where the story stands now.

My birthday present to myself, and to Nathan is a contest.  Rate Your Story, a website that allows its members to submit stories to editors and authors for feedback, hosts an annual contest open to members and non-members alike.  (I’m not a member, but I’ve love to hear from you if you are!) The 2017 RYS contest opens for entries from July 15th-July 31st and I do believe he’s grown up enough to enter.  I’ve enjoyed the experience of sending my kids off to school for the first time, and I hope this contest is no different.  I have a month to make sure his uniform fits, his hair is trimmed and there’s no food on his face.   My opener is cute, there are no rhymes, he is his own hero and I finished in just under 500 words.  His mom only makes a cameo and no longer has any speaking lines, though his younger sister shines in a lovable supporting role. He’s met two freelance editors, and been through eight different critique partners! It’s not always easy to read feedback on my work, but I’m so grateful for every bit that I’ve received.  I think my boy is as ready as he’ll ever be.

Another thing I’m treating myself to this summer is learning more about the world of Non-Fiction Picture Book writing.  As a science and history buff, it seems obvious that I would enjoy this style of writing but I’ve not yet exposed myself to this side of the industry.  Thanks to some guidance and encouragement, I’m signed up for a weeklong on-line seminar called WOW-NonFicPic, hosted by Kristen Fulton.  This will almost certainly be something I expound upon here as I learn more… that’s the point of all this blogging, after all.  I’ve included the link to both the contest and the seminar below in case you want more information.

https://rateyourstory.blogspot.com/p/writing-contest.html

http://www.kristenfulton.org/wow-nonficpic.html

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

JP

Clutter.

If you visit my house, you would see that I’m a ‘stacker’ by nature.  It’s always clean but sports a lived-in look.  With summer break staring me in the face and having 3/3 kiddos at home with me after this week, I was starting to sweat.  The only way I can even think about our time together, and not feel overwhelmed, is by finding a way to pare down first. So, I declared May the month to ‘clear out the clutter’.  I’ve made my way through the pantry, fridge, linen closet and laundry room ‘catch-all’ closet.  Today I tackled my own closet, and this coming week it’s my kid’s turn. (Lone socks, stained clothes, and kids-meal toys, beware.) I’ve even managed to move a little furniture around in the process.

That should’ve been my cue.  When furniture starts moving around my home, internal shifts start happening.  I can think of numerous times, large and small, conscious and unconscious that I started moving furniture around when I needed a good kick in the pants.  I’ll give you an easy example; Last summer, my oldest daughter found herself gripped with anxiety about her upcoming first-grade year.  She had heard horror stories about how much more difficult first grade was the kindergarten.  By the time she could explain her emotions and her convictions that she wouldn’t do well, it was almost enough to ruin the summer.  So, I used a dose of my ‘therapy’ with her and we moved her bedroom furniture around.  Together, she and I rearranged her room, using all her existing furniture and decorations, but when we were finished it had a completely different feel.  We declared it her ‘first-grade room’, and slowly, in her new space, she found the confidence she needed to face the school year.  Here we are at the end of first grade, and she did beautifully, just like I knew she would.

This week, it was my turn. I finally admitted that I was in a rut.  It was three-fold too; a mom-rut, a work- rut and a writing- rut.  Coincidentally, or not, as three pieces of furniture switched places and changed roles, I started to find my way out. From a writing standpoint, it felt contradictory, because I was writing more than normal.  Once I was honest with myself though, I’m not sure how much of it was productive.  I rarely feel like I have enough time to write, but suddenly I found my scale tipping towards the quantity as opposed to the quality. I’m trying to iron out wrinkles in my Picture Book manuscript and I’m finishing up a Board Book entry for a contest with a deadline quickly approaching.  I was editing, revising, rewording and reworking and not feeling confident that any of it was advancing my stories.  Thankfully, I received timely feedback from other writers who helped me keep focus and stay the course.   On the day that I moved furniture around, I also had a long talk with myself about my energy and expectations.  I’ve written already about designating time to write each day.  Somehow I fell out of practice, so I took a step back, re-read my post and pressed the reset button.   As I’ve cleaned through the clutter in my home, I’ve managed to start sifting through the creative clutter as well.

My to-do list for this week is lengthy,

  • I need to polish up my BB contest cover letter and entry. I have some rhyming wrinkles and inverted grammar to iron out.
  • I plan to work out a few more kinks on my PB manuscript. I hope to have it ready to send back to a critique partner and get another round of feedback.  If someone can help me know ‘when to say when’ and stop editing this thing I would be eternally grateful.  Do you ever really feel “done” with a manuscript?
  • I have a Sunday post (done) and a Wednesday post (blank) to work on.
  • I also have an idea brewing for a blog series to start this summer, I need to do some homework on it… stay tuned!
  • Organizing my kid’s closets and drawers… a mountain of a task.
  • I need clear work boundaries. In my real job, meaning the ‘not-writing-but-pays-the-bills’ one, I work from home. I love it, and I struggle with it too.  I owe it to my work, and my kids to find a rhythm that will work well for the summer.
  • Did I mention I have two books waiting to be read? Yikes!
  • Oh, yes, tball and softball games this week, too.

Thanks to the antique yellow pie cabinet that’s now residing in my living room, and even a new header image here on Magnolias & Manuscripts, I’m ready for the challenge.  I always appreciate that you take a few moments from your own busy day to spend time here.  I always hope you consider it a good use of your time.

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Lessons from a Dummy

It’s a fact, the dummy changed my life.  Dramatic as that may sound, from the perspective of a picture book writer who felt stuck in her own revision process, it’s completely true.   I’ve known about the concept of dummy picture books for months now, and I’ve heard (or read) tons of people talk about what a necessary step it is.  I must be a slow learner because I’ve been avoiding it until this week.  But I did it, and I love it and I can’t wait to talk about it.

I used scrapbook paper because I like the weight of the paper in my hands.  After I cut them in half, stapled them together and numbered them 1-32, I pasted in my text.  I started on page 5. (And if anyone has a different opinion on this, please share.) For this dummy, which will be the first of many, I just separated my sentences into what I thought would work best.  You have to start somewhere, right?  It blew my mind what a different feel the story had, now that it’s not in paragraph form on 8.5 x 11” sheets of paper, and instead actually resembles a book.  Many of my hiccups became clear, as did clumsy wording and soft spots in my story.  There are a few of my sentences that need to be tightened up, and for probably one-third of those, I could easily see how to do so. I’m going to keep chipping away at the edits that are surfacing from this experience.  Of course, I’m going to make another, if not more after that, touching things up along the way. How crazy that I was leaving out this incredibly crucial step!

As I’m still digesting the revelation that I talked about in my last post, and coming off my ‘dummy’ high, I know what wrinkles need to be ironed out now… Read Aloud Potential.  It’s the obvious next step and is exactly what the dummy is helping me to discover.  I don’t just want to write a picture book; I want to write some kid’s favorite picture book.  On top of that, I want to write one that parents love to read to their children.  (aka Panda Cake!)  That’s where the magic happens in this corner of the market, and it’s completely unique to picture books.  I know my opinion of the book I’m reading affects the quality of my reading and the tone of my voice.  I know the pain of being asked to read a story to one of my kids that I REAAALLLYYYY don’t like, or when I suggest one that’s not a favorite of my kids. On the other hand, I know the joy and delight that comes when I read a story that we all love, and what a richer experience it makes.  I want to write one of those, and I need its real aloud potential to be off the charts.  (Mary Kole just posted a great video blog on this exact thing, you can find it here if you want more info)

So, the moral of this story… make a dummy of your picture book manuscript, in fact, make a dozen.  I’m going to the store tomorrow, stacking up on paper and glue sticks, and will turn my sweet little writing desk into a dummy factory.

 

In somewhat unrelated news… Kid Lit College is having a Board Book contest, with two categories (standard & novelty) going on now through May 31.  There’s also a chapter book contest going at the same time.  I’m going to enter the board book contest with a blend of one of my NaPiBoWriWee stories and a previous project!  The winner gets their manuscript critiqued by five editors, what a great opportunity.

Also, my daughter finished and submitted her #50PreciousWordsforKids entry.  We had a blast working on her story together.  This was one she had previously written but was way above the word limit, so we talked and walked through a bit of editing together.  Mother-Daughter editing; it did get as dicey as it sounds, but that was short-lived, and she was very proud of her finished product.  You can read Mia the Cat and all of the entries here. The contest received entries from 15 states and 6 different countries.  It was a wonderful lesson for my seven-year-old on just how small the world is while at the same time expanding her view beyond the city limits of our small town.  Whew, I think that’s all I have for today.

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP