When all else fails… Revise AGAIN!

Megan Hoyt received her first picture book contract this year.

I have been at this children’s writing thing for about seven years now. It’s a little shocking that it can take so long to get a feel for what the business is all about, that it can take that long to allow your work to simmer and stew, to read a hundred picture books to get a feel for what separates mediocre from fabulous and to leave unpublishable behind forever. I recently became an agented writer. That’s a milestone! But I still have a ways to go. Is it a long way? Do I have seven more years to go before anything I have written for kids makes it into print? I don’t have any idea! But I hope not. I hope one of the picture books my agent is shopping around will be picked up. I received some positive feedback from one editor who said the work was scandalously witty, but they still passed on it. I think to a certain extent it’s a guessing game.

Will mine be the story they are looking for?

Is it written in the style a particular editor likes?

Did they publish something just like it last year?

Will I finally be at the right place at the right time?

A friend of mine joined a critique group a few years ago and her first submission — a puzzle for Highlights — was accepted. Highlights bought her puzzle! Sometimes you get a home run your first time up to bat, and that’s absolutely amazing! She is a talented writer. Brilliant, even. And here I sit, second guessing myself and revising, revising, revising, seven years later.

Here are a few strategies I’ve found to be helpful when the road gets rocky and I’m tempted to give in to discouragement:

1) Reread “how to” materials —  from books to old SCBWI conference notes to helpful websites to blogs and emails I’ve signed up for from people who know the business and have already been successful as published authors. Here are a few to get you started: http://www.jacketflap.com/ , http://www.underdown.org , http://www.write4kids.com/ , http://www.verlakay.com/ .

2) Implement a few of the techniques you’ve just read or reread. Go back to your manuscripts and one by one, pick them apart using the newfound knowledge you just gained. Here are a few tips to get you started:

a) Make sure your main character is loveable. There’s nothing less memorable than a character you have no reason to care about. When he gets into a predicament, you really don’t care if he gets out of it unless you are rooting for him! Try to remember, he’s your “care-actor.” We MUST care about his actions!

b) Make sure that your main character is facing large enough obstacles and working out how to resolve them on his own. Don’t send in a magic fairy to save the day! Let your main character figure out what to do through interacting with others, being courageous, taking the high road when the low road would be easier, etc.

c) Use strong, lively words rather than weak, mushy ones. If your character is loveable and your plot is thick and juicy like a porterhouse steak freshly grilled to perfection, but your words, especially verbs and adjectives,  are weak (nice, pretty, kind, ugly, mean, good), no editor is going to publish your work!

3) Last, join a critique group, meet often, form great friendships, and laugh a lot! We are all in this together, and in order to survive the sometimes lengthy period before your manuscript reaches the publishable stage, you’re going to need one another like I need my fellow Mudskippers!

Keep writing!

Megan Hoyt

Is it ever okay, or even appropriate, to give up the dream? No!

It was the year from H-E-Double Hockey Sticks. My mother passed away. My teenaged daughter told me she was pregnant. We almost lost our home to foreclosure. I felt like putting up a white flag, curling up in bed, and giving up. My mind was spinning, and my heart was broken. The thing is – and I’ve been told this ever since I was handed my first diary as a child – writing can help ease the pain of trauma. And I’ve learned the truth in that statement firsthand.

I don’t write in a journal like ordinary people. Not that I’m extraordinary – I’ve been called eccentric and odd before, but never extraordinary. I guess I found it dull and uninteresting to write down the events of the day as they happened to me when I could write them as if someone else, a character in a novel, was experiencing them. She could have an exotic name like Alexandra Phillippa Rossini, long flowing blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes instead of Clairol-coated frizzy gray with wrinkles and a double chin. Alexandra’s mother could die tragically in a carriage accident on the rocky road to Ambleside, in the lake district of England in 1889 where her daughter lay ill on the eve of her arranged marriage, or having been poisoned by a jilted lover. Alexandra’s life could be way more exotic than mine, no?

You may want to set aside time first thing in the morning or last thing at night to write down your thoughts and feelings during a season of intense stress, whether in character or out. As long as you keep writing, your skills won’t slacken. And even if you end up throwing away all the pages or hitting delete six months down the road as you realize every word on the page was sappy, self-indulgent drivel, at least you were writing! You can congratulate yourself for not giving up when the going got tough.

I say, write, write, write, and continue to write – whether your arm is in a sling from a skiing accident, your mind is in a whirl because of unemployment and rejection after rejection, your husband left you for an Alexandra-esque other woman, or you are utterly indisposed in some other way. Life is short, and getting published is tough. We have to be strong, establish schedules, meet deadlines, and never give up. If I have anything to share when it comes to life’s big and little interruptions, both happy and sad, it would be this: Never stop writing!

I was recently encouraged by this video clip of Ray Bradbury, talking about his early short story-writing career. The turning point in his writing came as a result of dealing with a tragedy in his life. I was intrigued. You’ll see why.

A Mudskipper is born…

by Jennifer Hudson

For the past several years, I have ventured into the world of writing children’s books.  As a novice, it is a very intimidating world to enter.  Shortly after I began writing, my friend Beth begged me to come to a meeting.  A group of children’s book writers were planning to start a critique group.  Reluctantly I agreed.  Surrounded by a diverse group of talented and dedicated children’s book writers, I was even more humbled.  I told Beth I didn’t belong in such a group, but she convinced me to join anyway.  Thus, I became a Mudskipper.

While I take baby steps to becoming a children’s book writer, I feel like a toddler.  Toddlers go through a developmental stage as they begin to explore their environment.  They wander a certain distance from their mother and then stop.  They are nervous and uncomfortable about how far they are from mom, so they quickly run back to home base.  Mom looks down at them, says an encouraging word or lays a hand on their shoulder and they are refueled.  They can venture out a little further the next time.    

Until now, I have only written picture books.  I had an idea for a novel.  After discussing it with Beth one night, I sat and wrote out the introduction and first chapter.  I suddenly stopped, disgusted.  It wasn’t writers block, I just had no idea how to go any further.  It wasn’t working and I decided writing novels is for the more serious, talented writers.  I put it away.

At our last Mudskippers meeting, our newest member, Valerie, asked the group, “Is anyone working on a novel?”

I looked away.  Finally, I mumbled “I’m not good enough of a writer for that.”  But as the small group discussed novels, I decided to throw out my idea of what I had started.  The enthusiasm and energy of the group was contagious as they helped me figure out how to get started again.

“Just write different scenes,” Tameka told me.  “You can figure out later how to weave them together.”

I was refueled.  I came home from the meeting and sat down and wrote out three scenes.  And I continue to work on more.  I’m not sure how far I’ll get with this novel, but I can count on my critique group to refuel me whenever I need encouragement.