Joining my first online critique group gave me the boost that I needed to start writing again. It felt great to be critiquing and to be critiqued! My only regret is that I wish I had created new stories at that time. Because I was in a new group, I chose to get fresh eyes on older manuscripts. Looking back, I see the importance of challenging myself to keep writing new material.
Speaking of critique groups, I will share a bit about listening to critique partners. If this sounds preachy, please know that I AM speaking to myself! But I'd like to share my experience and advice, TAKE OUT THE DOGS!
In a manuscript that I am currently working on, I wrote in a pack of wild dogs to create tension in the story. About 50% of the critiques said to take out the dogs. They were too scary for young kids. I resisted. Instead, I tried replacing the word "wild" with hungry, mangy, and dirty. I even added a puppy!
I felt the manuscript was in pretty good shape. But there was still that nagging, it-can-be-better feeling. I was not able to revise at that time. It needed space. So I put it away for a while. Later, after several more critiques, I experimented with adding a sibling, changing the POV, and adding metaphors. Through this process, the dogs miraculously disappeared! They really weren't necessary! My story went under a significant transformation.
Now, I feel it. My manuscript is submission-ready!
Listen, even if it's advice you don't think you will need.
Try a new approach.
Take out the dogs! Or, as they say, kill your darlings!
Every writer needs that someone. That someone that inspires you and encourages you to keep writing when you feel you can't, or when you've lost steam.
In 2014, I was well into a new relationship with my now-husband. The absence from writing, a couple of years prior, had created space for romance. ❤ Although my stories never left my mind, dating took time, and there were only so many hours in a day!
Words were not flowing. Well, maybe spinning circles in my head, but definitely not finding their way out. Lucky for me, my friend, Marlene, my writerly someone, began sending me her picture book manuscripts to critique again. This invitation reignited my interest.
In 2015, she formed an online critique group and asked me to join. Although commonplace now, they weren't back then. I was thrilled! It was my first online group. Ideas were put into words. Words became sentences that did find their way to my fingertips, and new stories were written. I was BACK!
Take a break if you need it.
Say YES to opportunities.
Treasure your friends.
In honor of my long-time critique partner, please check out Marlene Susan's picture book!
"This is a beautiful, sweet, smart book about breastfeeding and weaning. There is no reason in the world not to buy this book for yourself and your breastfeeding friends. I loved it."
Dr. Jay Gordon
In the years 2009-2013, my life had taken on new form. I liken it to Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold. A separation from my ex threw me into a trajectory I had not anticipated. I continued to write for a couple of years while relearning what it was like to be single. But in the next few years, my attention focused on friendships and even dating again. There seemed little time to write. I sometimes wonder - If I had continued writing through those years, would I have been published sooner? There's no guessing. Let bygones ...
The truth is, life breaks us sometimes, and when we are broken, we do what we need to do to get through the days. We are fragile and feel that our scars are visible for the world to see. We acclimate and begin to glue our shattered selves back together. The wounds heal and reshape us. They make us stronger, more confident, and definitive. Some observe and whisper damaged, but others recognize resilience and understand that beauty is not in perfection.
Every bit of air I grasped out of frustration,
Every argument I suppressed,
Every smile I wore to disguise worry from my daughter,
Every goal I put on hold,
lead me to this exact moment in time,
the time that counts down four months to be a published author.
I'm not broken. I'm golden.
Life will always intervene.
Take the time to take care of yourself.
Face the world in whatever state you are in ...Keep moving forward!
NEXT ISSUE: 2014 - Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!
PHOTO: "The cleaned seams (inside)" by Pomax is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I recently read an article by Scientific American about how the brain becomes more creative as it relaxes. It explains why inspiration comes to me in moments such as these.
I have more time to explore these moments now, but back in 2008, I wrote during small time-outs of being a mom, teacher, and wife. It was more difficult back then, and my writing started to slow.
I required a half an hour to shift from thinking about laundry, lesson plans, and major life changes to writing stories about an elephant with big problems, poetry inspired by A.A. Milne and preparing my short silent film for an LA film festival. That doesn't leave many minutes of the day for creative time.
I spent a large part of my time traveling in my car, traveling from one student's home to the next. Piles of notes with scribbled ideas accumulated, which eventually made their way into a lengthy google document. And while 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there wasn't ideal. It was what I could do at the time.
Inspiration kept me moving forward. It helped me handle a full-time job, my four-year-old daughter, the want of a second child, and pressing pause on my marriage. (This last part is not a recommendation, but it is what happened!)
Recognize the ebb and flow.
Keep scratch paper everywhere!
Find small moments to press pause and let inspiration happen!
NEXT ISSUE: 2009 - The Year of Break-ups.
How are you inspired? Please leave a comment.
A friend of a friend was a published kid lit writer. Her first suggestion was to join the SCBWI (Society of Children's' Books Writer's and Illustrators). So I did. My first real critique group came together after a couple of failed attempts, which is important to mention because finding the right critique group is like fitting into the right pair of jeans or bathing suit. Personalities, dependability, commitment, flexibility, and proximity all factored in.
Di and I found each other through the SCBWI online forum in 2007. A fledgling group of eight met in Pasadena in attempts to flesh out something permanent. A wide variety of manuscripts made this attempt a struggle, but we all sat together at a crowded table, reading and critiquing each other's pages. I wrote in a minimalistic fashion even in the early days, and it was passed around with very few comments. I didn't know how to interpret that! Good, bad, lukewarm? The last person to speak was Di. She had a LOT to say, and it was then and there that I knew I wanted to work with her.
Craving constructive feedback on my stories, we decided to meet on our own. My home being close in proximity to hers might have been the catalyst for her reaching out to me. (Those were the days before online critique groups exploded) She was a far experienced writer, but that didn't stop me. In one of our first meetings, I recall advising her to cut out the entire beginning of a manuscript and begin at another spot. I wasn't confident about my critiquing abilities so early on, but when we attended a conference in Santa Ana and the professional critiquer suggested the same, I felt I was faking it a little less.
At the end of the conference, we were approached by Ben, an aspiring YA (young adult) author. At a later date, Steve, a screenwriter friend working on picture books, joined us. And so it went, every two weeks, the four of us, two picture book writers, and two YA writers met at the Coffee Table for breakfast and writerly babblings.
Di was an English professor, and I learned more about writing from her than from any of my high school or college classes. I'm not saying that those classes and teachers were terrible. It was more about my willingness to learn the craft, which didn't ignite until I was well into my forties.
In this group, we didn't sugar coat anything. We told it how we saw it. We probably used a variation of the sandwich method of critiquing, the outer layers of bread, suggesting the positives about the manuscript, held the middle goodness, the hard critiques. Ours was more like an open-faced sandwich. One layer of what we liked about the story and a pile of hard critiques. We usually spent our time defended our writings and asking questions about why segments of our manuscripts didn't work. We debated, went home, mulled it over, and usually returned to the next meeting agreeing that the group was right. I'm still guilty of using the open-faced sandwich method sometimes, something I'm trying to improve in my critiques, but we sure did learn a lot, and this group propelled me forward in so many ways.
That year offered another first, acceptance of a piece in Highlights Magazine. Cool! I read that magazine as a kid. That was the encouragement I needed at the time. I wrote almost a dozen stories that year, none of which became anything except a notch on my learning ladder. But I am grateful to this group for getting me to show up, making me accountable, and giving me a foundation in which to grow as a writer.
We did eventually split up, each of us following new directions. It took some searching to find groups after this one that felt right, and life definitely intervened at times. Luckily, I had another friend that kept pulling me back in.
Challenge yourself to improve!
Although I signed my book contract in 2020, 2019 was the "it" year. The events of 2019 propelled forward the culminating years of writing. If you've ever had that feeling of flying in a dream. That year felt like the moment of liftoff. There were some false starts - several of them, but momentum was gaining with the near misses of that year.
With time permitting, I immersed myself in webinars, conferences, contests, and submissions. There was Julie Hedland's 12 Days of Christmas, a Picture Book Hook webinar by Emma Watson Hamilton, Picture Book Palooza, Vivian Kirkfield's 50 Precious Words contest, Making Room for Rhyme contest, PBChat, PBParty, and submissions to twenty agents that year. A few requested more work. I won one of those contests and was a runner up and a finalist in two others. But it didn't matter if I had won or not. The activity gave me the energy to keep moving forward. More importantly, the year felt like a dream come true. I was not published or agented, but I was able to spend every day doing what I wanted to be doing –writing stories!
There were a couple of big moments in 2019, the summer SCBWI conference, and a class I took with the Children's Book Academy. The summer conference was overwhelming, as I knew it would be, but the benefits far outweighed the exhaustion I felt afterward. My "aha" moment occurred after seeing editor, Alynn Johnston, speak. LAYERS! She talked about weaving the layers in a story, and she read stories with such enthusiasm! I thought about my manuscripts. How could I reach kids on many levels with such minimal text?
The idea of LAYERS pestered me because I did not know how to make it work in the story I was writing. I then signed up for The Craft and Business of Writing Picture Books course. It was a six-week intensive. This course was key. It offered instruction and critiques, some of which I had heard before, but excuses aside, I buckled down and did the work. A guest editor's advice was to add a bit more plot to my concept book. She also wanted me to specify the festival. In my mind, "a festival was a festival." But I took her advice and began digging. As I researched the many Japanese festivals I had attended as a child, the layers of my story emerged. With the help of my critique partners and groups, the manuscript developed from a 200-word concept book called BABY UNDERSTANDS, to A 500-word picture book, then titled KAI AND OBA, later changed to KAI'S BRIDGE, and finally to a 700-word picture book called THE STAR FESTIVAL.
The class also offered exposure to agents and editors. My pitch caught the attention of an agent that I did not sign with (near-miss), and the editor from Albert Whitman & Company. My foot was in the door … "IT" was happening!
Immerse yourself in your passion.
Live life as if you ARE the person you want to be!
This year, I signed my first-ever children's book contract. As I begin to share my path to publication, the reflection feels like a series of journal entries where I ponder; How did I get here? What have I learned? Is there a point in sharing my story? I answer these questions and examine my past. How I navigate and write about the world gives me a clearer picture of who I am. Reoccurring themes surface and shout, "Here I am! Deal with me!" I realize the importance of this reflection as I face the next phase of becoming a published author, areas that I find even more intimidating and challenging, social media, book promotion, and illustration. As one path takes off, others begin. I remind myself that it takes time and patience to learn new skills and embark on new journeys.
But, if I didn't already know my history, it would seem that my path to getting a contract happened overnight -bada boom, bada bing! And I say that knowing my publication date is set for the Spring of 2021 and anything can happen!
But here goes ...
In June of 2019, I retired from a long teaching career working with students with extreme medical needs. On my last day, a fellow teacher announced my transition and goals to a large group of teachers. Imposter syndrome colored me red. With not much to show as a writer, I wished the moment to pass quickly.
But a mere eight months later, I was offered a picture book contract with Albert Whitman and Company. It was as if I had planned it. Retire and switch to a writing career! Easy, peasy. But wait, I did plan it –only thirteen years ago! While I celebrated the small chunk of time it took to acquire a contract AFTER my retirement, my brain rewound ...
2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and finally, 2006.
Important choices I made after my retirement contributed to the whirlwind of this last year, but the backbone of the story is that it was a layering of choices that readied me for this moment.
I hope you follow me on my journey as I continue to piece together the small victories and weighty struggles that created the path I am on, how I found the strength to forge ahead, and how I plan to learn, grow, and succeed in this challenging business.
Whatever you are doing,
whatever you are seeking,
whatever goals you are setting,
where ever you want to be,
NEXT ISSUE: 2019 - The Year of "It" Happening!