I have long contended that the person who sets goals and who strives to attain such is the master of his own fate. – Carlos E. Asay
Remember oh, early December, when I wrote this post on diversity in children’s books? I made a commitment to publish books for children of color and committed to publishing something myself if I didn’t have something in the works by June.
BWAAAAA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!
I take it back. Clearly, I had no idea what I was talking about when I made that commitment. Since then, I have taken a few little steps into the world of children’s publishing. I started out by researching publishers online, visiting many publishing websites, blogs and boards. I attempted to draft unsolicited query letters to publishers only to realize that perhaps I should be looking for an agent first. This led me into a brief phase during which I thought I would try my hand at illustrating my own stories. That was short-lived. I talked with a publisher who gave me good advice. Namely, learn more about the craft. Work on your writing.
So, I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attended a conference last weekend at Asilomar. I chatted with beginning writers – like me! – published writers, agents and editors. I was inspired! I was uplifted! I was filled with passion and fire!
And, I am overwhelmed but undaunted by the long road ahead. Key lessons I’ve learned on my journey so far:
Children’s Writing is an Art Form
Writing children’s books is an art. To the untrained eye, a picture book seems like a collection of simple words and a simpler story line. Anyone could do that, I am ashamed to admit I mistakenly believed. Underscore ashamed and the past tense form of believe. I’ve been schooled. There is a world of intentionally executed pacing and page turns, theme, voice, perspective, word choice, rhythm, flow, sound and character development that lives in every book. I never imagined that some picture book writers take years revising their stories to perfection.
It reminds me of teaching. Teaching is an art form. It is possible to recognize a masterful teacher; but, to the untrained eye, it is not always possible to see the thousands of choices s/he is making throughout a class period. Lesson planning and pedagogy aside, there are the relationships built, intentional pacing of the space, specific word choice and signals, teacher stink-eye, phrasing of questions and follow-up and a million other details that make teachers artists.
Great picture books are complex, layered stories told in less than 1000 words. Humanity’s lessons written in 32-40 page stories that a five year old can understand. A writer has to say much with little; it is no easy feat. Children’s book writers take tremendous pride in their art and I am humbled. I want to learn. I want to become a master artist. And it won’t happen overnight.
Empathy and Impact
Stories change lives. They change they way we look at others and the world. One of my favorite memories from teaching English is the day my students read their personal narratives to the class. They shared and learned personal stories with tremendous vulnerability and began to see each other – and themselves – differently as a result.
At the Asilomar conference, author Deborah Underwood shared an example of an everyday story that makes an impact on our perceptions. She contrasted the striking difference of emotions we might feel between two versions of the same experience: being stuck for miles behind a driver going 15 mph on a windy road vs. being stuck for miles behind a driver going 15 mph on a windy road knowing the driver is rushing his sick cat to the vet but is driving slowly because the cat gets carsick with increased speed. Our frustration is curbed and we feel greater compassion and patience when we know the driver’s story.
Stories build empathy and challenge assumptions. As such, they have the ability to create lasting change. Stories shared with the rising generation can shape their ideas of truth and possibility. They can create connections and break down barriers. Stories are tools for equity. Understanding this fuels my desire to write and publish. Writing is not a side-gig hobby I’m dabbling in because of a quaint, momentary inspiration I had after giving birth to Carter. Stories can change lives, can change public opinion, can change the world. So, I will write stories until I learn to write stories.
In an industry where a Newbery Award winning author has ten years of rejection letters from pages upon pages of editors and agents (I’ve seen the pictures and it ain’t pretty!) I’m beginning to understand the sheer grit and determination it will take to reach my goals. It ain’t gonna be pretty but I’m not going to give up. That is all.
(Someone remind me that I wrote this when I’m ready to throw in the towel after 32392834792835601 rejection letters, please.)
Revisiting My Goals
So, it has become painfully clear that this whole, if I don’t-find-someone-who-will-publish-my stories-by-June business is laughably, woefully uninformed. I’ve also realized that I don’t want to self publish. So, my ultimate goal is still to be published. Several times over. But, methinks I need to give myself a lllllllllllllooooooooooooootttttttttttttttt more time. Preferably before I turn grey?
My revised goals for this year:
- Continue to improve my writing. Form a critique group that meets regularly, take classes, read books. Write a lot, revise a lot. Write some more.
- Finish at least four stories by the end of summer
- Submit queries to at least 20 agents by December
- Don’t lose hope when the rejections come in! Keep submitting and writing.
Closing words that inspired me from the conference:
Crazy and stupid are not the same thing. – LeUyen Pham
There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line. – Oscar Levant