I’m deviating from our usual kind of post to mark a personal milestone of sorts. Twenty years ago this month, I quit my job at UCLA to write children’s books. Not exactly something I’d recommend—the quitting your job part—especially since I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. But thirty-plus books (and a few hundred rejections) later, I’m still at it.
So, to celebrate, I’m giving away some books (more on that below). But first I thought I’d share an abbreviated version of the talk I gave at the Carolinas SCBWI conference last fall called “Ten Tips from (Almost) Twenty Years.”
So, here goes:
Three Essential Things That Have Helped Me Through Twenty Years of Writing—and Discouraging News, Heaps of Rejection, Humbling Bookstore Appearances, and Massive Changes in the Publishing Industry—That I Hope Will Help You, Too:
1. Keep learning. Yes, absolutely, attend classes and conferences if you can. But if you can’t spare the time or money, use your library card. Read books on craft, and study really good picture books, as we do here. My first writing epiphany happened when I started typing up picture book texts—looking at word counts, page breaks, absorbing the language. I still do this with books I love.
It’s also really important to keep learning about yourself. Writing is, ultimately, a form of self-expression. What is it that you—and only you—have to say? What fascinates you? What are you passionate about? Your enthusiasm and authenticity will come through in your work.
2. Keep experimenting. First, experiment with your manuscript. Who’s your narrator? Try letting someone else tell the story. Is it written in third person? Try first. In rhyme? Try a different meter. Write it in letters, journal entries, poems. Just try stuff. This is not wasting time. This is an investment in your story, and the only way to figure out the best possible way to tell it.
Second, experiment with the kinds of stories you tell. The first few manuscripts I sold—Babies on the Go, Castles, Caves & Honeycombs, Rub-a-Dub Sub—were rhyming stories featuring a variety of animals. At some point, the editor who’d acquired them said: “You don’t want to be the person who only writes rhyming animal books.”
Well, shoot. I was very happy to be that person, actually. But her words stung—and encouraged me to branch out. So—in addition to, yes, a few more rhyming animal stories—I’ve written poetry collections, song adaptations, dialogue-only texts, nearly-wordless manuscripts, holiday stories (and many more experiments that no one will ever see).
3. Keep hoping. Years ago, I told a class of high school students I’d gotten rejections for two years before selling my first manuscript. A girl in the back asked, very earnestly: “How did you find the strength to go on?”
I admit the question struck me as a tad, well, dramatic. But you know what? It was hard. It’s still hard. We write with no promise that our work will sell, or if it does sell, whether it will be well-received by critics or book buyers. So—given all the obstacles and uncertainty—how do we go on?
Here’s a confession: When I quit my job twenty years ago, I hoped I’d have a career like Jane Yolen’s (who’d sold maybe 200-some books by then), or write a perennial best-seller like Goodnight Moon. Although I’ve come to accept that I’ll never catch up to Jane, I can still hope for the latter. Why not? There’s no harm in hoping, right? So, when a manuscript gets turned down by three editors, I hope the fourth one will buy it. When a book gets good reviews but struggles to sell, I hope the next one will do better.
Of course, hope will only get us so far. We also have to do the work. To use a current education buzzword, it takes grit to persist when something is difficult, when the odds are against us—and grit is absolutely essential in this business. But grit without hope is joyless. And we need a certain amount of joy to write for kids.
So here’s to hope and grit and joy—and books! Speaking of which, let’s move on to the giveaway . . .
I’m going to randomly select five winners. Each one will receive two of my books—one of these from the first decade . . .
And one of these from the second . . .
Plus a copy of The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books.
How to win? Just leave a comment below by May 15th. I’ll randomly choose five winners and announce them in my next post May 26th. (If you plan to donate the books to a special library or preschool program in need, please say so. I may have extras.)
One more thing: Although I often include hyperlinks in my posts, this time they’re all going to one place—my new website. After many years of using the Authors Guild’s service, I’ve moved everything over to WordPress. As a non-technical person, the learning curve felt positively Everest-like and nearly brought me to tears on occasion (Favicons? Breadcrumbs? SEO? What IS this language??!!). So please stop by, check out a few pages, and reminisce with me about life in 1995.
Thanks for helping me celebrate!
Yours in grit and hope–