This year I'm investigating as many resources as possible for improving my craft. I've had my eye on a local library program, called the Writer-in-Residence, for a while. It makes authors available to aspiring writers during hour-long blocks. Some read and critique your work, others suggest mentor texts for your genre, or look at your query materials, or just talk shop. Usually the authors are local, living in Tucson, and thus far they've focused on adult literature -- non-fiction, local history, mystery, etc.
I sat up this time when my local library offered a children's literature author -- Jennifer J. Stewart. She had a few middle grade titles under her belt, and I figured with a new WIP, even in rough draft shape, I'd schedule a consultation.
It was great. She read the opening 700 words or so, made a few suggestions, all spot-on and encouraged me to book a second appointment, with the subsequent chapter. She read it, made a few more suggestions, all of which were again spot-on.
She also hosted a virtual program, "How to Become a Children's Book Writer and Not Get Overwhelmed in the Process." She started by offering her biggest secret:
"You read, you write, you rewrite, and you repeat. And you keep doing that over and over. You've got to be able to write more, better. If you study the best books for children being written today, your writing will improve. Will it get published? I don't know."
Then she asked authors to consider why they write. "What is it that you need to write? What is it only you can write? What is the story that pulls at you and won't let go? You should be reading what you want to write, both wide and deep. You should be reading recently published books. Have you been reading outside your comfort zone? Children need to see themselves both through windows and in mirrors. They both reflect, and want to see into, others' lives."
I loved the window and mirror metaphor. This message really resonated with me, as you see agents all the time on Twitter making comments like, "please, if you query me, please read something written in the last 2-3 years." And the rewriting. One of the things I learned in working with my first MS, Dragon's Leap, is that the darn thing had to be rewritten a bazillion times. The learning curve is steep, and it takes months, years even, of just keeping at it and writing and rewriting and editing.
She offered a very brief checklist of things to do before sending out your MS to agents. Her questions were mostly for picture books (PBs), but they apply to MG, as well:
1. Do I get to my MC problem right away?
2. Does my MC solve her problem on her own?
3. Does my text promote dramatic page turns?
4. Have I elicited emotion in my story?
For novels, she recommended being super strong in the one area Dragon's Leap is weakest, but I think is fairly strong in Dragon Scales: voice. And here she really got my attention.
"I think the most important thing in your writing is your voice. Your voice says, listen, I'm telling you a story. You want to sound like yourself, not someone else. Your voice is akin to your fingerprints, it marks the way you talk, the way you write. It's you, put out there for everyone to see. Yeah, you are kind of naked out there. Everyone hears your voice."
"Each story demands its own voice. You need to write with precision, a laser beam focus, write and rewrite, until you say exactly what you mean to say. For it to look natural, look flawless, you have to put in the effort to sound natural."
She recommended continuing to take writing classes, and look at them as professional development. One thing she did recommend that I hadn't considered before: occasionally the Arizona Commission on the Arts will offer grants to authors to pay for attendance to conferences and writing classes.
"I've heard editors and agents say, they can tell from the first page (if the writing's any good), and it's voice that grabs them, that reels them in. You know when you read, within the first paragraph, that you can relax, settle in and enjoy the ride. Voice is the most important element, but voice has to work. If it has a voice problem, it's going to kill off any interest (in your story)."
She talked about the need to tell stories out loud, even if all you're doing is reading your story out loud (and this was reinforced by a SCBWI digital talk that I'll be featuring next week).
She had a bunch of tips for Thriving as a Writer.
- Be gentle and kind to others, but also yourself.
- More than likely, you're going to get rejected. It takes a lot to produce something a complete stranger is willing to take a chance on. But it isn't impossible.
- Celebrate every rejection.
- Don't get on the Internet.
- Don't tell anyone you are writing a book. Keep your MS fresh and spontaneous.
She also gave excellent Writing / Drafting Tips:
- That first draft is only for your eyeballs. After 2-3 drafts, solicit critique partners.
- Revision is part of the process. Even if you get a book contract, expect to go through at least two more revisions, 1 major and 1 minor, before it becomes a book.
- The MS is ready to query when you've thoroughly revised it, critique partners weighed in, and you've rewritten.
- A major mistake is sending out a MS too early. Let it marinate, so you can read it with fresh eyes. You'll still find terribly cringey things.
She also had some interesting tips for Things to do, while you're querying a MS:
- Are you taking a writing class?
- Have submitted your work to magazines?
- Do you enter writing contests?
- Do you read widely in the age group you write for?
- Do you have more than one MS to shop? If not, write another!
- Are you networking with other published authors and illustrators?
She then talked a little bit about querying process, which I know many of you are intensely interested in.
When querying, try to get a sense of what type of agent they are. Are they editorial, in other words, they'll read your work and make suggestions and ask you to revise? Or are they a submission only agent? She said both can be good, but they are very different approaches.
"Finding an agent is like getting married. Don't settle. A bad agent is worse than no agent. A bad agent is someone who isn’t excited about your writing, you don't click with, doesn’t answer emails, return phone calls, asks for money upfront (a big - no-no), who seems to have A list and B list clients and you're on the B list -- that's a bad agent for you."
"A good agent loves your writing, is interested in helping you shape your career, shares rejections, communicates in a timely fashion, shares the editors she sends your work to."
She likened leaving an agent to a divorce, and the book contracts you've sold to children that you'll always have in common and need to continue communicating about, so never forget that and "learn to trust your gut."
At the end, she graciously agreed to share her Voice Tips worksheet.
A big Thank You to Jennifer J. Stewart and the Pima County Public Library and Arizona State Library (for funding the program).