I recently had the opportunity to review more than a hundred stories in a short space of time–all from writers seeking feedback. By the time I was done, I felt like I’d had a master class on writing—I learned as much from the stories that needed work as I did from the ones that were ready. There really is no substitute for critiquing—both the giving and receiving of it.
If you belong to a group such as SCBWI or 12×12, take advantage of the critique forums. Read as many stories in a row (and the feedback) as possible—it’s like a mini slush pile. You’ll learn buckets just reading stories in all sorts of stages. And when you’re ready, return that blessing by critiquing and adding your own stories.
I remember feeling overwhelmed as a newbie to comment on the stories of other writers. I also remember feeling petrified to allow others to see my work, but my writing didn’t progress until I sought those critiques.
Hannah Mann is a junior agent at Writers House. She is open to submissions and is seeking clients in children’s lit through YA. In picture books, Hannah is drawn to ‘artful, human, and/or humorous picture books that are driven by expressive characters.’ She prefers art ‘with something fresh going on (or that pays homage to a classic with its own modern layering).’ For more details on Hannah’s preferences, please visit her Publishers Marketplace profile.
Thank you, Hannah!
You interned at Writers House in NYC before moving to intern with Steven Malk in San Diego (I sort of feel like I need to whisper his name, like ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,’ but in a good way). How did you get that all started? Are your NYC friends jealous of your San Diego winters?
That’s very funny, but I agree—Steven Malk is a total legend, and I’m grateful everyday that I’ve gotten to learn from the best. It’s a long story, but I applied for the job with him before interning, and ended up landing it after interning. I needed a little publishing experience, and I’m so glad I got to be in the New York office for a little while—I really feel like it’s informed my sense of pride in the Writers House ethos and reputation, and it’s great to have faces and real connection with the people I’m emailing all day!
Did you always know you wanted to work in publishing or with books in some capacity? When did you figure that out? What job would you snatch up if publishing jobs weren’t an option?
I think, like a lot of people, it probably started with wanting to be a writer. The publishing industry can be mysterious before actually being in it, so I think a lot of people’s first thought is, “okay, I love books, so I’ll write them!” The truth is that so much goes into every single book, and there are also so many books! Once I started to realize that, I thought I might want to be an editor, but when I discovered agency, and its intersection of creativity with business, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I love being behind the scenes and advocating for creators. If I weren’t in publishing, I think I’d want to be in medicine—not that I could do it! I’m just fascinated by biology and love people.Continue reading →
Arree Chung is the author-illustrator of Ninja!, Ninja! Attack of the Clan, Ninja Claus!, andOut!. He’s also the founder and host of the Storyteller Academy, a class for aspiring writers and illustrators. He left his production scheduling job at Pixar to enroll at the Art Center College of Design. Arree graciously agreed to share his thoughts on a technique he teaches in his class. Thank you, Arree!
What is a story map?
A story map is kind of like mind mapping, where you write down all your ideas then group or organize them into a sequence, keeping in mind the logical flow from the beginning, to the inciting event, to the end. Here’s an example:
I can see how this would be valuable for longer works, but how does it help with picture books?
Story mapping is helpful in many ways. First, it can help you capture ideas and quickly connect them. Story mapping also helps you plot several variations of a story. The hardest part in making up a story are the endless possibilities so using a story mapping strategy helps you nail down the story more quickly.Continue reading →
The news is out. Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie have posted the list of mentors for this year’s Writing With the Stars mentorship contest. The line-up is stellar.
“The contest is open to picture book writers and illustrators. The purpose of this mentorship is to help writers on their path to publication. The mentors are offering their knowledge and are NOT offering access to their agents or any editors. Contestants may pick three mentors out of the group to apply to. The mentors will evaluate each application and pick one mentee to work with. Once selected, each mentor/mentee team will work out their own methods of working together, frequency etc. Mentorship dates are February 1-April 30 2018.”
Applicants must be unagented and unpublished–self published or magazine articles do not count. You have from January 8, 2018 until midnight January 13, 2018 EST to get your applications in.
For more information and to see the list of mentors, visit Tara and Becky’s site. Start working on your applications!
Define concept. How is it different from an idea? How is it different from a plot? For example, what’s the concept, idea, and plot of say Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus? What is ‘high concept?’
An idea is something quick and a bit vague. Non-specific. It lacks details. Before I wrote 7 Ate 9, I had the idea to write about a ‘popular schoolyard joke.’ Once I had that initial idea, I fleshed it out to a concept, to write about the riddle ‘Why is six afraid of seven?.’ Finally, the story’s premise or plot is the backstory of the joke itself—can Private ‘I’ help 6 figure out if his days are numbered?
7 Ate 9‘s premise is ‘high concept,’ meaning you can boil the essence of the story down to a sentence or two–but not just any sentence. Many stories can be explained that quickly. To be ‘high concept’, the premise has to be unique and make immediate, head-smacking sense. You’ve never seen the concept before but it seems like you should have! People can instantly envision how things might play out. They may even say, ‘That’s genius! Why didn’t I think of that?!’
An idea for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus might be to write a story from an unusual, uncommon point of view. (But honestly, I have no idea what Mo WIllems was thinking, LOL, other than he was thinking genius.) The concept might be to have the book character ask the child reader permission to do something outrageous, with the child getting to act like an adult and say ‘no,’ turning the tables on the usual child role. The plot is to have the pigeon ask the reader permission to drive a bus.
So, if I got this right, let’s say the concept for They All Saw a Cat is something like, “A cat is viewed in a different way depending on which creature sees him.” Would that be high concept? And is it safe to say that the concept is the bones and plot is the flesh?Continue reading →
I met Tara two years ago in our critique group while she was still polishing manuscripts. Shortly after, she had three picture book contracts and an agent. She’d been seriously writing for children for 18 months, but she’d been absorbing the craft of picture books for years. She’s sharing her story with us and announcing a few details about the upcoming WWTS mentorship contest. Thank you, Tara!
Tara, your debut picture book, I Am Famous, published by Albert Whitman & Co., will be released March 1, 2018, followed by Shark Nate-O (little bee*, April 3, 2018). You have a sequel for I Am Famous under contract with Albert Whitman (spring 2019), you also have a fourth picture book that went to a multi-house auction, and two more picture books under contract, none of which we can talk about yet. What did you do to get to this point?
Well, I put in a lot of time reading picture books before I ever started writing them. I owned my own toy and book store. I specialized ages 0-6, so the only books I sold were picture books. I loved them, and I had to learn what made them work in order to be a successful retailer. I would get ideas from the store, and I told myself that someday, I would try to write them. But with three little kids, a traveling husband, and a store, there was no time for that. Then my family relocated to the Charlotte area for my husband’s job, and I no longer had the store. Even though I had no writing experience (but tons of reading experience), I decided to bring out all those ideas and try my hand at it. I sent my first manuscript to my sister to review. She sent it back half changed, so we became co-authors. I joined SCBWI. I found the online kidlit community. I met critique partners. I studied craft. I joined 12 x 12. I attended SCBWI conferences. I kept up my knowledge of the industry by reading voraciously.
During this process, I became obsessed with the musical Hamilton. If you already have Hamalaria, you know how amazing Hamilton is. If you are not familiar with it, you need to be. There is a reason editors, agents, writers and creative types in general are obsessed with it. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a lyrical genius. And Alexander Hamilton was a bit obsessive in his learning and writing because he was “young, scrappy and hungry” and clawing his way up to the top. He did not rest on his laurels and never “threw away his shot.” Continue reading →
Jenna Pocius is a new agent at Red Fox Literary. Prior to Red Fox, she worked as an editor at little bee books, and prior to little bee, she worked as an assistant editor at Bloomsbury USA. While at little bee, Jenna acquired board books through YA and will still be seeking manuscripts for all categories of kidlit. Jenna is open to submissions until August 10, 2017.
Thank you, Jenna!
I think it’s safe to say that most writers dream of publishing with the Big 5, but you were an editor at little bee books, a successful and well-respected small press. What are the advantages for authors and illustrators in working with a small press?
I think in the end it’s really about the connection between an author or illustrator and an editor and his or her publishing team, but with a small press there can be more opportunity for a title to stand out on a list because there isn’t the same volume of books being published. With little bee it was a very unique opportunity because not only were we growing our list in terms of title count, but we were also starting from scratch and thus some of the themes and topics that other publishers were oversaturated with, we had an opportunity to find really stellar projects and establish ourselves in those categories.
You’re very clear in your bio that you like dogs. Do you have a dog of your own? What draws you to dogs in picture books?
I’ve always loved dogs and dog stories. There’s something about the loyalty and love inherent in dogs that I can’t help but gravitate toward, and those are also two qualities and themes that make great characters and story foundations. For me, there’s really nothing better than stories that capture the unique bond between child and dog. I don’t have my own dog yet, but it’s in the works!
Do you have a favorite breed of dog? (I’m a bit partial to ridgebacks, but we currently have a rescue dog that’s a mix of something unknown, and he’s a sweetie.)Continue reading →
The internet is full of info on how to stoke your creativity and get over writer’s block. But what if life is your block? One of my friends shared an article recently about how our busy lives are stifling creativity. I agree.
There’s the daily grind busy-ness, then there’s the soul-sucking kind of busy-ness that makes you feel like the crusty leftovers on the casserole dish at the end of the day.
We move every two to three years. Each move has its challenges, but the moves back to the States are the hardest because we’re on our own for almost everything.
We just finished one of those moves. During all the house hunting, paperwork, and pre-packing, my brain was so mired in minutiae that the to-dos just took over and exiled my creativity to a deep, dark place. Nothing I tried could coax it out.
I finally had to give myself permission to do what I could do instead of beating myself up for what I couldn’t do. Such as: Continue reading →
I first met Leah in our regional writing group nearly five years ago. Now her debut middle grade novel is hitting shelves with glowing reviews. Leah’s storyOne Shadow on the Wall follows the life of Mor, a young Senegalese boy who makes a promise to his father to keep the family together. After his father dies, Mor faces pressure from his aunt who wants to split him and his sisters apart and from a local gang that wants him on their side. Leah found the inspiration for Mor’s story while visiting Senegal and seeing a young boy sitting on a beach wall–she wondered what his day would be like and the idea for a story bloomed. Thank you, Leah and good luck with your amazing new book!
There have been so many lessons along the way to writing this book but the biggest is probably—cherish glimpses of possibilities. That is how this book started . . . because of a glimpse at a boy on a beach wall in Senegal.
But here are ten other takeaways thus far:
Be patient with my writing and myself. When and if things are meant to happen, they will.
(This takeaway goes along with the first.) Don’t rush . . . nothing ever turns out how it should when I rush.
Be kind to my writing and myself. It is okay if it isn’t perfect on the first, eighth or ninth try. Keep trying.
Welcome the mistakes, because they often lead to some unbelievable possibilities.
Treasure true friendships and writing time. They are both rare gifts.
Do not try and walk someone else’s path. Your journey is yours for a reason.
Write for the kid you used to be.
Write for the kid you wish you were.
Write for the kid you hope to see.
Lastly, and probably the most important for the long haul and for our spiritual wellbeing: Celebrate and appreciate the small successes even more than the great ones.
And as a last, last note: Don’t forget to smile, laugh, and have fun along the way … otherwise what is it all for?
Was there something that stood out to you about writing middle grade? What about writing from a background that wasn’t your own–a young boy from Senegal?
I really had to research it all. When I began writing this book, I was new to the genre so I had to really figure out what was at the heart of a middle grade novel. Then I had to find and listen to Mor’s voice, and his hopes and dreams. I also had to learn about Senegal, and the values and mindsets of many of her people.
I pretty much stumbled into this project not knowing ANYTHING at all.
Everything was new—writing in the voice of a boy—a Senegalese boy. Writing about a village, a Senegalese village. Writing about an experience so different from my own where assumptions, and preconceived ideas swirled in the air and needed to be tamed. I knew the harm in them ruling the story and tried my best to write from a place of understanding by doing research and asking questions of those who live this experience and by people who have come to call Senegal home. I truly wanted to create characters (and hope that I have) that young readers can identify with, and that no matter how far apart their lives might be from my characters that they might be able to see a piece of themselves in my work. My hope is that I have captured even a fraction of the heart, hospitality, and beauty that is so much a part of Senegal.
Thank you, Leah, for sharing such valuable insights.
Thanks for the interview, Johnell, I enjoyed thinking about your questions. Happy writing & reading everyone!