Career Builder & Giveaway: Kelly Bennett

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Kelly Bennett has a long history of rambling (they used to call it running away/disappearing/lollygagging).

They say the first thing Kelly did, after being born, was to voice her opinion—loudly!

Her love of writing can be traced back to 1960, when she was two-ish, and used her mother’s black mascara and lipstick to write on the neighbor’s car! (And maybe blamed it on her brother…although she says he blamed it on her.)

She has been telling stories and writing ever since.

Her writing, both fiction and non-fiction, has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and 17 books for children. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College.

Her current obsession—writing picture books for younger humans and their adults to share—most recently resulted in publication of her new picture book with illustrator Terri Murphy, One Day I Went Rambling (Bright Sky Press), which celebrates friends, pets, imagination and all that goes into being a kid!

Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids? Why?

Wow! Gave me pause and chocolate urges…

They told Kelly she was too tall for ballet.

Mine has definitely been a meander through hills and valleys. Why?

Because I did not have a clear vision of what “being an author” or “successful” was for me until fairly recently—close to 20 years after starting up this path.

Family has always come first with me. But I mistakenly thought I had to choose: writing or family.

And so I played at writing, when it was convenient, when it didn’t interfere with family obligations, when dinner didn’t need cooking, clothes didn’t need washing, kids didn’t need schlepping, moms weren’t bellowing….

Too, for many years I wrote with a partner, Ronnie Davidson, which was great fun and hands-down the reason I stuck with it long enough, especially during some really rough personal years, to achieve publication. It was easy being a team player—sharing the job and the joy— and so I didn’t follow up on individual writing opportunities or consider what I wanted my writing life to be.

All that changed a few years ago when some friends and I formed the GGs, a girl’s creativity group. Through guided studies of books such as The Artist’s Way and The Passion Test, we explored how to live more creative, meaningful lives.

As part of that exploration I did something I’d never done before: I defined for myself what being a successful writer meant. Not vague “I want to be somebody,” wishes, either—I’d done that heaps of time, at the bottom of every valley, at the rise just before the top of every hill.

This time I visualized myself living my ideal life as a writer and from that formulated a step-by-step action plan with clear goals and touchstones.

How have you grown as a writer? What skills have you seen improve over time? What did you do to reach new levels? What are areas that still flummox you at times?

View from Kelly’s window in Trinidad.

Hands down, the best thing I have done to hone my writing skill–and continue to do–is take classes. Working through the VCFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program was a game changer.

Mostly it’s about gaining confidence.

I know I can write well. I know I can revise. That knowledge bolsters me when I hit the bad patches. The real hurdle is overcoming ones fear of failure and just going for it, trying… And to keep going when you get to the hard places.

That being said, I hit bad patches all the time, with every story, and so I have to keep telling myself “I am a writer! I can do this! I can tell this story!” over and over and over again. It’s my mantra.

An old-age prevention article I read recently suggested a good way to stay younger, engaged, interested and interesting is by cultivate friends from every generations. This holds true for writers, too. It’s like that adage about making new friends and keeping the old: One is silver and the other gold.

I study, read, take writing classes and workshops from established authors and emerging talents alike, they teach, challenge, and inspire me.

My current obsession is with picture books written by male authors: Peter Brown, Peter Sis, Mac Barnett, Chris Barton, Mo Willems, and the like. Men, like boys, look at the world differently. They don’t worry about being sweet or nice. They get right to it and they don’t mind getting dirty. It’s refreshing. So I’m studying their work with an eye to infusing my stories with some boyish grit.

What flummoxes me? How to make it come on the page the way it sounds in my head.

What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012?

Marketing and all that goes with it: establishing a web presence; promotions, reviews, etc. is important, but it is not everything. If you haven’t already, define for yourself what kind of career you envision for yourself. Based on that, create a marketing plan that is aligned with your goals.

Don’t be afraid to ask your editor and the marketing team at your publisher for advice on how you can best compliment their marketing efforts. And whatever else you do, allow plenty of writing time. For if you don’t write it, there won’t be a “next” book.

What do you want to say to those one-book wonders or those that feel the market has left them behind? 

The same thing Teen Angel said to Frenchy: “Go back to High School!”

Set your ego aside and go back to your roots—to what made you want to be
a writer in the first place and start fresh from there. Take classes,
study the market, and study “successful” authors you admire. Learn what
it is they do so well—whether it writing, marketing or both—and use all
you learn to set a new course for yourself. We’re writers, we get to
write and rewrite the future—reinvent yourself.

Where do you want to go from here? What are your short- and long-term goals? Your strategies for achieving them?

Back to work. As always, I have several stories on my desktop in needing attention, two middle grade novels I’ve been “too busy”—translation: “too scared”—to revise, that I am committed to see through to the end. And a new blog/journal idea I’m excited about—oh, and a notebook of “brilliant” ideas….

Long term, I would like to have a new book published every 12 to 18 months. To do that, I have to write more. And challenge myself to write better and to write those stories I’m afraid to tackle. 

Cynsational Notes

More about Debbie
More about Doris

Check out activities designed to maximize fun-time with One Day I Went Rambling, including a teaching guide and reader’s theatre script created by author-educator Debbie Gonzales and puzzles by author-educator Doris Fisher.

The Career Builders series offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published books for a decade or more.

The focus includes their approach to both the craft of writing and navigating the
ever-changing business landscape of trade publishing.

Cynsational Giveaway

In honor of the LGRBT 2012, illustrator Terri Murphy has created this Let’s Go Rambling Kit, which includes:

  • an autographed copy of the book,
  • Huey the Color-Changing Chameleon,
  • “Ahoy Mates” bandana and eye patch,
  • official LGRBT magnifying glass, blings and boings.

Eligibility: U.S./Canada.

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9 thoughts on “Career Builder & Giveaway: Kelly Bennett

  1. Most people don't take my ramblings seriously either but they have been the most interesting parts of my life so far. Hopefully there will be many more.

  2. Eager for my kids to amble and ramble into the library and get all their summer reading lists filled out. My middle child would love this one!


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