2019 Europolitan Con: Authors Kathi Appelt & Chitra Soundar, Editor Naomi Colthurst

Cynsations Note: This is the first in a series of posts highlighting the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan Conference, set for May 4 and May 5 in Zurich, Switzerland.

Today’s post features faculty members Naomi Colthurst, editor at Penguin Random House Children’s, as well as authors Kathi Appelt and Chitra Soundar.

By Elizabeth Brahy

The theme of this year’s conference is: “Taking Your Work to the Next Level.”

Naomi, what advice would you give to [not-yet-published] authors who are at the beginning of their creative journey and want to level up?

Naomi: This is a pretty broad question (and in fact I’m taking 90 minutes to answer it at the conference!), so for now I’ll offer just one piece of main advice.

I would urge anyone at the beginning of their career as an author to get comfortable with sharing your work.

A lot of people dread the idea–and it can require a big step forwards in the confidence you have in yourself, and your writing. But you will need to have that confidence if you’re going to progress.

I think receiving feedback–and responding to it–is such an important lesson, and if everything does go to plan, and you secure a publishing deal, you’ll almost certainly be getting plenty of it!

Feedback is not the same as criticism, and almost all the writers I know find sharing their work to be a hugely valuable and exciting part of their process.

But try to resist sharing your work with friends and family. They’ll either simply tell you what you want to hear (which isn’t helpful) or they might say something you really don’t want to hear (which will probably then feel particularly hurtful!).

I’d suggest you send your work to someone whose opinion you trust, but who you also feel confident has enough distance from you to be honest.

You can also join writing groups, who can offer support and guidance (especially if there are members who are published, so know something of the process), and I know some authors who have found lifelong collaborative partners whose opinion they find invaluable when it comes to bouncing around early ideas or going over tricky scenes.

Kathi: I so agree with Naomi about receiving feedback.

Being able to step back and consider a reader’s comments is so much a part of the process. It took me forever to realize that my manuscript was not me.

Any criticism of my story was not the same as criticism of me, the writer. That was a hard thing to learn, and it still is.

I want to add that regardless of where an author is on the journey, I think it’s always helpful to keep learning.

Whenever one of my graduating MFA students asks me for advice, I tell them, “Keep studying.” For myself, I sign up for a course, a workshop, a lecture, every single year. There are so many opportunities out there for extending your education that there’s really no reason to let a degree or a published book signal that you are now an expert.

That’s one of the key values in SCBWI—there is always something new to learn or re-learn.  And SCBWI does a great job of facilitating that. Not only that, our industry seems to be changing with the speed of light. It’s important to keep up with the issues and technology that impact what we do at such integral levels.

I also think (and this is not rocket science) it’s important to step outside of your comfort zone occasionally, to try a different genre, something wholly different from what you typically write. If you are a humor writer, try drama. If you are an illustrator, try writing…and vice versa. If you are a poet, try prose. You may not become all that deft at it, but it’ll definitely crack open a place inside of you that will allow you to see your work in a new way.

Chitra: My advice would be to read and read widely. Reading different types of stories from different authors and countries will widen the scope of what’s possible.

It’s important to find out what kinds of books are being published and how to stretch the limits of imagination and innovation in the way we look at ideas. Whether it’s a new idea or a classic idea of bedtime story, it’s good to expand our limits on possibilities.

Of course that also means trying to write different things and not to stick with one project for too long. I think Kathi is saying the same thing–mix it up, then you will discover hidden talents and perhaps a skill that you hadn’t demonstrated before.

Writing is a practice and learning comes from both reading and writing. Like in art when students are taught to copy masters, same way, reading a good book and attempting something similar in our own stories–be it a descriptive passage or a character portrayal or a page of dialogue will definitely enhance the “read like a writer” experience.

Experimenting and getting feedback are such valuable parts of the process. When we’re first starting out, it can sometimes feel isolating. But bringing a book to publication is in fact a collaborative experience. Can you describe some of the ways your team works together along the journey?

Naomi: It certainly is collaborative! An author’s primary relationship will always be with their editor, so I think sometimes it’s a surprise for them to learn just how many people are working on their book at any one time.

At Penguin, we involve the wider team very early on in a book’s life, so when a manuscript is being considered for acquisition the Sales, PR and Marketing teams are all part of the conversation about whether we feel confident this book (and author) is right for our list.

That’s not necessarily true of everywhere–sometmes houses rely entirely on the editor’s judgement–but I personally think it’s great, as it means everyone feels invested in the book right from the start, and we have buy in from the whole team about the opportunity the book presents–whether that’s winning prizes, or selling widely (or ideally both!).

Ultimately, that just means more success for the author.

Once we’ve acquired a book, and it’s been edited by myself, it’s passed to our Ed2 team, who manage the copyediting and proofreading of the manuscript.

It’s usually around this time that we brief the cover for the book – which again, is a really collaborative process, involving the whole team.

As the editor, it’s my job to remind everyone about the book, and how we’d like to position it (i.e. where we think it sits in the market, what our ambition for it is), but ultimately the jacket is a Sales, PR and Marketing tool, so it’s really important they feel excited and confident about the route we’d like to take it down (i.e. photographic, illustrated, etc.)

We of course involve the author in this decision, too, as we never want someone to be unhappy with the jacket we’re putting on their book, but I honestly think this is very rare (I’ve had maybe one incident of it in my career), and we would do whatever we could to prevent it.

Finally, once we’re moving towards publication, the PR and Marketing teams will start to think about their campaign for the book, and the author is always involved in that–especially when it comes to PR. We need to know how much someone is willing to get out there and promote their book–for example with schools tours, bookshop events, or appearances at festivals–and also whether there are any PR points of interest that could help the team secure press coverage (e.g. an interesting personal story connected to why someone wrote what they did)–and then how far they’re willing to talk about it, as of course an author has to think carefully about what they’re comfortable putting into the public domain.

The key thing, though, throughout this whole process, is communication. I think it’s so important to make authors feel confident that they can approach you with any questions they have, as a publishing journey can feel like quite an overwhelming process at times.

Luckily, here at PRH, I can say with confidence that my colleagues (and I’d like to think myself!) are excellent at this, and all my authors feel involved, knowledgeable about and happy with how their book is being published.

Kathi: I want to say something about teamwork, too. For the most part, an author’s job is solitary, but I can honestly say that behind each of my books is a “team.” That includes my critique group, my long-suffering husband, independent readers, librarians who step up during the research phase, etc. That has certainly been true for me. And I can’t tell you how valuable these teammates are. So, a book is definitely the result of a whole village, on both ends of the creation process.

Chitra: I always believe that once the text has been accepted, it no longer belongs to a single person, the writer. From that point onwards, the editor, illustrator, art designer, sales and marketing teams–everyone will bring their expertise to the project.

Also, when the book is published, booksellers, bloggers and publicity teams will also own the project, love it and take it forward. Any success will depend on all of these people feeling the joy of celebrating the book.

Having said that, I agree with Kathi about the early stages of the project, too. All my books have had input from my critique group and first readers, who help shape the final text that goes to my agent and then to the editor. Then it goes on another journey within the publication process.

The ultimate collaboration is with the reader. A book closes its loop, when it reaches its audience.

After having done so many school visits and meeting readers in festivals I can say that their understanding and interpretation adds a new layer to the essence of the story.

Chitra, you have spoken extensively about the importance of diversity in children’s books and you draw on your childhood in India as inspiration for your stories. Can you tell us more about how your personal experience informs your work?

Chitra: The raw material for stories is the self. I mine my memories, emotions, and experiences to tell a story. Even if I did tell a story completely unfamiliar to my background, the lens through which I see this unfamiliar world would be my own understanding of the world.

Even though I’ve lived abroad for almost 19 years now, I look to tell stories set in India or related to India in some way. For example, if someone asked me to write a story about Alexander the Great, my mind is drawn to Alexander’s invasion of India and how I can draw on that history to tell the story.

When writing Farmer Falgu stories, I used the setting of an Indian village, the festivals in India and my grandmother’s philosophy of “glass half-full” as my inspiration.

When I wrote You’re Safe with Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry (Lantana Publishing, 2018)), I wanted to narrate the story of the thunderstorms I’d grown up with, while also reassuring young children not to fear the elements of a ravaging storm.

Every story in the Prince Veera series was either told to me by my grandmother or a folktale I had gathered along the way growing up.

Naomi: I think as an editor you have to very carefully consider whether your personal experience is going to be useful to an edit.

Ultimately the book is the author’s story–especially if, as Chitra says, it draws on their personal experience–so I would be very wary of making editorial suggestions simply because a situation in the narrative didn’t match my own experiences of something similar, for example.

That said, I’ll always question something if I don’t think it is reading quite right or making complete sense. I’ve had some experience with authors relying on their memories a little too much, which meant their fact-checking wasn’t as sharp as it could be–so it’s always worth querying!

From a broader editorial perspective, we do sometimes use sensitivity readers to make sure a story is representing its characters and experiences as authentically as possible. A sensitivity reader is hired especially so we can draw on their personal experience, and we work with them and the author to incorporate their guidance on a particular subject into the text.

This is more common when the author in question is writing about a subject which they haven’t directly experienced themselves, but, depending on the issues being handled, I’d usually encourage an author to have the text read widely by whatever community they are representing to make sure the text reads as credibly as possible.

Kathi: At a certain level, every story arises from something within our experiences, right? Maybe the experience is first-hand. Maybe it’s from something else—something read, something watched, something discovered or overheard.

Regardless of where it starts, however, there has to be something in the idea of it that resonates. And I love the idea that in order to have resonance, something has to strike something else. A bow has to be pulled across the string, otherwise there’s no sound to be heard.

So, like Chitra, even if I’m writing a story that is unfamiliar, it has to rub against something that isn’t, or there’s nothing to hear.

There’s a reason that the old chestnut “write what you know” has been with us for such a long time—it’s necessary.

However, I also want to make a case for “writing what you miss.” It’s in those things/people/places we miss that longing occurs, and longing is always at the heart of story.

I also want to second Naomi’s call for professional readers whenever we’re writing outside of our experiences. There’s a limit to even the most dedicated research, and a professional reader can bring so much to the table.

In terms of taking their work to the next level, how do you think authors and illustrators can use their own backgrounds to push themselves creatively?

Chitra: Understanding each person’s heritage gives us a doorway into discovering the world. When we discover the beauty of the folk art, of storytellers and artists who came before us, who gave us their art, then it makes us stronger in pursuing our own.

I would recommend getting familiar with the art, music and stories of our ancestors. Even when I re-read the biography of a much well-known leader like Gandhi, I discover untold stories of freedom fighters who stood shoulder to shoulder with him.

Many of us accept our backgrounds without understanding the evolution of it. Understanding the role of our people in the progress of this world will help us realise our potential. It will also show us where the weaknesses are.

Many of our old beliefs or customs might not stand to modern scrutiny of equality and peace. Many of our backgrounds have legacies of war and turmoil and perhaps imperialism.

Understanding all of that, questioning all of that will help us pursue our art in a more holistic manner. It will also yield stories for us to tell, illustrate and show the world.

Naomi: I think this really depends on the kind of stories the author wants to write. I certainly think drawing on your own background and experiences can be really valuable–and I personally love reading stories which are partly based on an author’s own experience, as it usually adds a lovely air of authenticity to a story and can create really particularly vivid scenes as the author literally draws on their own recollections.

When I was growing up almost all the stories I read were contemporary ‘real-life’ stories–this was before the age of [J.K. Rowling‘s] Harry Potter!–and I loved feeling as though I was being given a window onto a world I hadn’t experienced myself.

But as fiction writers, I don’t think you should only think about drawing on your own backgrounds in your work. Personal experience can absolutely add wonderful extra dimensions to stories, but (assuming we are talking about fiction writing) half the task of novel writing is to create worlds, storylines and characters which feel believable, but which are almost certainly imagined. After all, if everyone just wrote about what they knew, the only books published would be autobiographies!

So I think you have to assess the story that you’re trying to tell and see where your personal experiences might valuably fit into it. For example, as Chitra says in her first answer, you can mine your own memories and experiences to inform your story–almost all of us have experienced first love, heartbreak, loss, even if we haven’t directly experienced it in a medieval fantasy world, for example–so you can draw on those feelings and weave them into your narrative.

I also personally think you can still write about something even if you haven’t directly experienced it yourself–so long as you’re confident you’ve really done your research. It’s so important that fiction accurately, sensitively and authentically represents experience–especially the experiences of traditionally underrepresented communities–so I’d always suggest that an author reads very widely on a subject before embarking on telling their particular story.

I also hugely agree with what Chitra says about reading widely and absorbing as much culture as possible – be that of your own or someone else’s–as it will inevitably make you a better writer.

You’ll find so much inspiration, and you’ll almost certainly learn something new, or spy a writing technique you’d like to try out in your own work!

Kathi: Gosh, I don’t have much to add here. I think both Chitra and Naomi have covered it. I will say that I’m encouraged to see so many stories emerging from underrepresented groups, albeit not quite enough yet. How can we ever come to understand each other unless we’re exposed to our varied stories?

I also believe that fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction give us a way to dream, a way to imagine worlds in which we can all be part of each other’s lives.

In so many ways, I believe that the work we do is fundamentally crucial in creating a better world. Whether we do it through biographical fiction, nonfiction, sci fi, doesn’t matter. Whether we tell it true, or tell it slant, the goal is to tell it well.

Kathi, it’s very easy for unpublished writers and illustrators to feel stuck. Can you describe a time when you felt you particularly challenged in your creative process, and how you moved beyond that place?

Kathi: Right after the events of September 11, 2001, when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred, I had a moment of reckoning.

At that point in my career, I had hit something of a peak. In one year, I had seven books come out, and I had several under contract. On the surface, all appeared well. I had a terrific agent and three long-time editors, all of whom I adored working with. They were my own Fantastic Four, and I worked with them for a very long time on a lot of books.

Then in the year following the events of 9/11, first my agent passed away, followed by the death of one of my editors. Shortly after that, one of my other editors left the industry to pursue another vocation. From my long-standing team of four, I had one editor left. I was bereft, to say the least.

At the same time, I had taken a position on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, which was a huge challenge for me, not only as a teacher, but as a writer as well. In order to earn my place there, I really felt as if I needed to take stock and do something significantly different.

I had a dark night of the soul for sure. On the one hand, I was heartbroken from loss, and on the other, I felt compelled to do something that pushed me out of my comfort zone.

For nothing else, I felt like I owed it to all those people who had believed in me. And I also wanted to serve as a role model for my students, many of whom had already embarked upon their own successful careers.

It took a lot of deep breathing and whole lot of persistence to get to that next level. That’s when I wrote The Underneath (Atheneum 2010), which was my first novel.

I had to write thirty picture books before I could get to that point. This doesn’t mean that a novel is more important or worth more than a picture book. But it was one genre that I had never been able to crack.

I have a motto that each piece of writing is the piece that comes before the next piece. I’ve had this motto for a million years and I use it all the time with my students, but I have to confess, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it for myself until I began working on that novel.

What I realized was that I had to honor the writer I already was in order to become the writer I wanted to be. I’m a good picture book writer, and in fact, I love to write them. They’re where I go when I need to return to my soul. But they’re short, right?

So, I finally figured out that in order to finish a longer piece, like a novel, I would have to write it in short chunks of prose.

Did that make it easy? Not really. But it gave me a way to use the craft that I was adept at to finally create something wholly new.

In fact, every project teaches me something. Sometimes it teaches me a lot. I’m in awe of the power of Story and how illuminating it can be in the ways in which it leads us to the very things we need to know most, not only about the project at hand, but about who we are as humans.

But I’m also deeply grateful to those who have stood beside me during this journey. It really does take a village.

Chitra: I very much agree with Kathi on mastering a form and knowing when to begin something new. I’ve been in love with the short form ever since I started writing.

I’m more comfortable writing succinctly than expanding over 300 pages, which is ironic because people who know me think I talk too much.

Some of it is due to the way I work. I need to work on many things at the same time and a picture book helps with that. I work on a draft and then leave it and write another one or a poem or a short story and then come back to a picture book. Usually I have three-to-four projects going on at the same time and every morning I decide which one I want to work on. Some days are definitely for this or that. It’s like an inner radar.

I’m always excited when I start a new project. But I’m almost always nervous when I agree to a new project, especially one that’s outside my comfort zone–a new nonfiction or a longer text.

A wise friend once told me in a completely different context–if it terrifies you, then you’ll work harder to get it right.

Instead of having big crises, I have many small ones more often than not. When I’m reading a beautifully written picture book or young fiction, it could take me into either of the two directions–sometimes it inspires me to write something new, experimental. Sometimes it makes me feel pointless–why am I even writing when so many writers are already doing a fabulous job.

The doubts last anything from an hour to a few days, and suddenly, an idea will pop up and I’ll forget I had doubts, and start scribbling away.

I give myself little challenges – whether it’s a new form or a new genre or a new twist to an idea that has been done before. Experimenting is what makes me most happy.

Naomi: It’s so interesting to hear both Kathi and Chitra say that setting themselves new challenges and experimenting with things outside of their comfort zones are key to helping them progress as writers, and in some cases overcome difficult moments in their careers. I think that’s great advice and would recommend it to anyone who is feeling a bit stuck creatively.

Even if your experiment doesn’t quite work the way you’d hoped, and only ever lives inside your computer screen, you’ll have still achieved something by trying something new.

Flexing your writing muscles can never hurt!

I also think–as Chitra describes–having more than one project on the go can really help writers when they’re feeling bogged down or uninspired. I know plenty of authors who like to have a ‘fun’ side project to work on whilst they’re doing rewrites or edits, as if they really can’t face the idea of sitting down to do their ‘proper’ work, then they know that they’re at least going to do some productive writing that day.

I think stopping writing altogether can potentially be troublesome, as you run the risk of creating a mental block/hurdle about getting back to work, which the longer you leave, only gets bigger.

However, if you really can’t face your laptop, I think it’s okay to give yourself a break. Maybe watch a film or read a book that’s in a similar genre to what you’re writing to give you some inspiration.

I do know some authors who purposely avoid this as they’re worried whatever they read/watch will be so superior it will intimidate them, but to be honest, I’ve always considered that a rather burying-your-head-in-the-sand approach!

Certainly from an editor’s perspective, I’m always looking for exciting new ways to tell stories, and look to amazing books for inspiration and ideas for suggestions in my own edits.

Do you have any last advice for writers who want to take their work to the next level?

Kathi: Just as I mentioned above, I feel like it’s really important to understand your own strengths and to tap into those, to come to understand what forms the basis of your craft. Honor those strengths first.

For me, I do best by writing in short chunks. I call them “S.S.S.’s.” Short Significant Scenes. Everything I write tends to end on the bottom of page three. So, that’s how I approach my work.

It’s also not a bad idea to acknowledge the areas that you feel are a little shakier. Take note: Acknowledge them; but don’t let them sabotage your work.

All of us are better in some things than others. Long, narrative prose is hard for me. It’s not my strong suit. I can do it. And sometimes, a longer piece is called for. But it’s not in my comfort zone. I know that. But it doesn’t keep me from trying.

Chitra: As I said before I’m always trying new things. I challenge myself–it’s okay if I can’t really accomplish what I started out to do. No one else needs to know. One day it’ll be “how about a story about umbrellas–can you do something fresh?” Another day it might be “write a ghost story.”

There’s a Tamil proverb that says what you know is a handful, what you don’t know is vast as the ocean. I believe in that. I read processes of great writers, read fiction and nonfiction across a wide range of topics.

But I’m always looking at–how can I use this when writing for my audience three-to-10-years-old.

My other mantra is–never say “no.” Say “yes” and then figure it out. I’m always trying to stretch the limits of my ability to see what else can I do–can I try a comic strip today or write a joke or two? How about a nonfiction story about something that’s familiar to me, but fascinating for children?

When I wanted to write a novel, I enrolled in a M.A. I used to go to a lot more workshops and retreats before that. Now I’ve realized while going to classes, workshops and retreats are great for inspiration, the real craft is in the writing–the practice.

The Sanskrit word for practice is “yoga”–the daily regiment of putting pen to paper and trying different things. It’s like photography–you have to practice taking a lot of photos of boring fruits for days so that your fingers move intuitively to capture the moment when a rare bird takes flight in front of you.

The best way to learn to write a novel is to write one.

Having said that, the courses and workshops can help with identifying your strengths and weaknesses. Are you a planner or explorer? Are you plot driven or character driven?

Workshops allow you to discover your own process–by forcing you to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do. Sometimes listening to the workshop leader or your peers might open a shortcut or a method that you might want to try.

From my M.A., the most I learnt was about myself. I figured out that I was an experimenter. I usually explored until I came to a dead-end. But if I planned roughly while exploring, I could keep the freshness while not reaching the dead-end and giving up. If I planned too much, I lost interest in the journey.

I want to discover the unexpected and over many abandoned projects and multiple dead ends I’ve discovered my way of working.

Naomi: I honestly think enjoyment and confidence in what you’re doing is key.

Whether that’s the confidence to find your story, finish a first draft, share it with peers, receive and incorporate feedback, and then finally send it on to agents and publishers–you’ll need to believe in yourself and your writing if you’re going to achieve any of these things, and advance in your career as a writer.

And I think it’s important that you’re able to find the fun in these things too.

A writer’s life is not necessarily going to be totally amazing at every moment, but if you’re not generally having a good time while you work and explore your career, I think you might want to gently ask yourself why you’re doing it.

Being a writer or an author is a very tough job–now more than ever–so make sure you have that innate spark of joy with it that carry you through the harder moments.

I know I already mentioned this, but I really can’t recommend enough that you read–and read very widely!–in order to broaden your horizons and skills as a writer.

Read as widely as possible, read highbrow books, more overtly commercial books, books which are similar to your work or wildly different–and try to keep in touch with what is currently selling well in the market.

I will never suggest that you read what’s selling in order to try to make your own work fit that model–it almost never works, and is so limiting–but as with any job, it makes sense for you to know what’s working for your competitors.

Cynsational Notes

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British author and storyteller based in London, England. She has written more than 30 books for children, published across Asia, Europe and North America.

As a kid, she won the first prize in storytelling when she was nine years old, danced in a Bollywood movie, acted in plays written by her mum and wrote poetry.

Chitra grew up on a wholesome diet of stories from Indian epics and folk wisdom. She has been a teacher, programmer and a manager before she became a full-time writer. Follow Chitra on Twitter  or Instagram.

Naomi Colthurst is a Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House Children’s, working across fiction and nonfiction for readers aged 7 and up.

She started her career at Hot Key Books, part of Bonnier Publishing, and then moved over to join the children’s team at Faber & Faber. She joined Penguin Random House in early 2017 and is proud to work with beloved authors such as John Boyne, Joseph Delaney, Jonathan Stroud and Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell, as well as commissioning new and exciting debut talent.

Kathi Appelt is the New York Times bestselling author of more than forty books for children and young adults. Her first novel, The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008), was named a National Book Award Finalist, a Newbery Honor Book, and the PEN USA Literature for Children Award.

That book was followed by Keeper (Atheneum 2012), which was named an NCTE Notable Children’s Book and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.

Her memoir, My Father’s Summers (Henry Holt, 2004), won the Paterson Prize for Young Adult Poetry. Ms. Appelt was presented with the A.C. Greene Award by the Friends of Abilene Public Library, which named her a “Texas Distinguished Author.”

Her novel The True Blue Scouts Of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum, 2014) was named a National Book Award Finalist and won the Green Earth Award, the Texas Institute of Letters Award, and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award.

Angel Thieves (Atheneum, 2019), Kathi’s newest book, is her first young adult novel. She and her husband Ken live in College Station, Texas with six adorable cats, Django, Peach, Mingus, Chica, Jazz and Ace.

A native of Los Angeles, Elizabeth Brahy has a degree in Film Studies from Wesleyan University and worked in film and television for many years before becoming a freelance writer and editor.

Elizabeth writes about Paris arts and culture for the online magazine INSPIRELLE and is currently the regional advisor of SCBWI France.

Passionate about genre storytelling, she was longlisted for SCBWI’s Undiscovered Voices award in 2016 and 2018 and is at work on her first YA mystery novel. Follow her on Twitter.

Huge thanks and appreciation to the amazing Elisabeth Norton for organizing, coordinating and making the SCBWI Europolitan Con series possible.

Elisabeth Norton, Regional Advisor for SCBWI Switzerland