Part One: The Writer’s Heart
Many hard-working, committed, persistent, and resilient writers forge ahead with their writing journeys in spite of obstacles, disappointments, “almost-there” moments and plenty of what I call “Beautiful, buts.”
This two-part interview explores the experience of being a long-time, determined writer who has not yet had a book published.
Writers Lisa Bierman, Meredith Davis, and Jill Donaldson hail from different parts of the United States, and have different personalities, habits, writing choices, and ways of shoring up resilience. But one thing they have in common is this: nothing will deter them from continuing to write and submit their stories.
Our writing journeys vary in results, but all of us, whether published or not-yet-published, know that the joy is in the journey.
As you reflect on your writer’s journey, what are the major “bumps” or obstacles you’ve encountered (internal as well as external), and how have you managed to handle them while still remaining committed?
Meredith: The biggest, most persistent bump is what I’ve perceived as failure – failure to achieve goals, find an agent, get published by the time I was forty.
The fallacy in this thinking was that I based those goals on others’ achievements. Once I recognized what I was doing, I readjusted my success barometer.
As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
I began to trust that I was on a path designed just for me, and all those things I wanted – the agent and the publishing contract and the awards will come at the right time.
I can’t force it, and don’t want to force it.
I continue moving forward, writing and editing and submitting. I count the bumps and hurdles of rejections as part of the journey that will make an even better story to tell in the end.
What’s a story without some tension? I remind myself that the journey is just as important as the destination.
Lisa: I have had many time periods when I did very little writing, and [these periods] could last months.
The biggest internal barrier for me has always been the lack of an imposed deadline.
External events – a lot of family health issues – have intervened over the years as well.
Having fellow writers I adore motivates me to keep returning to manuscripts.
Nothing beats the fun of having a character you begin to love or a string of rhyming stanzas that are really coming together.
Another factor that has helped me is that I often have new story ideas, and I enjoy brainstorming, but I’ve also learned that pursuing ideas that don’t have enough unique qualities can turn into unproductive time.
Jill: I started learning the craft of writing for children and teens in 1999 when I joined SCBWI. I found my writing soulmates and joined a critique group.
A few years in, one of my picture book manuscripts caught the eye of an editor at Random House and we went through several revisions. At that time, Random House merged with several other companies and my editor lost her job. The new editor did not do picture books, so my heart was broken. [A part of me felt like giving up, but instead] I began focusing on magazines and novels.
Not long after, my first article appeared in AppleSeeds.
Many of my other “bumps” have been external. Around that time, my family and I moved to Missouri for my husband’s job. Over the next six years, we moved three times, I continued to raise two active sons, complete my bachelor’s degree, and work full-time.
In 2011, we settled back home in Oklahoma, and I reconnected with old friends and my critique group and started taking my writing career seriously again. In 2015, a tornado damaged our house, and we were homeless for nine months.
In 2016, I faced a big emotional obstacle – the fear of losing my oldest son, who had joined the military and was deployed to war zones.
But I continued to volunteer for SCBWI throughout all of this time.
|Oklahoma SCBWI Regional Team Jill Donaldson (regional advisor), Jerry Bennett (illustrator coordinator), Anna Myers (regional advisor emeritus), SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver and Helen Newton (former regional advisor).|
I learned to channel frustration, fear, happiness, and peace into my stories, and that has given me the strength to persist in my passion of writing.
What are your top three pieces of advice for developing and maintaining the resilience necessary to persist in a difficult business?
- Remember how many fine writers have a fat rejection file. Probably all of them.
- We are told that the publishing industry is highly competitive, and it is. But make peace with the fact that some published books will seem unworthy to you, and you might puzzle endlessly about why certain books “made the cut.” I suggest you focus on the books you are jealous of, that make you swoon. What can you learn from those lovely books? Probably a lot.
- Only write things that you really enjoy thinking about.
- Connect and develop relationships with other kid lit writers and illustrators.
- Work at maintaining a balanced lifestyle, so your creativity is at its max when you sit down to write or illustrate.
- Keep your mind and heart open to learn and create in new ways. It is soul-satisfying when you have a breakthrough in your writing or illustrating.
- Keep reading. Great books continue to remind me why I’m writing and pursuing publication. I want to share stories and move others with my words the same way I’m moved by great writing.
- Keep learning. It’s part of the fun of being a writer. It’s exciting to try a new plotting technique or go to graduate school or attend a conference. I’m not just a writer so that I can have a published book. I’m a writer because I actually enjoy writing, and when I learn new things my writing improves. It’s like a woodworker using a new saw or a computer programmer learning a new language. Learning gives me tools to explore new ways of writing and keeps my process fresh.
- Keep nurturing relationships with other writers. The relationships I’ve made with other writers are life-giving. They encourage me and they inspire me. Other writers edit my work and they help me navigate the ups and downs of the writing life. They understand how hard it can be, so they can celebrate or commiserate authentically.
E.B. White writes of Charlotte,
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”
These relationships are precious.
How do you handle questions about “what is out on submission” (from writing colleagues) or “what have you published?” (from non-writer acquaintances)
|Meredith’s writing community: Anne Bustard (seated),
Meredith, Betty X. Davis, Kathi Appelt and Jane Peddicord.
Meredith: For a long time I didn’t tell people outside my writing circle that I wrote children’s books, but it was hard to stay incognito. I wrote Christmas letters and blog posts and long emails.
People told me they liked my writing, and so I got brave. I began to admit that I wrote children’s books, too, and then came the inevitable question.
Sometimes it was the double whammy: “Where can I buy them?” They assumed not only that I was published, but that I was published many times. As if that is no big deal!
Sometimes I try to explain about publishing, how it’s hard, editors move, the market is fickle, and I’m an unknown. But when I see eyes begin to glaze, I realize a quick “I’m not published yet, but I’m working on it,” works just fine.
Usually whomever I’m talking to has already moved on to new topics of conversation. Non-writers don’t realize they’ve exposed our insecurities, but other writers understand how hard it is and don’t judge.
The children’s writers I’ve met are kind and generous and they’re often rooting for me. We are a friendly bunch, so I try not to be intimidated and keep Dorie’s mantra from “Finding Nemo” playing on repeat in my head: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”
I move on, and, “Just keep writing, just keep
Lisa: I give very brief answers. I’m honest. I’ll say that I’ve been beating my head
against the wall.
Jill: When I’m asked about submissions, I try to make it an opportunity to pitch my current work. Their reactions or lack thereof is helpful in knowing how I can be better.
When I’m asked about what I have published, I let them know what success I have had and then tell them that I don’t have any books published yet.
Part Two: Writing Craft
What are your favorite resources for improving your writing skills?
|Lisa’s favorite craft books.|
Lisa: Reading books in my genre – that’s the most fun way to improve my own work. When I see a picture book that is clever and delights me, it can also help me think, “I have concepts that are as good as these…My voice is similar…,” and those are the times I get excited again and want to keep the fire going.
Jill: I try to attend as many kid lit related critique meetings, writing workshops, and webinars as possible.
Meredith: I love a good conference or workshop, when I am surrounded by creative people and inspired by either a lecture or a writing exercise, but perhaps the most helpful tool for me is a story well told. It can be a book, a movie, a podcast, even a grandma at the dinner table.
I love trying to figure out what makes a story work, and then trying it out in my own work. What builds tension? How to best set up a scene? How to paint a character so she seems real? My favorite books are all marked up and highlighted with notes for what works and what doesn’t.
What strategies (internal and external) do you use for improving your craft?
Meredith: My best “honing” happens during revision. One of the most important things I can do to revise well is to leave my manuscript alone for a while.
When it’s time for a big revision, I need some space to gain perspective and let go of some of the details I can’t seem to pry my fingers off of when it’s still close and present and on my mind daily.
Internally, this means filling up with someone else’s words, reading a book that’s so good it distracts me from my work.
Externally, it means going out and engaging in the real world for a while, meeting a friend for coffee or lunch. This makes no sense. How can I be working on my craft by ignoring it? It works because when I come back to it, I see it through new eyes.
Sometimes I’ll try laying a construct on it, like Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder (Michael Wiese, 2005) or the “snowflake method” or the “sticky-note method” or whatever fun plotting game has come across my radar.
I look at my story as a puzzle instead of precious words I’ve woven together. Honing implies detail work, and getting to the root of what makes a scene and an entire story work. This can only be done with an objective eye, and I’m most objective when my affections are no longer entirely focused on my manuscript.
Jill: I study recently published kid lit books, create an organized comfortable working space, and play wordless music.
Lisa: Getting feedback as often as I can afford to, money-wise and time-wise.
What craft advice would you give to beginning writers?
Lisa: It takes a very long time for most of us to develop to a truly professional level.
You must enjoy the actual writing, not just the idea of having a book to sell. Don’t stay wedded to an idea too long, especially if an editor tells you in a critique that they see a lot of similar stories. If you’re going to do a common book theme, like a bedtime book, ya gotta shoot for being better than Jane Yolen!
Meredith: Light a candle. You can get really caught up with word count and how many pages you’ve written in a day, but the most important thing is making progress.
|Meredith’s writing space with lit candle.|
We kid ourselves if progress only means meeting a designated and arbitrary word count. Sometimes progress looks like staring out the window or scribbling ideas on notecards or even deleting a bunch of pages that no longer work but were necessary to write to figure out your story.
This is all progress, though it may feel unsatisfying without physical proof of a hard day’s work.
My advice is to put a candle on a plate and light it when you start paying attention to your manuscript.
Measure your progress by the puddle of wax that accumulates instead of word count. You’ll have a physical manifestation of the time you’ve spent with your work in progress.
When someone asks how your writing went that day, you can proudly (and cryptically) reply, “about the size of a salad plate.”
Jill: First, learn about the different kid-lit industry standards.
Second, learn about yourself. What are your writing strengths and weaknesses? Focus on improving your weakness. For example, if you don’t have a good grasp of grammar rules, then teach yourself with workbooks, online classes, and tutorials.
Third, train yourself to take and give constructive critique about your manuscript. Even the master writer, Jane Yolen said, “It’s never perfect when I write it down the first time, or the second time, or the fifth time. But it always gets better as I go over it and over it.”
Thanks to Lisa, Jill, and Meredith for sharing so much about your inner journeys and your thoughts about commitment to your craft!
As short or as long as our journeys are, it’s so important to call ourselves by our name – Writer – and to stay focused on the work, challenge, and joy of telling the stories we hold in our hearts and minds as beautifully as we can.
Cynsational Breaking News & Notes
Meredith Davis has sold what will become her debut book, Chance Comes Once, co-authored by Rebeka Uwitonze, to Scholastic.
Meredith founded the Austin chapter of SCBWI in 1995, the same year her daughter was born. She birthed an additional two children in subsequent years, worked in an independent children’s bookstore, and earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes middle grade and picture books, fiction and narrative nonfiction, and looks forward to announcing her first book contract, a product of many puddles of wax. In the featured photo, she is shown with Betty X. Davis, Anne Bustard, Kathi Appelt, and Jane Peddicord.
Lisa was hooked on the beauty and possibilities in the world of kids’ books. She has written (and not published) many picture book and chapter book manuscripts. Her poetry has appeared in kids’ magazines.
Meanwhile, she has done freelance business writing, volunteered extensively for SCBWI-Illinois, for local public schools and for AYSO soccer.
Jillene Donaldson (Jill) creates stories for children and teens and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc.
She grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with three siblings, several dogs, and a cat that climbed walls. She’s had run-ins with a mean bull, an electric fence, monster dogs, toe-eating mice, and bullies who once double-dog dared her to eat a white grub, which she did.
Jill graduated as valedictorian; completed an AA in English Literature for which she won the Geraldine Burns Award for Excellence in English; and then earned a BA all while working full time and raising two awesome boys with her husband.
She loves putting frozen fruit in drinks and most anything with cheese or chocolate. She lives with her husband in Oklahoma City.
Carol Coven Grannick writes picture books, poetry and middle grade fiction. Her work has appeared in Cricket, Ladybug, Highlights and Hunger Mountain.
Her middle grade novel-in-verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” addresses body image-issues for the younger audience, and won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript competition. It also was a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Award from Hunger Mountain.
Carol chronicles the writer’s inner journey with a focus on resilience for Cynsations and the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.
See her previous posts: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education; Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety; Into the Scary for the Sake of Joy; and Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist.