Last year, I told a colleague I was working on a picture book manuscript. She’s a writer (former journalist, communications director at my current job) and she suggested I join SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I joined and I signed up for the conference last fall. I entered my manuscript in the picture book contest, but I was too scared to sign up for a face-to-face critique.
My first conference was amazing. The learning curve was steep because I knew very little about writing picture books, the market, and querying. I didn’t win anything in the manuscript contest, but I met my current critique partner who invited me into her writing group.
When I registered for this year’s conference, I entered a new manuscript in the picture book contest and I signed up for a critique.
It was nice to meet up with members of my writing group, and meet some new friends. I went to amazing sessions–even better than last year!
Then, on Saturday, they announced the contest winners and I got Honorable Mention!
I told my friends at the conference that I was using this conference to decide if I needed to just bury this picture book manuscript and move on, or if there was some life left in it. I’d spent last fall submitting it, and I got some complimentary rejections, but it didn’t go any further than that.
I was so happy to get that recognition in the contest. I was starting to feel a little bummed about writing picture books. I love writing them, but maybe it isn’t for me. The market is competitive, and perhaps I needed to spend my energy elsewhere. This re-lit the fire!
On Sunday morning of the conference, I had my face-to-face critique of the same manuscript with an editor. I was so nervous. I’d had critique partners and writing groups, but never any industry feedback like this.
It was amazing. Not because she told me the book was fabulous and flawless and she was going to publish it tomorrow (that’s what we all secretly daydream about), but that it wasn’t perfect, but had some elements that were strong. She had criticism that I thought was spot on, and some ideas for how to improve the manuscript. What most encouraged me was that she said I was good at humor, and I should keep going with being funny. It’s every kid-sister extrovert’s dream to be told that. She also liked a 4th wall breaking moment in the manuscript and told me to do it more throughout the story.
The editor also told me that she didn’t love my premise. That may sound like it was a blow, but honestly, it was somewhat liberating. When I allowed myself to consider changing the premise, I saw how I could fix the other problems that she pointed out. It was exciting to consider the possibilities of keeping the character and dropping the premise. At the end, the editor said she was so glad I was willing to consider a change like that. It reminded me that flexibility is so key and not always common. Being gracious and flexible are some excellent qualities in both writers and students. I love it when I make a big suggestion like that to a student and she takes it in stride. It’s only right that I model that behavior.
One of my query rejections for that manuscript said that I had “more to discover.” I’ve spent a year wondering what that meant–until now! Between my critique, and a workshop on character development with the same editor, I understood. The cow was flat and undeveloped.
[Side note: Until you try to write a picture book, you’ll think it’s nuts that you spend as much time developing those characters as you might spend on a novel. But really, you can and you should. You only have 500 words, so you better know that character deep down and be ready to make them come alive in as few words as possible. You don’t have 10,000 words to “find” the character. They need to exist in every word on every page. Mind blown, right?]
I went home after the conference bursting with ideas. In fact, I woke up in the middle of the night Sunday morning with a non-fiction picture book idea that incorporated some humor. Sunday afternoon after the conference, while my youngest napped, I worked on a rewrite of The Cow Steals the Show and a first draft of my new idea.
Here’s what I think I’m learning about myself. I’ve got humor, I’ve got plot and premise. My characters have voice, but it’s not enough. I’m not sure yet if this applies to my novel, but I think it’s true for my picture books.