Writing: The Joy and Self-Doubt

I remember when writing was pure joy. I was nine. I wrote poems. They were short. They were about small things that captivated me. I thought they were lovely. I still think they’re lovely.

I got older. A niggling question entered my brain: was any of it good? Writing was still a joy. But that joy was rarely unaccompanied by its obnoxious companion: self-doubt.

As I started writing more “seriously,” I also began taking myself too seriously. Eventually, I remembered that this was supposed to fun.

Good writing is a joy to read. That’s doesn’t mean that it isn’t serious in topic or tone, of course. But, the writer’s joy in the written word is there on the page, not hidden behind self-consciousness.

A good writer tells the reader, “Come with me. I have something to show you.” Without confidence, who will want to follow me?

I’m taking a page from nine-year-old me. I’m remembering that this was supposed to be fun and letting the words fall where they may.

Critique (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Feedback)

Critique. Depending on where you are in your writing journey that word might inspire fear or excitement–or both! For a long time, I was terrified of critique, and I kept my work cocooned in my Google docs where prying eyes couldn’t reach it. Part of me knew I was stunting my growth as a writer by not getting feedback, but the thought of criticism was too scary to face. What if my work was terrible?

Critique is fun–really!

As I got more serious about writing, I knew I had to overcome my fears. I started small. I used the KidLit 411 Manuscript Swap (more info on it here) Sending out my work made my heart race a bit, and I avoided looking at the feedback until I was well-rested and in a good frame of mind (something I still do). But, I discovered something amazing: critique was fun!

Pretty much every time I send out a story to other writers, I get comments that make me go, “Ahhh! Why didn’t I think of that?” It’s exhilarating to get closer to the best version of my story, and other writers consistently see opportunities to make my pieces better. They help me raise the stakes, perfect my pacing, or make my ending just a bit more satisfying. Without other writers, I would keep missing opportunities to bring my work to the next level.

I also love giving feedback on other people’s work. When I swap stories, I’m amazed at the inventiveness and creativity of other writers, which makes me feel better about rejections (the competition is pretty amazing!). And, by seeing multiple drafts of another writer’s work, I get a sense for how a work progresses from first draft to final. Even better, my feedback and suggestions helped another writer improve her work, which gives me both the warm-and-fuzzies and a confidence boost. Remember that you–yes, you–have something to offer other writers.

How to find critique groups and partners

Are you excited about critique yet? Awesome! …Now what? For a long time, I didn’t know how to find critique groups. My friends and family were supportive but didn’t bring a writer’s lens to how to improve my work (or didn’t want to hurt my feelings).

As with many problems, the internet is here to help. (Note: my suggestions here are specific to kidlit.) I’ve already mentioned the KidLit 411 Manuscript Swap, which is a great place to start. Another huge resource is SCBWI. Join and attend meetings in your local area. I’ve consistently found other writers looking for critique partners, and they’re awesome people who love to nerd out about children’s books. What could be better? Resolve to swap contact info with at least three people at your next SCBWI meeting.

Not a member of SCBWI? You can still often join the Facebook group for your local chapter and post to see if there local writers who want to form a group. There are other online resources to help you improve your writing including the Children’s Book Academy and the 12 x 12 Challenge. These resources are not free, but come highly recommended for newer writers.

The most important thing is to find something that works for you. I enjoy meeting with critique groups and partners in person, but also appreciate additional feedback I can get from online groups. Setting a monthly critique group meeting encourages me to keep writing new picture books, so I have new work to share. Before my monthly meeting, I can use the KidLit 411 page to get one round of feedback, and then I get another at my in-person meeting. All these little milestones and deadlines keep me energized and writing.

What works for you? 

7 Essential Resources for New KidLit Writers

When I wanted to start writing children’s books, I didn’t know much about it except that I loved the books I read to my son. When I decided to take the leap to actually start writing books, I found some amazing resources to help guide my path. If you’re brand-new to kidlit (or thinking about giving it a try), here are some great places to start.

Harold Underdown’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books

When I picked up this book, I knew next to nothing about writing and publishing children’s books. When I was done, I had a solid foundation about the industry that allowed me to absorb more from other resources I later read. This book will give you the basics of terminology, age categories, writing, revising, submitting, and publishing. And, even if you’re starting from zero–like I was–it won’t make you feel like an idiot (despite the name). Harold Underdown’s website is also a wealth of information.

SCBWI

As the Complete Idiot’s Guide (and every other book, blog, resource) will counsel you…you need to join SCBWI. That’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. If you’re new to writing kidlit, you might feel there isn’t a benefit to you, or worse, that you shouldn’t be there because you aren’t a “real” writer. But you would be wrong! SCBWI is an incredibly welcoming community of writers and illustrators all at different points in their creative careers. An annual membership will run you about $100 and will gain you access to: 1) The Book: Essential Guide to Publishing for Children, which will help you better understand the market for children’s books, 2) local events and seminars where you can meet other writers and learn about the craft, 3) webinars at reduced prices, 4) contests to gain feedback on your writing from literary agents, 5) lots of other cool stuff. Just join already!

KidLit 411

KidLit 411 is another amazing collection of resources. From their website, it includes:

Topical Pages – links to articles and resources organized by topics

Author & Illustrator Spotlights – each week, we feature an author or an illustrator, who share their experience with you. Each spotlight usually comes with a book giveaway.

The Weekly 411 – each week, we compile the new links that were added during the week in an update post. You can receive this by email by subscribing to email updates.

KidLit 411 Manuscript Swap

As a companion to KidLit 411, the group organized a Facebook page where writers can swap manuscripts and act as critique partners. If you’re having trouble finding critique partners in your local area (or are just tired of getting feedback from the same people), posting here can get you lots of willing readers/critiquers who will give you encouragement and suggestions to improve your manuscript. If you’re new to critique, this can also be a non-intimidating way to dip your toe into the critique world and realize it’s not so bad after all.

Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books

Susanna Hill’s website is chock-full of great information, writing contests, and wonderful advice and encouragement. I especially love her Perfect Picture Books page, which is a great way for picture book writers to understand what books have been recently published on similar themes to their manuscripts’.

Twitter

I resisted Twitter for a long time–mostly out of stubbornness. As I wrote more, I realized that not being on Twitter meant missing out on a lot of great interaction with other writers. Even if you’re brand new to Twitter, you can set up a profile, follow kidlit writers, and start learning more about the craft and business of children’s books. Twitter is also home to events like PitMad where writers pitch their work to agents and editors. Even if you’re not ready to pitch, reading through pitches can inspire you and help you learn about what writers are creating and how the industry is responding.

Critique groups and your fellow writers

Books and online groups are great, but they are no substitute for working with fellow writers in person. They can encourage you, understand your setbacks, tell you about opportunities, and give you fresh perspectives on your manuscripts. If you can’t find a critique group, make one! Through the Facebook group for my local SCBWI chapter, I put out a call for writers interested in forming a group and had our first meeting scheduled within a week. Meeting other writers might feel intimidating when you’re just starting out, but nothing will keep you writing longer (or better) than having a community.

What resources have helped guide you in your career as a writer? 

Writing with Kids: Meeting Your Goals Without Losing Your Mind

If you have little kids, time might be one of the top three things on your Christmas list (along with sleep and more caffeine). And, if you’re a writer, finding time to pour into your own projects might feel elusive even on the best of days.

Three principles of finding time

As a mom of two little boys, I’ve found a rhythm that works for me, which I’ll describe in detail below. I am certain the particulars of my routine will change with my kids, but there are three principles that underlie my routine: intentionality, flexibility, and realism.

Up first: intentionality. If you have kids, you know you no longer have the luxury of writing when the mood strikes. You have to make time to write, or it will get left in a pile with everything else you’ve given up since you had kids (like peeing alone).

Once you set the intention to write, you need to be flexible about when it might happen. Kids change. They throw tantrums. They stop napping. Your writing time might get pushed around with their changing needs. It used to upset me when my plan got thrown out the window. But once I started thinking in terms of flexibility, I knew I could find the time. No nap today? OK, bedtime is 30 minutes earlier. If you have a Plan B (and C), you’ll find time to write most days.

Linked with flexibility is the idea of realism. Before kids, you might’ve written two hours a day. Recognize that you might need smaller goals at this moment in your life. When I was establishing a writing routine, I set my goal really low: 10 words a day. Basically, I just wanted to start writing everyday. Now, I set the timer for 30 minutes every afternoon and (usually) stop when it goes off. This also allows me to have some down time in addition to my writing time and to keep momentum going, rather than wearing myself out. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Three types of writing time

As I’ve progressed in my writing life, I’ve noticed I need three types of writing time.

The first is the deep concentration, which is what most people think of when they think of writing time. This is the most important type of time because it’s when you actually work on your work-in-progress. For me, right now, this is 30 minutes at the start of nap. If the kid doesn’t want to take a nap, he can have quiet time in his room, but those 30 minutes are sacred.

Second is daydreaming time. I’ve always been a daydreamer, and ideas for my work-in-progress often percolate while I’m engaged in something else. Most mornings, I take my kids to a park or a museum or a library. While they play, I can watch them while also writing/plotting in my head. This means that when naptime hits and I set my timer, I often have words aching to pour out on the page.

Third, there is housekeeping. This is the busy work of writing–tweaking my website, interacting with other writers on social media, researching resources to read later, etc. These are tasks that enhance my writing life, but don’t require deep concentration. I often do these while my kids are eating lunch or snack. They’re occupied, and I can pull out my laptop at the table while they’re munching.

Celebrate your progress

My routine may not work for you. It may not even work for me six months from now. Writing with kids is, at best, a topsy-turvy pursuit. Some days, you won’t write. Some weeks, you’ll be stuck.

Celebrate that you do it at all–that you find time for yourself and your creativity. For me, investing in my creativity allows me to bring energy to my parenting and just plain makes me happy. And, making your own happiness is always something to celebrate.

Recommended for Writers: “Finish” by Jon Acuff

We’ve all been there. Maybe you started #NaNoWriMo in a sprint. Maybe you awoke one morning full of inspiration for a new novel. Maybe you’re 25,000 words in, and the plot just isn’t working. No matter the start of a novel, we’ve all been ready to bury it before its time.

I was facing this dilemma not too long ago while working on my first middle grade manuscript. I had started it in a frenzy of inspiration. I had outlined the plot. I had written over half of it. And, then, I…stopped.

Through a stroke of luck, I stumbled across Jon Acuff’s delightful book FinishWhile the book isn’t specific to writing, it’ll have you glancing at your neglected work-in-progress with shame and, by the end, a second wind of motivation.

A fast read, it’s worth buying or checking out from your local library. To whet your book-appetite, here a few (among many) lessons I brought to my (now-finished) manuscript.

Expect the doldrums

If you have a manuscript (or three) languishing in the bowels of your hard drive, cast off any shame and know that this is normal.

We all start things we don’t finish. If you’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution, this probably isn’t news to you. I’ve been promising myself I’m going to start a garden next year for 8 years. Still, when a work-in-progress moves from inspired to abandoned, it can feel like a personal failure.

This is where knowledge is power. Like true love, the course of great achievement ne’er did run smooth. That your progress has stalled doesn’t mean your concept is flawed or you have some gene that makes you unfit for novel-writing. It means that you’re human.

And that you’re about halfway through book.

Your brain lies to you

If you are, in fact, human, you likely have a human brain. The thing about human brains is that they’re very good at making up stories and convincing you that they’re true. The story might be that cookies are an excellent breakfast or that everyone hates you…or that you should really be doing something other than finishing your book.

Your brain is going to find lots of really interesting things you should write RIGHT AT THIS VERY MOMENT. None of these things will be your book, and they will all seem to be the most brilliant thing you’ve ever thought of. In fact, you’ll probably win the Man Booker Prize if you just abandon your work-in-progress and embark on the new idea.

Unfortunately, this, like cookies-for-breakfast may taste good in the moment, but will leave you exhausted and unsatisfied later. Your new idea may indeed be brilliant, but if you embark on something new every time you hit a roadblock, you’ll never finish anything. And, that–to put it precisely–stinks.

Instead, do what Acuff tells you to do: write down your brilliant idea and promise yourself you can start on it as soon as you finish what you’re working on.

Find your hiding places

We’ve established that you will want to quit and that your brain will try to lure you into doing so, but what can we do to finish?

Acuff lays out a bunch of strategies in the book. I’m going to focus on the one that made the biggest difference for me: finding your hiding places. This doesn’t mean to build a pillow fort where you can hide from your kids (though that might help too). It means that you need to identify where and how you waste time and stop doing it.

If your brain can’t trick you into starting some new big endeavor, it’s going lead you to lots of tiny time-sucks instead. There are the obvious ones, like Facebook or TV binges. Blocking websites can help with these.

But then, there are less obvious ones–the ones you can justify to yourself as advancing you toward your goals. Perhaps, you’ve been tinkering with your author website for days on end, or posting on Twitter to build your following. Maybe you’re guest blogging. These things might seem like they aren’t hiding places because they’re writing-related, but are they truly getting you closer to your goals?

Acuff suggests asking yourself if you could explain to someone else how an activity gets you closer to your intended goal. If you can’t, it’s probably a hiding place.

For instance, it’s perhaps no surprise that I’m writing this post when I’m roughly 60% through my current work-in-progress…The struggle is real.

What books or tips have helped you finish your writing projects? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

How the Great British Baking Show Made Me a Better Writer

Who doesn’t love reality TV? Add in some tasty-looking bakes, delectable British accents, and splashes of dry humor, and the Great British Baking Show is a nearly irresistible Netflix binge.

For the uninitiated, the show (known as the Great British Bake-Off, or GBBO, in the U.K.) features twelve amateur bakers competing against each other in a well-worn culinary reality show format: three challenges, two judges, and one eliminated contestant per episode.

What’s less familiar about the show is the warmth it brings to the messy process of creating, critiquing, and ranking creative products. As I indulged in (an undisclosed number of) episodes over Thanksgiving, I found striking parallels between the experience of the show’s bakers and my own experience as writer.

If you’re looking to justify your own GBBO addiction, look no further. Here’s what I found:

Creatives support creatives

Almost immediately after I started watching, I was struck by how often bakers helped each. This is a competition, right? Most reality shows play up competition, rather than compassion. But on GBBO, seeing one baker help another plate tortes in the waning minutes of a challenge is hardly rare.

This camaraderie between creatives reminded me of how often I see writers support each other, either online or in real life. As I’ve become increasingly serious in my writing, I’ve found writers eager to help—by giving critique or lending a listening ear or sharing tips of the trade—at every turn.

More often than not, I’ve seen creative types empathize, rather than compete, and give more than they take. Remembering that helps me feel safe in sharing my work with other writers and makes me feel all warm and gooey (not unlike a great pudding) about helping other writers.

Critique is kind

Speaking of sharing one’s work—critique is an intimidating process, and a huge part of GBBO and culinary reality TV in general. While I’ve gotten more comfortable with it over the years, I still don’t exactly savor the (very necessary) process of having my work’s ugly undersides pointed out.

Where GBBO differs from most shows of its kind is in the delivery of the critique. It’s not just that the judges tend to compliment sandwich (that is, burying the critique between layers of positives). It’s the dispassionate, clear-eyed objectivity they bring to the task. A baker’s torte citron is underdone, never “bad.” A bread is underproved, but perhaps still delicious. The judges key in on the exact areas for improvement, rarely describing a bake with an overarching adjective.

As a writer, I’ve often feared that critique would lead to a rendering of my work as being “bad”—as if a critiquer has a tiny gavel that will sound a final judgment. This, however, has never been my actual experience with critique. Instead I’ve learned that my meter is off here, that my plot lags there. This kind of critique is a gift (and the topic of my next blog post).

Faces tell stories

If I can read faces at all, I’m pretty sure the bakers of GBBO aren’t too keen on critique either. Like many reality shows, GBBO delights in tightly framing the contestants’ faces as they bake, encounter obstacles, and especially, wait for the judges to give feedback.

For a writer, this is an incredible opportunity to practice describing facial expressions. Is Luis chewing on his lip? Is Richard rocking back-and-forth between his heels and toes? Is Martha rubbing the cuffs of her shirt? Paying close attention to the bakers’ non-verbal cues helped me think through how I could describe characters’ emotional states through telling details.

Knowing when to press on and when to start again

Almost every episode features a dilemma familiar to every writer—what to do with a creation that isn’t turning out as hoped. Press on and hope for the best, or toss it in the trash and try again?

For the bakers, this decision is often based on the ever-limited time remaining in the challenge. For us writers, the decision can rest on the potential we see in our work. For both groups, starting over can be a heart-wrenching, but necessary, exercise to achieve the best product possible.

While the time lost on a first attempt can feel wasted, it is a natural part of the creative process. Businesses lose merchandise; we all lose socks in the laundry; no one is able to produce great work 100% of the time.

You are not your bake (or story)

Finally, remembering that we all have stumbles and duds helped me remember that I am not my writing.

Writing, like all creative pursuits, is a form of self-expression. This simple truth can be overextended into the (absolutely untrue) idea that we are what we create. On GBBO, bakers excel in one challenge to falter in the next or pull out a show-stopping finale to save themselves from elimination. Nothing about the bakers—certainly not their value as people or as creators—has changed from one challenge to the next.

An awful bake does not make an awful baker. A lousy story does not make a lousy writer. We are, and we do. These things are connected, but not the same.