Before I write, I always take some quiet time to pray. I ask God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit to let my writing bring goodness into children’s lives. I want my books to bring love and warmth, laughter and understanding.
Thinking of a story takes me a long time. It did when I was a kid, too. I would stare out the window and think and think and think. Sometimes the teacher thought I was goofing off, but the truth is, I was working very hard. I still work that same way.
These days, I like to hike in the woods when I am thinking about a story idea. There is just something about being outside in the fresh air that helps me. Our dog comes, too. He sniffs and explores and jumps in every mud puddle available. On beautiful days, I love to sit by a stream or under a tree and write. I sit with a thermos of coffee, a beloved muddy dog, and I dream.
I start with a character that I love- a fast-moving squirrel, a girl leaving on the Oregon Trail, a mouse who likes things perfect. Then I think about the problem they might have and how they will solve it. I stare out the window a lot now, too.
Before I can write a story, I have to “think it out,” so I keep a notebook. I fill the pages with ideas, themes, character sketches, and glimmers of dialogue. I ask myself questions, and I answer them in the notebook. It reads as if I’m talking to myself, which in essence, I guess I am.
Days, months, and even years later, I’ve found these notebooks invaluable because I can see the paths my mind has wandered down. Without my notebooks, I would waste valuable time re-thinking thoughts that for some reason or other didn’t work. Much to my great astonishment and joy, I’ve also found fantastic ideas that I’ve totally forgotten. Even though in real life, I’m a pitcher and can’t stand any clutter, I’ll never throw away a writing notebook. They hold treasures, untold!
Some authors let stories develop, spur of the moment. They load their characters into a car, turn on the ignition and see where the road takes them. Not me. I’m a map and GPS kind of gal. I want to know where I’m going and how I’m going to get there before I start the car. So, I map out what I think will happen in my story. I’m not saying that I won’t take an attractive detour or even change my mind about my destination. But to start, I at least like to pretend I know where I’m going with a story. When the story starts playing like a movie in my head, I know it’s time to write.
Then it’s time to settle down and write it with words. My favorite spot to write is the green chair by the fireplace or the couch in the sunroom. Our dog always sits beside me, usually with his head on my notebook. I always have a big blanket because I am usually cold and my laptop because I have terrible handwriting. Then I write and write and write. Sometimes I write a story 20 times. When it’s pretty good, I show it to my friends in my writing groups. They always help me to make it better. Then I write and write and write some more. After I’ve done my very best, I send my story out.
People often ask me how to become a writer. I tell them they have to do two things- read and write.
Writing is hard, imperfect work. Sometimes I love what I write. Sometimes I can write all day and only have one good paragraph. I fail more times than I succeed, but that is okay. I know that if I keep at it, I will eventually have a great story.
Writers need to be great readers. I read all the time. (I hardly ever watch t.v.) One of my favorite things to do is to go to the library and pick out a giant stack of picture books and a couple of children’s novels. Then I cuddle up in that same green chair by the fireplace and read, read, read. Add a hot cup of coffee or cocoa and you have a perfect day!
WHERE DO YOU GET IDEAS FOR YOUR STORIES?
Everywhere! Ideas for stories pop up all around me. I’ll see something or hear something, and all of a sudden, I’ll feel what I call, “a story vibration.” Something inside me says, “Hey! Pay attention! This could be story!” I quickly write down that thought or idea.
Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s going to turn into a story overnight. It’s not like Jack and the magic beanstalk. It’s a start, a glimmer, the beginnings of a beginning. I’ll think about it for a long time, mulling it over. I’ll ask myself a hundred, “What if,” questions.
“What if a monster lived in a backpack?”
“What if he cut up some important homework?”
“What if a Squirrel kept splashing a Rabbit who didn’t like water?”
“What if a girl was leaving on the Oregon Trail, but her grandma stayed behind?”
"What different bugs could live in a garden? What would each of their stories be?"
"What if two friends argued over a piece of yarn? What things could they each make with yarn?"
Like a good garden, ideas need time to grow and mature. They need to be tended, thought about, cared for. The weeds need to be discarded. And finally, after months and months of work, that idea will blossom into a beautiful story.
DOES EVERY STORY YOU WRITE BECOME A BOOK?
Not even close. In fact, I fail many more times than I succeed. I compare myself to a baseball player with a batting average of .300. Now, that’s a great batting average. Really, really outstanding. But let’s look closely at it.
If a baseball player has a .300 average and is up to bat 10 times, how many hits will he get? The answer is 3. He will get a hit 3 times, and he will not get a hit 7 times. So, this baseball player with a great batting average is failing more than he succeeds. I’m like that, too.
I fail a lot, but I’m not afraid to fail because I know sometimes I’ll succeed, too. If I just wrote for the success rate, I’d have quit a long time ago. I write because I love it. I write because it’s what brings me great joy. I write because I think that’s the gift God gave me.
DO YOU DRAW THE PICTURES FOR YOUR STORIES?
Unfortunately, no. I wish I could, but I just do not have that talent. I am the “word girl,” as I call myself. I write the stories, and then I send them to my editor. If she likes the story, the publishing house will buy it.
Then the editor, who is my boss, and the art director, who is the illustrator’s boss, get together. They talk about the book and look over many, many samples of art that illustrators have sent in. When they decide that an illustrator is right for the job, they send my story to the illustrator. The illustrator reads the story and decides if they would like to draw the pictures.
I have always been blessed with amazing, talented artists, and I’m truly, truly thankful for the incredible pictures they have drawn. Their talent is a wondrous gift and leaves me in awe.
DO YOU EVER MEET THE ILLUSTRATOR?
Surprisingly, no. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, illustrators, like authors, can live anywhere in the world and do their work. That’s one of the great things about our jobs. I don’t live near any of the illustrators who have worked on our books, though, so I don’t have a very good chance of meeting them.
Second, a lot of times, publishing houses want to protect the artist from author intrusion. No one stood over the author’s shoulder and told her what to write. So, they don’t want the author standing over the illustrator’s shoulder telling her what to draw. And that seems very, very fair to me. Personally, I would never tell an illustrator how to use his/her fabulous talent. I’m just thankful and extremely grateful for the incredible work they do on our books.
With that said, I did get a chance to meet Noah Z. Jones at the Candlewick offices when he was doing the pictures for The Monster in the Backpack. We were vacationing in the area, and I went over to Cambridge to meet my editor and all the wonderful people at Candlewick. Graciously, Noah drove in from out of state so that we could all have an afternoon together. We sat at a big table, and we laid the book out right there. I think it was the most creative experience of my life!
I'M A STUDENT, AND I WANT TO WRITE BOOKS WHEN I GROW UP. WHAT SHOULD I DO TO HELP THAT DREAM?
Read, read, read! Write, write, write! Those are the two ingredients that make up an author.
Read all kinds of wonderful books. Read the books that win awards. Read the books that your parents loved when they were little. Read books recommended by family and friends and teachers.
You don’t have to be the world’s fastest or best reader, either. It’s not a race or a contest. You just have to read because when you read, the language and the words just soak into you. It’s amazing how much your writing will improve as you increase your reading.
Be sure to read picture books, too. As you get older, sometimes you’ll think that you’ve outgrown picture books. Actually, you should read picture books more as you get older because picture books are the EXACT LENGTH of story that you are writing. That’s right! A picture book is about 1200 words, and that is a great story length for a student. So read those picture books and study how the author developed character, created a plotline, used voice and wrote a beginning, middle and end.
Finally, write your stories! Write the stories that make you laugh. Write the stories that make you sad. Write stories about the things that intrigue you, amaze you, compel you. Write the stories that pop into your head when you’re walking to school. Write the stories that float together when you’re looking out the window instead of cleaning your room. Write the stories that seem to want to burst out of your fingers and can’t wait for the pencil to catch up. Write the stories that hide in shy, quiet corners and have to be coaxed out into the sunlight. Write the stories because if you don’t, they will never be told. They will fade away and be forgotten unless you write them and share them. Write your stories to celebrate the different parts of wonderful you!
I WANT TO WRITE BOOKS FOR CHILDREN. HOW DO I GET STARTED?
The same rules that apply to children, apply to adults. You have to read, read, read, and write, write, write. (For more in depth explanation, read the FAQ: I'M A STUDENT AND I WANT TO WRITE BOOKS WHEN I GROW UP. WHAT SHOULD I DO TO HELP WITH THAT DREAM?)
You really will have to immerse yourself in children’s literature. And I’m not talking a picture book here and there. You’ll have to go to the library every week, checking out several children’s novels and a stack of picture books. You’ll have to study these books like a master’s candidate. Anaylze them, deconstruct them, critically think about them, admire them, and enjoy them.
Go to your local bookstore and look at the current releases. See what’s popular and what’s selling. Get to know your bookseller and your local librarian. Ask them to recommend books.
I suggest joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). This is the professional organization that helps and serves children’s authors and illustrators. The national website is www.scbwi.org As well as the national organization, each state will have a chapter, too. Become involved in your state’s functions like retreats, conferences, get-togethers. The networking, professional development, concentration on the writing craft, and social support are phenomenal, and you’re likely to meet some writing friends.
Joining a writing group is an important step in your writing journey. My own writing group has not only helped me professionally, but they’ve become some of my dearest friends!
Finally, there are several writing books that I recommend. Please check these out under FAVORITES on the menu bar.
I wish you all the very best in your writing journey. May it bring you joy and happiness, and may you bring goodness to children through your stories!
ONCE I'VE WRITTEN A STORY, HOW DO I SUBMIT IT FOR PUBLICATION?
There are many paths to publication, and I’ve followed several of them. If you’re able, I highly recommend going to conferences or writing workshops and meeting different editors. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) has two huge national conferences every year. Every state has their own chapter of SCBWI and usually they offer conferences, luncheons or workshops where you can meet editors. Many times, editors will accept manuscripts from attendees at the various conferences where they speak, even if it’s a normally closed house.
There are other organizations that offer classes and conferences where you can meet editors. I loved the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. Keep an eye out for opportunities at nearby colleges, too.
Probably the best resource for learning about publishing houses and their wants and needs is Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market edited by Alice Poe (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio) There is an edition printed every year, and I highly recommend looking at the most current edition.
I have a trick for using this book that helped me learn to navigate the publishing industry. I’d sit down with Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, a yellow highlighter and an orange highlighter. I’d go through the entries, highlighting in yellow those houses that were open to submissions. I’d highlight the name of the company, the genre that one of my books might fit and the submission policy. If I ran into a house that I thought might be a good fit, but had a “query” policy, I’d highlight that in orange. Sometimes I’d jot down the titles of manuscripts in the margin if I thought it might be a good match with that publishing house. By doing this, I learned a lot about the houses as well as carving out a plan for my manuscript submissions.
I do know it’s a hard road. It took seven years before I was finally published. If it helps, life gets a lot easier once that first book is published. And my advice is to enjoy the writing journey. That wonderful joy from writing a book doesn’t depend on publication, it only depends on you writing your story. I wish you all the very best happiness on your writing journey.