Today's wonderful writerly advice is brought to you by Shauna LaVoy Reynolds. Take it away, Shauna!
My name and the illustrator’s name are on the cover. My agent’s and editor’s names were in the deal announcement. My husband and kids are named on the dedication page, and even my dog is mentioned in my jacket flap bio.
Anna, Andrea, and Amelia deserve a mention too, so I’m going to do it here. I don’t think I’d be published without my critique group.
We found each other 4 years ago, on the 12x12 message boards. Our goals were similar. We wanted to find agents, we wanted to be published, and we each wanted to write 12 drafts over the course of a year. We needed each other to make it work. Sometimes I don’t know if my writing is any good. It’s hard to separate myself from my stories. I ask my family, but their responses are — I almost hate to say it — too positive! My critique group is built on encouragement, but we’re also comfortable giving constructive criticism. We understand the necessity of criticism to strengthen our work, write the best stories we can, and achieve our writing goals. We’ve also helped each other with queries, bios, moral support, and the occasional bit of parenting advice. We live in 4 different states and haven’t met in person — not yet, at least. But I can’t wait to see their books on my shelf someday soon.
Here are 5 ways working with a critique group has improved my writing:
Sure, I can tell myself that I need to finish this draft by the last weekend of the month. But I’m a lot more likely to do it if there are three sets of eager eyes waiting for it. A critique group helps me stay motivated.
2. Power in numbers
One great thing about having a critique group of 3 or more, rather than a single partner, is that we can comment on each other’s comments! It’s easy to write off a single comment I disagree with as a matter of opinion, but when others agree or make similar notes, I know I should take a closer look.
I frequently see new writers expressing concern about sharing material for critique. (It’s a common message board topic.) They’re afraid they might find an unscrupulous critique partner who might steal their idea or even their story! It’s hard to trust a practical stranger with something so close to your heart. There’s an element of blind faith involved in sharing your work with someone new. But the more time I’ve spent with my critique group, the more trust we’ve built. While we started out sharing complete and semi-polished manuscripts with each other, I’m now comfortable sharing unfinished drafts or even throwing out “does this concept make any sense?” questions in the very early stages of drafting.
4. Someone to impress
We hope that our stories will eventually reach their intended audience. But until then, it’s fun to know we can make each other laugh, cry, or say “hmm!” with the stories we write. It’s nice to have an audience in the meantime. (Bonus: we all have children, so we can also get that crucial “other people’s kids” feedback!)
5. The support of people who “get it.”
I’m sure you’ve seen it — that look on your non-writer friends faces when you’re gushing about a much-anticipated new release from your favorite author or making Caldecott predictions. And I’m sure there’s certain questions and assumptions about how the industry works that you’ve heard over and over again. It turns out that not everyone is obsessed with kidlit. Who knew? It’s such a comfort to know who to email about writing triumphs and roadblocks, but also about picture books in general.
I'm so thankful for Anna, Andrea, and Amelia. I recently looked at their notes on early drafts of POETREE and it wouldn't be the same book without their insight and encouragement. So if you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, try to find a critique group. They’re the coworkers/friends who will be your loudest, proudest cheerleaders. (And tell you when you might want to try a stronger adjective.)
Shauna LaVoy Reynolds' debut book, POETREE, published by Dial/Penguin will be released on March 19th! You can find the preorder links on our Books page.
Hannah Stark is the next featured author in our #Notable19s members interview series. We are in awe of how much Hannah accomplishes with having to take care of her children, teaching full time, writing, and helping run events for our debut group. So, let’s not dilly-dally since Hannah is one busy person!
Notable19: First of all, Hannah, tell us about your debut book.
Hannah: My book TRUCKER AND TRAIN is about a big rig named Trucker who loves to rule the road with his size, strength, and mighty horn. One day he meets the larger, stronger, and even louder Train. Trucker quickly realizes that Train is bigger, stronger, and louder but isn’t using his might for power. Instead, Train is well-admired by the vehicles around him. Trucker and Train is a story about using our strengths for good. I hope young readers will see that with great power comes great opportunity.
Notable19: What a terrific message, especially in the light of today’s issues where it seems like people with power and wealth abuse both to suppress those who don’t have either. So, how did you get the specific story idea?
Hannah: When my son was three he was in a pre-school class made up predominantly of boys. Some of the kids had much more rough and tumble personalities than my son does. I was fascinated by how each kid used their budding personality, as well as, their body size, volume, and speed to sometimes take power over one another during play.
At about the same time, my son was into trucks and trains. We spent countless hours lying on the apartment floor drawing roads on butcher paper and creating worlds using wooden interlocking train tracks. One day my son got really aggravated that the trucks couldn’t fit on and drive smoothly along the tracks. There was a meltdown and afterward we spent time talking about the differences between trucks and trains. This was when I first thought about a character named Trucker.
Notable19: Spending quality time with one’s children often sparks the best ideas. We love picturing you and your son lying down on the floor together playing. We assume you don’t lie on the floor to write though, LOL!, so where do you like to write?
Hannah: I like to write in the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library. It is an incredibly inspiring space and I like being around other New Yorkers reading and writing. For me, it feels studious and quite official. I take my writing seriously when I am there.
There is also something about the motion of a vehicle on a track that soothes my soul into a place of imagination. I love to take long trips by train but as a New Yorker I spend a lot of regular time on the subway. I typed (or maybe I should say pecked) my first drafts of Trucker and Train into the notes app on my phone while commuting by subway in Brooklyn.
Notable19: Wow! That is dedication. Some of us can’t even write if we can hear someone else breathing in the same room. Hah! Maybe you grew up having to tune out sibling so you can concentrate in all sorts of places. Are you a first born/middle/family baby? Do you think that has affected your creative life at all?
Hannah: I am the oldest of three kids and have two younger brothers. I grew up in a house that was fairly isolated from neighbors and surrounded by woods. My mom is an artist and she let us explore and express ourselves pretty freely. I think a lot of my creativity came out through play. I remember making restaurants in the house (and creating elaborate menus), talent shows with extended family when they visited, and playing school. My brothers usually had subservient roles in each of these until they grew bored or fed up with me. Then I’d usually resort to using my dolls. I’d say these were my earliest experiences as a storyteller.
Notable19: Love that your mom is a creative type who allowed you to grow up free-spirited! Sounds like an idyllic childhood. What is a moment from that childhood that is crystal clear in your mind?
Hannah: I remember being shy at school but bold and brave at home. When I was around seven or eight my parents decided to put a pool in our yard. A couple of mini diggers showed up with a crew of workers and I remember thinking the yard started to resemble a big sandbox. One day, I started playing in the dirt as the machines were digging. The men stopped their work, walked up the hill to the house, and had to call my mom outside to tell her it wasn’t safe to have a little kid playing where they worked. Needless to say, my mom wasn’t very happy with me. I think I’ve always liked watching vehicles at work.
Notable19: How marvelous that you’ve come full-circle from watching, and playing around, big vehicles to writing a book about them! Thank you for taking time out of your packed schedule to share some interesting facts about you and your book, Hannah.
Check out our Books page to see where you can preorder TRUCKER AND TRAIN! Don’t forget to follow Hannah on Twitter, too.
2/19/19: The contest is now over. Thank you to everyone who entered. Please come back on Friday, 2/22/19, to find out who the winners are!
Thank you for participating in our Twitter Chat with Matthew Winner! Please use the Rafflecopter below to enter for a chance to win. We will pick two lucky recipients who will get to choose the prize they want!
The prize options are:
a) a manuscript critique with one of our authors or author-illustrators
b) a dummy critique with one of our author-illustrators
c) a "Mentor Texts for Writers" ebook offered by Marcie Atkins
d) a signed copy of "This Little Piggy" or a signed F&G of either "The Little Green Girl," "When a Tree Grows," "Poetree," or "Brave Molly"
To enter, simply click on the "Enter the Giveaway" box below (if on your smart phone) or the "Follow @Notable19s" pull-down tab to begin the process. Following @Notable19s is mandatory, but for each member you follow, you get another entry in the contest.
The contest ends 2/19 a 12:00a.m.ET. and we will announce the winners on Friday, 2/22. Good luck!
By Richard Ho
I’m proud to be a diverse author.
I just worry that I’m not being a very good one.
To clarify: I’m not talking about the fear of being a bad writer. (Though what writer doesn’t fear that?) My worry is that I’m falling short of the expectations that come with being a POC author.
In this era of #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, I feel a responsibility to write stories that authentically reflect the experiences of the under-represented groups I identify with. I say groups, because the pressure I feel is twofold: not only am I Asian, but I’m also an Orthodox Jew.
The fact that I’m Chinese is obvious to anyone who looks at my headshot. The fact that I converted to Judaism over a decade ago, and have been keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath ever since, is probably more of a surprise. (It’s hard to see, but I am wearing a yarmulke in that picture!)
Being Chinese and being Jewish are both foundational pieces of my identity. And while some aspects of my religious observance occasionally present minor challenges in my life as an author (for one, conferences on Saturdays aren’t really an option for me), I can’t think of too many communities that would be more tolerant and understanding of my circumstances. As an example, the organizers of KidLitCon in Providence (where I’ll be appearing on a panel next month) were extremely accommodating, making every effort to schedule the panel on Friday so that I could participate!
So given the warm welcome I’ve already experienced in my brief time as a member of this community, the challenge for me is not finding acceptance. The challenge is finding my voice.
Do I identify as an Asian-American author? A Jewish author? The even rarer designation of Chinese-Jewish author? Do I have an obligation to write stories that speak exclusively to any or all of those perspectives? Through which prism should I focus my creative efforts?
Should I make those distinctions at all?
That’s the thing about prisms: they have many sides.
My first two sold books are about the Curiosity rover and a lost package, respectively. From a diversity standpoint, they admittedly don’t move the needle. (No one is clamoring for greater representation of robotic cars or cardboard boxes in publishing, as far as I know.) I do have stories in the works that speak to a Chinese or Jewish perspective—and some to both simultaneously. But they are all part of a wider tapestry of stories that cannot be grouped under a single umbrella.
And ultimately, I hope that’s okay. I hope it’s possible to be a diverse author, while maintaining diversity in interests, tastes, and creative output.
Yes, we absolutely need more books that are diverse in race, religion, physical ability, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, and every other marginalized group in modern society. And as diverse authors, we should embrace our unique platform to put more of those authentic stories into the world. But we should also allow ourselves the recognition that a given reader might find a wide range of stories appealing—and not necessarily just the ones that reflect them. I know I do.
As a POC author, I’m extremely fortunate to be in this position, to have the opportunity to make books. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. I hope to use that opportunity to create stories that reflect every aspect of my multi-faceted identity—as well as stories that transcend identity. I want to write for Chinese audiences, Jewish audiences, and all audiences in general. And I plan to champion diversity in all of its forms, both in the stories I consume and the ones I create.
I’m an Asian author. I’m a Jewish author.
I’m an author.
And boy, do I have stories to tell.
Welcome to our next member interview! Today, we’re delighted to feature Cathy Ballou Mealey whose debut book, WHEN A TREE GROWS, will be released on April 2nd from Sterling Publishing. Cathy is not only a brilliant person but she also has a super fun side. . .read on!
Notable19: So, Cathy, did you have a pet growing up and has it made its way into any of your stories?
Cathy: My family had plenty of dogs, cats, hamsters, gerbils and even a turtle. The first pet that was mine – all mine – was Brownie, a handsome smooth-coated guinea pig. I’ve worked a veritable menagerie of real and imaginary creatures into my stories, most well-anthropomorphized. I’m sure Brownie would get along well with Squirrel, the rodent protagonist in WHEN A TREE GROWS.
Notable19: Sounds like you have an affinity for the order rodentia. :D He’s a cutie, as were you! When not observing Brownie, you must have watched some television. What was your favorite TV show as a kid?
Cathy: Tuesday nights at 7:30 you could always find me watching Jim Henson’s THE MUPPET SHOW. I was hooked on Sesame Street as a kid, and idolized the Muppets with their distinctive personalities and sly humor. When Frank Oz gave a lecture at my graduate school and brought Grover along, I was so spellbound that I just about forgot to breathe!
Notable19: You got to see Frank Oz?! We are very jealous! There should be a National Frank Oz Day, in our opinion. If you could invent a holiday, what would it be?
Cathy: Is there a holiday that hasn’t been invented yet? I am especially looking forward to celebrating the holidays that can help promote WHEN A TREE GROWS such as:
January 15 – National Moose Day
January 21 – Squirrel Appreciation Day
April 26 – Arbor Day
October 22 – National Nut Day
December 7 – National Letter Writing Day
I hope you have marked these important dates on your calendars. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?
Notable19: We are definitely marking down those special days! Arbor Day and National Letter Writing Day can really touch people’s lives, too. Speaking of touching, what is the first book that made you cry?
Cathy: Probably Charlotte’s Web. I also remember weeping through James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small and its sequels, tales of his careful, compassionate veterinary work in the Yorkshire Dales. What an amazing storyteller he was!
More recently, I wept while reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo to my children. I think you can still see the tear stains on the pages.
Notable19: A good cry that well-written books elicit can be very therapeutic. But to end on a happier note, do you have a playful way to get past the blank page, such as writing exercises or prompts?
Cathy: As a writing warm-up, I like to scroll through Instagram for an image that inspires me to jot down a setting, a character description, or a simple “what next?” plot outline. These quick scribbles help me to jump back into a WIP with fresh, surprising ideas. I also post some of my favorite picture book images on Instagram – check it out @catballoumealey!
Notable19: That does sound like a great way to get inspired! Some people do something similar on Pinterest, too. Thanks so much for letting us take a peek into your childhood, Cathy!
Follow Cathy on Twitter and Instagram to catch news about her book and to see cute animal links!
The second Notable19 member to be showcased in our interview series is a talent author-illustrator with a unique sense of humor. Here he is in his own words:
Hello, My name is James Serafino and my debut picture book, THIS LITTLE PIGGY, is out now with Philomel and is available everywhere. I have had the time of my life making this book and it is a literal dream come true, I hope you enjoy it.
If you’d like to know more about me and how this book was made, here is a small window into my silly colorful world.
Notable19: Are you a first born/middle/family baby/only child? Do you think that has affected your creative life at all?
James: I am the middle child with two very loud and highly opinionated brothers and this has most definitely affected my creativity. With that much chaos going on around me there was little use getting involved and I generally just played and watched and did whatever they decided, until I got to my sketch book. There, on blank pages I could do whatever I chose and go wherever I wanted. I taught myself to draw copying comic strips and comic books and it wasn’t long before I started writing my own and fell in love with creating and controlling my very own worlds.
Notable19: Hmm, sounds you have your brothers to thank for your talents and vocation. LOL! What do you think about when you have trouble falling asleep?
James: Infinite universes. There are a million little parts, all working together, that make up every story and if one thing changes the rest follow suite. I can’t help but wonder if this is true for my story too. Maybe there are a million other mes out there all just a little bit different but mostly the same.
Notable19: The multiverse theory is certainly a fascinating one that can keep one up at night! Where is your favorite place to write?
James: In my studio I have a big desk where I can lay out all the different ideas I have for a story and see them all together. All of my pens and pencils and paints and papers are in reach. I hate writing there. It is far too serious. I will spend the first several hours of the day banging my head on that table, overwhelmed by possibilities and lack of progress. Eventually I will escape, whether it’s a park, a bar or a crowded café doesn’t really matter. Just somewhere where life is happening. Then I can clear my head and write with out getting distracted and return to my desk prepared to do battle.
Notable19: Creating is such a solitary task most of the time, it's nice that you can get out and still get work done. What is your favorite rainy day activity?
James: Rainy days are the best days. Rainy days are my favorite days. Hot chocolate is sweeter, blankets are cozier and books are better. Everything is calm and quiet and slow. They smell better and sound better and the new ideas are better.
Notable19: The Pacific Northwest might be your dream living location then! If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
James: I’d like to go to the British Isles, Wales and Ireland particularly. They sound wonderfully magical and fun in that fairytale kind of way, which is my favorite kind of way. I dream of going there and getting lost in another universe where I can do magic. Also, see above regarding my love of rainy days.
Notable19: Well, it definitely is rainy over in that part of the world. Finally, what is a food you couldn’t live without?
James: Cheeseburgers. Wonderful, magical cheeseburgers. I definitely couldn’t live without them, in fact I think its time for one right now…
Notable19: We'll let you go to satisfy your cheeseburger cravings, James. :) Thanks so much for sharing tidbits about yourself with our readers!
Don't forget to follow James at Instagram, his favorite social media hangout, and go to our Books page to see where you can order THIS LITTLE PIGGY!
When I sat down to begin this post, I had every intention of writing about making book dummies. (Spoiler, I’m not going to write about dummy making.) However, as I began looking back through old dummies and the material that led to my debut author/illustrated picture book (The Little Green Girl, Dial 2019), I couldn’t help marveling at the dates on my early drafts. I ended up on a wild hunt through boxes of dummies and sketchbooks, an ancient laptop, and finally our current computer.
I found the first drawing of my main character in a sketchbook from 2014. At the time, I knew right away that this little character had a story to tell, and I remember quickly filling the page around her with additional character sketches as well as scratchy story notes, and a tiny drawing of a garden gnome. (Poor gnome didn’t make it into even the first dummy.)
The gnome isn’t the only thing that I cut from those early drafts. Very little remains from the first draft of the story other than the Little Green Girl and her gardener, Mr. Aster. The plot, the emotional narrative of both characters, the resolution—all of it is different in the book that will be published next year.
This book is not a story that wrote itself. I found five InDesign drafts on my old laptop and eight additional drafts on the new computer. The Little Green Girl took three years and thirteen drafts to sell, and it’ll be almost exactly five years from that very first sketch to the book’s publishing date. I’m telling you all of this not to discourage anyone, but rather to say that if you’ve ever had an idea for a character or a story, stick with it. You never know; it just may end up on a bookshelf one day.
And to be practical, here are a few pointers on revisions from someone who is terrible at killing her darlings:
We are super excited to kick off the first of our Notable19 interview series with Shauna LaVoy Reynolds whose debut book, POETREE, will be out with Dial/Penguin in Spring 2019! You can find out more about Shauna at her website, but for our interview series, we asked fun and unusual questions that you probably won't see elsewhere so you really get to know our creators.
Notable19: What do you think about when you have trouble falling asleep?
Shauna: Ugggh, that’s the worst! Thankfully, I’m quite skilled at getting to sleep. But when I’m struggling, or even sometimes when I’m feeling anxious and need to distract myself, I think about my Granny’s house. I’ll pick a room or two and try to remember what it was like. Every last detail. Maybe it’s the kitchen, with the world’s sweetest tea in the avocado green refrigerator. Or the back bedroom, with the shelf of Reader’s Digest condensed books and the drop side crib full of my mom’s old dolls. Sometimes it’s the laundry detergent scent and faux bois carpet in the garage. (Yes, faux bois carpet. Yes, in the garage. I would never judge your Granny’s decor choices!) Anyway, it’s kind of like going to a different homey and cozy time and place without leaving my bed. It works every time.
N19: What a wonderful memory of your Granny's house! And if it helps you fall asleep, than all the more sweet (like the tea in her fab green fridge). Speaking of green, if you were a new color in the crayon box, what color would you be?
Shauna: I used to always say my favorite color was Post-It Note yellow, but I’m sure that’s heavily trademarked. The Post-It lawyers are probably drafting a cease and desist right now. I’ll brighten it up a bit and call it Front Door Yellow, because there’s nothing more welcoming than a cheery yellow front door. You could also use it to color a forsythia bush, or a goldfinch, or a rubber ducky, or a smiley face. Sunny and versatile.
N19: Smart to not piss off the 3M company people. LOL! Yellow is a great color! What is the most well-known book you’ve never read?
Shauna: I’ve never finished a Jane Austen book. Just not my thing! Sorry! I don’t feel too bad, because she probably wouldn’t like my books either.
N19: Not everyone has to like everyone else's books, that's for sure. If you could invent a holiday, what would it be?
Shauna: In all seriousness, I think Election Day should be a national holiday. And for a fun one, how about Pajama Day? We could even combine them and vote in our jammies. Kids would get so excited about being future voters! Let’s do this.
N19: That is a brilliant idea! Let's start a petition to get that going. :) What is hardest for you about writing? Easiest?
Shauna: The hardest part of writing picture books is brevity. I like to use my words. I like to describe the heck out of things. I’m tempted to make this answer a thousand words long, but I won’t. The easiest is coming up with ideas. I have thousands of ideas, hundreds of good ideas, and maybe even dozens of viable ideas. They’re literally everywhere! Spinning them into stories — that’s a bit trickier. It’s a joy, but it sure isn’t easy.
N19: We hear you on that! How is the main character in POETREE like you?
Shauna: I didn’t realize how much Sylvia and I are alike until I was finished working on this story. Like me, Sylvia is a shy daydreamer with a lot to say and her own way of saying it. And like me, she writes to make better sense of the world around her and the feelings inside her.
N19: Sylvia sounds like a character a lot of us bookish types can relate to. We can't wait to get acquainted with her when your book comes out! Thanks for sharing these super fun facts about yourself, Shauna!
Be sure to follow us and Shauna on Twitter so you can see her news and updates as she eagerly awaits her book birthday. You can pre-order POETREE at Parnassus Bookstore's website. Thank you for coming by!
Besides being thankful that we will have picture books published next year, these are other surprising and interesting things some of our authors are grateful for...
Laura Renauld: I am thankful for snowball snow, crocus blossoms, garden-ripe tomatoes, and fall feasts with family and friends.
Stephanie Lucianovic: I am thankful for California firefighters, The Good Place on NBC, midterm elections, and rainy days.
Cassandra Federman: I’m thankful for uncontrollable gigglefests and for the kindness of strangers.
Teresa Robeson: I am thankful for 1) the evolution of angiosperms so I can have my favorite, and some not-so-favorite, fruits, 2) the existence of the Higgs Boson without which we would not be here talking about what we are thankful for, and 3) hairspray.
Hannah Stark: I am thankful for the big things like libraries and love, the small things like teeth and toilet paper, and all of the moments I take like this to realize the list is long.
We hope this gets you thinking about the wonderful little things that you are grateful to have in your life. Be sure to come back on December 5th when we will have our first #Notable19s member interview.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
We are a group of writers and illustrators who have debut books (actual debuts , debuts as author-illustrators, or debuts with medium/large publishers) forthcoming in 2019. Thank you for joining us on our exciting journey!