Why you should invest in coaching as a writer or illustrator

Bill Gates said in 2020 — “Everyone needs a coach. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a basketball player, a tennis player, a gymnast, or a bridge player.” But let’s finish that sentence.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a writer. Or an illustrator. Or both.

Everyone needs a coach.

If you don’t immediately agree with me (or Bill) here are some benefits for you to consider. And if you do already agree with me, and are a member of the RMC-SCBWI, head right on over to read specifically about the Michelle Begley Mentor Program, a six month program that offers great value for investment, which I am thrilled to co-coordinate this year with Laura Perdew. The application is open until November 9, 2021 and this year we are offering a scholarship courtesy of the Writing Roosters and two grants!

Ongoing Critique and Feedback

I am part of two wonderful critique groups that meet regularly, yet working with a mentor is still a unique experience because *your work* and *your craft* are the entire focus of the conversation. Together you discuss your vision and over the course of multiple months, you bring that vision to light.

Improve your current work in progress

First and foremost, your mentor will work with you on a manuscript (or illustration portfolio) that you’ve been working on. As established professionals, they bring their expertise to your work and will help you develop it to be as strong as it can be. In my own mentorship with Anna-Maria Crum as my mentor, she helped me rework my plot and character motivation – my inciting incident was buried way down deep in my manuscript, and this reorganization immediately made my work stronger.

Improve your craft going forward

There will be countless elements of what your mentor points out in your work that you will be able to carry forward for years to come. Two personal examples — I learned about some of the weaknesses in my plot (build stronger motivation for action – no coincidences!) as well as in my dialogue (make sure my characters react to what is said as opposed to making unrealistic leaps in the conversation because the lines sound cool). It opened up my eyes not only to what I could improve in the novel we were discussing, but what I could carry over to every scene I’ve crafted since.

Coaches can help you set realistic goals

Our mentors have been there, done that, but the fact is that every artistic creator is different. A mentor can talk through your process and experience and help you set goals for your work – goals that are within your control and that you will meet during the course of the six months. Which leads us right to…

Having a coach is motivating

Coaches give you deadlines. They are there, waiting and expecting for you to work with them. They are looking forward to seeing your progress. And having that built in accountability can do wonders.

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There are many other reasons to have a coach, and many personal experiences about successful mentor/mentee relationships. Read testimonials here about what others have gotten out of the Michelle Begley Mentor program, and share in the comments some of the benefits you have experienced in working with a mentor (or being a mentor!).

And consider securing a mentor of your own through the Michelle Begley Mentor Program. The application is open until November 9, 2021.

**Reading this after 11/9/21? Join us next time – the application period for the Michelle Begley Mentor Program is typically October through November 1.

Receiving Feedback

Critiquing is a critical part of the writing process – getting feedback from others gives us guidance and can shed a light on where we might focus in revision. There is so much we can’t see as the writer of our own work and getting other people’s responses to what we’ve written is truly illuminating.

But receiving feedback – literally sitting there while someone tells us what they think about our work –can be hard. Sometimes it can be really hard. It’s great when people say, “I love what you’ve done!” but it can be hard to listen to people say, “Here are the things I think you need to fix.”  It can even be hard when they say, “I love what you’ve done but here are some things to fix.” Someone can love your piece, and it can still need work.

The fact is, even if it it’s combined with positive feedback, receiving critical feedback can be challenging.

Here are a few recommendations for how to handle the moments when your piece is getting critiqued.

  • If your group is reading the piece for the first time while together, allow someone else to read your piece aloud. Hearing where they read smoothly and where they stumble can give great insight as to where you might want to revise at the sentence and word level.
    • No critique partners? Critique partners read everything in advance? Your piece is longer than a picture book or a few pages? Use a Read Aloud function, like you can find in Word – Google docs also seems to have a text to read function
  • Try to take feedback in and listen without getting upset.  It’s very natural to have a knee-jerk reaction to critical feedback. “But that’s not what I meant” or “you’re not understanding” – if they didn’t understand, it might not be on the page the way it is on your head. Try to take in critical feedback without being defensive.
    • If you’re too defensive or upset receiving critical feedback, it may hurt people’s ability to be honest with you in the future.
    • The exception — respond to any kind of clarifying question that will help someone provide feedback from a place of understanding
    • Sometimes one critiquer will say something is missing on the page (a motivation, for example, or an emotion), while another critiquer will have gotten exactly what you were trying to say. In this instance, consider whether what you are trying to get across is obvious enough. It may be. It may not.
  • Relish the positive things people have to say. You need to learn what works in your work. Even if a line is cut or a scene doesn’t make it, if people loved it, find out why so you can replicate.
    • Some people are great at this. For others, it can be really hard to take in the positive. Some people want to skip right over the positive and get to the critical because that’s where the work is, but make notes about what people love, so you can keep those things in your writing, and celebrate those things as the critical feedback comes rolling in.

What other recommendations do you have else for those moments during a critique while people are actively giving you feedback?

**Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Deep Dive into Your Target Word Count

As you develop your story, there are so many components to consider and perfect: a strong character arc, varied pacing, stellar dialogue, beautiful descriptions… the list goes on and on. But one factor you must always consider is word count.

If your novel is too short, it might not be considered ‘meaty’ enough for the age group. If your novel is too long, agents and publishers might worry that it has a ‘saggy middle’ or is filled with fluff. And for picture books, the current trend is definitely shorter over longer, but that can look very different depending on the age of the targeted audience and whether the book is fiction or non-fiction.

So what do you do?

First, because this can change over time, research the current trends for word length for the type of book you are writing (type something like “word length for picture books” in the search engine and see what you get). Here’s an article from Writer’s Digest to get you started.

Second, find comparison (comps) and/or mentor texts. Story Spinner Susan Wroble wrote a great post on how to do this.

Third, use a fantastic resource like Accelerated Reader Bookfinder (www.arbookfind.com) to see how those comp and mentor texts measure up when it comes to word count.

When you search for a book, AR Bookfinder will give you a lot of information (short blurb, ATOS book level, interest level, rating, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, subtopics, etc.), but most importantly (for this post) it will give you the specific word count for the book.

This is critical because page length can vary – just think about the difference between a story submitted in 11 point font, single spaced, with ½ inch margins vs. a double spaced, 14 point font, with 2-inch margins. This is why the industry is so specific about the formatting that you use when submitting materials – it gives some consistency about what ‘5 pages’ really means. But when you’re publishing a book, you have no such limitations. The pages can differ in size of the book itself, in margins, in fonts and font size… the list goes on and on. While, in general, more pages means more words, two books that are 250 physical pages can have very different word lengths. Nowhere can you see that more than in picture books.

Here are four examples:

** If you have trouble seeing the table, the information is written at the end of the blog post

These are four wonderful books, all targeted to the K-3 reader, but they couldn’t be more different. And that is reflected not only in the way the books are written (prose vs. dialogue, for example) but in the word length. For these four books, the book with the most pages has the smallest number of words. Seeing how your book stacks up in word length to a book similar to yours can give you a good sense as to whether you are hitting the mark.

If your picture book is 700 words, and your comp titles all range from 400-500, your book may be too long for your target audience.  If your mentor texts are 45,000  – 50,000 words, and your novel is 17,000 words, again — potential problem. Your book lengths don’t need to be an exact match, but hitting market expectations is important in securing an agent and/or a publisher, or in getting readers if you decide to indie publish.

And … don’t use a single text to decide if you are hitting this mark because, just like rules for ‘i before e’ there are exceptions out there. Could your book be double (or half) the expected length and still sell? Of course it could! But make sure when you decide that your final manuscript is really final, you know how your book measures up.

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If you couldn’t read the table, here is the information on the four picture books:

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal

Fiction, 32 pages, 341 words

Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora

Fiction, 36 pages, 822 words

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie  Levy, Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley

Nonfiction, 40 pages, 1802 words

Waiting Is Not Easy! by Mo Willems

Fiction, 58 pages, 197 words

Building your TBR Pile

A new year is coming, and that means another year of writing and reading goals! I wrote about creating categories around your To Be Read (TBR) list. Nothing beats word of mouth hearing from a friend that they loved a book you must try, or having a bookseller or librarian listen to some of your favorites and make a recommendation or two. But if you’re thinking about reading in specific categories, here are some ideas of where you might look for books to try.

No matter how you find your 2021 TBR books, I wish you a massive and diverse list of books and many happy days and nights of reading!

Diverse Books

Diverse books make up a fraction of publishing, yet they are so critical for readers young and old to see themselves, and to see people other than themselves.

We Need Diverse Books has compiled a list of sites that recommend diverse titles – by going to this page you can access many different sites that suggest diverse books.

Award-Winning Books

The Newbery was “the first children’s book award in the world… [and is] the best known and most discussed children’s book award in this country.” A full list of award winners going back to 1922 can be found here.

The Geisel Award is given annually to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year.

The Caldecott Medal goes “to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.”

A great list from @sailyreads on Instagram highlights book awards that celebrate diverse authors and stories. Here is how these books are described on their websites.

  • The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth”
  • The Coretta Scott King Book Awardsare given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.”
  • “The goal of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literatureis to honor and recognize individual work about Asian/Pacific Americans and their heritage.”
  • “Awarded biennially, the American Indian Youth Literature Award identifies and honors the very best writing and illustrations by Native Americans and Indigenous peoples of North America. Books selected to receive the award present Indigenous North American peoples in the fullness of their humanity.”
  • “The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”
  • The first and most enduring award for LGBTQIA+ books is the Stonewall Book Awards, sponsored by the American Library Association’s Rainbow Round Table.

State/Regional Lists

Consider adding local authors to your list! Almost every state has an award list. “The Colorado Book Awards annually celebrates the accomplishments of Colorado’s outstanding authors, editors, illustrators, and photographers.”

There are also regional awards that highlight specific interests. For example, “the WILLA Literary Awards honor the best in literature, featuring women’s or girls’ stories set in the West that are published each year.”

SCBWI

Of course, our beloved SCBWI is a great place to find possible books! You can browse the BookStop, where members’ books are listed. SCBWI has multiple awards as well that are given each year to published books, including the regional Crystal Kite Awards (“a peer-given award to recognize great books from 15 SCBWI regional divisions around the world”), the Golden Kite Award (“the only children’s literary award judged by a jury of peers”), and the Spark Award (“recognizes excellence in a children’s book published through a non-traditional publishing route”).

Recommended Books

According to the Goodreads website, they are the world’s largest site for book recommendations. They have a recommendation engine that will make suggestions, you can browse books by genre, and you can see readers’ favorites by looking at the Goodreads Choice Awards, which have finalists and winners broken out by genre.

The Indie Kids’ Next List includes recommendations from indie book stores, where you can read a paragraph about why a particular bookseller recommends that book.

Big bookstores will be happy to recommend you books: you can look them up here, even if you end up checking them out from your local library or purchasing from an independent bookstore. Amazon offers a best children’s books of the year (this one is for 2020), broken out by age group, as well as monthly recommendations.

Starred Books

Books are ‘starred’ when specific book reviewers award them a star as part of their review. They are hard to come by, and many excellent books and many popular books don’t receive them. These reviewers include Booklist (published by the American Library Association, also known as ALA),  Kirkus, and School Library Journal (also known as SLJ). Some are subscription-based to see the full review, but a search of the title will usually show if it has been starred. Some publishers will post quotes from these reviewers on their book. These review journals will also publish ‘best of’ lists.

Best-Selling Books

There are lists available that include the books that are selling the best over a period of time. Two major ones include The New York Times Bestseller list, which includes books ranked by format and genre, and USA Today’s Bestseller List, which shares the top-selling 150 books, across formats, including bookstores and online retailers.

Indiebound aggregates sales from hundreds of bookstores across the country to create their bestseller list, which is broken down by genre.

Amazon shares their top selling books if you click on Books and then a particular category. So does Barnes & Noble, which will break it down by Kids and YA.

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This list is by no means exhaustive, or an endorsement – hopefully it will help you find new books to love and give you new ideas of where to search.

Other places you love to look at for book recommendations? Add them in the comments below!

Multiple Tools for Revision

I started my current novel with an idea, a scene, and a sense of an ending, and then began writing. I finished that draft and while technically I could label sections as beginning/middle/end, I knew it wasn’t strong enough structurally. It didn’t feel done. So I outlined what I had, and then worked to devise new plot points, scenes, characters, motivations, to bring it into a more classic three-act structure.

And then I did it again.

And then I did it again.

But I finally got to the point where I felt like the big moves were all there and it was time to tighten, refine, and revise. My novel was created and lives electronically (I heart Scrivener), but I printed it out for this last stage.

Because I felt like I wrote the drafts of my novel in a slightly haphazard fashion, I wanted to be very methodical in the revision process itself. I used, will use again, and advocate for, a dual process – one on paper and one on computer. Because while there are many things you can do on either platform, there are some things I believe you can do so much better on one vs. the other.

I began on paper with a small pile of highlighters and a pen. I decided there were certain things I wanted to look for, and by highlighting I could see at a glance how often various things were occurring.

  • Orange = adverbs, because I had too many
  • Green = sounds and smells, to make sure I had different senses included in description
  • Pink = related to the world-building (my novel is a fantasy)
  • Blue = use of figurative language

After reading a section, I flipped back through the pages. This gave me a strong visual as to how often things were appearing, how much white space appeared between repeat highlights, and what I needed to change based on what I was literally seeing. For example, I often saw instances of orange tightly grouped. I would reread that section, determine which adverbs were most important to the reader understanding how people were moving, talking, or feeling, and replace or cut the others.

When I found something I wanted to revise electronically, I didn’t pause and turn on my laptop. I didn’t want to disturb the flow of my reading, and I didn’t want to get too ahead of myself – changing things that appeared later in the book and therefore having my paper copy already be out of date. So this is where another form of paper came in handy – my notebook, to jot down items on my ‘to do’ list.

The main tool I used on my computer was word search, not only to find where I was in the text but also how many times a given word or phrase appeared. A simple Find (crtl-F in Word, the search bar or Text Statistics in Scrivener) can tell you how often you use a word, or phrase, and where it appears in the text. I used this function a few times.

Sometimes I used it when a word or phrasing jumped out at me. As I read through, I realized that more than once, something in my novel was ‘perfectly still.’ The phrasing stuck with me, so I decided I could use it only one time. I used search to quickly find where it appeared and zipped out the extra occurrences. I also used search to distinguish character voice. For example, I decided one character would be the only one to say “just” or “practically.” Rather than keep that in my head as I read on paper, at the end I found every instance and replaced it if had hopped into other characters’ speech.

I also used it to look for instances of “I look,” “I see,” etc. This novel is in first person, so I don’t need to write “I see an apple tree.” That type of writing is distancing, and the readers knows the character saw it (or else how can they tell them about it). Rather than trying to find it as I went, I used the find function to locate those places in the text and then decided what edits to make.

I may have gone a little overboard. Although it is satisfying (to me) to create a list and check things off one by one, looking at pages and pages of things you still need to do is overwhelming. Revising via highlighter is not for the faint of heart. It is a slow process (cap/uncap, cap/uncap) and, surrounded by colors, at times I needed a cheat sheet (what was green for again)? But I will always plan to review my novel in both mediums, paper and electronic, to create new ways of looking at and revising my work. And I should be done soon…

Writing Goals – 2016 Edition

It was my second flight solo-parenting my four-year-old twins. <Bear with me, this will be about my writing process.> We got to the airport in plenty of time – one and a half hours before our domestic flight. But it took a long time to check bags. And make a trip to the bathroom. And get through security. And ride the airport train to the last stop. And walk all the way to the farthest gate (the moving walkway was under construction). And they had started to board early. So for the first time in my adult life, I was the last person on the plane. Not necessarily a problem, but it was a Southwest flight. Which means open seating. Which meant there was no row available for me and my little boys.

The flight attendant made an announcement, offering drinks and such. Nobody moved. I walked to the middle of the plane, saw rows with empty middle seats, and no way for me and my four-year-old kids to sit together. I promptly burst in to tears.

Back to writing. My goal for 2016: “Get an agent who reps and sells in my genre.” Now, I’ve done a lot of goal-setting in my personal and professional life. Make that goal a SMART goal (specific, measurable, achievable/action-oriented, realistic/relevant, time bound). Make it aggressive, but attainable. Make it within your sphere of control.

My goal is fairly SMART – “Get an agent who reps and sells in my genre in 2016.” It’s specific. Measurable. Action-oriented. Relevant. Time board. Achievable? Realistic? Up for debate. And that’s the crux.

Other writers have suggested I adjust my goal to “Query ten agents in 2016.” Because querying is within my control. I can finish and revise my manuscript and then submit a tight query letter to the right agents. I could definitely achieve this goal.

But back to my traumatic flight. My goal was to make it to the airport at least an hour before my flight. But as I stood crying in the aisle, I realized my *real* goal – be ready to board when it was my turn so I could sit with my kids. Similarly, querying ten agents isn’t my goal. It’s a milestone. It’s a step to make my true goal. But it’s not the goal itself. The goal itself is get an agent. If I met a kick-ass agent at a bar who had an amazing track record in my genre who asked to see my manuscript and offered me representation without my ‘technically’ querying  her – I would take it. I wouldn’t say, “Wait – let me send you (and nine other agents) my query letter.”

It’s scary to set a goal I can’t control. But there are things I can control. I can revise my manuscript multiple times, getting feedback from other writers and readers in my genre. I can research agents to make sure I’m not sending my query out to people who don’t rep what I have to sell. I can polish and polish. And I can cross my fingers.

But I have to be honest with myself. While sending out x number of query letters will definitely make me feel like I’ve accomplished something, it won’t be accomplishing “the” thing. So I’m putting it out there. Even if it means I won’t make it, I’m shooting for the stars.

Love

We were explaining love to the twins (they were early three). Jason and I met in our 30s – ok, my 30s. He was still in his 20s (but late, sheesh). Unlike Jason’s parents and his sister, who married their respective teenage sweethearts. We talked about how sometimes you don’t find the person you love when you’re younger – you might meet them later in life.

“Mommy and Daddy had to wait a long time to find each other,” I told them.

The boys considered this.

“Like I had to wait a long time to find Beta,” said Alpha.

It just doesn’t get any sweeter.

Creative play

Alpha and Beta are my twin boys. Alpha asked if he could dress up like Cinderella. The answer is always “Of course!” when we aren’t on our way somewhere else, requiring him to be in actual clothes. We have a costume box that the boys can access at will.

Alpha – I need a prince charming.

Me (Mom) – I’ll be prince charming.

Alpha – No, prince charming is a boy.

This is fascinating because the boys are frequently Cinderella, Anna, Elsa, etc. and gender has never come into it. They know boys and girls but this has never been a limitation of play.

Mom – Ok, I respond.

Alpha – Beta, can you be prince charming?

Beta – No, I’m Lightening McQueen. Prince Charming is at work. <meaning Dad>

Mom – Will that work Alpha?

Alpha – No, he needs to be here.

Mom – I offered to be prince charming. <gentle reminder>

Alpha – You can be prince charming if you pretend you are Beta being prince charming.

Mom – Deal

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Do your kids have a favorite character to play, particularly one that crosses gender roles?

How I Ruined The Giving Tree

Now that I work part time, Tuesday mornings are spent with the twins at the library for story time. We all pick out children’s books to take home. During an early visit, I found The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. “Oh, babies, this is one of Mommy’s favorite books.”

The next morning, I started reading it to the boys over breakfast. As the boys were just shy of three, I explained the pages to the boys. “Look, she gives him her apples. Look, her branches.” Then the tree started to give things that could no longer be replenished. I started tearing up. I tried to explain it to the boys – “The tree loves the boy so much, that she gives him all she has, until there is nothing left, because she wants him to be happy.” And then I was bawling. Clearly when I had read this book in earlier years, I was identifying more with the boy (or watching as an observer just appreciating the tale). Suddenly, I was totally the tree.

And the boys started saying “Put it away! Put it away!” and describing it as “The bad book that made Mommy cry.” Sigh. We’ll try again in a few years.

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Have you shared a beloved story only to have it go awry?