I recently wrote an article for the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers. It seemed important enough to spread to the wider world, so here it is on my blog!
When people learn what I do for a living, they often tell me about half-finished novels and wonderful picture-book ideas they plan to complete. So how can they put their plans into action? Check out my six tips for aspiring creators:
Get to Work
“Put your bottom in the chair and pick up your pencil.” That’s what my mother, who taught grade 1 for twenty-five years, would say to her students. She has a theory that adults are just six-year-olds in big bodies, so perhaps her simple directive can apply to us, too. How many people do you know who plan to write or illustrate a book – one day? My mother’s idea is if you “pick up your pencil” you’re more apt to do something productive with it.
Everyone needs to find his or her own creative groove, but I try to write every day, and I know illustrators who try to sketch daily – like Debbie Ohi who aims for a daily drawing, which she posts online at DebbieOhi.com. Even during a busy day, I usually have time to jot down 200 words – the minimum daily output I aim for when writing a first draft. The words don’t need to be well-written – a first-draft always needs revision. But it’s a start. And daily writing or illustrating helps to keep the creativity flowing.
Make Connections in Person
Since I most often write in the quiet of my home office, I have to make a conscious effort to commit to events that will connect me with others in the industry. But whenever I do hoist myself out of my chair and get out there, I’m inevitably glad that I did.
I’ve found that other creative people can offer invaluable support, encouragement and even mentorship. It’s also helpful to share knowledge, techniques and experiences. Even better, I set up mutual critique exchanges with other creators to determine how to revise a work-in-progress.
Publishing professionals can provide valuable insights into how the industry operates as well as trends and current issues. Ideally, these connections can lead to that first publishing contract – and many more.
Obviously, formal events like CANSCAIP meetings and conferences are a great place to make connections, as well as informal one-on-ones over coffee or at critique groups.
Make Connections Online
Social networking is your friend. YouTube is a forum to showcase your work. A website or blog is a valuable promotional tool, whether you’re published or not.
Online connections are as important as in-person ones, and they can provide numerous opportunities to connect with other creators and even publishing professionals. It’s also an opportunity to connect with your audience – the kids or teens you’re targeting as well as librarians, booksellers and others who make decisions about books for kids. In addition, publishers like authors and illustrators to have a strong online presence, even before you’re published.
My advice for making online connections is to find a balance between sharing personal experiences and professional ones. We need to market ourselves and our work, yet show a personal side, too. Avoid over-sharing, and respond to others’ posts to help make connections.
Perfect Your Craft
Mastering the craft of writing or illustrating can take a lifetime. Part of the challenge of a creative life is that every project brings new obstacles to overcome.
I periodically ask myself: What can I do to improve my craft? Maybe a course would help refine a particular technique. Maybe a conference would give insights into a particular genre. Maybe a critique group would help polish a work-in-progress.
Another option for getting feedback is CANSCAIP’s Blue Pencil Mentorship Program. It puts you in touch with a professional children’s author or illustrator (for a fee) to receive a personal critique of your work.
First thoughts are only a starting point. Every creative idea can be taken further, explored in more depth, mined for gems.
A common mistake of aspiring creators is to submit work to publishers before it’s ready. Considering that you typically get one shot with a publisher, make sure it’s your best work.
With that in mind, I suggest you revise, revise, revise. Here’s how you can do that:
- Put the work away for a few days or weeks. Then try to view it with fresh eyes. What works and what doesn’t? How can it be improved?
- Get constructive feedback from people whose opinions you trust. Evaluate their feedback to determine how you want to revise your work.
- Repeat this process until you can’t possible make any further improvements. Then repeat it one more time.
Keep at It
Once, when I was an unpublished writer, I sent an impulsive email to an author I admire – Karleen Bradford (KarleenBradford.com). Since I was feeling discouraged at the time, I was looking at her website because she had useful information for emerging writers. In my email, I asked her for advice on how to get motivated to continue writing after a rejection letter from a publisher. I never really expected an answer, but I got one quickly. Karleen wrote something like, “A writer’s greatest talent is sheer pig-headed stubbornness.” Her words helped me pick up my pencil and return to my story once again. I’ve found Karleen’s words to be true over and over again.