Here's a secret: whether I'm writing a query letter, putting together a manuscript package, or just drawing a tree, every time I "follow the rules" I fail. Yet every time I take matters into my own hands and do it "my way," I get a positive response. So why didn't I listen to my own advice when it came to writing my most recent children's picture book?
The answer is pretty simple: I got scared. Scared of doing it wrong (there's so many great picture books out there, how could I possibly get it right?); scared of looking like I didn't know what I was doing (even after studying a zillion books on marketing and submission); and especially scared of scaring little children with my potentially traumatizing text. I didn't trust myself one little bit.
The situation was made much worse when I attended a conference on writing for children. My reason for going was to learn how to shape up my manuscript to best fit the market. To make sure I understood what the editors were asking for, I took careful notes:
- They wanted stories with a "Mama" character. Okey-dokey, my main character did have a mama--check that as a "yes, can do."
- They wanted lots of visceral gritty-growly "noise words" (Buzz? Kerplunk? Smash? Does "meow"count?).
- They particularly enjoyed spooky-creepy stuff (no worries about traumatizing the tots).
- And they especially requested anything that reflected bad behavior. (Hmm. I don't like bad behavior . . . very much.)
In other words, they really wanted authors to get those childhood frustrations and thwarted emotions onto the page and out in the open. The only problem was, none of their requirements fit my manuscript, Where are the Cats of Barcelona?, a story that takes a little girl through the beautiful city of Barcelona in search of a kitten to call her own. Other than Mama, I didn't have any of the must-have requirements: no tantrums, no ghosts, and definitely no biting, scratching, or rude words. Suddenly my book seemed like a major loser.
To compensate for these glaring omissions I began to rewrite my story, this time with as much awfulness as I could squeeze into the limited word length. Short of Mama getting drunk, it was a pretty strong effort. The only problem was it wasn't MY story. Mama ended up being a total wet blanket nay-sayer; my main character morphed into a whiny spoiled brat, and even the cats she found weren't very attractive. Now, re-reading the manuscript two years later, I'm not surprised it was rejected more times than I care to admit.
The good news is I've now put all that good advice thoroughly behind me. In its place I'm happy to report that I've gone back to my original version: a story that is sweet, dreamy, and best of all--quiet. It's the perfect read-along bedtime story--the one kind of book all the editors who spoke at the conference agreed will never go out of fashion!
There are still some things I want to work on such as perfecting my line breaks and getting the flow just right, but these are things that center on design and craft. My current revisions are based on what will suit the story, not to pull in elements that supposedly fit the market but have nothing to do with me or my book. And who knows, my next step might even be to attempt the illustrations!
Tip of the Day: The first reader you should always write for first is yourself. Whether you're writing a 600-page historical epic or a 600-word fairy tale, write for you! The only thing that will ever truly make the market happy at the end of the day is good writing, so don't be afraid to edit, tweak, and polish, but say what you want to say before you pull out the red pen. Always stay true to your original, heartfelt vision.
Happy Valentine's Day! And what could be a better day for celebrating all the passion and love we pour into our manuscripts, journals, canvases, and sketchbooks alike? However, as much as we might be crazy in love with our work destined for publication and gallery showing, how much attention are you giving to a "personal project"? You know, the one that might never end up on a bookstore shelf or win a prize in a juried exhibition? Chances are, it's probably your very most favorite. I know my personal projects certainly are.
In case you're wondering what exactly is a personal project, I thought I'd start by explaining what it is not: it's not a dud. It's not something so bizarre or scary you keep it hidden, afraid of what people will think of it or your sanity. And it's certainly not something so poorly done that you're ashamed of it. Rather, it's a project you love in spite of the market, an effort that you attempt fearlessly, trusting your instincts, knowledge, and personal taste to carry you right through to the end. In other words, it's your absolute heart's desire: The book you want to read. The painting you want to hang on your own wall. The volume of sketches that feed your soul and imagination like nothing else you have ever encountered.
Often a personal project can take the form of an art journal or similar, there's usually a more structured process going on. For instance, you might want to create a children's picture that you both write and illustrate, as well as design the size, format, and covers from front to back including the end papers. Every single element of the book is uniquely yours. Other examples of personal projects could be things such as:
Some of my own personal projects have fallen into all of these categories: my altered book project (still a work-in-progress); my "Silly Little Birds" sketchbook; my "30 Days of Kimono" art journal, and my current Asian-inspired painted ceramic work. I have no idea if any of them will ever be "For Sale" but they are all projects I had to work on, or lose my sense of self.
- A themed and beautifully executed sketchbook. It could be based on a nature study, birds, travel experiences, fashion . . . whatever you love.
- An experimental or graphic novel along the lines of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.
- A blog or website. Yes, your blog can definitely be a personal project, used as a place to explore, try out new ideas using new technologies, testing and challenging your digital skills.
- A series of craft items: pottery, jewelry, sewing, weaving, etc. Any project using materials, colors, or mediums you would usually bypass for not being "commercial" enough but that you've always wanted to try.
The best part of working on a personal project is it can get you through times of creative slump or ennui. As my husband loves to say: A change is as good as a rest, and working on a project miles out of your comfort zone for no real reason other than you love it can be a creative life-saver. If you're unsure of where to start or how to decide on a project, consider some basic guidelines:
Most of all, keep in mind that your personal project should reflect the very best of you and your creativity. Make it shine, make it sing, and give it as much TLC as you can spare. Go for it!
- Choose a subject you love, but have never felt confident enough to sell.
- Use your personal project as a way to create daily rituals, discipline, and find pleasure in going to your studio or home office. This can be especially valuable during the times you're not feeling as inspired or motivated as you'd like to be.
- Refrain from avoiding the work or even beginning it because it's "not for sale." Instead, unless you're on some impossibly tight deadline to complete a commercial project, try to give your personal project top priority. It's a great warm-up exercise before returning to other manuscripts or assignments you're working on.
- It's fine to dive into the middle of a project, wanting to do all the fun parts first, but try to give the project a sense of coherency with an eventual beginning, middle, and end. Work toward giving the project a sense of being a finished body of work. Don't cut corners, become lazy, or feel you can be stingy with supplies because "no one else will see it."
Tip of the Day: Although the whole idea of a personal project is to make it personal, I'll bet you a silk pajama (to borrow from Ogden Nash) that some of your favorite published work started out as a project the author or artist wanted to keep private and not for sale. At the end of the day, there's nothing wrong with submitting or selling what began as a personal project if that's what seems appropriate when you're finished. Just don't let the idea of selling scare you from starting or falling into the "perfection" trap, one that keeps you from expressing yourself fully with all the individuality you can muster.