I’m fresh off the annual SCBWI-New England conference, and thank you again to all the hard-working volunteers who made it happen. This year’s conference theme was Celebrating Milestones, in honor of it being the 25th consecutive year of the conference (there was a several-year-long gap when Jane Yolen passed it off to U Mass, where it became the very-successful Perspectives on Children’s Literature Conference, necessitating the re-institution of a regional conferences for those who create that literature).
The keynotes and chattering was all about retrospect, stories of the beginnings of the SCBW (and the history of the adding of the “I”), wonderfully described by Lin Oliver, Steve Mooser, Jane Yolen and Tomie Di Paola. This, of course, got me thinking back to my first conferences (I have thus far resisted the urge to try and figure out when I first attended). It is probably also one reason I went through the weekend keenly aware of the stages of a writing career, and particularly thinking about those among the 590 participants who are just beginning theirs.
The great vision of SCBWI is to provide a structure for instructing, encouraging and mentoring those who create children’s books. It began, in fact, when Lin and Steve landed a job creating children’s books, went looking for courses or workshops to learn how, and found – nothing.
Today, of course, SCBWI is a huge, international organization, with dozens of regional chapters hosting dozens of regional conferences, workshops, retreats and critique groups. And while the New England conference has evolved to include lots and lots of workshops that are designed to be useful for established writers, the majority of those who attend these conferences are, in fact, beginners. Which is a GOOD THING. Because like every other career, writing (and illustrating) for children is a skill to be learned; and while it is not impossible to learn it entirely on your own, it is much better to learn from others who have been practicing the craft.
So in this retrospective mood (or mode), I’m going to take my next few Mentor Monday posts to consider the question: What does it take to be a children’s writer?
It has been observed that there are few other professions which people expect to begin without training and with immediate success. Writing for children is deceptively simple-looking. What could be easier than to tell a simple story using simple words in a simple way? Prospective children’s book writers are generally shocked to learn that most published writers worked for years before their first manuscript was accepted for publication. They’re also surprised to learn that even after that first sale, the publishing industry is a difficult place, and more manuscripts and ideas are rejected than published. Jane Yolen told us Friday evening that, in addition to having sold her 300-and-somethingish title last week, she also received 3 rejection letters.
I would submit that the most important thing you need to be a children’s writer is a clear understanding of that fact. Success in this career takes time, it takes effort, it takes perseverance. It is not a get-rich-quick scheme (in fact, very few children’s writers get rich). It is not something one does on an impulse, or does “someday when I get a chance,” and you’ll have to forgive us if we want to kill you when you say that to us as soon as you find out what we do. To cite Lin’s keynote address, the single most important moral or lesson we learn from successful children’s book writers is: Do the Work.
The next most important thing you need to become a children’s writer is a willingness to learn. Just because you were a child (or had a child) doesn’t qualify you to write for children any more than it qualifies you to be a teacher, a bus driver or a pediatrician. The learning necessary to becoming a children’s writer is on-going, and comes in several areas.
First, of course, it is necessary to learn to write. This means not only knowing parts of speech and punctuation, although those are helpful. It means learning to capture ideas and emotions and landscapes and voices and characters and actions and reactions and distill them into words. It means learning to choose and shape words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs to represent all those things on paper – and then learning to tear up the paper and do it again, using fewer words, or stronger ones, and different phrases and paragraphs, and repeating as necessary until it is perfect. And then letting someone else read it and listening, really listening, when they tell you it isn’t perfect, that in fact it is far from perfect, and needs to be ripped up and done again. One of the very best things about attending an SCBWI conference is meeting with and learning from other people who understand, and live, this reality.
Next time, we’ll look at a few of the different ways we learn to write.