8.07.2014

Avoiding the Biggest Post-Conference Pitfall

Over 1,200 children's authors and illustrators are coming down off the high that was #LA14SCBWI this past weekend--the 2014 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles. At any given time, hundreds and hundreds of other children's authors and illustrators are coming down off the highs inspired by the myriad of writers and illustrators workshops that are going on all the time all around the country and all around the world. Inspiring speeches are ringing in our heads and our hearts. Thoughtful critiques are giving us confidence. Amazing meetings are translating into new friendships. Smart experts are giving us the tools and techniques we need. And we're ready to get back into our work wholeheartedly. And it's all great great great...except for one thing: Impatience.


The downside to a successful workshop or conference is often the fear and panic (mixed with genuine enthusiasm!) some authors and illustrators feel that if they don't do what an editor suggested right away, or if they don't follow up with an agent right away, or if they don't submit their work right away, their opportunity to be published will be lost. And so, before the jet lag's even worn off, they rush rush rush to revise those first ten pages that were critiqued or the image in the portfolio that was critiqued...and then they press "send" to submit the manuscript or art samples. And what's just happened? That author or illustrator has just started to unravel the threads that the conference or workshop had so expertly knitted, and they've done themselves a huge disservice--they've stepped right into a post-conference pitfall, one from which it's not always so easy to get out.

Here's the thing: there's not one editor or art director or agent out there who wants to see a project before it's ready. There's not one editor or agent who gives a critique of the first ten pages of a manuscript and expects to see a revised manuscript within the next few days! Nor is there any art director who gives feedback on an image in a portfolio and expects to see a fresh new portfolio within the next few days! In fact, quite the opposite.  What any editor or art director or agent expects after a workshop or conference during which they've offered advice is that artist will take their time, will think, will craft--and will do whatever is needed in the way of time and work to apply what they've heard about ten pages or one image to the entirety of their work, be it a complete manuscript or a complete portfolio.

This is what I know to be true: You can't write the best first page of your work without writing the best last page of your work.  So that means if you're excited about doing revisions on the first ten page that were suggested during a critique, then you need to be excited about doing revisions on all the other pages of that manuscript, all the way through to the last page, and then back to the first page all over again.

Take your time. Respect the process. Respect the people from whom you've gotten the feedback to begin with by not rushing without thinking. Avoid the pitfalls. Do your best work. Be your best. The rest will follow.



7.16.2014

Back There - A Taste of Our Past


I read Marcel Proust's REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST way before I was old enough to understand and appreciate the importance of things past and way before I was old enough to care to remember things past. I read the book in college and what stayed with me of that book is the concept that the mere taste of a cookie can invoke vivid, living memories of a life, and that the mere taste of a cookie can bring someone's life full circle.

It's taken decades of years of living life for me to be able to realize something I could never have known in college: That it's not the taste, sound, sight, smell, or touch that is in itself so potent, but it's the memories surrounding the sense that are so potent. So real. So necessary. So much a part of who we've been and who we are.

I've found that many writers overlook or forget about the senses when creating their characters. What are the senses of a child living their childhood? What is the smell of a child’s bedroom, a parent's particular shirt, a favorite stuffed animal? What is the sound of the foghorn over the surf, the distant train whistle heard every day at Noon, the traffic outside the window? What does it feel like to touch the climbing tree in the corner of a field, grandma’s nubbly chenille bedspread, a sister’s hair? 

And what is the taste of the fudgesicle Dad buys you from the gas station on the fishing dock in Menemsha, Martha’s Vineyard, when you are five?

Texaco Station, Menemsha, Martha's Vineyard
Menemsha harbor & docks
Last week I experienced a remembrance of things past eating that very fudgesicle. The taste was the very same as when I ate them on the Menemsha dock at five-years-old—delicious, sweet, cold!  But what happened when I bit into that fudgesicle is that my dad came back. Bright black-brown eyes in his handsome suntanned actor’s face; blue-nearly-white worn-soft denim shirt smelling of salted sweat, sun, and Camels; his deep laughter at the joy of sneaking an ice cream before dinner (“Don’t tell Mom!”); the pungent smell-medley of the sour gas station, the sharp fish on the docks, day-worn sun lotion, and the sweet, crisp chocolate ice cream from the deep-freeze. And I was right there. Back there. With my dad and my ice cream. With my dad before there was unhappiness, illness, and anger. Just my dad and my ice cream. Back there.


Emma and her fudgesicle,
photo by Deb Dunn
We all experience times in our lives when we need to be back there. Back in a taste, in a smell, in a sound, in a touch, in a sight. As storytellers and writers, we need to allow ourselves to tap into our own back theres to understand what the back theres are going to be for our characters. By doing so, such a richness of life will be added to our stories, and to ourselves.

6.03.2014

The Entrepreneurial Spirit: "Experiment I Will!" Exploring New Paths to Publishing with Rebecca Emberley


THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT SERIES post #1

Why would a “successful” author/illustrator, working with many of the big trade publishers for more than thirty-five years, want to start up an independent publishing imprint? Why take such a risk?  These are just a few of the questions I’ve recently  posed to my wonderfully talented colleague Rebecca Emberley, who has authored and authored/illustrated more than twenty-five picture books, and who launched her own imprint, Two Little Birds  and independently published two books thus far – THE ITSY BITSY SPIDER by Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley and FLATLAND by David Sayre and Rebecca Emberley.

I am very interested in and excited by the myriad of options authors and artists have for presenting their work to readers and am particularly interested in the reasons why creative artists who seem to be having a healthy career within the traditional publishing route might decide to publish in new ways—self-publishing, indy publishing, hybrid publishing—and under new models—crowd-funding, profit-sharing, and the like. Therefore, I’m so pleased and honored Rebecca Emberley has agreed to share her thoughts on her own journey with us on “our stories, ourselves.”  Welcome, Rebecca!
________________

Success is subjective and risk is necessary. Especially in the arts.

One thing of which I am sure is that change is the only constant. Most of your readers are undoubtedly well aware of the plethora of angst-ridden articles predicting both the impending doom of trade publishing and the get-rich-quick anecdotal evidences of digital publishing.More picture books will be published this year than last. If you have a children’s book you want to publish, you will need to stand out among more than 20,000 others.  Most will fall by the wayside. Fewer than 5% of us make a living at this. If you are a female illustrator your chances are 70% less.  

The industry has changed in so many ways, from the corporatizing of publishing houses to the technological obsession of “e” everything. I have seen the number of my sales increase, and my royalties decrease. So, the why of this story is that things change, this industry has and will continue to change, and I believe that to remain relevant you’re going to have to makes some changes as well. I want to be compensated fairly for the work I do. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every artist is owed a living, but if someone else is making money off your work, so should you. If someone is using your art to look at or listen to, you should be compensated. 

Picture book making is a family business for me. My brother and I grew up the children of two artists and children’s books were the “business” that kept my father in his studio every day. But that doesn’t mean my books will necessarily sell better than anyone else’s. And that doesn’t mean I can sit back and not stay engaged or involved in my own career. I’ve observed, I’ve expanded into licensing, I’ve created other projects, but picture book making is a job I know, I was born into it.  Times have changed. Publishing has changed, and with that change must come decisions.

Should I stay or should I go? I’ve been asking myself this question for several years now. Given that, I got to asking myself what can I change about the way I’m getting books into the hands of children?  Bricks and mortar. One of the things holding back the big guys from thinking outside the box, is that they are wed to those great big expensive boxes, in unholy matrimony. A lot of the profit from publishing books goes to support real estate. So,let’s eliminate the real estate. How? By staying small enough to work somewhere that I already work. Don’t expand my footprint. That means I need to use freelancers to do what I cannot, or do not want to do. Fantastic news about the changes in publishing, there are a lot of highly qualified, imaginative people from trade now working freelance. Distribution? Lots of different options, more every day.

When first thinking about publishing in new ways, there were a lot of things to consider. I had text and artwork that were completed for THE ITSY BITSY SPIDER. I had an audience. I had a reputation. I did not have a nest egg. So if I was going to publishing this book in a new way, how was I going to pay for the up-front costs? Even if I was extremely confident that I could make this one work, which I was (I am a worst case scenario person. I am not afraid to fail, so when I embark on a project I do to the worst case scenario, which would be me selling discounted copies of SPIDER at flea markets until the investment was recouped. Totally do-able.), I hate to borrow money and I didn’t want to rely on a single investor. So I turned to crowd-sourcing, pre-selling the book through Kickstarter. I am a huge fan of Kickstarter and I became familiar with the platform through the musical side of my family when my daughter used it to fund her last album, pre-selling CDs, LPs, and downloads. I chose to attempt to raise just the print costs, because time was short. I had an opportunity to get SPIDER into a Spring 2013 catalog with a distributor and things got moving quickly.

Creating the capital was important, but MOST important was proof of concept. I wanted to find out if people were interested in the book enough, and confident enough in what I was trying to do, to lay down cold, hard cash essentially sight unseen. They were. I had to run the Kickstarter campaign during the holidays when peoples’ attentions were drawn to so many things. In the end, it was a knuckle-biter. It was a lot of time and energy spent on social media. But to me the results were astounding. Fewer than one third of the pledges came from family and friends. Per capita, more than half of the pledges were from total strangers not involved with the children’s book industry. There are loads of details involved in running a successful crowd-funding campaign. You need a compelling video. You need attractive rewards. You need to have the ability to work Facebook and Twitter and other social networks. It was a lot of work and it was worth the effort, rewarding us with a community spirit, new fans, and a new perspective about getting things done in an unconventional way. (Reference Rebecca’s Kickstarter campaign here)

Can everyone do this? No. Should everyone do this? No. Can everyone get published in the trade? No. Should everyone self-publish? No. I have a unique perspective and forty years in the industry. Can you try something different? Yes. There is no single approach. There is no right or wrong way.

Here are some conclusions I’ve come to over the past year:
  • Forgetting artistry for a minute, let’s talk numbers: If you are already a published author illustrator, selling more than 10,000 copies a year with a following (no matter how many titles), you are already comfortable with social media and some degree of self-promotion, and you want to experiment, I would encourage you to invest in your future by publishing with a very small press or self-publishing. Yes, it will require up front monies. Your return will be worth it either way. Your other publishers won’t mind.
  • If you are an author/illustrator who goes out a lot and speaks to schools (more than ten small venues or five large), I would also encourage you to experiment. The profit in hand-selling is huge.
  • ALWAYS use a professional designer and editor. It’s a small investment up front for a big difference on the back end.
  • If you have friends and colleagues in the business, consider a co-op approach to publishing.
  • It’s critical to determine for yourself what success means to you. There is no wrong answer, just be clear for yourself what your goals are.
  • If you are just starting out, do the math and see what is right for you. If you don’t know the figures, ask someone else who knows.
  • No matter what approach to publishing you choose, you need to be doing self-promotion. Without it there is little point in publishing except to say that you are published.
  • Be SURE that you LOVE this. Be sure that your book is the best product you can create. It’s not all bunnies and badgers, it’s hard work. It’s a business.

I’m not sure where Two Little Birds will be in five years. The first eighteen months have been exhausting, but I’m learning every day and it's getting better. Last year we did one title, this year we have six. We expanded from picture books to activity books, which excites me. We changed distributors for a better fit stylistically, and to reach a broader market.

When I began, I felt the need to be perfect, then I realized that doesn’t exist. I don’t have to follow any rules (OK, I do need ISBN numbers and barcodes!) or fulfill any expectations. I can take the time to find the readers and put my books in front of them. I can cross-market. I can afford to sell fewer books and make more money. I can afford to give books away. It’s an experiment, and experiment I will!

People will still buy picture books. How they buy them, where they buy them, may change, but kids love books—until we tell them they don’t....

The support I have received both inside and outside the publishing community has been overwhelming. I believe that climbing the ladder of success is meaningless unless you turn and extend a hand to the person behind you and share what you have learned. To that end I am happy to answer any questions that I can, offer advice or encouragement (or discouragement if needed). It’s a jungle out there.

5.15.2014

Setting A Standard – At What Cost?



Do book awards still set a quality standard, or are they being too driven by sales goals? 
Do movie awards still set a quality standard, or are they being too driven by sales goals?
Do fashion awards still set a quality standard, or are they being too driven by sales goals? 
Do any awards still set a quality standard, or are they being too driven by sales goals?

Have we lost sight of the intentions behind establishing awards that call out the best of something? Why are awards established in the first place? Presumably to enable a system whereby we can somehow recognize a level of excellence and honor something above something else that then can set a higher standard. But,why? Why are we driven to find the best of something--particularly when it comes to an expression of artistry and creativity, such as a book or a movie or a painting or fashion—and why are we so willing to allow someone else, or a group of others, to dictate what’s best to begin with? Can we not determine for ourselves what we feel is best for ourselves as readers, thinkers, viewers?  Of course we can. However, when the success of a business or a corporation or an industry is at stake, then a system of best and not best kicks in with intentions and goals that are not purely quality-driven, but sales-driven. When an industry establishes awards that are meant to set standards of quality of some kind, I think it’s terribly important to study and recognize the intentions behind such awards; to evaluate how intentions behind an award may have shifted over time; and to assess whether an award still serves the purpose it was originally intended to serve.

Some people might argue that without systems in place to call out a best of something, we’re saying not only that everything’s equal but that there’s no need to strive for something better, higher, deeper, richer, more complex, and so on. Perhaps. But I see it in a different way—without calling out a best of something, perhaps we’re allowing ourselves to choose for ourselves what we feel is best—best for ourselves, for our own entertainment, for our own enrichment, for our own purposes. This presumes, however, a system whereby the level of sales of something has absolutely no place in the determination of what’s best. When a corporation or an industry that stands to gain by the designation of “best” on one of their products, that’s when the purity of the methods for how to determine what’s best can become polluted.

I have been of a mind for a long while that  as a society we've become too reliant on awards to set a certain standard--particularly awards for creative artistry. When the intentions behind the awards are purely sales and not quality, awards don't set a standard. Or, I should say, they begin to set a different standard. Is it the wrong standard? Only if the intentions behind the awards are not being honestly expressed. But looking at the vast--and I mean, vast--numbers of new awards that have popped up across many different industries in the last couple of years, there's no question in my mind the establishment of most of these awards is being driven not by any desire to set new standards of excellence or quality, but is being driven primarily, if not solely, by the need for discoverability; ergo, sales.  What better way to tip the scales towards more sales than to slap a gold or silver "AWARD" sticker on something?

In no way do I want to take away from the intentions and purposes of certain awards that are still clearly quality-driven, that are meant to set a standard of excellence for others (inside and outside that particular industry) to hold up as examples of best; that are evaluated and selected by a qualified panel of respected and unbiased experts; and that can't be easily marred by popularity, celebrity, financials, sales, or other factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the content itself. However, this purity of purpose, if you will, is awfully hard to maintain in our current society when every business in every industry is struggling to prove their product is best--and to sell more of it than anyone else. 

This all can certainly lead us to a discussion of artistry and what "success" can, should, and does mean to the artist, as well as a discussion of achievement as a form of stimulation to push us to excel. I will leave these to future posts. 


5.01.2014

Nourishing Ourselves with Story Nourishes the World



"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." -- James Baldwin
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I call this blog "our stories, ourselves" because I hold that we and our stories are really one and the same. My story is your story, and yours is mine. We are intrinsically connected. I've also held for a long while, and most particularly in the last several years as we wend our way through our highly digitized landscape, that the very best way to instill a sense of connectedness and a sense of empathy in children is to give them books to read. By giving children stories to read, we give children safe passage into other peoples' lives, other peoples' minds, other peoples' feelings, and other peoples' experiences. It seems to me once we've done that, we've done something utterly invaluable--we've established some of the necessary and critical groundwork for our children to become engaged, caring, connected inhabitants of the world. 

A Scientific American article from 2010, "What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic" (read it here), talks about the fact that studies have been done that prove empathy levels have been declining over the last thirty years. One theory as to why this might be so is that an increase in social isolation coincides with the drop in empathy. I'm no scientist, but I subscribe to this theory wholeheartedly as I see more and more people moving away from human interaction for the sake of digitized "friendship" and "connection"--and it worries me a great deal in terms of what's happening to us as a society.

So it brings me great relief and joy--not to mention a happy moment of "I knew it!"--to read an article in this week's Pacific Standard, "Your Brain on Story: Why Narratives Win Our Hearts and Minds," (read it here) which discusses scientifically proven direct links between the experience of story and a rise in empathy levels. Just look at this:
"Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate School, found that reading simple, humanistic stories changes what is in our blood streams. Taking blood samples of subjects before and after reading a story about a father and his terminally ill son, Zak found their blood levels contained an increase in cortisol and also oxytocin after reading the story.  Called the human bonding or empathy chemical, oxytocin is also released by breastfeeding mothers."
I've said it before and I'll say it again: We writers, poets, storytellers, illustrators, and artists of any kind have not only the vision to create and share the stories needed to nourish our children and, by extension, our society, but we have the absolute obligation to do so. If we don't, who else will? We have no time to lose.




(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC

4.20.2014

50 things for which I’m grateful, appreciative, and mindful


I am turning fifty today. There. I've said it. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this...achievement.  It's certainly forcing me to think about my past and future in ways I've not thought of either before. And it's certainly forcing me to take stock in a way I haven't done since...well, since I turned forty! The last ten years have taken me in directions I never expected and have enabled me to do things I never knew I'd do. The last ten years have taught me to be mindful.  I'm witnessing my life today by writing down fifty things for which I'm grateful, appreciative, and mindful. They're in no particular order because they don't have to be. They just are.



sand dunes - china

1. my long, rich, deep, trusting, loving relationship with Anne


2. my beautiful inherited home


3. being successful at sustaining drydenbks as a viable business

4. knowing I am stronger and more resilient than I think I am

5. kind people

6. my health

7. being able to contribute the maximum into savings vehicles

8. being able to share my expertise and passion with others through my work

9. appreciative people

10. being on my own clock

11. my reputation as someone to be trusted professionally and personally

12. serendipitous meetings, conversations, and events

13. being born, growing up, and living in Manhattan

 
perito moreno glacier - Argentina

  14. being able to leave Manhattan to travel

  15. being open to learning new things

  16. an unfailingly supportive business community and “tribe”

  17. good friends

  18. stories and storytelling

19. reaching a point where the good memories of my parents are replacing the bad

20. knowing and trusting that we get what we need when the time's right

21. the depth of love I can feel for others

22. being told by my financial adviser that “You’re still young enough to…”
moose - maine

23. laughing with friends

24. quiet, still moments    

25. animals                     
                                          
penguins - patagonia
26. when a poem, or a line, or a story idea stays long enough for me to write it down

27. the support of writers who encourage me to write

28. knowing that to give is the nicest way to receive

29. the breadth and depth of our precious natural world

30. how fun it is to make Anne laugh

31. being able to take honest stock of myself

32. understanding the difference between wanting and needing
33. being someone who can value the journey as much as the destination

34. having scars to remind me that healing follows pain

35. my ability to inspire confidence 

36. beaches and the ocean

37. loving and being loved by Anne’s family

38. knowing I’d make my parents proud

39. having been adopted 

40. feeling rooted and feeling safe enough to fly at the same time

41. having a partner who pushes me to be less fearful

charley noble
42. having Charley Noble in our lives and hearts far longer than the vet predicted 

43. being awake to hear what the universe means for me to hear (most of the time)

44. knowing that reinventing myself is possible

45. seeing how many of the items on my “Someday I will…” list that I wrote over fifteen years ago have been crossed off

46. being able to add to a new “Someday I will…” list

47. understanding this life is a gift

48. being pretty much the kind of adult I imagined myself to be when I was a kid

49. having enough

50. having the luxury to dream of more




                                                                                                                 (c) emma d dryden, drydenbks llc

4.17.2014

Give What We Have, Get Back What We Need

In the magazine Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors, there’s a wonderful column by Mainer Rob McCall called "Awanadjo Almanack," in which he ponders and wonders about nature. His observations are vivid and splendid, and I’ve since learned he’s on the radio and has published some books as well. His words are gifts and I look forward to them with each issue of the magazine.

(c) Fine Solutions

In an Almanack entry he wrote last year, McCall made some observations that particularly resonated with me. He wrote: " Natural economics [is] the ancient universal system in which each creature gives what it has and gets back what it needs.  We put out birdseed, which feeds the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks. In turn, we get the benefit of the birds eating bugs and singing for us...and the squirrels, for their part, cache nuts and seeds far and wide. These feed countless creatures and start the forests of tomorrow. The trees, in their turn, take water, sun, and soil, and make wood, leaves, nuts, and more soil, all of which enrich the natural economy. They don't take more than they can use. They don’t hoard. They waste nothing. In good times, if one has plenty, all have plenty. In bad times, all suffer alike. This is natural economics, and along with every other creature we humans practiced this same system for eons.... Unfortunately, somewhere along the way we humans seem to have gotten lost. Now, success seems to mean taking more than you can possibly use, and giving back as little as you possibly can. Call it "un-natural economics," and it could very well be the ruin of the race.”

I often ask my clients to define "success" for themselves. "Success" means something different to each and every one of us. This notion of a shared societal success that McCall is pondering is something quite different from personal success, though, and sad to say, I do think he's right in calling us out for taking more than we need and giving back as little as possible. This applies most acutely to our precious natural resources, but it also applies to other areas of our lives when it comes to so many people who put "me and mine" above the other, above our earth, above sharing, above "enough." When did having enough become not enough?

We have an obligation to protect our natural world. We have an obligation to raise our children to care. If we're to succeed as a society, it seems to me we need to practice a lot more empathy--and it's often through books and stories that our children can learn empathy. Books and stories allow us to try on someone else's shoes, to breath a different air, to taste something unfamiliar, to walk in the steps of an other, to feel how an other might feel. Books and stories can help us recognize we are all deeply connected one to another and the success of one can indeed nourish the success of another. As capable as we are of great things, we are just as capable of throwing the natural order off balance. To my mind, empathy and success are inexorably intertwined when it comes to what we need to regain that balance and renew our healthy relationships with our world, with each other, and with ourselves.

As authors and illustrators, we have the marvelous opportunity, not to mention the obligation, to give what we have through the stories we create--and what a precious gift we get in return knowing that a child has grown in empathy and compassion by experiencing our stories. To know that through the experience of reading and resonating with our stories children will have the tools they need to pass on that empathy to another living being, be it human, animal, or plant is the very best way to ensure our society will succeed. To give what we have and get back what we need. 

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC

4.14.2014

Keeping Up With the Racing Rules

"Instant gratification is not soon enough"
- Meryl Streep
 
I was reading an article about how some boat makers are researching ways to replace the baby-boomers who are aging out of the pastime of sailing, and in the course of their research once such company came across the following information:  If a child between the ages of ten and fifteen cannot learn a game in less than fifteen minutes, they lose interest in it. 

Wow. 

have the racing rules changed?
I have known for a long while that we've become a society accustomed to instant gratification and I have worried for a long while that we're all, as a result, becoming far too impatient. I worry about this most within the scope of the work I do as an editor and publishing consultant, wherein I'm advising authors and illustrators to take their time and slow down to truly learn and hone their craft before they start submitting, querying, and publishing. (My friend, agent Tracey Adams recently wrote a great piece on this very subject, which is worth slowing down to read: http://pubsmartcon.com/dont-rush-your-writing-with-literary-agent-tracey-adams/

So now here's this piece of information about children who have no patience for taking time to learn a new game--and we can easily make the leap to assume that if they won't spend more than fifteen minutes learning a new game, they'll certainly not be willing to spend more than fifteen minutes learning something that seems more challenging, complicated, or complex than a game. So what's going to happen to these kids as they get older? Will they become so accustomed to the quick fix, the instant answer, and the make-it-easy-for-me-or-don't-make-it-at-all that they won't have the basic skill set of thinking, evaluating, exploration, and experimentation to bring into adulthood? And what will become of nurturing relationships, the subtleties of negotiation, the complexities of decision-making? The people will certainly be able to move quickly through our fast-paced world, but at what cost? I worry.

Here's what I know: We need to recognize that these same kids we're talking about are our readers. So is it any wonder we keep hearing "If the first line of the book doesn't grab the reader, they won't read it," or "If the story doesn't start right in the action, kids won't be interested" or "Use fewer words; parents and kids don't want to read so much text"? Here's what I also know: Just as there are lots of different kinds of adults out there, many of whom are taking their time to learn, finesse, and refine their craft, there are lots of different kinds of kids out there, many of whom are willing to take more time to experience a story, develop a relationship, weigh options and make good choices, and so on. So it's these kids for whom we need to write stories, but it's also the kids who want the instant gratification for whom we need to write stories as well. Which means there's still a need for as wide a variety of stories as we can possibly produce. And what I believe this means, too, is that we still need to take time to produce the best quality stories we can, even if they're going to be gobbled up and digested in under the proverbial (or literal!) fifteen minutes!

It's critical as writers and illustrators working today to understand what kids are doing and how they're doing it--because our stories need to reach kids where they are. We can't wish away the fact kids are growing up fast, doing everything fast, wanting everything fast, and getting everything fast. The leaps and bounds we've made in technology are supporting, enhancing, and encouraging this behavior among kids and among us adults as well, so it is what it is. Let's face it, kids have always grown up fast--certainly a lot faster than the previous generation wished they would--so we're not necessarily dealing with something brand new here, and maybe my worries about "kids today" are similar to the worries my grandparents or parents had. I can't say. I do find it helpful to be reminded now and again, though, how kids are behaving in today's world so I can be a more mindful children's book editor and guide to authors and illustrators creating books for young readers. Even if that means every now and again I get caught by surprise and just have to say "Wow."

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC

3.06.2014

Why Playing It Safe May Be the Most Dangerous Game of All

I read some exchanges recently between picture book authors in which one posed the question (and I’m paraphrasing here) as to whether she could do whatever she wanted with her main character in her manuscript, or whether it was better to perhaps “play it safe.” 
A few authors responded right away that it’s important to “play it safe” and they meant that it’s probably best to stay in familiar territory for picture book age readers who are too young to understand the dangers of certain activities, or too young to understand the difference between reality and fantasy.  I hastened to add my voice to the comments with a quick 
DON’T PLAY IT SAFE! message and this got me to thinking, if any authors are out there assuming they have to play it safe for picture book age readers, my position on how detrimental that way of thinking is deserves a bit more space than a Facebook comment box allows. 


As someone who’s edited and published hundreds of picture books, my position has never flagged on one particular point about what makes a great picture book:  whether your characters are human, animal, or otherwise; whether your story is realistic or fantasy; whether your story is contemporary or historical; whether your approach is serious or funny; whether your story is practical or completely off the wall…anything goes as long as a very young child will be able to relate to your main character’s emotions, perspectives, and world view.  

A story can open with our main character in a kitchen with mom and dad and dog all safely and soundly situated—to many readers, that’s familiar, but to other readers such a scene will be a fantasy and not familiar at all—not by a long shot. A story can open with our main character caped and masked and flying through the trees—to many readers, that will be familiar because it’s exactly how they think of themselves all the time, but to other readers it will be a brand new idea, maybe a little scary, but maybe a little fantastic, too.  As long as the trajectory of the picture book story taps into the emotions and feelings a very young child will find familiar, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as the emotional needs, interests, and resolutions of the main character in a picture book resonate with the very young reader’s emotional knowledge and capacity, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as that’s solid, the trappings and settings and structuring of the picture book can be whatever your imagination can conjure—and here’s the very place where I see most new picture book authors not pushing themselves enough. 

Authors need to allow their imaginations to take them all over the place, particularly out of safety zones—if authors play it too safe, we end up doing a disservice to ourselves and a disservice to our young readers. Where but in stories can we allow our youngest readers to not play it safe, to try new things, to explore, to roam, to make mistakes and make amends, to reach higher, deeper, and further than we ever thought possible? And where but in stories can we allow ourselves the very same?  And if we don't do all this in stories for children, I shudder at the cost that will take on our collective imaginations and creativity.

We wrap our children too tightly in bubble wrap sometimes—and sometimes, indeed, it’s completely necessary, but not in stories. Stories are where we must let our children play and dream and imagine roles and lives for
themselves that they’ve never thought about before; that’s how stories help children explore their sense of empathy, sharpen their resolve, enrich their dreams, and expand their imaginations. There’s no harm in that at all as long as the stories we provide as the vehicle for this ride carry within them the emotional core young children will be able to understand as their own.

If we push ourselves out of the familiar to ask "what if?" and to find the magic in the world, think how much more interested our children will be in doing the same. The safest route is rarely the most scenic. So feel free to explore creatively and imaginatively in your stories so children can explore the world in the same way. And if you find yourself spinning your wheels in a safety zone, go listen to young children telling each other stories and have them tell stories to you. I promise, the emotions will be familiar, but the stories will be out of this world--and that's a trip well worth taking.


(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC


2.26.2014

Finding Your Voice - craft tool giveaway!

where, oh where, is the voice coming from?




Editors, agents and authors are always talking about that illusive VOICE - the voice of our characters, the author's voice, the novel's voice. But where does voice come from? And how can we find it? How can we tackle it? How can we finesse it and make it true?

While I am sorry to say I don't have the magic answers to these tough questions. What I do have however, is a handout of voice-finding exercises that includes a character questionnaire that I find has helped many authors focus in on and reveal voice of their characters and the voice of their stories.

Have you ever interviewed your characters? I mean really sat down with them, just the two (or more!) of you and started asking questions of all kinds? If not, then it's high time you get to it! And if your family and friends look askance and think you may well have finally turned that dangerous corner, pay them no mind! You're doing essential work and talking to your characters (which--aha!--is different from talking to yourself!) is the only way you're going to find your voice as you find out who these characters really are and what they really want.

I usually reserve this handout for authors whom I meet at conferences where I am guiding sessions on craft. But right now and for the next three days until March 1, 2014, I am giving away the handout to anyone who takes the time to follow the instructions on my drydenbks Facebook page. Check it out!