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. 


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


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


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!


The Craft of Craft

I speak frequently at various children's book writers and illustrators conferences and have become something of a craft junkie.  While I thoroughly enjoy talking with authors and illustrators about the business of publishing and the market place, I'm relishing more and more the opportunities coming my way to talk with authors and illustrators about the craft of writing.

I aspire to be a writer--beyond the occasional (very occasional!) blog posts--but please don't go asking me what I want to write or what I'm going to write, because I just don't know yet. I have ideas. I have stories. I have sentences. I have characters. They're swirling. They're churning. They're waiting. And while they're waiting for me to get cracking, I'm finding it utterly inspiring to my writer self to be able to think about, teach, and practice the elements of the craft of writing with other writers at all stages of their writing journeys.

"Craft" stems from a Middle English word that means strength, skill. By definition craft is both skill and strength. How splendid then to have opportunities to strengthen a skill and better our craft. The more skilled, the more strong. The more strong, the more skilled. I am chasing every opportunity I can to work on craft. And as I help strengthen the craft of others, I feel my own craft being strengthened at the same time. The crafting of our craft never ends. And that's the beauty of it, as it opens us up to surprises about our stories and ourselves.

I'm delighted to be speaking at several craft-based conferences this year, including on the faculty of the Ventana Sierra Advanced Writers Workshop in Carson City, NV, in June (http://ventanasierraworkshops.com/):

and as the teacher for the Noepe Center of Literary Arts Children's Book Writing Workshop on Martha's Vineyard island in July (http://noepecenter.org/emma-dryden-childrens-book-writing-workshop/):


I can't wait to dig in with manuscripts, ideas, suggestions, writing exercises, writing tools, conversation, challenge, inspiration. Into the garden of craft we will go, turning over the earth, planting seeds, cultivating, and growing. What surprises await us?


Falling In Lust With Our First Draft (Or, What Not To Do On A First Date)

Some time ago I posted about Revision [read post here]. Since that time, I’ve had the privilege to speak with dozens of authors about the revision process, revision techniques, and more. As recently as this past weekend, I spoke at a workshop about Robust Revision – and all this talk about revision has gotten me thinking about first drafts.  And this has gotten me thinking about first dates…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Writing is a process of discovery and we don’t always produce our best writing when we first get started on a book.  The first draft is the time to shout “Yes! Yes!” to our ideas and write HOT—write with passion, write with abandon, let it all bubble out there onto the page, don’t play it safe in any way. Then comes a cooling off period…the time when we must step away from the writing and the work for a little while. And then, when it comes time to revise, we will be able to write with a cooler head. Revision is the chance to look critically at what we’ve written to see: if it’s really worth saying; if it says what we meant to say; if a reader will understand what we’re saying; and if a reader will feel want we want them to feel. But before that we need to write HOT.
The hottest moments of our work is the getting it all down in a messy, sprawling first draft. The passion. The “Yes! Yes!” The hot mess. Whether a planner or a panster, however writers get that first draft down is fine. It takes a lot of courage to get something down on paper at all, and what I hope authors will embrace is the notion of writing without revision in first drafts—writing with abandon! There will be plenty of time later for the inner editor to get to work, for the critical eye to start seeing all the faults, for the lights to go on, for the rearranging and reorganizing, for the make-up and polishing.
That time of great intensity and heat is a precious time for an author and their work—and really the only time in the writing process where we can feel free to do whatever we want to do. So do it! Don’t stop. Don’t edit. Don’t think too much. Just go for it.
OK, so we’re in the heat of passion with our first draft—it’s a lustful, expressive, passionate tangle between a writer and the work.  “Yes! Yes!”  But…
…as most teenagers will tell you, the very worst thing that can happen in a heated make-out session on a first date is when someone whispers, “I think I’m in love with you.”
Whoa…say, what?
And that heat index suddenly goes down…
Come on, admit it. I’m right, right?

In the context of writing first drafts, I am a huge proponent of being as insatiably lustful as possible—with words, with ideas, with characters, with scenes, with situations, with drama, with dialogue, with settings, with STORY.  And I caution all writers to approach the writing of first drafts in lust, not in love.  And here’s why: Falling in love too soon with what we've written will absolutely prevent us from being critical and willing to change it.

If we fall in love too soon with what we’ve written, we will be far too hesitant to change it even if we know it’s not that great. But staying in lust with a first draft? That’s more like being on a hot first date with our writing—and that way we can stay open to finding out more about what we’re writing, seeing if we’re really compatible. And we won’t feel guilty for playing the field and chasing other ideas to determine if a new and better story idea comes along, so we can dump the old one without a second thought.

With a first draft, we need to be as ruthlessly lustful as we want—because it will all be over soon enough! And then the necessary period of cooling off can begin. (Because, face it, so much literary lusting can be exhausting and we need to rest and clear our heads.)  And the process of revision can commence. And that’s when the falling in love happens.

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC