Guest Blog by Carrie Finison
As writers, we know that ideas are all around us. Once you get in the habit of noticing them, that cute thing your kid said, the funny thing your dog did last week, even the memories you have from childhood, are all fodder for the story mill.
In fact, stories based on things that happen in our real lives can make the most relatable stories. And yet, it can sometimes be hard to move beyond that initial story spark to come up with something truly unique. When ideas come from real-life events, writers can get bogged down by real-life details and outcomes. It can be hard to envision a different ending, different setting, or different characters when we’re telling a story based on our real lives. Often, the key is to push our storytelling beyond the boundaries of what really happened, or even what really could have happened, while still keeping the emotional truth behind the idea. Below are a few tips to help you do that.
Get Emotional Distance from the Story
I remember the precise moment I started the story that became LULU & ZOEY: A SISTER STORY. I was picking up my son from preschool and he complained about his baby sister, who was singing loudly in the car. “She’s ALWAYS too loud,” he said, with his hands over his ears. I replied that she wasn’t ALWAYS loud. Sometimes she was loud, and sometimes she was quiet. All the way home, we made a list of other things, good and bad, that sisters sometimes are. I continued thinking about those ideas, and soon a first draft was born. I revised the draft a few times and even submitted it to a children’s magazine, but it wasn’t accepted.
Then I put it away for six years.
In that time, I learned a lot about picture book writing, and wrote many other stories. When I finally came back to this one. I was ready to look at it with fresh eyes. Instead of a general list of sisterly traits, I knew I needed to create two specific characters, and include a story arc – some specific conflict and resolution that they might have. Because so much time had passed, I was no longer emotionally tied to the actual events that started the story in the first place, and I felt free to make changes. I changed the characters from the brother and sister--mirroring my two kids--to two sisters, and I changed many of the details from the initial draft. What I kept was the emotional heart of the story: that siblings sometimes have ups and downs in their relationships, but they’re always a part of each other’s lives.
You may not have time to put your story away for that long, but even a month or two can make a world of difference – especially if you spend that time immersed in other projects. Both the time and the shift in focus to new projects can give you the emotional distance you need to make changes.
Change the Setting and/or Characters
My book HURRY, LITTLE TORTOISE, TIME FOR SCHOOL! was also based on real life events and emotions. Ironically, the spark for this story also involved picking my son up from school. This time, it was during the daily pick up from elementary school. My daughter, then 4, would be dragged along with me. Of course, it was at the worst possible time in the afternoon when she really needed to be resting, and so getting her ready to go was a huge chore. I felt like I was constantly saying, “Hurry! Hurry!” and pushing her to go faster than her natural, tortoise-like pace. The story idea grew out of this experience, but I knew that a story about a mom yelling at her daughter to hurry wouldn’t feel unique or sustain interest across 32 pages.
I turned to animal characters to help me get some separation from the real-life inspiration for the story. In the book, Little Tortoise really wants to be on time for school — maybe even the first one there — but, as one might expect, she is NOT built for speed. In a twist, she encounters her new teacher, Mr. Sloth, who similarly struggles with being on time. Using animal characters enabled me to push the story into the realm of fantasy while still keeping the heart of what I wanted to say — many of us struggle with being on time, adults and kids alike, and we can show each other grace.
When thinking of characters and settings in this way, think REPRESENTATIONAL and LARGER-THAN-LIFE. What animals, objects, or mythical creatures best represent the characteristics you are trying to portray? What settings might allow you to explore your topic even better than a real-world setting? The beauty of picture books is they can be set anywhere — under the sea, outer space, inside a refrigerator — and those places are fun to see illustrated as well.
Find a Partner or Two and BRAINSTORM
It’s tried-and-true, but — as your 7th grade English teacher told you — brainstorming is a great way to come up with ideas. However, sometimes when you are too close to the real events that your story is based on, it’s even better to brainstorm with a partner or group. Find partners who are NOT invested in the true story-behind-your-story. If possible, I’d suggest not even sharing the backstory behind your idea. Then spend 10-15 minutes coming up with new characters, plot twists, endings, whatever you need to push your story outside the realm of the real.
Once you have a list of ideas, pick one that resonates with you, start a NEW DOCUMENT, and rewrite your story from scratch based on the new idea. I know it sounds hard to throw away everything from your previous drafts and start over, but I promise, those old words are still there. You can always go back to them if you need to. But starting something completely new, while keeping the heart of your real-life story in mind, might help you break through to a story that truly shines.
I hope some of these ideas help you grow your next story from the real-life spark into a light that makes it unique and memorable while still being relatable to readers.
Carrie Finison is the author of DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS (G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, July, 2020), DON’T HUG DOUG (G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, January, 2021), LULU & ZOEY: A SISTER STORY (Running Press Kids, June, 2022) and the upcoming HURRY, LITTLE TORTOISE, TIME FOR SCHOOL! (Random House Studio, July, 2022). Find her online at www.carriefinison.com or on Twitter @CarrieFinison.
Guest Interview by Kelly Carey
24 Carrot Writing is excited to again welcome author Alison Goldberg to the blog! In 2018, Alison joined us a year after her debut picture book, I Love You for Miles and Miles, illustrated by Mike Yamada (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017) had launched. Using all she had learned during that launch, Alison wrote the fabulous guest post, Goals For Promoting Your Debut Picture Book. We are thrilled to have Alison back as she prepares to launch Bottle Tops: The Art of El Anatsui, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Lee & Low Books, 2022). This time we are chatting about research!
Welcome back Alison!
Your first picture book, I Love You for Miles and Miles is a heartfelt lyrical ode to the power of love using vehicle metaphors. Your new book, Bottle Tops: The Art of El Anatsui, is a powerful biography. What did you find surprisingly similar and unexpectedly different about working on both books?
There are at least two parts of the writing process that I replicated across both books, and that I go through for all of my projects. This aspect of my process is reassuring to realize when it can sometimes feel like each book involves learning how to write all over again!
The first is research. While I Love You for Miles and Miles is a sparse love poem, it was built on a foundation of information-gathering. I read truck catalogues, rode on cranes and trains, and observed construction sites. I wanted to find specific details that could convey the size and strength of vehicles in love metaphors. And I needed to know which truck is actually the biggest. (The dump truck!)
Of course, as a nonfiction biography, Bottle Tops hinged on research and required a much deeper dive. I read and watched everything I could find about El Anatsui’s art and life. Whether I’m writing a nonfiction picture book, a concept board book, or a middle grade fantasy, research underpins my work.
The second necessary step in my writing process is finding the rhythm of a story. I think each book has its own unique sound. I wanted I Love You for Miles and Miles to be gentle and rolling, like a train lullaby, so the verse grew from there.
For Bottle Tops, I spent a lot of time listening to videos of El Anatsui’s talks. He has a very poetic way of describing his work, and I incorporated his specific descriptions—for example, the “language” of the marks made by a chainsaw, or how a new pot made from an old pot “acquires the strength” of the old pot. I paid close attention to how he characterizes his work and included several quotes from him in the book. My aim was to assemble these phrases into story beats and structure the story around them.
The biggest difference in writing the two books came in the final stages. With Bottle Tops, there were additional steps to ensure accuracy. I sent drafts to El Anatsui and his archivist, Amarachi Okafor, and worked closely with my editor, Kandace Coston, while incorporating revisions.
When did you first learn of El Anatsui’s art? What made you decide to write a picture book biography about him?
I’ve been inspired by El Anatsui’s work ever since I first saw one of his wood sculptures at the Artist’s Alliance Gallery in Accra, Ghana in 1995. I was a college student on a semester abroad and researching contemporary Ghanaian art. El Anatsui was living in Nigeria but his work was on display in the gallery, and it made a lasting impression on me.
Many years later when I started writing for children, I thought his bottle top sculptures were an ideal topic for a picture book. They are so visually appealing and have a tactile quality that invites viewers to look at how they’re made. Up close, you can see how the metal is folded and shaped and connected by wire. The sculptures’ massive size is exciting. Stepping back, they transform from individual pieces of metal into a flexible form resembling cloth.
In addition, El Anatsui’s artistic journey holds many lessons about how an artist can seek out their creative voice. He works with a material that’s close at hand and that evokes his history and environment. He has experimented over decades and is still finding new ways to make art. Artistic journeys are lifelong ones.
El Anatsui is an acclaimed contemporary artist, and picture books are an important form to introduce children to major cultural figures. During my research for Bottle Tops, I saw how few picture books about African artists are currently on our library and bookstore shelves. We need many more. Black Artists Shaping the World by Sharna Jackson is a wonderful new resource that includes profiles of several contemporary African artists, and I encourage readers to seek out this book too.
Can you tell us about the research you had to do for this book? What was your most effective research step? What did you stumble upon that was most exciting? What rabbit holes bore the most fruit? And which ones ate up the most unproductive time?
If you can’t tell already, I love research—especially rabbit holes. It’s hard to say whether there were rabbit holes that ate up unproductive time because I think it’s important to pursue a number of ideas and dig deep. I don’t really know what’s going to show up in the narrative until I start writing, so I want to be immersed.
El Anatsui is a renowned artist and I was able to find many wonderful sources. While reading books and articles and watching videos, I searched for evocative images—the snapshots that could carry parts of the story. For example, when I learned that as a child, El Anatsui was fascinated with the forms of letters and copied the names he saw on doors before he could read, this felt like an important image to include to show his development as a visual thinker. Another image that stuck in my mind was how he assembled large sculptures by arranging patches on his studio floor while photographing the possibilities. I love Elizabeth Zunon’s gorgeous illustration of this moment—a bird’s-eye view on the creative process.
At some point when writing a biography, you have to take that leap and reach out to the person you are writing about, or another close source. Once I had a polished manuscript, I contacted the October Gallery in London which represents his work, to see if they would put me in touch with El Anatsui. I’m so grateful that they made an introduction! The response from him was the most exciting part of the process--and also the most necessary for my decision about whether I would pursue this project.
Because El Anatsui is a contemporary artist, he continues to make new work, and during the time I was writing this book, additional sources became available too. I added quotes, but I’m glad I had focused on a specific time period. While his story continues, the book needed an arc. If I had left that open it would have been too tempting to include other work that he’s made since then.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write about what doesn’t let you go.
Find your writing community to share and read works-in-progress, and to be a part of each other’s writing journey.
Please share with us any events where readers (and writers!) can meet you in the upcoming weeks!
I’m reading Bottle Tops at The Silver Unicorn in Acton, Massachusetts on June 11th at 11 am for an outdoor storytime.
I’ll join illustrator Elizabeth Zunon for an event at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, New York on July 9th at 1:30 pm.
What is up next for you? And where can readers find you and your books?
In addition to picture books, I’m writing a middle grade Jewish historical fantasy inspired by Yiddish folktales. I’ve been thinking a lot about El Anatsui’s concept of drawing from the past to tell new stories, and applying it to my own history and culture. I’m finding many rabbit holes!
When I’m not deep in the research, you can find me online (and links for where to find my books) at www.alisongoldberg.com, Twitter @alisongoldberg, and Instagram at @alisongoldbergbooks.
Thanks so much for having me on 24 Carrot Writing!
Bottle Tops: The Art of El Anatsui releases on June 14 and is available for preorder now.
by Amanda Smith
One of the ladies in my ceramics class, let’s call her Dee, recently made a set of cat dishes for her friend, each dish featuring one letter of the cat’s name, Mozart.
One fine day in class, we were all struggling. Like really struggling. Unable to center. Unable to throw. Exasperated, Dee left her wheel for the kiln room to check whether the set of dishes had been fired. She reappeared, holding four dishes that spelled Z-A-R-T.
“We’ve lost Mo,” she said. “That’s what’s wrong. Our Mo-jo went missing.”
And we were stuck with Zart.
Let’s be real. The last couple of years had offered more than enough incentive for Mo to pack his inspirational bags and seek greener pastures. Some of us lost our creative Mo early on in the pandemic, while others had managed to hold on, tooth and nail, for longer. But I haven’t met a single creative over the last two years that hadn’t at some point felt stuck with Zart. Deflated. Incomplete.
So what happened in the studio when we discovered the loss of Mo? Each of us dealt with the bad pottery spell differently. Dee is a power-through kind of person. She kept throwing. At the end of the three hours, she had four sloppy piles of clay drying on the plaster table – evidence of four collapsed pots. But she also had two lovely bowls.
Peg decided to abandon the wheel for the day and instead focused on glazing some of her vessels that had been bisque-fired– a differently challenging skill, and a good change of pace.
I turned my back on the blasted wheel and affixed handles to mugs that I had thrown and trimmed previously. On a whim, I decided to carve designs on the mugs. I got lost in the joy of line and form and measurable progress.
The next open studio, Mo was still missing. Dee, Peg and I together decided to hand-build little cheese boards. Collectively we figured out the process, fine-tuned each other’s technique, got expert tips from our studio’s resident master hand-builder and made something pretty cute. Confidence somewhat restored, and bravery bolstered by mutual encouragement, we left the studio rejuvenated that day.
So why am I sharing my ceramic woes with you, dear writer?
Because, just like me, you might have lost your writing Mo. What to do until Mo returns?
Along with the lost bowls, our Mo-jo returned.
Did it have anything to do with those cat dishes? Likely not.
Did it have everything to do with not giving up even when we felt like it? Absolutely.
Keep writing, work on other writing related stuff, fill your well with the frivolous, and commiserate with co-writers. But don’t dare give up. Like a stray cat, Mo will return!
(With special thanks to always inspirational DE and PC.)
Guest blog by Elisa Boxer
First of all, I’m delighted to be here! 24 Carrot Writing has felt like a friend from the very beginning. It was the first blog I turned to for insight, inspiration and community when I was pre-published, fielding rejections (that one hasn’t changed), and wondering whether my words would ever become books.
With two picture books in the wild, three on the way this year, and three more under contract, I’m here to tell you to keep at it, and keep the faith!
In this busy year of launches, writing, and revising, I’ve had to be extra diligent about organizing, prioritizing and protecting my writing time. And while I wasn’t completely aware of any concrete process I’d been using to do that, thinking about a topic for this blog post has actually helped clarify a three-pronged method that I have been loosely following, that I will now follow even more specifically, and that I am happy to be able to share!
I’ve broken it down into three questions:
1. What wants to be worked on?
2. What time can I carve out for it?
3. What intention do I have for it?
What wants to be worked on?
I’ve phrased that in the dreaded passive voice for a reason. To me, each project has its own feel; its own energy. Like a living thing. And it’s our job to tap into that energy.
Try this: Think of one of your works in progress. Really focus on it. How do you feel about it mentally? Emotionally? Do you feel a sense of possibility? A spark? A readiness to connect with it and move it forward, even in some small way?
Or do you feel resistance, like this one might be better put aside for the time being so you can work on something else?
Now how do you feel physically? I measure this by a sense of expansion and contraction in my solar plexus. When you think of this project, do you feel lightness and openness (this is the one!), or tightness and constriction (maybe not this one right now).
I go through each project and assess each one, paying attention to these feelings. Kind of like I’m opening the door to check on them. This all goes out the window, of course, if I’m meeting a deadline. Then I just have to plow through any resistance. But for example, I’m writing this blog post two weeks before it’s due, because I woke up and felt that niggle of “write meeee!” even though I had planned to work on something else this morning.
What time can I carve out for it?
This is a helpful re-frame for questions like: What do I have time for? and Where can I slot this in? The truth is, we’re all so busy and have so much going on, the only writing time we get is the time we proactively carve out for it.
Writing time, in my experience, doesn’t ever present itself. It has to be actively dug out of a busy schedule. So, each week and each night, I will look ahead and pen in blocks of space for works in progress. Some days it’s only a 15-minute block for a writing sprint in between calls, meetings and appointments. Other days it’s a 2-3-hour block for deep work.
But if I don’t commit to carving out time in advance, specifically for writing, other things will move in and take over that space.
What intention do I have for it?
Once I’ve identified the project that’s calling out for progress, I set an intention for it. Sometimes that intention is a short writing sprint where I set a timer, close all open tabs, turn off all notifications, and write nonstop, as much as I can, in the allotted minutes. Examples of other intentions include: Writing a thousand words, brainstorming titles, doing a revision, coming up with a more detailed secondary character, or putting together a bibliography.
Some days my intentions are things like securing photo permissions, organizing my research files, or lining up interviews with sources. The key to setting intentions, for me, is to make sure they’re do-able. Kind of like writing items on a to-do list that you know you can complete. If something is more of a stretch, I consider that a goal, rather than an intention. Goals are great too, but intentions, to me, are more manageable day-to-day.
I am sending you so much good energy for whichever project wants to be worked on, the amount of time you can carve out for it, and whatever intentions you decide to set for it!
Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including The New York Times, Fast Company and Inc. magazine. She has reported for newspapers, magazines and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of The Voice That Won the Vote, A Seat at the Table, and the forthcoming One Turtle's Last Straw. Elisa lives in Maine, and she has several more picture books on the way. Visit her at https://www.elisaboxer.com/ .
Pre-Order Elisa's upcoming 2022 books, ONE TURTLE'S LAST STRAW coming in May, SPLASH! coming in July, and COVERED IN COLOR coming in August, at Print: A Bookstore and get pre-order bonuses like prints and stickers!
~by Megan Litwin
Hello! Thank you to 24 Carrot Writing for hosting me here as I share the cover of my debut picture book, Twinkle, Twinkle, Winter Night! I am absolutely over the moon about the cover art by Nneka Myers. I love the dreamy color palette, and the way Nneka captures the peaceful beauty of the winter world…yet with a hint of festive sparkle in the distance. I can’t wait for the rest of her brilliant work to be seen!
And now that the cover is out, I’ve been thinking…
It is ironic that a finished book cover is the result of months or years of work, because at the same time, it also represents a new beginning…the beginning of this last stretch until the book is out in the world. And the “Six-Month Stretch” (as I’ve begun calling it) brings new work to light.
There is a lot of talk about all the things an author can do to promote a book pre-launch, and to be honest, it can be pretty overwhelming. So I’m taking the advice of veteran writer friends who have shared some wisdom about how to use this time. The underlying theme is “do what feels right to you.” I’m going to couple that with one of my own favorite mantras: “keep it simple.” And in the spirit of 24 Carrot Writing’s goal-setting mission, I have formed a plan.
Here are the five main things I’m going to focus on in my “Six Month Stretch”:
Thank you, 24 Carrot readers and writers, for sharing this exciting moment with me!
Shimmer, glimmer, glowing light.
Twinkle, twinkle, winter night.
Celebrate winter with this magical twist on a beloved nursery rhyme that brings
the shimmering season of lights to life.
To learn more about Megan or to subscribe to her newsletter, visit her online at www.meganlitwinbooks.com.
To learn more about Nneka Myers and her art, visit her online at www.nnekamyers.com.
“June Cotner's book proposals are the gold standard.”
~ Denise Marcil
Marcil-O’Farrell Literary LLC
~ Guest blog by June Cotner
If you’re a nonfiction writer who would like to have your book traditionally published, you will need a book proposal. In this post, I will be sharing ideas I have used to secure contracts with large publishers such as HarperCollins, Random House, and Hachette, as well as medium-size publishers such as Chronicle Books, Henry Holt, and Andrews McMeel Publishing.
The most important principle is that your book proposal is a business plan prepared for the publisher to show them why your book will be successful.
Here is a sample Table of Contents:
2. Description of the Book
3. Comp Books
4. Delivery Date
5. The Market (or The Audience)
6. Special Sales
9. About the Author
10. Sample Content
A proposal may vary from 5-35 pages in length, plus sample content.
You will create:
More about this later.
2. Description of the Book
This includes number of pages and perhaps a suggestion about the book package—trim size, hardcover or paper, and number of photos.
3. Analysis of Comp Books
There are three types of comp titles: competitive, complimentary, and comparative. Also mention why your book will stand out from the competition.
4. Delivery Date
When will you deliver the complete manuscript?
5. The Market that exists for this book
Include statistics—if your book is about dogs, you can list the number of households in the U.S. who have dogs.
6. Special Sales
This section lists places that sell books outside of a traditional bookstore, such as Paper Source, or a catalog such as Bas Bleu. Be very specific and selective about your suggestions. You should be clear about your rationale why various special sales markets will have an interest in your book. Perhaps your children’s book is about art museums, so you should include a link of all art museums in the U.S. If you think it’s perfect for The Land of Nod and Pottery Barn for Kids, go online and see if they sell your type of book. If so, list the chain’s online books link in your proposal.
I often call this section “Author’s Promotional Contribution,” so it’s clear to the publisher what I will undertake to make the book successful. In this section, I list traditional media (print, TV, radio) and blogs in which I’ve been featured. I include all of my social media links and the number of friends or followers for each one.
If you have a sequel or series idea, list it.
9. About the Author
Write in third person. List why you’re an expert on this subject, along with any major book sales and awards.
10. Sample Content
List all of your chapter titles and give a succinct description of each—no more than 3-5 sentences. After that, insert your first chapter. For your second sample, use a chapter that demonstrates why your book is a unique contribution to the marketplace.
My favorite book about writing book proposals is How to Write a Book Proposal: The Insider’s Guide to Proposals that Get You Published, © 2017 by Jody Rein with Michael Larsen.
The rest of my post is devoted to something new I’ve developed. I use the first page after the Table of Contents to present one page that will serve a dual purpose: First, I want to give the publisher a succinct overview of the book, why the market is perfect for it now, and why my target audience will be eager to read the book. Secondly, I make the first paragraph bold and I write it like a book description that would appear on Amazon.
Here is the first page from the proposal for BLESS THE EARTH, coauthored with Nancy Tupper Ling. It resulted in a contract from Convergent/Penguin Random House.
BLESS THE EARTH
Overview and Description
Bless the Earth: A Children’s Book of Prayers and Poems for Honoring the Earth celebrates the miracle of our planet Earth and offers a spiritual dimension of caring for our world through universal prayers of gratitude and earth-related inspirational poems. Bless the Earth is the only children’s anthology for 4–8-year-olds that knits together humanity, the environment, and spirituality in an engaging way that is simple for young readers to understand.
Moreover, nine-in-ten Americans believe in a “higher power” (Pew Center).
Bless the Earth will be a welcome addition for 90% of families.
We live in an age in which 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg received TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year award. Climate change and environmental awareness are at the forefront of topics that parents and teachers discuss with children. While no one wants to alarm young readers, a book like Bless the Earth fosters an awakened appreciation for the world around them.
In support of these developing environmental efforts, Bless the Earth shows the importance of caring for our world, treating our neighbors—humans, plants, and animals alike—with respect, and imagining a positive future. While many contemporary children’s books focus on “being green,” Bless the Earth introduces a spiritual dimension not featured in comparative books.
The book is compiled by bestselling anthologist June Cotner, whose books have sold more than one million copies, and multiple-award winning author Nancy Tupper Ling, whose children’s books have been published by major publishers. In Bless the Earth, writings from Karla Kuskin, Mary Oliver, Theodore Roethke, Emily Dickinson, Lao Tzu, Paramahansa Yogananda, and Kahlil Gibran intermingle with voices of celebrated poets such as Charles Ghigna, Patti Tana, Janine Canan, and Barbara Crooker.
Bless the Earth will contain approximately 60 selections divided into five chapters below.
There is no one right way to write a book proposal. Do make sure you have shown the publisher why they should invest their money in publishing your book.
June Cotner is the author of 38 books including the bestselling books, Graces, Bedside Prayers, Wedding Blessings, and House Blessings. Her books have been published by both major houses and mid-size publishers. Collectively, her books have sold more than one million copies and have been featured in many national publications. To find out more about June and for helpful publishing tips, visit her website at www.junecotner.com. You can also find her at https://www.facebook.com/June.Cotner.Books and on Instagram (@junecotner) where she posts sections from her book proposals.
Guest Blog by Valerie Bolling
My husband and I set goals every year, as individuals and as a couple. In 2017, one of my goals was to explore the possibility of writing picture books. It wasn’t a SMART goal (more about that later), but it still propelled me forward.
That year I reached out to people I thought might be helpful to me in my “exploration.” I went to libraries and bookstores to do “research” – reading a myriad of children’s books and taking notes. I took a children’s writing class at Westport Writers Workshop where I now teach. I wrote and revised several stories. I even participated in a Twitter pitch, entered a contest, and sent out 16 query letters. Granted, that last sentence should be deleted. It was too early for me to take advantage of those opportunities and expect success. After all, I didn’t even have a critique group and hadn’t studied picture book structure and craft sufficiently. But I didn’t know that at the time.
My goals have become SMARTer over the years. A SMART goal is Specific, Measurable, Accurate, Relevant, and Timely. Therefore, instead of my nebulous goal about exploring the picture book genre, I could have written a goal like: By March 31, I will read 100 picture books.
In addition to creating goals that are SMART, goals should have other components that lead to achievement.
1. Think broadly about what you want long-term, and then break that down into a smaller goal.
2. Name the specific steps you’ll take to reach your goal.
3. Be accountable to yourself and to someone else.
What’s most important is that your goals work for YOU. Here are some things to consider:
I have witnessed the power of setting goals. Not just setting them, but committing to them. That exploration goal in 2017 turned into the acquisition of my debut, LET’S DANCE!, in June 2018 and its release in March 2020. I’ve continued to set goals and, as a result, have two books releasing this year – TOGETHER WE RIDE (illus. Kaylani Juanita, Chronicle) in April and RIDE, ROLL, RUN (illus. Sabrena Khadija, Abrams) in October – and more on the way in 2023 and 2024.
My goal for this year is to write a chapter book series. I’m currently revising my manuscript for the first book, which I plan to share with my agent in March. What do you hope to accomplish this year, and what goals will you set to get there? I wish you all the best as you turn your goals into successes.
~By Megan Litwin
A former K-2 teacher, I’m a big fan of schedules and routines. I know how important it can be to have a structure to the day you can count on, yet one that also leaves room for organic detours. Schedules can be powerful - and comforting - for children and adults alike.
Of course, life hasn’t made it easy to keep to any sort of schedule lately. But this January, I felt determined to start off on the right foot. 2022 brings with it my debut picture book, and I could not be more excited! At the same time, that means I’ve found myself with extra balls to juggle and new roads to navigate: a website, a wonderful co-marketing group, planning for events and school visits. All very good things indeed. But all NEW things, too. Now, besides time to write (to daydream, draft, revise, and more), I need a chunk of time just to keep up with being an “author.” No matter where any of us are on this journey, there is a certain amount of attention that needs to be paid to the business side of things.
But how to make time for these different roles, without dropping any balls or feeling frazzled?
I needed a comfortable routine I could count on.
First, I thought about the time frame of my work day (something that looks different for everyone). My best work hours are absolutely when my kids are in school.
Then, I thought about the flow. I knew I wanted to fiercely protect my writing time, no matter what got thrown my way each day. So actual butt-in-chair writing is the morning’s first work. I’ve committed to at least one hour a day for that. Or more! But setting a realistic minimum helps me stay true to that goal. If I’m in the groove and really deep into the work, that could stretch by hours – and I love when it can. Or I might write for just that hour and then do something else writing-related, like critiques. There is a certain amount of open-endedness built in. And a whole lot of morning coffee…
No matter how it’s going, by the time lunch rolls around, it’s time to switch gears to author business. Choosing ONE focus per day helps, and that focus varies with deadlines and such. I might work on my newsletter, write reviews, or make pins on Canva (where I definitely can fall down the rabbit hole…). But when these tasks are not creeping into my writing/craft time, I actually enjoy them!
After the writing and author work, I scheduled some reading time. Yes, I said “scheduled reading” – because it’s important to me, and my routine should reflect that. I might read a new pile of picture books, some poetry, or a beautifully crafted chapter book. My children get home around 2:30, so scheduling my reading to coincide with that allows me to model my commitment to reading AND encourages them to join me with their own books. Win-win!
And finally, we all have many more roles and responsibilities other than writer/author/reader. I might have an appointment, get called to substitute teach, or have a sick child. And even on a perfectly organized work day, it is my role as Mom that is most important to me, and that one requires most of my attention once my kids are home. At that point, I tuck the work away and promise to return to it tomorrow, just like I would if I were leaving the classroom or office.
Schedules work best when they are flexible structures. After an inspirational virtual webinar with Bethany Hegedus at the Writing Barn, where she talked about setting goals for each quarter of the year, I realized that maybe schedules could also be seasonal structures. I decided to call this a WINTER work schedule, and I already felt a lot less pressure to make it perfect. It may change when spring arrives, and then change again to fit the cadence of my summer days. But it suits me right now. It makes me feel full and warm – because I am making space for what matters to me, day in and day out, as this new year begins.
And…it is an acronym!! Because, after all, I’m forever-at-heart a primary school teacher!
A WARM Winter Work Schedule:
No time slots. No word counts. No pressure. These are simply the daily roles I want to spend time on, and in this order.
What kind of an overarching structure works for YOU? What does your “winter writing season” look like? I hope it is warm and wonderful and full of whatever you need…right now.
Megan Litwin is a children's book author and regular contributor for 24 Carrot Writing. Her debut picture book TWINKLE, TWINKLE, WINTER NIGHT, illustrated by Nneka Myers (Clarion Books) will hit the shelves October 2022. To learn more about Megan visit her at www.meganlitwinbooks.com/.
Guest Blog by Nancy Tandon
Hello and thank you to everyone at 24 Carrot Writing for hosting me on your blog during a very exciting time for me! After eleven years and close to 200 combined rejections across multiple manuscripts, my very first middle grade novel will be published tomorrow! This is especially rewarding for me since I thought I would be celebrating this accomplishment in the fall of 2017. Yes, you read that correctly. My book launch was delayed by five years.
Most 24 Carrot readers will be familiar with the concept of publishing being slow. But even insiders agree mine was one of the more slothy paths. What happened? How did I keep going? And how will you stay motivated on your journey?
I sent my first query letter, on 3/9/2010. I know the exact date because it was my 40th birthday. It was an underbaked picture book manuscript, and I addressed the letter To Whom It May Concern. Spoiler: I never heard back. But the important thing is that I was signaling to myself and the universe that I was ready to pursue publication in earnest.
Over the next several years, I did all the things. I joined SCBWI, became active in critique groups, went to conferences, read books in my genre, read literary blogs, and of course…even wrote from time to time. I was focused on learning the craft of writing picture books, while also plugging away at a longer piece that began to take the shape of a middle grade novel.
During this time, I continued to submit to agents, editors, magazines, and contests. As my little baby rejection pile grew, my belief that I would find success shrank. Then, in 2014, I learned that a selection from my middle grade novel had been awarded the Ruth Landers Glass Scholarship from NESCBWI. It was just enough encouragement to bolster my drive to keep working.
With the help of my critique group, I completed and revised that novel and in 2016, submitted it to a small publishing house. A few months later, things seemed to happen very quickly: an offer, a phone call, a book contract! I was thrilled! Still un-agented, I used the services of a lawyer who was familiar with literary contracts, and also educated myself using a book called The Writer’s Legal Guide by Kay Murray and Tad Crawford before signing. (I highly recommend this book whether you are agented or not.)
Everything looked great. Publication was set for fall 2017. I joined a debut group. This was happening!
There was a wrinkle. The small press had been acquired by a larger publisher. They were willing to take on my manuscript as part of the deal! I was relieved, happy, even excited about this chance to be published by a bigger house.
Publication was moved to 2018. I joined and became active in another debut group. This was happening!
After a year of working to negotiate a new contract (I had learned just enough from The Writer’s Legal Guide to know the first offer was not favorable to me), I still had not heard from my new editor. And the contract negotiations were spinning in circles. I found out that the second publisher had decided they were not moving forward with my manuscript. My heart sank. I had told everyone about this book deal. I had celebrated with champagne. And now, nothing.
Worse, I had to buy back the rights from the first publisher. (Which is completely on the up and up business-wise, by the way. And in truth, the editing done by that first house was worth the cost. But still, it was painful.) I was embarrassed, disheartened, and very close to giving up all together.
Luckily, past me (the one who’d had a book contract and was all excited about kidlit) had signed up for two well-known New England spring conferences that year, NESCBWI and Whispering Pines. I forced myself to attend both.
After the New England conference, I earnestly studied the list of agents and editors and sent my work back out there. It felt like I was shouting into the wind, but at least I could still say I hadn’t given up. Not fully, not yet. Even though my heart did very much want me to.
The second conference, Whispering Pines, included a one-on-one consultation with Rachel Orr from Prospect Agency, who represented (among other amazing authors) a writing friend I’d met through the 2018 debut group (which again I was now no longer a part of – cue tears). That friend, Samantha Clark (The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast; Arrow), alerted Rachel ahead of time that she’d be meeting me and gave her the heads up about my manuscript’s twisty past.
That meeting did not result in an offer of representation from Rachel. (I know! I wanted the story to go that way, too!) But, Rachel passed my work to a new agent at Prospect and I was agented at last!!
Ready for another plot twist? Meanwhile…
Karen Boss, an editor from Charlesbridge, had gotten my query and read my fist chapters. She asked to read the full manuscript. There were other in-house readers, and a presentation at their acquisitions meeting. I hoped for the best and braced for the worst.
Then in September 2018, it came. An email that made me shriek and cause a scene in the coffee shop where I was writing with a friend. Re: Offer…
This time, I didn’t have to negotiate on my own, or spend money on a lawyer. My agent at the time, Emma Sector, made sure my interests were represented while also easing the process of getting back my rights to the work.
Everything looked great. Publication was set for 2021. I joined a third debut group. This was happening!
Due to circumstances at the publishing house, the date of publication got pushed back to 2022.
I’m not embarrassed to tell you I cried. However, my disappointment was strongly tempered by the fact that in fall 2019, my agent sold my second novel (The Ghost of Spruce Point, coming from Aladdin in fall 2022) within a week of being on submission!
And then of course 2020 and 2021 happened, which weren’t great years to debut anyway (when you can, please show love to writers who did debut in the past two years!!). During this time I also navigated an in-agency switch as Emma left agenting for a new adventure, and I gratefully landed in Charlotte Wenger’s web (Prospect Agency).
And now: I have held my first novel in my hands. And tomorrow, it will wing out into the world to have an adventure all its own. I’m revising my second and have seen amazing cover art.
Friends, it was a long road from desperation to celebration. And if you have read this far, you might be a person who is in the exact position I was in. One breath and one keystroke away from giving up. Please consider this a sign from the universe for you to keep going.
Give it time.
Give it space.
Don’t give up!
Nancy Tandon is a former speech/language pathologist and author of two middle grade novels, The Way I Say It (Charlesbridge, 1/18/22) and The Ghost of Spruce Point (Aladdin, 8/2/22). Her short story, Finders Keepers, was published with Heinemann for the educational market. Nancy lives in Connecticut with her family and is a fan of popcorn, reading, and literacy outreach programs of all kinds. To find out more, or to get in touch with Nancy go to www.nancytandon.com, Twitter @NancyTandon , Instagram @_NancyTandon_, or Goodreads.
Order a signed copy of THE WAY I SAY IT.
~ by Amanda Smith
The sweet time between Christmas and New Year is when I usually ponder writing goals: What worked the previous year? What didn’t? How far did I come? Where am I heading? And my trusty bullet journal serves both as memoir and roadmap.
In preparing my bullet journal for the new year, I wanted to write the year 2022 for my cover page in a unique way. Last year I had handwritten it using brush pens, which was fine, but I felt that the new year deserved some more flair. So, after playing around a bit, I landed on something I’ve never done before – Zentangle.
Using my inspiration quote for the year, I knew I wanted something botanical, and after using WordArt to set the outline of my numbers and googling some Zentangle designs, I set to work. It took some time to find my rhythm, but I finally figured out the scale of the design and the limits of my chosen font and everything went fine and dandy with that first two and half the zero.
But all of a sudden, a little flower decided to jump the outline.
“Huh,” I said.
“Why are you squashing me like this?” asked the flower.
I sat back and stared at that rebel flower, the sharp ends of its petals stubbornly poking outside the soft rounded line. Maybe it had a point. Maybe it didn’t have to be all neatly contained within the oval line of the zero. What if the flowers bloomed outside the lines of the other twos?
I loosened my design. And I listened to the flowers. And I watched them grow and BLOOM!
And as I worked, I thought about my goals and hopes and dreams for this year. To reach past limits. To listen to my art. And to Bloom!
As you think and plan your writing goals for the new year, I want to encourage you to do the same:
During the month of January, Annie, Kelly, and I will be posting our yearly goals into the 24 Carrot Writing Goals tab. Take a look (you can also see my complete, blooming 2022 zentangle there) and then set your own goals and dreams for this year. And be sure to post them somewhere you will see them often.
Together, let’s burst out of the constraints this last year or past habits might have placed on us. Let’s become green-thumbed curators of our vibrant, fragrant story-gardens.
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