We Are Enough-With or Without Awards

It’s February now which means the two most
celebrated events of the year have passed. What did I think about the
commercials? Meh! But, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation,
rooting for my favorite players.  Yes, indeed! (Oh, and I hear Super
Bowl was pretty good, too.)

The ALA media and book awards featured
some impressive titles this year. If you’ve been around the writing
scene for any length of time, you know how much stock goes into earning a
gold sticker. The bragging rights, the added publicity, the bonuses.
Bully for winning authors and illustrators! Now, raise your hand if
you’ve ever fantasized about being on the receiving end of one of these
fancy-schmancy awards. Go ahead, don’t be shy. It’s human nature for
“what ifs” and “if onlys” to dart through our minds when peers reach a
pinnacle. Envy is empathy’s first-cousin, twice-removed. They will both
show up to public gatherings.
 There’s a big ole risk to paying too much
attention to awards, though.  It would be easy to fall into thinking
that we are not enough without one. But, at the end of the day, the most
important judges are young readers and they’re not looking for award
lists. They just know what they like. Sometimes, the books they love and
need reside in a different county from the awards table. Those books
will inspire and give hope to young people. Some will be
life-preservers. So, while award winners and honorees are announced,
let’s give a mighty salute to the books, authors, and illustrators who
are not mentioned. Gold stickers would be awesome, but our best
heart-felt works are enough. We are enough.
 I’m always reminded of a line from the 1993 Disney flick, Cool Runnings,
loosely based on the first Jamaican bobsled team to pursue the
Olympics. The coach, Irv, is asked by a team member about his own early
mis-steps in pursuit of Gold.
“Derice,” Irv says, “a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”

“Hey, Coach,” Derice asks. “How will I know if I’m enough?”

“When you cross that finish line tomorrow, you’ll know.”
Cool Runnings
In my mind, out ultimate finish line is our books in a child’s hands.

Just for the heck of it, I asked auntie Google the
greatest related question ever asked in the history of the world. Why do writers
write? Turns out, there are lots of opinions. One website, Authors Promoter,
apparently polled 100 published authors. They posted their statistics:
15% of authors write to express themselves, 13% write to help others, 8%
write because of their imagination, 6% write because they were
influenced by authors they read, etc. You can check out the full pie-chart here, but may I just say that I like that last category.
Auntie Google was such a hoot, I pulled a few craft
books off my shelves and thumbed through to find more answers to that
question, why do you write? Thankfully, I read with a highlighter in hand, so these stand out quotes were easy to find.
Journalist/novelist, Joan Didion states, “I
write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I
see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
  
Smart lady, that Joan.
 9780395577806_p0_v1_s260x420
In her book, What’s Your Story? Marion Dane Bauer writes, “Stories
help us to make sense of our world. They teach us what is possible.
They let us know that others before us have struggled as we do.”
and
“The first and best reason for writing stories is to please yourself”
F. Scott Fitzgerald saw writing as a leap of faith when he professed,  “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”
Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “You have to write the
book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult
for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
 Amen, sister!
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King reveals, “I
have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on
the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on
the side- I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing.
And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
 9781439193631_p0_v3_s260x420
And, as if coaching writers from afar, King adds a lesson about passion:
 “You can approach the act of writing with
nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair-the sense that you
can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You
can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed,
ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you
want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come
to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come
lightly to the blank page.”
I think John Erickson, author of the Hank the Cowdog series best sums up the importance of motivation in his book, Story Craft:
 “It often happens that when we try to write
something “important” such as a novel, story, or poem, we become
self-conscious. We try to be profound and authorial. We concentrate on
the elegance of individual sentences and forget that all writing is a
communication between one person to another.”
 9781591888918_p0_v1_s260x420
So, there you go. It’s just us and the readers we
are communicating with. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s quite
enough.

This post originally appeared on the Emus Debuts blog, February 17, 2014.

Getting “The Call” and How My Contract Took Me Home

I’m honored to have a post on the Emu’s Debuts blog today, about how my debut book sale came to be. And how signing the contract became an unexpectedly memorable and emotional event.

http://emusdebuts.wordpress.com/2013/08/27/signing-the-contract-not-your-typical-espn-moment/

Here is that post, in its entirety.

Signing the Contract. Not Your Typical ESPN Moment.

We’ve all seen news snippets, featuring a young
football player signing a letter of intent to play for the pros. It’s
been a long (cough) four years for him. He walked into the spotlight a
doe-eyed kid. He will walk out a bazillionaire with braun and bruises.
Cameras flash all around him. King for the day holds a fifty-cent pen
that, with one indecipherable curly-que, becomes a collector’s item.
Ta-da! Now he is a professional. People will know his name. He will
drive a Ferrari and hire a publicist. He has arrived.
When I first started out on my zig-zaggy journey
toward publication, I admit to having my own pie-in-the-sky visions of
what it would look like, feel like to get “the call.” Or, better yet, to
sign my first book contract. The only evidence I had ever seen of such
an event involved unnaturally tidy desks and mile-wide grins. I always
snickered jealously that cases of booze and chocolate must have been
consumed in the making of those lucky authors. What would it look like
when my time came? Would my family and friends gather en masse to watch
me carefully pen my official author signature? Would the clouds part
while sunlight beamed a cherubic halo around me (the perfect author
photo, don’t you think?)  Would I be Queen for the day?
            Um…no!
Time has a way of adjusting Pollyanna expectations.
Honestly, nobody could have told me how twisty and arduous this journey
could be. Maybe it’s enough to know that we change and grow between our
Freshman writing stage and our first sale. As the wise Yoda of TV
hunks, Ashton Kutcher recently recounted, “opportunity looks a whole lot
like hard work.” I agree. But, to add a sentimental spin on the kid-lit
topic, I believe our own inner child informs more than we realize.
It’s interesting how having a book newly under
contract has thrown me into a nostalgic mood. Partly, I admit, there’s a
sense of validation to selling a book.  There, I said it! Finally, I
can respond to that blasted non-writer question, “Oh, you’re a writer?
What have you written?” Grrr!! And, partly because I’ve realized how my
first sale (not the first book I’ve written) has brought me full circle.

Image

You see, despite my current suburban address, I’m
still a horse-crazy ranch kid at heart. The best years of my youth were
spent training and showing horses. A lot! They were my gentle giants, my
first loves, my teachers. In some ways, during those awful teen years,
horses saved me. Despite the myriad of other subjects I’ve written
about, is it a coincidence that my debut book is about a once-famous
horse and the remarkable man who loved and “educated” him? I don’t think
so.

Image

Many moons ago, this is what my weekends looked like. Lucky me! Today, “Pee Wee” is 31-years-old.
But I can assure you that my path to publication, like so many, was riddled with lessons disguised as speed bumps.
 Signing with my amazing agent, Erin Murphy, involved a four-year-long, twisty side trip of it’s own. (you can read that story here (Lesson #1- Be brave in approaching agents. And smile.)
 On first submission, my debut book immediately
interested three Goldilock editors. One editor thought my picture book
biography was too long and suggested I cut it in half. Another editor
thought it was too short. She suggested I expand it to a chapter book.
The third editor thought it was juuust right (well, sort of.) (lesson
#2- Be flexible with revisions)
Two years and four revisions later, the offer came
in, and lengthy negotiations began (thank you, Erin and Sam.) Nobody
ever warns you about all the waiting involved in this biz. Editors,
agents, and acquisitions committees are very busy people. And, as you
know, authors just sit around in their pajamas making stuff up, buying
cases of booze and chocolate, and crafting ugly sweaters. (lesson #3-Be
Patient. Lesson #4- Always be working on another project.)
Oh, lest any romantic notions remained about how “the call” would come, I arranged to be stuck in Austin traffic when Erin called. “We have a deal,” she declared.  I didn’t care what the other drivers thought of my wacky behind-the-wheel-dancing. When they sell their first books, they’ll understand. (lesson #5- Don’t drive under the influence of hysterics.)
Image
When the EMLA envelope arrived, I took pictures of it and coddled it like a
new baby. Don’t laugh- you might do the same. Inside were four copies of
my shiny new contract.  Woohoo! My sweet family doled out just the
right praise and I braced for the long-awaited hoopla- my ESPN moment in
the spotlight. Where and how would I sign this hard-earned golden
ticket to publication? How would I want to remember and document this
pivotal moment? Instantly, I knew.
 My husband and son grabbed the camera as I dialed the phone. “Mom,” I said. “I need to come home.”
 My childhood home, where I first fell in love with the choreography of words on the page.
Home, where this zany dream of publication first trotted into my naïve young mind.
Home, where love, and land, and horses built me.
 I plopped myself onto various grassy patches,
favorite purple pen in hand. While some very special old friends nuzzled over my
shoulder and through my memories.  They seemed to approve.
 It was all the hoopla I needed.

Image

A special moment with my late father’s 37-year-old stallion.

DSC00689

“Kat” stamped his seal of approval. Mine may be the only contract with a hoof print.
Donna Bowman Bratton’s debut nonfiction
picture book, tentatively titled STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL
JIM KEY, will be released in 2015, by Lee & Low Books.
Donna confesses to being a sentimental sap who
has relied on chocolate (not booze) during the writing of this book and
the many that will follow.

Stealing, Tweaking, Voice

Recently, I had a fabulous conference critique on a new picture book biography. It left me smiling for days, mostly because of two words: “great voice.” It’s taken a long time nail the concept of voice.  If you’ve been writing as long as I have, you know how ambiguous the subject of voice is. I mean, how do you define it? Good luck explaining the term to a ten year old, to your spouse, to a new writer.  It’s like describing a new flavor. Usually, you just know a good one when you taste it. As a picture book writer, it is the ultimate compliment. It doesn’t come easily. And writers aren’t the only ones who struggle with it.

The day after our ASCBWI conference, I was fortunate to spend a workshop morning with famed illustrator E.B. Lewis. He spoke about the relationship between words and images. He addressed the illustrators in the room by encouraging everyone to “steal” from other works. Not, in a plagiarism way. He meant by copying the color of the sky in one painting, the shape of a shoulder in another, the shadows, hands, flow in yet another painting, and on, and on. By extracting ideas from established works, artists can create something fresh and unique to them.  In fact, this is how music has been composed for centuries, too. And it’s how my wedding dress came to be.

I know, you’re now asking what a wedding dress has to do with voice. Well, maybe you remember being a bride-to-be, shuffling through racks of puffy white gowns, pouring over the thick wedding magazines, clipping pictures of dresses, and veils, and glittery things. I certainly did that, but I never found THE perfect dress. I liked the sleeves of one dress, the bodice of another, the neckline or beadwork of another, the scalloped train of yet another, and so on. I took images of these disparate pieces to a seamstress, tweaked the whole with my own personal tastes, then voila!  I walked down the aisle in a dress that was uniquely me. My own style. If my wedding could be defined in terms of voice, that dress was it. Though each piece was inspired by others’ creations, it came together as my own original design.

Back to writing. I think there are two kinds of voice. There’s the overall voice set up by the narrative style, and there’s each character’s individual voice. They can’t be forced. Voice to a writer comes from reading, reading, reading, and writing, writing, writing. Though we may not always physically clip phrases, words, sentences from pages, our readers’ mind somehow records it. First, maybe we imitate a writer we admire. In time, like my wedding dress, we process component parts, add our own personal spin and voila! Our written voice comes more naturally.

I’m still smiley about this editor’s kind words about the voice of my manuscript. It reminds me of how very far I’ve come as a writer.  I have a whole lot of established authors and their fine books to thank for it. And there’s so much more to learn. Which means it’s time to hit the books again.

 

Awards Shwards. Celebrate the Small Steps, Too.

It’s been quite a week of awards celebration, hasn’t it? During Monday’s ALA awards presentation, I joined a group of author friends, huddled around multiple computer screens at the home of YALSA finalist, Cynthia Levinson. For an hour before the presentation, we enjoyed a festive atmosphere, complete with food, mimosas, party favors, and fidgety anticipation. It was the Academy Awards for kid-lit, wasn’t it?

As the awards were announced, there were hoots and hollers, applause, and chatter. And, yes, a few disappointments, too. Every nominee, every finalist, every honoree, every winner should be celebrated. It was a day, nay, a week to celebrate books.

But it got me thinking. We all have something to celebrate, no matter where we are on this crazy-making publishing journey. Why are we so quick to discount anything less than a a book in hand, or a shiny sticker to go on it?

Different stages of the journey come with their own opportunities for yee-haws.

Did you just finish the first draft of your manuscript?
Atta-girl!  That’s a ginormous first step.

Did you just mail your first submission to an agent or editor?
Bravo! Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

Up to  your elbows in conferences, workshops, classes, and writing books?
Watch out world! You’re a writer on a mission.

Just received your first rejection? Your twelfth rejection? Your one hundredth rejection?
Yay, you! Rejections mean movement. Movement means progress.

Received a rejection with constructive feedback or personal notes?
Hooray!  Your work has been personally acknowledged.

Penned that second manuscript? Third manuscript? Tenth manuscript?
Well, look at you! Then look up the word prolific in the dictionary.

Did an editor or agent show interest in your work, but ultimately passed?
Woohoo! Now, you know you’re sooooo close.

Someone asked you to critique her/his manuscript?
Congratulations! You’ve earned someone’s respect.

Your manuscript came in second place, third place, honorable mention in a writing contest?
Shazam! Silver or bronze medals are worth celebrating.

Are you knee deep into research?
Cooleo! You’ll soon be an expert.

A child asked you to read her/his story?
Smile! Someone special looks up to you.

Made a bunch of great friends within the writing community, on blogs, and in person?
Yee-haw! You have a new family who speaks your language!

So, you’ve been writing for years now and still no book?
Good for you! Remember the story of the turtle and the hare. Patience and hard work rule.

Have you been asked to be a mentor, a panelist, conference volunteer?
Take it! What a great opportunity to give back to the community that supports you.

Just met someone writing her own first draft?
It’s your turn! Give her an atta-girl. It’ll come back to you in spades.

Every little step, even the ones that sting, is one step closer to your goal. So, celebrate each and every one!

 

Midlife Writing Crisis- Writing for my Inner Child

Photo deleted

I must be experiencing something akin to a mid-life writing crisis. Is there such a thing? I’m impatient and frustrated about the publication process. I’ve realized that the day-to-day grind and occasional one-step-forward-two-steps-back trudge has left me feeling worn down and, well, homely. Not that I don’t appreciate the blessings of my wonderful agent, supportive family, and writing buddies who believe in me. I am lucky, I know. But, right now, if I worked in a profession with a regular paycheck, I’d be tempted to buy myself a boost in the way of a shiny new sports car that’s way too impractical for my real life. I might even have the wrinkles stitched out of my belly, my brow, my bum, my attitude. Of course, that wouldn’t solve what really ails me, but at least I’d look good.

As I typed my last blog post, I had somewhat of an epiphany. You see, I begin every new project with zeal and eagerness and I-can’t-wait-to-learn-more energy. But, when it’s time to pour forth the first words of a brand new draft, I automatically think ahead to what my agent would like, what an editor would like, what a librarian would like, what unknown young readers would like. Trying to please so many people, with their own subjective tastes, has threatened the joy in my own writing life. Maybe you feel the same way. Sometimes, it feels more like work and less like heart-fueling art. Sometimes I forget to consider the person who counts most of all. In my desperate search for literary validation, I have cheated on my most important reader. Me. Or, more specifically, the child in me.

So, I’m digging deep today and inviting my inner child back into my world. It’s time for me to get reacquainted with her, to remember where I came from and where my words first blossomed. I’ve uncovered a photo of my ten-year-old self and I think I’ll place it in a prominent spot above my computer. Maybe this reflection will prove to be my most trusted muse, my most reliable critic. What can it hurt, right?