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. 


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



image from www.chalkboardmanifesto.com 

 procrastinate: from Latin, of tomorrow

I can be a procrastinator.


I admit it. 

I can put things off until…whenever. I can delay. I can come up with excuses. I can opt to do the easy rather than the hard. I can opt to do nothing at all rather than the something.

I’ve always had times of procrastination in my life, even when I was very young. My mom used to call me lazy. In an accusatory, disappointed tone of voice, I might add. That hurt. And it wasn’t accurate. Being “lazy” is something quite different—at least to my mind, anyway—than being a procrastinator.  To me, being lazy is very much the same thing as not caring, being resistant, being idle.  And that’s not how I’m feeling when I’m procrastinating. When I procrastinate doing a thing, I’m actually thinking about that thing a lot—I care deeply about that thing; I know I will be facing that thing head on; I want to do that thing as well as I possibly can. That is, when I eventually—finally—get to it.

When I’m procrastinating, it may appear to others that I’ve gone AWOL . Sometimes my form of procrastination manifests as napping, daydreaming, shopping, or cleaning. And if the thing I’m supposed to be doing is shopping or cleaning then I might procrastinate by working, walking, exercising, or something else. And if the thing I’m supposed to be doing is working or exercising, then I might be petting the cat, organizing the clothes closet, or something else. You get the idea. So, I wouldn’t say my procrastination is laziness at all. Rather, it’s distraction…it’s an alternate view...it’s a means to getting my focus back. Very often while I’m procrastinating I’m strategizing, planning, thinking, creating, and preparing. For what? For the doing of the thing. For the achieving of the thing. For meeting the challenge of the thing.

Some bouts of procrastination last longer than others; some things that need to be tackled can be fraught with fears or doubts; some can be fraught with tension; some can be fraught with boredom. They will get done. They do get done. Eventually. But  not until I'm ready.

What I’ve come to recognize about procrastination is that it's a part of a process that I need very badly to stay focused, productive, and engaged with my work, my writing, my life, and the world around me. Procrastination is my means of recharging and regrouping, of taking a deep breath, my way to take a time out so my mind can wander around until it comes back to center. 

 (c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC


Playing Make-Believe: World-Building and World-Crafting

Writers are atlas makers
Do you remember playing make-believe when you were little? Playing with your friends, or with dolls or stuffed animals, and creating elaborate and often complex scenarios, relationships, situations, and rules within a make-believe world filled with magic, or monsters, or heroes, or explorers, or princesses, or anything else we could conjure up from our imaginations?

When we’re children make-believe is a way for us to be safe while experimenting with the world, testing boundaries, trying on new personas, pretending to be older, pretending to be adults, letting our imaginations take us as far away from ourselves as we can go, into new worlds and new landscapes. And then, just as Mickey returns from the Night Kitchen in time for breakfast, we can come home again, back into ourselves and into our real worlds, richer for the world of make-believe we know we can explore again whenever we want.

As we grow up, many of us outgrow make-believe. But there are some people who don’t outgrow make-believe at all, and they became…fiction writers! I loved make-believe when I was growing up, and I have no doubt that speaks in some part to how I became a children’s book editor. And one of the most fantastic parts of make-believe for me was the world–the multiple worlds, in fact–I could create in my imagination. Worlds in which I could set all the rules, worlds in which feared creatures became friends, worlds in which puppy-love crushes were manifested, worlds in which disabilities were assets, worlds in which I could be anyone and anything I wanted. So what better way to stay close to the land of make-believe than journeying into worlds created by storytellers?

Whether fantasy or realism, crafting the worlds of our stories is really akin to setting up the worlds we created as children playing make-believe, only this time we’re responsible for creating worlds rich enough, believable enough, and inviting enough for readers to join us, to journey with us, to stay there with us.

World-building is an exciting and often complicated part of writing a great book, made more complex when you recognize that the world of a story must exist on two levels–the actual world in which a main character lives and the internal world in which a main character lives–the emotional and psychological world.

Writers are atlas makers, crafting the maps their characters will need to explore and find their way through literal and figurative landscapes. And the more clearly marked and detailed and interesting these maps are, the more excited and curious readers will be to find their way through these landscapes, too.

 (c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC

This post first appeared on May 7, 2013, as a guest post for Ventana Sierra Workshops (www.ventanasierraworkshops.com) in advance of a June 14-16, 2013, workshop in which Emma Dryden conducts a session entitled, "Constructing the World: Internal & External World Building"


Hearing and Tasting Our Work

ears,eyes,montages,mouths,people,senses,sensory organs,sights,sounds,speeches
"I always find if you read fiction out loud you know what you have to change by what you stumble over." - Alice Hoffman.

As anyone who has worked with me knows, I'm a huge proponent of reading our manuscripts aloud.  It's critical to do this when your work is a picture book--we can all agree that the most successful picture books are not only those that can be read aloud over and over again, but those that we want to read aloud over and over again. So the very best way to write a picture book is to read it aloud as you go along. It's equally critical, though, to read your fiction and non-fiction aloud. Yes, it will take a lot of time, but this must be part of the writing process because the reading process is itself a multi-layered sensory experience. We don't read only with our eyes--as we read, we feel a story; as we read, we sense a story; and as we read, we hear a story.  And so, the very best way to write a novel or non-fiction that will appeal to readers is to read it aloud as you go along. 

Saying something aloud makes it more real for us. We can think something, we can feel something, we can wonder about something, we can even write something down. But I've often found it to be true that when we say what we're thinking or feeling, when we give a voice to it, that's usually when it becomes most real, whether we like it or not. We can't take it back. It's out there.  It's been witnessed. So too, our manuscripts. We must witness our own stories, we must witness our own writing--and by doing so, we will experience our stories and our writing in new ways, in ways that will reveal flaws, in ways that will reveal poetry, in ways that will reveal what we need to adjust, revise, omit, add.  

As we read aloud, we feel our words on our tongues--we taste our words, we taste our stories--and just as there are certain textures and flavors of foods we find delicious or distasteful, so will we begin to recognize what textures and flavors of our writing we find delicious or distasteful. And in so doing, we will be refining our work in ways that will engage the deeper senses of our readers.

We must hear our words. Taste our words. See our words. Feel our words. As we do, our senses will become more acute and we will experience our stories and ourselves more fully, we will share our stories and ourselves more fully.

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC


What Does Our Backlist Say About Us?

Publishers have backlist – the list of older books still available to the public, as opposed to titles newly published, called frontlist. Building a strong and reputable backlist has traditionally been seen as the way to produce a profitable publishing house. Backlist not only bolsters a publisher’s financial position, but it can also define and bolster a publisher’s reputation and identity.  We look at an imprint’s backlist to get a sense of what the imprint stands for, how diverse or limited the imprint is, how the imprint has performed in terms of awards and reviews, and the overall reputation of that imprint. We don’t necessarily know the editors and designers who work at the imprint, but looking through an imprint’s backlist, we come to assumptions about who those editors and designers are, what they’re interested in, what they care about, what they’re like. Those assumptions may be right, or they may be entirely wrong; it doesn’t matter. Either way, for all intents and purposes, an imprints’ make-up and the make-up of the people behind the imprint will be judged by the backlist.
The concept of being perused and judged – rightly or wrongly – based on backlist doesn’t really need to bother publishers. But let’s think about our own “backlists” – and whether we feel confident in having ourselves judged by strangers based only upon a perusal of all that we’ve made available to the public. Our published works, books, eBooks, apps, music, art—that’s all backlist we have to nurture and sustain. If anyone has heard me speak on this topic, you’ll know I’m a stickler for encouraging no publication of any kind (print, digital, traditional, indie, self, I don’t care) without feeling what we’re publishing and offering to the public represents us the way we want to be represented,  to be seen, and to be judged.  But what about our other backlist? Our internet backlist. As Seth Godin points out in the post that got me thinking about this topic, “the internet doesn’t easily forget.”  It’s important to realize our backlist consists of every post, every photograph, every tweet, every article, every comment, every interview, every publication that we’ve ever made somewhere online. Some of our backlist may be hard to find, just as a publisher’s out-of-print titles may be hard to find. But nothing is impossible to find. It’s called Google. And it reaches back and deep, a trawler without regard for what’s dredged up for anyone to see—friends and family, who may be forgiving; potential employers, agents, editors, and business partners who won’t be.
“Your history of work is as important as the work you'll do tomorrow,” Godin says.  All of our backlist is valuable. Or it ought to be. What does your backlist say about you?
(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC