The Athleticism of Craft: 7 Attributes of Elite Writers & Illustrators

My partner is a sailboat racer. She and her fellow racers read a lot of what's called "sailing porn"-- magazines, articles, books, pamphlets, blogs, newsletters all about sailing, boats, and racing. They can't get enough. This week she shared an article with me from Scuttlebutt Sailing News called "Seven Attributes of Elite Athletes," saying "Look at this! All of this applies to writers and illustrators!" 

The article opens with these words: "In sailing, there are many uncontrollable factors that are constantly changing...Athletes [learn] to deal with these elements with confidence and trust in themselves."  It goes on to list seven factors elite level sailors take into account to reach excellence. 

Substitute "writer" or "illustrator" for "sailor" and these seven factors couldn't be more pertinent and applicable to the creative process and to the publishing process. Take a look at these seven factors:
1. Have a Clear Purpose and Vision
2. See Adversity as Only an Obstacle
3. Accept Failing as a Learning Tool
4. Know What You Can or Cannot Control
5. Develop Thoughts and Beliefs that Match Your Values and Goals
6. Remain Coachable
7. Focus on the Process

How do these factors apply to your goals as a creative artist? 

How do these factors apply to your publishing goals?

These are attributes of elite athletes. These are attributes of elite writers and illustrators, of artists of all kinds. These are attributes that contribute to living our lives with confidence and trust in ourselves. Ready? On our marks, get set....go!

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks


The Resonant Roar of Quiet Books

This post is reprinted from "The Mitten," the blog of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, Michigan Chapter - based on a discussion with author Kristin Lenz

Emma D. Dryden recently celebrated the 8 year anniversary of the founding
of  drydenbks LLC. her children's editorial and publishing consultancy firm. Congrats, Emma! If you're not already following her on social media, make sure you click the links in her bio at the end of this post - you've been missing out on great advice! A couple months ago, she shared this video on her Facebook page and wrote, "I often talk with authors about the resonant roar a "quiet" story can make. Somehow this performance of human strength and beauty with Disturbed's Sound of Silence exemplifies exactly what I'm talking about."

I have often heard from editors that my stories are "too quiet," and Emma's observation intrigued me. I was mesmerized watching this performance of artistry, beauty, and strength. I found myself holding my breath, smiling, even tearing up a bit. I felt the emotion deep in my chest. And when it was over, I wanted to watch it again and share it with someone else. I felt like I had a general understanding of what Emma meant by "resonant roar," but I wasn't sure how to apply it to my stories in practical terms. I asked Emma if she could expand a bit more on her idea. This is another wonderful thing about Emma - she's very approachable!

Here's Emma discussing the resonant roar of quiet books:

The song, “The Sound of Silence” has always resonated with me, and it makes me wonder about what the sound of silence really is. What sound does silence make? And what sound does quiet make? Quiet can be unremarkable, unnoticeable, unmemorable—or quiet can be deafening.

When I think about “quiet” manuscripts, I wonder what that really means. Authors often hear from agents or editors that while their manuscript is well written or nicely characterized, it is not right for the market or for their list because it’s “too quiet.” This phrase—“too quiet”—can be translated in different ways: “not commercial enough” or “lacking a strong enough hook” or “not quickly and easily marketable” or “unremarkable, unmemorable.” But sometimes—often, in fact—it is the “quiet” story that can, if crafted well, be loud as thunder to a reader and have a lasting impact, wholly remarkable and memorable.

Within your question to me you’ve tapped into exactly what I mean when I say that a quiet manuscript can have a resonant roar: As you watched this video you felt the emotion deep in your chest. Yes! This is it! When a quiet story—what I will call a deceptively quiet story—manages to make readers experience emotions deeply, that to my mind is a story that has the opportunity to roar, to thunder, to resonate so very loudly with readers. A story that taps emotion, triggers emotion, and forces readers to stay with their emotion—that to me is the remarkable story that has a resonant roar.

At the same time, that story that taps emotion, triggers emotion, and forces readers to stay with their emotions is often, at first glance, perceived to be a quiet story—it may be the story about a relationship between a child and a pet; about a child who has lost something or someone; about a character who is lost, unable to find their way home. In these stories there are generally no obvious battles for good and evil; no horrific antagonist; no heroic quest; no dragon to slay. Not on the surface anyway.

If crafted well and true, a quiet story that explores love or loss or home can have all of these elements—but not in an obvious way. These elements—the quest, heroism, vanquishing the foe—are subtle and these elements are emotional. Loss itself is a challenge requiring heroism; grief itself is a foe to be vanquished; safety itself is the good that battles the evil of abuse or abandonment; home itself is a quest as well as a journey. These themes are simple and they are perennial and they are human—often perceived as “quiet,” these themes can be the most remarkable and most memorable but only if the author has done the deepest possible dive into human emotion to express and explore those themes through their characters.

When a manuscript’s rejected for being too quiet, it’s often because a story hasn’t explored these themes at all or has only touched on these themes too quietly, too cursorily. By this I mean the author has presented love, loss, longing, hope, or the need for safety in their story in ways that aren’t deep enough to force readers to experience the story on the deepest possible emotional level. The deeper and more resonant the emotions of a story, there’s less room for unremarkable, unmemorable quiet and the deeper and more resonant a manuscript will be to readers.


Determining Our Own Value & Worth: It's Valuable & Worth It!

logo by +grace lin 

My first job in publishing, as an Editorial Assistant, was with Random House Children's Books and a starting salary of $14,000. I became an Associate Editor with Margaret K. McElderry Books (an imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing) in 1990 with a salary of somewhere around $20,000. Over the course of nearly twenty years with the company I moved up the editorial and corporate ladders to become Vice President, Publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, two prestigious trade imprints within Simon & Schuster Children's Publshing (which had, years before, bought Macmillan). 
I was laid off in May 2009. The layoff stripped me of my contract, my corporate title, my business card, my salary ten times what it had been 1990, my status in the field of children's publishing, and all the accompanying perks. That layoff stripped me of what I'd come to believe defined me as a worker, as a business person, as an adult, and as a woman. 

As people do in a corporate structure, I'd become accustomed to my bosses determining what salary, bonuses, and raises I deserved based on their perception of my value and worth to the company. I was doing fine until...I was laid off because I'd gotten too expensive. Ironic, right? I spiraled...

For three months following the layoff I questioned what I was possibly worth anymore. If I no longer had the contract, title, business card, salary, status, or perks, what was my value and worth in the children's book industry? Did I have any? I was more shocked than angry at that time...Well, I was angry, but because I'd been under contract, I wasn't allowed to express my anger publicly. My partner was angry--and allowed to express it. Within the first few weeks after I was home, she channeled her anger into a design for a logo. It looked like this: 

logo design by anne corvi
That logo--the bold red; my last name; the balanced letters; the fun alternative spelling of "books"--helped me come to an empowering realization: What defined my value and worth were my name, my expertise, and my reputation in the children's publishing industry. No one could take these away from me and these were fully intact. My thinking shifted. My attitude shifted.                                       

I launched my own children's editorial and publishing consultancy firm on March 11, 2010. It was called drydenbks. I had a logo! I made business cards.  I created a website. And then I was faced with two huge challenges: Forming an LLC and coming up with what to charge clients. The LLC formatting wasn't easy , but it was way easier than coming up with a fee structure. Now was the time for me--and me alone--to determine what salary, bonuses, and raises I deserved based on my own perception of my value and worth to my company and my clients. Of course I needed to establish a fee structure commensurate with my name, expertise, and reputation. How hard could that be? I'd been a VP, Publisher overseeing  over $25-million dollars in annual business, but when it came to figuring out what to charge--figuring out, essentially, my value and my worth--I hesitated, I doubted, I made excuses. I didn't want to undersell myself, but I sure didn't want to charge people "too much." What would people think if I had the chutzpah to charge high fees? I probably didn't really deserve to charge high fees, right? I mean, it's not like I'd spent years in graduate school or had a PhD. It's not like I was a psychotherapist or a lawyer. So who was I to charge so much, to charge "too much"?

I compared the fees other consulting and freelance editors were charging. There weren't nearly as many consulting children's book editors out there as there are now, but there were two in particular whom I respected--one woman with fewer years experience as an editor and no experience as a publisher, and another woman with more years experience as an editor but no experience as a publisher. I decided I'd be safe in setting fees somewhere in between the fewer-years editor and the more-years editor and see what happened. drydenbks launched. I was busy. I was in demand. And one year later I raised my fees. This wasn't because a year had gone by and it was time for a raise. This was because I'd gained a confidence in myself I'd never had while working for Simon & Schuster; this was because I'd learned to say "no" in ways that progressed my business; this was because I recognized my experience as an editor and a publisher put me in a different league than some other consulting editors, and that raised my value and worth to clients. 

Putting a monetary value on ourselves is something women don't do at all well. We generally don't feel entitled. We generally don't feel like we can negotiate well enough. We generally feel we don't deserve something if we don't deserve it. We tend to agree. We tend to say "yes" more than we say "no." And we tend to apologize when we ask for what we want.  Men in my experience don't have a problem with any of this at all. Men are able to ask for what they think they deserve whether they deserve it or not. Men generally do feel entitled. Men generally have no problem saying "no." And men rarely apologize when they ask for what they want. It was extraordinarily valuable to me in determining my own value to consult with women friends and colleagues as I launched and established drydenbks. It was also extremely valuable to me to think about what language and attitudes my male co-workers and staff at Simon & Schuster used in negotiations and meetings. 

drydenbks LLC is celebrating its eighth year anniversary today. It's hard to believe it's been that long. Being the owner and operator of my own business has taught me how to be a stronger worker, a stronger business person, a stronger adult, and a stronger woman. Much stronger. I am entitled to the fees I charge for the work I deliver to clients. I say "no" when I think that's best for my business (not to mention my sanity). If I see I'm apologizing in an email when asking for what I want, I edit that apology out of the email. Do I have chutzpah? Well, the word is defined as "shameless audacity, impudence." I don't think I have chutzpah. What I do have are my name, my expertise, and my reputation. 

There were some exercises I did when I was establishing drydenbks LLC--exercises that helped me move forward and gain confidence in doing so. And funnily enough, I now ask many women clients--writers, illustrators, editors, agents, teachers--to do these same exercises when I'm consulting with them about work priorities or life/work balance and goals:
  • Write down all your greatest attributes that pertain to your work. 
  • Write down five positive adjectives about yourself as a worker.
  • Write down what excites you most about your work.
  • Write down your work goals--your immediate goals and your goals for five years from now.
  • Write down what's stopping you from achieving your work goals.
  • Finish this sentence: I am worth it because ______________

There are four pieces of financial advice I recommend to women all the time:
  • Have your own checking and savings accounts separate from those of your spouse, partner, or family member
  • Establish your own lines of credit and keep at least one credit card in your own name.
  • Have a good accountant
  • Read this article: Money Is Power. And Women Need More of Both. 

And I can't emphasize enough how empowering these two exercises can be:
  • Create a business card for yourself.
  • Create a logo for yourself!

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks llc


Listening, Learning, and Living Fully

I am listening.
I am learning.
I am collaborating.
I am fighting.
I am convincing.
I am yielding.
I am angry.
I am heartbroken.
I am celebrating.
I am mourning.
I am proud.
I am confiding.
I am comforting.
I am instigating.
I am soothing.
I am challenging fears.
I am expanding bravery.
I am challenging complicity.
I am contemplating what it means to take a stand.
I am contemplating what it means for me to take a stand.

I appreciate and believe those who raise voices.
I appreciate this time to open eyes, open ears, open arms, and open heart.

Last week...this week...next week...and the weeks after that, I will continue.
For this is what it means to live fully in the world.

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks llc