One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read widely. People say you should read at least 100 books in your genre and age category, and it's great advice. I love reading as a reader, but here are some ways to read as a writer, to actively analyze and learn from the books you love.
1. Copy the Great Ones
In traditional painting, students learn by copying the masters. By replicating the colors, compositions, and brushwork, artists learn what works. The same thing holds true for authors. Whether you write picture books or novels, a great exercise is to open a blank document and re-type a picture book, or in the case of a novel, the first chapter (or at least 500-1000 words).
When I was learning children's illustration, I thumbnailed existing books. Here's my thumbnail of a super cute 2008 picture book, Jumpy Jack and Googily, by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Sophie Blackall:
I've copied the beginnings of many middle grade novels, and it really helps me understand how different authors construct their sentences and the rhythm of their voices. One insight I learned, for example, was sentences can be more sophisticated than I was writing. I also add information like chapter word-count and POV. Here's the beginning of a re-type of Tae Keller's The Science of Breakable Things (Tae is my Author Mentor Match mentor who just won the Newbery Medal for her amazing book When You Trap a Tiger!)
(To find the word count of most books, check out Accelerated Reader Bookfinder)
2. Pinpoint the Midpoint
When plotting, it's helpful to know the midpoint scene. In Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, Larry Brooks describes the midpoint as the point when new information changes the understanding of the reader or the character. It shifts the context or the story, giving the MC new impetus to solve their problem.
Something I like to do is take books and literally open them to the halfway mark (e.g. in a 280-page book, open to page 140, on a Kindle, slide to 50%). Read the scene and see if you can identify how it's the midpoint of the story. Nine times out of ten, that scene is a key one: in a YA romance, it might be the first kiss (e.g. When Dimple Met Rishi), in a thriller, it can reveal important information (e.g. in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, Tally learns there are people who grew up outside of her civilized world. In this book, there's an even bigger reveal at the 60% mark, which is probably the true midpoint, which shows that you don't have to be rigid about it).
3. Reverse Outline your Favorite Book
Take a favorite book and summarize each chapter. See if you can identify key plot points, the purpose of each chapter, and how the chapters work to construct the story. Here's part of my reverse outline of a favorite MG, City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau:
By engaging with books as a writer instead of a reader, you can figure out more easily how a story works.
Giveaway: A Stack of ARCs
To keep you reading like a writer, I'm giving away this stack of ARCs (to U.S. addresses only): Amina's Voice (2020) and Amina's Song (2021) by Hena Khan, Leaving Lymon by Lesa Cline-Ransome (2020), Gloomtown by Ronald L. Smith (2020), and Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (2020).
1) you must be a subscriber of my newsletter, and
2) reply to this email with a song you're enjoying. In late 2020, "Congregation" by Low was in heavy rotation, and now I'm enjoying "I'm Not Your Hero" by Tegan and Sarah.
3) Bonus entry: add my MG sci-fi Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation to your Goodreads To Read list (it's a story about a 12-year-old girl who fights a high tech conspiracy with the help of hackers, bird bots, and a qi gong master).
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The Secret to Networking: the Four C's
When you hear networking, it sounds like business-speak, doesn’t it? All transactional, like a salesperson trying to expand their client list to sell another widget. But here’s the thing: it’s really another way of saying, no writer or artist can do it alone. As a creative person, if you want to improve your craft and become traditionally published, and not fall into despair along the way, the key is to find your community.
Because I like alliteration, here are my four C’s for networking and finding community: Curiosity, Compassion, Curation, and Connection.
Be sure to enter my giveaway of $100 for any class or conference of your choice (details below)!
It all starts with being curious and open to new ideas. Instead of approaching networking as a way to develop your brand or sell books, think of it as connecting with all the interesting people. One great thing about social media is finding people who share your interests. I have a private Twitter list called “always interesting” that includes mapmakers, ocean explorers, funny AI accounts, and esoteric historians. When you keep an outward focus, you can’t help but enrich yourself.
The TV show Ted Lasso has a pivotal scene about this, but I won’t ruin it (HOT TIP: go watch Ted Lasso ASAP, it’s one of my top shows of 2020, hilarious & full of heart).
It’s been a tough year. You never know what someone is going through, so a good rule is to be compassionate. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. This can be difficult when we face deep injustices and urgent issues (environment, politics, Covid-19, racism/sexism/etc), but the point is, you don’t have to engage with toxic people. Uplift and surround yourself with those who are making the world a better place; find the people who will support you and your creative efforts.
The corollary to being curious and thinking of others is you’ll want to curate your social media. Keep the good stuff in and leave whines or vents in drafts. We’re all human, so HOT TIP: find at least one trusted friend with whom you can be as petty and snarky as you want, in private channels.
While the above can help you network, how do you actually find your people? Here’s a rundown on some great writing & illustrating communities (mostly kid lit, some cost $ and others are free, and look at all the Cs!):
In addition to learning craft, classes let you connect with others at the same stage in your career. Some of my best CPs have come from classes. I highly recommend:
Pre-pandemic, I loved connecting with writers through conferences. Most have moved online. A few favorites:
The best way to improve your craft is to get honest feedback. Some places to find CPs:
CONTESTS & MENTORSHIPS
A great way to connect with others is by entering contests or applying for mentorships and supporting fellow applicants. For example:
Here are some of my favorite creative communities:
Finding community doesn't require a huge group. Having just a couple good writing friends and CPs can be enough. So much of building connections is informal. I've made friends on Twitter (one of my new author friends and I bonded over our love of Battleship Galactica), giving feedback to applicants to AMM or PW, doing writing sprints in Slack groups, and more.
Also, don't get hung up with connecting with people who may be "important" or who could help you in your journey. The people who will grow with you are truly the best networks. In August I wrote about my PB critique group & how we all started out unpublished and un-agented and now most of us are both. (I connected with them 8 years ago after seeing the FB posts of a writer who seemed to be my twin in outlook on life - Teresa R! - I asked her if she was in a writing group, and the rest was history).
To read more from my January newsletter, including a roundup of my favorite 2020 reads, go to The Secret to Networking: The Four C's. To receive notice of new content, subscribe to my newsletter:
For some time, I've wanted to share tips for researching and querying agents based on my experience and what I've gleaned from friends, authors, mentors, and years of compiling articles for Kidlit411. For the basics, check out YA author Angie Thomas's recent Twitter thread and Kidlit411's Submissions: Agents & Editors and Query Letters.
Today I'll give some advanced tips for finding good agents, a smart query strategy, and due diligence once you get an offer. Three resources are especially helpful: Query Tracker (QT), Publishers Marketplace (PM), and Twitter. QT has a free version, but the paid subscription ($25/yr) gives you more powerful tools. PM is pricey, but it's worth paying the monthly fee ($25) once during the month you're researching agents.
Be sure to enter my query + 10-page (or full PB ms under 1000 words) critique giveaway below!
How to Find Agents to Query
1. Make an Initial List: Your first step is to identify agents who represent the types of stories you write. Some sources: Query Tracker (search by genre, category & who's open to subs); Manuscript Wish List (website that compiles agent wishlists); Literary Rambles (interviews with kid lit agents); my Twitter list of kid lit agents; Heather Ayris Burnell's Monster List of Picture Book Agents; market survey books (like Writer's Market 2020 or SCBWI's The Book); and more listed in Kidlit411's Submissions page.
2. Narrow down the list: To find agents who might be a good fit, read interviews, search #MSWL on Twitter (agents post wishlists using this hashtag), follow agents on Twitter, attend conferences or workshops (if possible), and ask fellow authors.
3. Weed out schmagents: Sometimes you'll run across an agent who is predatory (e.g.charges fees); does not adhere to acceptable practices (e.g. pitches clients in a mass email); or is simply not that good (e.g. at an agency that has a reputation for training agents poorly or worked many years with few sales). To find out whether an agent is legit:
A Smart Query Strategy Many have given this advice, and it works: query in small batches (7-10) agents at a time. Wait to hear (or not) from them and revise your query package accordingly. Radio silence means your query or first pages need work and champagne rejections can help you revise. Once you get requests for partials and fulls, be patient and wait for feedback to see if you need to revise your manuscript before the next round. The idea is to improve your query and manuscript until you land an agent.
These QT timelines are also helpful to let you know where the agent is in their reading and if they go in order. Each of the entries is clickable and will show the submission date and agent response. For example, if you see agent responses stopping in August 2020, and you submitted in October, you know you have a bit to wait. If the agent has rejected every ms before and after yours but your entry has not been acted on, it might be under consideration. For example, this agent rejects fairly quickly but skips entries (#s 26, 38, 40, 44 are presumably maybes):
Premium QT has all sorts of other fun reports, like rejection rates by genre or a two-year chart showing responses:
(Note: QT only tracks queries self-reported by other QT users; as a result, it's a partial window into an agent's in box).
The point of this strategy is to not blow your chances by sending your first, possibly ineffective query to all of the agents on your list. If they all result in rejections or radio-silence, that manuscript is rendered effectively un-queryable and you won't know what needed work, your query or your manuscript. Bottom line:
If at first you don't succeed, at least fail smarter.
The key to this strategy is PATIENCE. I know how tempting it is to send a query out sooner than a manuscript is ready (I've done this!). By using this strategy and revising based on feedback, you will get to a point where your query package is strong enough to consistently get requests. At that point, you can query more widely (or at least make sure your top choices have your query, because it's bad form to send new queries once you receive an offer). While you're waiting to hear back, work on your next project.
When you get an offer, it's time to dig even deeper and do your due diligence.The first step is to have a call with the agent to get to know them better and find out if you might be compatible (e.g. Beyond the Basics for the Agent Call, 10 Questions to Ask When Offered Representation by a Literary Agent). As part of that call, ask for client references and contact them.
FINAL NOTE: All of this takes time and patience and assumes your manuscript is ready to query (get critiques & revise!). The more carefully you research an agent at all stages, the more likely you'll get a positive outcome.
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If so, I'd be grateful if you share this post and add my forthcoming MG books to your Goodreads lists (Hana Hsu & The Ghost Crab Nation and Manatee's Best Friend).
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This fall, I'm a mentor in Pitch Wars, where middle grade, young adult, and adult writers apply to be mentored by established authors. If chosen, the mentees will revise their manuscripts for three months to prepare for an agent showcase in February 2021. We announce the mentee selections on Nov. 7 and I can't wait!
As a middle grade mentor, I read 185 applications, which consisted of a query, a synopsis, and the first ten pages of the manuscript. The breakdown by genre is shown above.
My two big takeaways from reading these applications are (1) it's all so subjective and (2) beginnings are important:
1. It's all so subjective.
Authors have heard this over and over, but now I know how true it is. Aside from a small handful of manuscripts where the writing just wasn't ready (like 1%), the vast majority of pages I read had the basic writing craft down. So what made some stories stand out (to me) more than others? The top reasons I was drawn to a story:
Another way to think about this is an analogy I made on Twitter to picking a favorite food:
So for those of you who may be in the query trenches, or who are Pitch Wars hopefuls, remember that every single person who reads your story or query will have a different reaction to it, depending on their interests, personalities, and life histories. Don't give up if you don't get picked this time around, because there are SO many ways to get your voice heard and your books out in the world.
2. Beginnings are critical (tip: create a question for readers, add tension, & reveal character).
Once you interest an agent in your story idea, how do you hook them with your writing? Agents inundated with queries will usually read sample pages until they lose interest. My tip for writers to create a compelling first page and scene is to raise questions, create tension, and reveal character right away. Do this in your first sentence, if possible. For example, the first sentence of my MG sci-fi (coming out Summer 2022) is:
Hana was late—and nowhere she was supposed to be.
This sentence creates questions: Why is Hana late? Where is she that's she's not supposed to be? It creates tension: is she going to get in trouble? Is she in danger? It reveals character: Hana is someone who goes where she's not supposed to be.
Do the same with your first scene. Give your main character a small quest. It should not be the main quest of your novel, but it should be something that feels important to the character at the moment and have it raise questions, create tension, and reveal character. It's also an opportunity to build the world. In my novel, Hana's immediate goal is to find the perfect scrap in a junkyard for a bird automaton she's making for her sister, who she feels is slipping away as her sister is about to have her mind connected to the multiweb. She runs into a tough scavenger girl who snatches the piece from her. This scene introduces the futuristic world and premise and gives Hana a goal that is thwarted. Hopefully, readers will want to read on to find out what happens next.
When reading Pitch Wars entries, the best entries made me want to keep reading to answer my questions or to find out more about the character or world.
To read more from my November 2020 newsletter, check out out the full post: What I've Learned as a Pitch Wars Mentor and or sign up to receive email updates of future newletters.
I'm so excited to be a Pitch Wars middle grade mentor for 2020. I'm open to middle grade sci-fi, contemporary, and fantasy, as well as graphic novels and illustrated novels. I have a particular interest in #ownvoices from marginalized identities.
Wait... What is Pitch Wars?
Pitch Wars is a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each to spend three months revising their manuscript. It ends in February with an Agent Showcase, where agents can read a pitch/first page and can request to read more. Writers can apply to four mentors with a query, synopsis, and first chapter.
What I'm Looking For
I want to be entertained, moved, and shown a world I haven't before. Your manuscript doesn't have to be perfect, but it will show significant promise in premise, voice, and craft and leave me with all the feels. I lean towards commercial and high concept (with an emotional core) rather than literary and quiet.
I love all science fiction, so send me your space opera and adventure, sci-fantasy, cyberpunk, biotech, dystopian, time travel, and high tech stories. I'd love a story with:
Give me quirky kids, coming of age, and friendship and family stories. Social justice and environmental themes are great, as long as they are not preachy. Make me laugh, make me cry, or better yet, make me do both. Some favorites:
I have a long list of loves and some dislikes. Send me:
Diverse casts and #ownvoices from marginalized backgrounds are a plus. I'd love to see stories where the marginalization is not the focus, but the characters having adventures or facing world-ending threats happen to be Asian, Latinx, Black, Native American/indigenous, LGBTQ+, disabled, or neurodivergent.
Themes I love in all genres: found family, band of friends, family dynamics (parent-child; grandparent-child; siblings)
Having an art and illustration background, I welcome graphic novels and highly illustrated novels.
What I'm Not Looking For
I don't have blanket "no's" but you're less likely to be chosen if you submit:
I'm a former environmental attorney turned middle grade and picture book author (with a detour as a children's illustrator). I was born in Chicago to Chinese immigrant parents and grew up in Caracas, Venezuela (my languages in descending order of proficiency are English, Spanish, and Mandarin). I came back to the U.S. for college and law school, and my ten-year legal career (appellate, legislative, and policy work) focused on marine conservation, environmental justice, and Native American rights and tribal sovereignty. I quit the law to become a children's illustrator, which led to writing picture books and middle grade.
My books include:
I co-run the kid lit resource website, Kidlit411 and am represented by Jennifer March Soloway of Andrea Brown Agency.
What a Mentorship Would Look Like
I've been lucky to have mentors and teachers who've helped me throughout my writing career and I want to give back and help others achieve their writing dreams.
When I began writing novels seven years ago, I threw myself into classes, conferences, and found critique partners. I became a mentee in Author Mentor Match (AMM) in Spring 2018 for my upper MG sci-fi novel, which landed me my agent, Jennifer March Soloway, in January 2019. Since then, she has sold two of my middle grade novels, including my AMM novel. I continue to learn from my critique partners (published and pre-published MG and YA authors) and an advanced writing studio at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia.
This year, I've been mentoring a middle grade graphic novel through Author Mentor Match (ultra-talented Annette Hashitate), and last year I mentored a high school writer through The Muse.
Writing novels can be hard and lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve learned you can build a community that will help you grow as a writer and be there for you through the wonderful highs and frustrating slogs and disappointments. Having a professional a bit ahead of you in the creative journey believe in your work wholeheartedly and spend time to work with your whole novel is an incredible gift. Sometimes that’s all you need to push you to the next level, and I hope to do that for someone.
How I Mentor
As a mentor, I will do everything I can to help you achieve your story vision. I’ll provide an edit letter gushing about the things I love and sharing big picture feedback (character and narrative arcs, themes and conflicts, plot holes, pacing, etc.), and craft tips and line edits if needed. We’ll tailor the mentorship to your preferred working style (whether it’s email or phone calls or carrier pigeons) and figure out a revision plan. I’ll do a second round read/review and work with you on your query and pitch for the Agent Showcase.
I started writing novels as a pantser but have since learned to do some strategic planning at the outset while leaving room for fun and creativity. I’ll share these tips (worksheets may be involved!) and work hard for you, and we’ll hopefully have fun through it all.
Having been published as a picture book author and co-running Kidlit411 (and moderating the associated 10,000+ member Facebook group), I'm familiar with marketing and social media and can help you navigate that aspect of publishing as well.
My Ideal Mentee
Your story doesn’t have to be perfect; it can be a grand, weird mess, but you’re passionate about it and believe in it. You’re not afraid to work hard and make major structural changes if needed. You are flexible enough to take constructive criticism and you’ve had experience receiving and implementing writing feedback. When you receive critiques, you don't take them personally. If I pick you, I absolutely believe you can get your work ready to query and land an agent.
My criteria for picking a mentee will be:
P.S. Don't self-reject! Unlike the agent querying process, I don't expect query-ready manuscripts. The point of the Pitch Wars mentorship is to get you there.
Hope to see you in my in box!
f you have any questions, leave them in the comments below or use my contact form.
Hope to see you in my in box!
P.P.S. I will be online at a MG #AskMentor chat on Twitter on Thursday, Sept. 17, 8 p.m. EST, and at an all-mentors chat on Saturday, Sept. 26, 4 p.m. EST.
Pitch Wars 2020 Middle Grade Mentors' Wish Lists
Click here to view all Pitch Wars 2020 Mentors' Wish Lists
It's strange to celebrate good publishing news during this difficult time, but I've had some incredibly good fortune recently: a book deal, cover reveal, paperback news, and the wonderful kid lit community. Read more about all of this at my regular blog, Sylvia Liu Land: Creative Life During a Pandemic & Publishing News.
Over on my regular blog, Sylvia Liu Land, I wrote about my good news in 2019 (landing an amazing agent, a published poem, and a middle grade book deal): 2019 Wrap Up: Book News and a Giveaway of 2020 Releases. To celebrate, I'm giving away a choice of TWO of the above highly-anticipated 2020 releases (PB, MG, and YA). Check out that link to enter to win, or you can also use this Rafflecopter widget below.
My critique and Kidlit411 partner Elaine Kiely Kearns's picture book, NOAH NOASAURUS, illustrated by Colin Jack (Albert Whitman) debuts on April 1. As part of the marketing effort, I made her book trailer using software that comes pre-installed on any Mac. This is the trailer that we made:
For those of you who are enterprising and don't mind putting in a bit of time, you too can make your own picture book trailer using iMovie and Keynote (the Apple version of Powerpoint). You'll also need some familiarity with Photoshop or your illustrator's help. Briefly, this is the process:
How to Make a Book Trailer using Apple Software & Photoshop
1. Write a script. Elaine wrote the script for the trailer after studying a bunch of other trailers and figuring out what works. She sent me the text and suggested accompanying images. Her script was so awesome that I didn't change a thing.
2. Compile a rough trailer in iMovie.
Keynote is Apple's version of Powerpoint that comes installed in Macs. For the images you want to animate, do the following:
I learned how to make a trailer when my book, A MORNING WITH GRANDPA, illustrated by Christina Forshay (Lee & Low Books 2016) came out. At the time, Christina learned how to animate in Keynote and we worked together to create our trailer. We used a slightly more complicated way to animate (importing just the animated character sequence into iMovie while using the still image in iMovie as the background). This was our trailer:
Last year, my New Year's resolution was to (1) declutter and simplify my house (getting ahead of the Marie Kondo curve, at least in intentions) and (2) focus on writing and illustrating, specifically finishing and querying my MG novel.
I totally failed in the first but completed the second. I am now represented by Jennifer March Soloway of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, a dream come true! I am so thrilled and honored she is my agent.
One day, I'll write a How I Got My Agent post, but now I'll get right to my 2019 resolutions:
1) Revise my MG novel so we can go on submissions.
2) Finish drafting my next novel project that has been in the works for several years.
3) Build up my email newsletter. To that end, if you're interested, please sign up for my newsletter which will include news about my creative efforts plus good links and general recommendations (today I sent out one with my favorite books and TV shows from 2018). Here's the sign up form.
3) I hope to remain as present as possible with my family and stay accident -free, especially on my left side. Last August, I had a freak kitchen knife to toe accident that severed a tendon resulting in surgery and I ended the year with a sprained knee from skiing. Yeah. I now have an impressive collection of boots, braces, and crutches.
4) I hope to achieve a balance between caring/raging about what's going on and working productively. 2017 was a full-rage year while 2018 was much more productive. I realize how privileged I am to be able to mute the news every once in awhile, but 2019 will be continue to be a dangerous year for our democratic institutions.
What about you? What's on your plate for 2019? What's your motivating word or phrase?
Mine will be ONWARD AND UPWARD.
2018 was another great year for my creative communities. I'm always blown away by how generous my writing friends are. Here are some of the awesome people I've connected with on my writing journey this year (and some of their super cool books coming out in 2019!):
1. MY PICTURE BOOK CRITIQUE GROUP, with 3 picture books coming out in 2019
Going on our sixth year, my picture book critique group, the Penguin Posse, started out as a group of unpublished and un-agented authors. By the end of next year, almost all of us will have agents or books out. I'm so psyched for these 2019 releases:
Elaine Kiely Kearns, her debut PB, NOAH NOASAURUS, illustrated by Colin Jack (Albert Whitman, April 1, 2019)
Teresa Robeson, her debut PB, QUEEN OF PHYSICS, illustrated by Rebecca Huang (Sterling, Fall 2019)
Reneé LaTulippe & Sylvia Liu, our poems in THANKU: POEMS OF GRATITUDE, edited by Miranda Paul & illustrated by Marlena Myles (Lerner/Millbrook, Fall 2019) (both Reneé and I have poems in this anthology. I definitely have imposter syndrome being a part of this lineup: Jane Yolen, Young People's Poet Laureate Margarita Engle, and others!)
2. THE MUSE WRITERS CENTER
This year, I workshopped my MG novel at The Muse Writers Center, a writing center in Norfolk, VA, where I take classes as well as teach a picture book class. One workshop was led by Ellen Bryson (The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno) before she moved to Paris, and my current one is led by Lydia Netzer (How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky, Shine Shine Shine).
My wonderful critique partners from these workshops include: Hannah Capin, Jessica Grace Kelley, Chris Braig, Kim Engebrigsten, Bernadette Bartlett, Elaine Panneton, Lauren Fobbs Brittany Page, Michelle Ross, Sarah Hill, and Suzanne Burns. A special shoutout to Hannah and Jessica who've read my story multiple times, having overlapped in both workshops.
I can't wait to own Hannah Capin's forthcoming book, THE DEAD QUEEN'S CLUB (Inkyard Press, Jan. 29, 2019), a re-telling of the story King Henry VIII and his wives, set in high school:
3. AUTHOR MENTOR MATCH
Last Spring, I was accepted as a mentee for Author Mentor Match, a program that pairs published MG and YA authors with un-agented and unpublished MG & YA authors. This was a game changer for me. I got paired with Tae Keller, MG author of The Science of Breakable Things (Random House for Young Readers, 2018).
Tae was an incredible mentor, giving me such helpful and detailed feedback in two rounds of revisions. Her first edit letter was 10 single-spaced pages, complete with graphs. With her help, I was able to significantly transform my middle grade manuscript currently on submission with agents. Everyone needs to read her debut MG novel immediately:
Another author friend I met through Author Mentor Match was Julie Abe, who also gave me great feedback on my manuscript. She had a big year, landing an agent and selling her book. Be on the lookout for her book, EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH (Little Brown Children's) in 2020:
And special thanks to my writing friend Kristen Schroeder for clueing me into AMM!
4. BIG SUR WORKSHOP
In May, I attended the Big Sur in the Rockies conference, a workshop put on by Andrea Brown Literary Agency. One of my local picture book writing friends, Ginger Weddle, also went. This is a weekend where writers workshop their manuscripts with two professionals (authors, editors, or agents) in two workshops. I workshopped my MG novel with agent Jennifer March Soloway and author Melanie Crowder (The Lighthouse Between Worlds & many others). Both of these workshop leaders were amazing and I learned so much from them.
At Big Sur, I met the talented MG & PB author Kim Tomsic (The 11:11 Wish), and we have since traded critiques on our manuscripts. Her forthcoming PB, Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World, illustrated by Brett Helquist (Chronicle Books, April 2019) looks great:
Another highlight: I met Julie Hedlund, founder of the picture book 12x12 Challenge, in person, for the first time since we became online friends six years ago.
5. KATHRYN AULT NOBLE
A really cool thing happened this summer. One of my illustrator friends, Kathryn Ault Noble, posted sci-fi images she was playing around with. I loved the vibe so much, and I've always admired Kathryn's work, so I commissioned her to make an illustration for my work in progress novel (who said you have to wait until you're published, right?). She ended up creating this amazing piece that I'm so in love with:
I blogged about the making of this illustration: My Adventure into MG Sci-Fi: The Making of An Illustration.
Elaine and I continue to run the kid lit resource website Kidlit411. We're finishing our fifth year, and we continue to feature weekly author or illustrator interviews and share a weekly post with resource links. Managing our Facebook group of almost 7500 members is always fun & challenging. What I love about this venture is that I'm constantly meeting kid lit authors & illustrators, who inspire me.
7. BREAKTHROUGH WRITER'S BOOT CAMP
I joined editor and author Kate Brauning's Writer's Boot Camp, a program that provides advanced writing craft tips to novelists and a community of writers. As a former editor of Entangled, Kate has a wealth of industry and editorial experience that she shares in weekly webinars and discussions.
8. MY DAD, BERNARD LIU
This year, at age 84, my dad Bernard Liu became a debut author with his Chinese-language memoir, HOUSE ARREST DAYS OF ZHANG XUELIANG (People's Publishing House, 2018).
When he was growing up, from age 5 until 30, his father (my grandfather), Chief Special Agent Liu Yiguang, with the Guomingdang Secret Service, was in charge of the house arrest of the famous political prisoner, General Zhang Xueliang. Zhang was responsible for the 1936 Xi'an Incident, which marked a turning point in the Chinese Communist v. Nationalist civil war, that saved the Communist Party and changed Chinese history. In the Xi'an Incident, Zhang Xueliang kidnapped the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek and forced him to agree to ally with the Communists to fight Japan, instead of eliminating the Communists as he planned. Today China views Zhang Xueliang as a hero.
After Chiang Kai-shek was released, he placed his former general under house arrest for the next 50 years. For the first 25 of those years, half in mainland China (during the Sino-Japanese war in World War II and the Communist v. Nationalist civil war) and half in Taiwan (where the KMT fled), my grandfather lived with Zhang Xueliang, his wife (and later mistress), and a huge retinue of security. My dad's memoir tells the story of these house arrest years, unknown to the general public until now.
He and I are working on the English translation (hopefully to be completed in 2019). If you read Chinese, check out his book.
9. MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY
And through it all, my family & friends continue to support my writing and illustrating efforts, serving as beta readers and cheerleaders. My sister Vivian Liu gave me advice on the genetic science in my story, and my husband and daughters always had the most honest feedback. My college roommate Megan McDonald was another valued critique partner. She recently won the pitch session for her novel-in-progress at the Kauai Writer's Conference, so I'm looking forward to promising things for her next year!
So I've concluded that it takes a village to be an author! I look forward to much more of the same in 2019.
What creative communities are you a part of that you're grateful for?
This amazing image is created by Kathryn Ault Noble and represents a scene from my middle grade manuscript. I love it so much and want to share the story of its creation. This post is Part 1, about my end of the process. In the future, I'll post an interview with Kathryn for more insight on her creative process.
For the last year, I've been on a wild creative ride, writing a middle grade science fiction story that hits my 12-year old geeky sweet spot. After many years working on children's illustration, writing picture books and a couple of novels, everything clicked and I drafted and revised this manuscript. I got an amazing mentorship with MG author Tae Keller (go buy her book, THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS, immediately) through the Author Mentor Match program, did several major revisions and umpteen minor ones and completed it.
A Fortuitous Confluence of Interests
In June, while working on my revisions, my friend and talented illustrator Kathryn Ault Noble posted some super cool sci-fi work on Instagram. Images like these:
Kathryn and I have become online friends through various kid lit groups. I've seen her work over the years and always loved how she constantly explores new styles and never rests on her many laurels. She's helped me with my portfolio, we featured her on Kidlit411, and we've generally commiserated over current events.
Something about these images prompted me to reach out to Kathryn and ask if she'd be interested in doing a commissioned illustration of a scene from my novel. I wanted to see how she would apply her skills and this cool aesthetic to my story.
Luckily for me, she was in a creative head space where she was exploring her 12-year old geeky sci-fi self too. We agreed to work together.
I call myself an illustrator, but working with Kathryn was a master class in illustration and the creative process. We spent a lot of time sharing images and styles we liked. Our shared Dropbox folder is a visual feast of sci-fi settings, concept art, middle grade covers, and art. We both were drawn to a retro sci-fi look, probably because we both grew up reading classic sci-fi novels. She read several chapters of my book to get a feel for the story.
She sent me hundreds of images of her work (sketches, styles, etc) so we could pick a direction. After an exploratory process, she sent me some quick ideas and I sent her some crude sketches back. She spent many hours researching whether my visual ideas had any basis in engineering and physics (for example, curved maglev tracks and futuristic cities). We discussed the news of the day (the immigrant children separated from their families) in between discussions of color palettes.
I had a specific idea for the sky and cloud treatment and found one of Kathryn's old pieces that had the feel I wanted. Coincidentally (or cosmically, maybe), I went for a walk on the beach and came across this scene:
As we agreed on a direction, we each went back to our respective creative caves. The end result was the fabulous illustration above. A closer view of a slightly earlier version, cropped:
And a closer look at City Center:
Sharing ideas and conversation with Kathryn as she worked on the illustration showed me the magic that happens in an ideal creative collaboration. While I provided the initial vision and some input along the way, the key thing I learned was to trust my instinct that Kathryn was the right person to bring my story to visual life and trust that her vast experience and skill set would do it justice. What I love about the creative collaborative process is that an alchemy happens, where new things come into being that wouldn't have if we'd worked on our own. I also loved how we both approached this from a purely creative angle. We weren't looking to create an image that was going to sell (though Kathryn is very cognizant of the current trends in MG art and her art is totally fresh). We wanted to please our inner 12-year old geeks.
We Don't Live in a Vacuum
Because we did this project with the backdrop of some of the most disturbing news in a year and a half of disturbing news and researching the setting yielded heartbreaking real life images of children in garbage dumps, we agreed to donate our efforts (her time, my payment). Kathryn decided to make this her annual pro bono illustration and chose the ACLU as the recipient.
I couldn't be happier with the end result and our creative journey.
One of the most fulfilling things about being an author is visiting schools. I did a number of visits in DC and Virginia Beach last Spring, and I'm just getting around to posting some photos (the schools needed to get permission to share them).
My presentation includes an interactive reading of my book (the kids act out the tai chi and yoga moves), breathing exercises, a tai chi lesson, and exercises for creating mental and physical resilience. It's an active 45 minutes that usually revs the kids up more than calms them down . . . it might be all that oxygen and movement.
Stonegate Elementary School, Silver Spring, MD (April 2017)
I was thrilled to be invited to Stonegate Elementary School's annual Literary Festival, where they invite an author or illustrator to visit their school each day of a week. Some pictures from that day:
Our Lady of Good Counsel, Olney, MD (April 2017)
I was one of the speakers at Our Lady of Good Counsel's Health and Wellness Day. All grades from K - 8th grade cycled through my station for a 15-minute presentation, so that was quite an exhausting but fun day.
Dorothy I. Height Elementary School, Washington, D.C. (April 2017)
I also visited the Dorothy I. Height Elementary School, second grade, sponsored by the Open Book Foundation, a DC-based nonprofit that brings authors to low-income schools and that provides a copy of the author's book to each participating child.
Southside STEM Academy at Campostella, Norfolk, VA (March 2017)
I spent a morning with the fourth and fifth graders of Southside STEM Academy at Campostella. The kids became rambunctious during this presentation, especially when we got to the "fighting" moves (chop, parry, punch)
Shelton Park Elementary School, Virginia Beach, VA (March 2017)
Another fun visit, with several crowded assemblies.
It's times like this when I am so proud that my first picture book is published by Lee & Low Books, the largest publisher of multicultural children's books in the United States. Lee & Low has dedicated itself to creating mirrors and windows for children to see themselves and learn about others since they started 25 years ago.
Everything goes back to education and what a young child learns. Do they learn empathy, compassion and understanding? Or distrust and fear of the other? We Need Diverse Books has pushed for more diversity of views and cultures in all aspects of children's publishing, from the publishers to the creators to the consumers and gatekeepers.
The kid lit resource website I help run, Kidlit411, has a page dedicated to websites, blogs, and articles about diversity. I'm reproducing some of those links here to help spread the word. So dive on in and help be the change you want to see in the world.
Good Blogs and Websites
American Indians in Children's Literature - provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books
CBC Diversity committee of the Children's Book Council devoted to encouraging diversity in children's and YA literature
Deaf Characters in Adolescent Literature
Disability in Kidlit - reviews, guest posts, and discussions about the portrayal of disabilities in MG & YADiverse Pages promotes and discovers main characters of color in mainstream and indie publishingDiversifYA site with tools for authors to include and promote diversity in their YA work
DiversityinYA - celebrating diversity in YA
I'm Here, I'm Queer, What the Hell do I Read? (Lee Wind's blog)
Latin@s in Kidlit - exploring the world of Latino/a YA, MG, and children's literature
The Latino Author - tips and tools for authors and emerging Latino authors
Multicultural Children's Book Day - a day to celebrate multicultural books. 1/27/17
Open Book - blog of Lee & Low, publisher of multicultural children's books
Rich in Color - dedicated to reading, reviewing, and promoting YA with main characters of color or written by people of color
We Need Diverse Books - home of the campaign
Oyate - a Native American organization that evaluates books and curricula with Indian themes to ensure accuracy
Writing Diverse Books
Is My Character 'Black Enough'? Advice on Writing Cross-Culturally by Stacy Whitman, Editorial Director & Publisher of Tu Books
The Secrets of Writing a Multicultural Children's Book interview with Tessa Strickland, founder and co-editor of Barefoot Books
An Illustrated Guide to Writing People of Color
Pub Hub: Considerate Craft: Pitching Characters (how to pitch diversity in a query)
Diverse Characters: Corinne Duyvis on the Decline of Issue Books
Writing about Minorities for Non-minorities
First People/American Indians/Native Americans in October/November + Year Round
"You Can't do That! Stories Have to Be About White People"
Children's Books: A Middle-Class Ghetto
Diversity within Diversity: Moving Beyond Oppression
The Uncomfortable Truth about Children's Books
Diversity in Publishing
The Apartheid of Children's Literature
Where are the People of Color in Children's Books,
Diversity 101: The Multiracial Experience
Agents Discuss Diversity Gap in Publishing
We Need Diverse Books: Can Children's Authors End Publishing Industry Prejudice -- and Change the Way America Reads?
Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews
The 2015 Youth Media Awards: A Crossover Year for Diversity
The Diversity Gap in Children's Publishing, 2015
Selection is Privilege (a Librarian's View)
Dear Publishing Industry: Fix Your Own Racism Before You Beg for Diverse Books
The Diversity Baseline Survey
Diversity is Magic: A Roundtable on Children's Literature and Speculative Fiction
What's Trending? What's New, What Was, What's Soon to Be in Kid Lit
Diversity in Reviews: Behind the Scenes with SLJ's "Gatekeeper"
Little Black Sambo and The Gingerbread Man: Rountable on Truth and Honesty in Literature
"I Just Don't Connect with the Character"
How to Support the Diverse Books Movement
When Publishing and Reviewing Diverse Books, is Expertise Overrated?
Gender & LGBTQ
Do Boys Get All the Fun?
LGBT & You: How to Support Your Students
Gender Matters? Swedish Picture Books and Gender Ambiguity
The 22 Best Feminist Picture Books, Because You're Never Too Old To Be Saved By A Princess
Where were the Funny Women Writers?
LGBTQ Publishing: An LGBTQ Publishing Wish List
The Gender Police: A Diary
Fifteen LGBTQ-Themed Books for Readers of Every Age
Why Are There So Few Girls in Childrens' Books?
The Best LGBT Children's Books: A Sweet and Assuring Celebration of Diversity and Difference
Best Books by or About American Indians
First Peoples in November: Kid Lit Heroes by Jan Godown Annino
A List of 20 Kid Lit Books Off the Beaten Path
12 Children's Picture Books That Challenge Gender Roles
Beloved Books: A Might Girl Community Favorites
Ignite Her Curiosity: 20 Books Starring Science-Loving Might Girls
6 New Picture Books For and About Kids with Special Needs