I participated in a four-day picture-book boot camp at the Highlights Foundation last weekend. Days later, I’m still sifting through my thoughts about the whole experience, what I learned, and what I had to relearn.
There were twenty of us, all author-illustrators save for four –five?–who were writers only. The whole weekend, I thought of myself as “just” a writer, a lesser person, frankly, than these extraordinary individuals who could tell a story both in words and pictures. Honestly, I’d never recognized how much work goes into the pictures alone.
The Highlights campus lies in bucolic northeastern Pennsylvania, ten miles from the town of Honesdale, home of the Highlights magazines for kids. Here’s the barn, where we met for meals and had many of our critique sessions. It really reminded me of the lodge of my summer camp, Green Cove, down in North Carolina. The food was much better, though. The food was astoundingly good. Everything was from a farmer’s market. Eggs and sweet New Jersey blueberries at breakfast; homemade soups and salad and hearty breads at lunch; for some reason I’m blanking on the dinners, but they were delicious, too. And with all that, because we are children’s writers, after all, we could have ice cream anytime we wanted. That’s right. Highlights has an ice-cream bar. With sprinkles. Two kinds. You’re searching for the Highlights schedule right now, aren’t you?
Most of us stayed in individual cabins like this. Simple inside, with two single beds, a dresser, a small desk, a mini fridge (with seltzer and sodas inside–a thoughtful touch). Here are three of our talented group–from left to right Merrill Rainey, Kristen Bannister and Sabina Hahn. I feel sure you’ll be seeing their names in print at some point soon. It’s a funny thing, how quickly strangers can bond when they have a common goal. We were all there to polish a particular work, and we were all eager to share it with our own kind. We were members of a tribe coming together for the first time.
I worship the faculty–four noted author-illustrators, Pat Cummings, Denise Fleming, Steve Light and Floyd Cooper. Here’s Steve in the Barn, talking about his career. My photo’s crummy, but note the fantastic ink illustration on the screen. Each one of them gave me something valuable to think about.
The crux of the weekend was a 15-minute meeting, for each of us, with a publishing trio: an editor, an agent and an art director. Of course, we were all incredibly nervous. And hopeful; a few of us had agents or books already out, but most (like me) were looking for their big break. I was pitching a biography that I thought was compelling, naturally.
It wasn’t for them. So be it. I did get some feedback I can run with, having to do with digging more deeply into my character. That rang true to me, and that’s what I’m working on now.
Other boot-camp takeaways:
- Make a dummy for every revision. I mean writers–it’s obvious that author-illustrators need to make them. A dummy magically reveals where the story falters or where it needs more room–it’s astonishing. I knew this, and yet had managed to arrive at boot camp without a dummy for my manuscript. Denise Fleming, bless her, had a pile of ready-mades ones that she’d brought for us. ( I think she said she’d stitched them on a sewing machine. She’s amazing.) Once I’d put mine together, I saw all kinds of possibilities I hadn’t before.
- Make your writing irresistible to read out loud. Punch up the text. Shorten sentences, use lively verbs. Cut out any “then”s. (This last was Floyd’s pet peeve, and for good reason. A “then” is usually a sign of flabby writing.)
- Stay true to your idea, and to your writing, but keep an eye on the realities of the marketplace. Some ideas aren’t going to lead to a book deal. Which leads to….
- It’s not you it’s me: Editors’s decisions are subjective. They like what they like, and sometimes they don’t want things for reasons that are entirely personal. As Pat put it, in her inimitable way, if you’re pitching a cat book to an editor who was mauled by a cat as a child, that editor isn’t going to want your book, no matter how good it is. Knowing this doesn’t prevent the sucker punch of rejection, but it’s something.
I know my group of boot campers is hard at work right now, using the ideas and inspiration from the weekend. A few are already starting to submit. One may well have a contract (I’m waiting for confirmation). I salute this talented bunch! In one or two year’s time, boot campers’ will have books on sale. Fingers crossed.