Tag Archives: children’s literature

Well, Bless My Soul

So. It sure has been a long time since I’ve blogged!

Full transparency, I’m mostly popping back on here because I’m getting up on the ol’ querying horse again, and if anyone actually follows up on the “you can find me online” paragraph, I don’t want them to think that I died a year and a half ago and they’re receiving queries from a ghost. (Although that would be a decent marketing angle …) I feel like 2020 either made people become even more terminally online or made them abandon the internet entirely; somehow, I think I managed to do both? But yeah, sharing my thoughts with the world lost a bit of its appeal due to *all-encompassing gesture*. I do, however, still exist, and I’ve got some updates:

  • I passed my qualifying exams and my dissertation proposal hearing, so I’m a PhD ~*~candidate~*~ now. Living that ABD life by waiting impatiently for my IRB proposal to be processed so I can begin my dissertation research.
  • As previously mentioned, I’m now querying middle-grade story (aka SKY CHILD). Appreciate your thoughts and prayers, etc.
  • I’m working on a new YA manuscript tentatively titled OUR NECROPOLIS. I’m attempting some very fancy POV tricks that half the time are super fun and the other half make me want to pitch my laptop out the window.
    • I love it.
  • And finally, the best update and the saving grace of my personal 2020: Turns Out I’m Bi! Who knew? Not me! Even better, turns out that I have excellent taste in women as evidenced by my wonderful, wonderful girlfriend.
    • Happy belated Pride!

So that brings us back to this blog post. I feel like half the posts on this site are me making plans for what I’m going to write on here and then not doing it, so I’ll refrain from that this time. Instead, I want to talk about hobbies, passion, creativity, and productivity – and how this past year has shifted my mindset about all of them.

2020 was the least creative year of my adult life. It wasn’t the least productive; see above bullet point about exams. I read a truly outrageous amount of academic literature and produced painstakingly planned, drafted, and reworked exam papers – and I did a damn good job, if I do say so myself. But after mid-March, I wrote very little fiction. Once a habitual early riser, my quarantine sleep schedule shifted to accommodate the hours of mindless YouTube I’d watch until I was exhausted enough to sleep without lying awake thinking about the state of the world. I’d then wake up later in the morning than I had since college, mad at myself for “wasting” valuable daylight time. (I still haven’t successfully pushed this schedule back to where it was in the Before Times.)

Conventional wisdom for unpublished writers is that you have to treat your writing like a job until it is a job – all while having another job that actually pays you in money. And I have, for a long time. I would bristle if anyone referred to my writing as a “hobby.” First of all, hobbies imply fun, and writing isn’t always. Don’t get me wrong, I love it – and I have little patience for writers who only ever complain about how much they hate writing – but a lot of the time you’re chipping away at the block of marble with little to show for it except sore arms and, well, just slightly misshapen marble. If I only wrote when it was purely fun, I would never even get to a second draft. Secondly, and more importantly, hobbies don’t have an end goal. I write to complete stories that can turn into books. I’m out here trying to get published, but hobbies are … unproductive.

So no, writing has never been my hobby; it’s my passion. Passion is much more important, much more serious, much more justifiable. Why else would I do something so hard and for (thus far) so little reward?

Besides, passion implies a drive, a need. Passion is what creative people have when they create. Creativity plants worlds in my head, and passion coaxes them into bloom. I have always been creative, have always been passionate. That’s how people described me as a child. That has been my identity since I can remember.

And then 2020 rolled around, and I wasn’t creative or passionate at all.

This has happened before, at various points in the winding, pothole-ridden mountain road that is my mental health journey. But it had been a while, and I had started the year – the new decade – with such lofty goals that I was sure I could achieve. Many of those goals were academic, and I met those ones. I was so much luckier this past year than many other people were. I didn’t lose anyone to the pandemic. I kept my paycheck. I worked on things I cared about, and even produced some good pieces of writing.

But the writing wasn’t stories. I had no stories in me.

On New Year’s Eve, my girlfriend and I watched Pixar’s Soul. I had just finished my exams about two weeks prior. I’d exchanged Christmas presents in my driveway with my masked family before we retreated to our respective houses to eat dinner together via Zoom. The numbers were sky high again, but vaccines were on the horizon, and the worst outcome of the election had been avoided. The mixture of uncertainty, fear, relief, and tentative hope felt oddly appropriate for New Year’s Eve. It was less a celebration than a long exhale, and I was glad to share it with my girlfriend, especially because we had just exchanged our first “I love you’s” on Christmas Eve.

And then Soul came out and hit me over the head with a baseball bat.

If you haven’t watched it (you MUST), Soul is about Joe, a music teacher with much grander ambitions. He’s a creative person, a passionate person. And then he falls down a manhole and dies.

Except, hey, wait! He didn’t achieve all the things that his creativity and passion demand of him yet! He can’t die!

In his refusal to bow to fate, Joe winds up the unwitting mentor to an as-yet-unused soul who doesn’t see the appeal of this whole life-on-Earth thing. Seems like way more trouble than its worth, and besides, she’s never clicked with any of the myriad available passions in the pre-Earth training grounds. So what would even be the point?

It would have been easy (especially for a Disney-owned property) to turn this premise into a tale about finding your dreams and following them, but that’s not what this movie does. Speaking to one of the otherworldly beings that govern the souls, Joe makes a remark that conflates a soul’s “spark” (or passion) with their purpose, and he is laughingly corrected: “A spark isn’t a soul’s purpose.” This barely computes for him; surely everyone needs a raison d’être. Nope, says Soul. The “être” part is raison enough. Later in the movie, another musician, wiser than Joe, gives him some food for thought: “I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’ ‘The ocean?’ says the older fish. ‘That’s what you’re in right now.’ ‘This?’ says the younger fish. ‘This is water. What I want is the ocean.’”

Yeah. Still not over that one. Probably never will be.

I’ve written a lot more this year than I did last year. OUR NECROPOLIS, as you may have gleaned from the title, is about, uh, death, so it’s proving cathartic if nothing else. It’s populated with a bunch of scared, snarlingly angry characters who don’t know what to do with all their excess love, and getting to put jokes and curses in their mouths and grace in their deeds gets me through all the why-won’t-this-marble-turn-into-a-real-shape parts of writing. 2021 has many of the same horrors in it that 2020 did, so I’m still scared and snarlingly angry, too. But as my creativity returns, I’m also showing myself some of that grace.

Passionate and productive aren’t the same thing, and hobby isn’t a dirty word. Do I still want my writing to lead to something? Of course I do; I wouldn’t be putting myself through querying again if I didn’t. I want kids to read my books. I truly believe there are people out there who will find them meaningful, and I want to provide some young people with the comfort and joy that my favorite books gave me growing up. (And, if anyone’s still reading from the “you can find me online” paragraph, I’ve always been fantastic with a deadline; just ask my dissertation committee.) But until then, I’m not wasting time if I sleep late or watch YouTube. I’m not falling down on the job if I prioritize fun over the hustle. I can enjoy my stories more if I’m not mad about what the world hasn’t given me yet, and if my creativity flees again, I can trust it to come back eventually without worrying about losing my identity as a passionate person. I think I’ll be a better writer for all of that, but that isn’t even the point. The point is I’ll appreciate the ocean I’m already in.

How To Respect Young Readers And Also Stop Annoying Me: A Field Guide

Dear everyone: stop pitching me your picture book ideas.

The first and frankly best reason for this is that I don’t write picture books! I had to try my hand at it for a workshop in my Master’s program, and while the experiment was kind of fun, the end result was very bad. don’t have any ideas for picture books, and I have no desire to offer my feedback on anyone else’s.

Yet, far too often, when a new acquaintance outside of my writing or academic circles hears that I’m a children’s lit person, I’ll get, “Oh, I’ve always had this idea for a kid’s book …” Cut to some long-winded explanation of a picture book idea, a so-what-do-you-think look, and my awkward excuse of, “So I actually write for adolescents …”

I say “excuse” because I generally use that line to get out of saying what I really think, which is that nine times out of ten, these picture book ideas are very, very bad.

The number of people who have full on drafted a picture book without looking up, like, how many pages a picture book needs to be is genuinely astonishing. (Interestingly, usually they dramatically undershoot it, which makes me want to ask: have you ever held a picture book in your own physical hands? Have you ever read one to an actual human child.) (Also, no, just spreading out the words you have over the appropriate number of pages won’t fix things, because then you’re going to have a nightmare of pacing on your hands.) But, honestly, folks who want to describe your picture books to random children’s lit people you don’t know, please first ask yourself this: do you actually like and respect children at all, or do you just think you have something to teach them?

Listen, writers write because they think they have something worth saying. My own ethics and beliefs are all up in my fiction. I’m not saying you can’t have any kind of message in what you write. But if you’re just thinking about ~imparting your wisdom on young readers (and in this case, very young readers) without also considering what they might find genuinely entertaining, please immediately delete your Word document with the incorrect number of pages and leave the picture books to people who don’t see kids as empty vessels waiting to be filled up with morality tales. In fact, anyone who starts sentences with “kids don’t know …” or “kids don’t understand …” should step away from children’s media entirely.

With all of that said, I think pretty much anyone who gives me their boring pitch about, like, sharing or whatever is no longer in any danger of receiving the Worst Idea Award. That trophy has been (hopefully permanently) handed to a recent Unfortunate First Date. I have been on many Unfortunate First Dates (someone save me), but usually they’re unfortunate in just a tedious, no connection sort of way. This one, at least, was unfortunate in a way that entertained me at the UFD’s expense.

(It’s possible that I’m getting meaner now that I’m 30? Eh, hopefully that’ll appeal to someone along the way.)

The conversation went more or less as follows:

UFD: There’s actually a series of picture books that I’ve always wanted to write, but I’m not really much of a writer …

Me: (rictus grin) Oh?

UFD: Yeah, they would be “project management for kids.”

Me: (laughing, because surely this is a weird joke that I don’t yet get) What?

UFD: Like using the skills of project management to make playtime more effective. (NB: “make playtime more effective” is verbatim from this actual human man’s mouth. I couldn’t make that up.)

Me: (still laughing) What?

UFD: (blinks)

Me: (realizes that he is, in fact, not joking)

At this point, I made a few decisions very quickly. One: there wasn’t gonna be a second date. Two: there was no way out of the sitcom-level “laughed until I realized you were serious” mess that just happened, so I might as well just lean into the moment and continue laughing. Three: this fellow needed to know this was not a good idea. Not that something like this is in any danger of getting published — at least, I sure hope not — but just, like, on behalf of children everywhere, he needed to know.

Me: What age is your audience for this??

UFD: Like three- and four-year-olds. Before they can read on their own, so their parents would read this to them.

Me: What.

UFD: (warming to his explanation, lord love him) And it would teach them things like how they shouldn’t build sandcastles near the water at low tide, things like that. There would be different examples of how to plan, like … (At this point he launched into explanations that included words like “agile,” “waterfall,” and “scope.”)

Me: (hands on face in incredulous horror) And you would … include this vocabulary … in your book for toddlers?

UFD: Well, yeah, so then they can use those tools to (and I can’t emphasize enough that these were his exact, repeated words) make playtime more effective.

Me: Why does playtime need to be ~~~~effective? (I’m pretty sure my tone conveyed the tildes.) Can’t they just learn things through trial and error?

UFD: Well, with a little planning upfront (VERBATIM), they could have a better time.

Me: Could they?

UFD: Yeah, I actually tried writing one, but it came out kind of boring.

Me: (I swear I’m not a total jerk, but you try not laughing in someone’s face at that)

UFD: It had this whole character arc, where a kid was kidnapped by pirates, but they were all really bad at being pirates, so he teaches them how to be better …

Me: … with project management?

UFD: Exactly!

Okay, so I think the whole incompetent pirate angle actually has potential as a funny story (sans agile and scope and whatever), which I did tell him, so I’m not a complete asshole. But THEN:

UFD: Yeah, but I don’t really think kids that age are interested in characterization.

Me: (several seconds of wide-eyed horror that’s edging into delight at this point, because if I’ve gotta have a bad date, at least I get a can-you-believe-this-guy story) Buddy, I’m pretty sure most kids are more interested in CHARACTERS than PROJECT MANAGEMENT.

UFD: (with genuine, honest to god bemusement) Really?

SO YEAH. That all happened. Funnily enough, I am a TA for an intro to childhood studies course right now, and literally one day before this date, the topic of conversation had been about how children receive very early pressure to Prepare For The Workforce, so basically every professional opinion I have hated this idea. But honestly, is there a more egregious example of just having no respect for your audience? Deeply embedded in this idea is the assumption that children are dumb, that they have to be led to solutions, that they can’t solve problems on their own, that learning has to be explicit and forced and direct. Who on earth would want to read a book by an author who thinks that way about you? I sure wouldn’t!

So please. Spread the word to anyone who’s never written a picture book but thinks they should. First off, google some industry standards before declaring you’ve got something publishable. Maybe read a few picture books before diving into your own. But much more importantly, stop thinking about what kids don’t know or understand, and start talking to them and realizing what they do. Ask them what they like and what they care about. Actually listen. Because there is no such thing as good art that doesn’t respect its audience. And if you think that a phrase like “good art” is misplaced or too pretentious in a discussion about books for toddlers … for the love of god, don’t write one.

At the very least, please don’t tell me about it.