Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Absorbing Writing Wisdom at Picture Book Boot Camp -- by Christy Mihaly

Heidi and Jane, savoring a job well done
In a classic farmhouse in a small New England town, a dozen writers convened last weekend. No, this isn't the opening of a mystery story . . . or a tale of horror.

Aren't we looking inspired? (Note the candy bowl.)
This was Picture Book Boot Camp. And it was a transformative experience. From Thursday through Sunday, we were hosted by the inimitable Jane Yolen, who shared her bountiful wisdom (and her beautiful home) with us, and the multitalented Heidi Stemple, who had plenty of her own wisdom to share, and who also organized the weekend, cooked mouth-watering meals, and kept us all on track. 
This was the fourth time this mother-daughter team has presented PBBC at Phoenix Farm. Receiving the acceptance letter to PBBC4 felt like getting admitted to Hogwarts.  

Once there, I soaked up enough inspiration, practical pointers, and writerly fellowship to carry me through quite a few rounds of future manuscript revisions. I thought I'd share some highlights and nuggets of wisdom . . . plus a little back matter.

Critiques
A month before PBBC, participants submitted two picture book manuscripts for critique by both Jane and Heidi. Both of them offered perceptive comments, some in an in-person meeting, and some in writing. For many participants, these suggestions resolved longstanding problems or breathed new life into floundering manuscripts. 


Jane is a careful listener
We also had group critiques, with three or four writers reading a manuscript each evening. Those group things can make me crazy: Do I trust these strangers enough to share the creation of my heart? How can I be both honest and helpful? Will they notice if I sneak out of here? 

I needn't have worried. Very soon, we weren't strangers. Everyone brought works-in-progress they thought weren't quite working, and all were generous and supportive in their critiques. And astute! One writer who hadn't planned to read for the group changed her mind when she saw how constructive the suggestions were. She was glad she did -- she received excellent, exciting comments.

I too waited till our last evening to read . . . stayed up late the prior night revising my manuscript based on what I'd learned so far from critiques, lectures, and chats . . . 
and received incredibly helpful advice on my manuscript. Back home on Sunday night, I jumped into my revision with new hope.

Shared Stories
I arrived at Phoenix Farm hoping to improve my craft. I did learn a great deal about the peculiar art of writing picture books. But just as valuable -- perhaps even more so -- were the many tales from the trenches that everyone shared. 
Dinner: delicious food and titillating tales


Jane has published more than 350 books, so it's tempting to imagine publishers racing to accept her latest work. Yet she reminded us repeatedly that she gets rejections, many rejections. There are editors who have failed to respond, ever, to Jane's submissions. (Hey, that happened to me, too!) Publishers have left manuscripts to molder for years. Editors have made changes that have led writers to pull back their manuscripts. It's all part of this crazy business. But if we love writing -- and we do -- we keep at it. 

The boot campers had written all kinds of children's books. Among the group were award-winners and big sellers, writing teachers, ghost writers, and more. I learned from everyone, and everyone had stories to share. We recounted our worst rejections and subsequent triumphs. Some of these made us laugh. Some might have made us spill our wine. We talked about books we love, and books we love to hate. Jane and Heidi were generous in recommending publishing houses and editors they thought could be right -- or wrong -- for particular manuscripts. 

Bedtime Stories
Picture book writers know we should be reading aloud -- both our own manuscripts and great picture books. But how often do we have the pleasure of listening to great books read by Jane Yolen or Heidi Stemple? At PBBC, Jane often read aloud to us from excellent picture books. 


Heidi reads YOU NEST HERE WITH ME
But the best read-aloud was at the end of each long day. After we'd worked together from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 or so at night, Jane or Heidi read us bedtime stories. We heard author readings of Owl Moon, What to do with a Box, and You Nest Here With Me. Picture book writer heaven!

Three PBBC Nuggets for Picture Book Writers
I absorbed many excellent bits of writing advice at Phoenix Farm. Here are three points that stood out for me:
  • Use good words: Picture book writers shouldn't "dumb down" their writing -- expose children to delicious words.
  • Learn to see: You must observe (faces, nature, settings) before you can show in your writing.
  • Try new things: Re-invent yourself and your writing regularly to stay fresh. Just say, "Yes I can!" 

Back Matter: Nuts and Bolts and Extras
Jane and Heidi have perfected the pacing of PBBC. Although we were exhausted by Sunday, the program never dragged and we had an interesting variety of activities as the weekend built to a satisfying conclusion. 

The first night, we went owling! Heidi led us into the chilly night and called to the owls. You may know that Jane's book, Owl Moon, is a family story, and Heidi is the little girl in that book. Well, Heidi still goes looking for owls. She told us that since it was nesting time, she didn't want to lure the owls away from their trees that night. But when she called, we heard the answering cry of a screech owl in a tree. Sometimes there are owls.


We heard from two guest lecturers: an outstanding editor and an industry expert (a/k/a Big Mouth) who seemed to know everything about every kids' book ever printed. I appreciated these additional perspectives, and the advice these industry insiders were willing to share.

On a field trip to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, we were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour. That included entry into the vault, where we viewed original art including a Sylvester picture by William Steig. 
PBBC4 at the CARLE MUSEUM
And those willing and able to get up at 6:00 a.m. could join Jane for her morning walk through town.
Jane and Libby walk the walk


What I Brought Home from PBBC


Coffee, tea, and a view of fresh snow in the morning
My manuscripts are now heading in a great new direction. I learned a ton about writing and selling. But the best part of PBBC was feeling supported by others who are on the same journey. Writers are often hungry for fellowship, and at PBBC we were all well fed, in so many ways.

If you're curious about the other boot campers, you'll find links to their websites listed at the end of this post.
Heidi thought of everything: including this "cheat sheet" so we could remember names
If you're a writer with a traditionally published children's book (or a signed contract), my advice is don't delay, apply to PBBC. Jane and Heidi say they always save a space or two for published children's writers who are new to picture books. I hear they're starting to organize the next PBBC soon. You'll find more information about Jane, Heidi, and PBBC on the links provided in the beginning of this post. 

Appreciations: Thank you to Jane and to Heidi (who also took many of these photos) for inviting us into your home and your writing world. Thanks to all my fellow boot campers for their generosity of spirit. And particular thanks to Laurel Neme, who convinced me to apply to PBBC! Great call, Laurel.
Jane, me, Laurel, Heidi


PBBC 4 participants:
Laurie Wallmark
Marcia Strykowski
Rob Sanders
Aimee Reid
Laurel Neme
Libby Koponen
Alethea Kontis
Lynda Mullaly Hunt

34 comments:

  1. I'm so happy you were able to experience this, Chris! Boot camp with Jane and Heidi AND a visit to the Eric Carle Museum -- stuff of which dreams are made. :)

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    1. Patty, it was magical! Put it on your To-Do List, you won't regret it.

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  2. Excellent write-up of our amazing experience (especially love the opening and the nuggets). It was wonderful to meet you, Christy. Keep in touch and best of luck with that gorgeous manuscript you shared!

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    1. Thanks, Marcia. It was so great to get to know you and I'll be on the lookout for your next book!

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  3. Oh, my, Christy, what a dream come true. This is more impetus for me to get a book under contract. I am so thrilled for you. Can't wait to chat with you about all of this at NESCBWI. To have jane read bedtime stories - oh, wow. My new fav is YOU NEST HERE WITH ME.

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    1. Kathy, You would love these folks, and they will love you when you sign that contract and join them. It's so great you'll be at NESCBWI -- can't wait to see you there and catch up on things.

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  4. Oh, Christy. A mountain top experience, for sure. I'll be eagerly awaiting your next books. May I live long enough to qualify for this marvelous, magical experience.

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    1. Dear Sherri, You are on your way! BIC and you know I'm pulling for you!

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  5. Christy, you weren't kidding about magical. Owlng and bed time stories. Wow! Thank you for the exciting post!

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    1. Thank you, Janie. Heidi and Jane did put on a wonderful show!

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  6. Thanks for the details and the photos, Christy. I got to feel like I was there with you. Congratulations on qualifying and for learning so much. Looking forward to the post where you are telling us the pub date of your "Jane Yolen" manuscript!

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    1. Hah! I bet JY gets a lot of dedications in PB's that come out following these boot camps!

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  7. What fun! thanks for sharing the magic. And owling with Heidi!

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    1. Hey Sue, let's get that excellent proposal accepted for publication, so that you may soon apply to PBBC!

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  8. Thanks, Christy, for sharing your inspirational weekend with us. I look forward to the day I have the qualification to apply. How exciting!

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    1. Thanks for visiting the GROG, Jarm. You're on the right track, as Jane Yolen says, it's all about BIC.

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  9. I went to the 2nd boot camp and it was phenomenal! Such a wonderful experience and revitalization for my writing!!

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    1. Hi Kirsti -- I think I just read a post about your being a former boot camper, right? See you at NESCBWI?

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  10. Christy: Your participation and experience at Picture Book Boot Camp is amazing. Thank you for sharing the amazing, memorable experience with us.
    ~Suzy

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  11. Thank you for sharing your time in this Boot Camp event. Oh how I wish there were this type of events for wannabe's. Ahhhhh. One can but dream.

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    1. It's great to hear from you, Pam -- and I know you are on your way!

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  12. Wow! What a glorious long weekend! I want to go owling, too!! I'd better get to work!

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  13. Thanks for the fantastic write-up and pics! I've had PBBC on my bucket list ever since it first started. Now if only I could land a book contract so I could qualify! Some day, some day. Glad to hear you got a lot out of the boot camp.

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    1. Hi Darshana -- I hope you'll keep PBBC on your list, and keep going with what you're doing to get there. Best wishes to you!

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  14. Well written! I could feel your joy. I was lucky enough to be part of PBBC3. It was definitely the best writing experience I've ever had and it is an amazing opportunity for any writer of picture books. I am grateful to Kristine Call who encouraged me to go.

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    1. Yay! I'm grateful to Heidi and Jane for their generosity and support of writers and writing. It makes me happy to be a part of the world of kids' writing! And I hope that I'll meet you sometime too.

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  15. Christy, what a delicious dream come true! As I read your recount my writer's soul drooled. Thanks for sharing your joy.

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  16. Thank you for this appreciation, Damon . . . sorry about the drool. ;)

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  17. I'm so glad you had this opportunity! Thanks for sharing about it!

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  18. Oh, Christy... this sounds like a dream come true! I am so glad you wee accepted and able to go. Can't wait to see what wonderful writing comes out of this experience.

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    1. Thanks, Claire! You may have California sunshine where you live, but here we have Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple. :)

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