One Huge Thing Authors Can Do To Improve Their Writing

open-book1I recently attended a 3 day writing retreat for children’s book writers, in a beautiful beach house on the New Jersey shore. My job was to critique manuscripts, have one-on-one meetings with the participants, and generally make myself available to hang out and talk. It was small and quite intimate and the participants were a lovely group of people. It was a very nice retreat and I truly hope I made a difference for the writers who attended.

There was one participant who stood out for me though. She was a woman who is brand new to writing. Before the retreat, when I received her manuscript, I did an internal WTF. Was the short piece she submitted for critique the beginning of a middle grade or young adult novel? Was it a picture book? What was her intention with this? With nothing but the work to go on, I made an executive decision and decided to go with picture book. But I couldn’t and didn’t want to critique it using the same criteria I used for the other manuscripts. If I did, I could very easily rip it to shreds and subsequently crush and destroy a fledgling writer. That’s just not how I roll.

I can’t tell if this author has what it takes or not to be successful. The writing is decent, but not yet kid-friendly or focused. She’s clearly at the beginning of this journey. And that’s more than ok. That’s fantastic! When talking to any of the authors, I tried to drive home that where their focus needs to be is on their work, not on “how to get my book published.” With this author, we didn’t even speak about publishing. We talked about what her intention is and why she wants to tell this particular story (which was pretty interesting, by the way). I gave her a picture book lesson, explaining some of the many different structures picture books can be written within. We spoke about looking at the world with the eyes of a child and trying to leave our adult filter off the page. I told her about picture book lay outs, and page numbers, and all that jazz. But I think the best advice I gave her, which I’d like to share with you, is this:

Read in your genre. Know what books came before you. Know what’s in bookstores right now. Read books that are successful in achieving a similar goal to what you intend to accomplish with your manuscript. Allow yourself to be inspired. Immerse yourself in reading books in your genre; swim in the water of your intention.

I wish that new author all the best of luck, as she tries on being a writer. I hope that she finds her voice and perseveres.

How much do you read within the genre in which you write?



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5 responses to “One Huge Thing Authors Can Do To Improve Their Writing

  1. I read in my genre all the time. I have the ability to easily, because I work with children, in schools, at centers, in their general space. However as I move forward in my goals with my own writing, I am now trying to stretch myself and read outside of my genre. It definitely stretches me as a reader and a writer but I can’t say it is as enjoyable. I’m not a huge fan of Science Fiction or fantasy unless we’re talking Isaac Asimov but that’s what I’m currently reading.
    I remember making the switch from writing as a hobby, and writing to become an author. There is a difference. Like I explained to my athlete youngest daughter when she was trying to figure out how to get better as an athlete. I told her you have to decide are you going to do it (sports) just as a hobbyist or as an athlete. If so athletes make different decisions about their continued growth. They recognize they are competing, and not just playing for compliments like my oldest daughter insisted on. And its “aint so fun all the time.” She was able to make the shift and now she is a three varsity sport athlete and only 15. I’ve had to make that shift also and stretching yourself as a reader and finding mentor texts can ensure your growth as a writer. Thanks for the conversation.

  2. I love that–swim in the water of your intention….

  3. I agree wholeheartedly. I am a published cookbook author and one of the most important things I do is read other cookbooks. Not only does it give me an education on the different ways a cookbook can be written, it allows me to see what the trends are. 🙂

  4. I love that you responded to this writer with the support & tools she needed at this point in her journey! If we could only all have (and be!) such conscientious Crit partners.
    I love picture books and middle grade, And read many with my kids, but also make it a point to hit the library and bookstore regularly to immerse myself in the old, the new, and the out of the ordinary. Plus, Carrie Charley Brown’s ReFoReMo (reading for research month) and other mentor text lists have been so helpful!!

  5. Although that writer wasn’t me, it could have been! And the advice you gave her is the same advice I gave myself last year. I took it upon myself to read as many new picture books as I could get my hands on. My biggest surprise wasn’t how many different styles there are (I taught K-2 for 30 years), but how many new titles are published every year! On the flip side, my librarians know me by name since I’m there at least 3 times a week picking up my new ‘holds’. Shout out to public libraries! 🙂