Workshops, writing, and #100picturebooks

Shawn Anderson Big Sur Cape Cod.JPG

In late September, I packed up the first pages of my middle-grade manuscript and three of the many picture-book drafts, and headed to Falmouth, MA for a weekend-long workshop with authors, editors, and agents from the Andrea Brown Agency. This was the second Big Sur on Cape Cod and my second time attending.

The format for this writing workshop/retreat was helpful. Attendees were each assigned two mentors (I had an agent and an editor this year). You met in small critique groups of six or so, and you meet twice with each group, so that you had opportunities to revise and present reworks from the first sessions. The goal of these working sessions was not to impress and land an agent by Sunday; it was to elevate your work and get it ready to query sometime down the road. Pressure off!

Everyone seemed to like the four manuscripts that I shared, and I received feedback to make them even stronger. I believe in this middle-grade story that I’ve been working on for a long time. It was nice to see that my edits had gained traction.

The picture-book drafts were more experimental. I started my writing journey years ago with an idea for a picture book. Being a Vermont writer, I wanted to write and publish a fun, humorous book about cows. As I read, wrote, and learned more about the industry, my writing gravitated toward young-adult and middle-grade stories. After all, picture books are hard work. Every word is precious, and the undrawn visuals will add a sophisticated new level to the storytelling. How much direction do you need to keep the story understandable, while leaving an illustrator the room to work their magic?  Plus, I have just enough artistic ability to paralyze a project forever. I'm just not an illustrator, so I needed to let that go and focus on the writing. My little cow draft fumbled and never really got off the ground. Over time, it got shoved in the drawer.

Over time and practice, I've stepped up my writing game. I am proud to say that I write almost every day. In creating my daily routine, I’ve notice that my middle-grade revisions are best handled in the early mornings before work (#5amwritersclub), late in the evenings, and over weekends.

I’ve experimented with revising during lunch at my day job, but found that by the time I really got cranking, I’d have to go back to work. However, lunchtime was an ideal time to sprint-write and draft new words. It is especially well suited for working on picture-book drafts. That’s when I dusted off my little cow manuscript.

After several revamps, my cows still are not quite ready to leave the barn, but other ideas are out running the pastures. The work that I put in trying to save those cows has generated new stories and manuscripts, including the ones that received praise (and bursts of laughter) from readers at Big Sur on Cape Cod.

So I have the feedback and validation to keep moving forward. My middle-grade piece is coming along. My picture-book manuscripts are viable. I continue to grow, revise, and write.

During the closing remarks at Big Sure on Cape Cod, Anne Sibley O’Brien (one of the mentors that I did not have) challenged everyone at the workshop to read 100 picture books that have been published in the last five years—dissect them, study them, pay close attention to their construction, the story building, and who published them.

I do love a challenge, so I was all in.

I went home and pulled recent titles from my own bookshelves and I’m making regular trips to the library to supplement. I’ll post updates and discuss my findings here on my blog and on Twitter, using #100picturebooks.

And as I do this, I will continue to write and revise. I currently have seven strong picture-book contenders that are close to being ready for primetime, and even more in that dark desk drawer. My little cow work-in-progress sits atop that growing graveyard of dud drafts.

I’m hopeful that one day it will moo-ve into the daylight.