It’s no secret that I am a HUGE fan of children’s author Jane Yolen, May’s 12 x 12 featured author (just check the bottom of this post for links to all the others I’ve written about her). Before I even THOUGHT about writing for children myself, I fell in love with her work by reading it to my own children.
So when the opportunity arose to spend four days under her tutelage at an advanced Picture Book Boot Camp at her farm in Massachusetts, I waited all of two seconds before deciding to splurge and treat myself to what I knew would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I will never be the same writer again. Attending that retreat was one of the BEST DECISIONS I ever made, reminding me again why it is so important to nurture your writing and creativity. We should never stop learning, stop growing. Jane is proof of that with more than 300 books published and, I now know, 40 or so completed and/or at various stages of development.
I’ve been wanting to document and share what I learned during our time together, so I asked Jane if she would let ME write her featured author post summarizing the high points (which honestly only scratch
the surface). She agreed, but did add a few words of her own at the end of this post.
I also have a special treat for you – a video compilation of some of the lessons Jane provided on revision, rejections and critiques and publishing trends.
We covered SO MUCH over the course of four days. It would be impossible for me to share everything, so I am focusing on what resonated with me the most about the craft of writing, as opposed to the business.
First, one thing picture book writers have to keep in mind is that great books are not ones that have a message to deliver to children. We started with a bang when Jane elaborated on this point. She said books are not about “delivering a message,” but rather “the gaining of wisdom.”
“All good books are about questions. Not giving the reader the answers, but teaching them how to ask the right questions.”
In this way, we allow the child reader to relate, reflect, and ultimately determine the meaning for him or herself.
Jane also spent time warning us not to be “beguiled” by our talent. For example, she can rhyme in her sleep, and something she tosses off in 2 minutes will be 95% better than most people could do after hours of work. But that doesn’t mean it’s GREAT rhyme or that it’s new or innovative.
Everyone has strengths in their writing, whether it’s a facility with rhyme, humor, poetic prose, etc. But if you rely on those talents TOO much, you will cease challenging and stretching yourself and your writing will suffer. “Don’t confuse yourself with a genius,” she said. “They are the outliers. For the rest of us, it’s just hard work.”
Here are some more gems from Jane – direct quotes on the subjects of being prolific and taking risks.
Build a Body of Work
- In the midst of seismic change [in the publishing industry] find opportunities.
- The best way to avoid writer’s block is the write a bunch of stuff. Work on multiple projects that cross-feed each other.
- We all have themes that revisit in our lives. We can write and rewrite on that theme, subject, passion again in a new way.
- Write for your child self. Ask her (or him), “What did you want to read?”
Take Risks with your Writing
- The worst thing for an artist of any kind to do is to get comfortable. Because then you are not growing, and art dies.
- Following trends is not writing.
- Don’t accept parameters that you should be stretching.
- You can always push the boundaries.
- Know the rules and structure of writing so you can break them in a meaningful way.
- Sometimes recognizing where the story is leading you is the most important thing. And if it’s taking you outside of your comfort zone, FOLLOW IT.
- You do not know what you can and can’t write until you try it. Try it all. Maybe the one thing you thought you could never do will be the thing that breaks you out big.
- Get outside of yourself. Be open to the universe.
I sent Jane this post for her review, and she asked me to add the following tidbits. So here you go:
- If you believe your good reviews, you will have to believe your bad reviews, too. Better to believe in the piece that you are writing.
- Be elastic, ready to bend your storytelling in new ways.
- Don’t listen to the critic in your head, listen to the story.
- A lifetime as a writer is a journey, not a career. Even the mis-steps, wrong turns, detours are part of the journey.
- Reinvent your writing every five to ten years.
And now for the finale! I invite you into Jane’s living room to see her teaching first-hand. In the first third of the video, she demonstrates a revision technique that has already revolutionized my own revisions. Essentially, you break your prose into “breath spaces” and write it as a poem rather than a paragraph so you can “see” the words better.
Without further ado, here’s Jane.
And as promised, here are my other posts featuring Jane. These go waaay back, and all except one predate 12 x 12.
- How Does Jane Yolen Say Goodnight?
- Jane Yolen’s 20 Rules of Writing
- Bedtime Story
- Picture Books for the Planet
- Lessons From the Write-a-thon
- Tori Spelling Picture Book – What Next?
- For the Love of Rhyme
- Words Count – Holy horrible writing, Batman! (Not TROOP, but the other) I almost didn’t share this one even though I correctly refer to Jane Yolen as a genius. But I decided to go ahead. I was at the VERY beginning stages of writing for children and it shows EXACTLY how far one can come with diligence, practice and perseverance. This post was written in 2010, and one of the snippets I shared is from what is now an award-winning book – A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS. As I wrote it, I was on my way to my first SCBWI conference. I learned. I practiced. My writing got better. But wow the stuff I shared in there is bad. Just… wow! SAVE ALL OF YOUR WRITING! It will show you how far you’ve come as you get further down the road. 🙂
One lucky 12 x 12 participant will received a signed copy of TAKE JOY, Jane’s treatise on the writing life. So butts in chairs people! I know you’re going to want to be in the running for THAT prize.
Jane Yolen is an author of children’s books, fantasy, and science fiction, including Owl Moon, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?
She is also a poet, a teacher of writing and literature, and a reviewer of children’s literature. She has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century.
Jane Yolen’s books and stories have won the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, two Christopher Medals, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Jewish Book Award, the World Fantasy Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award among many others.Categories: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, A Troop is a Group of Monkeys, Authors, Children's Books, Creativity, Giveaway, Goals, Picture Books, Poetry, Publishing, Rhyming, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Children's Books, Creativity, Giveaway, Goals, Jane Yolen, Julie Hedlund, Picture Books, Poetry, Publishing, Rhyming, SCBWI, Writing