The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Do It Myself!

Remember the "do it myself!" toddler stage?wagon-988818_1920.jpg No, she doesn't want help getting dressed. He doesn't want to be pulled in the wagon; he wants to pull it. Ditto, stroller and pushing it. No, she doesn't want to hold your hand. And, yes, he'd rather feed himself despite the mess.

If a child never expresses that desire to learn, to do, to be independent, we'd be worried.

So what happens to us in adulthood? Why do we want our hands held? Why don't we want to do it ourselves?

I was reminded of this recently. I was washing my hands in the restroom at a writer's conference when a gal came in and said something like this, "Why didn't they indicate that she only does picture books? I'm a YA writer and that session was a total waste." When she noticed my faculty name badge, she got embarrassed and left abruptly.

What I wanted to say to her was, "Why didn't you do your homework? The conference website listed faculty bios. The online schedule and the schedule in our conference packets listed who was speaking when on what topic. Didn't you read all that?" I'll admit as faculty, I hadn't paid much attention to the other speakers beforehand. But that day I'd listened and had learned the editor had "a focus on early childhood-from board books to picture books and beginning readers." (Quote from her bio.) The YA writer could have chosen one of the other three breakouts instead of choosing to waste her time.

As an instructor of adults who want to write for children, I see adults who want hand-holding or special treatment. They don't follow the directions for an assignment and when challenged give excuses about how busy they are. Sometimes when we ask a student to redo a lesson, we hear comments such as, "I just want to graduate the course." I want to say, but don't, "So, why did you take the course? To learn to write for children? Or to get a meaningless certificate." If we graduate students without making them do the work, then our teaching, and the course is useless. Hmm, it takes a toddler a lot longer to dress herself than if a parent does it, but she ends up with satisfaction that she did it herself. And the more she practices, the better she gets. I often wonder where the pride in a job well done has gone missing for many adults.

I've also organized a lot of conferences and other events for children's writers and illustrators. Just like there can be deadlines on submitting to editors or agents, we'll have deadlines for early bird discounts, submitting homework or manuscripts, etc. We know everyone is busy, so we send out reminders of those deadlines. But inevitably a number of people miss deadlines and get upset at the organizers, who are volunteers. Keeping track of deadlines is part of the attendees' job--their homework.

Over and over at conferences one will hear attendees asking an editor or agent what type of manuscript they want to see. Often with a laugh the answer is "a well-written manuscript." Yes, the person will usually go on to say what genres appeal the most, etc. But in some ways, what attendees are asking is, "What's the magic to get published?" There isn't any. Just like there's no magic in a baby learning to walk. He tries and fails and tries again. But one day he succeeds and oh, the joy.

Seeing our writing improve because we worked hard can be satisfying. Knowing we did our best to be prepared means we don't have those "if only I'd..." regrets. Doing our homework can help us have intelligent conversations with faculty members. Which reminds me. I have a conference coming up, I'd better get off and do my homework!