Be True to Yourself and Your Voice Will Come

When I sent off my very first manuscript almost two decades ago, I made just about every mistake you could make. I included my own illustrations with my picture book, and since I’m not much of an artist, I sent some bright paper cut-out artwork, reminiscent of Matisse minus the talent and technique. I wasn’t aware that publishers accept picture book manuscripts from writers who don’t draw. I wasn’t aware that usually submissions are directed to certain editors. I wasn’t aware that some publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. I wasn’t aware that I needed to include a SASE for a reply. The truth is, I wasn’t aware of much when it came to the realm of publishing. I was aware that I liked animals a lot. And that I enjoyed writing silly poems about them to spice up my incredibly boring job (cleaning houses in the Berkeley

Cathleen is excited to give away two (2) free books to random commenters. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Doreen and Kirkus won.)


Guest column by Cathleen Daly, author of Flirt Club
(YA, Jan. 2011), which Publishers Weekly, in a starred
review, said this of the book: “Daly’s debut sparkles
with wit, and her protagonists brim with enthusiasm
and heart.” Cathleen also wrote the picture book
Prudence Wants a Pet (June 2011), and her poetry
has been published in a variety of journals. See her
 blog, Facebook page, and Twitter.



Every family that I worked for had at least one pet, and to keep my job even the slightest bit interesting, I’d schmooze with the animals. I’d pet them, talk to them, sometimes sing to them or spontaneously compose them a poem. This was of course, only when the pet owners weren’t home. If they were home, I limited my pet interactions to a minimal scritch and polite greeting.

Here’s a poem from that that era, from my little, perhaps entirely unknown Odes-to-the-Animals-of-Employers period, this particular poem was written for a very dapper, elderly grey cat aptly named Mr. Mosby:

Mosby, oh Mosby
Where oh where your clothes be?
Your fur is so sleek
Your fur is so shiny
But now and then you’ll find me
Wonderin’ and wonderin’, Mosby
Where oh where your clothes be?


Fast forward 15 years and I am much more familiar with the publishing industry, although sadly, the publishing industry was still entirely unfamiliar with me. I continue though, to send out manuscripts, poems, and queries. I take classes, read books, join groups and go to conferences. Some of the feedback I get is very helpful, some of it makes me want to cut off my hair with big-handled craft scissors and rend my garments. Specifically, when I get told a number of times I’m too quirky. According to some, the quirky corner of the market is taken, saturated. My stories don’t conform to the proper and popular story arc. A few people tell me what page number my protagonist needs to solve her dilemma on.

One day, I am sitting on the floor of my apartment cutting one of my picture book manuscripts up into sections. I am trying fit them together in a new way that will allow the protagonist to have her dénouement on the proper page. I throw out certain sections all together because I’ve been told they are tangential and don’t serve the prescribed arc of the story. They are my favorite sections. This process is excruciating for me. The new incarnation is boring. Deeply, truly, boring. And soggy. I solemnly tuck the damp pieces of paper into a manila envelope.

I quit writing kids books. I don’t consciously decide to quit, I just don’t go anywhere near that envelope. And no new ideas come. They are probably afraid of my scissors.


Fast forward about six months. I stumble across an announcement online that Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) is moderating a children’s book writing workshop right across the bay. He’s an inspiration to me and at the time I just happen to be reading his book The Beatrice Letters.

I love the epistolary format (my tween novel, Flirt Club, is an epistolary novel) and his letters make me snort out loud with laughter every morning over my crumpets and tea. (I like to read at breakfast.) I decide to go to the workshop. I don’t pull out any of my diced and spliced stories to bring to the event because I prefer to pretend they don’t exist. The event is laid back, fun, and for me, entirely life-changing.

Lemony imparts a lot of helpful advice, and one thing he says really hits home: Be true to yourself. I don’t remember his exact words but in essence he tells us: Write how you naturally write; if that’s quirky, be quirky; if it doesn’t fit the industry standard, don’t give up, you can find a way.

Driving home, I literally feel like a boulder has been lifted off my shoulders. I am buzzing and excited, I knew writing was supposed to be fun. By the time I pull up to my house, a story idea is tumbling through my brain. I sit down at my computer and by bedtime I’ve written the first draft of a picture book called Prudence Wants a Pet. As I work on it over the next couple of weeks, I don’t pull out the scissors. I forget about page numbers. I trust my instincts. I send off a draft to a fellow writer for feedback. Among other things she says, “This is the story that is going to get you in the door.”

She was right.

Cathleen is excited to give away two (2) free books to random commenters. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Doreen and Kirkus won.)

The 2011 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market 
offers more than 650 listings for publishers,
magazines, agents, art reps and more.


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21 thoughts on “Be True to Yourself and Your Voice Will Come

  1. Paul Stanner

    Dear Cathleen :

    I just wanted to let you know that you’ve moved into the # 2 position on my ” All Time Good Advice For Aspiring Writers List “. You are right behind my first wrting teacher who taught me to ” Break ALL the rules “. The man was brilliant both as a writer and teacher. Needles to say he didn’t keep his teaching job too long. What the Hell does education need with brilliant people. I digress a bit. I’ve followed his advice all my life and it has worked just fine. It’s DAMN fun to break as many of the rules as possible. Confuses the bejesus out of the suits and that is always entertaining. So far unfortunately it has not worked in my wished for fifth career as a writer. Perhaps I’m fated for a Van Gogh Death. The day after I die somebody will buy my writing for zillions of dollars. lol Not to worry I’ve planned for this eventuality.My will states that ALL of my money goes to my pet bird Chuck. Chuck and his little birdie buddies are going to be partying like it’s 1999. I think that would be a fitting legacy. Do you agree.

    Thanks for the good advice and the inspiring story. Keep on being quirky the world need more of us. Now go break as many rules as you can.


  2. David

    I noticed a lot of people consider a good narrative voice to be very important in a novel. So I asked an agent how to tell whether I have a good narrative voice. She said to read and write more. It doesn’t sound very helpful (I had been planning to read and write more in any case…), but I’m guessing there just isn’t a helpful-sounding way to answer that question. Maybe it’s the wrong question. Anyone know what the right question is?

  3. jackie allison

    Thank you so much.Today is my last day of cleaning houses. The pets were the best part of that job.Wish they could talk. Gee, I get to move on to work in a retail store. Gonna bite too. Hey, I have a college kid. We do what we must do. Makes us write like hell and raise our voices.

  4. Kirkus MacGowan

    Your story is inspirational and it really hit home. I’ve completed a few short stories and I am currently working on my first novel. I was having a conversation just yesterday about being true to myself. My brother was teasing me about being bull headed and whether or not that would get in the way of being successful. I tried explaining the difference between being bull headed and being true to myself and I think this article will help him see things my way.

  5. Nicole

    Your story reminds me of a scene from the movie, "Under The Tuscan Sun." where Diane Lane comes home so despondent after losing the man that she loves she ends up slamming this tiny little vase onto the tile floor in front of her, sending shards of cobalt-blue-glass exploding across the floor as she screams something about why she should even try anymore, looking so miserable and tattered my heart breaks for her each time I have watched that scene play out. And yet, even when all hope seemed to be lost she kept moving forward: this is where your story of taking Daniel’s advice to heart came to mind. Just like Diane’s character went on to see that loving herself no matter what anyone else thought of her was what mattered most, you as well found inspiration to write again when you weren’t even looking for what you thought you had lost. Sometimes we all need that kick in the pants to help us put our writers heart in front of the line. Cathleen, I loved reading your inspiring story…thank you.

  6. Sally

    It was truly inspiring to read this. I’ve had a disappointing week, publishing wise, and your article was the lift I needed to get back on the horse.


  7. Ali Stegert

    Beside me on my desk is a small stack of cards with scenes from my story jotted on them. At the behest of an agent, I hacked apart my story and tried to reorder it to please her. Several times. The last feedback I had from her was that the story was “flat” and that I “write like a reporter.” I could have screamed, “Well, duh! I gave up all the good bits for you!”
    Bless you Kathleen, for appearing on my computer screen when I, too, was about to shove it all in a manila envelope, abandon my stories for middle readers forever, and try my hand at creating Sudoku puzzles instead.

  8. Juanima Hiatt

    Thank you so much for the inspirational article. For years – and I mean all of my writing life – I’ve been stuck behind this wall of fear. Fear that my words won’t be of any value, fear that my writing won’t be good enough, or won’t be like other successful writers. But you solidified the lurking thought in my head that I’m not SUPPOSED to write like everyone else. It’s my unique voice that will separate me from the masses. As far as the confidence goes, well, you gave me a boost. I’m working on a memoir right now, which requires confidence I hadn’t imagined I would need. And here I am stuck right in the middle. So thank you – I’m going to trust my instincts and plunge into the depths of my story.

  9. Doreen

    I like how incredibly confident you are in you honesty about your beginnings. It’s hard starting out to know everything and to admit you don’t. Very creative individual!

  10. Jessica Subject

    I think your advice is great! After writing my first draft, I changed my ms to follow many literary rules. Little did I know, many could be broken to keep your own unique voice. My writing style has improved with help, but I try to sustain my voice throughout.

  11. Mike O'Connor

    What a cool underdog story! I’m saddened that the market and the industry is like that. But it’s great that, with the right inspiration, you’ve stuck with your voice and how you write.

    Only one person writes like you (or me). Great that you can embrace that.

    Thanks for this piece of inspiration! Bookmarked for the inevitable future pick me up.

  12. Linda Fausnet

    I wholeheartedly agree…Not only is using your true voice the best way to get the passion from your heart onto the page, at least that way you are pretty much guaranteed to at least enjoy the process and be proud of what you’ve created. When there are absolutely no guarantees of being published, sometimes that’s all you have. And it makes the whole thing worthwhile.

  13. Kristan

    This really made me smile. It’s just brimming with positivity and genuine warmth. Which is perfect, for a post about being yourself. Thanks for sharing your journey, and congrats on the book!

    Also, LOVE this: "if it doesn’t fit the industry standard, don’t give up, you can find a way."


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