Be True to Yourself and Your Voice Will Come - Writer's Digest

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. 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."
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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
Hills).

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.)

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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.

SINGING TO PETS

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?

NOT ALL ADVICE WORKS FOR EVERYONE

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.

"BE TRUE TO YOURSELF," LEMONY SNICKET TELLS ME

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.)

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