Tuesday, July 16, 2024

"Break Up With Your X" - Can you do it without hurting your #kidlit career? Brian Kirby has receipts (a.k.a., the stats.)

So I spent years growing a following on Twitter (now X). In the beginning it was really cool, and I could connect with so many other #kidlit folks about our shared enthusiasm, about writing, about inspirations, about a career in children's books...

But about three years ago I left. It felt like an unsafe space, more about heat than light, and made me actively anxious and unhappy every time I logged in. 

I do not believe it's gotten better since becoming X. Most of the conversations I've had about leaving that platform involve some response like "but everyone's there!" and "how can I leave if all the agents and KidLit gatekeepers are still there?"

Since its new ownership and rebranding, there's been quite the exodus from X. And in the last few months, folks have been leaving (or vastly curtailing what they post on) Instagram -- particularly illustrators. The Andrea Brown Literary agency announced on Jun 13:

Due to Meta's AI policies, the ABLA instagrams have been cleared until we can fully assess how best to support and protect our artists and creators here moving forward! In the meantime, head on over to our website and find us on BlueSky.

I'm not an illustrator, and still on Instagram (and Facebook, both of which are owned by Meta), but I have been spending more time on BlueSky (where there are a LOT of illustrators) and it reminds me of those early days on twitter, where you could follow a hashtag and be in a KidLit community not mediated by algorithms. (I basically just look at the KidLit Mega Feed.) 

Back to the numbers... Brian Kirby did this amazing analysis: "Break Up With Your X" looking at what you'd actually be missing if you left X. 

Just one amazing example:

A publishing company has 236,000 followers on X. A recent book announcement post of theirs got zero retweets, 2 likes, and reached 897 accounts.

My favorite line of Brian's analysis:

Posting on X is "getting the sort of response a flyer on a coffee shop bulletin board would get, if soulless robots drank coffee."

Read Brian's full post here.

screenshot of Brian Kirby's "Break Up With Your X" post, showing an illustration of a child dropping a Twitter bird


...so maybe we'll see you on Bluesky! 

(If you're heading over to Bluesky, first thing to do is follow Debbie Ridpath Ohi who is leading our #kidlit community there (Debbie has 21,000 followers on Bluesky. People are there. KidLit people. Brian has been posting about these stats there as well.)

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,
Lee


Thursday, July 11, 2024

Establishing a Strong Author-Agent Relationship

The milestone of signing with an agent is an important one in a writer’s career and should be celebrated! But after some champagne and ice cream, the time comes to get to work. And it’s not just working on your manuscript but working on your relationship with your agent. 

I’ve been represented by my agent, Wendi Gu of Greenburger Kids, for six years now and we have established a strong relationship. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way that can help an author maintain a relationship that is beneficial for both parties.

Respect Each Other

Wendi says, “Mutual respect for time and energy is key to me personally,” and I agree.

Agent Wendi Gu

Author Gabi Snyder has a great example of showing respect to her agent, Natalie Lakosil. “When there's a story I really want/need to write, even if she's not excited about it, I go ahead and write it and try to get it as polished as possible before sending it to her.” 

This approach ensures that Gabi is giving her story the best shot but is also respectful of Natalie’s time by showing her a polished project.  

Author Gabi Snyder

Communication is Key

When I asked Wendi for her thoughts on communication she said, “Everyone is a different kind of communicator, and I think it’s important to find a publishing partner whose communication style suits yours.” 

These are good things to talk about when you receive an offer of representation. Does the agent like to discuss editorial feedback on the phone or comments in Google Doc? Knowing what works best for you will help you make sure you partner with an agent who has a similar communication method.

I asked Gabi about her communication style with her agent Natalie. “We communicate primarily through email, and I think that suits us both fine. However, once in a while when we’ve gone back and forth regarding a manuscript and we’re either not quite seeing eye-to-eye or it’s just not where we want it to be despite multiple revisions, we’ll hop on a zoom call to talk through ideas and do some on-the-spot spit balling. It’s nice to occasionally see and hear this person who’s such an important part of my professional life!” 

Establish Trust

Trust is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship, even business relationships. When I send Wendi a manuscript, I trust she will read it when her schedule allows. I also trust that she will give me her honest feedback. If a manuscript isn’t working just yet, or we’ve come to the end of the road on revision options, I know she will tell me—and do so kindly.

Take Feedback

We all know it took a look of revising to get a manuscript into submission-ready state to query an agent. And once you have an agent representing you, you have someone on your side who knows the market. They may see things in a manuscript that critique partners are not privy to, so be open to a new round of feedback once you share a story with your agent.

Gabi said Natalie is an editorial agent and she appreciates her notes. “I think her feedback always helps me strengthen a manuscript.”

Feedback does not only come in the form of editorial notes, but during discussions on contract negotiations. When Wendi was negotiating one of my contracts, she told me the counter-offer she was going to make on the advance. I asked if something higher could be achieved, and she gave me the honest feedback that I was shooting for something out of range. Circling back to trust, I believed in her that she was making the right decisions on my behalf.

With a foundation of trust, then layers of respect, communication, and feedback circles, you can ensure you and your agent have a solid relationship.

About Lisa

Lisa Katzenberger is the author of several books for children, including It Will Be OK: A Story of Empathy, Kindness, and Friendship, A Love Letter to My Library, Croc & Gator: Swamp Ranger School, I Can Do It Even If I'm Scared: Finding The Brave You, and It Belongs to the World: Frederick Banting and the Discovery of Insulin. 

Lisa is on the faculty of The Writing Barn where she teaches picture book writing courses including Perfecting the Picture Book, Writing Social Emotional Learning Picture Books, and Write. Submit. Support. She lives in La Grange, Illinois with her husband and two children. She has been a member of SCBWI since 2015. Visit Lisa online at www.lisakatzenberger.com.





Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Considering Crowdfunding? 12 Tips to Know and Consider

Me (Lee Wind) in my makeshift podcast recording corner. I'm not crowdfunding to publish the book -- it was traditionally published -- the crowdfunding is to raise money to buy and donate hundreds of paperback copies of my YA novel to empower LGBTQIA2+ and Allied Teens.


You can listen to the full podcast episode (32 min) here: https://bit.ly/CrowdfundingForAuthorsTips

I'm in the middle of my second crowdfunding campaign, and I've learned some things that I hope can help other authors (and it should work for illustrators and translators, too.)

My first crowdfunding campaign was in 2018 for Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill, a book that I author published, meaning when the campaign was successful I hired a team of people to help me put out the best quality YA novel possible. It was my debut, it worked, and the book went on to win some awards, had thousands of readers who loved it, got on a couple of banned and challenged lists, and overall launched my author career. 

My second YA novel, A Different Kind of Brave, was traditionally published (in paperback and as an ebook) in March of 2024, by Duet Books/Interlude Press, an imprint of Chicago Review Press. And I pitched the publisher on the idea of crowdfunding to raise enough funds to donate 350 (or more) paperback copies of the novel to LGBTQIA2+ teens while offering backers a special collector's edition hardcover of the novel. They said yes, so I launched my second crowdfunding campaign on June 20, 2024 and it will end 30 days later on July 20, 2024 at 6:50am Pacific: ⁠bit.ly/BRAVEkickstarter

The podcast shares 12 tips, and I'll share the first here:

Tip #1: Don't make it about you. 

By making my campaign about the community coming together to empower LGBTQIA2+ teens, talking about the project is easy for me, because the focus is not about helping me as much as it is helping them. So I don't have that uncomfortable self-promotion feeling when I'm talking about the kickstarter campaign, because the goal is to empower the teens I wrote the book for, and the way that happens is the crowdfunding to raise money to buy copies of the book to donate.

There are 11 more tips in the podcast...  I hope you'll find it both helpful and empowering!

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,
Lee

P.S. If you'd rather listen via YouTube, here's that link.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Picture Books as Conversation Starters

There are so many different kinds of picture books, you can find something for every reader. Laugh-out-loud funny books. Quiet, contemplative books. Non-fiction books. Concept books. Character-driven books. 

In my picture book career, I have been drawn toward writing books with a Social Emotional Learning bent. What I love about writing books with an SEL angle is looking at a book as a conversation starter. Because picture books are most often read by an adult to a child, it is a perfect opportunity to initiate a conversation. They can each share their response to the story in this moment of togetherness. 

In an article for BookTrust, children’s author Rashmi Sirdeshpande says, “Engaging picture books . . . ignite minds, send questions tumbling forth and lead you all – adults included – on a delightful journey of discovery and wonder.” 


The engagement with a picture book may vary by age, but the discussions are often rooted in questions. A toddler might point to an illustration of an animal they’ve never seen a picture of and ask, “What’s that?” A kindergarten student might listen to a story and ask their teacher “why is that girl so sad?” Both are opportunities to keep talking, as the child is really saying, “I want to know more.” 

This idea of books as conversation starters was discussed at this week’s American Library Association’s Annual Conference. Actor and children’s book author Max Greenfield said, “Children’s books in general are wonderful because the good ones will initiate a conversation. The book shouldn't necessarily have an answer but should open up a conversation.” 

If this type of story-telling appeals to you, then as you are writing your story, think about what you would like the adult reader and child listener to discuss after they finish your book. Think about what emotional takeaway they want the reader to experience. Hopeful? Comforted? Happy? Understood? 

Another way to encourage discussion about a story is to include an author’s note in your manuscript. This can give the reader a broader picture of the author’s emotional experience and what called on them to write this particular story.
I include an author’s note in my picture books IT WILL BE OK: A Story of Empathy, Kindness, and Friendship and I CAN DO IT EVEN IF I’M SCARED: Finding the Brave You. Both notes touch on mental health, a topic important to me that has inspired many of my stories. I believe that by sharing with kids that even as an adult I get worried or scared they will feel more comfortable talking about the times that they get worried or scared too. 


Some additional examples of picture books with strong author’s notes to spark conversation include Watercress, Love in the Library, and Dreamers.
Scholastic Parents suggests incorporating discussion of a book at any time, not just in the moment of reading. “Like any conversation, talking about books can happen anywhere and at any time — in the car, at the bus stop, or over dinner. Books can elicit strong feelings that need to be shared. A great way to start is to bring up what you have read recently and how it made you feel. Then, invite your child to do the same.” 

While a story begins when you open a book, it doesn’t have to end when you close it.


Lisa Katzenberger is the author of several books for children, including It Will Be OK: A Story of Empathy, Kindness, and Friendship, A Love Letter to My Library, Croc & Gator: Swamp Ranger School, I Can Do It Even If I'm Scared: Finding The Brave You, and It Belongs to the World: Frederick Banting and the Discovery of Insulin. Lisa is on the faculty of The Writing Barn where she teaches picture book writing courses including Perfecting the Picture Book, Writing Social Emotional Learning Picture Books, and Write. Submit. Support. She lives in La Grange, Illinois with her husband and two children. She has been a member of SCBWI since 2015. Visit Lisa online at www.lisakatzenberger.com 



Tuesday, July 2, 2024

My Signing Strategy: Ask a Question. What's Your Signing Strategy?

I'm just back from a wonderful four days at the American Library Association conference in San Diego #alaac24 and I had the amazing opportunity of signing all three of my 2024 titles, my YA novel A Different Kind of Brave (Duet Books/Interlude/Chicago Review Press), my nonfiction for grades 6-12 The Gender Binary Is a Big Lie (Zest/Lerner), and my picture book Love of the Half-Eaten Peach (Reycraft).

It was a thrill to meet and personalize/sign about 200 books for the librarians attending across the three signings, knowing they would help get my books into the hands of the very readers I wrote them for, but I had a challenge: It's pretty hard for me to talk thoughtfully and at the same time:
1) spell the person's name correctly even when I'm copying it from a post-it note or their name badge
2) write my message, and
3) sign my name!


Me (Lee Wind) signing copies of A Different Kind of Brave at the IPG booth but as you can see I'm so into my conversation with this librarian and their teen I'm not actually writing/signing in their copy of the book... I'm talking with them!

The strategy I've come up with (from paying attention when I've waited in line to get a signed copy of a book from more established children's book creators at events like SCBWI conferences, festivals, and bookstores) is asking the person I'm signing for a question. 

Turns out I can listen carefully and simultaneously focus enough on my signing to actually get the job done accurately. It's embarrassing to inscribe the message "The light in me celebrates the light in me" because I'm so focused on sharing from my heart in response to what they just said. Yes, this actually happened during this signing. Sigh. So because I didn't want to cross out the mistake, I wrote after it:

oops! I mean the light in YOU!

and I showed the librarian my flub and said that perhaps we could think about it like the postage stamp where the plane was printed upside-down, and that it might be worth something someday--we both had a good laugh about it!

The person I'm signing a book for thinking about and answering my question gives me time to sign their book the way I want to, with care and heart. Because what I want to say is The light in me celebrates the light in you!

With librarians I generally ask: "Where are you a librarian?"

If the answer is too brief (and I need more time) I follow up with: "What do you like most about being a librarian there?"

When it's a signing after I've spoken, I generally ask if there's something that surprised them about what I shared, or if there's something still resonating for them from the talk/session.

The bonus of asking a question is that I get to learn about them, and the whole experience of my signing their book becomes even more personalized, and hopefully, special.

What signing strategies do you use? (See how I asked a question there? Let me know in comments!)

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On!
Lee

PS - You can learn more about my 2024 books here. Thanks!

Thursday, June 27, 2024

The Three “Ps” in my Publishing Journey: Practice, Patience, and Perseverance:

After sending out my first picture book submission to an editor in 2009, little did I know it would be 2021 before I would hold my first published picture book in my hands. With over 160 rejections of 11 manuscripts before I received my first “YES”—an offer from an agent—it would be another year and a half (and dozens of rejections with five manuscripts) before I received my first book contract. How did I stay afloat during that long and bumpy journey to my first published book? The Three P’s: Practice, Patience, and Perseverance.



Practice: 

There’s a common saying that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at a skill. Even if 10,000 hours is not cut in stone, we all know that to be good at anything–a sport, performance art, etc.–it takes practice. No one becomes an expert overnight. The same holds true in writing. In order to become better at writing, you have to write. A lot. When I decided I wanted to be a picture book writer in 2006, I signed up for a course on writing for kids. I learned a lot about writing through that course but I still had no idea how long it would take to get published.


Throughout the next decade, practice entailed taking classes and workshops, participating in writing challenges (see post here), typing up lots of picture books (see post here), and joining critique groups to improve my writing (see post here). And continually writing new stories. Even if some of my stories didn’t sell, every story I wrote taught me something about writing. They were my practice.


Patience: 

My Mom’s favorite saying while I was growing up was “Patience is a virtue.” I've certainly needed patience in the last 15+ years. . . and still need it now. I’ve learned that once I get some words down on paper—that awful first draft—I need to let them sit. Then revise. And let them sit. And revise some more. No matter how much of a hurry I am to get a story submitted to my critique group or editor, my stories need time. They need to sit on that piece of paper and also simmer in my brain for a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months. Only then can I see my words with fresh eyes and find a way to make them better.


Another need for patience in this industry is in the submission process. This industry is SLOW. Molasses slow. After submitting to either agents or editors, it might be months or even a year, before you hear back. If you hear back. Even now that I am agented, a story might sit in an editor’s inbox for months. While waiting is hard, the best advice is to just write another story. Patience is easier when you are busy. (Another saying my Mom was fond of.)


Perseverance: 

Rejection is par for the course. To get traditionally published, you have to be ready for it. Thick skin is an absolute necessity. During my first few years as a picture book writer, I kept revising the same two stories. I thought that if I just made the right changes, they would sell. The truth is, not every story will sell. It finally dawned on me that I had to let go of those two stories and write new ones.


Sometimes perseverance meant taking query sabbaticals when my stories weren’t gaining traction. Did I need to revise those stories? Or should I write new ones? Either way, it meant more “write, revise, repeat.” Many times I considered quitting. But I knew that while there was no guarantee I would ever find an agent or editor interested in my stories, if I quit, that guaranteed I would never be published. So I kept going.


I still needed to persevere even after I signed with with my first agent in 2017. A lyrical picture book had caught her eye and I thought a book contract was right around the corner. Alas, it wasn’t. Even after four or five acquisition meetings, that first story never sold. And my agent tried hard, SO hard to sell it. The market was just not interested in it. We went on to sub three more picture books—another lyrical one and two picture book biographies. By spring of 2018, with still no offer, she suggested I try something different. So I changed tactics and wrote a rhyming nonfiction one about animal adaptations. And finally, in 2019—a full year and a half after I signed with my agent—we had an actual offer. FREAKY, FUNKY FISH: ODD FACTS ABOUT FASCINATING FISH came out in May 2021, about 15 years (and 11 manuscripts) after I submitted my first picture book. 




Not everyone's writing journey will take as long as mine did. (During those 15+ years, I was also raising three boys.) Many writers find success much quicker. But, the children’s literature industry is hard. Rejection can take its toll. I now have three picture books published with two more on the way. Will I sell another one? I’m not sure. But when I get discouraged, I remind myself that practice, patience, and perseverance won’t guarantee anything, but they’ve gotten me this far. All I can do is to keep on trying.


©Yanka Photography

Debra Kempf Shumaker started reading at the age of four and hasn't stopped since. She grew up on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin but now writes picture books from her home in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. She is the author of FREAKY, FUNKY FISH (2021), TELL SOMEONE (2021), PECULIAR PRIMATES (2022), and the upcoming WIND IS A DANCE (October 1, 2024). 


Debra is a member of SCBWI, several critique groups, and also a co-host of #PBPitch, a Twitter pitch party for picture books. Debra reviews picture books on Instagram every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, firmly believing there is a picture book for every reason, every season, and every age. Visit her online at www.debrashumaker.com, on Twitter or X at @ShumakerDebra, on Instragram at @debrakshumaker, and Bluesky at @debrakshumaker.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The New SCBWI Pitch-Perfect Translation Grant

Translator friends, check this out!

screenshot of the Pitch-Perfect Translation Grant page from the SCBWI website


The SCBWI Pitch-Perfect Translation Grant assists children’s book translators in the development of a specific translation project into English, which is not currently under contract. Up to two winners will be selected annually. 

Entrants will submit a written pitch of up to 500 words and a short translation sample of up to 500 words from the work being pitched. Each winner will receive $500 and the opportunity to craft a longer sample of up to 4000 words, which will be made available on a secure webpage and presented to a hand-selected group of editors, along with the pitch.

Special consideration will be given to emerging translators and to works translated from underrepresented languages.

Deadline for this inaugural grant: 

Submissions accepted from July 1 to July 31

Announcement and payment of grant: October

Winners’ pitches and longer samples posted on secure webpage at the end of 2024.

Get all the details at the scbwi website here, and good luck with your translation pitches!

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,
Lee

PS - Thanks to Avery Fischer Udagawa, SCBWI's volunteer Global Translator Coordinator, for the heads-up on this! 

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Reasons To Be In More Than One Critique Group

Common advice writers are given when new to the industry is to find a critique group—a group of writers who share their stories and provide each other with feedback to improve them. Some benefits to being a part of a critique group:

  • Your writing skills will improve as you analyze what is working and not working in other stories.
  • You help each other learn about the industry, share the frustrations, and celebrate the good news, both big and small.
  • Having regular meetings with a critique group gives you a deadline to write/revise your stories.


Those are all good reasons to join a critique group. But, if you can, consider joining more than one. I’m in four! Each have different structures and time frames for submitting a story for critique and providing feedback:

  • An in-person group that focuses on picture books and meets once a month.
  • An online group for picture books where two authors submit a story each month.
  • An online nonfiction group for any age group of KidLit—PB to YA—where we take turns submitting stories every two weeks.
  • Another online nonfiction one for just picture books where we can submit one story each month, but we are very sporadic.


Why do I like to be in more than one critique group?

  • As we all know, writing is subjective and so are critiques. And different writers might be better at critiquing different aspects of your story. By submitting the same story to different groups, I get many view points. While various view points may be conflicting, if I see some repeated comments about the same issue, it’s a really strong indication that that part of my story may not be working. And while I may not make every change suggested, the various opinions at least makes me think about things I might not have considered. That is always a good thing.
  • As I noted above, my various critique groups work in different ways for submitting a story for critique and for providing feedback. Depending on the schedule each group has determines when I can send a story for review. Sometimes I have deadlines that I’m trying to meet and my turn for submitting might not coincide with when I need the feedback. Being in more than one group increases my odds of getting the feedback when I need it.
  • Sometimes one critique group has seen a story multiple times. As the saying goes, you only get one time to make a first impression. It can be hard for a critique group to review a story they’ve seen multiple times since they may bring their previous views to the one they are reading. By submitting a story to a different group for the first time, I’m getting a “clean” take on that story.


Other authors have also shared why they like being in more than one critique group:


Kathy Halsey, author of BE A RAINBOW (KiwiCo), is in two groups but also has several critique partners. She states, “Having all these groups gives me different perspectives, a broader view of how my work is seen by others, and a way to keep several stories going at the same time."




Lisa Katzenberger, author of A LOVE LETTER TO MY LIBRARY (Sourcebooks), among others, is also in two critique groups. She says “I love sending the various groups a PB at different stages of revision.”






Lynn Becker, author of JUNE MOON (Familius), states, “ I have two that meet regularly as well as various friends I can usually send work to when I need fresh eyes. It’s especially important for work that needs lots of revisions, when one group has seen something just too many times.”



It can be hard to find one critique group, much less four. How did I find them? 

  • SCBWI regional conferences: I found my in-person group when I joined SCBWI about 15 years ago. Our regional chapter had a list of contact people and critique groups they formed. I reached out to one person who had a picture book group and they had an opening. Another time I was at a different regional conference and connected with a another PB writer. She mentioned her online critique group had an opening and wondered if I would like to join them.
  • The Writing Community: The other two groups came about from writing connections I made, mostly from online groups, like 12x12, in Facebook, or the SCBWI Message Boards.


Tips on finding your own critique group (or two or three):

  • Attend writing conferences/classes both in person and online where you will meet fellow writers. The bonus with connecting with writers from classes you take means that you have similar writing goals or interests.
  • If you are on social media, connect with other writers there. Twitter/X has a hashtag for various writing categories: #kidlit #5amwritersclub #nfforkids, etc. Bluesky also has an active #kidlit group. Sometimes classes you take will form their own group on Facebook. Facebook also has groups like Kidlit411, SubItClub, etc. Kidlit411 has a specific Facebook group for manuscript swaps:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/KIDLIT411MSswap/.
  • The SCBWI Discussion Boards: If you are a registered member with SCBWI, there is a thread called “Find/Join Critique Groups” on the discussion boards. Click here: https://www.scbwidiscussionboards.org/index.php.
  • Inked Voices: Inked Voices is an online group for writers. It has a membership fee but it is a great place to find fellow writers and to dig deep into craft. Once a member, you can find “critique pop-ups” and join critique groups. Plus they offer workshops with agents, editors, and published creators. Learn more here: https://app.inkedvoices.com/.


I’m certain I would not be a published author without the help from my critique groups. I also know that the friends I have made through my critique groups have helped me weather the challenging aspects of the KidLit industry. I’d love to hear your thoughts on critique groups or advice where other writers might find critique partners in the comments of this post.


©Yanka Photography

Debra Kempf Shumaker started reading at the age of four and hasn't stopped since. She grew up on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin but now writes picture books from her home in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. She is the author of FREAKY, FUNKY FISH (2021), TELL SOMEONE (2021), PECULIAR PRIMATES (2022), and the upcoming WIND IS A DANCE (October 1, 2024). 


Debra is a member of SCBWI, several critique groups, and also a co-host of #PBPitch, a Twitter pitch party for picture books. Debra reviews picture books on Instagram every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, firmly believing there is a picture book for every reason, every season, and every age. Visit her online at www.debrashumaker.com, on Twitter or X at @ShumakerDebra, on Instragram at @debrakshumaker, and Bluesky at @debrakshumaker.


Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Meet 23 Authors at this FREE Virtual Pride Panel - Thursday Jun 20, 2024 at 5pm Pacific/8pm Eastern

The books!

 

We'll do speed introductions/book pitches, a giveaway, answer questions, and celebrate Pride with more than two dozen wonderful books out in 2024!

Register for the free event here.

Learn more about the featured authors and their 2024 books here.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,
Lee

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Using Writing Challenges to Move a Story Forward

The Internet is full of writing challenges: NaNoWriMo, StoryStorm, 12x12, and more*. And those writing challenges are a great tool for moving your story forward.

*The various writing challenges are explained in more detail at the end of the post.

My debut picture book, FREAKY, FUNKY FISH: ODD FACTS ABOUT FASCINATING FISH, is the result of several writing challenges. In November 2012, I was participating in Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo while at Disney and wrote down Idea #32 “fish in a zoo” after seeing how many fish were named after animals. In 2013, I used that idea and wrote a first draft of a fiction story called NOT A GOLDFISH as a part of Julie Hedlund’s 12x12 challenge. That book never sold. But, in spring 2018, I was brainstorming topics for a rhyming, nonfiction picture book and I remembered all the strange fish from that earlier book and thought that might be a fun topic. I joined Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWe and wrote a new draft about odd fish. After a few months of revisions, I sent it to my agent. In January of 2019 I had my first offer on a picture book! FREAKY, FUNKY FISH came out in May 2021.



My upcoming picture book, WIND IS A DANCE, is also the result of a combination of writing challenges. First, I came up with the idea during PiBoIdMo in November of 2015. For Idea #18 I wrote, “Lyrical NF book about wind—different types? (Similar to WATER IS WATER.)” In February 2016, The Lyrical Language Lab Alumni Group on Facebook had a “poem buddy” challenge in which we emailed poems to each other throughout the month. I decided to take my PiBoIdMo idea and wrote poems on wind. Eventually, I revised and strung those poems together to create a picture book. That book found a home with Kids Can Press and WIND IS A DANCE comes out on October 1st.



Other writers have also found success with writing challenges:


Katrina Swenson’s upcoming debut picture book, LOVE, GRUMBLE, is the result of a writing challenge. Katrina says, “The story started out as a Susanna Hill Valentiny story in 2018. I got an honorable mention and was so encouraged. . . I flushed it out into a full-length manuscript, and then revised it a billion times before earning a PB Chat mentorship with it in 2020 where I revised it some more.” In 2022, Katrina signed with an agent. LOVE, GRUMBLE sold in 2023 and will be released Fall 2026. 



Kelsey Gross also has a success story from Susanna Hill’s contests. Kesley says, “At the end of November 2020, I was already thinking about writing a winter solstice book when Susanna Leonard Hill announced the guidelines for the Kidlit Holiday Writing Contest. That year, all entries had to focus on “helping”. The line, I can help to shine the light! came to mind, and soon I had a draft featuring this repeated line.” Kelsey was a finalist in the contest and she lengthened the story before submitting it to her agent. In January 2021 her agent subbed WINTER: A SOLSTICE STORY and it soon sold to Paula Wiseman/Simon and Schuster. It came out in 2023. 




@Electric Ad Agency

Lisa Katzenberger’s picture book, IT WILL BE OK: A STORY OF EMPATHY, KINDNESS AND FRIENDSHIP, was inspired by this fun photo she saw on Twitter. In January 2017 she wrote her first draft of the story for Julie Hedlund’s 12x12. A few years later, through an SCBWI opportunity, she submitted the story to Sourcebooks. The editor acquired it and it came out in 2021.




Not only do writing challenges provide momentum to get words down on paper, they also help writers find community. Over the 10+ years that I’ve been writing, I’ve participated in many challenges including ones for revision, for studying mentor texts, etc. I not only moved my stories forward with these challenges, I also made some great friends. 


While some of these writing challenges have fallen by the wayside, if you’re looking for a challenge to help your writing and can’t find one, consider creating your own! All of these challenges started out with a writer who had an idea to help other writers. Maybe a new one started by you can help others find success, too.



Here is a bit more about the challenges mentioned in this post:

Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) used to be every November and just for picture book writers. But in 2017 Tara moved it to January, renamed it Storystorm, and is open to writers for all ages, not just picture books. More info can be found here: https://taralazar.com/storystorm/. Participating in it is free.


Julie Hedlund’s 12x12 is a challenge for picture book writers to write a rough draft every month for a year. But it's so much more than that. Membership includes a community forum, webinars, opportunities for critiques, and more. There are different levels of memberships at different price points, with the highest level providing submission opportunities to agents. More info can be found here: https://www.12x12challenge.com/membership/.


Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWee (National Picture Book Writing Week) was a challenge to picture book writers to write one rough draft every day for one week. While it no longer happens, her website still has great posts from when it ran from 2009 - 2019. Check it out for some inspiration! https://napibowriwee.com/.


The Lyrical Language Lab is an online class taught by Renée LaTulippe. After the course, you can join the Alumni Group on Facebook. In 2016, Renée created a "poem buddy" challenge. While there aren't always challenges with this group, the class is top notch if you want to learn more about writing lyrically. More information can be found here: https://www.reneelatulippe.com/lyrical-language-lab/


Susanna Leonard Hill’s Writing Challenges: Susanna is an author who hosts holiday-themed writing challenges on her blog for Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and the December Holidays. More info can be found here: https://susannahill.com/for-writers/contests/


©Yanka Photography

Debra Kempf Shumaker started reading at the age of four and hasn't stopped since. She grew up on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin but now writes picture books from her home in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. She is the author of FREAKY, FUNKY FISH (2021), TELL SOMEONE (2021), PECULIAR PRIMATES (2022), and the upcoming WIND IS A DANCE (October 1, 2024). 


Debra is a member of SCBWI, several critique groups, and also a co-host of #PBPitch, a Twitter pitch party for picture books. Debra reviews picture books on Instagram every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, firmly believing there is a picture book for every reason, every season, and every age. Visit her online at www.debrashumaker.com, on Twitter or X at @ShumakerDebra, on Instragram at @debrakshumaker, and Bluesky at @debrakshumaker.