Tuesday, 6 November 2012
Online writing communities for picture book writers: inspirational or distracting? A look at some gems including PiBoIdMo, 12 x 12 in '12 and online critique groups that really work. By Juliet Clare Bell
The romantic notion of the lone wolf writer, hidden away in some shed (or tucked up under a warm duvet in bed), scribbling away without distraction, may be true for some of us some of the time, but for many of us, the reality is that we’re usually sat at a computer (and often with lots of other things going on around us).
Are we writing our stories with the internet switched off? How often do we switch between our manuscript and email or FaceBook (just for five minutes. If I were at work, I’d talk to someone every so often, wouldn’t I?)
Well, there are loads of things to distract us online. But just in case you’re not quite distracted enough, I thought I’d share some more with you. Only these ones are so valuable to me as a picture book writer that I’m sharing them not so we can all be distracted together and share the guilt, but because if you haven’t already discovered these online writing communities and you also write picture books, then you might find them helpful too…
I love November. I really do. And a growing number of children’s picture book writers –published and working-towards-being-published- are also finding the cold, dark and wet month of November inspirational. But why…?
I appear to be a fan of groups with acronyms that no one is quite sure how to pronounce. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an amazing organisation with almost as many ways of pronouncing the acronym as members (ok, well perhaps not –there are well over 20000 members worldwide, but it’s called, Scooby or Scwibby or Scibwee with such confidence by various members, that I can’t side with any of them and spend twice as long pronouncing it ESS-CEE-BEE-DOUBLEYOU-EYE). PiBoIdMo is Picture Book Ideas Month. I’ve always pronounced it Pie-Bow-Id-Moe. It turns out others call it something else. But actually, who cares? It’s an online thing and although you may end up writing it loads online, you’ll probably rarely say the word out loud to anyone other than yourself.
This is not another NaNoWriMo where you’re expected to write a novel in a month (and there are many opinions on the merits or otherwise of NaNoWriMo). Picture Book Ideas Month works very differently. It simply encourages every person who signs up to it to attempt to come up with thirty ideas for picture books in thirty days during November. It sounds simple, right? And something you don’t need an online community for –any writer can set himself or herself that task alone, do it and have plenty of ideas to pick and choose from for the coming year… Except PiBoIdMo is so much more than that –because of the online community that it has become. I asked creator, Tara Lazar (author of The Monstore) about it.
I had no idea PiBoIdMo would grow this popular--we have almost 700 participants this year. When it began in 2009, I thought I'd maybe get 10 people to try it with me. The enthusiasm that writers have for the event has blown me away. Plus I keep hearing about success stories--PiBoIdMo ideas that have gone on to win contests, grants and publishing contracts. I'm truly amazed by the creativity of our community and grateful to the guest bloggers and participants for their contributions to picture books.
If you write or illustrate picture books, I would highly recommend checking it out (and looking back over previous years’ posts, too). We’re six days into it and I’ve already got seventeen picture book ideas. Well, ideas may be a grand way of describing them, but they're seeds, and I'll keep reading through them and adding bits as the weeks go on. Not all of them will end up as picture book manuscripts. If I find five or six ideas to work on out of forty or so I've come up with by the end of November, then I’ll be very happy.
Of my 2011 ideas, a couple, which I worked into stories, are under consideration with a publisher; a couple I can safely say I’m unlikely to pursue (Day 8 and Day 27 spring to mind…). And about fifteen of them I still like and am waiting for the right time for them to develop into something more than an idea. It could take weeks, or it could take years. But they’re there and waiting for me.
Penny Morrison, one of the commenters on today’s PiBoIdMo post, said something similar:
…writing picture books seems to be about waiting. A bit of planting and watering, but mostly waiting.
PiBoIdMo has guest blog posts every day throughout the month, from authors, illustrators, editors and agents. Some are great for generating ideas; some inspire; some provide that all-important introduction to an editor or agent (and there are giveaway critiques with some of the editors and agents for those who are signed up).
I love the posts where I'm encouraged to generate ideas in certain ways, which in previous posts has included going through photos...
Any ideas, anyone?
Or children's drawings (try looking at them first and then ask the child what it's actually about. It can be illuminating)...
Now this one looks more straightforward...
PiBoIdMo participants include those with lots of books under their belts and those writers who are just starting out.
Corey Rosen Schwartz, author of The Three Ninja Pigs, wrote up her idea number 28 and it was bought by Putnam (I quite like my no. 28 from last year, too. I might still write that into a story. But my no. 27? Now that's unlikely to have been quite as successful…).
I love PiBoIdMo. I always get 30 ideas (at the very least) in 30 days and I feel like I'm part of something at the same time. And it gets me back into good habits about being present and receptive to any hints of a story in my surroundings. But where do you turn to next online, once you've got your creative juices flowing and have all those picture book ideas...?
I came up with the idea for 12 x 12 as a way to increase my own PB-writing output using all of the great ideas I was mining in PiBoIdMo. I figured if I needed the motivation of a challenge, maybe others did too. So I sent out the notice and let people sign up. I expected maybe 50 people to join me.
Well, 400 signups later, 12 x 12 has become much more than a writing challenge. It has become a genuine community where participants learn from each other, help one another and offer support and encouragement… We keep each other going.
Julie Foster Hedlund
And what do other writers say about it? Susanna Leonard Hill, author of April Fool, Phyllis! and Can't Sleep Without Sheep:
There are always things I can do better and ways I can improve my craft. So I joined … PiBoIdMo partly for all the excellent author interviews and tips on writing. But the main reason I joined both [PiBoIdMo and 12 x 12 in ’12] was for the community, the camaraderie, and the inspiration. Writing can be a lonely business sometimes, and it's nice to feel like you're part of a group who understands all the joys and frustrations.
There are plenty of people in the group who will end the year with twelve manuscripts.
I won’t be one of them
–I should end up with nine. But that doesn’t matter. I’ll still have written more than I would have done without it.
–as will Deb Lund
With marketing books, revising a middle-grade novel and doing school visits and conference presentations, it's not always easy to find time to write. With PiBoIdMo pestering—um, encouraging—me to keep up with new ideas, and the 12x12 deadline—um, encouragement again—I wouldn't be writing as many new pieces or getting to know the wonderful creators and participants. I'm looking forward to writing a post on the PiBoIdMo blog later this month, and to having thirty more picture book ideas than I would have had if not for also being a participant.
For Lori Degman, author of the award-winning 1 Zany Zoo:
the most valuable thing about both PiBoIdMo and 12X12 - the people! I have learned so much from the creative and generous authors and illustrators in this group and I feel I've made a lot of friends, though we may never meet in person.
You can sign up for 2013's 12 x 12 here.
Is it any coincidence that these writing communities have sprung up in the US? With so many people spread over such a huge area, belonging to online communities may be much more realistic than in-person ones. Penny Klosterman (Barbara Karlin 2012 runner up) says of the online 12x12 community:
This is extremely beneficial to a gal who would have to drive 3 hours one way to meet a regional chapter of SCBWI.
And this brings me onto my third online writing community (since Penny is a member of this group, too): my online critique group.
I probably spend an hour and a half a week on this group, and it’s a very important part of my life. And yet I’ve only met two of the other members (there are eight of us). In fact, I wouldn’t even recognise five of them if they past me on the street (which is unlikely since they live in the States and I’m in the UK) and yet I have a really special bond with them. It’s taken a while to find the perfect online group, but it’s absolutely worth it.
But what makes it work? Rebecca Colby, Winner of Barbara Karlin, 2011:
While we're spread out over two continents and divided by an ocean, we are united in our love of picture books and our confidence in and support of each other's work. We may not be on each other's doorsteps, but we communicate more often than most in-person friendships… Every success is celebrated and every rejection is commiserated amongst friends that can truly empathise. I'd be lost without my critique group… I'm sure I could embrace an in-person picture book critique group, but it is rare to find so many people writing for the same age group in one area and at the same stage of their writing career.
And that’s crucial: no one feels like they’re putting more into it than they’re getting back. It works because we’re all at a similar level and everyone knows how we can help each other progress.
We bounce ideas off each other, push each other to think beyond the first few solutions that come to mind. We are quick to encourage but also brutally honest.
They are my support system. They continue to push me to become a better writer... Sherry Dargert
There are a great many more online writing communities, including joint blogs like PictureBookDen, which I love being a part of. And I’m a huge advocate of SCBWI (hmmn, did I ever mention that before?). But fortunately, for me, with the UK being small, I do see lots of SCBWI members throughout the course of a year (and especially at the annual conference -the other reason I love November). Our online communications, through a Yahoo group (for which you have to be a member) and the FaceBook group (for which you don’t –anyone can join) are really important and form a regular part of my day to day working environment but PiBoIdMo, 12 x 12 in ’12 and my critique group are truly online in that I’m unlikely ever to meet the vast majority of these people I spend so much virtual time with.
Online writing communities don’t always work. I know I spend too much time on Facebook for example, even though the majority of my FaceBook friends are writers, and I am guilty of kidding myself into thinking things are work that actually aren’t… And there have been upsetting stories about internet trolls recently, one where much loved picture book author and illustrator, Debi Gliori, has been bullied as a result of a complete misunderstanding of the nature of ideas and copyright.
But it can work brilliantly and help us to be more creative and feel less isolated.
What are your experiences of online writing communities? Have you got any favourites you’d like to share? And in the spirit of helping out other picture book writers as happens so much in online writing communities such as PiBoIdMo and 12 x 12 in 12, do you have any discarded PiBoIdMo ideas that you’re happy for others to use? Let's see if anyone can get a decent idea for a story (you don't have to share the idea, just whether you've got one) from other people's discarded ideas... you're welcome to my 2011 ideas no. 8 and 27, though they're not the best: 'underwater pants' , and ‘I wish I was made out of recycled paper’ ). Do you have any success stories from virtual groups you belong to? How do you get the balance right between checking things like blogs and groups online and actually writing?
I’d love to hear from you.
Juliet Clare Bell is the author of Don't Panic, Annika! (illustrated by Jennifer E Morris; Piccadilly Press); Pirate Picnic (Franklin Watts) and The Kite Princess (illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman and narrated by Imelda Staunton; Barefoot Books).
Click on the links for tips on how (not) to write a rhyming picture book; editing your manuscript and making the most of feedback. www.julietclarebell.com