Things were going well for me. I had an agent and enough freelance work to leave my job at American Greetings (a place I loved but that didn’t allow me the time I needed to focus on making books). I had a number of books published and more contracts signed with big publishers. I was beginning to live the (children’s-bookmaking) dream. But after a few years of writing and illustrating books full-time, I hit a rut and lost my momentum. I had been struggling with a manuscript for months, still wasn’t happy with it, and saw no way to get unstuck. I felt isolated and inadequate and wondered if writing was supposed to feel so hard and lonely. I missed my friends at American Greetings and the job I knew how to do so well. Don’t get me wrong—I felt so lucky to have a career making books for kids—but I began to doubt whether it was meant to be.
After some heart-to-hearts and soul-searching (and feeling-sorry-for-myself sniffles), I picked myself up and resolved to give it another go. I gave myself permission (and got permission from my publisher) to push aside the manuscript that was holding me back—not to give up, but to move on. I reasoned with myself that if writing felt so hard, why not try to get better at it? I began to reach out. I signed myself up for writing retreats, workshops and conferences, where I soon learned something that made me feel much better and less alone—writing was hard for everyone! We all had this struggle in common. I started to view networking with other authors and illustrators as a priority—as an essential part of my job instead of mere social time. Eventually, I teamed up with four local writers to start a monthly picture book critique group. While we’ve only been meeting since September, I have already benefited from the inspiration, accountability and camaraderie a shared writing experience can bring.
Looking back, I can see that my rut wasn’t something lacking in myself—it was something lacking outside of myself. It wasn’t that I was a bad writer or even that writing was hard (it’s supposed to be). My real rut was that, as an author, I didn’t have a community. So I built one. And once I did, my attitude about writing—and even my writing—improved.
So, in the true spirit of community, I thought I would invite my critique groupies to interview me on the last stop (sniffle) of my I Haiku You blog tour. I’d like to introduce you to writers Kellie DuBay Gillis, Alissa McGough, Susan Reagan and Lindsay Ward (you can find links to their sites at the end of this post). Ok, ask away, ladies—and thank you for being my best book buddies!
KELLIE: Were there other haiku that you wrote for I HAIKU YOU and how did you and your editor decide which ones to include?
BETSY: Yes, it was a curated selection. While it was hard to say goodbye to some of the haiku, there was only so much room in the book. So some haiku had to go. My editor and I ended chose the haiku that worked best together as a collection and that fit comfortably into the arc of the day and seasons.
LINDSAY: Which illustration was your favorite to work on and why?
BETSY: Probably the campfire scene (even though it was also one of the most challenging illustrations for me). Who doesn’t love to illustrate a toasty marshmallow on a stick and tiny little s’mores? And a banjo?
SUE: Seems like everyone has an interesting story of how they came to book writing…what’s yours?
BETSY: Mine feels like a Cinderella story. While I was still working as an illustrator at American Greetings, my agent told me there was an editor at Random House that liked my art and asked if I did any writing—she was specifically looking for some novelty book ideas for baby. I had never pitched an idea to a publisher before and I didn’t even know what a novelty book was, but I spent a few weeks putting some ideas down on paper and sent them off. I really didn’t expect anything to come out of it. You can imagine my surprise when I got an email from my agent with the subject line: “Get out the champagne!!!” Random House had offered me a 3-book contract, and now I’m writing my 5th book for them. I know I was really lucky to land a book deal on my first try, but I also know part of it was seizing a good opportunity when it came my way. Here’s the pitch that became Haiku Baby.
ALISSA: In exactly ten words, why do you write/illustrate for children?
BETSY: connect, imagine, hope, contribute, belong, inspire, grow, create, share, remember
KELLIE: What are the three most important lessons you’ve learned while working on books for kids?
BETSY: 1. Remember your audience (and the kid in you) 2. Make time to work on new projects (which is easier said than done) 3. Connect with a community of other like-minded writers and artists (like a critique group!).
SUE: What comes first, the picture or the word?
BETSY: I usually have the idea for the visual first. Sometimes I’ll sketch that idea as a thumbnail and other times I’ll just write to the image in my head. But then I try to focus on the writing and revisit the visuals later—if I hold on too tightly to the visual part, I might miss a great solution for the text. Ultimately, I do try to write things that I’ll be excited to illustrate. I’m always kind of doing a back-and-forth checks and balance to make sure both the words and pictures work well together.
Sometimes I find a way to illustrate the details that don’t end up working as words. For I Haiku You, I really loved the phrase, ” letters of the day: P-B-J!” but couldn’t make it fit into the haiku. I came up with a better solution—I wrote it on the chalkboard as a visual detail instead.
KELLIE: What was your favorite picture book as a kid? Now that you write and illustrate books?
You know I can’t pick just one!
As a kid: Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey, Paddington by Michael Bond (illustrated by Peggy Fortnum), The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (illustrated by William Nicholson), Corduroy by Don Freeman, The Funny Thing by Wanda Gag
LINDSAY: What inspires you as a writer/illustrator?
BETSY: So many things: nature, travel, memories, kids, family, creative friends, different cultures. I try to write and illustrate things that I have a soft spot in my heart for—like purple popsicles!
BETSY: Yes, I still think about being a marine biologist. I have a HUGE crush on whales (how fitting) and still daydream of floating out on a research boat for weeks studying them. I am pretty sure I have a somewhat romanticized view of marine biology. I also have a hunch that if I was a marine biologist, I would be dreaming of writing and illustrating children’s books. Hey, anyone want to hire me to make a book about whales?!?
ALISSA: Who is your current “writer crush”?
BETSY: Always and forever, Eric Carle. I love how universal his books and art are. They somehow speak to the hearts of all of us, transcending the boundaries of language, geography and different cultures. I was so tickled to get to meet him last year when he did a book signing at his museum. I couldn’t stop smiling!
LINDSAY: Did you ever make a special valentine for someone when you were in grade school?
BETSY: Hm, I can’t remember making any special valentines (though I’m sure I did!). But I do remember there being a contest every year for the best decorated valentine box (we’d cut a slot in the top of a shoe box and use it as a “mailbox” for our valentines). I was always a top contender and took the challenge very seriously. One year, I turned my shoe box box into a mini canopy bed, using straws at the four corners to prop up my box-top “canopy” (at the time, I was obsessed with getting a girly canopy bed). Not sure if it won me extra valentines, but I did win a prize for the best valentine box! And it made a good Barbie doll bed afterwards.
ALISSA: A teaser of an upcoming book or idea? Here’s how: create a Valentine/love note from one of your characters to another.
dear little joey,
you make my heart so hoppy—
Kellie DuBay Gillis: www.kelliedubaygillis.com
Alissa McGough: www.lifeinagaggle.com
Susan Reagan: www.painted-words.com/reagan.html
Lindsay Ward: www.lindsaymward.com/
You can find Betsy Snyder on Twitter as @betsysnyderart, and and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Betsy-Snyder-Illustration/460676855270 and on the internet at www.betsysnyder.com.