I'm a world-class introvert who, except for college, has been perfectly happy creating art by myself without a soul intervening. But the day I realized I wanted to write books for children, I went looking for people with the same goal. I needed to learn and I wasn't prepared to go into debt for an MFA. So I joined the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators and found a local critique group.
That was ten years ago. Not only did I discover writers who were willing to share their knowledge and experience, I found people who accepted and supported me. My critique partners, the Skyway Writers, are committed, compassionate women. We're as dedicated to helping each other succeed as we are to achieving our own goals. We share our stories, our hopes, our devastation over hurtful book reviews, or agents and editors who pass on our projects. As our knowledge evolves, our writing grows stronger through honest, intensive feedback. Today, I consider these women great friends and I can't imagine writing without them.
Bolstered by my critique group experience, I fought my reclusive tendencies and dragged myself to SCBWI events. Here in Florida, we have an amazing community of writers. For many years, writing teacher and picture book author, Rob Sanders organized local SCBWI workshops and presentations. No introvert stands a chance when confronted with Rob's charm. He has a smile as warm as Texas and a passion for helping writers achieve their goals. He has now passed his local responsibilities to writing coach Bob Schwartz, but Rob hasn't stopped encouraging writers. At the state level, Florida's Regional SCBWI Advisor, Linda Bernfeld, works year round with a host of dedicated volunteers to support writers. They orchestrate two conferences, gathering some of the publishing industry's best and brightest to teach and inspire Florida writers. Florida SCBWI also provides mentoring opportunities, a website and newsletter, a statewide boot camp, an annual writing contest and a growing list of critique groups. If you visit a conference, you'll see Linda and her team, racing here and there, making sure writers and presenters have what they need. They come to those conferences, determined to make writers' dreams come true.
From the start, everyone, and I mean everyone, has been kind and friendly. I'm not sure what it is about children's writers, but if you sit next to one, you've likely made a friend for life. Some are shy like me, some outgoing and engaging. But they all scoot over to welcome new members. And that feeling isn't contained to Florida. SCBWI President Stephen Mooser answers emails as if he's sitting across from you, sipping tea. He and Executive Director Lin Oliver, travel from their homes in California to teach and inspire at our conferences. They offer a fantastic yearly grant contest, opportunities for members to publish articles, poems and illustrations in their magazine The Bulletin, and a place to interact, ask questions, find and form groups on their website.
But even with that army of goodwill permeating a decade of SCBWI membership, the child inside me who moved too many times to make friends, hesitated to believe I belonged.
Until two weeks ago.
It was the weekend of the SCBWI conference in Miami where the results for Florida's 2018 Rising Kite writing contest would be announced. I wasn't able to attend, but encouraged by writing partner Augusta Scattergood, I entered my middle grade book in the contest. Sunday afternoon, my phone pinged. Fellow Skyway writer Teddie Aggeles texted "Look at your email!"
I did. There in my inbox was a message from two more Skyway Writers, JC Kato and Janet McLaughlan. They were at the conference, cheering and accepting my award for first place in middle grade fiction. My phone pinged again and I pulled up Facebook to see a photo and congratulations from author/illustrator Fred Koehler:
More cheers followed, many, many cheers, from people I knew and people I didn't. I cried happy tears off and on all afternoon. Winning was a great honor and a thrill, but it wasn't the award that overwhelmed me. It was the kindness and love from writing friends. It went straight to my heart and broke that rusty, old lock that chained me to the belief I didn't belong. So, thank you Rob and Dorian Cirrone, for your special efforts to support this reticent writer. Thank you Janet and JC, for cheering my win, accepting my award and pitching my book to an agent. You are the most awesome writing pals. Thank you Fred and Teddie for elevating my Sunday afternoon by announcing my win. Thank you Augusta for always, always encouraging writers to reach for the dream. And last, but in no way least, thank you Linda, Dorian, Linda Shute, your brigade of volunteers and every person who scoots over to make room for shy people. You are a powerful force for good in this world.
I've been reading writers' Facebook posts summarizing 2017 and looking forward to bigger and better things in 2018. Many of them listed books being published and manuscripts sold that will become future books, which is fabulous. But I wonder how they celebrated those accomplishments.
Writers struggle for years to produce a publishable book. Then there's the long, agonizing journey to find an agent who loves the project, and another trek to find a publisher who believes in it, too. In the quest to attract agents and publishers, we endure more rejection than many people face in a lifetime. We battle anxiety and self doubt. We question why we put ourselves through this torture.
So when a writer's manuscript beats the odds and becomes a purchasable reality, you'd think there'd be a big party. All the friends and relatives who couldn't for the life of them understand why it took ten years to make a book would be invited, along with the author's writing community. They'd bring their excitement and high hopes for the book's success. The author's spirit would bubble and glow, refreshed and recharged for the grueling journey of the next project.
I have a lot of published writer friends, but I've never heard of any of them throwing a party. They share their good news on Facebook and Twitter, garnering a flurry of excitement that lasts a day or two, all of it evaporating in cyberspace while the author sits at home. The closest they come to physically celebrating is a book launch. Although they get congratulated and wished good luck, book launches are all about about introducing and selling the book. It's business
My critique group is wonderfully supportive and deeply committed to each member's success. We celebrate holidays with gifts and goodies, sometimes even a special lunch. If one of us travels, they'll likely bring back souvenirs. Our fabulous leader Teddie often surprises us with impromptu gifts. But when it comes to our writing, an enthusiastic round of congratulations is how we usually recognize achievements. That's just plain sad. Are we allergic to literary exuberance, afraid too much joy will curse our next project?
I don't know the answer, but one of my goals in this new year is to rectify this imbalance. I've asked my critique partners to brainstorm ways to acknowledge accomplishments, from finishing a book to seeing it on the shelves. I'll let you know what we come up with and what we do with those suggestions. In the meantime, I hope you have an art or writing project you're excited about and that 2018 brings plenty to celebrate. Happy New Year!
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. And creatures, always creatures. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor