I recently completed a 3 month mentorship with Anika Denise through the #PBChat mentorship program. Anika was amazingly generous with her time, talent, and knowledge. She was fun, and encouraging, and kind. She was incredible at pinpointing what my manuscripts needed, and giving me just the right amount of encouragement and push to make them better. It was a crazy awesome whirlwind of reading, revisions, and chats.
*Here’s a picture of our super fun post-mentorship virtual celebration. Pam Vaughn, Anika’s other mentee, is at the top with her lettuce snacks. (Don’t worry. Anika informed her that they had been recalled, and were not party fare anyways. She tossed them.) I’m on the bottom left in my homemade party hat, and Anika is on the bottom right looking schnazzy as always.
Now that the mentorship is over, I’ve been reflecting on the process, what I learned, and what I’ll take forward with me.
Lesson # 1: Read LOTS and LOTS of mentor texts.
I thought I was already reading plenty of picture books, but Anika helped me read smarter. I was reading whatever interested me and seeking out mentor texts on similar topics, which was good. Anika taught me how to zero in on specific elements of my stories that needed work and then seek out mentor texts that share that element, i.e., concept books that add an element of story, picture books written in a comic book style, or lyrical texts. That was so much better.
I was checking out 30-60 picture books at a time during my mentorship, focused on the specific story elements I was working on. And it helped me improve my manuscripts tremendously.
Lesson #2: Revise Fearlessly
(To give credit where credit is due – I simultaneously learned this lesson from my mentorship and my wonderful critique partners, Las Chicas Latinas, who are fantastically fearless revisers.)
If you have an idea, try it. Make a copy of the original so you don’t lose it, and then play. Don’t be afraid to change the beginning, the ending, the characters, the perspective, the story arch. No change is irrevocable, so have fun with it!
Even things that are working well can be improved upon. Or they might need adjusted to fit once you’ve made other changes. A revision can even be an exercise to help you improve a particular story element. Anika had me change my story from the third person perspective to the first person, which helped me find the main character’s voice and make the language more child-friendly. In the end, I decided to switch it back to third person, but the story retained that more childlike and authentic voice.
Lesson # 3: Give it Some Time and Distance
Sometimes, when you’ve worked really hard on something, a little time and distance is just what you need to find that spark you’ve lost in the process. After reading dozens of mentor texts, I reworked my counting concept book with Anika multiple times. I tried it this way and that way, toppled and rebuilt it. Some things were better, but some things were worse. After a few weeks, I had lost my love for that story and I was seriously contemplating just going back to the original draft – which wasn’t half bad. A break was in order.
Anika and I moved on for a couple of weeks and focused on a different manuscript. In the meantime, I attended my regional SCBWI Letters and Lines conference. The key take away from conference was clear – look to your inspiration. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you love? And why did you write this story? What do you want your readers to experience? Who is the main character and how is she similar to or different from you? Since my concept book is loosely inspired by a real event from my childhood, there was lots to ponder there. Anika and I jumped back into that manuscript, and with those questions informing my next revision, I was able to get it much closer to where I wanted it to be before our mentorship ended.
After the mentorship I took about a month off from writing. It was the holidays. I was tired. My kid was sick. … A break was just what I needed.
When I came back, I found a solution that re-sparked my love for that story. I think all the mentor texts, all the conference sessions, and all of Anika’s wise and gentle feedback was in there marinating while I rested. My brain was subconsciously stirring those lessons into ideas. And the revision that resulted is MUCH better than the original. I am definitely not contemplating going back now. I fell in love with that story again.
(Then I submitted it to an agent … and I got an R&R request!! YAY! So I know I’m on the right track. Now it’s time to return to Lesson # 1, seek out more mentor texts on the specific element the agent asked me to work on, and apply her feedback to my next revisions.)
Lesson #4: Trust Yourself
Perhaps the best thing I learned from Anika was to trust myself. To believe in the stories I love, and in my ability to tell them. I think it’s a lesson you have to learn through experience. For me, it was the experience of receiving a tough critique, doubting myself and my story, finding the courage to show it to Anika, and then being surprised when Anika loved it and believed in my ability to make it publishable. She was able to help me pinpoint what it needed because she got my vision and saw the potential it had. I learned an important lesson from that about how very subjective this writing thing is.
Just because one person hates your story does not mean it sucks.
Believe in yourself and your stories. Keep improving them, and eventually you will find the mentor, the agent, the editor, and the readers who love them as much as you do.
Lesson #5: “Always Pitch”
This one’s a direct quote from Anika. It means you can’t accomplish anything unless you try. It means don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You never know when you’re going to find your “yes.” So always pitch.
I’m sure there is more that I learned but those are the five lessons that stuck out to me.
I want to conclude by saying a HUGE “thank you” to Anika for mentoring me. I know it was a big time commitment and I want you to know that I’m forever grateful for the investment you made in me.
You can thank Anika, too, for her generous commitment to the writing community, by checking out her books at the library or buying them at your local Indie Bookstore.
Anika is the author of many wonderful books, including Planting Stories (which has one many awards in the last year and was on many “Best of 2019” book lists), The Love Letter, and the Starring Carmen series.