YOU’RE NOT A WRITER IF…

Writers tend to doubt themselves, amiright? “I’m not a real writer if I’m not published yet” or “Sure, I’m published, but compared to so-and-so I wouldn’t really consider myself a writer.” Knock it off. If you write, you’re a writer.

Unless…you’re not.

In Feb (2020) I held a “You’re Still a Writer If…” blog event at WriteOnCon. In honor of that event, I’m giving a quick preview list of the opposite…ways you can tell if you are NOT a writer. Hopefully you do not check any of these boxes, my friend.

You’re NOT a writer if…

  • You’ve posted a FANTASTIC blog/tweet/chapter and are waiting to go viral (or be discovered)

Yeah, sorry. No one is going to just happen upon you, discover your brilliance, and offer you a million-dollar book deal. That’s not how it works. Publishing isn’t a passive sport. You need to get off your duff and hit the virtual pavement. You need to find THEM. You need to seek out the best editor or publisher or agent for your work. Chronicle Books, for example, gets over 1,000 kidlit submissions A MONTH. You think those hard-working editors have time to proactively scour the internet looking for a diamond in the rough? If only. You are the captain of your ship, the coach of your team, the driver of your bus, the director of your movie, the beater of your drum. You can’t sit there and wait.

Wanna call yourself a writer? Then don’t just sit there, man. Go out and get ‘em.

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Let’s say you now submit your story, but you’re not a writer if…

  • You cranked out a story in record time
Time-lapse Photography of Brown Concrete Building

I always say writing a picture book is easy. Writing a good one is hard. There are formulas and formats and industry standards and protocols…things you can only learn by putting in your time.

Can you wake up one morning, never having run a day in your life, and win the Boston Marathon? (Uh, correct answer is No. Nice try, optimists.) Writing is the same way. You have to train: do your homework, hone your craft, edit, rewrite, edit some more. Perfection can be simple, but it’s never easy. Writing crappy stuff doesn’t make you a writer. Not to me at least.

After a talk I gave about how to start writing children’s books, a young man and his lady friend came up to me. Or should I say he swaggered over and she quietly followed. He proudly announced he had just written a children’s book, how he had never written one before, and how excited he was about it. His lady friend was duly impressed. I congratulated him. He told me he knew it was good because it took him “only about three minutes.” I tilted my head, paused, and said something about how that’s a great start and encouraged him to consider spending some more time on it, maybe joining a critique group and getting feedback before going any further. He shook his head and waved his hand at me as he said “No need,” and proceeded to tell me because it came to him “just like that” <with a snap of the fingers>, that meant it was good. Finished.

Now you have to understand, in the hour-long presentation he had just attended, I talked about reading 100 (current) children’s books to get a feel for the industry, how you still need a solid plot, the importance of word choices and word count, to set aside your first few drafts for a few weeks, etc. But this guy here, having perhaps (I’m guessing) read his last children book 13 years ago when he was five, was convinced he wrote The Next Great Picture Book in three minutes.

I wished him well, and he swaggered off into the proverbial sunset.

I am sure he was well intended.

He was not a writer, though. He was a poser.

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Let’s say you now take time to edit, but you’re not a writer if…

  • You listen too hard to other people

Heck, maybe that person is me. I never saw that guy’s manuscript, maybe it IS genius. <insert shrug emoji lol> Writing is subjective, sure. What works for you might not work for me or someone else. Just because I don’t read magical realism, for example, doesn’t mean there isn’t value in it. But you’d be best off getting a critique partner that knows (and likes) the genre rather than someone unfamiliar with it.

giving feedback
image from unsplash

There are certain aspects and styles and formats and rules that we all need to follow to some degree, though. I always say follow the rules the first time, and once you’re “in,” break all the rules you want. Even that advice might not work for you. Remember when I said you’re the captain of your ship, the driver of your own bus, etc? You still need to be in charge of your own writing and editing. It’s yours!

OF COURSE other people’s opinion’s matter—that’s how books are sold (how any product is, really—people need to like or want it). You need to listen to the right people. I know, I know, that’s the tricky part—figuring out whose advice can best steer you in the right direction. It’s been said that a critic suggested F. Scott Fitzgerald “get rid of that Gatsby character,” and we’ve all heard how many times the Harry Potter series was rejected because it was too long, not kid friendly, considered not commercial enough, blah blah. Clearly those writers knew well enough to toss those kernels of advice. When you ask for feedback, such as at critique groups or a paid conference critique, please keep an open mind when people give you feedback, especially in the beginning, and consider what other people have to say; I’m not saying to toss all of it. (I do listen to unsolicited advice from well-intended friends that aren’t in the industry, because almost all readers are potential buyers and they might actually be my target audience one day, but just like taking parenting advice from someone that’s never had kids? Please.) The longer you’re in the industry, the better you get at discerning valid feedback (“Wow, I never thought of that, thanks!) vs opinions that are not in line with your vision (“Gee thanks, I’ll try to keep that in mind…”).

But if you listen too much and change TOO MUCH (your style or genre or main character’s motivation or whatever), then you’re not a writer. You’re a robot.

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Let’s say you now have a solid story, but you’re not a writer if…

  • You don’t read

Read, read, and read some more. It’s not about knowing what your competition is up to (they aren’t your competition anyway, this industry honestly isn’t like that, they are your colleagues). It’s staying on top of what’s trending, what to avoid, and knowing who is who. You’re educating yourself on the book industry overall, the one you plan to play a large role in some day. Don’t you want to know what’s going on? You gotta stay educated.

Reading can give you inspiration. It can offer effective roadmaps that you don’t have to (re)create from scratch. It shows you tricks like layering or effective use of metaphors or good old distractions that allow for a spectacular twist ending. I mean, you can read a How to Write a Mystery manual, but there’s no better teaching method than reading an actual mystery that’s well done and watching it unfold before your own cute little eyes. Can you imagine taking your driver’s test having only read the DMV manual, without ever being in a moving vehicle or having seen a car? [Wait, in that case I’m saying you can’t just read a book and then do it but I think you see what I’m saying…] You have to experience it, not just hear someone tell you about it.

You can’t be a writer without being a reader.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Stephen King

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Let’s say you now read lots, but you’re not a writer if…

  • You don’t write

“Writer” is a verb, not just a title.

Stop making excuses! Taking a break is fine, but breaks have end points. Stop spending so much time finessing your bio about how you’re writer that you’ve left no time to actually write. Stop surfing social media. [Seriously. Give yourself a window, and ONLY check in at those times. I try to check in midmorning, AFTER I’ve done some work, and later in the afternoon. Sometimes at night too, but never late b/c it tends to agitate me and disrupt my sleep (there’s so many distractions!).]

Yas needs ta write to be a writer! If you’ve stopped, start again. If you are just getting started and are frozen in fear, dude get over it. Start writing. Anything. Outlines. Summaries. Notes. Story ideas. Character names. Backstory. A list of potential future titles (I have a friend that has written TWO books after a cool title popped into her head). Anything that will get your pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. You don’t need an arbitrary daily word count or daily number of minutes/hours toiling at your desk; not every successful writer has them. You don’t need to write every single day; not every successful writer does. You don’t need to feel like writing; not every successful writer is magically inspired at every given moment. But you know what all successful writers have in common?

They write.

I can’t believe I have to say this…but you’re not a writer if you don’t write.

End of story.

Are ya with me? What you need to do RIGHT NOW is stop reading this, and get back to work.

You’re a writer, afterall.

[Don’t forget to pop into WriteOnCon at some point (any point really), the best bargain in the business, starting at $15 for access to all blogs, keynotes, Q&A, and live workshops like the HOW TO MARKET YOURSELF BEFORE YOUR BOOK EVEN COMES OUT live workshop I also gave. #shamelessplug]

What are you doing still reading? Get back to writing!

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Laptime with our little ones

This guest blog post originally appeared on The Bedtime Stories Blog on May 2, 2018 on https://medium.com/bedtime-stories-blog

Turning Classic Fairytales Upside Down

Keeping The Old, With New Modern Twists!


We all know the classics fairytales and storybook rhymes our grandparents taught us or read to us. But do our kids know them? Unless it was made into a movie or TV show, maybe not. If our kids have heard the rest of them, they probably think they’re dated. The challenge: How do we keep these classics, and traditions, alive? We make them relevant to today’s world.

When I think of storybooks or fairytales, I think of a cosy, dusty old room in the back of my grandparent’s house, where my grandmother kept the kid toys we’d play with and books we’d read over and over again when we stayed at their house. There was one book, in particular, that was thick, with gold-rimmed pages (so fancy!) and lots of, well, really weird pictures. Cats wearing tall black boots and kittens wearing mittens and butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. The stories were crazy too. A man that ate pumpkin all the time. He put his wife in a giant one! A lady that had so many children she didn’t know what to do. And get this — they lived in a shoe. A shoe!! A cracked egg that even kings couldn’t help. Princesses. Oh, the princesses. And riches beyond reason. I couldn’t get enough of that book. I read those pages over and over, the gold trim slowly fading wherever I tended to touch the most. The fact that my grandmother had so many of those rhymes and stories memorized blew my mind. How did she do it?

Year after year I realized she did it the same way I was doing it…by hearing them read over and over by my grandmother. She must have had them read to her over and over by HER grandmother too. As I grew, I was reading them on my own, over and over, to the point it became ingrained in my brain much the same way I can still remember her home phone number (Mohawk5–1104). Those stories aren’t just something written in a book, they are something I shared, and treasured, with my grandmother. I grew up without a mom, so she was the closest adult to me, and that bond over reading is absolutely life changing and irreplaceable. Parent to child, or grandparent to grandchild.

That’s how tradition becomes tradition, and classics become classics.

Yet somehow, we’ve lost that sense of tradition. The classics, unless they’ve been turned into a movie, Broadway musical, or (often unbearable) TV show, are no longer retold. Don’t get me wrong — I understand why. Those classics are often horrifying! They’re awful, and weird, terribly politically incorrect, and not something I ever read to my own kids. Lots of kids getting eaten. Child brides. I mean, some versions of the original Sleeping Beauty are so horrific, I can’t even tell you. And the very beginning of the Snow White movie when the queen sends the squire to bring back Snow’s White’s HEART?? Oh my gosh, when I bought that CD for my daughter I had to fast forward through that part every time, I had completely forgotten.

We have to admit the classics might not be worth retelling AS-IS in today’s modern world. I think we as parents realized we didn’t want our kids hearing that stuff anymore, and we stopped retelling the stories.

The bad part of that is we lost tradition. We lost that part of “let me tell you a story that I heard from my mom who heard it from her mother who heard it from her grandmother…”

What happened in the meantime is someone else started telling our kids stories. Some one, or some thing. Our kids are watching these stories on TV or on their iPad or reading it piecemeal off someone’s Twitter feed. They aren’t sitting on our laps anymore. Or not as much as they could be.

I think it’s time to take lap time back. Take those classics back, too. But hang on a second, let‘s turn those classics on their heads. Make them fun and relevant — something a kid today WANTS to listen to. Something that both parents AND kids can have fun with.

That’s why I wrote the Bedtime Stories series “Kid Joey: Fairytale Detective” They take conventional storybook rhymes and fairytales, but add a twist. So the story you THINK you know, the story you’ve heard over and over, has a new ending or new twist, or new angle — with lots of laughs along the way. It’s fun for adults because they don’t know the ending or details either, and they get to experience the story in a new way, together with the child.

I figured it would be fun to take those same stories we know so well, and add some unexpected perspectives and new twists. These “new” stories let kids of today relate to the classics while parents and grandparents get to see, and enjoy them, in a new light. And not be horrified! What if we met PRINCE Midas, before he was King and before he turned into a selfish jerk? What if the 3 Little Pigs were a set of chatty girl triplets? I mean, an egg sitting on a wall makes no sense, and it spilling its guts all over the places is terrifying. But what if Humpty Dumpty was a football player, and his defense strategy was called “The Wall”? What if there was another kid named Joey who made it his mission to make sure Humpty did NOT have a great fall? I mean, sure, it’s still a leap of faith that a giant egg is walking around school, let alone playing football, or that pigs can talk, etc, but there is a certain degree of creative license fairytales allow us. It works. The fun comes in when we turn those fairytales upside down, on their heads, and see what shakes out. Let’s have a laugh while we read these stories. (Spoiler alert: there are no guts splayed about! No evil stepmoms either. (You’re welcome.))

What’s extra fun about the series is it gives parents, grandparents, and caregivers the chance to open up a dialogue about the old fairytale and storybook tales. Maybe it‘s the chance to tell the story for the first time. For example, in one story, Jack Spratt is mentioned, but no reference to him eating no fat and/or his wife eating no lean is brought up. Ask your kids “Do you know who Jack Spratt is?” When they say “No,” which they are bound to reply, pause for a minute and recite the silly rhyme. Share the story with them. Embrace that laptime. We all know it’ll be gone in a flash.

Let’s start the conversation back up, and have fun doing so!


About the Author

You may have seen author Bitsy Kemper on CNN, profiled in Writing Children’s Books For Dummies, or in literally hundreds of American TV news programs, newspapers and magazines. Maybe you passed her at the airport and didn’t even know it! Author of over 16 books, from picture books to chapter books to YA, she has enjoyed resuscitating old fairytales and bringing Joey to life in these (hopefully charming!) bedtime stories.

She enjoys dark chocolate, yoga, and church — but is careful to never indulge in all three at the same time. Busy raising three kids (four if you count her husband), she loves presenting at schools, libraries, and conferences all around the world.

Find out more at www.BitsyKemper.com.