Yay! It’s time for me to gush about some books and convince you to buy them for every child you know. This has become a yearly tradition for me. (For five years now!)
I admit – I get excited going through my Goodreads list and rediscovering the books I’ve read that year. I get less excited trying to whittle it down to a reasonably sized list to share with you.
Some books have descriptions listed afterward to identify genres and features. For instance, kids love series – if you can get them to fall in love with the first one, they’ll often binge read the entire series.
And if you somehow don’t find a book on this list, check out the extra lists at the bottom of the post.
The old blog has been a bit quieter than usual. That’s because I was gone almost the whole month of September on a road trip.
With a dog, two kids, two adults, and one not-so-large camper.
We passed through numerous national parks, stopped in mega metroplises to visit friends and eat pastries, and even made it all the way out to the Northwest most point of the continental US. (From central Illinois. It was a HAUL.)
Since I mostly talk about my writing here, let me tell you about the writing I did on this trip.
Zero. Zilch. Nada. Not one word.
But it ended up being wonderful for my writing.
Before the trip, I had been revising several picture books as part of my mentorship. I was also working on a new middle grade novel. And I felt stuck on all of them.
When I say “stuck,” I don’t mean that I was waiting for the light of inspiration to fall on me complete with celestial choir. Because that doesn’t exist.
Instead, I take the approach that Maya Angelou does:
“When I’m writing, I write. Then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and say ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'” – Maya Angelou
Doing the work of writing brings inspiration, not the other way around. And nearly always, the answer to my writing problem is to sit down and do the work.
Occasionally there are other factors at play, too.
ME: Let’s write!
ME: How about coffee?
BRAIN: Took you long enough. #amwriting#maybe#coffee
But sometimes even when I do the work, even when I’m appropriately caffeinated, things just don’t… work. Bad writing days are par for the course, but when I’m doing my best to emulate Maya Angelou and all I can muster up is Charles Darwin on a bad day? That’s not good.
“I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders. ” – Charles Darwin on a very bad, no good, horrible day
And this is where I was before our road trip. I was doing the work but not getting much of anywhere.
Ironically, this happened partly because I have been growing a lot as a writer. My own efforts and the mentorship I’ve been working on this summer have meant growing and stretching. I’m more aware than ever of the flaws in my writing, but I haven’t quite improved my skills enough to fix those problems.
I feel like this is may be a universal truth: the better you get at writing, the harder it is. Or maybe it’s just me.
So I found myself with a pile of manuscripts that were both some of the best things I had ever written and also with the realization that they were not quite good enough. But I didn’t know how to fix them. Which had me feeling very poorly and stupid indeed.
And then I took a break. A looooooong break.
I intended to write along the way. I love writing and usually can’t stay away for long, even on vacation. But it was a very packed trip (see previous regarding 6000k miles in under a month with CHILDREN). And also, my writing self was still feeling poorly and stupid. So instead I giggled like a maniac at my landlocked children experiencing the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
(In the interest of fairness, they had been dodging the surf for a few minutes before this much large wave rolled in.
When I got back, I was nervous. A month is a long time away and things hadn’t exactly been going great. But I channeled Maya Angelou and sat down to work.
And… it worked!
I unblocked a picture book revision, added a few thousand words to my middle grade work in progress, and finished a blog post that has been on my list for awhile.
A month of relaxing, putting it out of my head, listening to good books and podcasts, seeing and doing enough things to make my introverted self tired for the next year – it helped. A lot.
I routinely do walk away from manuscripts to get some distance. A little distance often helps you find solutions. And I had tried that. But I don’t usually stop writing – I just switch to a different writing project. That works well when ONE manuscript is misbehaving, but not for ALL of them. For that I needed a total break.
Which brings me to a second possible universal truth about writing: Sometimes you have to step away from the page and live for a while before you are ready to write. Hopefully, it doesn’t always involve as much driving.
I love writing conferences – I always learn a ton and come home excited to work on my manuscripts. In fact, I wrote so many notes that the fountain pen in the next photo was over half empty when I got home. To put that in perspective, that’s the ink equivalent of a couple of ballpoint pens or more. That’s a lot of writing!
But it’s also just plain fun to hang out with people who love books as much as me.
This was my first writing conference outside of Illinois, so I can now say that writers everywhere are some of the kindest, loveliest humans on the planet. I’m running on fumes today because I stayed up every night chatting with my fellow conference-goers. It was definitely worth it.
I officially won the 12×12 challenge for the second year running by writing 13 new picture book drafts.
2018 in Reading
I didn’t quite hit my goal to read 500 books again this year, but I’m still really happy with my total. In the past, I hit those high numbers because I read a lot of picture books, but this year I shifted my focus to more middle grade. I hit my goal of reading 75 middle grade or longer works.
My Kidlit Karma project to blog reviews of books each month went really well! I reviewed or hosted reviews nearly every month.
Looking Ahead to 2019
2019 is already starting to fill up! My 2019 is likely to be just as busy as 2018 was. I have two more work for hire picture books to finish by the end of February, I was invited to join a small writers’ group for the first few months, and I’ll be finishing up my novel and begin querying it.
It’s likely to be another roller coaster!
Right now I’m working on setting my goals for 2019. If you’re doing the same, you might want to check out these posts on setting resolutions and goals.
Today is Day 3 when we share our writing successes for the year. All of them. In public. GULP.
Although it makes me feel like a Braggy McBraggypants, I decided to bite the bullet and submit to my blog. Not because I want others to pat me on the back, but because acknowledging my successes is important for me personally.
Writing can be an emotional roller coaster, and most (all?) writers struggle to keep up their confidence and resolve in the face of constant rejection. Having the courage to openly acknowledge our accomplishments helps us see ourselves as successful and capable – things we need to keep going in this pursuit.
A lot of my successes this year happened because I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. So **deep breath** let’s do it again and list it all out in public. In no particular order:
Blogged consistently! (Big accomplishment for me, lol.)
Had my middle grade novel beta read for the first time and got good feedback. I’m rounding up more Beta readers for after the holidays.
Was invited to be part of a writing coach’s new coaching group for women. She’s been coaching one-on-one for a while but we’re her beta session for doing it as a group, so I get to do it for free. Yay! And she reached out to me because I’m “a committed writer who is actively working on her craft”. Which was a nice compliment. 🙂
Read 275 books this year! Usually, I hit higher numbers (500 in 2017) but after many years of focusing on picture books I made a conscious effort to read more MG this year since I write that as well. I’m currently at 73 books that are MG or longer and around 200 picture books. So the overall number is down, but I’m really happy with it.
In late 2016 after a few years of working to build my writing career, I was finally getting somewhere. In September 2016 my first book, Goodnight Jesus, was published. That fall I also got to write my first Work for Hire picture books, the Little Elephants’ Big Adventures. Hurrah!
But that also meant I had a lot to keep track of: marketing a new book, managing contract work, writing my own manuscripts, querying, seeking additional contract work, and on and on and on.
I had also increased my writing output, but I was struggling to balance multiple projects.
Which projects is still out to query? Which should I send to my critique group this month? And I had a great idea for a new manuscript – where did I put that?
I couldn’t focus, and I wasn’t getting anything done.
In short: I was swamped.
I grabbed my bullet journal and made a monthly spread. I divided up all my tasks into different categories like marketing, submission, and writing.
I also listed out every manuscript I was working on. All of them. And I categorized them based on where they were in the writing process.
Suddenly, I could clearly see all the different moving part. I could zero in on the most important tasks and make plans for the future. And that paralyzing anxiety of too-much-to-do went away.
Over time, I’ve refined this system, but the basics are the same. I divide tasks into categories and have a framework for managing multiple writing projects.
At the top of the left-hand page, I list out my schedule and deadlines for the month. I love the Calendex, but I like having this right there, so I don’t forget things. Copying it over first, also means that I have a good handle on the month before I start making decisions on what to tackle.
The rest of the left page is broken into sections based on the major categories of writing tasks I want to accomplish each month:
Business and Marketing: Writing is a business, and there are tasks associated with that: seeking new Work for Hire contracts, seeking speaking engagements, website work, and blogging. When I have a new book on the horizon, this section beefs up with all the marketing work involved.
Submissions: Every month I submit to agents, editors, awards, etc. Here is where I can list what I plan to do for the month.
Craft: I’m a big believer in continually learning and improving my writing. I aim to do some craft development each month. That could be something big like going to a conference or completing an online class. Or it could be small – reading a craft-focused book or watching a free webinar.
MAKING THE TASK CATEGORY LISTS:
Most months, I tackle items in each category. That means I’m continually moving forward on many fronts. Over time that adds up to a lot of progress.
As I create this spread, I’m making many small decisions that help me set and achieve goals.
For instance, in Business and Marketing this month I have blog posts to write (like this one!), I need to gather up the last of my tax documents, and (time permitting) put together a page on my website about Author Visits.
I also want to submit to Work For Hire publishing houses to drum up more contract work for the future. However, it’s not pressing (I’m booked out through February). Also, a peek at the Schedule at the top lets me know that I don’t have time this month. I could decide this goal isn’t worth pursuing and cross it off. Instead, I decided it’s still something I want to do… just not this month. The arrow signifies that I’m bumping it down the road to the next month.
Similarly, this month I don’t have any Submissions listed. Although I try to submit each month, I know December submissions tend to languish while everyone is busy with holidays. So I decided to put my efforts towards other endeavors this month and hit the ground running after the new year.
These small decisions stack up over time. I’m setting goals and intentions every single month. By the end of the year, it amounts to a substantial amount of work all of which is aligned with my goals.
Most of the right page is used for what I call a Project Status. This is my lifeline for managing multiple projects. It’s an overview of all the manuscripts I’m currently working on, sorted by their present stage in the writing process.
The process reads from bottom to top:
Simmer: I always write down story ideas when they come to me. I have long lists elsewhere in my bullet journal. The most promising get put here. I let these stew in my brain for weeks or months. That simmering time helps lets the idea-fragments coalesce into a fully-formed idea. Plus, after a bit of stewing, I can usually tell which are worth pursuing and which are… not. When ideas languish on this list for a long time, I know they aren’t worth pursuing.
Write: These are the things I am planning to write this month. I pluck them from the simmer list, contracted work, or a new idea that’s too exciting to wait. I try to push a piece all the way through to a complete first draft before I set it aside. Then it moves to the Draft list.
Resting Drafts: This is the where I place all the manuscripts that are written but not done. Resting is a vital step in the writing process. A bit of distance helps you critically evaluate your manuscripts.
Revise: Most months I choose a piece from the Draft list for revision. I try to take it through a complete revision before setting it aside. I work over the whole manuscript focusing on just one aspect of revision. Usually, it ends up right back in the Draft list to rest before another round of revision. Very rarely do pieces graduate to the Done pile.
Done: Every step up to here has resulted in manuscripts being culled. Some never make it through the idea simmering stage. Others I may revise multiple times before I realize they’re not workable – at least not right now. But those that make it through the process end up here. These are the manuscripts I consider to be as complete and polished as I am capable of making them. They’re the ones I’m currently querying (that’s the Q designation). Even still, I will occasionally decide that a manuscript is just not publishable right now. Then I drop them off the list. Once in a while I will review a retired manuscript I find a new angle for it.
MAKING A PROJECT STATUS LIST: Each month, I’m considering and critically evaluating the manuscripts on this list.
Done: I start with the previous month’s list. I copy over anything that is Done. Occasionally, I decide that a manuscript needs to be retired. Usually, this is after I’ve queried it and not gotten any bites. Since these are the pool of manuscripts I’m currently submitting I made a simple designation to show what’s been queried ( -> Q) and what has been subbed elsewhere (like to awards and grant programs).
Revise: I look at the list of Resting Drafts from the previous month and decide which is most promising to Revise this month. I try to keep this list short – one or maybe two picture books a month is about what I can handle. This month is a little longer because my novel is with a Beta reader. I’m not doing active work on it, but it’s not exactly sitting in a metaphorical drawer either, so I listed it here with a note that it’s out to a Beta reader.
Resting Drafts: I copy over the rest of the items that are in the Resting Draft stage. As I do, I consider if these are workable or if they need to be retired, too. Sometimes I will include a note about a manuscript. I have one draft that I think may be better suited as a poem than a picture book.
Write: I consider the ideas on my Simmer list from the previous month. I look at the list of story ideas and choose the most promising to write into a new draft. Again, I try to keep this list short. This month I have one picture book listed. I’ve also started listing blog posts or other non-book writing here. I don’t put my non-book writing through this full process, but it’s a reminder so I don’t bite off more than I can chew.
Simmer: Lastly, I copy over any ideas that didn’t make the cut for writing this month. I consider if each idea is worth pursuing or not. If not, I leave them off. If
This whole process takes me just a few minutes. But as I go I’m making small evaluations (Would this work better as a poem? Is this idea worth pursuing? Which draft do I want to make each month?) And those small decisions mean that I am setting goals (like what I will write) and critically evaluating my work.
This month I have a work for hire picture book due and another one to begin. With blog posts, that’s more than enough for a busy holiday-filled month.
Starting with the Done and Revise manuscripts means that I’m focusing on pushing manuscripts toward the finish line. (Instead of continually producing new drafts that don’t get anywhere.
The last thing I do is to make a quick list of the month’s top priorities. By this time, I’ve made all my decisions about what to work on. I like having a handy list where I pull those top tasks from the different parts of the monthly spread.
I’m a bullet journal and planning junkie. Working out the exact right system for maximum joy and productivity is 1000% my jam.
Over the last few years, I’ve worked out a system that helps me make the most of my writing time, keep track of multiple projects, and meet my goals.
Today I’m really excited to launch a blog series on Bullet journaling for writers. Read this blog series to learn my (not so) secret system for organizing your writing life to reduce stress and maximize joy.
Not only that, you can get a printable version for free when you sign up for my mailing list.
Today I’m going to take you for a tour through my bullet journal.
In later posts, I will take you through my magical monthly spread and share ideas for collections for every writer’s bullet journal.
I hope this peek into my bullet journal helps you find more writing joy in your writing life.
The thing about bullet journaling is that it’s not just about the journal. The magic is in the process.
As you create the journal you’re reflecting on the tasks you want to accomplish = setting goals and make plans accordingly.
Afterward, you analyze the un-done tasks and unmet goals before making new plans = reevaluating your goals and resetting your intentions.
It’s a process with goal-setting and intentionality built in that just so happens to fit in a notebook.
Once you get the basics down, you can customize it to your heart’s desire. Your bullet journal will not be exactly like mine, because you don’t work in exactly the same way I do.
My Bullet Journal
You can start a bullet journal any time and keep going until it’s full. I prefer to set up one for each year. I’ve been doing this for a few years, so I know that one journal is just about right for a year.
For 2019, I’m using a Silver Rhodia goal book. It has good quality paper (which I need for fountain pens) and it has some pages pre-formatted in useful ways.
It’s looking great – crisp and untarnished by, you know, actual use. Great for inspiration but empty pages don’t really show you how to use a journal.
So I’m also going to share some pictures from my 2018 journal – a softcover Moleskin. This one has that lived-in look that I’ve come to cherish. Which is to say, it’s messy. No matter how good my intentions, at some point I get a bit slapdash. So don’t despair if your journal isn’t a work of art like the ones you see on Instagram – I’m right there with you.
The first thing you need is an index. You’ll be adding things to your bullet journal over time. When you do, put an entry in the index with the page number so you can easily find the entry later.
My 2019 journal already comes with pages formatted for a table of contents and all the pages numbered.
Previously I set aside a few pages for the index and numbered the pages by hand. It’s tedious, but not hard.
A collection is simply a two-page spread of information you want to keep together. Find a blank page and list all the information together.
Here’s one from my 2019 Bullet Journal. I try to blog on the first and fifteenth of each month. In my 2019 writing bullet journal, I went to the next open page (26) and made a collection to hold all the information about blog posts. I noted that in the index.
It’s looking a little empty right now, but it will fill up through the year as I jot down ideas and track what I post.
There are a ton of collections that can be useful for writers. I have another blog post with collection ideas for writers. Make sure to hop over and check that out.
The future log is a special kind of collection. It’s a place to track future events and tasks.
Last year, I didn’t really use a future log. My Rhodia has these pages preformatted with the months, so I’m going try using them as a future log this year. You can see I’ve already jotted down some deadlines and tasks for January and February.
The Rhodia comes with spreads I can use for this. Previously I drew it out by hand.
SETTING UP A CALENDEX: Each column represents a month. Each row represents a day. I drew lines across to show breaks between weeks. (I use a Monday-Sunday week for planning so the weekend isn’t split up.)
USING THE CALENDEX: Earlier I showed you the collection I made for Blogging information on page 26.
In my Calendex, I wrote in the page number (26) on the first and fifteenth of each month.
Now when I look at the calendex, I can instantly see that I’ve got a deadline that day (like a calendar) and I can easily trace it back to all the relevant information on page 26 (like an index).
You can make this even more useful with color coding. I use green to signify critique group meetings and deadlines, blue for writing deadlines (like blog posts), red for writing challenges, and purple for events. The little stars indicate holidays, birthdays, and the like.
USING THE CALENDEX FOR PLANNING: I love the Calendex because I can instantly see how busy I’m going to be. For instance, in January 2019 I can see that I’ll be working on writing new books for the Little Elephant’s series all month long. I also have a writing challenge I want to participate in. It’s looking busy already and I don’t even have any of my critique group meetings listed yet. (I’m in 3 critique groups. It’s a lot.)
This is useful for planning: I know January is not the month to start writing that new novel or to take on more contract work.
My monthly log is by far the most important piece for keeping me organized. I’m dedicating a whole blog post to this one. So make sure you check that out. I’ll give you a taste of it here.
In a traditional Monthly log, at the beginning of the month, you would make a spread for the month. Copy over all upcoming events and tasks for the month from your future log. Then add anything else you need to get done for the month.
MY MONTHLY SPREAD: Over time, I’ve devised my own monthly spread for my writing bullet journal. It’s designed to meet my needs:
I needed a system to keep track of a variety of writing tasks: writing, craft development, business and marketing, submissions, etc.
I needed a way to manage multiple manuscripts at the same time.
The whole thing serves as a dashboard – a place to gather the most important information so I can tell, at a glance, what my priorities are and what tasks I need to accomplish to meet my goals.
Daily (ish) Logs
The daily log is your list of events and tasks for the day. Though you can get fancy, mine is essentially a to-do list. After writing it out, I sometimes number them by priority.
It’s daily-ish because I don’t write one out every day. In a few days when the list is no longer relevant, I make a new one.
There are a lot of reasons to go to writers conferences. The obvious one is that you learn a ton and it always reinvigorates me. After the day is over I’m itching to get back to writing.
As someone who struggles with building out character motivations, I loved this “Dungeons and Dragons” themed talk on character building from @WeslieTurner. Excellent talk, excellent advice. “Keep asking What If questions. That’s how you create great characters.”#PWID2018@scbwipic.twitter.com/GdaQSttHqK
It’s also great for networking. When I went to my first Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrator’s (SCBWI) conference in 2015, I knew almost no one. This year, it felt like I couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone I have a connection with: people from my local SCBWI region, new friends I’ve made at other conferences, writers I know from online forums, and fellow volunteers for KidlitNation.
And this brings me to another major benefit. Yes, it’s useful to know people in the industry. These are people who can help spread word of mouth about my books or help connect me with work contacts. But even more importantly, these are my friends and community.
Writing can seem like a really lonely endeavor – sitting alone at a computer typing away. That’s definitely some of it, but in the digital age, we also connect over the internet. We find support, camaraderie, and friendships with like-minded writers around the country and around the world. I’m so thankful that the internet is able to bring us together, but there’s an extra joy in getting to see people face to face.
This introverts cup was full to overflowing this weekend. Now I’m ready to hide back in my office and get some writing done.
I’m looking forward to being back in the classroom. Better yet, I get to talk about kidlit for nearly a whole week!
The only thing better than talking about kidlit, is sharing my books with real kids. I’m also working on scheduling author visits to parishes in Louisville, Kentucky, and Chicago, Illinois. Check back for details!
If you’re interested in having me visit your parish or class, contact me to find out details.