What is the height of success for a writer? Jennifer Mook-Sang’s been nominated for the Silver Birch and many other prestigious awards for her first novel Speechless (Scholastic)
but when her second book Captain Monty Takes the Plunge (Kids Can Press) was chosen as a McDonald’s giveaway–that’s when I really felt joy and envy for her.
This term as part of my Writing for Young Audiences class at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, I asked her some questions to share as part of teaching picture book writing. I loved her responses so much that I felt compelled to share them here to a wider audience.
Where did the idea for Captain Monty Takes the Plunge come from?
I was taking a PB writing class where the (not very good) teacher told us to write a character with a problem. I sat in the parking lot, waiting for my sons to get out of school, grabbed my sketch book (I was also taking a painting class) and started to write. the whole thing came out in five minutes — except I didn’t have an ending. when the teacher marked it, she suggested adding more setting/description. I did. And, of course, all that came out later because it was superfluous.
2 How did that original kernel grow into the story it is now?
I tried over many years to find an ending and wrote some really awful ones till I decided to send something to the CANSCAIP writing for children contest. That forced me to think hard about the story. A DIFFERENT teacher had recently told us that stories can be very satisfying if the end comes around to the beginning, so I sat and imagined Monty standing on the cannon at the beginning of the story, and in a flash (I know this stuff seems like magic sometimes), the ending came in my head. who knew? Took ten years.
3 Did you experience rejection?
I’ve had some rejection but not as much as I expected. when I started out on this journey, everyone said to expect lots. all the books, teachers, conference presenters said, ‘rejection letters are a badge of honour – a sign that you’re a real writer. So I hung on to that idea to get me past the parts where my writing sucked — all the rewrites suggested by critique groups, all the ignoring from publishers and agents.
4 What advice do you have for beginner writers?
Think about what you’re reading. Ask yourself why you like what you like, and why some things don’t work for you. How does the writer manipulate the words to make you feel something?
Read the books on awards finalists lists. At the very least you’ll know what’s being published that’s considered good.
Reading develops taste. When you write bad stuff, you’ll be able to recognize it and want to fix it.
I think that’s one of the best reasons for reading widely and deeply.
plus it gives you great ideas to steal and use in your own work.
Thanks Jennifer Mook-Sang!
One of the things I really took away from these answers which I wanted my students to understand, is that picture books especially may take years for you to finally get to the place where you hear the audible click! Yes, that’s it. That’s exactly how I wanted my story to go, exactly what I wanted it to say. Good writing makes it look easy. but as Malcom Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours to achieve success in any field.
But if you love writing, who cares.