Thank you for joining me for this fifth excerpt in my serialization of the webinar interview I did with Emma Walton Hamilton for the Children’s Book Hub in January. Today, Emma will be musing about some of the discoveries she’s made about herself on the writing journey, and she’ll also tell us how and why she developed her online picture-book writing course, Just Write for Kids.
Emma is an educator, through and through. For years she taught acting, drama, and playwriting. She teaches Children’s Literature at Stony Brook Southampton University. She is executive director of the Young Artists and Writers Project (YAWP), and most germane to our discussion today, she developed and teaches the online/home study course, Just Write for Kids. As we have seen in previous excerpts of this interview, teaching brings Emma fully to life, and her teaching inspires the same in her students.
Let’s see what she has to say, shall we?
BETH: One of our Hub members asked what have been the most important discoveries you have made about yourself on your journey to become an author, both bumps and successes?
EMMA: Well I’m still discovering every step of the way.
BETH: I think that’s true as long as we live.
EMMA: Absolutely. That’s a tough question. I guess I would say that – well, one of the things that I’ve already talked about is that I love to solve problems, and that I have some areas that are strengths and others that are not. For instance, in my writing partnership with my mother I have learned over the years – we have both learned – what our individual strengths are and how to lean into those in such a way that we can support each other. I didn’t know that I had a gift for structure, but that turns out to be a useful thing when we are working together because it’s a nice complement to my mom’s gift for flights of fancy and character development. She’ll go out on a limb, imagination-wise, and I’ll be the one who gently brings it back to moving the story forward and keeping the structure in place. I have discovered what my strengths are as a creative person.
And I have discovered I am an appreciative audience! There was a moment when I was acting when I realized that I liked rehearsal better than performance. For me that was a real “Aha!” An epiphany, because that’s when I stopped acting and I went into directing and producing. I suddenly realized I could have all the creative fun of rehearsal and none of the pressure of actually having to stand in front of people, which I was always self conscious about.
BETH: I love to just be up on the stage.
EMMA: That was never the happiest place for me; I was always self-conscious. But that was a discovery about myself, that I like the creative process, it’s about creative play more than about applause or reaching out to an audience or any of those things in a sense. So that, for instance, has now come into play for me with recording audio books, which I love to do. I audio voicing whenever possible for children’s books, because there I get to be in a little sound booth, no audience whatsoever except the one I imagine is listening as I read, and act up a storm but all by myself. So that’s one of the discoveries. I like the creative process better than the results or end product.
BETH: Which feeds into your love of editing. Very interesting. Now I want to move on to the Just Write for Kids course, which is obviously a continuation of your teaching and your editing and your knowledge and skill in writing. Could you just talk a little bit about the process to develop it? Why did you develop it? How is it working? What are your plans for future developments?
EMMA: Yes. Thanks for asking about that Beth. There were several reasons why I developed it. First of all I was finding in my freelance editing practice that there were certain basic mistakes, common mistakes, that aspiring authors were making over and over again. I found I was repeating myself a great deal in my editing early on. Basic knowledge, like what is the difference between a picture book and a chapter book. Or how to craft a character or how to deal with dialogue or conflict, just basic mistakes. It occurred to me that there didn’t really seem to be much out there other than books that one could buy or a course one could sign up for at a university or library – but I couldn’t find much that people could do from home. I knew this would have been valuable for me, for instance, when my mother and I started writing together. We learned the hard way; from doing, and from our editor saying “Go back to square one; you can’t have an adult as your protagonist in a picture book; you have to have a child.”
BETH: You were lucky to have that editor.
EMMA: We were very lucky to have that editor and I am very lucky to have that partnership with my mom, which enabled us to have the interest of that editor from the beginning. So I made a lot of those mistakes myself and I realized if I could save people time and heartache by saying “Here are the basics, here is what you need to know to craft a picture book. You need to have a child or childlike protagonist. You need to have a problem that that protagonist has to solve…” If I could give them that, I could help them get there that much faster, and bypass the heartbreak and rejection over and over again by people saying they are not accepting manuscripts from authors who have teamed up with illustrators. All these basic things that once you have been in the business for a while and learned about and what you know, but in the beginning when you are just wide eyed and passionate you don’t know. I wanted to help save people time.
I also wanted, selfishly, to help my own editing practice in the sense that if they were a complete beginner perhaps they could do this course and then bring the manuscript to me. It’s much more fun to edit a manuscript that has really got something going.
All of what I do, teaching, editing, writing, the Hub, is part of the patchwork quilt that makes up my income stream, and this is something that is awkward to talk about but important. Many people mistakenly think, “I’ll write a book and that will support me.” The truth of the matter is that there are very few writers, even really successful writers, who only write as their source of income. For the amount of time that it takes, from starting the book to publication – a picture book is two years. And the advance that you could potentially get for that is not going to sustain you those two years. The reality is that you have to have another source of income or multiple sources.
Even if you look at our faculty at Stony Brook Southampton, we have Jules Feiffer and Roger Rosenblatt and Billy Collins, and these are all extremely successful, famous, established authors. But they choose to teach because they need to supplement their income, and because it provides benefits when you teach for a university – health benefits and so forth, and that’s a reality of being a writer. One should not imagine that the writing alone will sustain you – unless you’re James Patterson or JK Rowling. You need to come up with creative ways to make a living, and for me, what I really wanted to do, was to have everything, all those creative ways, be synergistic with one another. So I looked for ways that the work I did could cross-pollinate and could all have something to do with writing, the combined result of which would be making a living.
How I came up with the course is interesting, actually, and I recommend this if anyone is thinking about teaching as a way to begin. I was lucky in that I was scheduled to teach a picture book course at the university, so I recorded myself in class. I took a little digital recorder with me and every day, as I was teaching, I’d turn the recorder on and record the class. In the end I had hours and hours and hours of recordings of this class, and I sent them all away for transcription. Once I got the transcripts back I was able to edit them down or add material, but at least I had a beginning. It’s actually the same process that my mother and I used, when I was working with her on her autobiography. I would interview her, we would record it and have those recordings transcribed, and I would then convert it from interview form into narrative and give it to her to edit and put her own spin on. So I was comfortable with that already, and it worked very well because it gave me the bones for the course.
From there I developed it further. I had a wonderful web developer who helped me take it one step further in terms of how to build the website and how to deliver the assignments and worksheets and so forth. After the first year I went back in and, based on the questions and the feedback and comments, I revised it so it would be more current. It’s probably due for another revision now, this being the beginning of a new year. Every year the industry changes a little bit, and the rules change a little bit, and I want to keep it as fresh as possible. Of course I am desperately trying to get a middle grade course up and running as well!
BETH: You know how eagerly I am awaiting that!
EMMA: I know, and I have all the research and material, it’s just a question of time to sit down.
BETH: You are a very busy woman.
EMMA: I am, but I guess I like it that way!
BETH: The process of putting the courses together sounds again like your editing and your renovation of houses, and it’s all the same format.
EMMA: You are exactly right; it’s the same process. It’s all sort of taking the bones of something and refining it and chiseling away at the excess.
BETH: It’s neat to see the same threads coming through as we are talking. I get a much clearer picture of not only how you do what you do but why you do what you do, because it has grown out of how you approach life.
EMMA: Yes, it’s all related.
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If you are interested in learning (or learning more) about writing picture books, I highly recommend Emma’s Just Write for Kids course. Lessons come to you once a week for eight weeks by email, and you work through them on your own time. By the end of the course you are well on your way to having a submittable picture book manuscript, and you have the tools and knowledge to carry you through future writing projects as well. Just Write for Kids. Click that link for more information.