When to Experiment?


I’ve been leaving my comfort zone in illustration lately and it’s messy. And often ugly. But it feels so good. I’ve liberated myself against the overwhelming pressure to be done enough to submit work and be publishable. That wasn’t easy since I feel I’m past my due date for needing more, better work.

So when do you experiment?
I say now. Always.

You can’t afford not to experiment.

We are taught to be afraid of change. Change of job titles, who we choose to spend time with, how we dress. Even if you think you don’t subscribe to those societal pressures, as adults we are supposed to be something. Once that something is known to others we get scared to do, act, or be anything different. But how many of us feel like we are in our final state of who we are?

So why do we let ourselves believe we can’t experiment? We don’t have time? Someone won’t understand what we are doing? What about the potential that lies on the other side of that experiment. The discovery. The possibility of change. There is excitement in the unknown.

I’ve rebuilt my portfolio countless times in my career for new labels. I have to learn what’s expected, figure out my own twist so I can challenge myself, and then keep working to make it better.

My growth as an artist, and a person, is constantly evolving. Anytime I’ve tried to convince myself otherwise is when clouds stick around, and feeling lost is inevitable.

When should you experiment?
Now. Right now. Always.

Let the world see your mess. And know you are capable of something other than what you are making or doing right now.

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Working with My Nemesis

Rhyme. My Nemesis.

Every spelling test that required an understanding of syllable emphasis: Failed.
I am musically declined.
Reading Dr. Seuss is exhausting (his illustrations are a different story).

I confess my rhyming weakness when joining writing groups, because I will never be the person who can help you improve in this area. So how did I come to writing a picture book manuscript in rhyme?

To my displeasure, one of my nagging ideas started as few lines of rhyme. I walked away. Because this. was. not. right. I don’t do rhyme. It’s not me.

I wasn’t gone for long. A rough draft was forming before my eyes. Even though I questioned the approach after every stanza, I kept going. I had a story. It was in rhyme. Horrible, wonky rhyme, with no sense of meter, but it was something.

The manuscript took a rest while I immediately begged critique partners for resources. Certainly I can school myself on this rhyming thing, right? I edited to the best of my ability and in short time, it was in other people’s hands for feedback. I promptly decided this wasn’t a form I should pursue.

Then I attended a writing workshop that included a section on rhyme. A section where I was completely lost. I was in a room with writers who composed lovely rhyme and meter, that made sense, AND was often funny, in a matter of minutes. That sealed the deal. I would close the door on rhyme. This was not where I needed to put my energy.

BUT, my work was not wasted. What I learned from writing outside my comfort zone:

  • Writing in an unfamiliar form can push you out of pattern writing behavior.
  • I developed twists in the story that surprised me.
  • Experimenting was fun. You can always alter the form into something you want to continue to work with.

As an illustrator first — doodling, working with a variety of media, and producing work at all levels of finish is second nature. Playing is part of the creative process that has a complete history outside of what is presented in my portfolio. As I am getting more comfortable in my writing shoes, I am trying to bring over much of that experimental process to writing. And embrace it as part of work.

As for the story? It still exists. It’s being edited. The idea wants to be heard, it just hasn’t found its final form yet.

Setting Out to Become a Picture Book Creator

Some time ago I set out with a new goal to become a picture book creator. At times this seems like a no brainer. Other times the pursuit seems like a monumental task. A task that feels foolish to try and achieve. The meandering emotions of confidence and doubt is commonly shared among creatives. Therefore, I compiled the top information I have learned in the infancy of my journey. Spoiler Alert: You’re going to need to show up and do the work.

Make Now, Edit Later.
It’s easy to be self-critical and tell yourself that your creation isn’t good enough, the storyline is overdone, or isn’t possibly original enough to be published. Yeah, possibly, maybe. But being critical to a point where it paralyzes your making doesn’t get you anywhere. Start creating, create more, share, create in different ways. But you have nothing without the making. To Make is step numero uno.

Why this market?
There are many outlets for writers and illustrators, so why KidLit? Seriously give some thought to this and know why you are choosing to pursue this market.

Why are YOU doing this?
Is what you love to create undeniably child centric? Do you want to create more of what you loved as a child or what you didn’t have access to when you were young? Do you see a gap in what you are reading to your children? You may have the same reason as many others, but you should identify what draws you to this work. Make sure there IS a reason why before you waste your time. You may believe you won’t forget your reason why but your brain is going to be crammed with a lot of information going forward, mixed in with some emotions (no matter how pragmatic you are), so make note of your reason why. It’s a good reminder for me anytime I am wondering if my stuff isn’t insert-any-description-here enough. I don’t want to forget what my gut was telling me when I was wide-eyed and green.

Read. Read what your target audience is reading.
Start with what everyone is talking about in your genre of pursuit, and recent best sellers, so you know what “the people” are excited about. You can disagree but know what’s out there. Pay attention to what your librarians are giving display face time to. If you have the chance to listen in on books being read to kids, pay attention to what makes kids laugh, read along, or ask questions. Track down your favorite books from childhood. You remember some of them, right? Are those favorite childhood books still as funny or comforting as you remember? What do you love about the story? The language, the cadence, hidden characters, the jokes. Do you end up having no idea why you liked this book as a child? That’s something to note too.

Mentor Texts. Analyze the work you love. 
So once you are half-way through checking out your local library’s entire catalogue of the children’s section, it’s safe to say you have substantial reading under your belt, and hopefully you have some favorites. Type up these stories. Yeah, it took me awhile to want to volunteer for this kind of manual labor but stay with me. First, the act of typing the words helps you see and hear the text in a new light. When you are done, ta-da, you have a manuscript without the influence of images. How is the story structured? Are you missing major elements of the story now that the words are removed from the images? Do you still love the way it sounds? Is the word count what you expected? Are the page turns predictable from the text? You can do a similar exercise for images only. How is your main character moving page to page? Is the stage static or changing? Are the camera angles dramatically different or consistent?

Surround yourself with those who have the same pursuits.
KidLit is a community. It takes a village to raise a picture book, so go find your tribe.

SCBWI. There is a reason why that acronym is mentioned on repeat across the internet ad nauseam. The wealth of resources and support is undeniable. If the annual dues (which I believe are reasonable) scare you away, see what non-member events you can check out.

Commit to groups such as 12×12. The challenge of 12 picture book manuscripts in one year may sound intimidating, or really exciting, but 12×12 is a huge community that lives in forums, private Facebook groups, countless self directed off shoots, and features monthly webinars. Resources yes. But more so, community.

Join in or read Twitter chats on KidLit topics. Two to note, #kidlitchat Tuesday night at 9pm EST and #kidlitart Thursday nights at 9pm EST. Each week has a different topic and it’s easy to “meet” people to discuss topics relevant to creatives in the KidLit industry. The #kidlitart hashtag is widely used outside the allotted chat time so it’s worth a look whenever you need a dose of inspiration.

Critique Groups.
In person, private blogs, shared Google Docs, email chains, closed Facebook Groups. No matter how it’s done, get your work in front of people for feedback. Bigger groups may be more immediate while smaller groups tend to get to know you and may be able to give more personalized feedback over time. All have their merits and don’t limit yourself to one. Opening yourself up for critique can be hard. You will feel vulnerable. It’s a good skill to practice because it’s central to the work. Get acquainted with the sandwich method of critiquing.

Free association making. Don’t work on revisions. Or ideas. Or even prompts. Put your pen to paper and see what comes out without planning, thinking, or working towards something. Exercise your instinct. Write as you turn the paper, make squiggles, or draw enough circles to blacken your paper. Tell yourself you are going to throw away the next x number of sheets you create. It can be paralyzing to feel like you have to keep moving at a sprint-like pace when in the long game and you don’t want to waste a minute. Let free association exercises do you some good. At times I use a Fisher Price Doodle toy when I want to experiment with new forms but I don’t want a record of failures. It’s very freeing to work without details, to erase and draw in fast succession, and have no evidence of the work. Other times I worry less about how everything works together and focus on one thing to see how many ways I can draw it. Teeth. Houses. Shoes. Eventually the output visualized before you is definitely something you could not have planned.

Edit. An exercise in letting go.
Don’t underestimate the power of the edit. Anything that does not propel your story forward and underline why this piece is absolutely, unequivocally yours, cut it. If you are left with nothing? Go make more and rebuild. Don’t hold your work so dear that you can’t let it go. It might end up being the thing that weighs you down.

Repeat Numero Uno. Make!
Everything else is irrelevant without the act of making.

So am I published? No. Under contract? Nope. Have an agent? Not yet. What qualifies me to share this information? I told you I was at the start of this journey, BUT I have been showing up, I have been doing the work, and I’m certain there will be more to tell (see, I’m having a confident moment). What are some of the things you have found invaluable in your pursuit of being a picture book creator?

Evaluation Time


Deep in the throws of New Year reflection time, I’m evaluating the work I’ve done and am setting goals. My body of work is getting slashed to pieces. The decision making process went a little something like this:

Did I enjoy making this?
This applies to feeding my creative soul, ’cause if it’s not happy, no one’s happy.
Do I feel good about putting this into the world?
For me, this is about content.
Can I make more like this?
Is this sustainable for me to make again, and perhaps again.

After my first attempt of categorizing, some decent stuff was in the cut pile, but more importantly, some questionable work was hanging out in the keep pile. So I added a middle of the road category of work I will continue to consider, lovingly named, “I’m not sure this is going to work out…”

Why this exercise? Illustration is something I do that makes me happy and I’m going to try to my darnedest to keep it that way. And that means feeding my creative soul, making things I want to make, and feeling good about adding to the mass of stuff in the world.

If You Don’t Show It, They Won’t Know It

“If You Don’t Show It, They Won’t Know It.” I wrote that for myself based on a prompt from Marc Ecko’s Skillshare class. I didn’t finish the book, but I was a class quitter that walked away with my mnemonic device to forge ahead with illustration. This reminder encouraged me to set up a blog to share drawings that I would typically horde for myself. This blog got me drawing, it got me sharing, that made me make more. This process has been an exercise in not self-editing too much in the hopes of discovering what I am capable of, instead of what I think I am capable of.

This summer I discovered the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. Within a day of joining the organization I decided to go to my regional chapter’s conference. Within a week of signing up for the conference, I committed to have a portfolio review during the conference. I have achieved work ideation, iteration and production in fairly short order and in the process managed to launch annatotten.com.

This blog has done what it was supposed to do. It propelled me into a direction I thought was possible but hadn’t put the effort into. Things are changing around here. I know all my current followers tune in because they like my images, so the images will continue. I have so much work ahead of me but I am quite pleased with where I have come and need to mark a line in the sand to say I did this. I am considering myself accomplished.