An Unexpected Journey

By Kate Carroll

Often the end of a journey signals the beginning of another. This past fall, I ventured out to a Highlights workshop moderated by the award-winning illustrator Eric Rohmann and guest lecturer Lindsay Barrett George. Little did I know that this journey would prompt new steps into new places for me as a writer.

All in all, it was a fabulous trip, but I didn’t feel like that at first. Please understand, I absolutely love attending workshops at the Highlights Foundation. But I dragged my feet on this one because I worried that it would emphasize the illustrator’s role in picture book creation, and I’m “only” an author after all. Since the timing fit for me though, I jumped in - nerves, insecurities and all.

My early thoughts proved accurate, as most of the attendees were illustrators or the gifted author/illustrator types. But, I was there and I would make the best of it. Step 1 of my journey – opening up. Surrounded by the beauty of the Pennsylvania woods and welcomed warmly by the Highlights staff, it was hard to be anything but excited in that place. It was clear that the students came to learn and to grab as much from the experience as possible. And that example proved vital to my learning and growth as a writer.

So often, writers empty themselves out onto pages and find themselves too attached during the post-writing process to make the necessary changes. Never was this more true for me than at this particular event. The piece I brought for critique is a story about a spider monkey. I pride myself on being an economic writer. My manuscript had a mere 535 words when I submitted it for the conference. (Pause for applause.) Seriously, I thought, how much tighter could I write? It has potential for classroom use. It’s funny. It has a diversity component. It’s great. They’re going to jump on this.They didn’t. Bummed, right? Well, yes, but something even greater happened to me and to my manuscript. 

The first assignment was to create a dummy of our books. Ugh!  I’m not a fan of the dummy. And now surrounded by amazing artists, I had to pull off this gruesome task. Step 2 – becoming vulnerable.

At my first one-on-ones, I sheepishly handed my dummy to Eric and to Lindsay. It didn’t take long for them to whack me with some reality. They pointed out some problems with my manuscript. Imagine that!  Lindsay said it was “so long.” Now, I hope you’re thinking, like I was, that it barely exceeded the magic 500-word mark. But she noticed something not working with it. Step 3  - changing perspective. Lindsay’s helpful comments made me look at my words and my storyline with fresh eyes. Soon my own opinion about it started to change.

Then, Eric gave me the best piece of information I’ve ever gotten at any conference, workshop, or critique group. To be fair, I had already heard it many times before. But in his mentoring and artistic way, Eric explained that my words had handcuffed his job as the illustrator. WAIT!  WHAT? How often do we hear that picture book writers SHARE the story with the illustrator? I know I’ve heard it dozens of times, but sitting down with an accomplished illustrator and looking at my story from his vantage point gave me a whole new perspective. Step 4 – gaining new ideas. He pointed out specific places in the manuscript where I had taken away his illustrative creativity. Of course I didn’t mean to. But it was true.

I couldn’t get out of that meeting fast enough!

But it wasn’t to run back to my room and bury my head and project under my pillow. It was so I could get to work! My head whirled with ideas following Eric’s meeting. And get to work, I did.  Step 5 – adjusting attitude. I studied many of the examples of great picture books that were shared with us. I studied my manuscript. I studied with other writers and illustrators. When I felt brave and confident, I pulled out my folder and began the creative process again. With new understanding and fresh perspective, I eagerly approached my revision. When I finished I had a lively manuscript of 335 well-appointed, non-competing words! My next step on this journey is to find a home for it.

So many of my projects gather dust because they need to change and grow in order to go from good to great. The task of revision awaits, but now I approach it with enthusiasm. It’s part of the journey.

Fellow picture book writers, if you have the opportunity to attend training led by illustrators, or even have the opportunity to present your manuscript to an illustrator, go for it! It may change your perspective on how you write and take you on an unexpected and exciting journey of writing with an illustrator’s eye.