Be The Heroine of Your Story

#KidLitWomen is celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ book industry. Read all the posts on the Facebook page or on Twitter at #kidlitwomen.

When I was planning my wedding (mumble-mumble) years ago, my mother advised me that when the day arrived, I should remember to stop and take a moment to enjoy everything around me. “I want you to look around and get that YOU made this happen.” In the midst of all the frantic planning, coordinating, dealing with compromises and unexpected changes that go along with weddings, she knew that sometimes, in the hubbub, it was easy to forget.

I was reminded of this again when I was about to achieve my lifelong dream of publishing a book; a book I could hold in my hands, one that would be on the shelves of bookstores and in libraries, something I could share with more people than I would ever meet in my lifetime. I was floating on cloud nine and over the moon! In the swirl of editor letters and author photos, blogging and signings and trips to New York, I had to take a moment to remember that this—this book, this experience—was something I had created and, with the help of my critique partners and editors and copyeditors and PR people and family and friends, I had made this happen. I was the heroine of my publishing story!

And then reality set in. There were surprise setbacks and looming deadlines, massive staff changes and launch dates rescheduled; my editor left on maternity leave, my agent left the business, the print run shrank, scheduled appearances fell through, the reviews weren’t all glowing, the blogging tour was a bust, and there were no stars, few blurbs and the option passed with no foreign sales and no future interest. I was humbled, humiliated and silently miserable, and it felt oh so very public. It was like shooting for the stars and setting fire to the treetops while everybody watched. I wanted to quietly, privately disappear.

And I learned from many other authors that I wasn’t alone in this.

Reality might be stranger than any fiction I could write, but it left me with the question “What If?” (which is where all the best stories begin!): What if we imagined ourselves as the heroines of our own publishing journey? If we were the strong, female protagonists, how might our story to go?

Let’s plot it out:

First there is the Ordinary World, the status quo, the pre-published baby novelist writing with a dream. Whether a full-time would-be-writer or a grab-ten-minutes-in-between-day-job-and-kids, this is who you are and the world you know while longing for your adventure to begin.

Then comes the inciting incident: you join a writing class or a critique group, finish the manuscript or the query letter, collect all the rejections, then a request for a partial or a full, get the meeting at a conference, the personal email, the offer, The Call! The whole world changes because now you’re an AUTHOR. You accept the call to adventure and set out on your personal journey towards publishing success!

That thrilling first burst of endless possibility fuels you, our heroine, up the steep climb of Gustav Freytag’s pyramid, pushing through the wheel of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with the unstoppable feeling that all of your dreams are about to come true. This is how success (however you define it) is achieved, but it cannot be won without surmounting challenges, overcoming obstacles and digging deep, pushing from want to need.

We know this as authors, but as women living the story, we often forget.

And, I hate to be the one to tell you, but there will be monsters.

The writing world is full of obstacles, mostly things we can’t control: bad timing, professional snafus, miscommunications and unmet expectations. Each challenge feels like it wears you down, dragging you further from your goals, and you can rationalize that it’s just business—it’s not personal—so you try not to be so demanding, not set such high expectations, be careful not to bother your agents or editors or your well-meaning family and friends who must be sick to death of the constant questions, the second-guessing and the soul-deep worrying. You shrink smaller, trying very hard not to make too much noise. You don’t want to nag or be annoying, or worst: childish. You compromise on your Big Dreams, afraid to be labeled “needy” or “greedy,” “selfish” or “bossy,” a “Pollyanna” or a “diva.”

As women, we are taught early not to be demanding, especially in the business world, the world of money and power and greed. No, no—we are children’s book authors. We are nurturers. We care. We would never be so petty as to ask (let alone expect) things like marketing plans or world rights, higher advances or achievement bonuses, promotion materials or shop real estate or even requesting time to talk. Fear keeps the heroine pinned down tight.

And all the while we keep smiling for the online camera so we look pretty and happy and project everything’s fine! We’re fun to work with! We’re darling! We’re no trouble at all!

It begins to feel fake—like you’re a poser, an imposter, a fraud.

But don’t worry--this is normal. This is only the Break Into Act Two! Is this the time to stop and give up? Of course not! You’re the heroine! It’s time to brush off, stand tall, dig in and persevere.

Now you’re traveling through the B Story, the world of publishing with its many new discoveries and hazards and where you meet new friends; knowledgeable, helpful people who are willing to help you through the challenges of Whatever Happens Next. These are your critique partners and beta readers, your fellow authors sharing your publishing year or your agency/pub house “siblings,” willing mentors who offer you wisdom as well as a shoulder and ear, those you’ve clicked with in writing forums and national writer’s organizations, in Facebook groups and Twitter chats, at conferences and retreats—these are the people who help support you on your journey, knowing you’re not walking it alone.

I won’t lie, the challenges are many; from the normal pitfalls and perils of publishing itself are the added facts that most women writers don’t win big awards, get the biggest deals or longest tenures on bestseller’s lists, are subject to institutional bias and bullying and harassment, are considered stranger than aliens on the page and often playing second fiddle as writers and illustrators, reviewers and bloggers, agents and editors. And if you are a minority, a Woman of Color, LGBTQ+, neuroatypical or physically/emotionally/psychologically challenged, well then, there are far more monsters to vanquish…

But here’s the thing: change is happening and we, the heroines, are the agents of change. We are our own strong, female protagonists. Don’t be afraid to stand up, take charge, act professional and proactive because the publishing world is moving from the B World to the C World where we have taken the lessons we’ve learned together on this journey and are using them to transform what is possible for us all.

Consider the reports by CCBC and VIDA analyzing biases in kid’s lit, Anne Ursu’s poll results about harassment in our industry that sparked the School Library Journal article whose comments section began naming names, Gwenda Bond’s pledge sign-up supporting non-harassment policies, Cynthia Leitich-Smith standing for mentorship and representation, SFWA and SCBWI changed their professional behavior policies, Malinda Lo’s Diversity in YA and Ellen Oh’s We Need Diverse Books are taking on representation in children’s literature both on the pages, on the panels and in the business of publishing. Things are changing and so it’s important to remember that when you stand up for yourself, you are not standing alone and the listening is more attuned to your achieving success than ever before. You can defeat your insecurities, slay your dragons and become more powerful—personally, professionally, financially, emotionally—knowing that so many voices and hands and hearts are behind you and beside you, all the way.

I always make a point to tell new authors who are in the throes of revisions and launch dates and parties and conferences and first signings to remember to stop and take a moment, to look around and get that YOU made this happen. Everything that is happening right now came 100% from YOU—your creativity, your craft and vision, your persistence and passion, your hard work and tenacity and belief in yourself and, of course, your story: your dream. It’s sometimes hard to remember that this accomplishment is yours, and of course, it is thanks to so many others, but at the very center of it is YOU.

And you 100% deserve to be the heroine of your story.


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