Thursday, 5 April 2012

How Big Is Your Slushpile?

By Maureen Lynas
Are you embarrassed by the size of your slushpile? Do you hide it, ignore it, lie about it? DON'T! Be PROUD of it! SHOUT about it. I'm telling you now - MINE IS HUGE!
Why am I telling you now? Well, after reading Candy's latest blog post on the trauma of completing her second book, and seeing ex-lurker Tamsin's comments about writing for six years and not giving up, I was inspired to come clean and reveal all. This is my writer's journey. From 2000 to 2012.

THE WRITER'S (HERO'S) JOURNEY



THE ORDINARY WORLD (2000)
My world was teaching in a primary school. A story lover, child lover, OFSTED hater. A wanna be writer of children’s fiction.

INCITING INCIDENT
The government was crushing my soul with misguided testing, target setting and form filling, and providing fewer opportunities for real training and learning. We all need a kick to get out of our ordinary world - my second OFSTED was looming.



THE DOORWAY INTO THE STORY
So I developed a reading scheme for teaching high frequency words  Action Words and left to embark on a new career as an author.

I wrote picture books because that’s what I knew (or thought I did). I sent first drafts out to unsuspecting publishers along with terrible covering letters. I am so embarrassed by them – pages of please love me and my books, I even worked out how many books I had read over my career and told them this meant I knew my subject! I hang my head in shame.

I can’t believe how lovely my rejections were. Some even had real handwriting on them! ‘Thank you so much for sending so many of your stories (9). We really loved Why Don’t You Kiss A Frog? but we published a frog book last year. But you are very funny and we would be interested in seeing more.’

Success! I’m funny! I keep writing.

More positivety – A BIG PUBLISHER PLC got in touch – love your story Maybe the Baby, it’s really funny – I’ll pass it on to the editorial team.

Success! I’m funny! I keep writing.

Two years later and they turn it down, and many other publishers turn down many other books too. I stop writing picture books. I turn to slightly older fiction. Pirates! I write Eebygum the Pirate’s Mum, she’s gross, she's hilarious. I put it to one side (I’ve learned not to send first drafts). Then I get an idea via Tony Ross. He has a book out called Don’t Do That, about a girl who has her finger stuck up her nose. I’m reminded of the phrase Don’t pull your face like that or it will stick – Gurner Gobbit and the Bloodcurdling Bug-eyed Jawbreaker is born. But he's called Esmeralda in this version and is a troll, not an extreme face-pulling lad from the county of Clogshire.

MEETING THE MENTOR (2004)
At this point, I decided to put my hand in my pocket, pull out some dosh, and get some professional feedback. So I approached Cornerstones Literary Agency. I sent three picture books and received my report – No lead characters, no plot, no pace, no good. (They were much kinder than that! I recommend them.) But, they added - you're very funny.

Hurrah! I'm still funny! I keep writing.

Then I sent Cornerstones Esmerelda and Eebygum.
More failure.
Eebygum the pirates – no plot and too many pirates. Esmerelda the facepuller– two plots in one and not enough face-pulling. But, guess what?

I'm really f... No – I can’t possibly say the f word. Dejection has set in.


TESTS (2006)
Time for a course! A self-editing course run by Cornerstones leading to a eureka moment and a friend for life, Christina Banach, my first writer friend and uber critiquer. The course was an eye opener and I thoroughly recommend it. And I thoroughly recommend getting a writer friend who will tell you the truth about your work.

Can you assess your own work? Do you know the difference between show not tell? Do you understand the terminology of your chosen craft? Have you created a believable character? Does your character have a clear goal? What are the stakes? Who’s the antagonist? Have you lost the plot?

I passed on some and failed abysmally on others but it was a huge wake up call. If I wanted to write stories, I had to know and understand my craft. I had to treat it with respect. I had to be professional about this. I had to learn!

ALLIES
There was one fantastic moment during the course when my work was being read publicly for the first time (no one knew it was mine) and people began to laugh. I will never forget that moment.

Hurrah again! I’m funny! I keep writing.

I join a stand up comedy club but I sit, not stand, and I write sketches for others to perform. I toy with the idea of being the next Victoria Wood. I watch Dinner Ladies obsessively, noting the distinctive dialogue of each character, the personalities, the emotional arcs. I note the story arcs too, how she names, previews, and contrasts each event in the story lines. How they overlap.

I write a six-part comedy drama script with a comedian and writer friend. We had well known actors keen to appear but couldn’t get a production company interested.

So on I went - I half wrote a comedy novel for adults, then a teen book called Abracadabra about a magic bra, then a cross over fantasy with a body swap – all unfinished. And I loved them all. But all of these ideas and half-finished projects led to huge confusion. I was a writer but a writer of WHAT!

Aha! I thought, if I gather more allies, and consequently more opinions, maybe they will point me in the right direction. So, I joined youwriteon and began to critique and receive critiques in return. Then I joined authonomy  I post work. It’s spotted by an editor. But I don’t know this. I get lots of great feedback and guess what -

I'm funny! I keep writing.

MORE ALLIES! THE BEST ALLIES! (2008)

I join The SCBWI  - The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I am home. They understand. They are on the same journey. They are incredibly supportive. Thank you particularly to Addy Farmer and Candy Gourlay.

Uber Scoobies!










ENEMIES

Did I mention critiques? Did I mention the power of feedback? Well, beware the feedback. Beware the critiques. I now had advice pouring down on me from all directions and I was picking up and putting down projects as if I was juggling with jelly. 
It’s so tempting to respond to each critiquer, change this, change that, change this to that and that to this. I was so confused! I went down different routes and right around bends that were deceptively curvy and led to fields of turnips.

I looked at my work and I didn't recognise it.  I stopped writing. I stopped submitting. I stopped critiquing.

Then, Helen Corner of Cornerstones gave this very good advice which I am totally misquoting – If three people highlight a problem they will come up with three different solutions. Focus on the fact that they’ve highlighted a problem – come up with your own solution. At least that’s the gist of what she meant.

So I began to more critical of the critiquers. Myself included. I looked at their work before accepting their points.

I found people whose judgements and advice I could trust. Thank you particularly to Juliet ClareBell and Rebecca Colby. Thanks to them, my work improved. 












I keep writing.

EVEN MORE ALLIES
I dove into the self-help books. Thank you – Robert Mckee for Story, Christopher Vogler for The Writer’s Journey, James Scott Bell for Plot and Structure and Revision and Self-editing, Helen Corner and Lee Weatherly for How to Write a Blockbuster.

THE APPROACH TO THE INNERMOST CAVE (2009)

Then one day an email appeared out of the blue. Misquoting again! ‘I am an editor with THE VERY BIG HUGE PUBLISHER INC. You are really funny. We saw your work online. We want you. Did I say you are really funny? Let’s meet. You have potential. Can you write something funny for 7-9 yrs. Because you know – you’re funny.’

Real success! Big success! I’m funny! I MUST prepare for the meeting.

And how did I prepare for my very first meeting with the very big huge publisher? Did I concentrate on my pitches? Did I practise my interview techniques? Did I think about my writing CV and how I could show my professional approach?

I did not. 

I obsessed over what I was going to wear. Because – first impressions count!

Casual? Denoting a confidence in myself and my place in the writing community. 
Professional? Proving I could meet deadlines and be trusted not to screw up at the Times Literary Festival.
Scruffy? Showing my disdain for the whole process. I’m an artist! A creative type! You will not own me!

This slightly (?) neurotic behaviour continued until my wise daughter observed me debating over two pairs of trousers one cropped, one not. She shook her head and said, ‘Yes, because the size of a book deal depends on the length of your trousers.’

With one day to go, I turned my attention to my work.

CENTRAL ORDEAL – I MEET THE VERY BIG HUGE PUBLISHER INC. IN THEIR VERY BIG CAVE. (2010)

Armed with a list of my books, wearing a professional dress that was just a tad too short and with two spare pairs of tights in my bag, I arrived at the very big offices of THE VERY BIG HUGE PUBLISHER INC. I was met by Edna the Editor (name has been altered to protect any future working relationship we may have). She was dressed causally in a pair of jeans and a top. (You see how obsessed I’d become!)

We had an hour long interview and the subject of clothes was never mentioned but she listened politely as I pitched stories from picture books to teen, I didn’t bring up the TV script after I saw her eyes glaze over.

Then I realised the only thing Edna the Editor was interested in was funny stuff for 7-9’s. She had a gap in her publishing schedule. And she thought I could fill it. It didn’t matter how good the other stuff was (if it was) she didn’t have a gap for the other stuff. She only had a gap for that age group, and it needed to be funny. And it dawned on me - she’d actually said that in her emails!

She showed me samples of series books and after a quick brainstorm, she sent me away with the word FOCUS ringing in my ears.

THE REWARD
It would be great to say the reward was a deal. It would be even greater to say the reward was a three or over seven book deal. But it wasn’t. The reward was clarity.

I owe a big thank you to Edna the Editor because I went home, laid all of my stories on the table (big table) and wondered what I should FOCUS on! As I walked around the table I realised that I smiled whenever I passed certain books and didn’t smile at others. The books that made me smile were picture books and chapter books and it was because of the characters, they were real to me. Suddenly, I realised I wanted to make children from 3 – 9 yrs laugh their socks off. I’d found my home (which had actually been where I’d started if you remember that far back)

RETURN WITH THE REWARD – THE ROAD BACK
With a detour to pick up more allies – An Arvon Course on writing for children. And I now thank Malachy Doyle and Julia Goulding for showing me where my voice was and helping to bring it out. It came out of hiding during that amazing week of laughter, writing and I meet another life long friend, Louise Kelly.

So, the reward was mine, but now what to do with it? How could I use this knowledge? Well, I could begin by writing, learning, and analysing my chosen field. I could become an expert in how others did it. Then, I could use my voice and start shouting.

So I did. I stripped books back to their basic components, I looked for their structures, their plots, their pacing. I studied the language, the rhetoric, the dialogue. And I wrote To Destiny or Death!  I shouted about Prince Bob the frog and his story.  Then, I was lucky enough to win a place in Undiscovered Voices. And that led to an agent who thought that –



I was funny!




CLIMAX (2012)
Who knows? Who knows whether that book deal is just round the corner. It may be. I hope so. 

RESOLUTION/REFLECTION
But for now, I'm content to reflect on the journey of 12 years that created my rather large slushpile. Am I frustrated it's taken so long? I probably was, at the six year point. But now, not so much.

If I hadn't written the Bloodcurdling Bug-eyed Jawbreaker three times I wouldn't have realised the importance of empathy for character over comedy gimmicks.
If I hadn't written the TV script I wouldn't have learned how to visualise each scene.
If I hadn't studied Victoria's work I wouldn't have discovered the joys of idiolect (favourite word ever! A character's individual speech pattern.).
If I hadn't written so many picture books, I wouldn't have learned how to use language effectively.
If I hadn’t studied picture books, I wouldn’t understand structure and pacing.
If I hadn't tried to develop so many ideas, I would have limited my imagination.
If I hadn't had a table full of books, how could I have known where my voice was or what I loved to write?

So, how big is my slushpile? Well, this is what you would see in my filing cabinet today.
25 picture books
3 completely different versions of The Bloodcurdling Bug-eyed Jawbreaker about 12 drafts altogether
3 finished books for 7-9yrs – Florence and the Meanies, To Destiny or Death! I Wanna Dog.
1 work in progress for 7-9 yrs Gertie in Gargantua – love this character!
3 fantasy middle readers, plotted but unfinished.
1 teen novel Abracadabra, plotted but unfinished.
1 teen novel I'm No Emo, unfinished.
1 pirate poetry book WIP
I silent movie short.
1 TV script From Fags to Riches.
1 adult novel – Mother on the Mantlepiece unfinished

Some of these ideas will never be developed. And I accept that. Because more ideas come in every day and I can't write them all. So I have to write the ones I can't bear not to write.

Do I have any tips on how to get to the end of your journey faster?
Write what you love. Focus on what you love. Study what you love. Find your own voice. And know that the journey never ends.

But now I have a question for you – how big is your slushpile? And while you think of the answer - 

I'll keep writing!

Maureen Lynas intermittently blogs on her own blog which she creatively named - Maureen Lynas

56 comments :

  1. This is my most favourite post on the whole trying to get published thing ever. EV-ER!

    Absolutely brilliant. And yup...you are funny!
    If I say publication is just round the corner, please don't punch me in the face. But I really believe it.

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    1. Ahem! Good morning, early bird!
      And yes isn't it brilliant? Go, Maureen!

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    2. ... and about your grammar 'most favourite' ... surely it's 'most favouritest'?!

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    3. Leave Caroline's grammar alone, Candy Gourlay - she thinks I'm funny! And she's re-posted! Thanks Caroline :) I shall refrain from punching you.

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  2. PS Have just posted this on the Writewords website..

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  3. Love it. Look forward to laughing with one of your books. :)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Liane - on day you might just get to do that!

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  4. Briliant, brilliant, as only your posts can be, Maureen! And I am much heartened, given the vast size of my own slushpile and gazillion years spent skiing down it! There may yet be hope for me! *rushes off to scribble furiously*

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    1. You will, Nicky, it's us determined (obsessed) folk who make it in the end. Love the idea of ski-ing down the slushpile I've always just slid down on my bottom crying Aargh!!!

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    2. Wonderfully inspiring post Maureen and Nicky, definitely,your time will come. My slushpile holds my bed up so it has its uses. And btw Maureen....you are very funny ;-)

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  5. Great post, Maureen. Made me feel a bit better about my pile. And in answer to your question: 2 book shelves and 3 drawers full of multiple versions of 1 adult, 2 YA, 1 mid range, 1 chapter and a heap of stories (two of which actually got published - yippee I'm a writer ;-) ). And that doesn't include the current WIP either!

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    1. Impressive list, Jeannette and I'm pleased to see you have multiple versions too. I was a bit bothered that I'd written the Jawbreaker three times and then had to walk away. It's still not right. It may never be right!

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  6. My slushpile is HUGE. In fact if I hadn't stopped printing things - and started having bonfires - we wouldn't fit in the house.

    And you are very funny. Clearly, as if you say it enough times (and put it in yellow boxes) it must be so :O)

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    Replies
    1. Ah, you spotted my subliminal message!

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  7. So that's what you've been doing up in the attic for the last twelve years.

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  8. Excellent post! And heartening, as I'm on my 9 1/2 th (can I say that?) novel, most of which have been re-written at least five times. I'm really hoping this is The One, but, boy have I learned a lot along the way! Oh, and I did the Cornerstones self-editing course too. Eye-opening! Good luck with Prince Bob!

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  9. Here's my list. Like you Maureen I now realise that 7+ and MG is where i want to be. Great post and so reassuring not to be alone. But really proud of my backlist. There's some great stuff in there.

    1 x MG dystopian fantasy
    1 x picture book
    1x MG girls adventure
    2 x 7+ adventure series
    1 x ya space gothic
    1 x MG boys humour

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    Replies
    1. You should be proud, Jo. That represents a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and hopes. I like the idea of a space gothic, could you do that for MG? Has anyone else, I wonder?

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  10. Sent via ancient Imac from a field of turnips:
    Me too! I have a big slush pile and have been on a similar journey (though I have never knowingly been funny).
    Great post Maureen. Congratulations on finding an agent and good luck with the next stage of your journey.

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    1. Thanks Amanda. Good luck with your journey too.

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  11. Right OK - I've a way to go yet then -
    Picture books x 4 ( far too difficult)
    mid-grade x 1
    7-9 x 2
    YA novels x2 - though one is being extensively rewritten, now, actually, so why aren't I doing it? Stop distracting me Lynas ;o)

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    1. Sorry! Get on with it! Write! Write! Write! We need your books. Kathryn - You Have Talent!

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  12. Maureen that was wonderful! Thank you.
    I feel heartened.

    Can quite face piling up my slush yet - it's all over the place but it includes some picture books too.

    Now here's a thought - how about some comedy glasses? They could be your trademark?

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    Replies
    1. I could borrow some from Edna Everidge! Or maybe Elton John?

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  13. What marvellous piles you have, Maureen. Loved reading this - it sparkles!

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    Replies
    1. Lol and guffaw! Lovely Addy, thank you :)

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  14. Brilliant post, Maureen. You are definitely funny! I can relate to your struggle of what to focus on. For me, following through and completing all the ideas I have is a big struggle for me as well. Congratulations and keep on writing! Colleen :)

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    Replies
    1. It's so hard isn't it, especially as the next one is always better than the one you're working on now and will be much easier to write - or so you think until you actually start to write it!

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  15. I've always thought you were funny, Maureen - and not just ha-ha funny!

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    1. I may adjust the life-long friend comment. It's under review from now on. You have one year. Watch yourself grrr.

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  16. Fantastic read, Maureen! And definitely an inspiration to the rest of us to perservere! My slushpile must be nearly as long as yours--I just haven't forced myself to compile everything and see exactly how much I have written. :) Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for being part of my journey, Rebecca. We never really know how much we affect the journeys of others do we? :)

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  17. Journey begins ...
    Stage 1: 'Oh, I shall be an illustrator'.
    Action: Complete sample artwork and dummies for x4 picture books.
    Event: 2 deals on table
    Outcome: Table mysteriously disappears.

    Stage 2: 'Oh, I shall be a picture book writer'.
    Action: completes picture books - x10
    Event: x3 accepted by publishers
    Outcome: currently lost in strange time warp

    Stage 3: 'Oh, I shall be proper novelist'
    Action: Wrote half a novel
    Event: Shampoo leaked into laptop.
    Outcome: Erm ... no back up!

    Stage 4: 'Oh, I shall be an YA writer'
    Action: Began MS
    Event: Agent asked to read the 'rest of manuscript exclusively'
    Outcome: Confessed there wasn't any.

    Stage 5: 'Oh! Why didn't I do this before?'
    Action: Discovered that I have the mind of an 8-10 year old. Wohoooo! Began to write in my 'natural' voice
    Outcome: Suddenly, lots of book deals....

    There. And as I was completely ignorant of the fact that you lot existed (until last year), I didn't even know that I was suffering from an almost normal affliction! *happy sigh*

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    Replies
    1. Wendy! We must be soul sisters! What a ride you have been on, did anyone ever use the word potential? BTW - You're funny and I love your cat that no-one wants.

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  18. This was a fantastic and funny read. I also understand how OFSTED can send you out into the scary world of writing!

    My slush pile is small as I have been writing only 15 months.... lots of PB drafts, most critiqued by crit groups, crit partner and one or two by an editor.... everything still WIPs..... s grateful to have fallen upon SCBWI and a great online course right at the beginning of this journey, though, have no fear, I am am sure I will slush with te best of you!

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    Replies
    1. But at least you'll have friends to slush with. I was so alone for so long - sigh.

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  19. Double the size of your slush pile, and you'll ALMOST have mine. I don't think of it as slush, though. I think of it all as potential success. Sad, but true.

    I'm glad you are no longer lurking. You're funny. I know, ...but I couldnt resist saying it. I look forward to hearing more from you. Good luck on your journey.

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  20. Loved this post. So glad to see another's journey. Such fun how you laid it all out. And I too, am no longer feeling so bad about my slush pile of odds and ends stories.
    Still searching for that place that perfectly fits me.

    Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Learn to love that slushpile, Jackie. Your answer will be in there one day.

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  21. This is a fabulous post. Your journey to find your passion may have had some detours but you found it! Good luck and happy writing.

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  22. I'm reminded of the day when a friend of mine became engaged, and asked me for a ballpark figure of what we had spent on our wedding. While I still had a bulging binder of receipts and invoices, I've never totalled it up because I really do NOT want to know!

    Thank you for a funny and perspective-building post!

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    Replies
    1. I must admit, since writing the post I've been mulling on why I didn't start the learning curve a bit sooner, Cathy. I was a bit surprised when I added it up. I actually bent the truth a bit - there are also stories on my computer that aren't printed out and hidden in the filing cabinet. So, it's even bigger than I admitted!

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  23. I absolutely ADORE this post, and you know what Maureen? You're FUNNY! :-)

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  24. Ditto, Ditto, Ditto to what all other comments say....you are funny and your post is brilliant! But what is so "funny" to me is the timing of this post. I have been struggling today in particular with focus and whether to follow my heart or other people's advice. Your post has helped me clear things up....and it made me laugh! Thanks.

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    1. Excellent! Focus is good! Good luck :)

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  25. This is fantastic, Maureen! I'm so grateful you shared the story of your writing journey -- and your slushpile -- with us. You know what? You're FUNNY! I'm glad you've kept writing.

    Like Joanna, I took a fantastic course (the same one as she did, Just Write for Kids) a year and a half ago, and that has made an enormous difference. Unlike Joanna, I was piling up plenty of slush before that. Guess what? You have to walk through slush to get to the top of the mountain!

    I've been piling up slush into a slushy glacier for close to a bazillion years now, and I have learned a lot in the process. And now I have friends who have wellies on with me, and we're sloshing through the slush together. And we're going to make it!

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    1. A bazillion years! That's much longer than me :) Do you have a link for the course? Is it online or do you have to attend?

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  26. Thanks for sharing your writing journey through this awesome post! Many aspiring authors would relate to your slush pile experience, especially me with the occasional brain freeze. Dam those blue slurpies.

    My slush pile includes 20 pictures book texts and a chapter book text that I've co-written with my dad.

    Thank you also for sharing the people you've met along the way, the places you went, the interview in the very big cave, and your constant drive and passion to keep on slushin!

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    1. That's an impressive slushpile and how lovely to work with your dad on a project. I'm aiming to collaborate with my illustrator daughter some time in the future, she's just as obsessed as I am only with pictures. She gets twitchy if she hasn't drawn anything for a few days!

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  27. Now we all know why the Polar Icecap is shrinking. We've all got the slushy stuff piling up at home. Maybe the publishers should get on and publish some of it to save the planet and our sanity.
    Having said that - if I'm going to be in the slush, I'm pleased it's with you guys. Happy writing everyone!

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  28. I'm really late to comment on this. My slushpile is very small (3 books). But I enjoyed reading this immensely, so that must count for something...

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  29. That was a great post. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. It is Inspiring. My slushpile is very small as I have only been writing for a year and a half.
    1 - almost polished pb drafts
    1 - decent pb draft, still needs significant work
    2 - crappy pb first drafts
    40+ - pb ideas, most which will probably not see the light of day.

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