A little while ago, I read a new picture book, The Dreamer, by Korean artist Il Sung Na. It tells the story of a wistful, inventive pig who loves to watch birds soaring through the air.
“If only I could fly, too,” he thinks.
Before long, his dream turns into an actual goal: he’s determined to figure out how to fly.
He starts clumsily. His first ramshackle contraptions do nothing but break. He gets discouraged, but some friends come to his aid and give him new ideas.
He tries again. And again. Each time getting better and better.
Then one day, with a crowd of friends watching, he straps himself into his latest invention, a hang glider-like machine with big red wings. This time, he runs down a hill and then ascends magnificently into the air.
And that first flight is just the beginning. He continues perfecting his vision, devising new vehicles of various sorts, and soon inspires other animals to take to the air.
I was just about to close the book when the author bio on the back flap caught my eye:
“As a kid [Il Sung Na] loved to draw, but it wasn’t until he visited a London bookstore in college that he discovered picture books were his calling. The real-life trial-and-error pursuit of that calling was the inspiration behind this book.”
That’s one of the things I love most about kids books and comics — they offer all the life lessons you’ll ever need, in just a few illustrated pages!
In its own allegorical way, The Dreamer encapsulates many of the necessary elements you need in order to succeed as a writer or artist. Things like a long-term vision; a willingness to fail; a community of friends to keep you going. Although soft skills and mindset might seem secondary to talent and technical skills, they are actually extremely important.
I talk to a lot of people who are just getting started in their careers, or trying to “relaunch” themselves. A lot of times, their questions for me are about narrow, methodological details like:
- “How do you land a literary agent?”
- “How do you write a good book proposal?”
- “How do you promote yourself on social media effectively?”
I’ll let you in on a secret: although I answer those questions as helpfully as possible, I subtly try to steer them toward different questions — better questions. These are questions like:
- “How can I develop a positive mindset?”
- “How can I be more giving in my interactions with other people, both in person and online?”
- “How can I be more focused and intentional in my work?”
Building your dream career as an author or artist is totally possible. But one problem with creative people is that they have very good imaginations… which can lead them to build elaborate castles in the air before they’ve even built a solid foundation.
It’s not the elaborate daydreams that will help you succeed; it’s the fundamentals. Those fundamentals are like magic; they enable you to turn dreams into reality.
Here are the 9 foundational elements every author or artist needs to succeed in their publishing careers:
1. Start with baby steps.
Everyone starts as a beginner, just like Il Sung Na’s visionary pig. In the beginning, our ambitions almost always far outstrip our abilities. You may aspire to write a multi-volume epic, but you’ll need to start with something simple. Maybe a mini-comic, a zine, or a short webcomic.
I remember the first time I saw Raina Telgemeier’s work. It was a 12-page comic in a group show sponsored by Friends of Lulu. It hinted at the elements that eventually helped make Raina a blockbuster success: the emotional sincerity; the down-to-earth, wry sense of humor; the simple and inviting visual style with obvious inspiration from Lynn Johnstone’s For Better or Worse.
And yet, it was just a 12-page comic. Raina didn’t start by writing Smile; she started with little xeroxed mini-comics.
2. Be part of a creative community.
The Dreamer begins with a lone pig staring into the sky, but it doesn’t take long before the pig has enlisted a whole group of animals to help him gain traction with his flying project.
That’s no accident. It’s absolutely essential that you make connections with fellow writers and artists. Trying to figure out everything on your own is a dead end street.
After all, being a creative is already a lonely endeavor — in order to create, you must spend many hours alone with your thoughts, doing the hard work of translating your imagination onto the page. Spending time with other people who understand what you’re trying to do is critical to keeping yourself motivated and inspired.
Just as important, connecting with your peers is also a way to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Perhaps you’re struggling with a particular plot twist in your script; or figuring out how to promote yourself with limited time and money. By talking these sorts of problems over with other artists, you’ll get fresh ideas and learn from people who’ve already done what you’re trying to do.
3. Put yourself out there.
The first few times The Dreamer’s pig attempts to build a flying machine, he does it by himself — and always ends in a heap of twisted mechanical parts. It’s only after he starts showing his work to a few friendly observers that he starts making progress.
When you’re just getting started, sharing your work publicly can be scary. That’s because your brain instinctively tries to protect you from unknown situations, which it interprets as “dangerous.” And it easily comes up with rationalizations that seem totally logical. Things like:
- “I’m not ready. My work isn’t polished enough to share publicly yet.”
- “I don’t want someone to steal my ideas. People can take your idea off the internet and sell it as their own.”
- “If I post my work online, publishers aren’t going to be interested in publishing it as a book.”
All of these reasons for keeping your work under wraps until “the right time” are elaborate justifications to avoid the real reason to avoid sharing it: FEAR.
Putting your work out there, inviting public scrutiny and critiques, is undeniably scary. Your creative work is a reflection of your innermost thoughts, your imagination, your artistic talent. Who wouldn’t feel vulnerable offering that up to the world?
However, your biggest challenge, when you’re getting started, is not your amateurishness, or getting your ideas poached, or ruining your chances for a publishing deal.
Your biggest problem is being invisible.
You’ve got to make yourself part of the conversation, to invite feedback, to share your creative journey.
4. Build your online presence.
OK, I’ll admit we never see the pig in Il Sung Na’s book build a website or open a social media account. But in the case of breaking into kids comics publishing today, you absolutely must have some sort of online presence.
As Austin Kleon says, “It sounds a little extreme, but in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.”
That doesn’t mean you must have a fancy website and thousands of followers on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, DeviantArt, and Pinterest. A simple website and one social media account is enough to get started.
Here’s what you need, at a minimum:
- A website.
It can be simple, but you must have this “homebase” on the Internet. It’s your own little piece of real estate over which you have total and complete control. (Never forget, you have NO control over Instagram or Twitter or any other social media platforms! If they change their algorithms and suddenly you can’t reach 95% of your followers, that’s your problem, not theirs.)
- A “keep in touch” strategy.
You must have a way that you’re keeping in touch with the people who already know and support you. In the beginning, this might be a simple email to 20 friends and family members. It doesn’t matter; what does matter is that you have a consistent routine of sharing your ideas, your work-in-progress, and your inspiration with people who care.
- An “outreach” strategy.
This means you’ve thought about how to find and reach MORE people who might like your work. I’m a big fan of the “slow and steady” approach (“The Tortoise and the Hare” is my favorite Aesop’s fable for a reason!). Maybe you have a table at a local comics festival every year, and slowly add to your mailing list. Maybe you organize a happy hour for artists, and grow your own circle by helping others. Maybe you teach comics in schools, and grow a fan base of teachers and librarians through word of mouth.
Any of these strategies is legitimate and effective. Notice that they all involve one-to-one, personal, genuine connections. These are the connections that make a difference when you’re running a Kickstarter campaign or launching your first book.
5. Understand your audience.
This is a truism in any industry: in order to succeed, you must have a very clear, specific, visceral sense of the audience you’re speaking to.
But in the case of creating work for children — whether it’s a toy or a book or a comic — you’re not only creating for a specific audience (ie, kids who like scatalogical humor, or dark fantasy, or monster trucks, or anything with the color pink, etc.), you’re also creating for a specific age level.
This is a huge difference between the adult book market and the kids market. Because, when it comes to children’s books, there is no such thing as All Ages.
As adults, our brains are fully developed. Children, on the other hand, have brains that are still developing. This means that their cognition, reading level, vocabulary, experiences, and sensibilities are constantly evolving. A book that is enthralling for a 5 year old will not be enthralling to that same child when she is 14 — or even when she is 8 or 9!
Most good children’s book and kids comics creators have a deep empathy for the kids they’re writing for. Mo Willems can get on the level of 4 and 5 year olds who are just beginning to grasp the mechanics of reading (and making jokes). Dav Pilkey can still inhabit the world from the perspective of a 7 year old boy. And Raina Telgemeier definitely remembers in vivid detail what it feels like to be a middle school girl.
So when you’re writing books for kids, some part of your brain has to be accessing your story from a specific stage of development, and relating it in a verbal and visual language that is ideal for that age level. For many writers and artists, that comes intuitively.
Regardless of whether it’s intuitive or a skill that you have to work at, the following tip will help you hone that ability even better.
6. Know the market.
Read widely and deeply, as much as you can. Just like the pig who studies blueprints and equations and the latest in aeronautical engineering, you’ve got to become an expert in what’s currently being published in the genres and age levels that you’re most interested in writing for.
Once you’re ready to look for an agent or publisher, having a strong knowledge of recently published books will help you pinpoint the specific agents and specific editors who might be most likely to appreciate your work. You can narrow down a shortlist of books you like, and then google the author and title with the word “editor” or “agent.” You’ll almost always be able to find who edited and agented those books.
That way, when you approach those agents and editors, you won’t be one of the dreaded “spray and pray” creators who send their proposals indiscriminately to every industry email they can scrape up. Instead, you can write an intelligent query letter that explains why you are interested in that particular agent or editor.
As an added bonus, once you have a meeting with an editor or publisher — or further along in your career, once you’re appearing on panels and podcasts — having a solid understanding of how your work fits into the wider publishing landscape will help you contribute more meaningfully to the conversation. Which, in turn, makes you a more credible, appealing candidate for publishing, and a more sought-after panelist or podcast guest.
7. Invest in yourself.
Most children’s book creators don’t have a degree in “Children’s Book Creatorship,” but that doesn’t mean they haven’t invested in learning as much as they can about the field.
If you want to build a long-term career as a kids comics creator, it isn’t any different than any other profession: spending money is often the fastest and most effective way to make progress and increase your opportunities. You’ve got to develop your skills, attend networking events, promote your work, and get professional feedback and advice.
Here are some of the specific ways you should be investing in yourself:
- Joining industry associations such as SCBWI or The Society of Illustrators.
- Attending and exhibiting at book festivals like The Brooklyn Book Festival, The Princeton Children’s Book Festival, or any of the countless other local book festivals.
- Attending and exhibiting at comics festivals such as TCAF, MoCCA, SPX, or smaller local shows.
- Attending or exhibiting at library or education shows like ALA, TLA, AASL, or your local state library or education conference. (Schools and libraries are HUGELY important for the success of children’s books and graphic novels.)
- Hiring professionals like a developmental editor, web designer, or book publicist.
- Taking an online course to master a specific skill, on a platform like CreativeLive, Lynda.com, CreativeBug, Udemy, etc.
- Taking a specialized workshop at an institution like the Highlights Foundation or the Center for Cartoon Studies.
Or, if you really want to, get an advanced degree! Get your MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies, or an art school like SVA, CalArts, or SCAD, or a creative writing program like the Vermont College of Fine Arts or Simmons University Writing for Children.
8. Learn to Handle Rejection.
The publishing industry is crammed with best-selling authors who experienced years of discouragement and rejection before finally getting their work published. I remember hearing a keynote speech by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Bryan Collier at an SCBWI conference a few years ago, where he recounted having spent SEVEN YEARS carting his portfolio to every publishing house in NYC, over and over again, before finally getting his first book deal.
Publishing is competitive and it is highly likely that you’ll face your share of rejection. Rather than hope for the best, I think it’s wise to prepare yourself for it, and develop conscious, deliberate ways to recover from it.
Most importantly, remember that one agent’s or editor’s rejection is not a final reckoning on your talent. It could be that they didn’t have room on their list for another book in your specific genre. Or they don’t have time to offer you the developmental editing that your project requires (sadly, this is the norm nowadays.) Or they simply don’t see your vision.
Facing rejection is another reason why having a community of peers is so important — you need friends to cheer you up when external forces get you down.
Finally, remind yourself that it takes time to succeed in any craft. You’ve got to put in the hours, get critiqued, confront rejection, and just keep going back to the drawing board again and again.
In fact, you really only need to do one thing….
When I was young, I thought that the most important factor in success was talent. Many battle-scarred years later, I now understand that the most important factor in success is definitely not talent.
It is PERSISTENCE.
Keep writing, keep drawing, keep imagining, keep sharing, again and again. It’s a simple recipe, but it isn’t easy.
As Dr. Seuss said,
“And will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed!)”
And he should know….
After all, his first book was rejected 28 times before being published by Random House.