Writing picture books for children requires a lot of work and waiting, so it's important to recognize moments of success and celebrate them along the way. I'm excited to share J.H. Winter and her story with you today.
Q: What is your background? Your profession?
A: Currently, I am a full-time mom, who writes and works on illustrating every spare minute I have (aka when the kids are asleep). My family all migrated to the Pacific Northwest a few years back. But before that, I worked as a Library Clerk for many years in California where I’m from. In the library stacks is truly where my love of books and writing bloomed. There’s no way to be surrounded by so many stories without a bit of their literary magic rubbing off on you.
Q: What made you want to start writing picture books?
A: I’ve loved picture books since having my own kids, reading story after story to them at night. When I first read the book, Swatch: the Girl Who Loved Color, by Julia Denos, I fell in love with how a story could be told with such cleverness and whimsy, each page so full of color. I became lost in the world Julia had created in so few pages. It would be a challenge, but having always wanted to write and illustrate my own children’s books, it was one I had to take on no matter what happened.
Q: How long have you been writing?
A: I began writing eight years ago when my first story, Adeline and the Mystic Berries, began stitching itself together in my mind. As an artist, I began to wonder what it would be like if we lived in a world without color or vibrancy. Just like that, my story began about an artistic, quirky, ten-year-old girl named Adeline, who lives in a barren world without color. Through a chance meeting, she learns she may be the only one who can bring color back.
Q: Have you ever felt frustrated by trying to get a picture book right?
A: The picture book I worked on during Storyteller Academy was a true labor of love. When I joined SA I had already written my alliterative book about a bookworm named Benny. I'd packed that story with over two-hundred B-words and with 850 or so words total. I thought, I have a winner here, and I bet it won’t need much work, apart from the illustrations!
Boy, was I wrong.
The first draft of my book dummy was the second to be read and critiqued during our very first Workshop. Let’s just say, the look on Arree’s face after I had finished reading my story said it all! So did the rest of what he told me after that.
- Cut any extra words that I didn’t need.
- Don’t just add more B-words to get the alliteration in there because it’s distracting from the story.
- Focus mainly on the friendship between Benny and Beatrice the butterfly, not the third character, Ringo the rhino beetle; Try writing without the alliteration and see what happens. I could always add it back in.
- And focus on what could be told by the illustrations. If I could show a detail, take it out of the narrative.
I felt like such a failure at the end of that critique. But after I licked my wounds and took a night off to think about what he had said, and with all of the wonderful feedback and positive interest from the rest of my class during the workshop, I got back to work and made draft after draft until I had managed to do just what Arree had suggested.
I wrote a blog post about this story and the transformation it took from start to querying it to agents, including: rewriting it at least five different times, countless dummies drawn up, and characters having to be cut. As I said before, this story, now titled The Bookworm and the Butterfly and non-alliterative, was a labor of love, and I do so love how it turned out!
Q: Why did you take Making Picture Book Stories and Dummies?
A: After writing the manuscript for The Bookworm and the Butterfly (at the time: The Bookworm of Blackwood Briar) back in December 2017, I had no idea what steps to take next. I happened upon one of Facebook’s suggested posts of Arree talking about Storyteller Academy and the webinar he would be having to talk about his class, Making Picture Book Stories and Dummies. During the webinar, I knew this was my next step, and so I took the leap.
Q: How did taking the class change the way you approach picture books?
A: Arree’s class showed me the value in creating a dummy, whether you are an illustrator or not. I learned how much of the story can be expressed through pictures. I learned several techniques to generate ideas for future books and how/where to get inspiration. Most important to the craft, I learned to keep writing. Get the story down on paper, however long it may be. Draw up that first rough dummy so that you can visualize the page turns. See each spread and find where the inciting incident, escalation, and resolution occur in the story. Then begin to pare back the words to give the illustrations equal value and allow them to work together to create the big picture.
Q: Have industry professionals responded differently to your manuscripts?
A: I had never shopped around my picture book before taking Arree’s class. I had only written the manuscript at the time and begun to doodle up some character drawings. What I will say, however, is that having a polished book dummy in hand helped me feel more confident about putting my work out there.
I attended the Seattle Writer’s Workshop back in April and pitched the book to two different agents at the event. I read up on pitching, and rather than hand them the book dummy across the table, I simply lay it atop my notebook in front of me. The minute I began talking, the agents looked down, saw the book dummy, and both asked if I would let them see it.
Their love of the illustrations was unanimous. Though one felt it wasn’t right for her list, she invited me to please send along any other picture books I wrote in the future, referencing that we'd met at the conference. The other, however, loved the illustrations and the idea and invited me to send along the manuscript. She wanted to know what else I had written, so I pitched my MG Fantasy story about Adeline and her colorless world. She loved that idea, too, requesting I send the first 20 pages when my revisions were complete.
All-in-all, the workshop was a huge success! I’m getting my picture book out there. And whether this is the book that lands me an agent, or if it is one in the future, I know it’s becoming a member of Storyteller Academy that got me to this point. It gave me the confidence I needed to know what I’m putting out into the literary world is special.
Q: Do you have any advice for our readers?
A: Visualize. See the pictures in your head. Even if you don’t draw or don’t plan to illustrate your story, having an idea of what the story you’ve written could look like will help you to know which words to keep, and what can be left up to the illustrator. Think of your role with the illustrator as something of a dance in which you push and pull, back and forth, until you reach that final page turn and take a bow.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I am working on illustrating book three in the MG Fantasy series, Theodore and the Enchanted Bookstore, written by K. Kibbee. I am also querying literary agents with two of my stories, Adeline and the Mystic Berries (MG Fantasy) and The Bookworm and the Butterfly (PB). I have two picture books written up and in the dummy/revision stages, as well as a MG fantasy and YA fantasy story that are in the editing stages as well. Lots of fun things on the horizon!
Q: Where can we find you on the Internet?
A: You can find my website at www.jhwinter.com.
From there you will find my blog, http://blog.jhwinter.com, where you can follow my journey as a writer, illustrator, and crafter.
I am on Instagram, Twitter, and my Facebook Fan Page under @jhwinterauthor.
I also teach how to crochet amigurumi on my Ink & Stitches YouTube channel.
Thanks so much, Julianne! I'm crossing my fingers for you!