Today, I’m excited to share two interviews with Johnell DeWitt! I’ve gotten to know Johnell pretty well over the last couple of years. She even traveled to attend our regional SCBWI conference in Las Vegas last year. We’ve swapped manuscripts for critique, and I can tell you that it’s only a matter of time before someone snatches up one of her beautifully crafted stories.
Arree interviewed Johnell several months ago for his YouTube channel. (The video quality improves after the beginning.)
My Interview with Johnell
Q: What is your background?
A: I worked in public relations for several years doing all sorts of fun things, like writing press releases, marketing material, and all that goes along with PR.
Q: What made you want to start writing picture books?
A: I loved picture books as a kid, and even then, I dreamed of writing my own. When my children were little, my husband made up a story about a Mr. McBooger and these two kids whose animal friend got captured by him, so they had to free their friend. My kids thought it was hilarious and asked my husband to tell them that story every night. I told him he should write it down, but he didn’t. So I did. I thought it was going to be the next best picture book … (cue the crickets).
It wasn’t a total loss though. The experience got me motivated to write my own stories, so I started asking questions and doing research on what it would take to write a picture book. I wrote a few really awful drafts at that point. But I didn’t seriously get into writing until a couple years later, when I took a class and joined a critique group and SCBWI.
Q: How long have you been writing?
A: All my life in one capacity or another—I’ve always loved literature and creating my own stories. Recently, I found my old Honors English writing journal from my junior year. I even found a story I’d written for a writing contest that was full of some of purpliest prose I’ve had the pleasure to write:
“An ethereal wind whips my hair back as my body soars into empty blackness.”
“My happiness gushes out in sparkling torrents; the stars gulp it in and begin to pulsate (Notice my snazzy use of a semi-colon to boot).
I’ve got some other great lines in there too, like ‘milky, equine head,’ ‘dancing dryads,’ ‘frolicking elves,’ and my favorite, ‘morbid smog.’ (In case you need another fix of purple prose, here’s a great site: https://www.bulwer-lytton.com).
But if you were to ask me how long I’ve been writing picture/children’s books, I’d probably say sixish years—the first two, as I stated above, were more tinkering with my husband’s story than anything serious.
Q: Are you involved in any writing communities that you feel have contributed to your success?
A: Absolutely. I got my start on Verla Kay’s Blue Boards (now the SCBWI boards), then SCBWI, then Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (now Storystorm), and 12x12, which has been hugely helpful. That’s how I also first heard about Storyteller Academy. I have a critique group of stellar writers that I’ve been part of for three years now and an online critique forum called The Prose Shop, which is a spin-off of the Poet’s Garage. I’ve taken various writing classes over those years and all of them have been helpful in their own way.
Q: Have you ever felt frustrated by trying to get a picture book right?
A: Yes. Constantly. Unless you are a celebrity, picture books are the hardest books to write. As a picture book writer, you have to be very disciplined to leave out most of what you’d want to say, so you can leave room for the art. The writing is only half the story in a picture book, sometimes less, so you have to train yourself to write powerfully in as few words as possible. And it’s important to write visually so that someone can illustrate it. There are so many elements that go into making a stellar picture book and you really have to master, or at least understand, them all. Like Mark Twain said: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” That’s also true of picture books.
Q: Why did you take Arree Chung’s Making Picture Book Stories and Dummies?
A: I took it because I needed a class that was hands-on. I’d had a number of writing classes, and they all helped—I was getting champagne rejections from agents. I could feel that I was really close, but what I lacked was knowledge on how to make my picture books work. I needed a class that focused on my own manuscripts and where they needed work. Arree’s class provided that. I took his class and his in-person critique group about a year ago, and it helped me see the areas in my own writing that were working and that still needed work.
Q: How did taking Arree’s class change the way you write picture books?
A: Now I think more visually and simply, which is better for picture books. I developed a better grasp of the illustration side of story making, and I’m better able to see the weaknesses in my own manuscripts.
“Universality of the Human Heart”
Q: How has living in different parts of the world influenced your writing?
A: Oh, wow, that’s a really great question. I’m not sure I always recognize how much it has influenced me—each place I’ve lived has become so much a part of me. So I’d say that every country I’ve lived in has written some part of each of my stories.
I’m definitely inspired by the universality of the human heart. When it comes down to it, we are all more the same than we are different, and what differences we do have are part of an exquisite world tapestry. I guess that’s what I also try to do when I write—I try to share some bit of that idea—that we are one human family and we need to take care of each other. Of course, I do love to write things with the sole purpose of making the reader laugh—there’s merit in that as well—but I am attracted to stories that reveal some part of the human heart.
Advice for Writers
Q: Do you have any advice that might help our blog readers find satisfaction or joy in writing picture books?
A: Don’t self-edit your first drafts. Just write them any which way that they come—the vomit drafts—dump everything onto that page. Your brain needs to get all the ideas out before you can start the hard work of deciding what’s worth keeping. Those first drafts can be very stress relieving if you leave all judgment behind.
Q: Could you tell us about your blog? I recommended it in my post about researching picture book agents.
A: Sure. I have at site at johnelldewitt.com, where I try to put up useful info such as agent interviews, writing tips, etc. that aren’t often covered. When I have something worth sharing, I post, so it’s not a weekly thing by any means, but I hope it’s a valuable resource that answers some questions that aren’t always so easy to find.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: We’re settling in after another international move, so I’m still finding my routine, but I write nearly every day. I’m focusing on some longer works—middle grade and graphic novel texts. I hope to start submitting my longer works soon, but I’m still working on my picture books too.
Q: Where can we find you on the Internet?
A: Facebook: Johnell DeWitt
My website: johnelldewitt.com;
Thank YOU, Johnell, for sharing your journey and some of the things you’ve learned!