Reflections on a finished draft

A screen shot showing the words "THE END"

Friends, I know it has been a while since I posted some news. I have been intensely focusing all my creative energy on drafting a novel, and today I reached “THE END.”

This is a huge deal for me. Sure, I drafted novels before, but that was 10 years ago in my MFA program. With deadlines looming and brilliant profs and students reading your pages, everything is aligned to keep you going. When this kind of structure fell away, it was very hard to reach THE END. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that everyone has to figure out their own process. I thought I’d share with you the way I found mine.

I have always considered myself to be a logical and meticulous planner, so when I learned that there were two kinds of writers, “plotters” and “pantsers” (think ”writing by the seat of your pants”), I was sure I was a plotter. But, seeing as I was in an MFA program to push myself and explore, I did just that. In my third semester, a most generous prof gave me the space to dig up all kinds of stuff from my subconscious using freewriting prompts that were designed to get at a character’s deepest needs and desires. These bits of writing would often never make it into your story, they would rather deeply contribute to well-rounded characters if you allowed yourself to delve in deeply enough.

Oh, I delved deep. That semester was a particularly challenging time in my life in the world off the page, and what started as creative writing became therapeutic writing. The line between me and my characters blurred, and my stories were going nowhere. I fled from the pantsing idea and reinvested myself in the (safer) plotter approach again.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about If you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” (Sylvia Plath)

After graduating, I switched to writing picture books. This smaller format allowed me to focus on story arcs in condensed spaces. I discovered that I loved this format. And, as I worked away on my manuscripts, ideas for novels kept pushing through. Ok, I thought. I’ll try again.

I tried every popular method you’ve probably heard of if you’re in the “plotter” camp: Save the Cat, Story Genius, Blueprint for a Book, The Golden Theme, Pixar Storytelling, The Anatomy of Story… It was a dead end for me, each time. I could not write an outline that made any logical sense. I tried to push through, anyway, and found myself exasperated. How could I possibly give my characters a satisfying resolution? I started wondering whether I was blocking my own progress, not trusting myself enough to figure it out. Was I my own worst enemy? I dropped that story idea and focused on picture books again.

And then… another novel idea wanted my attention. This one more urgent, inspired by my niece and nephew, who wanted to be in one of my stories. I acquiesced. I’d recently heard that it was beneficial to draft quickly. This way, you could capture a snapshot of your inspiration and creative context before they changed, so I’d decided to try another system: The 90-Day Novel.

It started with a bunch of freewriting. I could hear echoes of the pantsing I did in my third semester, but this time my world off the page was not so unruly. As I got to know the characters a bit better, it asked me to begin considering structural questions. This time, it seemed ok to not know the answers. I was encouraged to keep going anyway. It asked me to focus on a character’s dilemma, which, by definition, is unresolvable. And it asked me to imagine the characters transformed by the end, without insisting that I know how they would get there.

“Do not try to solve any of the structure questions. It’s more important to just inquire and to trust that your story lives fully and completely within you, that all of the juicy, exciting madness you wish to express absolutely belongs in your story.” (Alan Watt, The 90-Day Novel)

So, I committed to these 90 days of inquiry and curiosity. I loved how Alan Watt would repeat these principles daily, almost as if he knew how loudly my need for order and control would be screaming for my attention as I approached the page. Even when I took a break over Christmas, I came back to the process. This mindset of curiosity, inquiry, and trust was what I needed to birth my story.

“We can teach principles of story, and we can illustrate a process, but these fundamentals are useless without an open heart.” (Alan Watt, The 90-Day Novel)

a notebook page with 90 colourful stickers on it.

As a small incentive, I gave myself a sticker each day in the journey to the 90 day draft. I tried to match the sticker with how I was feeling at the end of the writing session.

A notebook with stickers on it, including one that says "Perfectly Imperfect"

And then, I gave myself a bonus sticker when I reached THE END 🙂

My novel is far from finished, but my draft is complete. I’ve discovered how gently and openly I need to approach the drafting process. I’ll try Alan’s The 90-day Rewrite next. For now though, I’ll celebrate, and let the story and my happy heart rest.

What works for you, when drafting a longer work? How do you celebrate when you get to “THE END”?

A radio interview on KiSS 105.3

Did you know that it’s helpful, when speaking on the radio, to stand up? It is said to increase the energy level in the sound of your voice. I tried that out yesterday morning when I spoke with Chris on KiSS 105.3 about This is the Boat that Ben Built and the 2023 Ruth & Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award.

The toy animals sit around a copy of This is the Boat that Ben Built. The loon and goose have a headset on as if speaking on the radio.

Loon and Goose stand up for optimal voice energy levels 🙂

The book is available through booksellers (if you’re in the Ottawa area, check out Books on Beechwood, Octopus Books, and The Spaniel’s Tale Bookstore), Tag Along Toys in Ottawa, and, just in case you missed it, I also offered local KiSS 105.3 listeners an autographed, personalized copy plus an animal sticker and bookmark for a kid in their life through @jlbaileybooks on Instagram or jlbaileybooks@gmail.com. If you’re a local listener reading this here, feel free to use the contact form on my website as well.

Enjoy the interview!

Recipient of the 2023 Ruth & Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award, Picture Book Category!

I am so, so honored to share that Maggie and I are the 2023 recipients of the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Awards, Picture book category!

The author and illustrator hold their certificates.

This award is especially meaningful to me as the nominating committee consisted of a youth services librarian (Brooke Windsor, Stratford Public Library) along with a bookseller and children’s literature specialist (Alison Dunn, Beggar’s Banquet Books, Gananoque), and the winning titles were chosen by a grade 4 student jury at Jesse Ketchum Junior and Senior Public School in Toronto, Ontario. It’s awesome to know that the story has resonated among librarians, booksellers, and kids alike!

Jen and Maggie stand with the student jury for the picture book category

Maggie and I celebrating with the student jury for the picture book category.

After meeting and chatting with the student jury, it was clear that we share a common playfulness, sense of wonder, and desire to explore interconnections in our natural world, and encourages me to keep exploring these things in my writing.

The author signs a book for a jury member. The author signs a book for a jury member. The author signs a book for a jury member.

It was wonderful to meet the family of Ruth & Sylvia Schwartz, who have recognized children’s authors and illustrators through this award for 48 years! I am so grateful for this support. Thanks also so much to the Ontario Arts Foundation who administer the award and who helped us with the logistics of the ceremony (Ann Boyd (Director of Administration), Bruce Bennett (Executive Director)), the
Ontario Arts Council who managed the jury process, and specifically Carolyn Gloude, Awards Officer, who worked with the student jurors. We loved meeting the students at Jesse Ketchum Junior and Senior Public School, principal Elizabeth Holmes, and teacher/librarian Cherisse Tullett. Thank you for hosting us!

And, I got to meet the staff at Pajama Press 🙂

The staff at Pajama Press stand for a photo.

First time meeting the publisher, marketing, and sales team at Pajama Press in person.

(P.S. Our book has a sticker! Yay!!)

The picture book with its sticker.

It’s been a great year!

What a year! Celebrating firsts, clockwise from the top:

  • First in-person book launch, held with family and friends, at Overflow Brewery in Ottawa
  • This is the Boat that Ben Built was included in the Canadian Children’s Book News publication, and later in their Best Books for Kids and Teens. This is a photo of the shelf I put up in my office to celebrate these firsts.
  • First time holding the book in my hands! I had gathered all the stuffed animals to celebrate with me, except for heron, who joined us a little later.
  • This is the Boat that Ben Built was named an Ontario Library Association Best Bet – first “sticker” for the book!
  • First time signing a book (I practiced a lot first!)
  • First time finding the book in the public library – the same one I went to when I was a child.
  • First time reading at a bookstore (Indigo Orleans)
  • First time doing a virtual school visit for World Read Aloud day

Thanks to all the readers and supporters for a fantastic year of firsts!

Bookstore love: it’s been a great year!

This is the Boat that Ben Built has been out in the world for one year! This is the second post in a short series to mark the occasion.


Seeing This is the Boat that Ben Built in local bookstores was such a fantastic feeling!

A collage of photos taken of the author in bookstores.

I am grateful for the support of my local booksellers Books on Beechwood, Octopus Books, and most recently, The Spaniel’s Tale Bookstore, who helped get the book into the hands of readers across Ottawa!

My first in-person book reading and signing event was a hit at Indigo Innes. Their staff was so enthusiastic and welcoming – it was a great setting to share the story with young readers.

Maggie and I met for the first time at the Holiday Book Fair in Montreal, at a booth hosted by Librairie Paragraphe Bookstore. Montreal is where Maggie is based, and it was great to have their support! (Truth be told, I photoshopped her into that picture! She took a photo of me in the booth but we didn’t get one together.)

Getting to know the booksellers and seeing our book on their shelves has been a real highlight of this year! I’m looking forward to building these relationships in years to come.


Next up, a year of firsts!

So many readers: It’s been a great year!

This is the Boat that Ben Built has been out in the world for one year! This is the first post in a short series to mark the occasion.


The other day, as I was getting ready to go on a school visit, I realized that I was almost out of bookmarks to hand out to the kids. I opened my email account, searched for the local company who printed that first batch*, and logged back in to my customer account to reorder. I expected that my original order had been for, maybe, 100 or 200 bookmarks. It turns out, I had ordered 500. And now, only 5 were left.

That’s what it took for me to realize that at the bare minimum, 495 kids had read my story. And that’s when I got excited, because I started thinking about the exponential impact of teachers and librarians and caregivers sharing my book in Ottawa and beyond. It really has been a great year.

Here are some of the amazing readers I know about:

Photo collage of children holding This is the Boat that Ben Built, and of the author reading the book to children.

It’s so motivating to have these photo memories capturing reader joy and interest. On a bulletin board in my office I’ve also pinned the names of kids who have asked me to sign a book for them at local events. (I ask them to write their names on a post-it note so I don’t misspell it, and if they leave the note behind, I add it to my collection!) It’s fun to think about how the kids in these photos and on those post-it notes might one day engage with the stories I’m drafting now.

Thanks for the great year, readers! Here’s to many more to come.


Up next, some bookstore love!

*Shout out to Newprint in Ottawa, ON for the beautiful bookmarks!

 

A school visit to Elmwood!

Had such fun at Elmwood School last Friday, exploring my picture book and the northern river ecosystem with the enthusiastic grade 1-5 students! Their March theme was curiosity, and they really lived up to it with their thoughtful questions about the creative process and the animals in the story.

Jen stops, mid-book signing, for a photo with a young student who requested the signature.

World Read Aloud Day – Reflections

You never quite can tell what’s going to happen on an in-person school visit. The projector goes out. The microphone screeches. A fire drill is called in the middle of a presentation. (We all lined up in the school yard…) But despite it all, you can usually tell when you’ve connected with them. They’re right there in front of you, and they’re responding in real time.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with my first ever virtual visits, which I arranged for World Read Aloud Day: would the kids hear me ok? Could I see them well enough to know if they were engaging with the story? Can I reach them this way?

On World Read Aloud Day, I visited three classrooms to read This is the Boat that Ben Built. The first session with Todd Elementary School in Briarcliff Manor, NY, was the one I was the most confident about, since I had tested the platform ahead of time with their tech crew. When I joined the call, I noticed that the kids were wearing crowns with their names written on them. They instantly became more than just little dots on a screen. “I’m Jen Lynn Bailey,” I said, and the first sparks of connection were born.

The author holds her book up on the screen at the front of the classroom as children look on. The children are wearing paper crowns.

Todd Elementary School, Briarcliff Manor, NY

I noticed a pretty significant delay between my questions and their responses, which made interaction a bit challenging as I shared the story. I slowed down and watched the tiny little box in the bottom corner of my screen to notice their small movements and reactions. Still with me, I thought. And when it came time for them to ask questions, I knew we’d managed just fine. “What inspired you to write this story?” “How long did it take to write?” “Why did you become a writer?”

A child stands at the front of the classroom, asking a question to the author who is connected virtually on a computer.

Question time – Todd Elementary School

A child stands in front of a computer screen to ask their question. The author is projected on to a screen at the front of the classroom.

At Miller Elementary School in Canton, MI, the kids were seated on a carpet in a lovely library, surrounded by books. Although they were tiny on my screen, I could see them engage, bringing their hands up to their eyes to mimic the binoculars and magnifying glass that Ben used to explore the animals in the northern river ecosystem. They’re with me, I knew.

Miller Elementary School, Canton, MI

At Hume Elementary School in Nelson, BC, the technical issues all came out to play. Sound. Screen sharing. Timing out. But it didn’t deter us – the teacher had my book on hand, and we both held up our copies so the kids could see the illustrations while I read. I think they joined in enthusiastically. I heard the audio cut in and out, and noticed them looking at the pictures as their teacher passed by their desks.

“Do you like to read?” one student asked me during the question time.

I love to read,” I said. I wasn’t sure what she would say next.

I love to read, too,” she said. She smiled to herself, considering something, and stepped away from the camera.

And so, on World Read Aloud Day, I discovered that virtual visits are an exercise in paying attention to the small, nearly imperceivable signs of connection. Thank you, grade 1s and 2s, for sharing a story and forming a small connection with me.

Book signing in Montreal – Nov 5, 1:00-1:30pm

 

Thrilled to be joining Maggie Zeng at the AELAQ Holiday Book Fair tomorrow (Nov 5) for a book signing at the Librairie Paragraphe Bookstore in Montreal, starting at 1pm. More info about the fair can be found here. Hope to see you there!

First in-person book signing event: a great success!

The author holds her book and reads to children in a bookstore.

Yesterday morning I was a ball of nerves getting ready for my first in-person book signing event. But when I got to read to these young explorers, the nervousness dissipated and we quickly connected about the story. They loved guessing which animal would be next, finding the animals that had already been introduced, watching what Ben was up to on his great exploration, and, of course, telling me all about which animals they had seen or learned about before!

After each reading I did, I signed books for the kids and they voted on their favorite animals. Are you surprised that the bear was the clear winner? I think it’s his friendly wave and relaxed demeanor that makes him so popular. I had a couple of votes for the butterfly and dog…. who unfortunately didn’t get their own backmatter pages!

A tally sheet with a sticker corresponding to each animal on the left side and children's tally marks on the right. "Which animal do you like the most?" - the highest tally was for the bear, followed by the beaver.

There was also a prize wheel they could spin to win a bookmark, sticker, or small wooden owl. This was a hit with the kids and staff 🙂

A colorful prize wheel displaying which prizes could be won: bookmark, stickers, owl.

Looking forward to many more events like this one! Thanks @IndigoInnes for hosting me, and thanks to all the great kids who joined me to explore This is the Boat that Ben Built!

The author stands behind a table of her books, a prize wheel, tally sheet, and crafts.