Kate Messner is an absolute star in children's literature. The award-winning author of books in several categories, Kate is a former teacher and a current mentor to many in the writing community. She'll deliver a keynote speech at the New York SCBWI conference in February with fellow middle-grade author Linda Urban on building and sustaining a creative life.
It's hard to imagine anyone better at doing this than Kate, whose last keynote is remembered as one of the most insightful ever given at an SCBWI conference.
What are a couple of things you wish you’d known about this business before you were ever published?
One thing I wish I’d understood is that the very best thing I could do for my career was writing my next book, rather than running in circles doing every little thing to promote the book that just came out. With my first couple of books, I spent an inordinate amount of time on everything from social media to blog tours to finding the perfect place to print my bookmarks. It never felt like enough, and time that I should have spent celebrating my first books in the world was instead spent fretting over that. These days, most of my “book promotion” consists of doing a handful of things that I love, that help other people, too – Skyping with kids in classrooms, running an online writing camp for teachers and librarians, and being part of a community of readers and other writers. It’s a much more joyful way to approach things, and I get more work done, too.
The other thing that I should have known – but somehow failed to internalize at times – is that it wasn’t helpful to compare my career to anyone else’s. My daughter runs cross country, so we go to a lot of meets, and one of the things I always hear coaches shouting out over the trail is “Run your own race!” Runners who focus on their own performance and pace are simply more successful than those who are constantly looking over their shoulders. Every time I hear that, I remember it’s important advice for writers, too. When you’re looking around at someone else’s advance or marketing plan or awards list, you undervalue the small joys that happen in a writing life every day, and that’s tremendously sad. I try hard to remember that and to hope for good things in general rather than obsessing over the details. I don’t always succeed in running my own race, but I’m much better at it than I was with my first books, and much happier as a result.
You do school visits, the summer educational program known as Teachers’ Write, publish books in multiple categories and more. What are your best tips for staying focused and on task? (This is where I will link to your awesome bullet journal post, but if you have a state-of-mind tip, we can go over that here.
I’m a big fan of Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, and that philosophy serves me well when it comes to juggling lots of things without feeling overwhelmed. Because I do work in multiple genres and with multiple publishers, it’s rare for me not to have at least two or three things on my desk on any given day. I try to prioritize based on deadlines and focus on that one project without letting the others peer over my shoulder.
Also, a little over a year ago, I started using a Bullet Journal to keep track of projects, events, and daily goals and tasks. It works beautifully for me because I’m the kind of person who loves checking things off a to-do list. Here’s a blog post I wrote a few months into my bullet journaling experience, where I share some details about how that system works in my writing life:
And here’s a Facebook post I wrote after a year of using this system, reflecting on how it’s impacted my writing life (and fitness goals, too):
Who are three writers you wish everyone would read?
Oh dear. I’m not sure I can do this one. I am in love with so many different kinds of books – and sometimes, I love one book by a writer but only kind of like the others. So forgive me – but I’m going to play my presidential-candidate-during-a-debate card and pretend you asked me a totally different question.
Martha: Hey, Kate! What are eight books that you’ve loved lately that you wish everyone would read, and why?
Kate: Gosh, Martha…I’m so glad you asked that question!
BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert – because it reminds us as creative people to show up for work, to be gentle with ourselves, and to honor the magic.
BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson, BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and ALL AMERICAN BOYS by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely – because they are beautifully written and unsettling, in a world that needs both beauty and examination.
WE CAME TO AMERICA by Faith Ringgold. I saw this picture book about our nation’s legacy of welcoming immigrants at NCTE. I read it in the publisher’s booth, and cried because it is so lovely and important. It doesn’t come out until May, but I wish it were out now.
MILO SPECK, ACCIDENTAL AGENT by Linda Urban, PICKLE by Kim Baker, and HOOK’S REVENGE by Heidi Schulz – because they will make you laugh. Also because there are singing ogres, wild pranks, and girl pirates, respectively.
More about Kate:
Watch Kate talk about building fictional worlds on TedED.