AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: JUSTIN COLÓN
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Today, we have an in-depth interview with author, Justin Colón! He's got a lot of practical wisdom to share, so let's get after it!
Everyone’s favorite question first: What’s something you absolutely must have in the refrigerator or pantry?
The ingredients to make a nice cup of Lipton tea.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
I’m going to cheat a bit because there’s no one place I know of that inspires me most. When’ is also big part of it. I thought it might be easier if I made a list (I mean, who’s not a fan of a good list?):
Mornings - I get up between 4 - 7am and begin my day. For me, it’s when there’s relatively few distractions and my mind is at its sharpest.
The Gym - After I get in a nice lift, the endorphins are going, I feel great, my mind’s fresher, and I’m more receptive to inspiration.
Youtube - Youtube is my “secret” weapon. It’s an endless source of inspiration. There is almost nothing you can’t find on Youtube. I find myself watching videos about science, nature, other countries and cultures, inspiring stories, etc. I learn about other artists pursuing their own goals and dreams and doing groundbreaking things. There’s documentaries, animated short films, sounds tracks to listen to, etc. The list goes on. The inspiration is endless.
Pinterest - Pinterest is a place I’ll scout for inspiration because of how powerful the visual aspect is. In particular, I’ll scout out science, nature, architecture, and art images, as well as quotes – anything that speaks to me. I also have a lot of dark, creepy, supernatural images related to my mg novel. I may not have a particular idea in mind for an image but if I’m drawn to it I pin it for the future.
Great Film, TV, and Theatre - A great story told through one of these mediums is one of my favorite ways of drawing inspiration, even if that inspiration doesn’t get directly poured into a story. They can recharge the batteries.
Art Supply Stores/Making Art - While I don’t illustrate professionally, I love the fine arts and art supply stores never cease to fill me with ideas. Must be something about being surrounded by endless possibilities to create new art.
Name three things that spark joy for you.
Being with my family. My dog counts as an equal family member (In many cases the dog wins, but shhh).
Aside from writing, acting. Not the business aspect of being a professional actor, but actually creating a character, learning new things about myself and the world around me, challenging myself as an artist and human being, and living moment to moment as the character. There’s a huge adrenaline rush when you’re experiencing all these peak moments, some most people will never experience in their actual life, in a condensed period of time.
Reading. Getting lost in a great story. I think any form of storytelling really fills me with joy.
I’m cheating [again] and adding a fourth option. Seeing the beauty in the world sparks joy in me. I’d love to say that’s from traveling the world, but usually it’s from watching too many National Geographic-type videos. It could also be witnessing the great acts people do for others and the beings that inhabit our planet. That sparks joy in me – it gives me hope and also makes me realize how insignificant all my worries are.
You’re a bit of a jack of all trades. Professional actor. Voiceover artist. Homeless-squirrel-shelter-builder. How did you get started in kid lit?
Haha. That squirrel has taken up residence at my house. He now likes to lean against our front door so he can capture some of the heat coming from inside (my family’s taken to the little guy and now faces a space heater toward the door to keep him extra warm. The house occasionally smells like it’s burning, but no big deal).
I think I started like many do in the kid lit world, with false expectations and disillusion. Last Christmas I decided to stop saying I would one day write a picture book and vowed to just go for it. I did my research, joined SCBWI, whipped out a few manuscripts during a caffeine-fueled holiday break, hired a freelance editor, queried those manuscripts prematurely, and received some rejections. A month after I wrote my first manuscript, a fellow SCBWI member reached out to me and encouraged me to apply for the Writing with the Stars Mentorship. I submitted, more manuscripts were requested, and I won a mentorship. It was off to the races from there. The more manuscripts I write and the more I engage with the community the more I fall in love with kidlit. The community has been very supportive, and I love reading children’s literature (especially picture books and middle-grade).
Your author website has a fantastic blog component that was actually one of the places that inspired me to start this site. What is the history behind your site, what do you hope to accomplish with it, and what benefits you have seen in your life as a writer as a direct result of your work with it?
Thanks for the kind words. This is really fulfilling to hear because one of the things I have posted above my desk is to “inspire others.” Well, last year I reached out to my mentor, seeking her thoughts on whether I should launch a website. She encouraged me to create a blog as well to connect with the community. Because of acting, I’m connected with headshot photographers, editors, and web programmers. So I was fortunate to be able to have all my materials up and running very quickly. I then began emailing agents to interview for my blog.
At first, not many agents responded, but as the blog’s grown I’ve generated much more interest from agents, editors, and authors. The upcoming lineup consists of over a dozen upcoming interviews featuring heavy hitters in the kidlit world. Thanks to the generosity of the industry members, I’ve been able to run giveaways of signed books, query and manuscript critiques, webinar spots, Skype chats, and more. It’s pretty awesome to be able to connect with the industry and work with them to give back to the writing community.
My goal for the blog is to grow support via more subscribers and reach as many authors as possible to help inform them as much as possible (so they can make educated decisions more easily and efficiently) and to provide them with opportunities they otherwise might not have access to. I’d love to know that because of the blog authors connected with their agents and editors and/or landed a book deal. In just a short period of time I’ve racked up some pretty phenomenal opportunities because of people who were somehow invested in me and paid it forward. I would love to do the same for others, and this blog is the start of that.
As for the benefits, I’ve connected with far more writers as a result of the blog. I also engage more with the kidlit community as a whole. I’ve generated a lot of support, which is always nice to have. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many agents, editors, and authors, and that’s made me much more knowledgeable and informed as a writer. An added perk is that it’s put me in touch with some agents who, after interviewing, and who may otherwise have not have been on my ‘to query’ list, I now intend to query.
You’re a 2019 12X12 Diversity Scholarship recipient. Congrats! Tell us more about this opportunity and some of the reasons why 12X12 has been helpful for you as a writer.
Thank you. 12x12 is a community which I’ve consistently heard great things about. If there’s one thing that should never be undervalued it’s the importance of community. So when I saw a Twitter post promoting the 12x12 Scholarships, I applied right away. A few days before Christmas, I was notified I won the scholarship, which secured me a Gold Level membership and the Complete Picture Book Submission Session. I’ve only been a member of 12x12 for a little over a month now, but again, I’ve loved the sense of community.
The Facebook group is extremely active. I can post a question there and within seconds have many responses. So far, I’ve used the group to seek help with brainstorming ideas. I’ve critiqued others’ work but haven’t posted mine for critique because what I currently have has already undergone a few critiques through my critique groups and evolved there, so I’d like to finish up the revisions with my critique groups. My plan is to create as many new picture book drafts from scratch as possible and post those to 12x12 for critique. The webinars 12x12 offers are an added bonus – I’m particularly looking forward to the upcoming one featuring The Fann Brothers.
In 2018 you were Pam Calvert’s mentee for a Writing with the Stars mentorship. What did you take away from this opportunity and how have things changed for you prior to your time with her?
Do we have enough space on your blog for me to talk up this awesome opportunity? As a writer, everything has changed for me because of this mentorship. I’m indebted to Tara Luebbe for creating and organizing the contest/mentorship and Pam Calvert for selecting me as her 2018 mentee. The first thing I gained from the experience was a mentor and friend. We maintained near-daily communication via email during the three-month mentorship. And since its completion, Pam’s continued to help and support me. In fact, we’ve just become accountability buddies for our novels, which is pretty cool.
The one thing that was heavily imparted on me during my time with Pam and which I took away was the importance of structure in storytelling. I developed a solid technique for writing picture books. I also walked away with a ton insight and information because of my daily (yes, daily) communication with my mentor, Pam Calvert, who was honest, transparent, and happy to share her time, talent, and industry insight and information, which set me lightyears ahead as an artist.
Overall, I developed my confidence, technique, and knowledge of my craft and the industry. I’ve since received interest from agents and editors. The blog Pam encouraged me to create has taken off. And I scored the 12x12 scholarship using manuscripts Pam worked with me on. Something else I learned from the experience was the importance of bringing your personality to an application, regardless of what the application is for. When I applied to the mentorship I had no training, credits, connections, or critique group. But I allowed the manuscripts to do the talking and brought who I am to the application. With 12x12 I had everything in place, but I still brought the personality to the application. Sure, you’re submitting stories, but you yourself are a story and the application is a form of [truthful] storytelling. So, that would be my piece of advice to anyone who may be completing an application for something – Bring your personality to the paper (or screen).
If anyone’s interested, I detailed my PBWWTS mentorship experience here: http://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-mentee-update-justin-colon/
We first met in a Camp NaNoWriMo cabin. Ahhh...the tender glow of a digital campfire unifying writers to finish their books! I would describe you as a writer with a lot of hustle. I’m very similar to you in this way except that I’m not a Slytherin (proud Gryffindor here). However, there are lots of writers who prefer to keep to themselves, work on their stories, and don’t try to stay as engaged. What encouragement would you offer our more timid friends? Why is it important to you to seek out opportunities, take risks, and participate in the larger kidlit community and conversation?
Haha, I must say, the digital campfire was a nice touch considering my bad history with [Boy Scout] camp and fires. BTW, Gryffindor was the house I wanted, but the Sorting Hat knew me like the Meyers-Briggs did… I’m a true Slytherin. So, I will now answer the rest of the questions in Parseltongue haha, I get it.
There are many reasons people might not want to engage via social media: Time [and social media detracting from their writing], confusion as to how to use it [effectively]], and/or sentiments that it’s fake or they’re not networkers and the interaction doesn’t feel genuine, timidity, etc. What’s especially nice that writers should take advantage of is the ability to be a part of a community and engage with others from the comfort of their own home. It’s an introvert’s dream. Timidity and community participation via social media are not mutually exclusive.
Listen, I’m an INTJ. I get it. In-person interaction is something I overthink and usually dread. But with social media, you can build a brand, engage with the community (including industry), and generate support via a “fan base” from behind a computer screen.If you don’t want to engage with somebody then don’t. I personally don’t believe in following people on Twitter with the expectation of a follow back. I only follow people I’m genuinely interested in following and possibly engaging with. I don’t expect anything from anyone – never engage just so you can get something out of the interaction. That will reek of desperation and it’s never a good look.
I believe social media is a great tool for self-promotion, but you need to give back too. All your posts shouldn’t be about self-promotion, imo – that grows tiring and feels less sincere. Also, beware of getting political via social media – that can be a turnoff and potentially dangerous to you and your brand. Social media isn’t for everyone. I deactivated my Facebook account. I’m not very active on Instagram (though I plan to be). Twitter is a platform I’ve grown to love. If you don’t, that’s fine. Don’t force it. But do consider it because it’s great for community, branding, marketing, and engaging with readers as well.
What are some current projects you’re working that have you staying up late and super pumped? Any teasers or pitches for some stories you’re submitting?
I’m currently polishing up a PitMad pb request. I’m pretty pumped to finish this one because it’ has a strong hook and, from my research, there’s no picture book out there with this type of character and concept. I’ve been working on it for 8 months and it’s gone through several dozen revisions, each time morphing into a completely different story. I’m hoping to get it out soon since it’s for the agent I most want to work with. It’s been my biggest challenge as a picture book writing, but I’m hoping that’ll have a nice payoff. After that, I’d like to dive into my MG manuscript, which I’m pretty excited for. It’s an ownvoices, Latinx middle-grade fantasy-adventure novel that contains elements of Asian culture and horror. And it’s set in Puerto Rico.
What are some picture books that have inspired you or had you laughing out loud?
Creepy Carrots and Creepy Pair of Underwear by Aaron Reynolds, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat, The Questioneers Collection by Andrea Beaty, The Rough Patch by Brian Lies, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown, Grimelda: The Very Messy Witch by Diana Murray, The Night Gardener by The Fann Brothers, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins, The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse by Mac Barnett, and Rules of the House by Mac Barnett
WHEN (not if) rejection comes for writers, everybody handles it differently. What’s something you do to maintain a positive outlook in the face of rejection? Any guilty pleasures that seem to cheer you up or help take off the edge?
As an actor, I experience rejection really often. What’s nice about writing is that it’s my manuscript being rejected, not me. You can always improve your writing and storytelling skills, your manuscript itself, write other stories, etc. You’re not being rejected because you were too short, too young, your hair wasn’t the right style, you have a slight accent, you don’t have the right physicality, you’re not ethnic enough for this role but too white for that role, the part went to a rising star… you get my pt.
Every time you get rejected, remember it really isn’t personal. There’s also a quote I love that really applies here: “As I look back on my life, I realize that every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being redirected to something better.” If you got all your yesses right away or when you wanted then you wouldn’t find your way to all the great, unexpected things in your future had you accepted those yesses early on. Dealing with rejection is a skill.
As an actor, it’s taken me nearly a decade to develop that skill. You have to if you intend to achieve your goal and remain intact as a person. There will always be rejections that sting more than others. There are times when I fall into a slump. But I get back up and do it again. I think something important is to acknowledge what’s bothering you about the rejection and then create a call of action of how you’re going to respond to that rejection. Are you going to allow yourself a few hours or days to mope? Do it. But have a call to action.
Things that help me deal with rejection and stay inspired are, listening to motivational speeches during the day and meditational audio at night (both via Youtube). This may sound cheesy, but it works. Usually, if something is bothering me I go even harder burying myself in the work. But I also like to do anything artistic where I can exercise a different part of my brain – painting, drawing, woodwork while I play some music. I’ll read a book, maybe watch some Netflix. Another thing I like to do is make ‘to do’ list every day. Venting to my family and critique groups helps too. Can you tell this is a question and subject I’m passionate about?
The submission process can be a dizzying mess of juggling for someone who isn’t organized. Talk to us about the practical ways you maintain organization of submissions, query contacts, manuscript revisions, etc.
Organization gives you some sense of control in what can be a frustrating process, and overall, it makes things easier and more efficient. I’ve created a Google Spreadsheet that I use to log my querying stats and info. Here’s how I categorize it: Agency, Agent, Manuscript Submitted, Date Submitted, Date Response was received (if at all), Type of response received (Yes/No), and Notes. For the notes, I will include any piece of pertinent information I’ve picked up, whether it be from an interview, Publisher’s Marketplace, Query Tracker, personal interaction with that agent, stuff I’ve heard/learned from other writers, etc.
What are some challenges you face as a querying author? Maybe give us your biggest pet peeve of the path to publication.
Patience. Another thing that’s been a challenge has been the diminishing number of agents open to pb text-only from non-illustrators. Most of the agents I’ve been interested in are seeking mg (something I’m in the very beginning stages of working on) and (while they rep picture books) are closed to pb text-only. I understand many of the reasons why an agent would prefer to sign an author-illustrator. But when you want your main thing to be pbs, it can be frustrating because essentially it feels like you have to write a novel and secure representation with that to get you picture book manuscripts noticed too.
What are some agencies or agents in particular that you have your sights on and would be thrilled to be picked up by?
I have a list of five agents I most want to work with. I have active requests from two of those agents, so I don’t want to jinx anything. I’ll say this though, the agent I’d love to work with most is someone that wasn’t initially on my radar. But then I communicated with them and realized they’re the agent I could see myself working with for the duration of my career. Hopefully when I submit my #PiMad request to them they’ll be even more interested in potentially working together.
What does the critique process look like for you? Do you have an established group outside of 12X12 and how does it function? How are you at receiving critiques on your manuscripts?
Last May, I launched a critique group that consists of five other members. Our group operates using a free platform called Slack ( www.slack.com ). We can use the platform from our desktops and the phone app. In many ways, it’s like instant messaging but with a built in forum system. We can talk directly throughout all hours of the day to brainstorm with each other, send updates, discuss critiques, etc. We can also upload our manuscripts as documents directly to Slack and then others can download them and upload their critiqued versions, or they can critique live directly on Slack. It’s an awesome platform.
I also joined an established critique group called The Prose Shop. What’s been nice about that critique group, while it isn’t my main one, is that there are a lot of illustrators within the group. So, they bring some different tools and unique perspective to critiques of our pb-text. That’s been really helpful because they can tell me if I’ve overuses my art notes, if they love how much creative control I left to the illustrator, if the story is clear as is with the notes provided, etc.
And like I mentioned earlier, I also became an accountability buddy with my former mentor, Pam, so that’s really great too. I love receiving critiques of my work. I become very connected to my stories, so I can become protective of them. Sometimes that means I can become defensive. But I ask questions to clarify things and brainstorm ways to make things work even better. I don’t appreciate bashing of anyone’s work, but I also don’t encourage false praise – that’s detrimental, especially to an artist.
I find that the majority of critiques I’ve received have benefited my stories greatly and I’ve grown a lot as a writer because of them. They’ve helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses and play to the former while strengthening the latter. What I love about my main critique group is that they can tell when I’m overthinking something, being too hard on myself and my work, and/or am paralyzed by too many ideas.
Something I'm really passionate about is the importance for individuals to carve out their own definition of success. What would it mean for you to be successful as a kid lit author. Describe your vision of the kind of author life you hope to achieve.
I’d love to work with an agent who is passionate about kidlit (especially pbs) and me and my work. And I want to be equally passionate about them. An agent who is an active, positive light within the community. Someone who’s approachable, personable, communicative, transparent, and kind. An individuals who also pushes me as an artist. An agent with insatiable hunger to put great literature into the world and who has a genuine investment in championing stories that reflect a more diverse world.
As a writer, I’d like to write picture books, chapter books, and middle grade. For picture books, I’d like to be known for producing stories that humorous, high concept, and full of heart, with an emphasis on stories that are outlandish, magical, spooky, and or mysterious. I’d kill to see one of my picture books turned into an animated movie or series, preferably by Pixar. I’d love to have a chapter book series and publish MG as well (a series would be all the better).
For both, I’d especially like to write Latinx stories that are infused with dark or strange worlds and monsters and magic. Most of all, it’s important to me that I write books I’m especially proud of and which bring something really fresh to kidlit. I’d also like to remain especially active in the industry and give back as much as possible – that’s very important to me.
I’m still a new writer myself, but one day I’d love to mentor picture book writers. Another thing that I love is the impact kidlit has on children (and adults). And I’d love to engage with my future readers and fan base and inspire and change lives for the better via live events like school visits, Skype chats, conferences and workshops, etc. But in the meantime, I need to do the work and keep writing.
What are some absolute must have writer resources that have helped you stay productive and informed?
I don’t necessarily use all these resources any longer or consistently. But I think they’re definitely worth checking out. But first, I’d like to start out with some of my favorite resources:
Books. Specifically, craft-related books (most of these are geared toward novels, but are still very helpful even to pb writers):
Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul is awesome.
Understanding Show Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy
Save the Cat: Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody
Story by Robert McKee
The Secret of Story by Matt Bird
How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell
The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass.
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland
Structuring Your Novel by K.M. Weiland
Story Genius by Lisa Cron
The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
Actions: The Actor’s Thesaurus by Marina Caldarone & Maggi Lloyd-Williams
Pam Calvert’s Picture Book University: It’s free.
www.justincolonbooks.com Had to pitch my blog haha. I post a lot of agent and editor interviews and often do giveaways. And soon I’ll be posting a lot of author interviews.
12x12: (I’m new, but finding it very helpful – the community alone is great):
Query Tracker’s Premium Membership: The discussion boards were especially helpful when I was first starting out.
Publishers Marketplace: Can be very helpful, even if you cancel once you attain the info you need. I think a one month membership should do the trip.
Twitter: Specifically, #MSWL. Other hashtags like #amwriting, #amediting, #amquerying, #askagent, #5amwritersclub, #kidlitart, #mgbookchat and MANY more. Some great accounts for picture book writers to follow on Twitter are @taralazar, @joshfunkbooks, @t_luebbe, @amwritingkidlit, @MrSchuReads, @HannahWHolt, @Jess_Keating, @marchsoloway, to name just a few.
What advice do you have for authors just starting out in the kid lit world or the querying process?
DON’T CLICK THAT ‘SEND’ BUTTON YET! WRITE. REWRITE. THEN QUERY. Most writers (myself included) query too soon. Do you have a critique group? Has your manuscript gone through several critiques and revisions? Are you in love with your writing, the characters, the plot, the story? Have you identified the conflict in your story and ensured it’s strong? Does your story have a strong concept and hook? Does it feel fresh? Would you, as a consumer, buy your book (if you hadn’t written it) at full price from a bookstore? Would it stand out? Does the story have re-readability? Is your pitch and synopsis succinct and compelling? Is your query letter strong? If you write picture books, do you have additional manuscripts available?
As an active (fellow) member of SCBWI, what would you say to writers or illustrators on the fence about joining this organization?
I would encourage writers and illustrators to join SCBWI. Even if you’re unpublished, SCBWI offers many benefits. First off, it shows your commitment to writing and already, in my opinion, puts you in a different mindset as a writer. I felt like I was part of a community when I joined. And while this may just pertain to me, it felt like a commitment to myself that I’d stay true to this path now that I was a part of this huge writing organization.
The Blue Boards (a discussion forum) can be especially great for those starting off. In fact, if it weren’t for the Blue Boards I never would’ve discovered and won my Writing with the Stars Mentorship. There are numerous SCBWI scholarships and grants you can apply for. SCBWI host some phenomenal conferences and workshops (I’ve yet to attend one but plan to in the near future). I would also encourage writers to try and join their regional branch as well.
Anything coming up that you are looking forward to and would like to promote?
Yes. #PBChat. Beginning February 27th, every Wednesday at 9pm I’ll be moderating a Twitter chat geared toward picture book writers. Illustrators, readers, librarians, educators, lovers of picture books are welcome to join. It’s free and no signup is necessary. Just show up to Twitter on Wednesday at 9pm, use the #PBChat hashtag, and follow the thread. It’s going to be a great way of developing community, something we as picture books could use even more of. We’ll be discussing a different topic each week, sharing news and updates, and participating in challenges and contests.
Thank you so much for your insight and for sharing so much! My very best of luck in your continued path. Keep us posted as things happen for you!
Thank you for stopping by, kid lit fam. If you found this interview helpful, share with a writer friend or two. We have many more interviews like this coming up, so don't forget to subscribe to Picture Book Spotlight. Here is a teaser...we're going to start offering giveaways! Stay tuned for more on that!
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ABOUT JUSTIN COLÓN
Justin Colón is a Latinx writer and active SCBWI member based in Long Island, NY. He runs a blog dedicated to writers of children's literature (www.justincolonbooks.com/blog) and is the creator of #PBChat, the upcoming weekly Twitter chat for picture book writers. He earned his B.A. in History from Fordham University. So naturally, he skipped law school and became a professionally trained, working actor and voiceover artist. He’s a proud member of SAG-AFTRA and has appeared in shows for Netflix, Amazon, NBC, CBS, and FOX.
Brian Gehrlein is an educator and youth services librarian living in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine, and son, Peter. He is currently querying picture books and actively seeking literary representation. He thanks you for reading this post. Hey maybe instead of seeing what snarky, silly end statement I'm going to make, maybe you should go read a book. Or call your mom. Or eat a snack. Anything, really. Literally anything other than reading to the end of this absurd sentence. I wonder how many people actually read to the end like this? I wonder. Probably nobody. But if someone did read to the end...they would be AWESOME. You are awesome.