Author Spotlight: Kristen Kiesling
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Today, I'm very excited to Spotlight another up and coming picture book star who is currently in the thick of the picture book query trenches. Kristen Kiesling is a Houston based author writing young adult AND picture books. She recently won a SCBWI Nevada Mentorship Award for her YA manuscript, The Harvester. Kristen has a lot to share so let's get to it!
What’s something you absolutely must have in the refrigerator or pantry?
This depends if I’m eating clean or not…lately not so much. Morning: coffee and whatever I’m eating for breakfast, afternoon: water and salty carbs (Pistachios and raisins mixed, pretzels, Chex mix) For evening writing: definitely chocolate, sometimes wine. Wow, that sounds like I eat more than write. To be honest, if my writing is going well, I forget to eat, drink, or stand up until hours have passed and I have no idea what day it is. It’s when writing isn’t productive that food calls to me.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
1) Quiet organized space: I need to have some control over my space. If phone is ringing, dog barking, kids complaining I can’t focus. I need a clean space which usually means leaving one space for another when it gets messy. I rotate between desk, dining table, couch, and sometimes coffee shop. If the words aren’t flowing, moving to a new area sometimes works.
2) Critique group: Not only to elevate my work but also to encourage me when I’m down.
3) Scrivener: For novels, my mind works by writing scene by scene and the layout offered by this software really works for me. For picture books, I love its filing system. I can organize earlier drafts and quickly switch from one to another.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
Taking a walk and listening to music inspires me. I also get inspiration from movies and stand-up comedians. On the picture book front, if all else fails, spend time with silly kindergartners.
As a mom, I was well read in that area and felt confident in giving it a try. I found an amazing SCBWI chapter in Houston and a wonderful critique group which provided the support I needed to get started.
How would you describe your style or voice as a picture book writer? Are there any writers that you strive to emulate?
My picture books tend to focus on individuality, kindness, or friendship. I love picture books with humor, so I try to learn from masters like Tammi Sauer.
What was your first ever submission? Who was it to?
I sent out a small batch of queries on a picture book called Watson Wonders Why. It wasn’t ready to query yet but I didn’t know that at the time. Sometimes you don’t know…what you don’t know. I got a contract in the mail right away and was very excited until I researched the publisher. On page 32 of the 50-page contract, they mentioned me paying $4,000. Clearly this was some sort of hybrid publisher. Fortunately, I knew this was a red flag and I threw it in the garbage. I went back to querying and learning as much craft as possible to better my manuscript and make it query ready.
Rejections are never easy. They feed the voice that tells us we can’t do this. Sometimes I have to take a couple days to recover. My first rejection also made me feel embarrassed. I thought- am I kidding myself? But you pick yourself up, put the wine away, research your favorite authors, and you discover even the masters got rejected. Keep writing. Keep sending. Keep perfecting your craft.
How do you approach the revision process? Why is revision an important part of your writing life?
Sadly, my picture books are never done. Sometimes I get to a point where I think I can’t make it any better, I put it down, and a few weeks later see another line I can tweak. Sometimes I get so many drafts of a picture book (I have one with 25 completely different stories) that I have no idea which one to send out, which one is better? That is when critique groups are invaluable. They can also tell you when to stop revising!
What challenges are you currently facing as a writer? How do you work through conflict and keep a positive, forward momentum?
I am currently revising a young adult novel and querying my picture books. It’s hard to keep working when you aren’t sure if you’re good enough. The ONLY way for me to get better is to read, research, and write. When I decide I need to take a week off writing, it is never a good thing. There is something about writing every day. The consistency makes the words flow. When you think you need a vacation from writing, instead take a vacation from that piece. Find something else that inspires you and write that for a while.
Deadlines work well for me. I wanted to get started on another project and Camp NaNoWriMo was the perfect opportunity to force myself into a non-edited first draft. Initial rough drafts are great outlines and starting points to where you see the story going. Forcing yourself to stop self-editing can make your writing more honest. In this rush of consciousness, some of the words you choose will come from a much deeper vulnerable place…and maybe out of the pile comes a little magic.
As a busy mom with two boys, how do you maintain your work-life-balance? When and where do you write?
I wish I kept office hours like in a corporate job. Man would I be productive! But realistically we write when we can. Sometimes that’s in the car during school pick-up or soccer practice. I was recently at a workshop with Elana K. Arnold and she said something that really stuck with me. She said, “think of what needs to happen every day (she held up 5 fingers) 1) Cooking, 2) Time with family, 3) Exercise, 4) Clean/laundry 5) Write. Whatever your five things are, you get to pick 3 every day. If you need to write, cook, spend time with family- then don’t worry about cleaning or exercise. Let the guilt go. You can’t do it all. Pick 3.” This resonated with me. Sometimes we order pizza if I’m busy writing, sometimes we wear dirty clothes lol.
What have been some helpful resources for you as a writer? Any absolute must haves?
I LOVE masterclass.com – I paid for a yearly subscription and have found the writing classes amazing!
Podcasts, Podcasts, Podcasts- Whenever I’m in the car driving, or doing laundry I have a writer’s podcast on. My favorite is called Writing Excuses-Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler; I also love Alvina Ling’s new podcast Book Friends Forever Podcast.
You are an active member of SCBWI and also participate in the 12X12 Picture Book Challenge. What has participating in 12X12 meant for you and your work?
The friends I have made in SCBWI and the support it’s given, has meant the world to me. 12x12 Picture Book Challenge is wonderful for new writers wanting feedback on their manuscripts and it provides a community which fosters support and knowledge on the writing and revision process.
My young adult manuscript, The Harvester, won the Nevada SCBWI Mentorship Award, and I am excited to work with author Heather Petty for the next six months on revisions. I also have one picture book manuscript, The Bus Stop, that was liked by an art director at an SCBWI conference and I’m waiting to hear if it will go to acquisitions. I am currently in the process of querying agents that represent both picture books and YA.
What are some picture books published recently that have inspired you or had you laughing out loud?
Tammi Sauer’s A Little Chicken
Blake Liliane Hellman’s Something Smells
And Megan and Jorge Lacera’s debut picture book, Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies!
On your website you have a blog post about impostor syndrome and the fear of failing. Talk to us about how we can be proactive in fighting against fear and the need for perfection.
I don’t think I will ever defeat the monster of perfection but it’s important to keep fighting. Get that first draft out. It is much easier to edit something that exists than working on perfecting each sentence before the next one is written. I try to wrap my mind around only writing for myself with that first draft. No one ever has to see it unless you want them to. Impostor syndrome is something we all deal with and can be debilitating at times. The only thing that gets me through the days when I feel like a fraud is to read a book like The War of Art (not to be confused with the Art of War!) or watch a craft related video. Get out of my own head and into someone else’s for a while. Usually something I read or hear will urge me forward.
For me it’s less about seeing my book on the shelf, or my name on the cover, and more about knowing my work meant something to someone.
Anything coming up that you are looking forward to and would like to promote?