Today, I’m pleased to interview Inked Voices member and author Teresa Robeson in celebration of her debut picture book Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom, just released with Sterling.
The story is about Wu Chien Shiung, born in China 100 years ago at a time when most girls did not attend school, because they were not considered as smart as boys. Her parents disagreed. They gave her a name meaning “Courageous Hero,” and encouraged her love of learning, and ultimately Wu Chien Shiung overcame sexism and racism to become what Newsweek magazine called the “Queen of Physics” for her work on beta decay.
The book has received a star review – yeah! And Teresa recently shared more good news: her second picture book Bicycles in Beijing will come out in 2020 with Albert Whitman. Welcome, Teresa!
Where did the story idea come from? How did you know it was an idea you wanted to pursue? What drew you to write about Wu Chien Shiung?
It’s been a number of years now since I starting working on the story so I can’t remember exactly where I first came across Wu’s story. It may have been in Physics Today. But as soon as I read about C.S. Wu (what she went by professionally in her publications), I knew I had to write about her because of our shared culture and love of physics. Plus, I knew her struggles against racism and sexism would still be pertinent today…sadly.
What parts of the story came most easily? What was harder to get on the page, and how did you make it through?
The biographical parts of the story were the easier parts to write, though she was so accomplished in so many areas, I had to really narrow it down or I’d end up with a 10,000-word picture book!
I was lucky to have Jane Yolen as my mentor and some excellent critique partners to discuss each revision with until we all deemed the text to be kid-friendly.
What is your writing process? And, are you the type of person who is always working on lots of ideas? Or always doing lots of revision?
Like my stack of reading, I am definitely always doing several projects simultaneously. I’m not convinced I do it well, but I swear I have undiagnosed ADD and I like to flit from project to project. They are in various states of completion: so some are new ideas being drafted, and others are in the midst of the 2nd, 3rd, or 15th revision.
I’m currently working on about 4 picture books, 2 middle grade stories, and 1 young adult novel.
You have been writing children’s literature for more than twenty years — and you have publications in Ladybug and Babybug starting in 1995! Has your approach to writing or your process changed over this time? Can you tell us about some key points that fast forwarded your development as a writer?
I think the biggest change between then and now for me as a writer is that I used to work completely alone and now I have 3 critique groups and multiple occasional critique partners. I was so self-conscious about my writing in the beginning that I was reluctant to let people see even my published works. But feedback from others is invaluable. They pick up on things that I might have never have seen or maybe taken 20 revisions to see, being too close to my own work.
While having good critique groups/partners has helped me become a better writer faster, being a part of the kid lit community (such as SCBWI and 12x12 Picture Book Challenge) has helped me learn about the publishing industry and business, as well as participate in all-important networking.
You work with a close-knit writing group whose members have grown and seen success together. What works well about your feedback process? What tips do you have for helping people grow as writers? What do you think makes a writing group flourish as a community?
The best type of feedback is the sandwich method that Gotham Writers Workshop and SCBWI are proponents of: you say something nice, point out where the story needs work, and then end with something nice. All my critique groups work that way. For anyone starting out, I recommend the book The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Give and Receive Feedback, Self-Edit, and Make Revisions by Becky Levine.
As I mentioned earlier, being in writing groups and community groups is vital for any writer wanting to grow and achieve success. Besides that, taking classes is also a must. I’ve taken many online and in person and recommend the ones from Gotham Writers Workshop, UCSD Extension, Indiana University Continuing Ed, Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab, Susanna Hill’s Making Picture Book Magic, Arree Chung’s Storyteller Academy.
And I’m not trying to butter you up, but I’m so happy that my CPs, Sylvia Liu and Elaine Kiely Kearns, recommended Inked Voices to me because I think it is the next step after taking classes since it provides people with the excellent feedback and webinars from industry professionals.
As to what makes a group flourish, I can answer this with confidence because two (2!) of my groups are headed into our 10th year together, and my third–the one you referred to–has been together nearly 7 years.
First of all, you need trust. Nobody in the group should ever steal ideas from others. That might seem obvious, but occasionally, you can get a sociopath in your group. When you have trust, friendships develop, which builds more trust…and it becomes a positive feedback loop.
Secondly, all the members need to be striving towards the goal of publication. How soon you end up getting published is out of your hands, because it depends on the whims of the business, BUT you have to want it and you have to be serious about it. A number of people have dropped out of my critique groups (or have been asked to leave) because they treated it like their least important hobby and did not fulfill their obligations to the groups.
That leads into my last point for a successful group: the group should have some set guidelines as to how often members are expected to submit and how and when they need to do critiques for others. Those who have been asked to leave in the groups I belong to failed to be considerate of others. They ask for help on their stories and take and take and rarely or never give back in terms of critiques or even emotional support. One shouldn’t let one’s kids get away with that, let alone critique partners. Naturally, we allow for flexibility–illnesses, family emergencies, vacations–but members need to treat the groups with the same sense of consideration and responsibilities as a real job.
I have a lot to say about critique groups, don’t I? 😀
You are also an illustrator and you’re even the SCBWI illustrator coordinator in your region. But you’ve made the decision to focus on your writing for now. What advice might you offer author/illustrators in deciding whether to pursue children’s books as an author, illustrator, or author/illustrator?
Hmmm, now that is a difficult question! For me, the decision to focus on writing for now was based on two things. One is that I lack self-confidence. While I have had professional artists (those with advanced degrees in fine arts) give me high praise for my skills in art, I have yet to meet an illustrator who has praised me as profusely for my illustrations, so I tell myself that maybe I’m not good at it. Since I’m just starting out in the book world, I’m just as happy to spend my time on the writing aspect first.
For author/illustrators debating whether to do one or both? I would say seize the opportunities that pop up that feel right to you. When my agent offered me representation based on my writing and not my art, I was not going to, as a yet-to-be-published author, turn up my nose at that. But if that is a situation that isn’t acceptable to you, then do what your gut tells you to do. I would note, however, that all the author-illustrators I know have said that they would happily illustrate someone else’s book or let someone else illustrate theirs. So to get your foot in the door, why not take the best available offer?
What is your next challenge to yourself as a writer?
Well, I’m still attempting to finish the dang YA novel I started back in 2014 when I was with my first agent. LOL! That manuscript is driving me insane. It won Pitchapalooza at the 2017 NESCBWI conference and the agents there loved the concept, but I’m on my 8th (or something) rewrite with no end in sight. It’s an #ownvoices historical fantasy and I think it would do well in the market but I haven’t achieved the tone that I love yet.
My other challenge to myself is to, one day, get my picture book manuscript about an endangered bird in New Zealand into the world. It’s a pet project that I can’t give up on and if I can’t place it with a publisher, I might have to fund it myself. I intend to donate all income from sales to the foundation that works on bringing it back from the brink of extinction.
Jessica Murray is a poet and children's writer. Her poetry collection Singing Without Melody is forthcoming from Galileo Press in spring 2022, and her poems are featured in journals such as AGNI Online, Barrow Street, The Cortland Review, Free State Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, and Memorious. A member of Inked Voices and SCBWI, by day she works in higher education, non-profit, and educational media production spaces.