Emmy-award winning writer Betty G. Birney has had highly successful careers as an advertising copywriter, children’s television writer, and writer of children’s books. She joins the long haul series to talk about one thing each of these careers has taught her in turn: the need to never stop challenging ourselves.
It’s Up to You to Challenge Yourself
When I was seven, I loved books so much, I knew I wanted to be a writer and decided to give it a try. I wrote Teddy Bear in the Woods, illustrated it, stapled it together, gave it to my parents and announced, “I’m going to be a writer.” I never changed my mind.
Throughout my growing up, I was praised for my stories and poems, and in college, I got “A”s on essay after essay. When Sister Deborah, the head of the English department, called me in her office. I was sure she was going to commend me. I was shocked when she said, “I think we’ve established that you can write an A essay. Don’t you think it’s time you starting finding more challenging topics?”
Busted! I knew she was right, and I began to dig deeper. It wasn’t enough to please my professors. I had to challenge myself in order to grow.
Throughout my subsequent career as an advertising copywriter, I discovered that success didn’t mean coming up with ideas that pleased the client. I had to dig deeper to give them more than they expected.
I switched careers and for over 20 years, I wrote hundreds of live-action and animated children’s television shows. It was often a struggle to please the networks and producers and please myself as well. I was rewarded with numerous awards, including an Emmy and a Writer’s Guild award.
But I still wanted to write books, and I knew I wanted to write children’s books. It wasn’t easy to switch to writing narrative fiction after writing in script format so long, but I finally sold a couple of picture books. Success–right?
Wrong! After those two books, it was nine years before I sold another book. Nine years of writing, submitting, selling nada. One day, I realized that it was time for me to start fresh, to kick it up a notch, to challenge myself. My work had to be stronger, smarter, and fresher. When I made those changes, I got an agent and sold two middle grade novels, The World According to Humphrey and The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs to two different publishers within four months of each other.
Humphrey turned into a successful series. Book 10, Secrets According to Humphrey, comes out soon and there will be more. I’ve finally got it made–right?
Wrong! The biggest challenge in writing a series is to make each story fresh and original -and that intensifies with each new book.
The second challenge is to find time to experiment with new ideas. This has proven to be the most difficult creative hurdle, because every time I’m rolling along on something new, the deadline for another Humphrey pops up and I have to write that one now.
There are also external pressures to write something just like what I’ve written before, while my heart yearns to break out–and I will! Because the secret of writing for the long haul is to challenge yourself to aim higher on every level, time and time again. Sometimes I forget, but luckily, Sister Deborah’s words are still in my head, if I choose to listen.
Betty G. Birney’s According to Humphrey series has been on 24 state lists, won seven state awards, three Children’s Crown Awards and a Christopher Award in the U.S. as well as receiving numerous honors in the U.K. Book 10, Secrets According to Humphrey, comes out January 2, 2014, and there will be more. She is also the author of The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs and The Princess and the Peabodys. In addition, she’s written episodes for numerous children’s television shows. Awards for her television work include an Emmy, three Humanitas Prizes and a Writers Guild of America Award. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Betty now lives in Los Angeles with her husband.
Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts
– Nora Raleigh Baskin on making deals with the writing gods
– Sean Williams on unpredictability and luck
– Deborah J. Ross on writing through crisis
– Sharon Shinn on managing time
– Marge Pellegrino on feeding the restless yearning to write
– Sarah Zettel on embracing ignorance and writing your passions
– Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
– Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
– Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
– Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
– Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
– Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
– Kathi Appelt on the power of story
– Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity