Woodland Hills is a funny, heart-warming middle grade graphic novel about a loner kid who lives in a trailer park and unexpectedly becomes friends with the well-liked, athletic son of the school principal.

How to Break Down a Comics Page: Josh Smeaton's Process

Middle grade graphic novel Woodland Hills, by Josh Smeaton: hero image of the main characters

I love reading and watching different comics creators' process at all different stages of producing a graphic novel. You might think there would be certain "best practices," but what I've found is that there is huge variation in how people tackle the process!

Josh Smeaton is working on a graphic novel called Woodland Hills with Pixel + Ink. It's about a loner kid from the trailer park who unexpectedly becomes friends with the popular, athletic son of the school principal.

Graphic novelist Josh Smeaton with his family.
Graphic novelist Josh Smeaton with his family.

He's fun to "talk shop" with because 1) he is particularly analytical about process; and 2) his process is a bit unusual in certain ways.

Below is a complete description of how Josh breaks down a comics page, in his own words.

How Josh Smeaton Breaks Down a Comics Page

Step 1: The Script Stage

I’ll start with the caveat that there’s no set way to make comics. Find what works for you and get it done. 

I write my stories like a screenplay. I don’t worry about panels and page breaks at this stage. When it’s complete, I’ll then go through and figure those out. Once that’s figured out, I’ll thumbnail it.

Sample page from the script for Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel.
I print out the final script and then go through and break it down by panels and pages. When figuring out page breaks, I do not include more than one scene on a comics page.

Step 2: The Thumbnails Stage

I thumbnail in a cheap notebook. This does two things. One, it enables me to work small and keep it to essential details only. I’m not working digitally here, so I can’t zoom in and add bits that are unnecessary at this point. 

Two, I’m able to draw the left and right pages next to each other as they’ll appear in the final book. When thumbnailing, I’m thinking about page turns and how the side-by-side pages work together. Is it clear what’s going on? 

Clarity above all. I like a gorgeous spread as much as the next guy but I am here to service the story, not make a cool pinup.

Sample page of thumbnails from Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel
I thumbnail in cheap notebooks. Drawing the pages side by side enables me to see how they'll read next to each other in the printed book.

For me, the thumbnailing is probably the most exciting part. This step determines how the story is presented to the reader. I occasionally make changes when working on the final art but for the most part, this is where the visual storytelling is determined. 

Keeping my art style and the print size of the book in mind, I try to keep a page to five panels or less. I also don’t want a text-heavy page or panel. A big block of text is an express ticket to skimsville.

Step 3: The Lettering Stage

Lettering guide for Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel
I letter the page before drawing to see how much space I have for art. That word balloon in the second panel takes up quite a bit of real estate. But knowing that in advance saves me from drawing something that would have just been covered

The common practice in comic making is to do the lettering after the art is completed. But I do it first.

I include word balloons in my thumbnails to make sure the order of the balloons is clear to the reader and also to not have the tails of the balloons crisscrossing. 

Doing the lettering before the art allows me to know exactly how much space I have for the art. I want to make sure nothing essential is going to be covered up. I can move the balloons around later on the final art if I find something that works better but doing it first ensures that it works.

Step 4: The Pencils Stage

Penciled page from Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel
I didn't have much in the way of pencils on this page. I went straight to inks in the second panel.

Next are “pencils”. I draw in Clip Studio Paint so the line between pencils and inks is often blurred. I still work out some things that are more complicated for me in a rough pencil layer. I find though, the further I get into the book, the more I just work it out in the “inks”. That’s one of the benefits of working digitally.

In the example shown above, the trailer in the first panel was created with SketchUp. Using a 3D model also enables me to quickly try out different angles and use the one that works best.

Step 5: The Inks Stage

Inked page from Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel
If there is a clear establishing shot, you don't necessarily need backgrounds in every panel.

Here are a few extras in my process not covered above. If I have a location that’s going to be used a fair amount, I’ll make a model of it in SketchUp. It’s fairly easy to use and you can still download the 2017 version for free. 

I like it when I’m able to create a page with no words and the storytelling is only pictures. But when there are no words on a page, the reader may rush through it. So sometimes I’ll add a line of dialogue that wasn't in my original script if I want to slow the reader down. 

I want to keep things visually interesting. I default to medium shots so I remind myself to mix it up with a combination of wide, medium, and close-up shots.

Inked and lettered page from Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel
Here's the finished piece, aside from color.

Final full color page from Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel

The final page! Only 160 more pages to go.

And that’s how I break down a page.

Joshua Smeaton is an award-winning cartoonist, husband and father. There is a comma after cartoonist. He has not won awards for being a husband or father. Though, there has been considerable buzz during awards season that Josh could take home a “World’s Best Dad” mug.

Josh lives in Los Angeles, California with his wife, two children, and Catfred, the world’s friendliest cat. His middle-grade graphic novel, Woodland Hills - The Paper Plane Party comes out Summer 2025. 

You can find Josh and his socials at www.joshdrawscomics.com.

An interview with Jennifer Holm, author of Baby Mouse, Squish, and Sunny Side Up, for Kids Comics Unite

Jennifer Holm Interview

Jennifer Holm is the best-selling and award-winning co-creator of the Baby Mouse, Squish, and Sunny Side Up graphic novel series, and she's also the Newbery Honor winning author of numerous middle grade novels like Our Only May Amelia, The Fourteenth Goldfish, and Turtle in Paradise.

Jennifer Holm interview, June 2020, for Kids Comics Unite

In this interview for Kids Comics Unite, we focus on how she got started in her career, her creative process, and why she branched out into graphic novels with her brother, artist Matthew Holm. She dishes on so many fascinating things:

  • Her first job in NYC, before she became a writer (it involved PeeWee’s Playhouse)
  • How she got her agent, and the unusual route she took to selling Baby Mouse to Random House
  • How her first book ended up becoming a middle grade novel (originally she thought it was an adult book)
  • Her biggest piece of advice for new authors
  • How many times she typically revises (or rewrites entirely!) a book
  • How and why she works with freelance editors, in addition to her agent and editor at her publishing house
  • The television production technique she and her brother Matt use to create graphic novels together
  • The reason why Baby Mouse is 2-color
  • Why Jenni writes for middle grade (hint: she hated being a teen)
  • The exact components of her author visits; how she makes them super interactive and fun
  • The theme she returns to over and over in her work

Jenni is well-known for being an incredibly generous creator who constantly gives back to the children's book community. This interview is a perfect example of that.

Click to view the full interview on YouTube.

Remind Yourself of Your Mission

There's a lot of fear swirling around out there, and it's not irrational. We're facing a silent, deadly virus that is causing health systems to collapse, and the entire global economy is in a deep freeze from which it may be difficult to recover.

Even if you're a naturally optimistic person, you may still be feeling deeply uneasy right now.

When external events disorient you, it helps to have a North Star that gets you back on track.

Because one thing is eternally true: life is change. This crisis will pass. New problems will arise.

If you have a strong, clear sense of purpose, you will be able to navigate any set of circumstances more easily. Including really scary ones, like now.

So, during Office Hour, I'm going to lead an exercise in reminding you of your mission.

For me, there's something interesting about the difference between "a mission" versus "a mission statement."

"A mission statement" sounds like something a corporate committee would develop.

But "a mission" sounds like something Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo would undertake against all odds to save a beautiful planet from extinction.

I want you to figure out your mission.

What is the adventure that you are beginning right now?

Who are you trying to save?

What are the stakes?

Cue dramatic music....

You are the hero. Where are you going and why?




Getting Creative Work Done During a Time of Uncertainty and Stress

Creative work is hard.

Even in the best of circumstances, it’s hard work translating your imagination and raw emotions and jumbled ideas into something structured and tangible, and then sharing it with the world.

And right now, we’re not in the best of circumstances.

In fact, it’s easy to say that our current circumstances feel downright terrifying. The coronavirus pandemic is inexorably making its way into every corner of the world. The global economy has collapsed. Political views seem to have hardened into vicious polarization.

Scrolling headlines on the internet reminds me of Henny Penny, the little hen who ran screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” and soon recruited a host of terrified followers… who all ran breathlessly straight into the fox’s den.

The moral of this story is: the herd mentality is very, very dangerous. It almost never leads to anything positive.

Creative work, on the other hand, almost always leads to positive things.

For you, the creator, it leads to feelings of accomplishment, confidence, and the joy of touching other people’s lives. For your audience, it leads to insight, camaraderie, and the thrill of experience.

Therefore, now more than ever, it is critically important for you to continue creating your work. Because you are a force for good in the world.

But how can you create your work when it feels like the sky is falling?

We all feel overwhelmed when we embark on ambitious projects, but it can feel especially impossible when the TV is blaring bad news and headlines are a non-stop barrage of dire predictions.

I have two simple pieces of advice:

  1. Break your work into manageable chunks
  2. Connect with your peers

1. Break your work into manageable chunks

This advice holds during extraordinary circumstances just as much as it does during normal ones.

If you find yourself thinking, “OMG, I’ve got to finish writing, penciling, inking and coloring this entire graphic novel by the end of the year, and I was so distracted/freaked out I didn’t even finish one page last week!!!”...

Stop. Take a deep breath. Say to yourself, “Let’s focus on this week, not this year.”

I recommend that you spend 20 minutes or so every Friday afternoon, Sunday evening, or Monday morning deciding exactly what chunk of creative work you want to finish in the upcoming week.

Be realistic. It’s better to set smaller goals that you can definitely accomplish rather than consistently fall short.

Then, schedule it. Even if you’re on lockdown and have no other meetings and you’re thinking, “I have all the time in the world right now, why in the world do I need a schedule?”...

I’m telling you, make a schedule. Write it in your calendar: from 9 am to 11 am on Monday morning is Creative Work Time (for example). Tell your family or your housemates in advance and gently ask them to be respectful and not interrupt you during that time.

Come Monday at 9 am, you’ve already decided: you know what you need to do. You sit in your chair and start working.

Even if at first you feel distracted or unmotivated or worried about something else, you’ve pre-determined that this is work time, so you don’t even need to think about it. You only have one task: put pencil to paper (or stylus to tablet, or whatever your tools may be!).

If the work you do is crappy, so be it! You did your duty. If you continue to show up and work as planned, day in, day out, you will make progress.

2. Connect With Your Peers

During a time of enforced isolation like we’re experiencing now, it is imperative that you proactively reach out and connect with peers on a regular basis.

Social connection is a basic human need. It is also amazingly important for creative work -- even creative work that we typically think of as a solitary endeavor, like writing or drawing.

Talking with your peers is the gasoline that keeps your engine going. It’s what keeps you motivated and inspired.

And as most of you would probably agree, your mom or significant other or best friend usually isn’t the right type of person (unless you’re unusually lucky). You need to talk to people who understand what you’re trying to do, and who are trying to do similar things themselves.

For instance, when you say, “I’m trying to figure out this shading technique on Clip Studio Paint but having issues with XYZ,” it isn’t helpful if your conversation partner looks at you with a blank expression and says, “Huh?”

Instead, you want someone who leans forward enthusiastically and says, “Oh yeah, I know who you should ask about that!”

So, in addition to scheduling time for your creative work, make sure you schedule some Zoom calls or FaceTime with fellow artists/writers/creators you trust. Every single week.

Keep going. Keep creating your work.

The world needs it.

Looking for a place to meet your peers? Join Me for Office Hours

Office Hour is happening again this Monday, March 30th, and next Monday, April 6th. All are welcome.

Please join us Monday at 11:30 am EST: https://zoom.us/j/846524330

Where to find Janna: Anime NYC, Kids Comics meetup, Insider Secrets webinar

Where you can find me

Over the next 3 weeks, I'll be in many public places. I would love it if you could join me!

Anime NYC

Friday, Nov. 15-Sunday, Nov. 17
The Javits Center

Visit me at Table G13 in Artist Alley, where I'll be hanging out with Misako Rocks! Get your tickets here:


The US versus Japan:

Making Manga in Two Very Different Publishing Environments (panel discussion)

Saturday November 16
3 pm
Room 1E02, The Javits Center

I'll be moderating this panel discussion at Anime NYC with Misako Rocks, Gina Gagliano (Random House Graphic), and Erik Ko (Udon Entertainment). We'll discuss how Japan and the U.S.'s comics publishing industries have evolved differently -- and what best practices we should “steal” from each other!

Insider Secrets LIVE workshop

How to Build a Successful Career as a Creator

Sunday November 17
10:30 am
Room 1E15, The Javits Center

In this workshop, get the scoop on how how agents and editors choose creators to work with. I'll offer lots of tips on how to find mentors, improve your work, and build a following so you have the best chance for success as a published creator.

Kids Comics Meetup NYC

The Influence of Studio Ghibli on Kids Comics Creators

December 4th
7 pm - 9 pm
Resobox East Village, 91 East 3rd Street ($5 cover charge)

Join professionals in kids comics for this presentation and informal networking event. We will start with a short conversation with creator Matt Loux about how Studio Ghibli has influenced his work, and how he sees its influence impacting a younger generation of artists.

Then we’ll hang out and talk comics together while enjoying Resobox’s tea and Japanese snacks. Anyone who works in children’s graphic novel publishing is invited to attend, including artists, writers, editors, librarians, agents, book designers, booksellers, reviewers, etc!

RSVP here: http://bit.ly/kids-comics-meetup-dec-2019

Insider Secrets ONLINE workshop

How to Build a Successful Career as a Creator

Friday December 6th
12:00 pm

I'll be repeating this workshop as an online webinar! Yay -- that means you can join me no matter where you live. If you're interested in attending, please register at this link:


After you register, I'll send an email with login instructions for the webinar.

See you soon!


Nine Things You Need to Break Into Children's Book Publishing as an Author, Illustrator, or Graphic Novelist

9 Things You Need to Break Into Children's Publishing

A little while ago, I read a new picture book, The Dreamer, by Korean artist Il Sung Na. It tells the story of a wistful, inventive pig who loves to watch birds soaring through the air.

The Dreamer by Il Sung Na, a children's book about following your dreams“If only I could fly, too,” he thinks.

Before long, his dream turns into an actual goal: he’s determined to figure out how to fly.

He starts clumsily. His first ramshackle contraptions do nothing but break. He gets discouraged, but some friends come to his aid and give him new ideas.

He tries again. And again. Each time getting better and better.

Then one day, with a crowd of friends watching, he straps himself into his latest invention, a hang glider-like machine with big red wings. This time, he runs down a hill and then ascends magnificently into the air.

And that first flight is just the beginning. He continues perfecting his vision, devising new vehicles of various sorts, and soon inspires other animals to take to the air.

I was just about to close the book when the author bio on the back flap caught my eye:

“As a kid [Il Sung Na] loved to draw, but it wasn’t until he visited a London bookstore in college that he discovered picture books were his calling. The real-life trial-and-error pursuit of that calling was the inspiration behind this book.”

That’s one of the things I love most about kids books and comics -- they offer all the life lessons you’ll ever need, in just a few illustrated pages!

In its own allegorical way, The Dreamer encapsulates many of the necessary elements you need in order to succeed as a writer or artist. Things like a long-term vision; a willingness to fail; a community of friends to keep you going. Although soft skills and mindset might seem secondary to talent and technical skills, they are actually extremely important. 

I talk to a lot of people who are just getting started in their careers, or trying to “relaunch” themselves. A lot of times, their questions for me are about narrow, methodological details like:

  • “How do you land a literary agent?” 
  • “How do you write a good book proposal?” 
  • “How do you promote yourself on social media effectively?”

I’ll let you in on a secret: although I answer those questions as helpfully as possible, I subtly try to steer them toward different questions -- better questions. These are questions like: 

  • “How can I develop a positive mindset?”
  • “How can I be more giving in my interactions with other people, both in person and online?” 
  • “How can I be more focused and intentional in my work?”

Building your dream career as an author or artist is totally possible. But one problem with creative people is that they have very good imaginations… which can lead them to build elaborate castles in the air before they’ve even built a solid foundation. 

It’s not the elaborate daydreams that will help you succeed; it’s the fundamentals. Those fundamentals are like magic; they enable you to turn dreams into reality. 

Here are the 9 foundational elements every author or artist needs to succeed in their publishing careers:

1. Start with baby steps.

Everyone starts as a beginner, just like Il Sung Na’s visionary pig. In the beginning, our ambitions almost always far outstrip our abilities. You may aspire to write a multi-volume epic, but you’ll need to start with something simple. Maybe a mini-comic, a zine, or a short webcomic.

I remember the first time I saw Raina Telgemeier’s work. It was a 12-page comic in a group show sponsored by Friends of Lulu. It hinted at the elements that eventually helped make Raina a blockbuster success: the emotional sincerity; the down-to-earth, wry sense of humor; the simple and inviting visual style with obvious inspiration from Lynn Johnstone’s For Better or Worse.

And yet, it was just a 12-page comic. Raina didn’t start by writing Smile; she started with little xeroxed mini-comics.

2. Be part of a creative community.

The Dreamer begins with a lone pig staring into the sky, but it doesn’t take long before the pig has enlisted a whole group of animals to help him gain traction with his flying project.

That’s no accident. It’s absolutely essential that you make connections with fellow writers and artists. Trying to figure out everything on your own is a dead end street.

After all, being a creative is already a lonely endeavor -- in order to create, you must spend many hours alone with your thoughts, doing the hard work of translating your imagination onto the page. Spending time with other people who understand what you’re trying to do is critical to keeping yourself motivated and inspired.

Just as important, connecting with your peers is also a way to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Perhaps you’re struggling with a particular plot twist in your script; or figuring out how to promote yourself with limited time and money. By talking these sorts of problems over with other artists, you’ll get fresh ideas and learn from people who’ve already done what you’re trying to do.

3. Put yourself out there.

The first few times The Dreamer’s pig attempts to build a flying machine, he does it by himself -- and always ends in a heap of twisted mechanical parts. It’s only after he starts showing his work to a few friendly observers that he starts making progress.

When you’re just getting started, sharing your work publicly can be scary. That’s because your brain instinctively tries to protect you from unknown situations, which it interprets as “dangerous.” And it easily comes up with rationalizations that seem totally logical. Things like:

  • “I’m not ready. My work isn’t polished enough to share publicly yet.”
  • “I don’t want someone to steal my ideas. People can take your idea off the internet and sell it as their own.”
  • “If I post my work online, publishers aren’t going to be interested in publishing it as a book.”

All of these reasons for keeping your work under wraps until “the right time” are elaborate justifications to avoid the real reason to avoid sharing it: FEAR.

Putting your work out there, inviting public scrutiny and critiques, is undeniably scary. Your creative work is a reflection of your innermost thoughts, your imagination, your artistic talent. Who wouldn’t feel vulnerable offering that up to the world?

However, your biggest challenge, when you’re getting started, is not your amateurishness, or getting your ideas poached, or ruining your chances for a publishing deal.

Your biggest problem is being invisible.

You’ve got to make yourself part of the conversation, to invite feedback, to share your creative journey.

4. Build your online presence.

OK, I’ll admit we never see the pig in Il Sung Na’s book build a website or open a social media account. But in the case of breaking into kids comics publishing today, you absolutely must have some sort of online presence.

As Austin Kleon says, “It sounds a little extreme, but in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.”

That doesn’t mean you must have a fancy website and thousands of followers on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, DeviantArt, and Pinterest. A simple website and one social media account is enough to get started.

Here’s what you need, at a minimum:

  • A website.
    It can be simple, but you must have this “homebase” on the Internet. It’s your own little piece of real estate over which you have total and complete control. (Never forget, you have NO control over Instagram or Twitter or any other social media platforms! If they change their algorithms and suddenly you can’t reach 95% of your followers, that's your problem, not theirs.)
  • A “keep in touch” strategy.
    You must have a way that you’re keeping in touch with the people who already know and support you. In the beginning, this might be a simple email to 20 friends and family members. It doesn’t matter; what does matter is that you have a consistent routine of sharing your ideas, your work-in-progress, and your inspiration with people who care.
  • An “outreach” strategy.
    This means you’ve thought about how to find and reach MORE people who might like your work. I’m a big fan of the “slow and steady” approach ("The Tortoise and the Hare" is my favorite Aesop’s fable for a reason!). Maybe you have a table at a local comics festival every year, and slowly add to your mailing list. Maybe you organize a happy hour for artists, and grow your own circle by helping others. Maybe you teach comics in schools, and grow a fan base of teachers and librarians through word of mouth.

Any of these strategies is legitimate and effective. Notice that they all involve one-to-one, personal, genuine connections. These are the connections that make a difference when you’re running a Kickstarter campaign or launching your first book.

5. Understand your audience.

This is a truism in any industry: in order to succeed, you must have a very clear, specific, visceral sense of the audience you’re speaking to.

But in the case of creating work for children -- whether it’s a toy or a book or a comic -- you’re not only creating for a specific audience (ie, kids who like scatalogical humor, or dark fantasy, or monster trucks, or anything with the color pink, etc.), you’re also creating for a specific age level.

This is a huge difference between the adult book market and the kids market. Because, when it comes to children's books, there is no such thing as All Ages.

As adults, our brains are fully developed. Children, on the other hand, have brains that are still developing. This means that their cognition, reading level, vocabulary, experiences, and sensibilities are constantly evolving. A book that is enthralling for a 5 year old will not be enthralling to that same child when she is 14 -- or even when she is 8 or 9!

Most good children’s book and kids comics creators have a deep empathy for the kids they’re writing for. Mo Willems can get on the level of 4 and 5 year olds who are just beginning to grasp the mechanics of reading (and making jokes). Dav Pilkey can still inhabit the world from the perspective of a 7 year old boy. And Raina Telgemeier definitely remembers in vivid detail what it feels like to be a middle school girl.

So when you’re writing books for kids, some part of your brain has to be accessing your story from a specific stage of development, and relating it in a verbal and visual language that is ideal for that age level. For many writers and artists, that comes intuitively.

Regardless of whether it’s intuitive or a skill that you have to work at, the following tip will help you hone that ability even better.

6. Know the market.

Read widely and deeply, as much as you can. Just like the pig who studies blueprints and equations and the latest in aeronautical engineering, you’ve got to become an expert in what’s currently being published in the genres and age levels that you’re most interested in writing for.

Once you’re ready to look for an agent or publisher, having a strong knowledge of recently published books will help you pinpoint the specific agents and specific editors who might be most likely to appreciate your work. You can narrow down a shortlist of books you like, and then google the author and title with the word “editor” or “agent.” You’ll almost always be able to find who edited and agented those books.

That way, when you approach those agents and editors, you won’t be one of the dreaded “spray and pray” creators who send their proposals indiscriminately to every industry email they can scrape up. Instead, you can write an intelligent query letter that explains why you are interested in that particular agent or editor.

As an added bonus, once you have a meeting with an editor or publisher -- or further along in your career, once you’re appearing on panels and podcasts -- having a solid understanding of how your work fits into the wider publishing landscape will help you contribute more meaningfully to the conversation. Which, in turn, makes you a more credible, appealing candidate for publishing, and a more sought-after panelist or podcast guest.

7. Invest in yourself.

Most children's book creators don’t have a degree in “Children's Book Creatorship,” but that doesn’t mean they haven’t invested in learning as much as they can about the field.

If you want to build a long-term career as a kids comics creator, it isn’t any different than any other profession: spending money is often the fastest and most effective way to make progress and increase your opportunities. You’ve got to develop your skills, attend networking events, promote your work, and get professional feedback and advice.

Here are some of the specific ways you should be investing in yourself:

Or, if you really want to, get an advanced degree! Get your MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies, or an art school like SVA, CalArts, or SCAD, or a creative writing program like the Vermont College of Fine Arts or Simmons University Writing for Children.

8. Learn to Handle Rejection.

The publishing industry is crammed with best-selling authors who experienced years of discouragement and rejection before finally getting their work published. I remember hearing a keynote speech by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Bryan Collier at an SCBWI conference a few years ago, where he recounted having spent SEVEN YEARS carting his portfolio to every publishing house in NYC, over and over again, before finally getting his first book deal.

Publishing is competitive and it is highly likely that you’ll face your share of rejection. Rather than hope for the best, I think it’s wise to prepare yourself for it, and develop conscious, deliberate ways to recover from it.

Most importantly, remember that one agent’s or editor’s rejection is not a final reckoning on your talent. It could be that they didn’t have room on their list for another book in your specific genre. Or they don’t have time to offer you the developmental editing that your project requires (sadly, this is the norm nowadays.) Or they simply don’t see your vision.

Facing rejection is another reason why having a community of peers is so important -- you need friends to cheer you up when external forces get you down.

Finally, remind yourself that it takes time to succeed in any craft. You’ve got to put in the hours, get critiqued, confront rejection, and just keep going back to the drawing board again and again.

In fact, you really only need to do one thing….

9. Persist.

When I was young, I thought that the most important factor in success was talent. Many battle-scarred years later, I now understand that the most important factor in success is definitely not talent.


Keep writing, keep drawing, keep imagining, keep sharing, again and again. It’s a simple recipe, but it isn’t easy.

As Dr. Seuss said,

“And will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed!)”

And he should know….

After all, his first book was rejected 28 times before being published by Random House.

Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

how to turn mistakes into gold

How to Turn Mistakes and Failure into Gold

Have you ever heard the tale of Rumpelstiltzkin, how he helped a poor miller’s daughter spin straw into gold and eventually marry and bear the child of the king?

Did you know that all of us have straw heaped around us that we can spin into our own gold?

Let me tell you a story….

The Tale of Janna’s Difficult Week

Once upon a time, there lived a wife and mother who worked very hard at three jobs. She took a vacation at the beginning of July, and when she returned home the following week, she decided to work extra hard to make up for the time she had spent relaxing.

On Monday and Tuesday, she felt like a super-hero. She wrote documents. Sent emails. Reviewed spreadsheets. Had phone calls. Updated websites. Processed images. Posted on social media.

She went to bed on Tuesday night, but at the stroke of midnight, a hobgoblin woke her up, sent her brain into overdrive, and prevented her from falling asleep again.

On Wednesday, the poor woman was very, very tired, but she was an over-achiever, so she pushed herself through the day and completed her “To Do” list. On Thursday she did the same.

On Friday, the woman was exhausted. She felt like she was shaking (but maybe it was the cup of iced tea that she drank). But still, she completed her work and baked cupcakes with her children in the evening.

The next day was Saturday, the day of rest. But this woman couldn’t resist taking a peek at her email, and in the course of scrolling through her messages, she realized that she had made a mistake on Monday, put a document in the wrong place, and accidentally missed a deadline.

Now the poor woman started to shed piteous tears.

“Woe is me!” she thought. “This is the second time I’ve made that mistake! I’m a failure!”

She cried and cried, and then she dried her tears, took a deep sigh, and started folding laundry.

While she was folding laundry, the hobgoblin appeared again, and whispered in her ear, “You should listen to a podcast about failure.”

“Hmmm…” she thought. “Good idea!”

So she listened to a podcast about failure. The host was a fairy godmother named Brooke Castillo. As the magical fairy godmother talked, the woman started to calm down.

In fact, she became very calm… and then happy!

That’s because the fairy godmother gave the woman a magical recipe for spinning mistakes into gold.

As soon as she was done folding laundry, the woman jumped up, used the magical recipe, and turned her mistake into gold.

“It works!” she exclaimed.

The Magical Recipe for Spinning Mistakes Into Gold

Here’s what the woman heard the fairy godmother say:

“When something happens that doesn’t meet our expectations, we get to decide what that means…. We can decide to make it mean something positive.”

When you make a mistake, the fairy godmother explained, say to yourself:

“I’m going to have my own back. I’m going to use that failure as an opportunity to learn and get better.”

And then the fairy godmother mentioned an idea she’d gotten from an impish type named Ramit Sethi.

Ramit, she said, has a Failure Log, where he strives to include at least five failures a month.


Because there is no faster way to improve than to:

  1. try new things
  2. make mistakes
  3. examine those mistakes
  4. decide how to do things differently
  5. do the whole process over and over again

The problem is that many of us keep making the same mistakes over and over again because we don’t force ourselves to stop, write them down, and reflect on them.

That’s the genius of Ramit Sethi’s Failure Log.

Not only is it a simple way to remind yourself to reflect constructively on your failures; it is also a way to make you excited to fail — because then you meet your quota of 5 failures a month!


“People Buy Your Joy”

I just finished reading a wonderful little book of career advice for illustrators called “I Just Like to Make Things: Learn the Secrets to Making Money While Staying Passionate About Your Art or Craft” by the agent Lilla Rogers (who is herself an exceptionally successful artist).

The title of Chapter One stopped me in my tracks: “People Buy Your Joy.”

Amen to that.

Have you ever been around someone who is unabashedly in touch with their joy? Someone who lights up with delight when they talk about their work, who seems fully grounded in themselves and their direction, who never worries about “helping the competition” because sharing their knowledge and inspiration brings them such obvious pleasure?

People like that are rare — and magnetic.

What is even more rare, though, is people who got that way without going through struggle and rejection. There is a very, very high likelihood that at a certain point, you’re going to offer your heart to the world and it’ll respond (at first) by saying, “No, thanks.”

J.K. Rowling once tweeted about the painful period when she was submitting the first Harry Potter manuscript to publishers: “I wasn’t going to give up until every single publisher had turned me down, but I often feared that that would happen.”

Moments like these can be a critical turning point.

Do you redouble your commitment to your work?

Or do you start trying to figure out “what the market wants” and rejigger yourself into something “more commercial”? (Or, worse, give up on yourself?)

If rejection is more likely to make you question yourself than become even more determined, you’ve got to employ every tool in the arsenal to keep in touch with your joy.

  • Meditate.
  • Exercise.
  • Practice your craft religiously.
  • Take breaks.
  • Be in nature.
  • Spend time with your favorite people.
  • Laugh.
  • Find mentors.
  • Do things you love, every single day.

As David Lynch says in his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, “Experience the joy of doing…. Your friends will be very, very happy with you. Everyone will want to sit next to you. And people will give you money!”

One of my most important insights has been that persistence and self-confidence are “the killer combination,” when it comes to building a successful creative career.

Persistence is hard. But if you consciously seek out the supports that enable you to persist, your self-confidence grows.

As your self-confidence grows, it becomes easier to persist.

Both self-confidence and trust in yourself that you will persist bring you joy.

People buy your joy.