Tips for Writers:
I'm an educator, so I tend to think in simple, down-to-earth terms that kindergarteners can understand. Scroll down this page and look at the words in bold, capital letters. These rules look doable, don't they? To be a good children's writer, you need to live your writerly life like a kindergartener, more or less.
You've probably heard the saying, "I think. Therefore, I am."
The writer's analogy to that is, "I write. Therefore, I read."
I listed READ as the #1 tip for a reason. Good writers read. A lot!
Think of the things you do every day: get dressed, brush your teeth, eat chocolate, sleep. (OK...you got me...maybe eating chocolate is just part of MY daily schedule...) You do these things because they are part of your routine. They are habits.
Writing needs to be a habit, too. Whether it's writing that draft, journaling, keeping a blog, jotting down ideas, or revising your manuscript, you must write each and every day.
Of course your schedule is crazy. (Whose isn't?) Is your schedule too busy for you to brush your teeth? If it were, would that be acceptable to you, or would you need to make some changes? It's all about priorities and choices.
Since I'm writing in Yoda green, I'm reminded of one of my favorite Yoda quotes:
"There is no try. There is only do."
Stop and smell the flowers.
Listen for stories with all of your senses. Characters and plot ideas are all around you.
Going to the mall? Sit on a bench and just observe the traffic...absorb the conversations...make mental notes about faces, outfits, expressions, voices...
Pretty soon, that writerly voice in your head will become pretty independent. It will turn itself on whenever and wherever it wants. Don't shut it down. Never censor it. Encourage it. Embrace it. Have a conversation with it in the shower and in your car and while you're stirring spaghetti. You may even want to record these conversations in a notebook or on a tape recorder.
4. DO THE MATH.
Getting published is an admirable goal for your writing, but when thousands of other writers share the same goal, the probability of your stuff getting published is, well, not all that great. Still, perseverance increases your chances exponentially, and is the ultimate key to publication.
In your quest to get published, try to remember that children's book publishing is a business. Like all other businesses, it boils down to numbers.
Here are some numbers that all children's writers should consider*:
10% = the portion of the American population who believes that they have a "book in them" that they would like to write some day
5,000 = the approximate number of picture books published in a year
1,001 > the number of words that most publishing houses don't expect and don't want in a picture book manuscript
$50,000 = the approximate amount that a publishing house has to invest in the making and distribution of a picture book, including artwork, royalties, printing, marketing, etc.
the number of manuscripts in the average slush pile that are truly publishable < 5%
12 = the number of rejections JKRowling received for the first Harry Potter book before it was finally accepted
*DISCLAIMER: Please note that all of these stats have been posted for motivational purposes only. They are compiled from scribblings in my notebooks gathered at writing conferences, discussion boards, and any number of hodge-podge sources. They have not been fact-checked. In other words, consider their implications, but please don't quote them as gospel.
One word: NETWORK.
Writers can't be introverts. Dream of staying in your pajamas all day, typing away at your computer and avoiding contact with the outside world? The truth is, writing successfully for publication demands that you leave the comfort of your little corner, and become somewhat of an extrovert.
To get your writing published, you will need resources, experts, and opinions; critique groups and support from other writers; conferences; contacts; names and addresses for submission info.; up-to-date industry information...you may even wish to go the agent route at some point. The bottom line is, you can't fly solo in this business. Get yourself out there. Visit my Resources page if you need ideas.
Children's poetry is musical. It's fun and rhythmic. It's full of imagery that paints itself on the page. Poetry is all these things, but shouldn't all kids' lit be like this?
To most children, adults are just stuffy big people. To write material that kids will read, we have to loosen up a bit. We have to be like that guy who dresses up in the purple dinosaur costume and sings with kids on TV. If we learn to listen to kid voices, we can learn to sing along.
Never talk down to children in your writing, or water down the content just because it's for children. Avoid being preachy or writing what editors often refer to as "didactic" literature. These are sure to hit sour notes with kids. And don't bother trying to sneak in a moral, either. Today's kids, (like those of the past, I suspect), are just too smart to fall for "hidden messages." Children's stories DO NOT need to have a moral or a message. They simply need to be good stories. Let the message come through on its own, rather than making it your responsibility to deliver it to the reader.
Whether you're a writer of poetry or non-fiction, picture books or novels, your writing should be engaging and fun to read. In short, it needs to speak - no, SING - to children. If it doesn't, then how can it compete with that purple guy on TV?
7. DO YOUR BEST WORK.
This is a no-brainer. Make like a sneaker, and just do it.
None of us should be ashamed when our best work gets rejected. (See stats on #3). But we all need to hang our heads when our mediocre work gets rejected, because it never should have been sent in the first place.
We are the creators of the slush. And only we hold the power to shrink the slush.
Desk drawers can help. They are really marinating pans in disguise. Let your work sit there and marinate awhile before you send it out.
Critique groups can help, too.
8. BE NEAT.
In this case, "neat" equals "clean" equals "professional." Your submissions need to be error-free and polished. They need to be cliche-free, gift-free, and perfume-free. They need to be typed on white paper in a standard font and properly formatted according to the publisher's specifications. Submissions should not be accompanied by homemade fudge. Seriously. Be professional.
If your mother read your manuscript and loved it, hug your mom. But keep that info. to yourself and do not include it in your cover letter. As a matter of fact, it's best to stick to only the most pertinent information in your cover letter. Be professional.
Use spell-check. Keep a dictionary handy at all times. I also highly recommend keeping a usage and grammar resource handy. To this day, I still have trouble with "lay, lie, laid, lied," and need my usage book and critique group to keep me out of trouble. And I used to be a high school English teacher, folks. Be professional.
Contrary to popular belief, editors don't come knocking on your doors with acceptances. Always include complete contact information on all your submission materials, and don't expect or demand an immediate response to your submission. Time moves very slowly in the world of publishing. My longest submission time? Four years! That's right - four years from submission to rejection!
Don't hound editors with phone calls, threatening letters, or sour responses to rejection letters. Do, however, keep track of your submissions, so you know what's out where, and how long it's been there. A status query is acceptable, too, if your work has been out for a period of time exceeding "normal" response times for that particular company. Like a cover letter, though, a status query should be brief, succinct, friendly, and professional.
Some publishing houses have gone to a "no response unless interested" policy. While this may be frustrating, it's a part of the business, and is due, in part, to those huge slush piles. (See #7, above).
Why give an editor a reason to reject your material at all? Be professional, so that your work can be judged on its merits, rather than an overall lack of professionalism.
Just be neat. Be professional.
9. KNOW YOUR ABCs.
Do you know what the differences are between picture books and easy readers? Young adult and middle readers? What's a hi-lo? What's an ARC? What's a SASP and how is it different from a SASE? What's a query? A synopsis? A cover letter? A marketing plan?
The world of children's publishing has its own jargon. Learn it. Visit my Resources Page to find some super places to build your writing vocabulary.
Here are some of the most common acronyms and words that children's writers need to know:
SASE: self-addressed stamped envelope
SASP: self-addressed stamped postcard
pb: picture book
EZ or ER: easy reader
mc: main character
pov: point of view
YA: young adult
MG: middle grade
ARC: Advanced Reader Copy
IRC: International Reply Coupon
slush: an overwhelmingly large pile of unsolicited manuscripts received at any given publishing house; (also called "The Discovery Pile" by some editors)
SCBWI: Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators
SQ: status query
dummy: a picture book "rough draft" created prior to printing, including both text and illustrations in a proposed layout
10. HAVE FUN!
Perhaps nothing is more important than having fun when you write for kids. For me personally, my quickest sales have come from the writing pieces that I felt the most passion about. When you enjoy your writing, it always comes through, and it will to the reader, too.
Never let the sting of rejection spoil your love for writing. You have to have a thick skin in this business, for sure. If the submissions process is getting you down, stop submitting for awhile. But do continue writing. Check out my article, "Lessons From the Berry Patch," if you need a good laugh or a boost in the motivation department.
I think it's fun to write in a variety of genres and styles. Try something new every once in a while, and see where it takes you. If you're like me, and enjoy writing to a topic or theme, check out my Kids' Magazines Theme Lists for some current theme lists.