Since I'm not teaching as much as I used to, I thought I'd post a Q & A with the questions I am most often asked in my classroom. I asked myself all the questions everyone wants to know, and then I answered myself. Afterwards, I took myself out for a cup of coffee.
Questions About Writing for Children Answered in a Most Thoughtful Manner
Q: Do I need an agent?
A: Boring—next question please!
Q: Seriously, do I need an agent?
A: Sigh. Okay. You really don’t need an agent to get published. Some publishers are still open to unsolicited manuscripts. Some, however, are closing their doors to unsolicited manuscripts and will only accept agented material. Unfortunately, it can be just as difficult to get an agent as it is to get your first manuscript published.
Smaller houses are usually more open to unsolicited manuscripts. And if you happen to meet an editor at a conference you can usually send a manuscript to her afterwards even if you are unagented, so go to as many conferences and retreats as you can. It is possible to get published without an agent, but the market is getting tougher for beginners, so it can’t hurt to look for an agent while you shop your manuscript around.
Q: How do I get an agent?
A: The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has an entire pamphlet dedicated to agents. If you join, which you most certainly should, you can send away for it. To join SCBWI, log on to www.scbwi.org.
Join SCBWI right now please. I mean it. RIGHT NOW. (Ooo, I just love being a Bossy Bessy!)
Q: Do I need to have my manuscript illustrated before I send it out?
A: No, no, a thousand, billion times, NO. Send your manuscript to publishers without any illustrations at all. If an editor likes your manuscript, she will find an illustrator for you. Control freaks need not apply for the position of children’s book author. Give it up or get out.
Q: Yikes! I’ve already asked my minister/neighbor/cousin-in-law to illustrate my story, and I really like what she did. Is it okay to send it in that way?
A: Well, okay, but realize that by doing this you are practically attaching a neon sign to your manuscript that flashes the word BEGINNER in big, orange lights. If you insist on this, please be sure that you tell the editor in your cover letter that the art and the text should be considered separately. Make sure that she knows that you would not hold any grudge whatsoever if she rejects your manuscript and asks your minister/neighbor/second-cousin-once-removed to illustrate that hot, new best-selling series. Oh, no, you wouldn’t mind that at all, would you?
Q: So, you don’t choose your illustrator at all?
Q: What if you don’t like what she does?
A: Oh well! Better luck next time! Please note that none of my illustrators have done what I envisioned. They all did something better than I envisioned.
Q: How do I go about copyrighting my work?
A: Uh oh. There’s that flashing neon BEGINNER sign again. Do you really want your manuscripts to look like a beginner’s? If you do, then by all means, put the copyright symbol on it. While you’re at it, put some stickers on it, too. Big, sparkly ones. And write the cover letter with crayon on scented paper.
Q: But what if someone steals my work?
A: I guess it’s possible. I’ve never heard of it happening, but then I had never heard of anyone getting hit by lightening 38 times, and yet there’s a guy in the Guinness World Book who holds that record. Go figure. If you’re really paranoid about it, you can send yourself your story and then not open the envelope. The postmark acts as a copyright. But you’re going to waste a lot of time and postage doing this silly thing. Professional writers don’t do it. They don’t put the copyright symbol on their manuscripts either. I don’t even know where the dumb thing is on my keyboard.
Q: How do I go about sending my manuscript to a publisher?
A: Ah, that’s easy. Buy CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET at your local bookstore. It’s updated yearly, so you’ll need to purchase a new one every December. It’s worth it, though. It lists all the publishers in the entire universe and gives you the necessary information for sending in your manuscript. It also has all sorts of helpful articles, including ones on how to format your manuscript. Please read those articles carefully before you submit your manuscript. I see too many oddly formatted manuscripts that leave me shaking my head in wonder. Don’t make me tell you this again.
Q: Can you critique my manuscript?
A: I'm not critiquing manuscripts right now. Your best bet is to join a critique group. Or you can go to Esther Hershenhorn's website and read about her critiquing services. I highly recommend her!
Q: What advice do you have for beginners?
A: Know that it often takes many, many years to get published. This is not a microwave career, where you stick in a hastily written manuscript and a six-figure income pops out in sixty seconds. I revise my 700 word manuscripts dozens, yes, dozens, of times before I send them out. I wrote many, many stories and labored for four long years before I had my first story accepted. And do you know what I got paid for that story? Exactly $250.00. It was a magazine story, and I was very proud! But, umm, I couldn’t exactly live on 250.00 a year. I’m not even sure this covers my Starbucks habit. So if you are looking to get rich writing children’s books (I can barely type that I am laughing so hard!), ummm, I suggest you consider a different career. J.K. Rowling is an anomaly.
I repeat, J.K. Rowling is an anomaly. (Say that five times fast!)
Go to as many conferences as you can and meet lots of writers and editors. Don’t be too pushy (never hand an editor a manuscript at a conference!). Ask smart questions. Read up on the editors and writers before you go.
Attend classes. That's the best way I can think of to meet other writers. Lots of my students form critique groups after my class.
Really listen when someone critiques your work and try not to freak out about it. Okay, so you will freak out about it at first. Put the story away and think about the points that were brought up. Sometimes your critiquer is right!
Try not to be a stubborn goon when it comes to your work. But don’t be Gumby Writer either, bending this way and that with each critique. Listen to what that little voice tells you about the story. If you don’t have a little voice-- and you may not yet-- wait for it. It will come.
But my best advice is this--read.
Read some more! Don’t tell me you don’t have time. I know you’re watching Seinfeld reruns every night. Read books instead.
If you read children’s books and then say, in a smug tone, that they’re “all awful,” then I will kindly suggest that you not write for children. It’s possible that you just don’t like children’s books. That’s fine. I don’t like country music, but that doesn’t make it bad. I would never try to write a country song, though. I obviously have no appreciation for it. So don’t write children’s books if you think they’re all garbage. They’re not easy to do and it’s not a lucrative career, so why bother? And please don’t tell me how bad they all are if we ever meet at a party. I won’t like you.
But if you love what you read, then by all means, try writing your own book. Type up your favorite picture book to see how it looks without illustrations. You’ll learn a lot by doing this.
Play with different genres. Try non-fiction, early chapter books and easy readers. Turn your picture book manuscripts into easy readers and your young chapter book manuscripts into poems. What have you got to lose?
Your stories will get better, but like anything else, you have to practice. Try writing 400 words a day. This number works for me for some strange reason.
Get together with other writers as often as you can. I wish I could move all my writer friends into my basement so they’d always be around, but this might annoy them. The next best thing is having dinner with them on a regular basis.
Okay, now stop reading this and start writing!