College Applications, Manuscript Submissions, and Lessons Learned

There was a big College Information Night at my son’s high school. There are still years to go before he’s ready, but he’s a planner.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So we went.

Approximately 50 reps from colleges all over the country were there. They ran from big and big name schools (UCLA–the most-applied to school in the entire Unite States) to so small I don’t know how else we would have heard of them (Holy Cross–921 students, total).

We talked to lots of them, asking most of the same questions about GPA needed, acceptance rate, majors offered, class size, etc. The school my son most wants to go to had one of the biggest lines (guess others want to go there too). We waited quite a while to talk to the rep, who patiently repeated the same information over and over. (Seriously, why weren’t the parents just listening in while they were in line? But I digress.) While we waited, we grabbed their college brochure and started flipping through it. We noticed some more obscure majors listed for the school, ones my son was sorta interested in, and wondered if applying for one of those would make sense, instead of those which were sure to be the most popular/crowded/competitive. So we asked the rep, if our son were to major in, say Japanese, would that up his odds of getting accepted, as opposed to him majoring in engineering.

The rep waited not even half a second before answering flatly: “Major what you want to major in. Don’t apply to something you aren’t interested in.” And we felt stupid for considering it, or even asking about it. I did, at least.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Now bear with me as I cut over to Manuscript Wishlist, an amazing resource where editors and agents tell you EXACTLY what they are looking for. And I mean exactly. It’s a website as well as a “hashtag” (which means you can do an internet search for “#mswl” and up will pop the most recent posts about it). It’s fantastic because if you are working on a book, say, about kids and frogs you can type in “#mswl kids frogs” and see if there is an editorial match. If so, you know who you should add to your sub list! The more specific the less likely you’ll get a hit, but hey it’s worth a shot. One recent post from an editor, I swear, read “High-tech elves with internet while everyone else is trying to figure out the Iron Age.” It’s that specific.

Scanning the posts or website can be a fount of inspiration. Even if you don’t find a perfect match for your current work-in-progress, it can give you manuscript ideas. Knowing there is someone waiting for that topic/character/etc means you’re one step closer to acceptance! I’ve found myself creating and re-creating all kinds of story ideas from trolling around. Sometimes, I’ll see an element an editor shares about him or herself, and I’ll add that character tag to one of my main characters just so I can add in the cover letter, “Emma loves jelly beans just like you.” I’ve raced to complete a final product since I can almost taste the sweet reward of publication from an already-ready editor. Any edge helps, right?

But here’s the rub. It’s never panned out. The problem is, those stories I was working stories weren’t really my stories. The ideas weren’t my ideas. Even if I can run with a concept, my heart isn’t in someone else’s idea of what makes a great plotline. Just like picking a major just to get accepted at the school you might want to get into, a school you might not otherwise have a chance at, writing a story just to get published at a house that might not otherwise notice you is a waste of time. No one wins. Not you, not the editor or agent, and not the story.

The reader suffers too.

In that moment back at the college fair, I was struck by the similarities of the college app and manuscript submission process. We both search and search for the best fit, then send our submission package after years and years of hard work. (We also fret and fret after hitting the send button, having no control and no idea when we’ll hear back…)

All the time I spent creating those MSWL story ideas? It took me away from MY stories, the ones in my soul, the ones I WANT to write. I’ve wasted my time. I thought I was being clever. But I screwed myself. (Is it OK for me to be frank?)

I hope I haven’t been wasting your time with this analogy.  All this is to say: write the story you want to write. Write the story you need to write. Don’t waste your time writing the story that you think will get you a leg up in the industry.

Write the right one.

Yours.

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Laptime with our little ones

This guest blog post originally appeared on The Bedtime Stories Blog on May 2, 2018 on https://medium.com/bedtime-stories-blog

Turning Classic Fairytales Upside Down

Keeping The Old, With New Modern Twists!


We all know the classics fairytales and storybook rhymes our grandparents taught us or read to us. But do our kids know them? Unless it was made into a movie or TV show, maybe not. If our kids have heard the rest of them, they probably think they’re dated. The challenge: How do we keep these classics, and traditions, alive? We make them relevant to today’s world.

When I think of storybooks or fairytales, I think of a cosy, dusty old room in the back of my grandparent’s house, where my grandmother kept the kid toys we’d play with and books we’d read over and over again when we stayed at their house. There was one book, in particular, that was thick, with gold-rimmed pages (so fancy!) and lots of, well, really weird pictures. Cats wearing tall black boots and kittens wearing mittens and butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. The stories were crazy too. A man that ate pumpkin all the time. He put his wife in a giant one! A lady that had so many children she didn’t know what to do. And get this — they lived in a shoe. A shoe!! A cracked egg that even kings couldn’t help. Princesses. Oh, the princesses. And riches beyond reason. I couldn’t get enough of that book. I read those pages over and over, the gold trim slowly fading wherever I tended to touch the most. The fact that my grandmother had so many of those rhymes and stories memorized blew my mind. How did she do it?

Year after year I realized she did it the same way I was doing it…by hearing them read over and over by my grandmother. She must have had them read to her over and over by HER grandmother too. As I grew, I was reading them on my own, over and over, to the point it became ingrained in my brain much the same way I can still remember her home phone number (Mohawk5–1104). Those stories aren’t just something written in a book, they are something I shared, and treasured, with my grandmother. I grew up without a mom, so she was the closest adult to me, and that bond over reading is absolutely life changing and irreplaceable. Parent to child, or grandparent to grandchild.

That’s how tradition becomes tradition, and classics become classics.

Yet somehow, we’ve lost that sense of tradition. The classics, unless they’ve been turned into a movie, Broadway musical, or (often unbearable) TV show, are no longer retold. Don’t get me wrong — I understand why. Those classics are often horrifying! They’re awful, and weird, terribly politically incorrect, and not something I ever read to my own kids. Lots of kids getting eaten. Child brides. I mean, some versions of the original Sleeping Beauty are so horrific, I can’t even tell you. And the very beginning of the Snow White movie when the queen sends the squire to bring back Snow’s White’s HEART?? Oh my gosh, when I bought that CD for my daughter I had to fast forward through that part every time, I had completely forgotten.

We have to admit the classics might not be worth retelling AS-IS in today’s modern world. I think we as parents realized we didn’t want our kids hearing that stuff anymore, and we stopped retelling the stories.

The bad part of that is we lost tradition. We lost that part of “let me tell you a story that I heard from my mom who heard it from her mother who heard it from her grandmother…”

What happened in the meantime is someone else started telling our kids stories. Some one, or some thing. Our kids are watching these stories on TV or on their iPad or reading it piecemeal off someone’s Twitter feed. They aren’t sitting on our laps anymore. Or not as much as they could be.

I think it’s time to take lap time back. Take those classics back, too. But hang on a second, let‘s turn those classics on their heads. Make them fun and relevant — something a kid today WANTS to listen to. Something that both parents AND kids can have fun with.

That’s why I wrote the Bedtime Stories series “Kid Joey: Fairytale Detective” They take conventional storybook rhymes and fairytales, but add a twist. So the story you THINK you know, the story you’ve heard over and over, has a new ending or new twist, or new angle — with lots of laughs along the way. It’s fun for adults because they don’t know the ending or details either, and they get to experience the story in a new way, together with the child.

I figured it would be fun to take those same stories we know so well, and add some unexpected perspectives and new twists. These “new” stories let kids of today relate to the classics while parents and grandparents get to see, and enjoy them, in a new light. And not be horrified! What if we met PRINCE Midas, before he was King and before he turned into a selfish jerk? What if the 3 Little Pigs were a set of chatty girl triplets? I mean, an egg sitting on a wall makes no sense, and it spilling its guts all over the places is terrifying. But what if Humpty Dumpty was a football player, and his defense strategy was called “The Wall”? What if there was another kid named Joey who made it his mission to make sure Humpty did NOT have a great fall? I mean, sure, it’s still a leap of faith that a giant egg is walking around school, let alone playing football, or that pigs can talk, etc, but there is a certain degree of creative license fairytales allow us. It works. The fun comes in when we turn those fairytales upside down, on their heads, and see what shakes out. Let’s have a laugh while we read these stories. (Spoiler alert: there are no guts splayed about! No evil stepmoms either. (You’re welcome.))

What’s extra fun about the series is it gives parents, grandparents, and caregivers the chance to open up a dialogue about the old fairytale and storybook tales. Maybe it‘s the chance to tell the story for the first time. For example, in one story, Jack Spratt is mentioned, but no reference to him eating no fat and/or his wife eating no lean is brought up. Ask your kids “Do you know who Jack Spratt is?” When they say “No,” which they are bound to reply, pause for a minute and recite the silly rhyme. Share the story with them. Embrace that laptime. We all know it’ll be gone in a flash.

Let’s start the conversation back up, and have fun doing so!


About the Author

You may have seen author Bitsy Kemper on CNN, profiled in Writing Children’s Books For Dummies, or in literally hundreds of American TV news programs, newspapers and magazines. Maybe you passed her at the airport and didn’t even know it! Author of over 16 books, from picture books to chapter books to YA, she has enjoyed resuscitating old fairytales and bringing Joey to life in these (hopefully charming!) bedtime stories.

She enjoys dark chocolate, yoga, and church — but is careful to never indulge in all three at the same time. Busy raising three kids (four if you count her husband), she loves presenting at schools, libraries, and conferences all around the world.

Find out more at www.BitsyKemper.com.

Author Visits: First Questions to Ask Before Booking

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Most authors and illustrators focus on “what should I charge?” and “what should I talk about” when looking to book their first rounds of author visits. Here are just a few questions to ask from the very first time you connect with the school or group, before you pick the date.

1. What are the age ranges in attendance they want you to speak to; is it the whole school or a few classes/grades, and if so–which grades?
2. How many students/kids total? You’ll want to know for handouts, any giveaways, yes, but initially to gauge the amount of work so you can properly set your honorarium.
3. Is it going to be one assembly, or a few smaller class-by-class-type presentations? [If the latter, put a cap on it–state “no more than three,” for example. Your max number should be stated clearly in your contract anyway, and you’ll get to that later. But you need to know their expectation up front.]
4. Is there anything else going on at the same time, such as is it Parents Night, a spaghetti feed fundraiser or book fair, etc? You need to know what competition there is for the kids’ attention (and possibly book money).
5. What do they have in mind or set aside for honorarium? You don’t want this to be the first thing you talk about, but I think it should be brought up early. You can bring it up gently in the form of “My typical fee is $350 per presentation, is that about what you have budgeted? If there is a problem, we can get creative,” and prepared to negotiate. Wait for them to respond, though, don’t offer a lower a lower rate right off the bat.
If they do get back with you about not having that high a budget, be prepared to  offer several options (you did say you’d get creative, right?). You can shortening the length of your presentation for less money, or point them towards places they can turn to for grants or other ways Scholastic suggests, such as fundraising, here. A past SCBWI bulletin offers tips on getting local community groups like the Rotary to pitch in here. You might need to suggest postponing the event until they have the funds.
Bottom line is, do not expect them to know your standard fees, as (for some inexplicable reason) some schools may assume you won’t be charging them, even if your rates are clearly marked in your contract or Contact Me page. I’ve had schools suddenly realize “they were booked that day afterall” once we got through all the details, had the date scheduled, and I then asked them about my honorarium…which is why I mention it early on now. Don’t waste your–or their–time. Get the money talk out of the way early. [And yes, you’re worth it. Convince yourself, and the school/group, with this “Why Pay Authors for School Visits Anyway?” post if needed.]
6. Is there anything in particular the school/group is, or is not, looking for, such as asking kids to come on stage, tossing out candy to kids that answer Qs, talking about feelings, etc? You’ll want to know how much adjusting you might need to do on your presentation. I know one school wanted me to talk about the art side of things, and I had to tell them it’s not what I do, it’s out of my area of expertise, but that I could certainly touch on it as far as the overall book-making process. Better they know right away if you are a match for what they are looking for.
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Once they get back to you answers, and it sounds good to you both, you can look at scheduling a date and time, and agreed upon honorarium. It’s only THEN you present a contract for you both to sign with all the blanks filled in. Yes, you both sign a contract, no matter how sure you are it will happen, no matter how nice they are, no matter how eager and excited you both are to have it on the calendar. EVEN IF IT’S A FREE VISIT. We all know authors that have arrived at their pro bono appointment only to be met with unprepared staff (“who are you?” “no one told me you were coming in” “oh, that’s today?”), or ungracious classrooms (teachers walking out as soon as you start, staff not helping quiet down troublemakers)–unfortunately as I’ve seen firsthand, time and again: people don’t respect what they don’t pay for. They just don’t.

 

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Bonus materials to add to your contract, if you mutually agree the visit is a go:

  • State you are unable to add ANY additional responsibilities or presentations outside of the stated contract. No last-minute additional presentations, added minutes, or additional classes/students can be added in without additional honorarium.
  • Add in a a clause about the teachers not leaving the room while you’re there. Many states have laws that you’re not allowed to be solo in the room with kids anyway, so it’s a matter of legality.
  • Ensure ahead of time they make plans to have at least one of their teachers or school representatives for at least every 30-50 or so kids. I suggest you also make sure it’s not a proctor or someone like that; kids behave differently around principals (better!) and substitute teachers (worse!).
  • Is there a mic available to you IN THE ROOM YOU’RE PRESENTING IN, overhead projector, screen, flipchart, etc (whatever you need)?
  • Ask about book sales: Will they be set up by the school (not you!) beforehand, and will you sign books after your presentation only for presales (which means families that didn’t have their act together ahead of time to buy won’t have the opportunity, or kids that forgot their books), or will sales be after (which still means families that didn’t have their act together ahead of time won’t have the opportunity b/c they will have forgotten to bring money to buy)? Do you want to only sign bookplates while you’re there, so everyone gets one? You and the school need to decide ahead of time and have the time blocked out. [Also, sorry to break it to you but be aware that book sales will probably be low, but the demand for autographs will be high, especially with the kids that didn’t get to buy a book. You’re a rock star to them!]

The more prepared you are, the better your visit will be.

Go get ’em tiger!

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Gift Ideas for Writers: 2017

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I love reading posts about gift ideas. Heck, I love shopping, and thinking about shopping, and yes, being on the receiving end of shopping too. As an author, over the years I’ve amassed my share of journals and pen sets. I’m not complaining! But here are some out-of-the-box, creative gift ideas for the writer in your life. Some ideas are somewhat standard [wise*ss t-shirts] but I guarantee some you’ve never thought of before–and are–get this–free [book reviews]!! Please note I get no royalties or kickbacks from any of these external sites, and I cannot otherwise vouch for their awesomeness; I just happen to think they rock. 

In random order:

  • Art!

How can you not love artwork like this, lettered on clear glass or matted in a circle? Head over to etsy  for this quote by Hemingway or one made by JaneAustenandCo, or pick your/their favorite quote and make your own.

 

  • Clothes!

There’s an Alice in Wonderland scarf and other classics from storiarts, and lots of other very clever book scarf options like this one that looks like a stamped library due date card from etsy and a bookshelf scarf from cafepress. There are a ton of options, actually. Google “books scarf” or “word scarf” or a similar combination and you’ll be amazed. Order now, though, as many are special order (and most likely worth it). I will warn against ordering book leggings online–that is, leggings with cute images of books on them. I ordered a pair from a company that rhymes with Rave Rew Rook and while I’m sure the company is full of wonderful people, their leggings are HORRIBLE quality (100% polyester) and there was no way to tell from the their website how awful they’d feel or look in real life. The stitching is atrocious. [They also took weeks to arrive but that’s another story]. You don’t have that issue with scarves so I’m thinking they are a safer sight-unseen purchase. And scarves look so classy! Such a conversation starter too. Many writers are introverts so it’s a welcomed party accessory.

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Bookshelf Books Scarf

For your dark-humored friends, how about tee with a goth take on a Christmas classic from author/artist Kaz Windness? Or this fun tee you can find on Amazon and a few other places? (They make snarky sayings on mugs too)

 Cybertela Women's I'm Silently Correcting Your Grammar Fitted V-neck T-shirt

 

  • Education!

Sign your writer up for a class, a workshop, a conference. I love SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and it’s one nonprofit I can vouch for. In fact, why not buy your writer an annual membership? Boy will that go over well!! It can’t be wrapped but it will last all year long (join SCBWI). Everyone has a chapter near them (check here for where yours might be) and every region hosts local events, meet ups, etc.  Kidlit411 also has a list of reputable places to look for events/conferences/workshops near you and worldwide. There are lots of other good places to look for online and.or downloadable classes you can buy for your writer, that are hosted by solid industry professionals, including the Children’s Book Academy and KidLit College. They offer sessions year round. SCBWI tends to offer stellar webinars throughout the year too, for $10 or $15 members (only $20ish for nonmembers). Have a look at some upcoming ones here — check back often for updates. ALWAYS verify the credentials of the person that is leading the workshop, shop around for price, and make sure the topic is a good fit. I mean, don’t get your writer a workshop on editing if they haven’t even written their story yet; if that’s their situation, suggest they take a beginner’s class on how to write or how to get started first. (That’s one reason why I like conferences so much–they contain lots of info at various levels with lots of presenters that have different expertise, all rolled into one, and are usually the biggest bang for the buck. Here‘s one in Northern CA with editors, agents, an art director, and famous authors.)

Great books to buy that are easy to order online but of course I’m going to suggest you get from your local bookseller, include:

Product Details    Product Details

(You might wanna steer clear of that last one as a gift, given the title and all, even though it’s really a fantastic book for beginners!) Shout out to JEN Garrett for most of those craft book suggestions.

 

  •  Fun!

Grab one of these, just for fun.

 A beautiful and clever (but, yeah, expensive) reading light.

Aqua Notes Water Proof Note Pad Get bombarded with great ideas in the shower? Write ’em down with a waterproof notepad found on Amazon.

 How many classic novels have you read? Keep track with this slick scratch-off poster.

 For your writer/illustrator friend, here’s a great crayon charm necklace for only $20. They’ve got it with typewriters too.

 

  • Betterment/Writing Help

We could all use a helping hand when it comes to making our writing better. Why not buy your writer a professional critique of their work? [NEVER do this on the fly. ONLY go with a reputable, experienced author who you’ve gotten recommendations from. (What have they published recently, by what publishing house, to what acclaim?)]

Here are some writers I can vouch for. There are plenty of others too! These are literally off the top of my head. Check them out yourself–carefully! You want to make sure you get the best fit for your specific work.

  1. Carol Munro, https://carolmunrojustwritewords.com/services-for-writers/
  2. Nikki Shannon Smithhttp://www.nikkishannonsmith.com/Contact.html 
  3. ME! Bitsy Kemper, https://bitsykemper.wordpress.com/contact-bitsy/ 

Regardless of what you get your writer, knowing you shopped with them in mind will make all the difference. As gift-giving expert Lisa Bader from http://www.wrapwithlove.com says, “When it’s all said and done, the particular gift you give isn’t what matters most. What matters most is how the particular gift made the recipient feel.” They will love you went out of your way for them!

  • Support!

    1. Give your published friends an online review

If you’ve got zero money in your pocket but want to give SOMEthing, give a book review! Did you know that the number of book reviews can help boost a book’s placement on websites like Amazon Books and general Google searches? The more reviews, the higher  up it will likely show. Reviews of any kind are a HUGE factor, if not boost, to an author’s success. Even if they aren’t glowing reviews! A review shows the book has been read. And that the reader took the time to review it–which means it made an impact on the reader. In fact, a mention of the book in any form of social media is welcomed. As author Lori Mortensen puts it, “Social media makes a difference, so if you have a moment, leave a review on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads, or other social media for your favorite books. Authors everywhere will appreciate it.” I second that! I mean, who can’t give a free gift? Just make sure you’ve read the book, and make it a genuine review. Websites are cracking down on what they perceive to be “buddy reviews” and are deleting them without warning. Give a fair review. I mean sure–round up on the number of stars by all means–just don’t go too overboard on the text or it’ll come across as fake. No one wants that, not even for the holidays.

2. Check out their book from a library–or ask your local library to carry their book (and tell your friend you did so)

It might not seem like a big deal, but checking a book out of library, or even taking it off the shelf and having a librarian re-shelf it, can make a big difference in how long a library keeps a book. This is how a California librarian explained it: “If a book has not been checked out in a certain number of months, it gets chucked. Yep. And then [the] book will be gone from the system, forever.” Sad, right? She went on to say, “Basically, librarians are always actively looking for books to ‘weed.’ They have to get rid of books on a regular basis to make room for new ones coming in. If they find a book that hasn’t been checked out for ages, and it’s a book they love, they might put it on display or do something else to increase its circulation. But they might also just decide this book has lived its life, and because there is no demand for it anymore, it’s time to pass it on. Sad but reality. 

Sooooo…Even if you’ve read their book (which, let’s be honest–you probably haven’t), you can check out your friend’s book(s), and return the next day, just to get that title recorded. I know in my library they track which books have been interacted with, so even taking it off the shelf and placing it on the “go back” cart gets it recorded or noted as someone having paid attention to it. Now, if your library doesn’t carry the book, put in a request for them to purchase it. Talk to whoever is at the desk about it. They might not be able to, but you’ve planted the seed. Maybe someone else already has, or will, and your request will make the difference.

These are great gift suggestions for writer friends you don’t well enough to go out and buy something for, but that you’ve admired or have enjoyed getting to know over the years, perhaps virtually via the magic of the interwebs. <cough cough, points to self> Neither takes much time to do, they don’t cost any money at all, and the effects are longer lasting tan any scarf or book light. Your writer friend will be thrilled!

 

Lots of ideas. No excuses to not do SOMEthing! 🙂

Whatever you decide,

Merry Christmas,

Happy Holidays, and

Happy Gift Giving!

How Do I know If My Manuscript is Finished?

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I was at a critique meeting the other day, and a beginning writer asked a fair question.

The backstory: She had brought in a manuscript that she’d spent quite a bit of time on. She’d revised it numerous times, shown it to editors at conferences, and even did the ol’ “set it aside for three weeks before tackling a final time.” She thought she was almost finished. This was her “get one last set of eyes before submitting.”

But she got such good feedback from this new group at the critique meeting, that it had her questioning exactly how “finished” her manuscript was. She wasn’t going to change any main plot points, but she was considering changing her main character’s name, part of his journey, and directly altering the story arc. (So, yeah, pretty big changes.)

She wasn’t panicking, but she was concerned. If she made those changes, what other changes might lurk around the corner? What changes would need to be made after those changes were added? No doubt, she liked and appreciated the suggestions, agreed with most of the feedback, and was open to implementing it all. She wan’t complaining. But how many more times would she be sitting in a critique group asking for and getting great feedback that would result in even more edits? More importantly–would her story ever be finished? She wasn’t in a rush to get her manuscript out the door, but she was overwhelmed with the thought of how many different ways her story could go.

She asked me: “When will I know I’m done?”

I’m the best–and worst–person to ask that question. I think my tombstone will say “Hang on–I’m not finished with that yet–” because I am ALWAYS revising, reworking, editing, tweaking. I can always find a way to change a document. When I wrote a syndicated newspaper column, I submitted that thing a half second before deadline EVERY WEEK because I was always changing and rearranging. I drove myself nuts trying to make it perfect. But is anything ever perfect?

The answer to “When will I know I’m done” is actually another question. It’s kinda simple, really, and something I have to ask myself constantly. It goes like this: WILL THESE CHANGES MAKE THE STORY BETTER?

I mean, sure, the edits will change the story–but will it change your story for the better?

You can have your duck walk over a bridge instead of swim across the pond, you can have a kid sing show tunes instead of do homework, you can shake things up a million ways from Sunday. It goes without saying that it’s YOUR story and YOU need to tell it–regardless of what other people suggest. But fine-tuning details can drive you mad. (OK yes even story arc and plotting can drive you nuts.) I know they do me.

You gotta let it go at some point, knowing it’s pretty damn good. Changes from here on might be good, sure, but doggone it, it’s already darn good. Let. it. be.

There will always be a way to edit and change. Take this blog post as an example: I can add color, switch font, toss in kooky images (researching them will add an additional 2 hours alone to the posting process–oh, look, a dancing gerbil!).

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But will any of it MAKE THE CONTENT BETTER THAN IT WAS BEFORE?

It might change things, but if it doesn’t enhance them to the point of “I can’t live without this direction/idea/switch“–well, then, carry on, soldier.

Your work is done.

 

 

“I’ve written a children’s book…now what?”

 

“I’ve written a children’s book…now what?”

As a published author, I hear this question a lot. Technology has made many things easier, but the publishing industry is still pretty standard. Sure, you could go the self-published route, which has earned a much better reputation than the past (but some small publishing houses are glorified self-publishers, so you have to be careful. Do your homework!), but you’ll still need to follow these first few steps.

  1. Don’t illustrate!

    First off, if you’ve written a picture book, and you’re not a professional artist, DON’T illustrate it unless you are self publishing. Don’t find someone to illustrate it, or take pictures to submit alongside. Let the publishing editors do that; it’s their jobs. All you’re going to be submitting are the words to the story. (That’s a relief, right?) Other beginner tips are here in a fun video worth watching: https://bitsykemper.wordpress.com/video/

  2. Be honest: is it ready?

    Really ready? I know you are excited to get your story out there–but hold on, Sally. Your first step ISN’T finding an agent. Your first step is getting your work polished and perfect. You only have one chance to make a first impression with editors and publishers. Don’t submit a manuscript that’s “almost ready.” I encourage you to take a bigger-picture look at getting not just editing help but overall writing guidance, especially if this is your first manuscript (or art/portfolio submission). Take the time to make sure it’s in the very best shape it can be. Non-fiction books, for example, need lots of research. Tips on how and where to do that research is here: http://www.darcypattison.com/picture-books/nonfiction-research-required/ Research aside, you’ve got to fix typos, ensure your story arc is strong, your main characters are likeable, and so on. How does your story compare with what’s selling today—both in topic, word count, and style? Make sure your work is in top shape.  One tip I suggest new writers do is read 100 picture books (they’re short!) before they start the editing phase of their first manuscript, because there is so much to learn by reading other works, and by understanding the general formula and format that editors are looking for. At least read 50! No, I’m not kidding. There is a reason those books are published and you’ve got to figure out why. I’ve created a checklist that details all this, plus a discussion on strong beginnings, satisfying endings, and more at: https://bitsykemper.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/is-my-picture-book-ready-a-13-point-checklist/ Read this!

  1. Get help

    So, yeah, you might NOT be finished with that book afterall. There are authors that have taken SIX YEARS perfecting their manuscript, and they don’t regret a minute. You, your manuscript, and your readers are worth taking the time to do it right. Don’t rush it. SCBWI is here to help! Learn with us! Attend a workshop, conference, webinar, meet & greet, anything to connect with this wonderful writing and illustrating community. We’re great peeps! Find a critique partner in your region (ask your RA for help in finding some). Consider a Mentorship Program (http://www.scbwi.org/scbwi-mentorship-programs/; The Carolinas, Iowa, and Minn, for example, offer programs that fit members outside their immediate region. It can get expensive, but can be worth every penny. Professionals work directly with you and your manuscript one on one, some for several months.) If you want to hire editing help, “The Book” from SCBWI lists many reputable freelance editors you might want to contact. They each have different rates and processes, but are all professionals. http://www.scbwi.org/online-resources/the-book/Paid-for help is something to consider—but not necessary! Go online and check out the TON of free resources available online—open 24/7—to members only, like training videos and “bulletin boards” at scbwi.org! You have to be logged in at SCBWI.org order to access many of the helpful pages. Other excellent resources include http://www.kidlit411.com/ (too much great content to list!),  http://www.writersdigest.com/forum/ and http://writeforkids.org/.

  1. Social Media?

    Do you need a strong social media presence—website, blog, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Facebook, blah blah? Hmm. Define “strong.” The easy answer is yes, you need to be online and searchable in someway, for no other reason than it gets you practice being social and connecting with other like-minded creators. Some editors insist a social media platform is vital while others couldn’t care less. But don’t fake 2,000 Twitter followers or suddenly force yourself to gather 500 new Facebook friends just to get in the game. Be genuine. If you’re new to social media, it’s ok. But don’t ignore it. It’s not going away. It’s better to start true relationships now than to troll for friends only when you need them later. People know when you’re using them. Find some great social media tips from author Jenny Bravo here: http://jennybravobooks.com/blog/social-media-for-writers, some author platform tips from moi here, and some Twitter-specific basics here.

  1. Find an Agent, Editor

    (Either, not both) Once you’re certain your manuscript is ready (you’ve researched the industry, you’ve had a critique group look at it, it’s edited with no errors, et al), it’s time to find an editor or agent. Which one? The right one, not just any one. Spend time finding a good fit. You’ll be working with them for upwards of three years per book(!!). In this industry, you can submit directly to many editors at a publishing houses; you don’t NEED an agent. Yes, one will absolutely probably most likely help you. Get the scoop on if you should pursue an agent or if you should stick it out solo in this “How do I find an agent” post. (FYI I’ve got 16 books in print, no agent.) Whether or not you decide to get an agent or to submit directly, you’ll need to figure out who is the best person to send to. And where (which ‘house’). The BEST resource for that is SCBWI’s THE BOOK. Available to members online, you can also order a hard copy to be printed and mailed to your house for a nominal fee (I order one every year, dog ear the heck out of pages, and make scribble notes all over it!): http://www.scbwi.org/online-resources/the-book/ You have to be a member and logged in at SCBWI.org order to access it.

  1. Write Query or Pitch Letter

    Now you’re ready to submit! Start writing those agent query or Dear Editor pitch letters. The difference between a query letter and a pitch letter is best described this way: A pitch letter is sent directly to an editor or agent, with your manuscript, for them to consider taking on your work for publication. A query is a letter sent to see if the editor or agent is interested in seeing your manuscript, for the ultimate goal of taking it on; it’s the pre-step of submitting. THE MANUSCRIPT IS NOT SENT with a query–just a description of it is. Typically this is sent to a closed house where you have to ask permission before submitting. A great explanation of a query letter, and how it should include a pitch and synopsis is here: http://www.soyouthinkyoucanwrite.com/2015/09/the-pitch-query-and-synopsis-a-primer/. A great “how to write a query letter” is here: https://kidlit.com/2009/08/05/writing-a-simple-compelling-query/ Almost all submissions are done online now, although some houses still insist on paper subs. Find out all this detail, along with contact information and names of editors and agents at good ol’ SCBWI’s “The Book” (which you have to be logged in at SCBWI.org order to access). ALWAYS VERIFY INFO ON THE HOUSE’S OWN WEBSITE BEFORE SUBMITTING! Things change fast these days and you don’t want to submit to someone that changes houses four months ago, or waste your time submitting to a house that is now closed.

Chronicle Books has stellar advice of their own, which backs up most of the advice above: http://www.chroniclebooks.com/blog/2014/12/17/so-youve-written-a-childrens-book-now-what/ and a self-pubbed author named Carrie Lowrence shares her experience with the detailed steps she took here: https://horkeyhandbook.com/wrote-childrens-book-idea-execution/

Hopefully this is helpful. I encourage you to take a step back, catch your breath, and make sure your story elements are perfect before you spend the time (or money) on copy editing or, of course, submitting. One of the tips I learned from Writers Ink was to set your story aside for two or three months, then come back to it with fresh eyes. Amazing how different it looks! I know 90 days seems like FOREVER but you will thank your three-month-future-self for waiting. Your story deserves the best care you can give it 🙂

It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it, even if you never get published. If you love writing, you love writing! Best of luck to you and your work. I am certain you’ll find ways to make it shine, and to make yourself proud.

Go get ‘em!

-Bitsy Kemper is the proud author of 16 children’s books, including picture books, chapter books, and YA. She admits to spending too much of her early career focused on the computer industry, appearing in places like CNN and co-writing a nationally-syndicated newspaper column. She’s more recently appeared in Writing Children’s Books for Dummies (“how appropriate!” you may say) and Children’s Book Insider, and is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI’s CA North/Central region (covering 36 counties!). When not nose down and knee deep creating & editing, she has found time to present at author events and writers conferences from NY to CA. Bitsy enjoys yoga, dark chocolate, and church–but not all three at the same time. She is an accomplished speaker, mother of three (four if you count her husband), and according to her business card, a really nice gal. www.BitsyKemper.com.

How do I Find an Agent?

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Google “how to find a literary agent for children’s books” and you’ll get 1,580,000 hits. Over one and a half million! And that’s just in the kidlit world. There are many, many theories on how to find one, just like there are many many theories on how to write the perfect picture book. Many roads will take you there, my friend. You just need to start walking. THEY AREN’T GOING TO COME TO YOU.
First things first. You need to make sure your manuscript is print ready. Never send something that isn’t perfect/finished! Has it been copy edited? Have you had more than one other person review it–do you have a reliable/experienced critique partner/group? Have you been working on it for longer than, say, a month? The ironic thing here is that the next thing I’m going to say is be prepared to make changes if necessary which contradicts the “make sure it’s perfect/finished” statement. An agent might have suggestions on how to make your manuscript better, and you might need to make those changes before he or she agrees to represent you. (It’s ALWAYS up to you to decide if and how those changes will be implemented. It’s your manuscript, afterall. Feel free to say “No, thanks” and move on to the next agent on your list if the recommend changes don’t feel right to you.)
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Second, you need to research the right agent FOR YOU, one that will like/accept not only your genre and age range but fits your style. That means your style of writing as well as your style of a working relationship. You do that by researching reputable agencies online and reading up on every agent that reps the kind of manuscript you have–based on what they have already sold and based on what they say they are looking for. Have they represented authors that have books similar to yours? That’s what you are looking for. This may be the only time you don’t want uniqueness. You want someone with relevant experience so they can get you the best deal and offer you the best, most applicable guidance. A super YA agent, for example, might be a crappy picture book agent. It’s a different world. Maybe it’ll work out–see what else they’ve sold. The good news is they will tell you directly on their page what they are looking for and have sold but that bad news is it’s a lot of work b/c there are so many agencies and so many agents.
How to get started researching, you may ask?
  • https://janefriedman.com/find-literary-agent/ gives an excellent overview on finding agents. It’s not specific to kidlit, but is worth reading every word. This post is from 2015 but still very much valid. Jane gives tips on checking an agent’s track record, what to expect from a good agent (are they members of AAR?), and explains submission guidelines piece by piece. READ IT. I’m not kidding.
  • The very first blog page on that Writer’s Digest site that I’d recommend you read is http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/pubtips. Editor Chuck Sambuchino culled advice from real agents, who Tweeted their top tips on what to do and how to do it. For example, some advice from 2013 that still stands is from agent Jacquie Flynn’s (@BookJacquie): “Check out an agent’s website, tweets, & blog posts to get a sense of her style & taste before you query. Customize for best results.”
  • Speaking of Twitter…I’ll go ahead and quote Chuck from that same blog, who says, “Many, many agents are on Twitter. And by reading their tweets, you can get a deeper understanding of what they seek as well as what kind of writing excites them. Use an agent’s online footprint and research them. Read their blog interviews. Review their website. This helps you better target agents to query, and it also helps you learn more about each rep, giving you information you can use to begin your query letter. For example, ‘Dear Ms. Flynn, I saw your tweet about how you seek irreverently humorous young adult books such as Spanking Shakespeare. For this reason, I think you would like my YA comedy of errors, [Title].'”
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Social media is your friend when researching agents

  • And speaking of matching up agents with what they’ve already said they like…Have you heard of MSWL? If not, write it down! There is a great website/resource called MSWL — Manuscript Wish List  — where agents regularly Tweet out exactly what they are hoping to find, and the results are tallied and searchable here: http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com You can do a search for exactly what you’ve written, such as #magic #chapterbook #unicorns, and see if there are any matches. It’s worth coming back to again and again.
  • If you’re a member of SCBWI (and if you’re not, don’t be an idiot, join already!), start looking up names and agencies with “The Book” that is online to members http://www.scbwi.org/online-resources/the-book/. Go to the Agents section. It lists websites for every agency that’s worth reviewing. [“The Book” also lists all major kidlit publishing houses, and gives websites and contact information as well as if they accept unagented or “unsolicited” manuscripts (unsolicited means you need to end a query first), if you decide against pursuing an agent.] Narrow down the agencies you like, then look at their agents, and if the agent reps your age range and/or genre and you think you’d get along, then give them a whirl. There are other sources online that charge for this information and may be worth looking into if you don’t have SCBWI access. Either way, always verify your searches with the agent websites and/or agent social media accounts. Do that with a basic Google search.
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  • Wondering about warning signs, such as contests disguised as paid editing services or agents asking for a reading fee? NEVER PAY AN AGENT TO READ YOUR MANUSCRIPT! RUN AWAY, RUN AWAY! [The exception is legit conferences where you submit your work for a fee in exchange for a critique/feedback, or fundraisers like #PensforPaws where agents (or editors) donate their time to giving you feedback and the money goes to charity. These are NOT solicitations for representation so don’r count as creepy agent maneuvers.] Tally up sleeze-meter readings with help from this list created by “Writer Beware” http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/agents/
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In all honesty, you don’t NEED an agent in the children’s book industry. If you ask me (and you did) I suggest you take all that time researching agents and spend it perfecting your manuscripts. You can submit to many editors and publishing houses directly.  The key is always quality writing, not the agent that submits it. 
The bottom line is: just like when writing your manuscript, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Perfect your work. Research out a few solid agents that will work FOR YOU, submit per their exact submission guidelines, and see what they say. If they all pass b/c they say your manuscript isn’t ready, well, you know what your next steps will be.
If they like it, well, wasn’t all that work worth it?
Write on!