Writing in the Time of COVID: Two Golden Rules of Word Count Goals
As our daily lives have been uprooted in the most unexpected if not the rudest of ways, I’ve been seeing A LOT about writing goals lately. Setting writing goals. Meeting writing goals. Not meeting writing goals. Adjusting writing goals. Changing writing goals.
With three school kids at home, and a husband who might as well be, it’s enough to make a gal want to panic. I’m going to put your mind at ease. Hint: there is no magical word count.
But first, some reasons why it’s not as easy as “don’t worry about it.”
I’ve been a huge advocate for setting goals. As a marketing professional helping business owners, I would always ask my own version of the Alice in Wonderland question: If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
In this case we know the ultimate goal: finish writing your book. As that is an intimidating goal, as scary as finishing a marathon when you’ve never run before, it’s best to take it one step at a time. Break it into pieces. No one expects you to stand up one day and run 26.2 miles; you’d train and run a certain number of laps/miles a day and eventually get there. Everyone has their own pace, it doesn’t matter how fast the person next to you is. They might be naturally-gifted runners. Or have a personal trainer. Or ran races for 15 years. You are running your race, they are running theirs. They finished first? Good for them. That doesn’t mean you can’t finish too! Your accomplishment is every bit as valid as theirs, regardless of how long it took. So let’s look at the first Golden Rule of Word Count Goals right off the bat:
Don’t compare your goals or progress to anyone else’s. This is your journey, not theirs.
As far as your ultimate goal is concerned, let’s not focus too much on that end result right now. You know what it is, we all know what it is. We don’t need to keep saying it. The world is hectic. Home life is weird. They are both unpredictable. Trying to eat a entire elephant right now just might not be possible. The last thing you want to do is set yourself up for failure. So let’s look at eating that elephant one bite at a time. As the great Judy Blume said at the #SCBWI conference this summer, you can write a novel spending two hours a day. Yes, two hours a day would bring great progress. But I can’t repeat that lovely nugget with a straight face. Who has two concentrated hours a day right now? We need to take what we can get, and eat whatever part of the elephant we can get our hands on. Don’t concentrate on eating the entire elephant by sitting at the table two hours a day right now. All that will do is set us up for failure. Let’s look at one part of the elephant and take it very seriously. Can we commit to the legs? One leg? An ear? OK, just the tail for now? It doesn’t matter if we eat it fifteen minutes at a time while the kids are zooming their hearts out, or a half hour before bed, or if it means we THINK about eating it while taking that weekly shower. Pick ONE thing, and do it. Do it well. When you’re done, pick another. I’ve got this bio idea in my head. First I need some research. So my goal is to interview people that knew her. Until I do that, I can’t get much further. So my part of the elephant is interviews. Back that up, and you’ll see I need to figure out who to interview, what to ask them, figure out how to get in touch with them, how I will approach the confidentiality of anything they may want ‘off the record,’ etc. So there is more to the goal of interviewing those people. It’s not a simple check mark. It’s not something I can complete two hours a day, especially since them getting back to me is not under my control. But with that as my goal, I can continually be working towards it. If I’m at a standstill, I can press a virtual pause and look at the next mini goal to start on in the meantime. Yes, that means all the steps/goals should be written out. Not having a word count goal doesn’t mean you don’t make yourself accountable for the steps required to meet your goal. It just means the number of words written per day isn’t on that list. That brings me to our second Golden Rule of Word Count Goals:
2. Word count doesn’t mean hooey.
Think quality, not quantity. You might make more progress with the sudden realization a side character or chapter has to be cut than any number of words you could have placed on a page that day. You might figure out a plot hole and spend time thinking through how to fix it–without a single word added to the manuscript. As long as you’re writing or thinking about solutions to what you’re working on, you’re making progress. Even if you end up scraping a day’s work, you now know what DOESN’T work; you’re still closer to your goal. I think it was the late and wonderful Sid Fleischman who used to say the only thing wasted on experimental writing is a piece of paper. Don’t focus on the number of words per day or week or month. All that will do is stress you out. It might force your butt in the chair, sure. But at what expense? Maybe you’re better off taking a day or two away from the ol’ laptop and giving your muse a mini vacation. (Make sure she’s earned it!) There is simply too much going on right now to worry about the number of words you are or aren’t cranking out. That brings me to the Bonus Golden Rule of Word Count Goals:
3. Be kind to yourself.
Don’t beat yourself up over missed opportunities or time away right now. It’s OK if you skip a day or two. Nothing bad will happen if a file is left unopened three days in a row, no curse will leak out of the USB port. It will all be there when you’re ready. Write a blog post (LOL). Send an email to an old friend with a fond memory. Call your parents or brother. Bake cookies for your sister or neighbor. Draw a tree. Or do nothing at all. Don’t force creativity if it’s not there. We know it’s a fickle beast. It’ll come back when it’s ready. In the meantime, let yourself know you’re doing the best you can. It’s all you can do. When it ain’t got than swing, numbers don’t mean a thang. I’m proud of you not matter what you’ve done so far.
Who knew that within weeks the words “viral” and “virus” would have such polarizing connotations? The year 2020 sure is a unique beast. As authors, we’re forced gifted lots of home time to create. The longer we’re home, the more (ideally) we’re writing. Hooray for opportunity.
One of my first thoughts has been, “I better make sure my stuff is good. With everyone else home with all this free time, writing and rewriting, there is going to be more competition than ever.”
My next thoughts are, “Wait…with everyone home writing, who is out there buying? Is it even worth submitting? Will it sell?”
I did some digging. Talked to friends and colleagues–authors, illustrators, agents, big publishers, small publishers. Researched a bit–the big picture international news down to smaller scope of our children’s book industry. I wanted to see for myself:
What is going on in the publishing world? What will it look like ahead?
I’m no expert (my Econ degree and MBA play no part in this post!). I’m just a curious author that likes research and is concerned about our future. I know other authors are wondering too. Here’s what I’ve found:
For those TLDR types, lemme say this: Yes, books are still selling (but they are slowing). No, it’s not horrific (changes will come about slowly, and even if the world is magically back to normal tomorrow, we will still see small repercussions down the line in a year or two). Yes, there is a big uptick in pandemic plotlines and both agents and editors are saying KNOCK IT OFF. No, there is no reason stop writing and submitting–as long as it’s your very best work. So no panicking, OK? Keep creating. It’s what you do.
Books are selling. Great! But of course numbers aren’t as high as usual. A study in Sweden shows a sharp decrease in March sales compared to last year (boo), but an uptick in online sales greatly softened the blow, and the LA Times reports the new ABA-backed online-only Bookshop.org has reported a 400% increase in sales since opening in February (*crowd cheering*). Marketwatch states overall book sales have been driven by juvenile nonfiction in particular, which are up 25% year-to-date, and up 65% for the six weeks ending April 11, according to NPD BookScan. “We definitely seeing an uptick in kids’ educational and activity book sales this week,” reports Kristen McLean, NPD books industry analyst. Sure, bookstores and libraries are temporarily closed, tradeshows (where many small publishers rely on sales) have been cancelled, and those free e-books don’t always cut it for parents and kids…yet people are still reading, and books are still selling. Publishers reiterate to me that most sales are activity books (understandably) and series (books they can rely on). Debuts–if an author/illustrator can hold a successful virtual launch–are doing OK but not as good as if they were live or on tour. [Side note: You can help your friends and indies by ordering ANYTHING from your local bookstore as they likely deliver; not only will they appreciate it but it might keep them from going under. Ask your friends to do the same.]
Agents and publishers are still buying. Work-for-hire is still assigning. But…likely not as much. One reason is, due to slower sales, many books they were going to release this summer or fall have been pushed to next year or later, so they won’t need as many titles in 2021 or 2022–the timeframe the title they’d sign today would be released. And if they think sales are going to continue to drop in the near future, they might not take on as many new titles…making them pickier than ever. And they’ll have to be choosy…agents are saying their inbox is fuller than usual (one said even though she is closed to both queries and submissions and only accepts via her website anyway, ever-eager writers are blatantly subbing directly via her email regardless)(not cool!), and The Guardian reports some publishers are seeing a three-fold uptick in submissions! [Side note: It doesn’t mean the pool of writers is better, but it does mean it’s much bigger. It’s harder to get noticed. How is yours unique? Better than the others? You don’t have to submit any or every thing you’re writing right now. Just keep writing. Maybe it’ll turn into something (better) down the line.]
Think you’ve got a great idea for a story that takes place during a pandemic? Well so does everyone else. Not only are publishers and editors already tired of seeing dystopian (especially pandemic) plotlines, the main issue is timing. As agent Jennifer Laughran points out, “publishing is a long game.” While the world may be changing overnight, our industry moves slowly. A book takes a good 2 to 5 years to get to market. The last thing a 12-year-old kid will want to do is relive the time their own 8-year-old self was quarantined at home. Without toilet paper.
Bottom line: like every industry in the world publishing is slowing–but all signs point to us doing okay in the long run. The future of publishing may be changed for good after this. Maybe even for the better. But it won’t change overnight. Stay positive. Keep on plugging away, giving it your best. And maybe happiest.
Seeing as we are now living in a real dystopian society, it might be time for ideal worlds to make a comeback. Let’s lighten up.
How to Easily Work the Camera and Adjust Your (Nervous) Attitude
With videoconference meetings all the rage (if not necessity), odds are you will not escape attending one. And odds are you’ll be attending more and more of ’em, even after quarantine guidelines are lifted. Yep, they are here to stay. Does that make you anxious? If you hate seeing yourself on camera, or were never a fan of meetings to begin with (let alone ones where people CAN SEE YOU AT ALL TIMES), well, suck it up, buttercup. Videoconferencing is here to stay.
It’s making introverts nervous. It’s making teachers–who are already used to teaching–nervous. It’s making people who have attended hundreds of meetings, and held hundreds of meetings nervous. It’s even making extroverts nervous.
The good news is even the most introverted of introverts can succeed–if not enjoy–Zoom. (Or any other videoconferencing app/program/website.) Even if you don’t know how to present yourself on video. Or how to manage distractions that are out of your control. Even if you panic at the thought of being on camera. Maybe you don’t want strangers peeking into your room? The good news is, these videoconference meetings aren’t so bad. They’re not hard to run, and honestly not that tortuous to attend. Even if you’re an introvert! Really.
Here are six detailed ways to make the most out of your Zoom and Zoom-like videocalls, that even quiet-types can put to good use:
Making The Camera Love You
Worried about how you’ll come across on screen? The camera angle makes all the difference. Place your laptop or pc so the camera is at or slightly above your eye level.
Don’t have it on a desk or coffee table looking up or it’ll focus on your double chin—even if you don’t have one. Balance the computer on however many magazines, books and/or shoe boxes needed to get the right height (making sure it’s stable enough to last the entire call without a TIMMBERRR situation).
How close up is too close? I think you can answer that yourself. You know what size is comfortable to look at other people in the meeting, so follow accordingly. You don’t want to fill the entire screen with your face by leaning in too far, and you don’t want to sit so far away that you’re an indistinguishable dot.
Most people sit the same distance as if they were typing along their keyboard—OSHA suggests the best ergonomic position is about 20-40 inches from the monitor. Odds are you’ll need to access your keyboard/screen at some point anyway, so within an arm’s length is the safest and easiest way to sit.
If you want to get down to the nitty gritty on where in the screen you should be, the best ratio is to have your face in the upper one third of the screen, not centered. (Have you heard of the “rule of thirds” in the art world? Our brains naturally prefer to see things in thirds…https://digital-photography-school.com/rule-of-thirds/.) Don’t overthink it though, that top-thirds isn’t imperative. It’s more important that people can see you enough to recognize you, without your face taking up the entire screen.
Experts (Tom Ford and Hank Green among them) emphasize lighting. The recommendation is to have a desk or floor lamp next to you, aimed at the side your pretty little face. Make sure it’s not shining directly in your eyes in a “Where were you on the night of the 12th” kind of way, where you’re squinting. Yes, having it off to the side might make you feel like the moon where one other half of your face is in darkness, but unless you are blasting your car’s headlights, it won’t come across like a yin/yang symbol. (Even if it feels weird to have one side more lit than the other, it actually looks ok, honest, Google it.) For balance, place blank white paper or a white tablecloth under your computer—but Tom Ford suggests making sure the white isn’t visible in the camera frame. Picky, picky.
How fancy do you need to get? This, to me, depends on what kind of meeting, who is there, how well you know them, and whether you’re in charge or simply listening in. As with real life, your appearance can dictate the level of effort you’re putting into a meeting. I realize in the age of quarantine these rules have laxed quite a bit. But they haven’t gone away. People notice when effort’s been put in, and when it’s been blatantly disregarded.
If you are a makeup wearer, apply it a little thicker a darker than normal when on camera. Or not, your call. Have a look at yourself on your computers’ camera before going live to see what the others will see. At a minimum be sure to have foundation and powder, maybe a quick swipe of blush. I always use mascara. (If you wear glasses you’ve got a bonus: no need for eye makeup!)
If you’re not a makeup wearer, no need to start. In fact, please don’t have this be your first time in full foundation and cherry red lipstick, it might freak people out. A touch of powder won’t hurt, though, to soften a shine and even out ones (guys too). And don’t forget, there’s always the beauty filter! (Check your settings.) (Why that doesn’t default to ON is beyond me.)
Overall, makeup is for special meetings. No need to go full hog for Zoom Happy Hour with friends. They’ve seen you at your worst already.
Your hair? Tricky. If you throw a hat on, it will mask your face by shadowing it. Maybe you think that’s what you want. But others will find it frustrating. You can pull your hair back, but be aware that puts your smiling face even more center stage. Do your hair as you’d normally do it if that gathering was in person. Wet hair at least implies you’ve showered, which hey, these days is a win, but come on…
As for clothing, typically it too should be the same as if you were meeting in person…but again, that too carries less weight given our current sheltering-in-place. Do your best though. Skip the PJs, ditch the sassy t-shirts you would never wear in public, no bathrobes, etc. Even if you’re at home and under quarantine, you’re still at work, in a meeting. Studies show that dressing up (or at least not wearing sweats all day) helps you feel more professional and therefore act more professional. A recent Vogue article quotes isolation psychology professor Francis T. McAndrew as saying how you are dressed “…signals something about what you are prepared to do. If you are dressed professionally and you’re dressed up, in some ways that raises your own opinion of yourself, and you want your behavior and demeanor to match the clothes. So, if you’re dressed like a slob and you are in your sweat clothes, you’re either prepared to work out at the gym or clean out the basement, but you’re not doing anything professional or mentally challenging, and that spills over into your motivation and confidence.”
“How to” apply makeup, and what to wear dress tips will be coming in another post. Hint: it’s more than you’d do in person and a little less than you’d do for a TV interview.
Here’s an idea: have enough fun with your background image and no one will notice your face! There are all kinds of sites popping up offering anything from making it look like your living room has a 65th floor view of the city skyline to having it appear you’re sitting on the deck of the Star Trek Enterprise. Some people go so far as to make or buy their own “green screen” so the backgrounds look even more realistic, but it’s not necessary at all. A solid wall works best but anything, even a chair or couch and wall is fine. Open space behind you, like the kitchen though, won’t work–you need a solid background. Find and choose some super cool backgrounds from here, or here or here. Or, of course, choose any of your own images.
It’s easy to take that new image and change your background too; learn how with easy instructions here and here.
Your own wall and home is fine too! Don’t feel pressured to change anything. Be sure to look around and behind you before you hit the “start video” button. Keep in mind whatever you have in your background becomes public. Artwork, photos on the wall, books or food on the shelf, furniture style, family members walking by without pants, etc. If you’re a private person that doesn’t want to invite people into your world, or your friends and coworkers are jerks (looking at you, Karen), then move to a part of the house or room where there is nothing to see and no one can walk behind you. Sit on the floor in a closet if needed. Just make sure you prop the laptop up and you have decent lighting.
If you’re running the meeting and you’re nervous, RELAX! We’ve all had our first video call and we’ve all been there. What you DON’T want to do is belittle yourself the whole time. NONE OF THIS “ack, darn, how do I do this?” or “oh that was dumb, I hate this stuff” or “where is that darn button?” No. Shush. Calmly look for that button or fix what you’re trying to do. Can you tell the difference between, “Can someone tell me how to share a file?” and 35 seconds of, “Hold on, wait, dang it, I thought…no…ack this is…oh there it, no…one of…is it this, no, wait…I’m such an idiot, I give up, can anyone tell me where that dumb share button is?” In both scenarios the leader asked for help. One was a heck of a lot more professional about it. If you simply keep your mouth shut as you look for what you need, then matter-of-factly ask for help once you realize you can’t find it, it shows a completely kind of different leader than if you bumble and grumble around, doesn’t it?
Talk a little louder than a normal conversation—as if it’s a large meeting room and you need to make sure that jerk Karen hears every word you say. (Don’t give her any reason to call the manager this time.) If you’re using a headset with a mic, please for the love of everything that is holy do NOT place the mic so close to your mouth that all those plosive Ps and Ss come across scratchy like nails on a chalkboard. You’re not a pilot, I know you can hear yourself, you do not have the buzz of the engine for an excuse.
Smile. You’re on camera. The whole time. When Marco starts telling that same story he tells every gathering and you look over to Janice to roll your eyes like you normally do….well, not a good idea. Literally everyone can see you. And if it’s recorded, well…they can see it forever…
If you hate being on camera and are worried about being stared at, unless you are the presenter, relax. Everyone is NOT staring at your or watching your every move. (Don’t flatter yourself.) There is too much going on for anyone to be watching any other person for too long. You are one of many attendees. Listen and participate as you would a regular meeting.
If you are the presenter, yes, people will be looking at you almost the whole time. But they’ll also be looking at others in the meeting, their cat, the slides or materials you are discussing, etc. Don’t feel like you are under a microscope the entire time. You’ve held meetings before, right? This is barely different.
One more favor. Please. DON’T GREET EVERYONE AS THEY JOIN THE CONVERSATION. Would every single person seated greet every single person by name as they walked into the conference room? No. Don’t do it here either. It’s understood they can see you’ve joined. You’re on camera: wave. The meeting organizer can say “looks like Tavisha just joined, right now we are talking about xxx” and keep on topic without offering her the opportunity to say hello. If you’re in charge of the meeting, when you send meeting information let them know you’ll allow them time afterwards to chat and be social, and ask attendees to please refrain from greeting everyone as they join. Or, offer them 15 minutes prior to the call to sign in early to chat and catch up.
We get it, you’re at home. Distractions will happen. It’s not the end of the world. Try to get back on track quickly. No need to apologize or call attention to the fact your dog pooped or your kid is crying. That just makes the distraction all the more disruptive. Fix it and come back.
If you need to get up and answer the door or use the facilities, do it without announcing it. I swear not only do we not want to know what you are doing off camera; we don’t care…your life is not what the meeting is about. Come back silently and join the meeting in as if nothing happened.
The best way to get more comfortable with any technology is to keep using it. Take a trial run or two or three. Play around with the site/program on your own before your first meeting.
This may sound like a basic Q, but have you ever taken a tutorial? (Don’t be shy or embarrassed about it…for one, no one will know because you’re in the privacy of your own home. For two, there is no shame in getting help learning a new skill. You had to take drivers lessons, right?) If you’re nervous about the call, becoming more familiar with it will ease your mind. Try the “Getting started” or “Video tutorial” links offered on their own site. Zoom even offers free live training; watch the recording if you’re still too shy. You can Google “how to use [name of videoconference]” for even more help.
When you’re feeling comfortable, schedule a Zoom test meeting. Or call a meeting with friends or family to get used to it live. Check in with neighbors or relatives. Call some college buddies. Try any excuse to play around with and use the app. [I’ll offer specific “how to use Zoom” tips in another post.] This way you’ll knock out all those “am I doing this right” and “how do I share a file” Qs. The more you play around with it, the easier it gets. The easier it gets, the less nervous you’ll be.
Overall, treat videocalls just like you would any other gathering. Be nice. Pay attention. Unless you’re running the meeting, you don’t have to talk or participate in any greater way than normal–speak up if you want, be quiet if you want. No big deal.
Soon you’ll find it’s not that hard–and kinda fun. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other. I mean, even introverts have their limits on being alone, right?
Taking advantage of all that time at home….Resources to get started writing that children’s book of yours
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned I’m a children’s book author without the reply being, “Oh I’ve always wanted to do that.” (Well either that or the implications about how easy it must be but let’s save that for another time, shall we?) What better time to sit down and write that book you’ve been thinking about than in the age of quarantine? I mean, what better excuse do you have to tell your kids to get out of your room, you’re writing?
There’s an uptick in novel writing right now. Which means soon (if not already, according to The Guardian) there will be an uptick in submissions. Which means you need to make sure your work stands out from the crowd. Which means you gotta do your best work. Which means, if you’re just getting started, you need to get started on the right foot.
I’m here to help.
You’re going to need some assistance, even if you’re pretty sure you don’t.
Writing children’s books isn’t as easy as you think.
For example, most writers assume an editor reads the manuscript and decides from the email if they’ll want to publish it, replying by saying they’ll be sending out a contract. Ah, yeah, no. Here’s a peak into the lengthy acquisition process from one publisher, First Second Books (spoiler alert: they have nine steps, meetings, dozens of people and lots of math before any final decisions are made). And that’s just whether or not to send a contract. Even more people get involved after that.
Another probable assumption is timing. It takes longer to get the book in a bookstore than you think. Way longer. About 2-5 years for a picture book to hit the shelves, not including how long it took you to write it–which, if it’s good, might take many months, or years. [I know an author whose publisher waited for a particular artist to be available and it took SIX YEARS to get published from the time she got her contract. An exception, but still.] Maybe two years for a teen YA (young adult) to get to market, according to agent Steve Laube. In this stay-at-home environment that may slow down things even more, since no one’s at the ol’ printing press to make it. Or bookstore to buy it. Or school to read it. So sit down Sally, there’s no rushing here. You might as well take the time to write the best possible work you can.
Just about every picture book writer assumes they need to submit illustrations or photos. I thought I did, when I first started. But you don’t! Do NOT ask your neighbor or friend to create sample artwork for it. It’s not only not needed, it’s not wanted. Send only the words if you’re a writer, and only samples of artwork if you’re an illustrator. If you do both really well, though, it’s okay to send in a mock up.
I could go on and on with random facts. I want to focus back on helping you kick off your manuscript.
The good news is there are hundreds of tools literally at your fingertips to help you set started. The bad news is that there are hundreds of tools literally at your fingertips to help you set started.
Why a mixed bag? Everyone and their brother has started a school or class or webinar on how to get published. And it’s their business, how they put food on the table. I’m not saying a for-profit group or people aren’t helpful! Is Magnolia Bakery‘s icebox cake not the best d*mn cake in the world because they sell it instead of giving it away for free? Of course not. It’s a business and they are experts. The very reason they do it for a living is what makes them the best (shout out to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier’s principle). But people online may not be the experts they appear to be…so be careful, and choosy, my friends.
The only way to get traditionally published is to have great material that’s sent to the right person or place (and now,”at the right time” might be more important than ever. Who knows?). So let’s get crackin’ with some things to consider as you get started.
Make sure any resources you pay for, or heed, are experts too. For example, one YA best-seller doesn’t make them an expert on the industry per se, but it does show they know how to write a great book for teens. They might not be your best bet for picture book advice. And their path to success isn’t necessarily the right formula for you (it’s certainly not the only way) so don’t try it copy it. Almost all authors will recognize this and dole out assistance accordingly. We’re a good lot. But these are the kinds of questions you want to be considering when you look at “Get Published in Five Days! We show you how!” kinds of pitches. Who are the sellers of this information? Are they out to help you–or help themselves?
There are lots of things to consider. If they are offering marketing advice, for example, ask about their own sales numbers and how active a role they personally played in their own book sales–was it based on their idea or the publisher’s? If they offer a course on writing, are they themselves published in the exact genre or age range they are talking about?
Don’t pay for a program or e-book because it’s ON SALE NOW, OFFER EXPIRES AT MIDNIGHT; pay for it because it’s a resource crafted by an expert you can’t find elsewhere that will help you move forward. You didn’t save $100 on $119 download on sale for $19 if you never use it. You lost $19. Think carefully about whether you’ll put it good use.
I’m not saying everyone is out to get you. There are so many great people out there that truly do want to, and can, and will help you. That’s what makes this industry so great. I hope I didn’t scare you away. The number of GREAT sites & resources waaaay outweigh the ones to be wary of. So don’t shut down that laptop yet. You’ve been thinking about this book way too long to give up before you started.
This home-bound time is almost a gift to you to start writing that dang book, so let’s get to resources. We’re gonna start at the very beginning (which is, after all, a very good place to start). Try looking at nonprofits and author websites first, you’ll be amazed at what’s available for free when you google the right “how to” phrase.
A “how to write picture books” search might bring you here (weird that it’s my own video, right?):
Here are a few other resources to look into when you’re getting your feet wet. These are for the true kidlit beginner writer that has just sharpened their pencil and isn’t sure what to do next.
I can’t possibly list every great beginner resource, but this is a start…for your start:
Kidlit411 offers manuscript swaps, writing challenges, all kinds of how-to writing resources from picture book to chapter book to middle grade and YA, giveaways, articles, blogs, and more–all free! (donations accepted) With soooo much content it can be a bit overwhelming so maybe check this after you have your first draft.
scbwi.org offers current listings of editors and agents along with contact information, monthly news, awards and grants, a great community of writers and illustrators that probably live in your immediate area no matter where you are, free or $10-$25 webinars and more (membership required for most resources)
Writers Digest (not as much kidlit stuff but solid writing help, they also offer classes and crits for pay)
There are of course a ton of other general writing resources not dedicated to children’s books. Good writing is good writing but I suggest you center your efforts on kidlit resources as our needs/requirements (such as word count) and formats are slightly different. If you’re not up to snuff on the right way to submit, you’ll be placing yourself at an immediate disadvantage. After all your hard work you don’t want to do that.
If you’ve got other great (free or free-ish) beginner resources to suggest, lemme know!
Writers tend to doubt themselves, amiright? “I’m not a real writer if I’m not published yet” or “Sure, I’m published, but compared to so-and-so I wouldn’t really consider myself a writer.” Knock it off. If you write, you’re a writer.
In Feb (2020) I held a “You’re Still a Writer If…” blog event at WriteOnCon. In honor of that event, I’m giving a quick preview list of the opposite…ways you can tell if you are NOT a writer. Hopefully you do not check any of these boxes, my friend.
You’re NOT a writer if…
You’ve posted a FANTASTIC blog/tweet/chapter and are waiting to go viral (or be discovered)
Yeah, sorry. No one is going to just happen upon you, discover your brilliance, and offer you a million-dollar book deal. That’s not how it works. Publishing isn’t a passive sport. You need to get off your duff and hit the virtual pavement. You need to find THEM. You need to seek out the best editor or publisher or agent for your work. Chronicle Books, for example, gets over 1,000 kidlit submissions A MONTH. You think those hard-working editors have time to proactively scour the internet looking for a diamond in the rough? If only. You are the captain of your ship, the coach of your team, the driver of your bus, the director of your movie, the beater of your drum. You can’t sit there and wait.
Wanna call yourself a writer? Then don’t just sit there, man. Go out and get ‘em.
Let’s say you now submit your story, but you’re not a writer if…
You cranked out a story in record time
I always say writing a picture book is easy. Writing a good one is hard. There are formulas and formats and industry standards and protocols…things you can only learn by putting in your time.
Can you wake up one morning, never having run a day in your life, and win the Boston Marathon? (Uh, correct answer is No. Nice try, optimists.) Writing is the same way. You have to train: do your homework, hone your craft, edit, rewrite, edit some more. Perfection can be simple, but it’s never easy. Writing crappy stuff doesn’t make you a writer. Not to me at least.
After a talk I gave about how to start writing children’s books, a young man and his lady friend came up to me. Or should I say he swaggered over and she quietly followed. He proudly announced he had just written a children’s book, how he had never written one before, and how excited he was about it. His lady friend was duly impressed. I congratulated him. He told me he knew it was good because it took him “only about three minutes.” I tilted my head, paused, and said something about how that’s a great start and encouraged him to consider spending some more time on it, maybe joining a critique group and getting feedback before going any further. He shook his head and waved his hand at me as he said “No need,” and proceeded to tell me because it came to him “just like that” <with a snap of the fingers>, that meant it was good. Finished.
Now you have to understand, in the hour-long presentation he had just attended, I talked about reading 100 (current) children’s books to get a feel for the industry, how you still need a solid plot, the importance of word choices and word count, to set aside your first few drafts for a few weeks, etc. But this guy here, having perhaps (I’m guessing) read his last children book 13 years ago when he was five, was convinced he wrote The Next Great Picture Book in three minutes.
I wished him well, and he swaggered off into the proverbial sunset.
I am sure he was well intended.
He was not a writer, though. He was a poser.
Let’s say you now take time to edit, but you’re not a writer if…
You listen too hard to other people
Heck, maybe that person is me. I never saw that guy’s manuscript, maybe it IS genius. <insert shrug emoji lol> Writing is subjective, sure. What works for you might not work for me or someone else. Just because I don’t read magical realism, for example, doesn’t mean there isn’t value in it. But you’d be best off getting a critique partner that knows (and likes) the genre rather than someone unfamiliar with it.
There are certain aspects and styles and formats and rules that we all need to follow to some degree, though. I always say follow the rules the first time, and once you’re “in,” break all the rules you want. Even that advice might not work for you. Remember when I said you’re the captain of your ship, the driver of your own bus, etc? You still need to be in charge of your own writing and editing. It’s yours!
OF COURSE other people’s opinion’s matter—that’s how books are sold (how any product is, really—people need to like or want it). You need to listen to the right people. I know, I know, that’s the tricky part—figuring out whose advice can best steer you in the right direction. It’s been said that a critic suggested F. Scott Fitzgerald “get rid of that Gatsby character,” and we’ve all heard how many times the Harry Potter series was rejected because it was too long, not kid friendly, considered not commercial enough, blah blah. Clearly those writers knew well enough to toss those kernels of advice. When you ask for feedback, such as at critique groups or a paid conference critique, please keep an open mind when people give you feedback, especially in the beginning, and consider what other people have to say; I’m not saying to toss all of it. (I do listen to unsolicited advice from well-intended friends that aren’t in the industry, because almost all readers are potential buyers and they might actually be my target audience one day, but just like taking parenting advice from someone that’s never had kids? Please.) The longer you’re in the industry, the better you get at discerning valid feedback (“Wow, I never thought of that, thanks!) vs opinions that are not in line with your vision (“Gee thanks, I’ll try to keep that in mind…”).
But if you listen too much and change TOO MUCH (your style or genre or main character’s motivation or whatever), then you’re not a writer. You’re a robot.
Let’s say you now have a solid story, but you’re not a writer if…
You don’t read
Read, read, and read some more. It’s not about knowing what your competition is up to (they aren’t your competition anyway, this industry honestly isn’t like that, they are your colleagues). It’s staying on top of what’s trending, what to avoid, and knowing who is who. You’re educating yourself on the book industry overall, the one you plan to play a large role in some day. Don’t you want to know what’s going on? You gotta stay educated.
Reading can give you inspiration. It can offer effective roadmaps that you don’t have to (re)create from scratch. It shows you tricks like layering or effective use of metaphors or good old distractions that allow for a spectacular twist ending. I mean, you can read a How to Write a Mystery manual, but there’s no better teaching method than reading an actual mystery that’s well done and watching it unfold before your own cute little eyes. Can you imagine taking your driver’s test having only read the DMV manual, without ever being in a moving vehicle or having seen a car? [Wait, in that case I’m saying you can’t just read a book and then do it but I think you see what I’m saying…] You have to experience it, not just hear someone tell you about it.
You can’t be a writer without being a reader.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Let’s say you now read lots, but you’re not a writer if…
You don’t write
“Writer” is a verb, not just a title.
Stop making excuses! Taking a break is fine, but breaks have end points. Stop spending so much time finessing your bio about how you’re writer that you’ve left no time to actually write. Stop surfing social media. [Seriously. Give yourself a window, and ONLY check in at those times. I try to check in midmorning, AFTER I’ve done some work, and later in the afternoon. Sometimes at night too, but never late b/c it tends to agitate me and disrupt my sleep (there’s so many distractions!).]
Yas needs ta write to be a writer! If you’ve stopped, start again. If you are just getting started and are frozen in fear, dude get over it. Start writing. Anything. Outlines. Summaries. Notes. Story ideas. Character names. Backstory. A list of potential future titles (I have a friend that has written TWO books after a cool title popped into her head). Anything that will get your pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. You don’t need an arbitrary daily word count or daily number of minutes/hours toiling at your desk; not every successful writer has them. You don’t need to write every single day; not every successful writer does. You don’t need to feel like writing; not every successful writer is magically inspired at every given moment. But you know what all successful writers have in common?
I can’t believe I have to say this…but you’re not a writer if you don’t write.
End of story.
Are ya with me? What you need to do RIGHT NOW is stop reading this, and get back to work.
I was presenting at a workshop where they held agent pitch appointments, also called Agent Meet & Greets. Several attendees ended up disgruntled. And they shouldn’t have been.
Let me take a step back.
What’s an “agent meet and greet,” you may ask? At this one, attendees paid a certain amount of money for 10 glorious minutes of face time with any or all of the agents that were attending the one-day conference. Writers weren’t allowed to hand over their manuscript directly, but could:
ask about the agent (are you editorial–do you give feedback on manuscripts or do you only submit as is? how many clients are you actively subbing right now? what kinds of stories do you like and tend to submit: humor, sci fi, YA, etc)
ask about the agency (how long has it been around? where is it headquartered and is that where you are located? how many are in the office? [<–technically they should have already looked up that info but I digress] are you autonomous or does the Director play a strong role?)
ask about the industry (do you see many historical fictions these days? are picture books selling well?)
Mostly, though, (smart) writers were there to use the 10 minutes to talk about their manuscript and ask for feedback. If we’re going to call a spade a spade, mostly people were hoping that after discussing the manuscript, the agent would say “sounds interesting, send it my way, I’ll have a look.” They were there to pitch their story to the agent in hopes of getting representation. And that’s fair–nothing wrong with that. Agents know that coming in–in fact, that’s why there are there too! They are looking for new talent/work. Win win.
But as in every potential relationship, not all work out. Even when they were SURE this one would.
Several people lamented to me that their agent meetings “didn’t go well” because the agent didn’t like the manuscript, or didn’t ask for them to send it in. They felt they wasted their time and their money. But that’s not true!! That meeting still went well. In fact, it almost went better than if they asked for the entire manuscript to be sent in.
Listen. If the agent wasn’t a fan of your submitted work/idea, or if you didn’t get the feels, THEN SHE ISN’T THE AGENT FOR YOU! You 100% still had a good meeting. How? You now know that agent isn’t for you. The last thing you want is someone not committed to you or work work, or a contract with someone you don’t get along with. An agent is someone you’re going to be working with for a long time–you want a good working relationship based on mutual trust and effort. If she isn’t into you or your work, it’s GREAT that she let you know (and I’m sure it was a gentle let down). It’s now a confirmed data point vs an unknown.
This applies to interviewing almost anyone for anything–once you’ve said or heard no to/from that person, you are that much closer to saying yes to the right one. This “No thanks” was time well spent. In the case of the writing world, you aren’t getting your hopes up by emailing a proposal or query or manuscript to someone that on paper looked perfect only to wait six months to get a form rejection letter back. You already know this isn’t the agent. Seriously, that is good information. In other industries and situations, you can confidently say, “we avoided making a mistake by hiring that one.” It’s not idle effort. The important thing is that you’re getting yourself out there, seeking.
I once had a dream agent that I found out about, read all I could about her, practically memorized the agency website as well as her bio page, and followed on her on Twitter. She was hilarious. We had the same sense of humor. I KNEW we’d be a great match. I couldn’t wait to meet her at a conference. But once I met her in person…wow. Does. Not. Equal. We were sooo not a match. While she was a great agent for others, there was no way I wanted to work with her. And I never would have known for sure had I not met her in person. It was not a waste of time. It saved me time.
Think of if this way: now you can get moving focusing on someone else to grow old with. The right someone else.
Last post we defined Author Platforms. So tell me, what is an Author Platform, do you remember? It’s how you show your unique qualities that “brand” you as a writer or artist…with the ultimate goal of leading to book sales. It’s a long term goal, not a RIGHT NOW CLICK HERE goal. No one likes the CLICK HERE RIGHT NOW guy, amiright?
Social media is one of the main ways you create your brand. Since most of your readers will never meet you in person, it’s how most of your readers get to know you. This post is gonna look at ways to maximize social media so you can give yourself the best platform. We’ll talk through some real examples, screenshotted below.
General social media tips to support your Author Platform:
Be you, all the time.
Have fun! Every tweet/post doesn’t have to have something to do with writing or illustrating, but each one should still reflect who you are and what you stand for. Remember the part about the real you needing to shine through?
Sorry to say this, but people are people. And by that, I mean selfish. I’m not judging. It’s fact. We are always asking ourselves WIIFM? As in, What’s In It For Me? No one has time, and we make decisions in a snap. You need to do whatever you can to convince me, quickly, that what you have to say will benefit me. And then come through. So don’t just tell me your book trailer is finished and give me a link. Tell me what the trailer is about, what I’ll see, why it’s worth watching. I need to know WIIFM or I’m not going to click. Even if I like you. I just don’t have time.
Other people are selfish–but you need to be giving. Stop talking about how great your product is. Let us figure that out on our own. Your book really should be able to speak for itself…or at least let others do the talking. A tweet like”Another great review, my work is profiled yet again! Click to see the latest url.2937y5/iji…” gives me no incentive to click. It’s blatant bragging. But what about “What an honor to be included in this roundup, check out the other Best 2016 Reads by Buzzfeed at url.8724r34r/…” or “Thanks for the kind review, Donna, it was nice being your guest blogger this month. I bet no one can guess how many puppies were harmed in the making of that video! [link to Donna’s website].” Do you see the difference? One is “Look at me!!” Another–the preferred method–is “There’s something in this for you, have a look.” You want to be of service. Your book or link or review just happens to be one way to help. [See #6, below.] Continue reading →
Quick quiz: You’re told you need to work on your “Author Platform.” You:
A. Smile politely, then go back to searching online for cute cat outfits
B. Nod, smile, then furiously Google “author platform” hoping you’re not the last to know what the heck that is
C. Think “Oh, yeah it really is time I update and interact with my social media” [Facebook, Twitter, Insta, blog and/or website], then dig right in
D. B or C but definitely not A (unless it was a really good sale)
Correct answer: D
What is an Author Platform? And why do you need to care?
Let’s break it down. Author. Platform. It’s like a compound word. (Author Platforms or Writer Platforms, no matter what you call it, are the same thing, don’t get hung up on author vs writer. For the sake of ease, we’ll use the terms synonymously here. I’m also capitalizing the words here for effect, which is unnecessary elsewhere.) What does the phrase mean?
As defined, a writer or an author is someone who has written something. A platform is a raised surface, something you’d stand onfor better visibility. Like a stage. Put the words together and you’ve got an image of a writer standing on a, well, platform, a little taller than everyone around them. They stand out; you can spot them in a crowd.
That’s the writer you want to be.
You want to be the writer/author that people can find easily or can recognize…the one that stands out. And you’ll need a platform on order to do it.
“Author Platform: your visibility as an author, utilizing your personal ability to sell books through who you are, the connections you have, and the media outlets you use.” –Writer’s Digest
I think of the term as a less-commercial way of saying “author branding.” It means how you present yourself to the public, and how you are seen/viewed by readers, agents, editors, fellow writers/artists and anyone else paying attention. It’s a way of showing your unique qualities that “brand” you as a person, as a writer, or artist…with the ultimate goal of leading to book sales.
Don’t confuse it with image. Image implies something perceived. You’ll be putting the real, flawed you out there, just like you do for your main characters. An Author Platform should be based on truth. You’re not an actor hiring a publicity agent to get media attention. You’re you, showing who you are, with the ultimate goal that the likable you is worthy of following or noting or reading or acknowledging, and it will at some point lead to book sales. Isn’t that why school visits, book signings, special promotions, launch parties and all that exist: to sell books? Well you’re the in-person version of that, the walking billboard, the neon sign, the ever-friendly smile of customer service, open 24/7. Except when you’re asleep. Or driving. Or whatever. You know what I mean.
You are NOT shaking hands and asking people to buy your book all the time, oh no, you’re missing the point if that’s what you just ran off and started doing. No one is going to follow or buy the book from a guy that’s sending pestering Tweets or spamming Facebook posts or always standing up in groups asking people to buy their books after the meeting. Boy is that annoying or what? I hate that guy. What I’m saying is you are your brand. You represent you. So be respectable. Make me like you. Make me WANT to buy your book. If you do it right, you will probably never have to say the words “Buy my book.” I’ll decide I want to on my own.
Note this is a Writer Platform, not a book platform. This is about you, not your book. Why? Because you’re more than one book. If you brand yourself too closely with one title, on the next book you’ll have to do it all over again. That confuses people. They can handle lots of books, but they only want one you. Brand yourself correctly and all your books will easily fall under that one umbrella…you!
Everything you post online becomes a part of your brand. Your Tweets, your FB posts, your blog updates. Your forwards, your shares, your likes. It all shapes the person people see. Those who have never met you can only form an opinion based on what they see. And that’s based on what you do. How you reply to comments. What you post or repost. It’s not always what you say, but how you say it. The way you talk to your friends. The way they talk to you, even. It all paints a picture.
I hate to say it, but you’re just getting started. I’m sure you’ve gone back over it, maybe several times, and made sure each word was just right. Good. Roll up those sleeves because now the fun begins.
Here’s a checklist:
Before you think you’re finished, take a step back. Do a little bit of research into what makes a good picture book, to make sure yours is on par. Actually, do a LOT of research. Think of it as an investment. You wouldn’t start a business without first looking into all aspects of your competition, right? Read 100 picture books. Not classics, current within the past two years. They’re short, it won’t take too long. What’s common? What makes one irresistible? What are the price ranges? What’s out there similar to yours? What shelf does it sit on (Scifi, Mystery, Humour, etc)? Who publishes them? What’s their Amazon ranking/sales? How is yours different/better? Why would a publisher take a chance on yours, and which publisher should that be?
Does your manuscript tell a story with a true beginning, a middle and an end? A descriptively beautiful sunset, lyrical wind chime, and colorful rainbow might make a wonderful poetry collection but it won’t fit well in the children’s book market. (I’m not saying that’s good or bad, I’m telling you what sells. It’s not worth the battle to try to change the industry, so in that case you might consider a different channel/market.)
Speaking of beginning: Do you start off with a bang? Don’t start off slow and grow. Kids today don’t have time Continue reading →