Time to Write That Book?

Taking advantage of all that time at home….Resources to get started writing that children’s book of yours

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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?

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person using black typewriter
photo by @milkovi

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.

woman biting pencil while sitting on chair in front of computer during daytime
image by @jeshoots

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?

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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?):

Tips for beginner picture book writers

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)

Book Baby has steps to getting started

“Help I Need a Publisher” blog

Template to help pacing of your picture book by author/illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi

How to start a story from reedsy blog

Great free communities to look into: https://www.facebook.com/TheKidLitClub/, https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen/, http://www.childrenswritersguild.com/, Children’s Book Council, https://diversebooks.org/resources/resources-for-writers/

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!

True or False: SCBWI’S “The Book” Has Live Links [Hint: TRUE]

First let me say that SCBWI’s “The Book” is an online, members-only resource that I’ve always said is one of the single most valuable pieces of membership. You can also have it printed-on-demand and mailed to you, which I also recommend, as I’m tactile as well as visual and like being able to flip through it manually. But the online version IS WHERE IT’S AT! But recently I’ve realized many, many SCBWI members have no idea what the book is, what it offers, let alone how to use use it. Stick with me as I explain the #1 use most people DON’T KNOW, BUT NEED TO.

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, for the most part it’s an up-to-date listing of kidlit editors and agents. It lists names of head honchos down to assistants along with how to get a hold of them, websites, policies, expected turnaround time, etc. More importantly, I think, it clarifies what each house wants and doesn’t want. It offers A TON of other stuff to (how to format a manuscript, write a query, etc), but for now, let’s focus on the list of editors and agents.

Here is an example of detail provided in the Market Survey portion for one house, redacted since the information is proprietary (Note: there are over a hundred pages of listings, each page with 5-6 house per page):

NAME OF PUBLISHER (An Imprint of NAME) PO Box XX TOWN, STATE ZIP (PHONE); FAX www.WEBSITE.com Publisher: <first and last name> ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER: <first and last name> Editorial Director: <f/l name> Editor: <f/l name> Associate Editors <names> Description: NAME OF PUBLISHING HOUSE publishes board books, picture books, and paperbacks that encourage young children to explore facts, examine ideas, and imagine new ways of understanding the world. XXXX imprints also include XXX, XXXX, and XX Digital, none of which are accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Only XXX accepts submissions. Distribution via XXXX. QUERY LETTERS: Accepting. MULTIPLE SUBMISSIONS: Accepting. UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPTS: Accepting for XXX and XXXX imprints. See full instructions at <specific URL given>. Send to <specific email addy>, typical response time 3 to 6 months. PAYMENT: Advance against royalty or flat fee, depending on project. ARTWORK INTEREST: Accepting. Send portfolios for consideration to <email addy diff than manuscript addy>. Will respond only if interested. ARTWORK PAYMENT: Flat fee or advance against royalty, depending on project.

It looks much better in The Book, lol.

Anyway, back to why I’m creating this post. I was recently surprised when I saw someone tweet about her frustration that The Book isn’t the greatest resource. She lamented that sure, there are lists of editors and agents, but it’s such a pain to have to cut and paste every agency’s URL to get more info, or reenter their posted email address. Another tweeter, from a different part of the country, agreed. They were/are both active members.

Even if they weren’t, well, this Book needs a better PR agent! 🙂

To start with, ALL THE URLS AND EMAILS ARE LIVE HYPERLINKS!! There are soooo many websites and emails in there that The Book couldn’t possibly bold or underline each one. It would look a mess. But they are live all the same. There might be a few here or there that have been missed (I mean, there are literally thousands of them in the 322-page document) but I think a solid 98% are good to go. What a timesaver! A thing of beauty!

the pointer will help you narrow down your search for links as you scroll
When it turns to a hand –YES! — it’s a hyperlink!

Here’s how you know if a website is hyperlinked: hover your pointer over the URL or website. Your pointer should change from the arrow to a hand (at least, that’s what my laptop defaults to). Tap or click the words/phrase that the hand is hovering over and VIOLA! you are taken directly to that site, no highlighting and opening another tab and cutting and pasting and hitting enter needed. If someone’s complete email address is given, and you click or tap the provided email address, your computer will automatically open a new window and create a new email with that address in the “To” or “Send” section, from you. No highlighting the address, copying and pasting, opening up your email account, composing a new email, pasting the name into Sender, etc…. *trumpets sound, confetti is thrown* Yes, it really is that easy.

There are soooo many other ways The Book can make your writing life easier. But for now, soak that up. Explore. Enjoy. Click away.

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image from vectorstock.com

I’ll highlight some other sections later.