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?

The Psychology Of Clicking "Buy Now" - Marketing Land

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!

Shopping at IKEA

Image result for image ikea warehouse

I dreamt that I was in IKEA, looking for a replacement piece for something from my kid’s room. I look all over the warehouse, up and down every aisle. You know how big that place is! Had people helping, looking part numbers up on the computer, nothing. Two hours. I’m out of options, on the ground floor near the register, when I decide to look a little closer, turn it upside down…and… It’s a Lego piece.

Isn’t that how writing is sometimes? You exhaust every option trying to figure out a story arc or plot point or character tic, get nowhere, only to one day–usually in the middle of the night when you have no pen and paper nearby–look at it from a different angle, and realize all this time you’ve been shopping at IKEA for a Lego piece.

Image result for image blank lego face

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is STEP AWAY. We think we need to WORK THRU IT. We can do this. MARCH ON. We got this. MAKE IT WORK, DANG IT. We won’t be defeated!

And yet, by powering on, we might be getting in our own way. We are so focused on fixing the problem–the FIX–that we aren’t examining THE PROBLEM. We aren’t holding it in our hands, placing it up to the light, looking at it from different angles. If our eyes are only set on the finish line, we can’t see the road we’re on, or we forget WHY we’re on the road in the first place. And we’ll stumble and fall and make all kinds of messes, not to mention waste all that time (ours as well as other people’s).

So how about this: the next time you’re struggling with something, set it down. Don’t think about it.

Go for a walk. Nietzsche said “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” A Stanford University study confirmed it. Walking boosts the creative formation of ideas, both in real time and shortly after (“Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking” by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, American Psychological Association, 2014). Neuroscientists say exercise, even mild forms like a walk around the block, releases dopamine, which helps us feel relaxed and all around in a better mood. That makes the chances of having great ideas more likely. Ditto for taking a shower, hopping on a bike, or going for a drive.

Work on something else. Set your work down for a while. Literally place it in a file and don’t plan to look at it for two months. OK, fine, six weeks. What’s the rush? Ben Baldwin, who created a company that helps predict who will succeed at which job and why, points to the benefits of freeing your mind for a bit. “The subconscious mind runs in the background, silently affecting the outcome of many thoughts. So, take a break and smell the flowers, because while you’re out doing that, your mind may very well solve the problem that you are trying to solve or spark a solution to a problem you hadn’t considered before,” he said in a WSJ article packed with advice from entrepreneurs about creating ideas.

Force connections. Just for fun, force your main character to do something, well, out of character. Place them in a situation they shouldn’t be in, in a predicament they would hate, or trapped in a room with the person they dislike the most. Writer’s Digest suggests “forcing your character into a corner,” among other creative tips. See what happens. You don’t have to keep the scene, but you may find a side of the character you didn’t notice before. Maybe there is a descriptive part of the location–a balcony or city–that you can keep and use elsewhere. Even if you use none of it, you’ve forced your own creative brain out of its comfort zone. Odds are, your brain needed that push!

The point is, when faced with a challenge, the answer isn’t always to power through. Sometime it’s better to let go, just for a little while, to get a better look at the situation. Maybe you’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

Don’t waste your time at IKEA when what you really need is a Lego piece.