Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Anne LeMieux, David Lubar and Marilyn Singer
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The number of words is not the crucial issue. Books range from several words to several thousand (compare Goodnight Moon to The Polar Express). More important is whether or not your book reads like a picture book -- succinct, musical, pictorial. A key issue is the fact that picture books are 32 pages (storybooks, which are often fairy or folk tales, are sometimes 48 pages). Leaving space for titles, copyright, etc., your manuscript should break naturally into 28 to 30 pages, or 14-15 "spreads." Some publishers appreciate authors "dummying" their manuscript--breaking the text into these spreads. Each page should be a "scene." This is a useful exercise because it shows you whether or not the text has drama and is illustratable.
Q: How long is a middle-grade or young adult novel?
As long as it needs to be -- mostly. Granted, it might be a bit tougher to sell a story that is especially long or short, but it is even tougher, if not impossible, to sell a book that has been padded or chopped for the sake of hitting a preselected length. A book can be shorter than Sarah, Plain and Tall, or longer than Hitty, Her First Hundred Years. The typical range is 35-65 pages for a chapter book, 45-90 for a low-middle-grade, 90-120 for a middle-grade, 150-200 for a young, young adult, but these are just averages. Some publishers have series of books with a maximum of pages. For example, Hyperion chapter book manuscripts must currently be 2,500-5,000 words maximum. If you have questions about specific series of books, do some research -- read the books, check the catalogue, contact the publisher, etc.
Q: Should I send illustrations with my manuscript?
Not unless you are a professional artist. Whether it is right or not, the industry believes that only a rank amateur submits someone else's art with a picture-book manuscript. A few rare folks have done this and succeeded, but most have not. If a publisher accepts your manuscript, your editor will choose the illustrator. There is NEVER a need for you to hire one.
Q: Is there a good vocabulary list for beginning readers?
Some writers and editors think the concept of restricted vocabulary is abominable and most trade publishers do not require a fixed vocabulary. One of the best ways for children to learn new words is by reading them. As long as the difficult words can be understood in context or through other clues, there is no reason not to challenge the reader a bit.
Q: Should I write my picture book in rhyme?
It often seems to writers that children love rhyme -- and publishers don't. The truth is that good rhyme is extremely hard to write. Publishers are flooded with bad rhyme. If you can write brilliant verse, you've got a chance. If you can't, chances are you don't.
Q: What if my story needs a scene about sex, death, etc.?
Don't throw anything in just to flout standards or to shock the reader. But if a scene is true to your story and necessary, put it in. Older YA novels are generally more appropriate for sophisticated scenes. Bear in mind that the response is not always something you can expect. A scene that worries you might be met without comment, while something you perceive as totally innocent can draw an adverse reaction.
Q: What do I put in a cover letter?
Keep it simple. Introduce yourself, mention other things you've published or a few appropriate credentials (not a resume), include the title of the manuscript you're submitting and, if you wish, a very brief description ("a middle-grade novel about a boy with a problematic nose") and any special information ("an interactive nonfiction work that could include gatefolds and scratch-and-sniff panels"). Publishers do not want a shopping list of your other manuscripts -- just choose one (two at most) and send it.
Q: What do I put in a query letter?
Some publishers want advance queries about novels or non-fiction, but rarely about picture books. Other publishers are not interested in advance queries at all. They want you to send the novel or non-fiction book (or proposal), period. Check the Children's Book Council members list to find out who wants what. In a query letter, again, be succinct. Include the title and type of manuscript, the number of pages and a short description ("Are you interested in reading my 120-page, middle-grade novel, Funky Feet, about a girl who cannot stop dancing?"). You should also include your credentials. Many publishers request that you send some chapters with a query letter as well. The publishers will then decide if they want to read the rest of your book.
Q: What goes into a proposal?
A proposal is a way of trying to get a contract without writing the whole book. It is generally for a non-fiction book. It consists of a few chapters or spreads and an outline of the rest of the book. Many publishers will consider a non-fiction proposal instead of the whole book. A proposal for a novel may include anywhere from three to six chapters and a synopsis of the remainder of the book. Fewer publishers will consider that, unless you've already published with them. For a series proposal, you may usually send one complete book and synopses for others in the series.
Q: How about a fancy presentation?
Forget it. A leopard-skin cover is more likely to turn off the editor than turn him/her on. Likewise, how you mail the manuscript will not impress the publisher -- although, if it's by FedEx or UPS it may get the work there faster.
Q: How do I know where to send my manuscript?
Go to libraries and bookstores and send for publisher's catalogues. Visit the Children's Book Council web site. Join the SCBWI and read the newsletter. Attend conferences. Come to the Children's Writers Chat on AOL. Read the children's writing folders on AOL. Join news groups on the net. Buy or take out of the library Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market and/or Literary Marketplace. Gather as much information as you can to learn where your book would make the best fit. A publisher that produces mainly picture books about animals is probably not interested in a young-adult romance. Your book may be unique, but the publisher still has to be able to envision a marketing plan for it.
Remember to send a self-addressed stamped envelope with your manuscript if you want it returned in case it is rejected. You may also include a self-addressed stamped postcard that says, "Manuscript received," so you'll know it got there. You may or may not get the postcard back.
Q: Will my unsolicited manuscript be read?
Probably, if the publisher is accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Research this before you send out your work. Publishers sometimes employ readers and they definitely employ editorial assistants, so don't expect that your work will necessarily be read by an editor, especially if you send it generically -- to the "Children's Book Dept" -- or to the editor-in-chief, who rarely has time to read. If you meet an editor at a conference or during an online chat, it's wise to send your work directly to her/him.
Q: I sent my book in (unsolicited) two months ago and I haven't heard a word. What should I do?
Only two months? Seriously, although a few publishers claim to have a turn-around time of thirty days, and more say two to three months, a growing number list four-six months in their guidelines. Believe or not, established authors often wait six months or more to hear from their editors. Publishers are not deliberately trying to hang on to your manuscripts. The increased turn-around time is due to swelling submissions, decreased staff and general overwork. Request guidelines (send a self-addressed stamped envelope) or research the publisher to find out the projected turn-around time. If that time has passed and you still haven't heard from the house, you can try the following: send a self-addressed stamped postcard or envelope with a note asking whether or not the manuscript is still under consideration. Some writers send a check list on the postcard or return letter: Did my manuscript arrive? Is it still under consideration? Has it been returned?
You can also try phoning to ask for a status report. Some publishers don't mind a phone call; others would prefer a letter. If you receive no reply or if you are told something vague, you are free to send the manuscript elsewhere. It's probably a good idea to alert the publisher that you are withdrawing your manuscript, or that you are now going to submit it to another house.
Q: Can I send my manuscript to more than one place at a time?
This is a hotly debated topic. Some publishers won't look at simultaneous submissions. Others will. With the increased waiting time and the cutting of many lists, more and more publishers are willing to read simultaneous submissions. You may want to inquire beforehand, if possible. If you do submit to more than one publisher, the current ethical standard is that you inform each one that this is a simultaneous submission.
Q: Do I need an agent?
The juvenile area is one of the few places left where many publishers will look at material that doesn't come from an agent. A few publishers will look only at agented submissions (or submissions from published authors). You can find out which will look at unagented or unsolicited material by regularly consulting the members list at the Children's Book Council web site. Opinions vary on whether an unpublished author should seek an agent. Some say that the effort to find an agent could be just as well spent trying to market the manuscript. Others believe that a good agent has a much better feel for the market. Bottom line: you do not need an agent. However, a good agent can help you in many ways. A bad agent can hurt you.
You can get a list of agents and information on how to get one from the Authors Guild. The Guild does not offer recommendations on particular agents, but suggests you get references from the agent you are interested in. Members and non-members can receive this list by writing or calling the Guild (see resources). Membership in the Guild is open to published writers only. If you are interested in joining, contact them for details.
Q: An agent has offered to read my book for a fee. Is this a good idea?
No, no, a thousand times no. Agents make their living selling books.
Q: An agent loved my book, and offered to make it even better for a fee. Is this a good idea?
It's a great idea for the agent. It's a bad idea for the author.
Q: What about self-publishing my book?
Self-publishing is a tricky business. Even if you have the money to produce a book that reads and looks good enough to compete in today's market, do you have the time to promote it? It is true that nowadays authors do have to put in some time in self-promotion, but the publishers still have reps that go to bookstores; they put ads in magazines, journals and newspapers; they produce a catalogue that is available nationwide; they have booths at ALA, BookExpo and countless other conventions. Ask yourself if you can do as good or better a marketing job before you consider self-publishing or you face a basement full of boxes of unsold books. Bear in mind, too, that most self-published books do not get reviewed. Most professional writers organizations do not endorse self-publishing. There are, however, a few success stories--books that sold well or led to other book sales. The choice, ultimately, is yours.
Q: I haven't read any kids' books recently, but they must be simple to write. Wouldn't it be pretty easy to knock off a few while I'm learning to write real adult stuff?
Q: Can I make a lot of money doing this?
Who knows? If you become a writer to get rich, you're probably doomed to grave disappointment. However, the possibility to live off your writing always exists. Just remember that if you sell a book today, that book will not be on the shelves for at least a year. Royalty statements arrive every six months after publication. You get to keep your advance no matter what (make sure that's in your contract), but you will receive no royalties if the advance doesn't earn out.
Q: Is there any easy way to break in?
Are you the boss's daughter? Are you married to the boss's daughter? Then maybe. Otherwise, the answer is a resounding no. Perseverance, timing, luck are all factors in what is currently a difficult market. We all like to think that good writing will always get published. Sadly, this is not always the case. But things run in cycles and the publishing business is no exception. Be persistent. Be smart. And write the best damn book you can!
Q: What about magazine markets?
Magazines are a great place to break in. Learn the basics of marketing. Some magazines buy all rights. That means you can never sell the story again unless you get the rights back. Some magazines pay on publication. That means you won't be paid until your story appears in print. This could take a year or more.
Q: What about classes and critique groups?
Q: I'm thinking about taking a correspondence course from the Institute for Children's Literature. Does anyone know anything about them?
The organization is legitimate. Opinions on the value of the lessons varies.
Q: What is the SCBWI?
The Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators is a national organization for writers and artists. Anyone can join. The society publishes a newsletter and various reports, including a list of legitimate agents and several market surveys, which members may obtain for the cost of postage. It is especially well-known for hosting conferences all around the country. These are open to members and non-members alike. In addition, the SCBWI has a web site where you can download a useful pamphlet on submission basics entitled "From Typewriter to Printed Page." Membership is currently $50 per year.
Q: What are some useful web sites for children's writers?
This FAQ was written by Anne LeMieux, David Lubar (http://www.davidlubar.com) and Marilyn Singer ( http://www.marilynsinger.net) for the AOL Children's Writers Chat. Permission to reprint it is granted for non-profit use only, as long as credit is given.