10 Tips on How to Get Started as a Picture Book Author
By Mayra Calvani
I love writing picture books. They’re like quick candy. I love the rush of finishing a complete first draft in one sitting. For this reason, I’m always writing new picture books while I work on a long novel. However, writing picture books and getting them published take a lot of hard work, persistence and determination. It isn’t only about talent—though that is important, too.
In this article, I’ll give you ten tips on how to get started as a picture book author.
1. Dream big.
It starts with a dream. When you dream, you set your intention. This makes the wheel of the universe start turning in your direction.
Imagine yourself receiving the call from an agent or editor. Imagine yourself signing your first contract, your hand trembling with excitement over the page. Imagine yourself as a published author, doing a signing at your local Barnes & Noble, the line of fans reaching all the way out to the street. Imagine yourself accepting a prestigious literary award in front of a huge, clapping audience.
Never stop dreaming.
2. Read critically.
A lot. I’m not talking about 2 or 3 picture books a month. I’m talking about going to the library each week and reading at least a dozen books. I’m talking about planning a 2-3 hour reading marathon each month and gobbling up 30 books in one sitting. How much do you want to become a published author? That’s how much you’ll have to read.
Pay special attention to the techniques and formats of published picture book authors. What is the point of view of the story? How soon is the conflict introduced? How bad does it get for the character? What strong verbs does the author use? How does the character solve the problem? How is the message or theme of the story presented to the reader? Is there a twist at the end?
Great writing is always great writing, but keep in mind that styles and trends change and this applies to picture books. Older picture books written twenty or thirty years ago will usually have a lot more ‘telling’ and exposition than what is accepted today. If you want to know what editors want these days, focus on those books written within the last five years or so.
3. Study the craft.
Writing great picture books isn’t only a skill. It’s an art form. How do you expect to write a publishable story if you don’t know its elements, if you’ve never studied the craft? Can you drive a car blindfolded? Can you pass a calculus exam if you’ve never studied the subject? Just being a mother or grandmother doesn’t qualify you as a children’s writer.
· Study books on the subject. Writing Picture Books, Ann Whitford Paul, and Picture Writing, by Anastasia Suen, are two books you should thoroughly dissect and keep on your shelf. There are others, but in my opinion, these two are the best.
· Take an online class or a course. Anastasia Suen, author of over 100 children’s books, offers an intensive picture book workshop on her website, http://www.asuen.com/workshops/w.pb.shtml. Another great place to check out for courses is the Institute of Children’s Literature at http://www.institutechildrenslit.com.
The art of writing picture books, or any type of books, for that matter, is an ongoing process. Be prepared to keep learning, improving and evolving as a writer all your life.
Preferably everyday, but if that’s not possible, strive for a minimum of 2-3 writing sessions a week. Make a habit. The more you write, the easier it becomes and the better it gets. Can a violinist get better at playing by practicing only a few times a year? Can a runner win the gold medal by running only a few miles a month? (And yes, getting published by a top NY house IS like winning a gold medal!)
Writing isn’t any different. Don’t obsess over one single story. I’ve known aspiring authors who’ve been working on the same story for years without writing any new ones. Editing is essential, but so is producing new work if you want to succeed as a published author. Besides, editors and agents don’t like one-work authors. If an editor or agent becomes interested in your manuscript, then asks “So what else do you have,” what are you going to say: “Hmm, nothing” or “I have completed and polished 5 other stories.”
We all know the saying, “Great work isn’t written. It’s rewritten.” It’s absolutely true. After writing a first draft, put it aside for a while (at least 3 weeks) so you can distant yourself from it. Then go back to it and edit it.
As a writer, you’re your own worst editor, which is why it is so important to have a set of objective eyes look over your manuscript—but, please, not your mother or sister or best friend (unless they’re published authors and knowledgeable in the craft). Join a critique group especially for picture books. A middle-grade or YA writer may not be familiar with the elements that make a great picture book (more about critique groups below).
Always strive for great. Don’t settle for good or very good. That’s not enough in the competitive field of picture book publishing.
If you don’t submit, your manuscript will never see publication. Don’t be afraid of rejection. Most published writers get a lot of rejections. I’ve probably gotten 1,000 rejections in the last ten years. Let rejections empower you and make you stronger as a writer. Use rejections as a motivational tool and let them infuse you with positive anger. Every time you get a rejection, slam your fist on the table and say, “I’ll show them!”
Okay, so you have set your goal: to become a picture book author. Now, work out a plan to make it work and stick to it. Design what your writing, editing and submitting schedule will be like. Having a plan will help keep you focused. Start your writing week without having a clear picture of what you’ll be working on and you’ll find yourself wasting precious time and wondering about the million other things you should be doing instead of writing.
Not planning ahead is the perfect ingredient for low productivity, procrastination and writer’s block. I write on weekdays and take a break on weekends, so every Sunday I plan in advance what I’ll be doing that week. When Monday morning arrives, I know exactly where to start. I don’t have to waste time wondering about it.
8. Cut Off the Internet.
The Internet (including emailing) is one of the most—of not the most—distracting things for an author. Be sure to switch it off during your writing sessions. Use the Internet as a reward, after you’ve finished working. How do you expect to focus if you go online or check emails every few minutes while you write?
9. Join a support group.
· Join a club such as the Children’s Writers Coaching Club, http://www.cwcoachingclub.com. You’ll not only profit from weekly critiques and audio classes, but also from a vastly supportive group of fellow children’s writers.
· Join children’s writing groups such as Childrens-Writers. You can interact with other children’s writers, share information and resources, and ask questions about the industry and all aspects of writing for children. Check it out here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/childrens-writers/?yguid=74030160
· Join a critique group that specializes in picture books. A picture book has its own set of ‘rules’ that writers of young adult or middle-grade fiction may not know about. These writers may give you the wrong advice and even hurt your writing. Also, if possible, try to find a critique group that has both beginners and more experience writers. Chances are you won’t get great feedback from total beginners because you’re all in the same boat, whereas more experienced writers will know exactly what to look for in your manuscript. If you join Childrens-Writers (see previous paragraph), you can post a message to the group asking if there are any critique group openings.
· Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). This is the organization to join if you’re serious about becoming a children’s writer.
Benefits include local chapters and critique groups, conferences, an online forum, and The Bulletin, which comes out every two months and is packed with articles and submission information, among other things. Check it out here: http://www.scbwi.org.
10. Subscribe to Newsletters.
There are two newsletters worth subscribing to. One is Children’s Writer, http://www.childrenswriter.com, put out by the Institute of Children’s Literature. The other one is Children’s Book Insider, http://write4kids.com.
These publications will keep you up to date about the world of children’s publishing, current trends, submission calls, as well as offer writing tips.
Yes, it takes a lot of hard work to become a children’s picture book author, but the rewards are immense. If you’re committed enough and determined enough, you can do it.