Advice for Writers

Getting Started with Children’s Writing

©2009 by Kim Norman

Congratulations on your new endeavor! I can’t think of any greater way to spend my time than writing for children. I love books in general, children’s books especially. I don’t  think I realized that until I came back to children’s books when my own kids were small.

I can offer some generic advice to get you started. I also have FAQs below. There is a wealth of free information online without your ever having to spend a penny on books. Although I do think it’s nice to have a few reference materials on your bookshelves. Nothing like having a nice solid book to highlight!

Before I recommend reference materials and organizations, here’s the most important advice: READ! READ! READ!! Read every type of children’s book you can get your hands on. (I’ve been known to check out a stack of children’s books, stuff them in a canvas bag, then walk next door to the YMCA, hang the book on the bicycle handle and peddle away, happily flipping thru picture books. Even lost some weight that way!)

Reading will help you to narrow the type of book you’d like to write. You’ll probably find that the type of book you enjoy reading will also be the type of book you’re most naturally drawn to writing — although not exclusively. Reading many books will hone your ear for sentence structure, vocabulary level, pacing, etc. A hint about picture books: read them aloud, to yourself if you don’t have a small child handy. Since picture books are often designed to be read aloud, the language needs to sound good when read aloud.

Are you a member of the SCBWI? (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) They’re at www.scbwi.org

They have conferences, literature & a terrifically informative newsletter. They’re also a marvelous way to network. I’ve built many cherished friendships through SCBWI. Before I had an agent, I used a free SCBWI download which helped me with the language in my publishers’ contracts. Downloads like that are only available to members, but they have other content on the site that non-members can access.

It was at an SCBWI conference that I met my first editor. She liked the manuscript I sent in for a one-on-one-manuscript review. After a couple of revisions, she bought the book. I’m told that’s still relatively rare, but it does happen. At the least, you may begin to build a relationship with an editor who might buy another of your manuscripts.

Sometimes they also help members find critique groups. I actually found my group through a chat list, even though I was a member of SCBWI. I responded to a call on a Yahoo email list I’d been frequenting. (Link below.)

One of the best perks of being a children's book author: visiting schools who greet you in every hallway with artwork and clever displays, like this one at a school in Delaware.

One of the best perks of being a children’s book author: visiting schools who greet you in every hallway with artwork and clever displays, like this one at a school in Delaware.

Now a few FAQs:

Q: Can you read and critique my manuscript?

A: I’m sorry, but what time I have for critiquing I owe to my own critique groups. Try joining the above-mentioned CW list to see if you can join a critique group or even start your own group. There are several freelance editors on the CW list as well, who critique manuscripts for reasonable fees. You can also sign up for one-on-one critiques at some SCBWI conferences. Check for conferences in your region at the SCBWI link above.

Q: How do I know where to send my manuscript?

A: Before you send it anywhere, DO get a critique. (See advice above.) Once it’s ready to go, the above-mentioned Children’s Writers’ and Illustrators’ Market will supply you with publisher addresses, as well as editors’ names.

Editors often prefer that you send a query letter rather than your full manuscript, even for a short picture book. On my blog, Stone Stoop, you can read the exact query letter that led to the sale of my CROCODADDY. Read “Sample of a Winning Query” HERE.

As you peruse the Writer’s Market listings, you’ll often see the phrase “No Unsolicited Manuscripts.” This is a phrase that confused me when I first started out. I thought it meant I couldn’t sent that publisher a manuscript. That’s not what it means. You often CAN submit to such a publisher. Read an explanation of how to get around that and what “no-unsolicited” REALLY means HERE, on my blog.

Q: Do you have an agent?

A: I do now, but I sold 3 books to reputable New York publishers and was on my way to a 4th sale when I finally brought in an agent. In fact, for picture books, most writers have better luck selling directly to a publisher than getting an agent. Once a picture book author has a few sales under her belt, she’s more likely to attract an agent.

Q: Can you introduce me or recommend me to your agent?

A: I’m so sorry, but no. Her inbox is already overflowing. Your best bet is to continue to network, research and attend conferences where you can meet agents and editors. (It was one of my editors who suggested my agent to me.) You can also find agent listings online with a search. I believe the Children’s Writers’ Market, above, has agent listings. Also check out agent Jeff Herman’s website. He has a book about agents you’ll find here.

Here’s a bit of advice as you gather agent and editor data: When you learn an agent’s or editor’s name, do a search for them online, as well, before you submit. Often you can find interviews they’ve given which will help you learn what sort of books they like.

Q: Do you teach workshops?

A: Absolutely! Contact me and let me know what you need! kimnorman@mac.com

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My favorite writing resources

Several books you might want to buy:

The Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Books

A new one comes out every year with listings of hundreds of children’s book and magazine publishers, as well as advice articles. I don’t buy one every year now, especially now that I have an agent, but it’s a great place to start. A little overwhelming at first, so you’ll also want to poke around libraries and bookstores, studying books that are similar to the type you’d like to write. That will give you the name of publishers who do the sorts of books you’re interested in writing.

Another book I found very helpful:

The Business of Writing for Children

by Aaron Shepard

Short and to the point. Told me some stuff I hadn’t heard anywhere else

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books

by Harold D. Underdown

Quite comprehensive.

A couple of important websites you’ll want to check out:

My friend, author Rachelle Burke, has many terrific resources on her blog:

http://resourcesforchildrenswriters.blogspot.com/

And check out Margot Finke’s site:

http://www.margotfinke.com

Margot is a great lady — also someone you’ll may find on the CW Yahoo list. She has stashed a mother lode of info on her site, as well as links to other sites you’ll find helpful.

The Yahoo Children’s Writers (CW) chat list is a place you can ask people for advice. They don’t critique, per se, but they can answer the occasional manuscript-specific question, such as, “Is it appropriate to shift point-of-view in a picture book for toddlers?” And they love to answer questions about writing & submitting… not by giving out specific information about their own editors or agents, (authors are understandably close-to-the-vest about that), but help with wording queries, encouragement, celebration… things like that. The list includes both published and unpublished members.

When you visit the link below, you’ll see”Join this group” somewhere on the page. The CW list is huge, upwards of 2,000 subscribers, so you may want to request daily digest if you join.

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/childrens-writers/

Linked-in also has many chat groups targeted at children’s writers. They seem to be ever evolving, so check them out for yourself at:

http://www.linkedin.com

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A wee giftee for picture book writers:

Here’s a storyboard I sometimes use to determine the page turns for my picture books. You can download one for yourself (a PDF document) by clicking on the storyboard image below.

Storyboarding is a great way to see how your story flows. I don’t try to put the whole text on each page of the storyboard — just indication of the text, maybe a little sketch. It’s for my eyes only, so messiness is no concern.

storyboard_image