Thursday, April 1, 2010

Twelve Things Every Children's Writer Should Do - #8 Do Your Homework

Unlike this poor boy who looks like he's having to do ancient Chinese or Hebrew, your homework won't be as difficult, but it is is as important.

When it comes to sending your work out, it is important to understand their needs. Publishing houses' needs are quite different from magazines. And educational houses needs are different from trade houses. And so on. Research several places to see where you want to send your work. Then, go to their website, see what their requirements are. What do they want - one page summary? The first two chapters? A chapter and a summary? Does the house say it wants modern fantasy and you've written a historical novel? Then move on and find the house that loves historical novels. Is your historical novel about 16th century France a little too close to a house's historical novel about 16th century France? Then perhaps that's not the perfect fit either. Move on and see who is looking for historical novels, but has nothing about 16th century France. Nothing will make a greater impact than following their instructions.

Want to get a little extra credit? Do a little more research and find out what books or stories the particular editor may have worked on, or profuses to love. It may not necessarily get you published, but it may lead to a hand-written note from the editor instead of a form rejection, and may make the editor more open to accepting more of your work.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Twelve Things Every Children's Book Writers Should Do - #9 Don't be in a Rush to be Published

I am going to be completely honest with you here. I am completely guilty of this sin. Yes, gentle readers, we have all been guilty of certain sins, and this one is mine.

Over five years ago, I completed my first novel. Now, this wasn't really the first novel I had ever written, but this was the first novel that I actually thought was good enough for publishing. I worked on it day after day, writing furiously, and then printing it out and editing it. I then even gave it to a friend and she edited it with me. We discussed certain parts of the novel, and I changed a few parts based on these discussions. In my mind, I was ready.

Boy was I wrong!!!!

Satisfied with the novel, I decided to send it out. I purchased a book on how to submit to agents and publishing houses, and sent, sent, sent. If I even got a reply, I was lucky. Most of the time, I got form rejections. Only once I got a written rejection. It said, "This didn't do it for me." It was really tough and the rejections sent me into some soul searching. What was I doing wrong? Why didn't they love my novel as much as I did? Did I really have what it took to be a writer?

Well now that I have the luxury of hindsight, I can see my sin. I was in a rush to get published. I had written, edited, and "critiqued" my novel in one year. Perhaps if I were a more experienced writer, then yes, this could have been feasible. But I was a young novice (still am). I hadn't really taken the time needed to develop myself and my skills as a writer.

Also, perhaps my friend wasn't the best person to critique and edit my novel. She was a good friend and I appreciate her help, but what I needed was a group of people who specialized in this sort of thing. Several skilled eyes help catch things that one set of eyes do not.

So what have I done since then? I took a couple of writing classes, have had the novel critiqued several times, and have even re-written the novel. Three times. It took me four years since I wrote the first novel to the point of the third revision of the novel. It has been critiqued, polished, and edited. And for now, it has been put away.

Why? I still don't feel it is ready. After polishing it, I put it away and began a new novel. I am now at complete peace of mind. As I embark on the new novel, I do not feel the rush I once felt. I will keep working and working and working on the new novel until I feel it is truly ready. And knowing that I will work on it to my best has actually helped me gain more insight on the writing process and makes me feel more confident in my abilities. I feel far more secure that this time, when I am ready, I will receive more favorable responses.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Twelve Things Every Children's Book Writers Should Do - #10 Be Professional

You have your manuscript ready to send to a publisher. That's fantastic! But now what do you do? Whenever you are prepared to send your manuscript, you must prepare for it as you would for a job interview.

When you are looking for a job, you don't apply to just anything? Of course not. You look for companies that interest you, openings that match your skills, and so on. This is the same when you send out your manuscript. Look at the company. What kinds of books do they publish? How about the editor? What does look for? What past books has he published. This takes some research, but the payoff is worth it.

Okay, you've found what you think is a good match. Now, take a look at that particular editor's or publishing house's submission guidelines. What do they want? A chapter and novel synopsis? How do they want it - by email? By mail? Follow the instructions carefully.

Remember, presentation is everything. You don't have the opportunity to put on your best suit and present yourself in person, so you have to let everything you send do the talking for you. You wouldn't send in your resume on pink paper, so now isn't the time for that either (yes, I had this happen quite often). Plain white paper and typed (please!) is best.

Just as you must always send a cover letter with your resume, you must always send a letter with your manuscript (or summary, or whatever the house or editor has asked for). This letter should always try to establish some of the following:

  • Establish the book's setting
  • Give a plot summary
  • Convey a sense of the characters and why the editor should care about them
  • Demonstrate your writing ability
  • Explain how the book differs from all the other books in its genre (this should be done in summary)
  • Show an understanding of the house and editor

These basic points should always be covered in your letter. In addition, you must always be sure that:

  • It is typed 12 pt double-spaced
  • It is no longer than one page
  • You have a good, clear letterhead with several means on contact
  • You are formal and polite in the letter
  • You formally close thanking the editor for her time and consideration
  • You have read and edited the letter making sure there are no errors

This is your chance to be seen and heard, so be as professional as possible.

There are many good websites that give a lot of information on how to write a good query letter. The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) offers a lot of help on formatting manuscripts and how to write a good query letter. However, it also helps to look at what NOT to do.

With that in mind, I offer two fantastic sites. The first offered by Cheryl Klein, a wonderful editor at Arthur A. Levine whom I have had the pleasure to meet, presents a humorous look at the Annotated Query Letter from Hell. I've read it several times and still enjoy reading it over (and yes, we have all been guilty of one sin or the other, so don't worry if you recognize something you've done. As she says, acknowledge the sin and then sin no more.) Next is a wonderful website dedicated to YA query letters called Query Shark. Every week, the shark (a literary agent) sinks her teeth into query letters explaining what works and doesn't work with them. You can even submit your own query letter and let the bloodletting begin!

Although you should be professional, also remember to be yourself, and have fun.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Twelve Things Children's Book Writers Should Do - #11 Work on Getting Published

This is rather like the old adage - to get a job, you have to have experience, but to have experience, you must have a job. Writing is kind of the same, too. If getting your novel published is the equivalent of having a job, then getting published is the equivalent of having experience.

Sound confusing?

It really isn't. Don't forget, while having a book to your name is wonderful, there are other smaller venues - and they count too! While you are shopping around your novel, or still in the middle of writing it, you can submit to other places. Consider journals, magazines, small newsletters, or even on-line websites.

Having said that, do not think just because the length is small that the standards at most places are not. My writing group and I have tried ( to get published in Highlights. We all have submitted to date at least two stories or short histories to the magazine, only to be turned down. But we do not give up. Right now, I am mostly published on these blog pages (with the exception of the odd piece I write for work).

But I don't give up.Think how much better it would look when I submit my query letter to an editor to list the various places I have been published than to have nothing at all. A list of stories published would be the experience I need to land my job.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Twelve Things Children's Book Writers Should Do - #12 Be Patient

Okay, okay, we all know that it's a virtue, but it's so darn hard!

The first time I had finished my story, I squirmed with impatience. I wanted it published and I wanted it NOW.

Many children's book editors tell me that they get unsolicited manuscripts with letters asking for the book to be published in a month or for Christmas or for their birthday. The editors have a good laugh at these letters.

The truth that no one wants to really admit is that writing (and then becoming published) takes a lot of time. If you are serious, you know then the time and effort it takes to first finish the story, edit it, and edit it some more. This in itself can take years. Then it can take longer sending it off, being diligent and persistent, and perhaps taking another look at your manuscript when your results don't yeild quite what you hoped for. Good writing is a challenge. Most people give up because it honestly isn't as easy or fast as people hope. Good writing isn't a burst of inspiration, writing it down, and instantly getting published to fame and accolades (as much as we all wish it were).

When I used to teach English in Connecticut, I used to pass by a poster of Winston Churchill. The caption underneath said, "Never, never, never give up." I liked it, but never really gave it much thought until a student wrote about it in her essay. She was an older student, coming back to school after having a family and a job. She was worried about keeping up with the work and her duties at home and school. But she wrote in her essay that when she passed that poster of Churchill, it inspired her to persevere. Not only did she finish the course, but she was one of my top students in the class.

That poster of Churchill took on a completely new light to me. Just as that student didn't give up, neither should I. Her struggle was going back to class after a long time. My struggle is to become a published author. But Churchill didn't quit, neither did my student, and neither should I.

Writing is very hard, but it is also a lot of fun. I now enjoy just the craft of writing and set far more realistic expectations about how long it will take.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More UK vs. US Covers

I have been recently reading a wonderful series, The Chronicles of Chretomaci by Diana Wynne Jones, which I have highly recommended on my other blog, After Potter. While looking for an image to put on the blog, I discovered the British cover of the book, which I discovered to be very different from the American version I saw in the library. This is what led me to ponder why there are such differences between US and British covers as you read in last weeks blog.

This week, I wanted to specifically look at the four books from the Chrestomanci series. I am going to place the covers side by side. Can you guess which are the US covers and which are the UK covers?

Those familiar with have already probably guessed that the ones just underneath are the US editions while the ones on the top are the British editions.

So why the difference? I wish I knew. Quite honestly, I think the US editions are terrible. To me, their dull and muddied covers do not at all depict the story at all. I mean, first of all, if you look at these dull covers, you would think the stories are probably dull as well, which is far from the truth. Also, you might conclude that they are set in the medieval period. Again, this would be a very wrong conclusion. The British covers, on the other hand, really display the vivid and imaginative stories contained within. They have a bit of a Victorian Gothic look, which is closer to the truth (as most of the stories are set in a near Edwardian time with the exception of Witch Week). The UK Witch Week really conveys the forboding of the academy and urgency of the situation into which the Chrestomanci comes.

My favorite is The Lives of Christopher Chant. This one really shows the different worlds Christopher can travel to, and gives a nod to the goddess, who becomes his friend. The US edition seems to indicate that he can do a bit of magic, but that is a very small slice of the book (and honestly, the least important part - it is far more important that he can travel between worlds).

I love the lettering, the colors and the design of all the UK editions. The only one that confuses me a little is the one for The Magicians of Caprona. In this case, they should have depicted some of the characters. I don't recall an elephant being at all important in the story. But then again, the US edition betrays nothing of the story, so I still like the UK version better.

Of course, I purchased the Chronicles of Chrestomanci at a used bookstore. This is actually the cover I have. I quite like this version also, though it doesn't speak much to the story either, but it is still pretty to look at and doesn't embarrass me when I read it on an airplane. It reminds me of an older The Lives of Christopher Chant cover I saw on the site (on the right). The British version is cute, but in this case, I prefer the US one.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Speaking of Covers....

I lived in Japan and Singapore during the time when Harry Potter books four and five came out. My friends and I were excited to get the new books, and wanted to purchase some of the older books. When we did, we noticed that the covers were completely unfamiliar to us. This was when I realized that the same books in other countries had different covers.

For the record, authors have very little say in the covers of their own books. Covers are meticulously designed and crafted by the publishing companies themselves. Apparently, the publishers feel that different covers would appeal to their home audiences. Let's take a look at some of these covers.

First, we'll start with the US Harry Potter covers.

Personally, I was never really enamoured with these. I never really felt that they portrayed what was inside (in terms of style of writing, not so much story). The only one I really liked was for the fourth book The Goblet of Fire. I can't really say why other than I feel it portrays the mood of the story best. I especially dislike the cover for the seventh book, The Deathly Hallows. I always thought it made it look like Harry was standing in the Roman Colosseum at twilight. Was Harry about to become a magical Roman gladiator? Well now having read the story, I know this is just the Great Hall and it's enchanted ceiling. In this case, I didn't feel it portrayed the mood of the book adequately.

Now let's take a look at the UK covers of the same books.

As you can see, these are very different. I actually own 1 through five (though my five cover is different - it is apparently the adult cover from the same book). I get double-takes when I tote these versions around the US. Each cover, unlike the US versions, was illustrated by a different person. I personally like 1 through four. I think they make the story look exciting and even a bit mysterious. By five and six I think they just ran out of ideas. And in my personal opinion, seven is just the worst cover I've ever seen. Even this larger image doesn't do justice as to how ugly it is.

It does ask the question, though. Why are these covers not suitable for the US market? Personally, I can't fathom it. The look less "kiddish" than the US covers, which would probably attract more readers. Of course, I still can't understand why they had to change "Philosopher" to "Sorcerer". Do they think we wouldn't understand?

Now, how about this? Here are the Japanese covers for books one through five.

It makes me wonder, are Japanese audiences that different that they would have such very different covers? With the exception of The Chamber of Secrets, which I think is probably the worst cover hands down out of all of them, I rather like them. The problem is, they strike me more of "this is Halloween Town" rather than Harry Potter. Yes, there are spooky elements to the books, but I don't think these quite capture the sense of fun and adventure of the stories - though I have to admit, The Prisoner of Azkaban cover is quite striking, isn't it? I wonder what The Goblet of Fire cover is supposed to convey - house elves at a table? Judges reading the names from the goblet of fire? I'm not too sure.

What do you think? Which covers do you like better? Do you think it makes a difference which ones they use?