How do I even children's book?
September 24, 2017 8:30 PM   Subscribe

Can you point me to resources for children's book writing? How-tos, what-tos, etc.? I'm thinking about turning this little story into something submittable because a few people have asked me (and my own kids love it), but I haven't the foggiest idea where to begin.

I don't draw, AT ALL. (Like, my stick dudes barely look like dudes.) I've had a few things published in the essay/poem world. I've never really written for children before (I mean, beyond little things for my own kids and local community, and developing curriculum for various things). I know nothing about submitting in this genre and would appreciate any guidance! Like clearly you don't HAVE to illustrate your own work, because not everyone does, but I have no idea how any of that works! Do publishers buy words and find artists? Art and find word-writers? I don't know! You might!

I've refined and filled in the original story somewhat as I've told it to my kids; I haven't polished it pending finding out what the right sort of polish might be!
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Do publishers buy words and find artists?

Yes, this is standard practice.

Get thee to SCBWI, stat. And feel free to Memail me with questions.
posted by the_blizz at 8:56 PM on September 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I work for a children's publisher. You do not need to illustrate or find an illustrator to submit your manuscript. You can write illustration notes if something should be included visually that's not apparent from the text. You should paginate your manuscript. (I don't work for Lerner but this is so helpful!.) You should get an agent (you don't NEED one, but the publishing houses have lawyers and experts on their side; you should have an expert on your side too). SCBWI would be a great resource for you and is a legitimate organization that would be worth the membership fee.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 4:55 AM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

SCBWI will be great when you get a little further along, but you could start by checking out The Purple Crayon, which is a site run by a children's book editor that answers a lot of these questions. Start here: Basic Information. Here is the article that explains about illustrators: Picture Book Manuscripts and Illustrators. Good luck!
posted by cider at 7:08 AM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Seconding all the advice, especially about joining the SCBWI. Once you join SCBWI, start going to your local chapter's events. Those will generally include workshops that will teach you about both the craft and the business side of writing for children. They will probably also include networking events that will give you the chance to meet agents and editors. Most importantly, they can help you find a critique group to help make sure your manuscript is as good as it can be.

I should probably warn you that picture book writing is an extremely hard business to break into. I think it comes down to two factors:

1. Because picture books are so short, you have a very limited number of words to work with -- but you still have to tell a complete story with believable characters, centered on a meaningful theme. Plus, your text has to create a complete picture in the mind of an agent or editor who is reading it without illustrations, but it has to leave room for the artist to complete the experience once they come on board. All this makes it harder than many people realize to write a publishable picture book.

2. Because picture books are so short, everybody thinks they can write one. If you send a book to an agent, a thousand other people are doing the same thing. Maybe yours is the only publishable one among them-- but you're still competing for the agent's reading time with the other 999.

Because of #2, most editors filter down their reading load by refusing to read something unless it comes through an agent (or unless they have met the author in person at an SCBWI or similar event.) However, because of #1, most agents won't take on a client with only one picture book -- they will want to see several manuscripts to confirm that you can write consistently on a professional level.

Having multiple manuscripts is also necessary because, even if a book is publishable quality, it still has to land on an editor's desk at exactly the moment they're looking for that particular kind of book. Even for agented writers, most picture book manuscripts are going to get rejected.

I don't want to be too discouraging! If you think it will be fun and meaningful to pursue publication for your book, I definitely encourage you to do so. I just want to warn you that it is a long and difficult process, and to encourage you to enjoy the journey for its own sake, rather than having high expectations about a destination that you may not reach.
posted by yankeefog at 8:00 AM on September 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I love your story about the plane! I think it would be a great picture book.

To add to everyone else's answers, SCBWI is very much worth your while. (I am a member. Not a published author yet.) If you join, you can generally find a local critique group, and the people in your group will have a lot of useful info for you about revising the manuscript and finding a publisher.

But to answer your questions, yes, publishers buy picture book (PB) manuscripts and then find artists to illustrate them. Usually the process is that you query agents who are willing to represent PB authors, following their agency or personal guidelines as specified on their websites/twitter feeds/facebook page, then hopefully one of them responds with an offer of representation. Writing the query letter is a project in itself; SCBWI or your local critique group can help you with knowing what to include/leave out. You can query editors directly but as yankeefog pointed out, it's easier for an agent to catch a publisher's eye than it will be for you.

One other suggestion, Cheryl Klein's excellent book, Second Sight, has a great chapter about writing & revising picture books. That might be a good place to start if you're not ready to jump into SCBWI and all that.
posted by tuesdayschild at 4:09 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Reading over my answer, I realize that (1) it came across as much more negative than I intended, and (2) it was a derail, since your question was "How do I do this?" and not "Please discourage me from doing a wonderful and worthwhile thing I'm excited about doing." I'm sorry!

Let me do penance by trying to address one part of your question that hasn't been answered: what the right sort of polish might be.

For many picture book authors (especially those making a transition from other forms of writing), a key step in polishing a manuscript is to trim the words to leave more room for the pictures. Consider the following made-up example:
My parents taught me to be a good sport, so when Sally fell over, I helped her up. But then she won the race by pushing me over just before the finish line.
That works fine as pure text. But when you put it next to an illustration of the events, it's going to feel redundant. So you might trim down the text and beef up the art notes:
My parents taught me to be a good sport.
ILLUSTRATION: Halfway through the race, Sally falls over. Jack stops, bends down, and gives her a hand up.
I guess Sally's parents taught her something different.
ILLUSTRATION: Sally sticks out a leg to trip Jack, then runs gleefully across the finish line.

Of course, in theory, you could cut even more of the text -- Instead of "My parents taught me to be a good sport," you could start with an illustration of Jack's mom giving him a book called "How To Be A Good Sport." But I personally think that's a step too far. "My parents taught me to be a good sport" implies that Jack is proud of being a good sport, and that in his mind, sportsmanship is something that binds him to his parents. It gives us emotional color we wouldn't get from an illustration.

There's no right answer to this kind of thing. The text and the art should be in a dialogue, but there are a million ways that dialogue can go. Different writers will make different decisions about what they put in the text and what they leave for the illustrations, and the choices you make will be an important part of your artistic voice.

To help develop that voice, you might look at picture books you admire, and think about what things they include in the text and what they leave for the artist. How do those choices affect your reading experience? Which of those choices seem right, and which ones seem wrong, and which ones seem right-for-this-writer-but-you'd-do-it-differently?

I think your poetry background will serve you well here-- it will give you experience in using as few words as possible, and in packing as much emotion and meaning and beauty as possible into the words that you keep.

Once you've gone through your manuscript and shifted as much as you think is suitable to the art, you'll have a new problem: your art notes will probably be too long. Needless to say, your artist wants to be able to add their own voice, too! So go through each art note, and ask yourself: is this strictly necessary? Can I trust the artist to figure this out on their own?

By way of example, let's go back to Jack and Sally. Here are the art notes I put in:
ILLUSTRATION: Halfway through the race, Sally falls over. Jack stops, bends down, and gives her a hand up.
ILLUSTRATION: Sally sticks out a leg to trip Jack, then runs gleefully across the finish line.
In the first one, the crucial bit is that Sally fell over and Jack helped her up. "Halfway through the race" isn't necessary -- if it was a quarter of the race, or three quarters, it wouldn't affect the overall story. And "Jack stops, bends down" isn't necessary because, obviously, if Jack is helping her up, he must have stopped and bent down. And if it isn't crucial to the story that Sally react in a specifically gleeful way, you can let the artist have control over the emotional tone of the victory.

So when all is said and done, we might end up changing this
My parents taught me to be a good sport, so when Sally fell over, I helped her up. But then she won the race by pushing me over just before the finish line.
into this:
My parents taught me to be a good sport.
ILLUSTRATION: As they race, Sally falls over. Jack helps her up.
I guess Sally's parents taught her something different.
ILLUSTRATION: Sally trips Jack. She wins the race.

posted by yankeefog at 4:33 AM on September 26, 2017 [8 favorites]

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