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So you want to be...a children's writer?

little HaemiIt was in third grade that I knew, absolutely, that I wanted to be a writer. That year, I had to write my first book report, complete with a book jacket that I labored over with care, using my very best crayons (the ones I'd brought from Korea, which I used sparingly to make them last as long as possible). I wrote many more book reports in the years that followed, but that first one sticks out in my memory. Why? Because it marked the first time I stopped to think past the story. A lightbulb went on. I realized that someone - an actual living, breathing human being! - was behind all the words and characters. What could be more magical than that?

I've thought of myself as a writer ever since. I didn't just want to "grow up" to be a writer - I was a writer. In some ways, I was more a writer back then, than I am now. For one thing, I wrote more. I wrote pages and pages almost every day, pouring my heart out (sometimes in the form of pretty awful, angst-ridden poetry) into spiral-bound journals. Somewhere along the road (I think around seventh grade), I named my journal "Joshua." By high school, there were nearly a dozen thick "Joshua" volumes. They contained everything from traditional "Dear Diary" (or in my case, "Dear Joshua") entries, to love letters (never sent), to essays on topics as varied as school cafeteria pizza (which I loved!) and missing my grandmother, to poems (ranging from moody to giddy - no, they weren't all awful... some of them were good enough to be published and/or win prizes).

Of course, not everything I wrote was golden (this includes just about everything I wrote in February and the first half of March, 1984, when I fancied myself a country music lyricist). But, as I write this, I am reminded that the girl I was all those years ago knew something that every writer should and must know. If you're bracing yourself for something superbly wise and enlightening, well... you'll probably be disappointed. My revelation is simply this: Writers write. Badly or brilliantly, it really doesn't matter. Not at the start anyway. So often, writers face that blank sheet of paper (or, in my case, a blank wordprocessor screen), and stare at it dumbly, hesitant to scribble or type anything that won't be deserving of a permanent place in the novel or article or whatever. Writers aren't special. We hate to fail, just like anyone else. Maybe more than anyone else. But, it's to our detriment if we allow ourselves to be intimidated by our reservations and fears. Writers, by very definition of the word, must write. And, most of us need to muddle through some mediocre country music lyrics to get to the good stuff.

Beginning writers in particular tend to be too hard on themselves. Don't expect perfection from your first - or even fifth - draft. Give yourself permission to write badly! If you find yourself stuck in the middle of a sentence or paragraph or chapter, leave it - or insert ridiculously bad writing that roughly expresses what you want to say in that part of the manuscript. Then, move forward to the next part of the story or article. You can go back to unclog the block later, when your muse is rested and re-energized, and shape the wording to your liking.

Now I'll pass on a bit of philosophy I didn't grasp when I was younger, but embrace wholeheartedly now: Compete with yourself, not other writers. This is the way I approach my own writing career. I write with the goal to outperform myself - to make the writing in each story better than the last. In other words, focus on being the best writer YOU can be. Don't worry about being better or more prolific than someone else. Forge a path for yourself, for your own creative journey; don't use it to race against others.

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Let's move on to the practical stuff. The easiest and most pleasurable advice to follow - and yet one often overlooked by beginning writers - is to read, read, read. If you write for children, read as many children's books as possible. Read the classics, but read current titles as well, to get a sense of what today's editors seek. Read everything and anything you like, with a special focus on books that fall into the same category (genre, age group, subject matter, etc.) as what you are working on at the present. If you're interested in writing picture books, read lots of them (and I mean LOTS - carry out armfuls from the library... or, better yet, bring along a tote bag). If you are a middle grade or YA (young adult) writer, read middle grade and YA novels. Do you have an exciting idea for an early reader nonfiction science book? Are you eager to write elementary school-level biographies of famous inventors? Head to the library and your local bookstore to scope out what's already available... and what niche is waiting to be filled - perhaps by YOU.

You'll find no shortage of recently published books; thousands of new books are published every year. Don't just seek out the award winners and best sellers, though. There are many well-reviewed, solid titles that don't get the attention they deserve. It may take a little more effort to find these books, but they are well worth it.

Good books will make your heart soar and can teach you a lot about writing effectively, but less remarkable books can be just as valuable to the children's writer. It's important to get a sense of what doesn't work, so that you can stay clear of the same mistakes.

If you have your eye on children's magazines, study recent issues of publications that interest you. Among other things, note the age range of the target readership, and story and article lengths. If you've written a 5000+ word YA novella, sending the manuscript to Highlights or Ladybug would be a waste of both your and the editor's time. Submitting a preschool bedtime poem to Cicada, a YA magazine, would be similarly unwise.

Keep an eye out for trends. If you find that the current market is already saturated with books about, say, bunnies-at-bedtime, editors probably aren't looking to publish another one - at least, not in the near future. Of course, if you're confident that YOUR bunnies-at-bedtime story is irresistible... unlike any bunnies-at-bedtime story that came before it (there have been many, so be sure of your research), you'll prepare the manuscript to look its best (read: properly formatted!), and send it off (with a cover letter briefly describing your fresh approach to the familiar theme) to a carefully selected editor/publisher. On the other hand, if you've written a picture book text about Arbor Day, and you find that there are few or no similar books out there on this topic, then (assuming you've polished your manuscript to a sheen) you're more likely to stand out from the slush pile (note: "slush pile" is the industry term for unsolicited manuscripts - the major publishing houses receive thousands every year).

Any slush pile is likely to be heaped high with unsolicited manuscripts from new writers, so it's important to do everything you can to make your work stand tall from the rest. No, don't go downloading fancy fonts or buy neon stationery. Few things will mark you so thoroughly as "unprofessional." So, what should you do? Study the publishers' current and recent catalogs. Read up on their current needs. Make note of their submission preferences (do they require a query first? are they open to simultaneous submissions?). Because most publishers take months to respond, targeting appropriate markets will save you from wasting time and postage, not to mention triggering a negative impression with the receiving editor. The Children's Book Council site updates its publishers' needs section every month. It's a great online resource for keeping up with market needs.

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Sometimes (not always), two (or more) heads are better than one. Consider joining or starting a critique group. Mine was invaluable to me when I was in the process of writing my middle grade novel, Tae's Sonata. A while back, my friend and fellow children's author, Jill Rubalcaba, was invited by the Institute of Children's Literature to chat on the topic of creating a successful critique group (Jill knows of what she speaks - she founded one of the best). Click here to read the transcript of that chatroom visit. While there, you might want to poke around the rest of the Institute of Children's Literature site. You'll find transcripts of other author chats, an informal chatroom where you can chat with writers yourself, information on upcoming guest author chats, and more. The Institute also publishes Children's Writer, a "monthly newsletter devoted exclusively to the writing and publishing of children's literature" (quoted from the Children's Writer Web site).

If you are not yet a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), I highly recommend that you look into joining (there is an associate membership level for not-yet-published writers and illustrators). The SCBWI is an excellent resource for learning publishers' current needs, networking with other children's writers and illustrators, keeping up with industry news, and much more.

For pure inspiration, wander the paths in my garden.

One of the best online resources for children's authors is The Purple Crayon, an extraordinary site offered by Harold Underdown, an experienced children's book editor. If you're serious about writing for children, The Purple Crayon is a must-bookmark. Another excellent, more casual site, is The Virtual Sharyn November. An editor of a major children's book publisher, the site author shares unflinching insights, humor, advice, and a large collection of writing-related links. Get comfortable. You'll find yourself lingering. A standout among author websites: Cynthia Leitich Smith. The content-rich site is a children's literature enthusiast's dream come true.

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There are many helpful books, written by industry experts, available to beginning children's writers. Let me introduce you to one that is overflowing with advice and insights from 114 children's authors and illustrators, and the only "Idiot's Guide" I own:

The ABC's of Writing for Children: 114 Children's Authors and Illustrators Talk About the Art, Business, the Craft, and the Life of Writing Children's LiteratureThe ABC's of Writing for Children: 114 Children's Authors and Illustrators Talk About the Art, Business, the Craft, and the Life of Writing Children's Literature

It's been a long time since I sat down with a "book on writing" with the same level of excitement I used to feel for those type of books when I was just starting out as a children's writer. When my copy of The ABC's of Writing for Children: 114 Children's Authors and Illustrators Talk About the Art, Business, the Craft, and the Life of Writing Children's Literature arrived in today's mail, I glanced through the pages, intending to do no more than that. But an hour later I was curled up on the sofa, engrossed in and savoring the book as if it were a delicious, impossible-to-put-down novel. The insights contained within (provided by 114 children's authors and illustrators) made me think, reflect, laugh out loud, relate, and, best of all, feel inspired.

The ABC's of Writing for Children: 114 Children's Authors and Illustrators Talk About the Art, Business, the Craft, and the Life of Writing Children's Literature is seamlessly compiled by children's author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff. I can't recommend this title highly enough. It's irresistible!

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

I also want to point you to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, by Harold D. Underdown. This title is a must-read for aspiring children's writers, and an insightful refresher for published authors, too.

Best of luck with your creative endeavors!

Haemi

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