Eager to submit your children’s book but don’t have an agent (yet)? Finding publishers accepting children’s books from unagented writers is no easy task! But not impossible. I know because I’ve been doing it awhile, having authored 16 books so far without an agent. I’m now actively pursuing one, given the tighter and more competitive climate, but am still pitching solo. Many other kidlit authors/illustrators that are staying commando too. Wait, I mean rogue. Agentless? You know what I mean.
As I get ready to submit my next round of picture books, I see more and more publishers that USED to be open to submissions are either closed and now agent only, are at capacity and temporarily closed until further notice, or sadly have shuttered down completely. Some have been bought out by larger houses so their policies have changed, some are simply catching up from the constant influx of subs and are temporarily overwhelmed.
What that means to me is that aaalll those great lists of picture book publishers I’ve bookmarked and found sooo helpful are now outdated. It’s frustrating to have to re-research every link. You feel my pain, I know you do.
Writers tend to doubt themselves, amiright? “I’m not a real writer if I’m not published yet” or “Sure, I’m published, but compared to so-and-so I wouldn’t really consider myself a writer.” Knock it off. If you write, you’re a writer.
In Feb (2020) I held a “You’re Still a Writer If…” blog event at WriteOnCon. In honor of that event, I’m giving a quick preview list of the opposite…ways you can tell if you are NOT a writer. Hopefully you do not check any of these boxes, my friend.
You’re NOT a writer if…
You’ve posted a FANTASTIC blog/tweet/chapter and are waiting to go viral (or be discovered)
Yeah, sorry. No one is going to just happen upon you, discover your brilliance, and offer you a million-dollar book deal. That’s not how it works. Publishing isn’t a passive sport. You need to get off your duff and hit the virtual pavement. You need to find THEM. You need to seek out the best editor or publisher or agent for your work. Chronicle Books, for example, gets over 1,000 kidlit submissions A MONTH. You think those hard-working editors have time to proactively scour the internet looking for a diamond in the rough? If only. You are the captain of your ship, the coach of your team, the driver of your bus, the director of your movie, the beater of your drum. You can’t sit there and wait.
Wanna call yourself a writer? Then don’t just sit there, man. Go out and get ‘em.
Let’s say you now submit your story, but you’re not a writer if…
You cranked out a story in record time
I always say writing a picture book is easy. Writing a good one is hard. There are formulas and formats and industry standards and protocols…things you can only learn by putting in your time.
Can you wake up one morning, never having run a day in your life, and win the Boston Marathon? (Uh, correct answer is No. Nice try, optimists.) Writing is the same way. You have to train: do your homework, hone your craft, edit, rewrite, edit some more. Perfection can be simple, but it’s never easy. Writing crappy stuff doesn’t make you a writer. Not to me at least.
After a talk I gave about how to start writing children’s books, a young man and his lady friend came up to me. Or should I say he swaggered over and she quietly followed. He proudly announced he had just written a children’s book, how he had never written one before, and how excited he was about it. His lady friend was duly impressed. I congratulated him. He told me he knew it was good because it took him “only about three minutes.” I tilted my head, paused, and said something about how that’s a great start and encouraged him to consider spending some more time on it, maybe joining a critique group and getting feedback before going any further. He shook his head and waved his hand at me as he said “No need,” and proceeded to tell me because it came to him “just like that” <with a snap of the fingers>, that meant it was good. Finished.
Now you have to understand, in the hour-long presentation he had just attended, I talked about reading 100 (current) children’s books to get a feel for the industry, how you still need a solid plot, the importance of word choices and word count, to set aside your first few drafts for a few weeks, etc. But this guy here, having perhaps (I’m guessing) read his last children book 13 years ago when he was five, was convinced he wrote The Next Great Picture Book in three minutes.
I wished him well, and he swaggered off into the proverbial sunset.
I am sure he was well intended.
He was not a writer, though. He was a poser.
Let’s say you now take time to edit, but you’re not a writer if…
You listen too hard to other people
Heck, maybe that person is me. I never saw that guy’s manuscript, maybe it IS genius. <insert shrug emoji lol> Writing is subjective, sure. What works for you might not work for me or someone else. Just because I don’t read magical realism, for example, doesn’t mean there isn’t value in it. But you’d be best off getting a critique partner that knows (and likes) the genre rather than someone unfamiliar with it.
There are certain aspects and styles and formats and rules that we all need to follow to some degree, though. I always say follow the rules the first time, and once you’re “in,” break all the rules you want. Even that advice might not work for you. Remember when I said you’re the captain of your ship, the driver of your own bus, etc? You still need to be in charge of your own writing and editing. It’s yours!
OF COURSE other people’s opinion’s matter—that’s how books are sold (how any product is, really—people need to like or want it). You need to listen to the right people. I know, I know, that’s the tricky part—figuring out whose advice can best steer you in the right direction. It’s been said that a critic suggested F. Scott Fitzgerald “get rid of that Gatsby character,” and we’ve all heard how many times the Harry Potter series was rejected because it was too long, not kid friendly, considered not commercial enough, blah blah. Clearly those writers knew well enough to toss those kernels of advice. When you ask for feedback, such as at critique groups or a paid conference critique, please keep an open mind when people give you feedback, especially in the beginning, and consider what other people have to say; I’m not saying to toss all of it. (I do listen to unsolicited advice from well-intended friends that aren’t in the industry, because almost all readers are potential buyers and they might actually be my target audience one day, but just like taking parenting advice from someone that’s never had kids? Please.) The longer you’re in the industry, the better you get at discerning valid feedback (“Wow, I never thought of that, thanks!) vs opinions that are not in line with your vision (“Gee thanks, I’ll try to keep that in mind…”).
But if you listen too much and change TOO MUCH (your style or genre or main character’s motivation or whatever), then you’re not a writer. You’re a robot.
Let’s say you now have a solid story, but you’re not a writer if…
You don’t read
Read, read, and read some more. It’s not about knowing what your competition is up to (they aren’t your competition anyway, this industry honestly isn’t like that, they are your colleagues). It’s staying on top of what’s trending, what to avoid, and knowing who is who. You’re educating yourself on the book industry overall, the one you plan to play a large role in some day. Don’t you want to know what’s going on? You gotta stay educated.
Reading can give you inspiration. It can offer effective roadmaps that you don’t have to (re)create from scratch. It shows you tricks like layering or effective use of metaphors or good old distractions that allow for a spectacular twist ending. I mean, you can read a How to Write a Mystery manual, but there’s no better teaching method than reading an actual mystery that’s well done and watching it unfold before your own cute little eyes. Can you imagine taking your driver’s test having only read the DMV manual, without ever being in a moving vehicle or having seen a car? [Wait, in that case I’m saying you can’t just read a book and then do it but I think you see what I’m saying…] You have to experience it, not just hear someone tell you about it.
You can’t be a writer without being a reader.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Let’s say you now read lots, but you’re not a writer if…
You don’t write
“Writer” is a verb, not just a title.
Stop making excuses! Taking a break is fine, but breaks have end points. Stop spending so much time finessing your bio about how you’re writer that you’ve left no time to actually write. Stop surfing social media. [Seriously. Give yourself a window, and ONLY check in at those times. I try to check in midmorning, AFTER I’ve done some work, and later in the afternoon. Sometimes at night too, but never late b/c it tends to agitate me and disrupt my sleep (there’s so many distractions!).]
Yas needs ta write to be a writer! If you’ve stopped, start again. If you are just getting started and are frozen in fear, dude get over it. Start writing. Anything. Outlines. Summaries. Notes. Story ideas. Character names. Backstory. A list of potential future titles (I have a friend that has written TWO books after a cool title popped into her head). Anything that will get your pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. You don’t need an arbitrary daily word count or daily number of minutes/hours toiling at your desk; not every successful writer has them. You don’t need to write every single day; not every successful writer does. You don’t need to feel like writing; not every successful writer is magically inspired at every given moment. But you know what all successful writers have in common?
I can’t believe I have to say this…but you’re not a writer if you don’t write.
End of story.
Are ya with me? What you need to do RIGHT NOW is stop reading this, and get back to work.
I’m headed to one of the largest children’s book writing conferences in the world: the SCBWI Winter Conference (why our annual winter conference is in NY [where it’s supposed to be 8° this weekend] and the summer conference is in LA, I’ll never understand, but that’s another topic.) And OVER A THOUSAND fellow writers and illustrators will be there too. The event boasts many top (dare I say famous) editors, agents, art directors, authors & illustrators in the children’s publishing world. It’s going to be a fantastic few days of learning, inspiration, and friend making.
The large mix of attendees is weighted a little heavily towards the beginner, with many in the intermediate and many many in what I’d call the “seasoned professional” category. The NY conference is a little different from other SCBWI conferences in that, given the proximity to so many publishing houses, it practically rains editors and agents. You’ll see them at conference keynotes, intensives, panels, awards ceremonies, heck, even elevators. Some of them just show for the Art Show or Gala Dinner. Many of them are either new or overworked and don’t travel much, so you won’t see them elsewhere.
If you’ve never been, and have wondered if it’s worth it, I have to give it a hearty YES YES, two cramped writing thumbs up. And not just because I love my NY roots and will find any excuse to go back. But because it’s a writing experience like no other. It’s not a pore-over-your-workshop-notes-and-guarantee-yourself-an-aha-moment. It’s a wow-I’m-really-a-writer-surrounded-by-other-writers-and-this-is-where-I-want-to-be-moment. If you don’t have one of those while you’re there, well, you might not be a writer after all. And that’s OK, too. Isn’t that an important learning moment as well? No matter what you walk away with, I promise you won’t regret your decision to attend. There’s a reason a thousand people from around the world will be at this thing.
Now if you happen to be one of these thousands of fellow conference attendees this week or sometime in the future, and are fearing for your life because you’d rather be in your jammies creating in the privacy of your home and not in the middle of a grand ballroom surrounded by all these cat ladies, here are some conference tips to maximize your trip.
You’re not going to get a contract(seriously, toss that thought right now), but you WILL make contacts. These connections might lead to a contract some day. But don’t pressure yourself, or others. Listen. Learn. Be present. Follow some new people on Twitter and Facebook (follow this blog!). It’s kind of like college-you aren’t really there to memorize the Periodic Table; you’re Continue reading →
There are some sneaky things going on in the writing world that you might not find sneaky. But I do. And I’m calling it out.
Writing contests. Mostly the kinds where you send in unpublished works.
It seems everyone and their mother, literally their mother, has some sort of reader’s or writer’s choice award. All you have to do is pay a small fee, say $19 to enter your manuscript or book into the contest. WHY ARE YOU PAYING MONEY TO ENTER A WRITING CONTEST? At least at the state fair you get a free fair pass in exchange for your peach pie entry fee. If it’s for charity, of course, yes yes pony up. But otherwise NO. As in NO.
What do you win? Let’s dissect a bit.
It might be bragging rights that you won a writing contest. That’s OK. It doesn’t have to be a trip to Sweden to accept the award.
Maybe it’s simple a ribbon or actual award/plaque. Fine. Still not a reason to cough up dough. Don’t tell me they are charging you to cover the cost of the actual award. Oh please.
Why would you pay money to say someone liked your unpublished story? Will it help you move forward, professionally, in some way? Really? Don’t fork over cash just to have your ego massaged. Volunteer somewhere if you feel the need for that kind of ego boost. Or I can tell you: You are a good person. You have value. Your writing is great. I think you’ll amount to something someday. Really. I believe in you. Please don’t waste your money.
Ah, so much went on at the international conference that I’m still basking in the fruitfulness. I’m pretty sure that’s not an expression, but you know what I mean. I’ve tweeted out much of the greatness. I’ve culled some more juicy tidbits to share, in random order:
1. Webinars are popular and great for those farther away from the masses. Expect to see more.
2. Webinars are NOT a replacement of in-person conferences, workshops, or gatherings. They are in addition to them. Nothing beats face to face contact.
3. Editors and agents find/book authors and illustrators at conferences, people they wouldn’t otherwise hear from. Repeatedly. Attend roundtables, submit your work for critique. The additional cost is worth it.
4. With the field so crowded, editors and agents are looking for something that “blows them away.” Really good no longer cuts it.
5. There’s no award for speed in this industry. Give your work the time it deserves.
6. Hardcovers, after a bit of a slump, are on the rise!
7. Picture books are getting shorter, funnier…”an economy of text.”
and, my favorite takeaway from the enter conference:
8. “The importance of what we’re doing will never go away”
Ah, the beauty of Fall. Crisp apples, hayrides, upcoming family visits, free Halloween candy (shush, it’s not stealing, it’s a mommy tax).
But also, it’s Picture Book Idea Month!
Yes, I’m a pledged participant (again)!
This is a free club challenge, if you will, where those that sign up agree to come up with one picture book idea everyday for the month of Nov. Sounds easy, right? HA. I dare you!
You don’t write a picture book every day, you “simply” create an idea for one. It’s like NaNoWriMo only it’s for the children’s book industry. There are other programs in Jan and Feb for you to hone those ideas and sculpt them into manuscripts; more on them later.
Dedication is key. Well, so is creativity, but I truly believe creativity can be cultivated. It doesn’t have be an innate skill you were born with. You can become creative if you put the effort in and learn. [Shout out to Malcolm Gladwell and his Outliers concept]
The main reason I love this challenge is because it forces daily effort and commitment to writing. Carpools, soccer games, messy kitchens…they are all gonna be there. So will writing time, if you choose to make it so.
Here’s to creativity, dedication, and overall authorship joy.