Monday, September 16, 2019

I Have a Children's Book Idea--Now What?

I get this question A LOT. And I try to answer everyone who asks it. 

Why? Because we neeeeeed quality children's books out there. We need your voice--all of your voices! We are all better readers and better people because of them. 

So in this (somewhat selfish) attempt to answer you all at once, I'm going to tell you what I would do if I were you and had a children's book idea. This is not the only answer. In fact, ten different people will probably give you ten different opinions, so by all means, seek more information and choose the path that works for you. BUT if you feel like this is something you are supposed to be doing, something you are called to do, whatever you do, TAKE. THE. NEXT. STEP. Whatever you determine that step to be, through research and prayer, DO IT. 

Okay? Okay.

1. Write your manuscript. This may seem obvious, I know. But do you know how many ideas I have stuck in my head? Too many. And do you know how many of those will get published without this step? ZERO. Exactly zero. 

So open a Word doc, get out a piece of paper, open a voice recorder, and just put actual words to your idea. Once it's on paper, give it a title, divide it into spreads (if a picture book, think in scenes) or chapters, and just get all of those words out of your brain and into a format that you can see and touch and read out loud. 

Then (and only then), you are a writer. You don't have to get published. You don't have to sell a million copies. If you write, you are a writer. Period.

But, assuming you want to be a published writer, something magical happens when you put words on a page. When you finally release the words out of your mind and onto paper, your brain, using all of the experience you've had with books (see #1 below), starts to see what was once just an idea as a real book. As a result, you'll begin seeing holes in the plot, you'll begin hearing issues with the dialogue, and you'll begin to edit the manuscript in a different way, as if it's a real book (because it is).

2. Write a proposal. For me, this is the hard part. But think of it as a résumé for your book (and you). You will find hundreds of book proposal templates out there, but the main things you need to convey are 1) a summary, 2) a sample (if a picture book, include the entire manuscript), 3) why it will sell, 4) a plan to promote, and 5) who you are. Googling it will give you more info than you would ever want, but this is a pretty good explanation. (Also, see #2 below.)

3. Make an agent wish list. Back in the old days, you snail-mailed a paper proposal directly to the publisher to die a long-suffering death in the slush pile. But these days, submitting directly to the publisher is rare. (Rare exceptions: 1) If you have or make a direct contact with an editor and s/he requests your manuscript, or 2) a publishing house allows unsolicited manuscripts.) 

Enter the literary agent. This makes the process more efficient for everyone. A good agent is familiar with the preferences of publishing houses and has an established working relationship with them. Once it's in their capable hands, your chances for getting published increase exponentially.

But getting it into their hands takes some homework that is not for the faint of heart. You can find a pretty comprehensive list of agents and what types of work they represent in Writer's Market. You can also just do a search, go to each agent/firm's website, and review their submission guidelines.

Through this process, you'll learn so much and get a pretty good idea of which agents may be a good fit for you. Make a list (print out each agent's info, create a spreadsheet, write it on a whiteboard--whatever works best for you) of the agents you would love to work with.

4. Perfect your proposal. I use the word "perfect" with caution; some of us will never, ever send out our proposals because they never, ever will be perfect. Don't let that be you. But you do want your proposal to be the absolute best representation of you and your work that you could ever create. It is your one shot (insert Eminem or Hamilton here, whichever you prefer). Do not let a sloppy proposal stand in your way of success. You've learned a lot since step #1, so now it's time to look back through that proposal and make it the best it can be. Be yourself. Stand out. Show them what an amazing author you're going to be.

5. Submit your proposal. Go back to that list you made in #3. If it's been a while, check to make sure that the submission information is the same. Say a prayer. And start submitting--following their guidelines exactly

6. Buckle up. It is probably going to be a bumpy ride. Statistically speaking, you are probably going to wait a long time, get several robotic rejections and, if you're lucky, some rejections with feedback for improvement. Always, always, always respond to the feedback for improvement with gratitude and a teachable attitude. If you get nothing but rejections, take a break, step back, and when you're ready, start back at #1 with fresh eyes. When in doubt, see #7.

7. Just keep going. If you get published on the first try, awesome. Keep going. If you get 47 flat rejections, awesome. Just keep going. If this is what you were meant to do, JUST. KEEP. GOING.


Important things to do in the meantime: 


1. Read quality children's books. Read them in the library. Read them in bookstores. Read them out loud to kids. Don't read them with an agenda. Just read them and love them, and your brain will work out the ins and outs of why you love them, and those little wonderful methods will show up in your writing. Trust me. Do it.

2. Consider joining a writers' organization. SCBWI is pretty much everywhere, and they offer quality conferences and a wealth of information on their website and newsletter. There is a small annual fee to join, but I think you'll find it's well worth it. 

3. Go to writers' events. See if your library offers a writers' group or seminars. Look for writers' conferences in your area. Attend author visits at universities, bookstores, libraries, or book festivals. Find booky, writerly, authorly things to do, and DO THEM. Listen, take notes, practice, learn.

4. Keep an open mind. We need everyone's story, but everyone's story doesn't have to be in a book. Maybe you're supposed to do live speaking events or just tell it to your next-door neighbor. Maybe you'd make a greater impact as a librarian, or maybe you were meant to teach the next generation of writers. Maybe you'd reach the biggest audience as a blogger or podcaster. Keep an open mind, trust your instincts, and whatever you do, tell your story.

Okay, what did I get wrong? What did I forget? What questions do you still have? Leave it in the comments, and we'll work on it--together.

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