Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Ask the Author

You have questions. We have answers. Two I.N.K. bloggers readily agreed to answer this question from AMD:

What advice do you have for writers interested in breaking into this field?

Barbara Kerley responds:
Much of my experience in nonfiction has been writing narrative nonfiction—nonfiction that tells a story. Like any story, it needs a beginning, middle, and end, and a strong central character(s) who drives the story. The added challenge, of course, is that everything in the story needs to be true. The first step in writing a narrative nonfiction book is to determine if your idea fits into the story framework.

If it does, then you need to determine what kind of story you'll be writing: a nonfiction article, a picture book, or chapter book. I think about the age-appropriateness of the ideas underlying the story, to determine if it works for a young or an old audience. As for article vs. book, I think it has to do with the heft of the story—if the idea is meaty enough that a kid would want to read it more than once—and also, its illustration potential (this is especially critical for picture books).

I have to say that selecting the right story to tell, then, is crucial to breaking into the field. I have abandoned many ideas, sometimes after days or weeks (or, when I was first starting out, months) of research, when I realized they wouldn't work as a story. (They might work beautifully as a different kind of nonfiction book, however, so if you love the idea, don't abandon it—just figure out the right format to present the information!)

Once you've identified a promising idea, check around to see how it's been covered by other authors. The easiest way to do this is to search on amazon and see what's in print. Think about how your approach will be different/fresh/necessary—you'll need this info when you submit your manuscript to editors.

Next, you have to be willing to put in the time to do your research. Seek out primary sources. Interview experts. Read read read. Triple-check your facts as you write. (I like to use the footnote feature in Word to note which sources I used for each fact. I don't submit a final draft with these footnotes, but there are very helpful during the writing and revising stage when you have to keep tabs on a lot of material.)

After you have a solid draft, get some feedback. Join a critique group if you can, find a trusted reader(s), or see if one of the experts you interviewed would be willing to read the manuscript.

Revise revise revise until you have the best manuscript you can write. Then, spend some time in the library and in bookstores, identifying which publishers publish books like yours, and send your story off. Celebrate a job well done and then, while you are waiting what seems like forever to hear back, start something new :)

Vicki Cobb responds:
I broke into this field many years ago by answering an ad in the NY Times for teachers to write instructional materials. If you have expertise in a field, that is still available and there are many companies that produce teachers guides, workbooks, etc that hire freelancers. Times have changed, however and the children’s book business is difficult to get into. My suggestion is to join
SCBWI. They offer a lot of regional networking, as well as conferences where you can meet editors and hear their concerns.

I think Barbara Kerley covered the writing aspect of this question very well. I think it’s helpful to know that publishers are not looking for books. They are looking for suppliers of books. If your submission doesn’t fit into their editorial program, you will be rejected and it has nothing to do with your work. So think of your submissions as calling cards. Your writing can make an impression even if it’s not a buy. Be pleasant about a rejection and offer something else. Ask editors what they’re looking for. Read catalogues of publishers to get a sense of their editorial thrust.

Be prepared to pay your dues. I wrote a curriculum for cosmetologists, legends for the backs of a series of blown up photos, teachers’ guides, and manuals before I got my first book contract yet the topic was assigned by the editor. Is there a recipe for success? I love Dolly Parton’s answer, “I never quit trying and I never tried quitting.”

We’ll answer more questions at the end of July and at the end of future months, so keep let us know what’s on your mind. We want to discuss the topics that interest you most!

1 comment:

Deborah Heiligman said...

Great answers, Barb and Vicki. I think I would only add that you should read as many children's books as you can, in as many genres. Notice what you like about them, what you don't like. Notice which formats feel best to you. (Get to know the formats, too.) Notice which publishers seem to like which kinds of books (though this can get outdated pretty quickly). Read, read, read, and you will absorb so much. And yes, SCBWI is a great resource, and other writers who are good critiquers are golden.