Kate Coombs

How to Become a Children's Book Writer

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Q&A for Grownups

Q:I'd love to write for children! How hard is it to break in?
A:It's extremely hard to break in. You're competing with thousands of other eager writers, many of them very talented. If you have just one or two stories you enjoy telling your children or grandchildren and don't particularly want to work your tail off becoming a better writer, I recommend you self-publish and distribute your book to friends and family. If, however, you love books, love language, and feel compelled to write even if it may take you ten years to sell something, if you have more than 1-2 stories to tell and you're in it for the long haul, read on.
Q:I'm willing to do the work, but where do I begin?
A:Join SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators at www.scbwi.org) and start attending their workshops and conferences. Read their newsletter.
Q:Is it a good idea to join a writing group?
A:Yes! If you're interested in this career, a good writing group will really put you ahead. Be careful, though. A good writing group is encouraging while offering specific, useful feedback. A bad writing group is inept and/or mean-spirited. Still, you have to be open to suggestions. If you're too touchy, you'll never get better at your craft. Since I belong to a group of good, kind writers, I listen to them. I figure if some aspect of my story bothers 2-3 different people, then I need to address it. I don't always solve the problem exactly the way my group members suggest, but I do take action. I think of my writing group members as particularly bright guinea pigs, my sample readers.
Q:But if I join a writing group, won't someone steal my ideas?
A:In screenwriting, there's a slight chance of that happening. In children's books, it hardly ever happens. Keep in mind that most people are in love with their own ideas! Also, in the unlikely event that you are writing a story about raccoons and someone else in your group ends up writing a story about raccoons, they will inevitably be very different stories—because you are two very different writers.
Q:How else can I become a good writer? Should I take a class?
A:A class is nice, but the best classroom is your local library or children's bookstore, where you can learn from the greatest writers of all time. Reading a handful of children's books is not enough. You should read children's books by the dozen, especially in the genres that most appeal to you. Start with the award winners and perennial sellers (Where the Wild Things Are, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlotte's Web, Maniac Magee, etc.). Not only will you come to understand how good writers construct their stories, but you will also get a sensible dose of reality about where your own writing falls relative to the field. This should inspire you to improve! I've read thousands of children's books over the years, and I know exactly how good—and how bad—I am.
Q:My ideas are good, but I'm not so good at spelling, and commas confuse me. What do you recommend?
A:Don't tell your high school English teacher I said this, but writing is in the words. Spelling and punctuation are the icing on the cake. Write your heart out, then use spell check and get a friend with a gift for grammar and punctuation to proofread your stuff (but not if they try to change the words and meaning on you!). I know people who spell perfectly but who wouldn't recognize a plot if it fell on their heads. I also have a friend who graduated from high school at the age of 32 and can't spell to save her life—but can she ever write! Remember, writing is the gift of gab in disguise, harking back to the world's great oral tradition of story telling. That said, reading a lot will invariably improve your grammar, punctuation, and spelling because those multitudinous sentence models will start sinking into your consciousness.
Q:I want to write picture books. What do I do?
A:Most people want to write picture books because they seem easy and possibly lucrative, but a few cautions apply. One is that writing a good picture book is like writing a good haiku, a lot harder than it looks. (I'm sure you've read some bad haiku!) Another is that most writers have a voice which turns out to be best suited primarily for picture books or for intermediate fiction or for young adult fiction. Some of you who think you want to write picture books don't have much of a picture book voice, but do have a strong voice for a different age range. It's important to experiment, to find and then play to your strengths as a writer. You should also be aware that at this point in time, the picture book market tends to be glutted. Not only is there an active group of experienced writers dominating the field, but a veritable flood of picture books has been published during the past decade. Not to mention the current fad of celebrities writing picture books. (Jamie Lee Curtis is the only one who impresses me so far.) A further complication is that the traditional "quiet" or concept book is harder to sell than ever—the market is mostly calling for rowdy, rollicking stories. With all this in mind, never forget: It takes mad crazy love for an editor to buy a picture book these days.
Q:I still want to write picture books. What do I do?
A:Write a bunch of picture books. Read a bunch of picture books. Write more picture books. Read still more picture books. Consider the guidelines offered in the reference books I list in this section. Write tight. And then, be sure you go way past "nice" stories to create something fresh and dynamic, a manuscript that will make editors spill their coffee and grab the phone to call you. (Sorry, but this means that cute story about how Fluffy Kitten makes a friend is not good enough. Which reminds me: avoid didacticism! Your values will show in your work anyway. Don't preach at kids—it's boring and it's hard to sell.)
Q:How do I go about doing the actual writing?
A:Set aside some time to write or it will never happen. I used to grab an hour or two every Saturday morning, first thing. If I waited till after my errands were done, the day slipped away without any writing. So schedule your writing time in advance! Then make a list of ideas ("what ifs") and see which ones capture your interest the most. Ask yourself whether each idea is more suited to picture book, intermediate, or YA length and readers. Write a story or a chapter. Write another one. Rewrite the first one. Write a third. Rewrite the first one again. Rewrite the second one. And so on. Please don't get bogged down for years on just one project—that usually amounts to creative stagnation. Even if your break from a piece of writing consists of composing a couple of poems on the side, it will refresh your writing palate.
Q:But writing's fun, isn't it?
A:Yes and no. Writing is hard work, but it is often satisfying and even fun work. There's simply a lot of joy that comes from the act of creating a world on paper. Besides, as a writer, you should play with ideas and with words. Be flexible. Let the spirit of your playful child self shine through in your work. (Exception—you are writing a very dark YA. Then you'll want to channel your angsty teen self.)
Q:No, I mean, what do I write, when I start?
A:Okay, nuts and bolts: for picture books, rely heavily on "what if" scenarios. While picture book characters must be appealing, picture books tend to be driven more by plot than by character. In contrast, when writing an intermediate or YA book, it helps to create a character and give her a problem. Then follow her around and see what happens next. How does she react to the problem? Throw another curveball at your character. Give your character at least one friend and at least one enemy. Also, don't lock yourself so tightly into a plot that you can't take risks and truly create as you go. Surprise your readers (in ways that will make sense after the fact). Don't make readers roll their eyes because your plot is too predictable.
Q:Do you ever get writer's block? What do you do about it?
A:I don't tend to think of myself as having writer's block. If I ever feel stuck, it's because I'm searching for a solution to a plot problem, and that's simply part of the process. Playing around with the possibilities usually works, but if I can't seem to solve the problem after a bit, I work on another project while I let my subconscious mind incubate the trouble spot. This generally takes from 1-3 days, but sometimes a week or a month (and in one case, ten years—but it was worth the wait). I also pick the brains of my writing group, who can point me in new directions. Like a lot of people, I often find solutions to creative problems while I'm taking a long walk, driving, or in the shower.
Q:What's your best advice of all time?
A:"Show, don't tell" is still brilliant advice: paint a sensory picture that your readers can experience vicariously in their imaginations rather than editorializing, speechifying, or otherwise condescending to them. But lately the advice that most affects my work is that you shouldn't mollycoddle your characters. Make life tough for them and watch them rise to the challenge. In particular, don't let adult characters take over for your child characters. The book is about your child characters, and the adults are really so much furniture as far as your young readers are concerned.
Q:How do I submit stuff to publishers?
A:Publishing is a business. Buy the reference book Children's Writers' and Illustrators' Market at your local bookstore and see which publishers will accept unsolicited or unagented work. Be willing to try small publishers as well as big ones, and consider writing for magazines on the road to book publishing. Don't send submissions to publishers whose books don't match up well with the style of your work. When you send submissions, don't try to be cute (purple envelopes, etc.), since all the publishers want to see is how you write. Don't send out anything at first crack, either. Revise over and over, preferably getting some educated feedback along the way. Follow each publisher's submissions guidelines, enclosing a SASE with sufficient postage unless they say not to. (Many publishers now respond only if they accept a piece; instead of sending a rejection slip, these publishers shred your stuff, so they don't need or want a SASE.) Oh, and don't bother trying to find an illustrator for your picture book manuscript. That's the editor's job. As an author, you may never even speak to the illustrator! Finally, be willing to wait an obnoxiously long time to hear back from publishers. The shortest I've waited is 2 months, but the longest is 18 months. The average these days seems to be 4-6 months. Generally speaking, rejection takes place by mail (or an eerie silence—see above). Acceptances are almost always handled with a phone call.
Q:How do you handle rejection?
A:I'm a big softie, but then, nobody likes rejection. My sneaky trick is that before I ever hear back from a publisher, I already have notes about which publisher I will send the story to next. (If I get feedback, however, I usually revise in between.)
Q:Any last words?
A:Write a book you'd love to read. It will be like you're reading that book as you write it.

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