Writer's FAQ

How do you find the time to write so much?
There is no such thing as the time fairy dropping bits of time for aspiring writers to trip over or find. If you want to be a writer, you find or make or grab or take time from whatever else is going on. Otherwise you really don’t want to be a writer, you just want to have written.

Do I need an agent?
There are very few really good agents for children’s books, and many good editors at splendid publishing houses. It’s harder to get an agent. Sell a few books and then look around. Join SCBWI and get their agency list. Make sure when you talk to an agent you know other people they handle.

How do I find an illustrator?
Don’t. That’s the editor’s job. Just write the best manuscript you can. Then revise it and make it better. When you send it in (without little side comments to an illustrator, please) the editor will already know dozens of fine artists and will pick out the best.

How can I find out which publisher is right for me?
First join SCBWI and get their publisher lists.

Go to conferences and take notes.

Read web pages like Harold Underdown’s to stay current with publishing needs.

Network, network, network. Why network? Three reasons really:
1. You won’t make the mistakes that all new writers make or at least you’ll avoid a number of them.
2. you will keep current with the who/what/where of children’s literature and
3. you will make many good friends in your business.
There’s actually a number 4 as well. When you reach the level I have reached, it’s incumbent upon you to give back to the system what you’ve taken/earned from it. We can’t really pay back all the people who have helped us along the way, so we pay forward.

Should I send out simultaneous submissions?
First you need to find out which editors are willing to look at simsubs. Next you need to understand that even the ones who say they will, still have a subtle negative attitude toward them. Always let the editors know if you are sending the manuscript out to other editors at the same time.

Is this a good or bad time to be getting into publishing?
Do you remember the dream of Pharaoh: Behold in my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile; and seven cows fat and sleek, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass; and seven other cows came up after them, poor and very gaunt and thin, such as I had never seen before in the land of Egypt. And the thin and gaunt cows ate up the fat cows, but when they had eaten them, no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as gaunt as at the beginning.”

I believe Pharaoh was a publisher and he was dreaming about the troubling world for writers. Do I hear an amen? In the 60s and 70s and yeah–even into the 80s, we writers were all part of those fat cows. And we ate grass and frolicked in the warm sun, and never gave thought to the future. And then along came those seven gaunt cows. I shall name them: Multi-national companies, Barnes & Noble; Thor Power Tool Amendment, zero dollars to school libraries, overproduction of books, television-driven merchandise, and the super-saturation of slush piles by desperate wannabee writers sending multiple submissions.

The publishers responded to this famine situation by (in the last five years) deep and devastating cuts in their lists, firing their editors (both junior and senior), further amalgamating with other publishers, and closing their doors to unsolicited and unagented manuscripts.

That’s the bad news. We have all been at the receiving end of it. Without an agent, you cannot get in the door. Get in the door, you get a rejection that says “Much as I love this, I cannot get my pub committee to agree.” Or “This is too quiet and gentle a book.” Or (as I heard a couple of yearso from a British firm that turned down 7 of my books at once) “She writes beautifully but is too literary for our market.” And if you finally and against all odds sell a book–your editor dies, moves west, or starts a boutique–all of which have happened to me. Or the manuscript is paid for, and after one or two or three or–as happened to me a while ago–after five years languishing on some editor’s desk–it is returned.

But remember–after the seven gaunt cows, will come seven fat cows. Or maybe seven sleek but not quite fat cows. I believe this is already starting to happen. Why in the last two years, in the two online writing groups I am part of, several of the people sold their first books. And one of my ex-students, who had not been able to sell a book in seven years, recently sold a new picture book.

Do you have a secret that makes you so productive?
Want to know my secret? BIC.

That’s right. BIC. Butt in chair. There is no other single thing that will help you more to become a writer.

William Faulkner said: “I write only when I’m inspired. Fortunately I’m inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”

BIC.

Can I publish on the internet?
Of course you can. The word “publish” simply means to make public. And by putting it there, you will be published. But will you be edited? Will you be read? Will you get paid for your work? No, possibly, and not much. Also, once something is on the Internet, the piece may not be of interest to a print publisher. So the decision is yours.

What about self publishing?
If having a book between covers is all that you are interested in, then go ahead and self publish. (But go to a local printer. Stay away from “vanity” publishers, who tell you how wonderful you are and then double charge you.) It will cost you quite a bit and–if you’re lucky–it will look professional. But then you will have hundreds and hundreds of books that you can’t even GIVE away. A friend recently showed us a self-published book. It was very nicely done. But she allowed as how she couldn’t come up with 250 friends and relatives to send copies to. Most printers will give you a good price break at 1,000. If you have never seen 1000 books in boxes, be afraid. Be very afraid to have them in your living room!

Should I copyright my work before sending it out?
Legally your work is copyrighted when you set it down. No one in regular book publishing is going to steal your words or ideas. But if you are nervous about this, do the following: put a copy of the manuscript in an envelope and send it to yourself, return receipt requested. Put the name of the piece on the envelope. Then DO NOT OPEN THE ENVELOPE. Should you feel someone has stolen something of yours, you can have a judge open the envelope which will be date-stamped. Or you could have a copy of your manuscript notarized. But this is a silly worry. Worry more about real things. Like a comet striking the earth.

How do I write a query letter?
An editor wants to know (in a couple of paragraphs) what the book is about.

Think: flap copy. And a couple of paragraphs about your writing background (if you have any). A first chapter might be helpful, too.

Clue: NEVER send two chapters from the middle of the book. Send the first and perhaps second.

Clue 2: Don’t tell them your life’s story and how you need money.

Clue 3: Don’t tell them how good you are, how funny/sad/moving/important the book is. The book will have to speak for itself.

If the above clues seem to you particularly… well…clueless…we get letters like that all the time.

Samples good and bad:

Bad:

Dear Editor:

I have written a brilliant little fairy tale about three mice who live in a pumpkin. There names are Tic, Tac, and Toe. They have a variety of adorable adventures. The book is in rhyme. My best friend, who is an artist, has done the pictures.

Though I have never published before, I have read this little book to all the classes at St. Mary’s on the Sea and the children always ask for more. I think a series of rhymed stories about the trio would hit the baby boomer market just right. We could even make dolls to go with the books.

(How many errors can you spot in those two paragraphs?)

Good:

Dear Ms. Yolen:

I would like to submit a rhymed story about three mice who live in a pumpkin for consideration on your list. Though I am as yet unpublished in children’s books, I have had numerous articles in books and magazines, including the Saturday Review, the Horn Book, Facts R Us, and the Ford Times. I have also worked as a children’s librarian for five years.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Of course for novels, you would do a much longer letter.

What about revisions ?
Now is your time to dream again, to revisit some of that wonderful initial moment of conception, when all things were still possible in this book or poem or piece of writing. Things that have died come alive again during the revision process.

But it will not be exactly the same. After all, the writer’s brain works differently in revision than it did originally, being less focused on creation and more on re-creation.

Think of the process this way: there is a difference between a plant setting down tap roots, and the same plant pushing out buds. Now you have to cultivate those buds into lovely blossoms. Sorry about the overblown metaphor. But it simply springs (pun intended) to mind when speaking of revision.

Do you have any words of wisdom for writers?
No, but I have seven rules:

1. Write every day
2. Write what interests you.
3. Write for the child inside of you. (Or the adult, if you are writing adult books.)
4. Write with honest emotion
5. Be careful of being facile
6. Be wary of preaching
7. Be prepared for serendipity

Finally I would remind you of something that Churchill told a group of school boys: “Never give up. Never give up. Never, never, never give up.”

© 2000 by Jane Yolen, © 2007