illustrated by John O’Brien
The beginning of writing for everyone, whether younger or older, published or unpublished, is a blank page or computer screen. We have the whole space to ourselves to say whatever we want. No one tells us to be quiet, no one is too busy to listen, and no one will laugh at us. And, it doesn’t have to be perfect!
If you want to write, sooner or later you will make yourself sit down and begin. Writing anything is good practice: letters, journal entries, even school papers. Writers also read. Read anything and everything you can.
I loved to read as a child, but never thought I could be a writer. When I became a mother and read story after story to my boys, I decided if I was ever going to try writing it was time to get busy. My first few stories were terrible! I had forgotten how to use commas and how to put sentences together. But I kept writing, and reading, and slowly the stories got better. I also attended a few writers’ conferences where I began to learn about the publishing business.
When I sent my (very) lengthy manuscript for Bedtime! to twelve editors, I got twelve rejection slips. One of the editors suggested turning my idea into a 32-page picture book for younger children. I thought she was crazy. Six months later, however, I took another look at the manuscript and realized if I pared down the text it might just be better! I sent a much shorter, revised version to Holiday House and the editor called me two weeks later with an offer to publish.
Ever since then, Holiday House has been my publisher. I do not have an agent but work directly with my editor. In my experience, an agent has not been necessary. Once the editor accepts my manuscript, my job is basically done. I don’t talk or meet with the illustrator. If I’ve found any really obscure pictures in my research, I send them to my editor and she forwards them to the illustrator. My editor is the one with the vision of how the book should look once it is published. She chooses the illustrator, works with the art director, and coordinates all aspects of the book’s production. It is a lot of work, none of which I want or could do!
I’ve come to like each different piece of my job as a writer. The first piece, doing the research, is like going on a treasure hunt. Then, cutting my pages and pages of notes down to a picture-book length is like boiling a pot of soup down to the best and juiciest essence. Finally, there is the challenge of writing as clearly, simply, and as beautifully as possible. Each word has to be the best I can find.
Writing is hard work, but when you get a piece the way you want it . . . there is nothing better. I still get excited thinking that writers are like magicians. They pull words out of thin air to make something appear on paper or screen that has never, ever, been there before.
Some useful organizations
- Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) – excellent resources and conferences
- Regional branches of SCBWI
- Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (MWPA) – because I live in Maine. Your state may have another organization.
Two of my favorite books on writing
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (Pantheon Books, 1994)
On Writing by Stephen King (Scribner, 2000)
Your local library – look for books on writing and publishing in the reference section and also the regular nonfiction section. Ask to borrow Publishers Weekly (they put out special children’s forecast issues in July and February). Spend time in the children’s section getting to know authors, illustrators, publishers. Get to know the children’s librarian. And read!
Your local independent bookstore – get to know what’s selling and what is not.