With everything that’s going on in the world right now – coronavirus, school closings, library closings, social distancing, conferences and workshops cancelled… it’s hard to focus on writing. Here are some quotes to make you smile, laugh, ponder and encourage you as you forge ahead on your writing journey.
One of the signs of Napoleon’s greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot. ~Siegfried Unseld
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. ~Jack London
The best kind of writing, and the biggest thrill in writing, is to suddenly read a line from your typewriter that you didn’t know was in you. ~Larry King
The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. ~Robert Cormier
A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove… but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child. ~Simone Weil
There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than 5 revisions are required. In contrast, when I’m greatly inspired, only 4 revisions are needed. ~J.K. Galbraith
Anyone who says he wants to be a writer and isn’t writing, doesn’t. ~Hemingway
So, you want to be a writer? Ok. Be one. ~Ed Wood
You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try. ~Beverly Sills
I am a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it. ~Thomas Jefferson
An editor is a person who knows precisely what he wants but isn’t quite sure. ~Walter Davenport
You can’t be that kid at the top of the water slide overthinking it. You have to just go down the chute… You have to let people see what you wrote… Perfect is overrated. Perfect is boring. ~Tina Fey
What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world? ~Lin-Manuel Miranda
No one else knows what they are doing either. ~Ricky Gervais
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. ~Helen Keller
DAILY MANTRA: Today I will write on the edge of my ability.
In the world of writing there are several kinds of letters related to submitting an idea or manuscript to a publisher. Words like pitch letter, query, and cover letter get thrown around a lot at conferences and in writing circles. But not everyone is clear on what those things are and when to use them. If you don’t have an agent (and many people do just fine without one), all this is on you. Hopefully, this will help.
All three types of letters are designed to help you sell something: an idea, a book, or yourself. No matter which letter you are writing, your goal is to keep it short and sweet. None of these should
be more than about 250 to 300 words. Think: one page letter.
A query letter is designed to sell an idea. The point is to get an editor to request the full manuscript. Knowing how to write one is a useful skill.
A query starts with a connection (IF you have one) that shows you either know the editor or know something about their house based on your research. You might mention that you met at a conference (IF you have), or that you were pleased to note on their website that they are looking for manuscripts just like yours, or that so and so (name drop here) suggested you contact them. Be sure the letter is addressed to an actual person, and double check to make sure you have the
right name. In a pinch, if you don’t actually have a connection and the publisher’s website was pretty vague about what they might be looking for, it’s ok to start with the hook.
Now the hook. That’s the one to two sentence elevator pitch that you have memorized for those moments when someone says, “What are you working on?” For fiction the answer goes something like, “It’s a picture book (or YA, or MG, or whatever) about X (your main character) who wants Y (the problem) but can’t get it because Z (the obstacle). For nonfiction your hook
might include an interesting fact from your manuscript, a description of some scene or process in the book, or a question your work will answer. Whatever you choose to do, try to use the same tone as the book so that the editor gets a feel for the overall manuscript.
Next is the 411 on the book. This includes a short summary and vital statistics such as title, length, type of manuscript (fiction, nonfiction, informational fiction, etc.), and intended audience. Keep it to one paragraph, and make it sing. You want this part to capture your voice and intrigue your audience (the editor) at the same time.
Next comes your biographical information. This is a short paragraph about your qualifications as a writer. Don’t include your education or work history unless it is pertinent to your writing. If you are a teacher, that’s pertinent. If you are a nurse but your book is about something nonmedical, it’s not. If you have won any awards for your writing, be sure to include them here.
And finally, finish up with a polite request to send all or some part of the manuscript, a closing, and your contact information. Boom. Done.
Does this HAVE to be done in this order? Nope. But all of these pieces should be there. So, might I suggest a TIME SAVING HACK?
Create a folder for each of your manuscripts. The folder may include older versions of the manuscript, notes, and/or research on the topic. And one document in that folder should be dedicated to promotion and biographical information for that book. Write out your hook (elevator pitch), your book summary (vital statistics), and your biographical information as it
pertains to that book. Then, when you write your query or cover letter, simply copy and paste the pieces. All you’ll need to add is a salutation, a connection (only if you have one), and a closing.
Which brings us to the second kind of letter—the cover letter. A cover letter accompanies a manuscript submitted either by request or through open submissions. If it was requested, be sure to note that in your connection point. A cover letter has, essentially, the same parts as a query. But instead of asking if you can send the entire manuscript, you’ll be indicating whether the manuscript is enclosed, pasted below, or attached. (Be sure to read the guidelines on the publisher’s website to see which one is their preferred method.) Overall remember to keep it simple. Let your manuscript do most of the talking.
And finally, there is the pitch letter. A pitch letter is designed to sell YOU as an author. The goal is to be awarded a writing assignment.
A pitch letter begins much like a query or cover letter. Make a connection if you have one. This is usually only two or three sentences in a single paragraph.
Next, indicate your interest in the editor’s company. Tell why you like their products. Maybe you’ve used them in your classroom. Maybe you ordered their books for your library. But let them know you have done your research by showing them you are familiar with their work. And then let them know you would LOVE to do an assignment for them. Keep this to one paragraph.
(One caveat to this is to make sure you are not only familiar with the publisher’s books, but also their guidelines for getting an assignment. If the company has a form they want you to fill out and requires a writing sample, don’t try to write a pitch letter instead. As always, follow the guidelines.)
Follow this with a short paragraph about your qualifications (biographical information). If you are not yet published, tell the editor some experience or knowledge you have that would make you a good candidate for an assignment. Don’t worry if you have no published work to list. Assignment writing is one area where not being published doesn’t necessarily work against you.
Finally, thank the editor for their time and indicate you hope to be hearing from them soon. If you are including samples (per their guidelines), make a note of that here. And be sure your complete contact information is clearly visible somewhere on the page.
There you have it. Query letters, cover letters, and pitch letters. Easy peasy. Now, go get’em!
We sculpt nonfiction from a sandbox of facts. Much of the research stage of our work involves gathering facts to fill the sandbox before we shape our narrative.
But what happens when there's debris in the sand? In my new picture book biography, Beautiful Shades of Brown, the Art of Laura Wheeler Waring, a critical part of the narrative revolves around Waring hearing Marian Anderson sing. Waring sees how Anderson breaks down walls of segregation with her voice and dreams that a painting of Anderson will break down walls, too.
It was a challenge to collect all the facts I needed for my sandbox. My book, which came out Feb. 4, is the first that focuses solely on Waring. In the course of my fact-gathering, I read that Waring first saw Anderson sing in Paris in 1916. Wonderful! Then I cross-checked the date against timelines of both women’s lives and found that while both had been to Paris, neither had been there in 1916. What?
Scramble. Search. Dig. I knew from my research that Waring had been wowed by Anderson’s singing. But where had Waring seen Anderson sing if it wasn’t Paris?
Erin Beasley, Digital Image Rights and Reproduction Specialist at the National Portrait Gallery and Dr. Tuliza Fleming, Curator of American Art at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., put me in touch with Madeline Murphy Rabb, an artist and granddaughter of Laura’s brother, Arthur Edward Wheeler, for help.
Ms. Rabb was enormously helpful. She went back to the family with my question and searched her great-aunt’s writings. It turns out that Waring saw Anderson sing April 6, 1916 at the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia -- a scene you’ll see in the book and in the timeline.
Whenever I can, I like to check facts with family members or trusted sources that have known my subjects. This has been the most dramatic example of how this diligence has saved me from error. But I have always found it helpful reaching out to primary sources to make sure I am on target and my sand is free of debris. I hope this approach helps you, too!
Author's notes are my favorite part of the back matter in nonfiction books. I enjoy reading about the author's process in creating the book and/or gaining insight into the significance of the events or the person's life presented in the book.
I recently asked Sylvie Frank, Senior Editor at Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster, about her experience with author's notes. She graciously shared her thoughts on them and how they are used in books she has edited.
Q: Are author's notes becoming popular in children's books?
SF: I would say they are already popular, as are illustrators’ notes. I think the rise of notes (and of back matter in general, including bibliographies, timelines, glossaries, etc.) is a lasting effect of the Common Core State Standards. When Common Core, with its emphasis on nonfiction, was rolled out, publishers were looking to help educators use books of all kinds—not just nonfiction—in the classroom. We want to make it easier for teachers to create lesson plans around our books by highlighting and adding curriculum-relevant information. Library and school budgets are small, so by adding back matter we’re hoping to make it more useful and increase the book’s value. This won’t surprise anyone, but picture books are short—even nonfiction. Author’s notes are useful places to provide more context or background or highlight a specific element without adding length to the story itself.
Q: Why do editors like them? What purpose do they serve?
SF: Most often I ask writers for authors’ notes so they can personalize the book: why did they choose to write about this topic? Is it personally meaningful? For example, in MY STORY, MY DANCE: ROBERT BATTLE’S JOURNEY TO ALVIN AILEY, Lesa Cline-Ransome writes in her author’s note about the personal significance of seeing the Alvin Ailey dancers perform. And James E. Ransome, in an illustrator’s note, writes about his choice of medium and the artists who inspired the illustration style.
Sue Macy’s author’s note in her forthcoming picture book THE BOOK RESCUER: HOW A MENSCH FROM MASSACHUSETTS SAVED YIDDISH LITERATURE FOR GENERATIONS TO COME provides the reader with more information on the Yiddish language, which is important context for understanding the premise of the book.
HEY, WALL is fiction. In it, a boy decides to turn a bare, abandoned wall into a piece of art by bringing his community together to create a mural. We included notes from both author Susan Verde and illustrator John Parra. Susan writes about being inspired to write HEY, WALL by the street art she saw while growing up in New York City. She also explains the difference between street art and graffiti. John says that he was inspired to study art by the murals he saw growing up in Southern California, and names some of the painters who inspired his illustrations in the book.
Finally, ME AND SAM- SAM HANDLE THE APOCALYPSE is a middle-grade mystery featuring a protagonist on the autism spectrum. In her author’s note, Susan Vaught explains what it means to be neurodivergent and that she is neurodivergent herself. Additionally, she includes notes from other writers about the significance of writing neurodiverse characters. So, there’s a lot of flexibility in authors’ notes (and illustrators’ notes). But the goal is always to add nuance and insight to the book.
Q: How common are author's notes in children's books? How often do you ask for them?
SF: I include them often—but not always—in fiction and nonfiction picture books and middle grade. (I don’t edit YA.) I ask for them frequently, but it depends on the book.
Q: Are they important to mention in queries?
SF: I don’t think so. If an author feels that a note would add context or other important information, go ahead and include it at the end of a manuscript. If an editor likes a manuscript and thinks the book will benefit from an author’s note, he or she will request one at some point during the editing process.
Thank you, Sylvie!
P.S. For more information on types of author's notes and examples, see my article "Author Notes: Stories Behind a Story" in the SCBWI BULLETIN, Winter 2020 issue, pp. 28-29.
Last week Nancy Churnin gave you great tips on how to keep your picture book manuscript lean and focused. But there are times when you may want to go long.
I love writing for the mid-grade and young adult readers. There are many advantages, least of which is MORE WORDS.
A longer text allows you to take information that is relegated
to a picture book’s back matter and pull it into the main body of the story. You can dig deeper. Explore causality. Discuss consequences, connect the story directly to the reader, and show how it affects them. In my YA title Medicines from Nature I took readers on a journey from the Amazon to Oregon, from Ancient Egypt to the future, and ended with a discussion about biodiversity, conservation, and how they could help prevent the loss of medicinal knowledge.
Today’s older readers are tech-savvy, immersed in social media. They have buying power, and are aware of politics and climate change. In the middle of all this chaos they are also trying to figure out where they fit in the real world. Although they are reading within the curriculum, they want to know about current events too. Some good examples “ripped from the headlines” are Rising Water: The Story of the Thai Cave Rescue by Marc Aronson, and Cynthia and Sanford Levinson’s Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws that Affect Us Today (which I refer to frequently just to make sense of the nightly news).
Once a young reader is hooked on a topic -- civil rights for instance –they tend to dig deeper. They already know about MLK and Rosa Parks, but what about expanding that sphere of knowledge. Introduce other tragic incidences, or celebrate lesser-known heroic figures. Steve Sheinkin did this in The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights.
Some of the best mid-grade titles make readers question what they already know. For example, we all learned about Amelia Earhart but did you know she manipulated the press to make herself look better? Kids will when they read Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming. Similarly, Eric Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve paint a slightly different picture of our first president in Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington's Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away.
A longer text and higher reading level also allow you to play with format, or approach the subject from an unusual perspective. In Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth, James Cross Giblin tells the story of Lincoln’s assassination by comparing the two Booth brothers. Kelly Milner Hall has written about mythical beasts before, but in her new book, Cryptid Creatures she presents them in the style of a naturalist’s field guide; short snippets of description along with pertinent facts. The Two Truths and a Lie series by Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Ann Thompson is another clever twist on nonfiction.
So, explore your options. Think big. There is a whole world out there, and middle grade and YA readers are clamoring for it.
“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”—Mark Twain
I often think of this Mark Twain quote when I’m looking over a manuscript of too many words.
It truly is easier to write long than short when it comes to non-fiction. Editors realize this. That’s why they generally accept longer word counts for non-fiction – under 1,000 words – than they do for fiction – usually under 500 words.
That said, the under 1,000-word count is easier said than done, especially after you’ve done lots of research, you find yourself passionately in love with your subject and you want so very much to share each and every one of those amazing anecdotes and delectable tidbits.
Well, guess what? It takes longer to write shorter, but it’s part of the job. With the disclaimer that sometimes it takes me months to trim and discard, here are a few questions that will help you carve your picture book down to size:
1.Does it propel the story or is it a delightful distraction that slows you down? Save your distractions for the back matter, the teacher guide or your author visits.
2.Does it pertain to your theme? If not, it may belong in another story.
3.Does it exude that faint odor of a laundry list? Yes, we know you are proud of your subject’s many accomplishments and attributes, but this is a picture book, not a textbook of exhaustive knowledge. Go back to questions one and two and only keep the details that propel the story and pertain to your theme.
Yes, I know from experience that it’s easier and faster to throw everything in the story than it is to write something short. But consider the words of Mark Twain. Take the time to write something short, compelling and irresistible. You and your readers will be glad you did.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking about being a writer at a large private school near Chicago. But before my talk, as an added bonus, I had lunch with a group of award-winning student authors ranging in age from 5 to 13. (These students had been chosen to represent their individual classroom as “the best of the best” and read their work in front of the entire school.) So, while I chatted with these gifted wordsmiths in between bites of cheese pizza, I asked them: “Which was harder for you—writing or editing your story?” As I expected, all but one said the editing process had been way harder. Then, the one who didn’t jump on the editing bandwagon said something I’ll never forget.
She very honestly admitted, “I had trouble with the writing process because I kept editing myself…”
That comment sparked a very interesting conversation about hats and one of my favorite books about writing, “Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life” by Robert Benson. In case you haven’t read it, Benson shares about the different hats he wears when crafting his amazing books. He sports a stylish beret when creating story. As he writes his “sloppy copy,” beret man is the guy in the chair. But once this first draft is safely recorded, he switches to his well-loved Yankees cap which he has lovingly named “Gamer”. He wears “Gamer” when editing. But Benson explains that bringing out “Gamer” too soon in the process can totally halt the creativity of “Beret man”—the artist.
That’s what had happened to the student who confessed she’d really struggled with the writing process.
“You switched hats too soon,” I told her, explaining Benson’s theory.
What about you? Are you self-editing (and sometimes self-loathing) as you write and create children’s stories? Are you constantly fixing grammar and spelling or rewriting sentences three and four times before continuing on? If so, I feel your pain. I occasionally stifle my own creativity because I can’t get my baseball “Gamer” cap off my head. It just won’t budge! And, no matter how hard I try, I can’t create with “Gamer” calling the shots!
If you struggle with this premature switching of hats, here are three strategies you can implement to keep your beret safely in place as you create.
*Write fast, really fast. Don’t give yourself the chance to edit. Just get that story down on paper or in that computer, whatever your process.
*Switch gears, not hats. The moment you feel yourself slipping into the editing mode, switch gears completely. For example, if you’re writing a picture book in narrative and you start to slip into editor mode, stop writing narrative and try writing your picture book in rhyme. That will get your creative juices flowing again and put your editor’s hat back on the hook.
*Set the Mood with Music. This works well for me. If I’m creating, I have on “mood music” that awakens the creative part of me. So, when I was writing my book, “Get Your Spirit On! Devotions for Cheerleaders” I listened to all of the cheer music compilations that my daughters competed to when they cheered. That music was motivating and put me in the right mindset to write about “all things cheerleading.” But, when I am editing, I almost always listen to instrumental music. When the instrumental melodies fill my writing room, it instantly becomes my editing room. Maybe this tactic will work for you, too!
If you’re like the little girl who struggled with knowing which hat to wear—the beret or the Gamer—I hope you’ll try these three strategies. And, I recommend you purchase your own copy of “Dancing on the Head of a Pen” and glean from Benson’s genius. https://www.amazon.com/Dancing-Head-Pen-Practice-Writing/dp/1400074355
When you’re starting out as a writer, waiting to land that first contract, it can be hard to think of yourself as a professional. However, this mindset can get in the way of your success. Fortunately, it really is possible to ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ when it comes to writing like a pro! Here are seven tips.
1. Treat your writing like a job. It may not be your full-time job—or even a paying job at all—but when you think of it that way, your feelings, actions, and results will follow. Even if it’s just an hour or two a week, schedule time for your writing job and honor that commitment. During your writing time, WRITE. Don’t open your social media, don’t answer the phone, and above all, don’t wait around for the muse to show up.
2. Educate yourself. Never stop learning. Read books about the craft and business of writing. Read books in your genre. Attend conferences and workshops. Join free writing challenges and Facebook groups online. Take courses or find a mentor. Join SCBWI. Pick and choose the options that fit your schedule and budget.
3. Build your skills. While you may long to write the next literary classic, few writers find a direct route to success. While you’re waiting to find an agent or get published, build your writing muscles by writing for newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc. Find critique partners to help you strengthen your story before sending it out.
4. Network. Join SCBWI, attend conferences or workshops, or network on social media. Contribute value to others, and you will find that it comes back to you. In all your interactions, remember to keep it classy. Put your best foot forward, both in person and online.
5. Submit your work. Do your research and target submissions carefully. Remember that there is a human on the other end. Write the kind of cover letter you would like to receive if you were in their shoes – personal, thoughtful, and professional. Follow guidelines and format your submission correctly. If you’re not tech-savvy, ask a friend for help.
6. Expect rejections. They are an inevitable part of the writing business. Even best-selling authors still get them! Eat a piece of chocolate or commiserate with a friend – then put it behind you and send out your story again.
7. Once you’ve received a contract, you really are a pro. Congratulations! Now it’s even more important to act like one. Keep your correspondence friendly but professional. Respect your editor or agent’s time. Follow instructions carefully. Ask critique partners to review your revisions before sending them in. And above all, meet your deadlines!
Lisa Amstutz is the author of more than 100 children’s books, including Amazing Amphibians (January 2020) and Plants Fight Back (forthcoming). She serves as a volunteer judge at Rate Your Story and as Assistant Regional Advisor for SCBWI: Ohio North. She also offers critique and mentorship services at www.LisaAmstutz.com.
What would you do to get a good story? Track a tornado? Visit avolcano? Watch wolves copulate? Sometimes doing research means getting out of the library and into real life. It means trading in the computer for a pair of snowshoes, or maybe some hip waders, and joining scientists in the field.
I’m working on a project right now that involves wolf breeding research. In order to better understand it, I volunteered to become a member of the team of observers. Yes – that meant I had to go to wolf mating training - complete with diagrams and slides. I won’t share them here – this is a G rated site. But now that I am a trained observer, I get to spend the next few weeks hunkered down in a deer blind watching wolves poop, urinate, and hopefully copulate. Some people think I’m crazy, but I consider it a part of the radical research I am willing to do to write a great nonfiction book.
Hands-on experience helps authors understand the complexity of a subject and in turn relate it to their audience. Some of the best nonfiction authors go to great lengths to learn about their topic firsthand. Author Mary Kay Carson is often in the field with scientists and just spent last spring out chasing tornadoes. Patricia Newman’s award-winning book Sea Otter Heroes had her out on the water visiting the critters themselves. And just ask author Peggy Thomas about the time she gave an elephant a rectal examination. It’s all in the name of nonfiction writing and all for the desire to write the best and most accurate story possible.
So what nonfiction story are you working on right now and what lengths are you willing to go to gain in-depth knowledge about your topic?
Me – I’ll be the author wearing hand and foot warmers silently recording the deeply personal behaviors of mating wolves.
I can’t wait!
We’ve all done it. We walk into our local bookstore and there is an author sitting at a little table with a stack of her books trying not to look pathetic. We quickly duck behind the greeting card rack, and ooze over to the bargain bookshelves, acting especially interested in the History of Manhole Covers in Providence, Rhode Island. When she looks away in desperate hope to the next person coming in the door, you make a dash to the café. This calls for a stiff caffeinated beverage!
I’ve been on both sides of that torture device called the signing table. I’ve been the skulker and I’ve been the victim author. I’m a survivor of an interminable two-hour signing in which the only people who approached me were a woman asking for the bathroom, and a child wanting to know if I was J. K. Rowling.
But signings CAN be a way to interact with your public, whether it’s at a bookstore, a book festival, or a literacy night. The key is to think like a carnival barker. How can you entice, not the adult with the credit card, but the child with command of the adult with the credit card.
Here are some fun ways to draw children to your table, which will bring their parents and make both stay long enough to chat with the charming author and peruse her must-have books.
Many authors snag kid attention by providing an activity related to their book. For my book Substitute Groundhog, I provide everything to make a pop-up groundhog puppet that needs no supplies. I wrote a catchy jingle to go with it, and I act it out with the kids when they finish their puppet. While waiting for the child to finish, parents will flip through my books and ask questions. Or I ask them—“How many groundhogs would you guess we have in the wilds of Texas?” (Answer: none)
A final example is for my nonfiction book, The Hole Story of the Doughnut. I provide doughnuts printed on heavy cardstock along with sequins, gems, and small beads. Children first color the frosting and glue on the “sprinkles” while I chat with parents about the sea captain who invented this delicious treat as a teen cook’s assistant on a sailing ship.
Think about how you can make your table cover work for you (ALWAYS have a table cover), signage with kid appeal, activities that are easy and relatively quick and clean, and things to take away that have your books and contact info. It may lead to a sale long after the signing.
Good luck—and speak kindly to the next hopeful author you see sitting alone at a signing table. Maybe even buy her book. One day that might be you!
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas and a strong belief in The First Amendment. The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.