Tuesday, April 27, 2010

So you want to write a kids' book! Congratulations! Now Go Away.

Ok, maybe my title for this post is a bit harsh. But let me lie here on this fluffy, virtual shrink's couch I've constructed, just for a moment. I'll tell you about what it's like being a writer for children.

It's all about disrespect. (Shove on over Rodney D - my whinecellar is bigger than yours.)

Writing for kids guarantees a lifetime of total, constant, usually unintended but nevertheless wince-making disrespect. From everyone. Even my own kids don't think I actually DO anything. So it's true - I don't often LOOK like I'm working. I spend large parts of the day sitting in a fluffy chair, feet up, sipping coffee, petting the dog and tweeting my writer friends. Every once in a while, I get out of my fluffy chair to go sit in a different fluffy chair at a coffee shop, where I sip coffee and chat with my writer friends in person.

The rest of the time, I take naps. (Maybe the kids have a point...)

I can handle the kids' disdain. What parent hasn't felt that? Worse is the "support" from all the loving relatives. The ones who have been asking me since 1985, "Are you still doing your little business, dear?"  Yes. I am. Would you like to read one of my books? Didn't think so.

Or the acquaintances who ask me, ever so brightly, "Can I buy your books in stores?"  Of course not! I'm just the crazy, ego-mad lady with the printing press in my basement, hand-binding stories about talking possums. Surprised you didn't notice I'm wearing a clown suit under my sweatpants.

And please, do you know how many people have asked me when I'll be as rich or successful as J.K. Rowling? Oy. When are YOU, oh-so-superior and condescending computer programming functionary, going to be as successful as that guy, whatshisname again, Bill Gates???

But nothing bugs me more than the guy who shoehorns me into the corner at the Christmas party (this happens every year), scotch in hand and sour breath in my face, and confides, "I've got a book idea. Should I get myself an agent now?" 

Gasp and choke.

Now I'm perfectly happy to help a new author learn the ropes. I love to see others make their dreams come true. I like "mentoring." All I ask is that anyone hoping to start a career in children's books start out with a healthy respect for both the writers who do it and the seriousness of the industry. And, yes, with a little respect for me.

To Wit:

1. Kids' publishing is a real business. With real businessy things like supply chains, trade shows, unique market conditions and an ever-changing field of play. You may be king of the hardware wholesale business, but you probably know squat about the book biz. In the same way I wouldn't go into business selling, say, toupees, without a knowledge of the men's hair replacement business, don't even think about writing a kids book without learning about the kids book biz. Do you know how a book is made, what a standard picture book page count or word count is? Find out FIRST.

2. Being a writer is equivalent to being a sole proprietor of a small manufacturing firm. You wear all the hats: producer, quality control manager, sales rep, publicity director, bookkeeper and purchasing agent. If you don't have any business skills to handle all these roles, you are going to have a tough time making a go of it in the publishing world. At the very least, you need basic sales skills. If you don't know how to find and identify your customer, then qualify them (and if you don't know what "qualifying the customer" means, uh-oh), you are in for a toughie. If the idea of calling an editor on the phone and pitching your book makes you break into cold sweats, double uh-oh. Not that you can't hit it big without any sales know how, but let's just say you'd be better off betting on 00 in roulette.

3. Here's a biggie: Go to a bookstore. Stand in the kids' section. Read some of the books. Surprise! The most popular ones may look very very different from the one you are considering writing. Most of the people who tell me they want to write kids' books are remembering books they loved when they were kids, or when their kids were young. Or they have a "sweet" idea based on something they told their grandchildren. Or a terribly horrifying didactic idea about flushing after you poo.

Standards and styles in children's literature have changed enormously in the last decade, and they keep on changing at an ever-faster pace. Learn what current books look like before you invest your time or my patience in your project.

4. If you haven't been writing for a long time, you may be surprised at just how tricky writing for kids is. Many of us think it's a lot harder writing for a young audience than it is to write for an older one. First of all, most grownups don't lie down on the floor and go to sleep when they don't like your writing, or shout out "BORING!" when you present your work at a school library. Believe me, a kid will not put on a polite smile and pretend to like your sucky tale. Neither will most editors, who've seen more crap than you'd ever want to imagine in one lifetime. Learn to define "crap" the way both a kid and a kids' editor does (Psst: it's your first draft.).

One reason kids' books are harder to write is because they are shorter. Just like haiku, shorter books, have fewer words than other forms of writing. That means every single one has to be perfect. EVERY SINGLE WORD.

And a word to all would-be Leonard Cohens of the Kindergarten set: If you want to write verse, look up what the word "scan" means in the dictionary. Ten-to-one your poem about your cute Pekingese doesn't scan - which means it's a dog.

5. So here's my bottom line: Sure, I'll help you with your great idea - IF you have already shown me that you treat kids and kids' authors and kids' books with the proper respect. If you've gone to the trouble to learn about the business, connect with other writers or book people through the vast resources currently available, honed your business and writing skills, AND actually read my books, well then yes, let's talk about your project. But you've got to take those first baby steps on your own.

I have coffee to drink now. And the dog needs petting. So come back later, ok? I promise I won't be so cranky.

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