A few days ago I decided I throw out this question on Twitter:
For my PB writing followers: What’s one thing you’d like to ask/learn from an agent or reviewer? (Outside of getting an agent/reviewer)
— Danielle M. Smith (@the1stdaughter) April 11, 2013
Being the curious person I am, I wanted to know more about how I could help picture book writers in their journey to publication outside of teaching a basic query writing class. What I found were quite a few very smart questions from a great group of interested writers. Knowing that not everyone follows Twitter as closely as some of us might (not naming names!) I thought it would be helpful to share the questions and my feelings on each. So here we go!
@the1stdaughter Do you think it’s harder for someone to get an agent if they’re an author only, not an author/illustrator?
— J. C. Gregorio (@muchadoaboutJC) April 11, 2013
Quick 140 Character response: Good question! I only have two clients who are also illustrators. Not a deal breaker for me by any means.
Long Hand Response: Being a “double threat” in the world of picture book publishing brings to mind author/illustrators like Jon Klassen and Dan Yaccarino. They’re both tremendously successful at what they do and could easily produce best-sellers without the aid of another writer involved. Does that mean they’ve chosen to work independently? No. Two of my favorite picture books over the last few months have been The Dark written by Lemony Snicket illustrated by Jon Klassen as well as Boy + Bot written by Ame Dyckman illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. In both cases the brilliant writing of two non-illustrator writers was enhanced by the talent of two wonderful illustrators.
So, is being an illustrator a “must” for becoming a successful PB author? Not by any means.
@the1stdaughter It’s hard to know, in my writing cave, when something is good. Or done. If you could come up with a magic formula…
— Julie Falatko (@JulieFalatko) April 11, 2013
Quick 140 Character response: That’s what your agent is there for and your fabulous critique group too.
Long Hand Response: Basically the question is, how do you know when it’s done? My biggest suggestion would be to be a part of a great critique group that will give you honest feedback. Once you’ve gotten all the feedback you can muster, take a break from it for a few days or more. It doesn’t need to be perfect and baring any major grammar mistakes I’d recommend not getting overly picky at this stage. Once your agent sees it they’ll be able to help you say “when.”
@the1stdaughter Thanks for asking! I always wonder: Do PBs need to follow the “problem keeps getting worse” formula to have a chance?
— Preschool Foodie (@PreschoolFoodie) April 12, 2013
Quick 140 Character response: Not for me. I’m more interested in strong character driven stories. I’m not one that’s into formulaic PBs. Hope that helps!
Long Hand Response: Picture books sometimes follow a sort of rambly windy road to get to the final point of the book, the resolution of all the character’s problems. Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex is a great example of this, not to mention a book all picture book writers should read because it’s fantastic and hilarious. This type of scenario where the wagon lost it’s horse, the wagon was raided by bandits, the bandits took the main character’s shoes and finally a fair maiden comes along to rescue the main character with a spare set of shoes is always hilarious to little kiddos as well as their parents.
Do I only want to represent or read those types of books? No. I’m passionate about strong character driven stories that connect with their readers on a number of levels, but I also like to have a good laugh every now and then.
@the1stdaughter I assume a range in writing is welcome? Board books through early readers? 🙂
— Diandra Mae (@DiandraMae) April 12, 2013
Quick 140 Character response: It’s not a bad idea. It breaks my heart when I email a potential to find out they’ve only written one or maybe two PBs.
Long Hand Response: A good range in your writing is not usually a bad thing. Now, if you’re writing both children’s books and adult books it may complicate your agent search, and that’s something you want to keep in mind. When it comes to writing picture books though, more is a very good thing. I’d recommend having a minimum of two to four polished PBs with a few other ideas up your sleeve.
@the1stdaughter What are the top mistakes that PB writers make when submitting?
— Rebecca Thill (@BookPassionista) April 12, 2013
Quick 140 Character response: Top mistakes would be: wrong audience/writing to the wrong age, blatantly trying to teach a lesson and not writing enough.
Long Hand Response: I’ve said it previously, but spend time with the age group you’re writing for or at the very least be sure to read books similar to what your target age group is reading. It will only enhance the voice of your own writing. Also, trying to push a message on children never quite goes over as well as one would hope. Having said that I will also add that there are a number of themed picture books like The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic and Olivier Tallec, that deals with the death of a parent, that are beautiful and relatable to young readers. Lastly, be sure to write! Practice always helps you hone your craft and will provide you with more to offer an agent.
@the1stdaughter after U sign w/ PB writer, do U like updates on all WIPs, or just polished pieces they’ve had previously critiqued/edited?
— Deb Dudley (@debTWP) April 12, 2013
Quick 140 Character response: It depends on the author, but we would certainly review everything to see what’s viable for the market. Then move from there.
Long Hand Response: That pretty much sums it up.
@the1stdaughter do you need a polished copy before submission?
— Robyn (@robynski) April 12, 2013
Quick 140 Character response: I usually expect it to be ready to go to a publisher w/a few minor things here & there. Should’ve been read by critique group too.
Long Hand Response: You want to send your very best piece to an agent, one that doesn’t need much tweaking. If after that, if another project seems more suited for the market you can work on revising that with the help of your critique group and your agent.
@the1stdaughter also– what about illustrations? I’m not an artist. Should I hire someone or will you hook me up?
— Robyn (@robynski) April 12, 2013
Quick 140 Character response: Unless you’re an author/illus. the publisher who purchases your book will put you together with an illustrator.
Long Hand Response: I should add that it does happen that an author and separate illustrator will come together to present a publisher with an idea for a book, but that usually comes after you’ve published a few other projects beforehand.
@the1stdaughter are stories that fit into common core standards desirable? Such as nonfiction, science, history, etc?
— laurapy (@laurapy) April 12, 2013
Quick 140 Character response: Definitely! As that becomes more and more prominent in school systems the need for those books will be there, and already is.
Long Hand Response: Common Core is now being incorporated into classrooms all over the country due to the fact that it is required by current legislation. This is certainly something publishers are actively looking to incorporate into the books they are purchasing and selling. Non-fiction picture books is one area where this is most important. Making your book accessible to these new standards will help quite a bit based on the market you are trying to reach.
There you have it! Some excellent questions and hopefully some help to the picture book writers out there. I’d love to know if you have other related questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll reply as soon as possible.