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Create Your Own Guide to Writing Children's Books

By Diana Wilkoc Patton

Hello! There are so many good books out there for writers and illustrators, and the SCBWI websites are invaluable, but have you ever thought of creating your own book on writing and/or illustrating?

"What?" you ask, "I'm just starting; I have so much to learn. Clearly Diana is insane."

This is what I mean-I've bought lots of books on writing and illustrating and I dog-ear them and underline passages, and write in the margins-I sort of make it an even more useful book---for me. Then I go to conferences and mentoring sessions. The annual SCBWI-NJ Conference in June, the national SCBWI-NJ in NYC in February, and the one at Hoffstra on Long Island are so helpful. I always find the conferences inspiring and yet discouraging. The discouragement comes from discovering how much I don't know, how much competition there is, and the feeling that time is racing by and I won't have time to learn and do it all. Then I decide that all this is merely a challenge and since I write and make paintings and illustrate anyway, I'll just continue on and do the best I can.

The thing is, that I take copious notes at these conferences. Then when I return home, I condense them and type them up, print them out, and lo and behold, I've made myself a useful book(let, really). The booklet includes the tips from all the speakers and the gist of all the "break-out sessions" (smaller groups with certain topics and lots of Q and A time, usually). If I have had a "one-on-one" critique from an agent or editor, that is included, too. I refer to these occasionally, but the fact of having taken the notes and then condensing and redoing them on the computer immediately gets the "meat" of the conferences into my brain more efficiently (maybe I just need a lot of reinforcement!)

I have found, you see, that I am so excited and inspired at the conferences and there is so much input that I must take notes or I'll forget too much. And if I condense the notes, and type them up-well, that's a great way for me to study and remember. I keep the pages in simple file folders, labeled, and jammed in with the other books on the subjects of writing and illustrating children's books. All this serves to make me feel good as well, for I am doing something to further this fledgling career of mine (I have to be careful not to read too much on the subject though, because I tend to think I'm really working on my writing and I'm not, only learning about writing)

Having said all this, I can actually condense what has been said over and over at all the conferences in several paragraphs.. You might know all this, but maybe some of you, like me, need reminding... .

1) Your main character must have a strong voice-this is mentioned over and over. Your character may have the world falling down around him (her), may have pressing problems, but your character has a passion, resilience, an inner strength, a voice. I can't tell how many editors, agents, buyers mentioned at the recent SCBWI-NY Conference that they are looking for character-driven books. Your character must be real, three-dimensional (yes, even in a picture book). Love your character-and make sure the reader/editor will too-the editor will probably have to fight to get your book published (especially at the larger publishing houses where the editor brings your baby to a cold and objective ACQUISITIONS COMMITTEE).

2) Your book should have a story-with a beginning, a middle, and an end; again, this is driven into one ad nausea (and yet I needed this, as one or two of my picture book ideas were pleasant, but really just slice-of-life type books).

3) Although it is imperative to read books in your area of interest, whether picture books, middle grade, YA, etc., don't try to follow trends, because by the time your book is acquired until its publication, about three years will have passed and the trend might be over. Do follow your heart. Do work out of your comfort zone. Do believe in yourself. As David Wiesner, three time Caldecott Medal Winner (The Three Pigs, Tuesdays, Flotsam) stated, "Don't be afraid to follow your own vision, however odd it may be."

4) The child should come away from your book with something of value. The character has faced a problem, or problems, and the character has come out the better for this, and the child will know this. One of the speakers, when speaking of putting scary stuff in picture books, for example, said, "Children have always known there are dragons. What they must be told is that sometimes these dragons can be killed." (I just love that quote, and children like to feel empowered. Hey, I still want to feel that way!)

5) You must revise and revise, hone and prune (especially with picture books since now the editors seem to be leaning toward under 1,000 or even 500 words per book).

6) Your cover letter, your formatting, your total presentation must look and be "professional" (plenty of guidebooks for this, and websites, too). By the way, make sure your presentation is sent to whom it should be sent-i.e. the proper publishing house for your story, and the correct editor. Again, with most, if not all, of the publishing houses online, it's easy to find out submission practices, and even their past "lists" or catalogues, so you don't send them your naughty cat book when last fall they published Joe Schmoe's BAD CAT, BAD! (did I mention I have a picture book dummy about a cat?)

7) Several panels discussed the promotion of books at the houses. What came across constantly is that the author and/or illustrator must be the best advocate and promoter of his/her book. Finally, most of them agreed you should have not only a website, but you probably want to blog, and investigate being on My Space and/or Face Book

Have fun writing your own CHILDREN'S BOOK WRITER'S (and/or ILLUSTRATOR'S) GUIDE, 's singular, because it is a book for YOU alone!

Your comments/questions are welcome. Please send them to
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