“I just want to know if it’s any good,” one writer types, while another says, “This is my first attempt at anything like this.” One goes “I’d love any feedback you have”; someone else writes back demanding to know why the book wasn’t taken on.
Am I wasting my time with this? Is this book any good? What do I need to do to make this better? These are questions writers ask themselves, but sometimes they seek the answers from the wrong people. They send work to publishing houses or to literary agencies and when they get a polite no thank you, it’s a slap in the face. They decide that their work is no good, or the people there mustn’t even have read their book properly, or that they only want a certain kind of book (often thought sneeringly, while eyeing up the bestseller list). They send work that is half-formed and expect someone not only to see their genius but to know exactly how to make it clear for a reader.
These things happen with all kinds of writing, but there’s a particular tendency in children’s fiction to underestimate the difficulty of getting published. After all, children’s books are often short – and cutesy and rhyming, right? – so you could dash one of those off in an afternoon. And “kids love” adventure, magic, unicorns, animals, whatever – so you just need to throw them in there, right? Instant bestseller! Or else you have a great Life Lesson that you feel kids need to learn, and you’ve a delightfully didactic tale that will teach kids . . . oh no, please no, stop.
Before you hit send, before you ask publishing professionals to assess your work as work rather than as the outpourings of your soul, here are some things to do. (I implore any of you reading this who know people working on children’s books to share it with them. I am on a mission to improve the quality of submissions in Irish children’s fiction, you guys, and increase the chances of Irish writers getting work out there.)
1. Learn how to type, how to email, and how to use the internet. (The people that I have previously implored, can you pass this information along?) For any aspiring author, these are basic skills. You don’t need to be a social media guru but you do need to know how to check your email and how to use the internet to do your research about publishing and kids’ books – and there’s a wealth of information out there. If you don’t ‘do’ the internet you’re already identifying yourself as a difficult person to deal with.
2. Read children’s books. Read recent – from the last one to five years – children’s books. Read books for the age group you want to write for. Read beyond what you read as a kid or what your own kids or grandkids are reading. Spend time in bookshops eyeing up the shelves, getting a sense of what’s out there. Read reviews of children’s books – in the papers or online. If this seems time-consuming, trust me: it’s less time-consuming than writing books that quickly reveal how unfamiliar someone is with contemporary children’s fiction (hint: much as I love Enid Blyton, she is not a good model for you as a modern children’s writer).
3. Finish your book. This means both ‘finish your first draft’ – getting to ‘the end’ – and then putting that away for a couple of months before approaching it again with a view to making it better. ‘But that’s an editor’s job!’ some people cry, thinking that an editor swoops in and marks your grammar up with a red pen and that’s that. Revision is a much more involved process, and it requires you as a writer to be capable of improving your own work. A first draft sent off to editors or agents reflects poorly on you in two ways – firstly, it’s not going to be as strong as you can make it, but secondly, it suggests you’re either not capable of or not bothered about making it stronger. Who wants to work with someone like that?
4. Take advantages of the resources out there. There are so many great sources of information out there, including this website. Join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), which have an Irish branch, and run events and online critique groups for children’s writers at all stages. Join CBI (Children’s Books Ireland), who publish Inis magaizne and are involved in tons of children’s events throughout the year, including their own conference (running in September this year). Go to events at literary festivals – Mountains to Sea are particularly good at organising panels about writing children’s fiction that are suitable for adults and older teens.
5. Take a workshop if you can – there are a number of courses in children’s fiction available, including ones at the Irish Writers’ Centre and the Big Smoke Writing Factory, with online classes also available. These will give you the chance to get feedback on your work, and help you improve your manuscript before you hit send. There are also manuscript consultation services available from people like The Inkwell Group (sister company to www.writing.ie). These things aren’t essential, but they do provide guidance and focus; if you feel a course isn’t for you or is too pricy, design your own – set aside time every week to develop your skills.
When you submit work to publishers or to literary agents, you should not be looking for a thumbs-up, a pat on the back, a ‘well done oh aren’t you great’. You shouldn’t be looking for validation of your work, or encouraging feedback, or some kind of permission to keep going – or indeed a definitive comment about whether you should stop. Occasionally you might get these things (after all, the people reading your work are book-loving humans, albeit it busy ones) – but this is not what publishers and agents are there for. Treating them as your first stop hurts you, and it hurts your work. Before you hit send, do your homework. Make the work the best it can be. And then let it go.
(c) Claire Hennessy