I’ve just written a picture book. What do I do next? How can I learn more about writing for children? by Katrina McKelvey
Inspiration can hit anyone at any time. But getting an idea down and crafting it into a polished manuscript takes work and time. No one gets it right this first time. First drafts are rubbish and need polishing. Remember when I mentioned rejections in an earlier article? Some of those rejections are due to manuscripts being sent off too early—before the story has had time to be crafted, redrafted, revised and reworked. I have some simple steps all authors should take before sending anything to a publisher.
1) Research the market
Remember I mentioned Read! Read! Read! in article 1? Well this is when it kicks in. Read anything and everything you can in the format you want to write in. Go and see what is on the shelves of your local bookshops and public libraries. Borrow heaps of books. Subscribe to Australian publishers’ newsletters. Follow publishers, authors and illustrators on social media. (Authors tend to hang on Facebook and Twitter, Illustrators tend to hang on Instagram. Some like me hang in all of them—ha!)
2) Educate yourself!
Go and do courses in your format—educate yourself! Be a learner. Ask questions. Listen. Observe. Admire. Appreciate the help you receive along the way. You will make mistakes but learn from them. I have made many!
Early in my writing career I went to every learning experience I could. I threw myself in head first. A lot of these experiences were in Sydney. I car pooled, I used the train, I flew interstate, and I did late nights on the M1. Use these opportunities to meet people and learn! Oh, and they make great social opportunities too.
Here are some conferences to keep in mind:
Kidlitvic (Melbourne) in May—annual
CBCA (Sydney or Canberra)—biannual
CYA (Brisbane) in July—annual
Writers Unleashed (Syd) in August—annual
CKT (Sydney) in April—annual
SCBWI National Conference (Sydney)—biannual
SCBWI State Conferences—vary when and where
Festivals and conferences hosted by your state’s writers centre
The Hunter Writers Centre offers a writing for children workshop annually too.
If you don’t have access or the ability to attend in person, online courses are also great:
Writing NSW—you can join in some workshops via live online meeting forums
The Scribbles Academy (Jen Storer)
3) Research potential publishers
This is important as not all publishers publish children’s books. In fact, a huge amount of Australian publishers don’t want anything to do with picture books. If you send the wrong type of manuscript to the wrong publisher, it’s a waste of time for everyone and an instant rejection.
Find the submission guidelines on each publisher’s website. These can be hard to find. Use the search tool on their website, or look under the ‘Contact’ or ‘FAQs’ tabs if they don’t have a ‘Submissions’ tab. Once you have found them, bookmark this page. Then make a spreadsheet. Use this spreadsheet to track when they are open for your type of submission. Note: some publishers are open all the time, some are never open for unsolicited submissions, some are only open if submitting via an agent, and some are only open at certain times of the year. Hint: follow their social media pages—they often use these to advertise when they’re open.
As a side effect, you’ll start to get a feel for what types of books each like and publish, and what new releases are popping into the market. Your book needs to be unique and compete with these, otherwise you’ll get rejected.
4) Edit, rewrite, and repeat until . . .
No one gets the story right on the first draft. NO ONE! You’re going to have to get used to editing—multiple times—maybe even tens of times—maybe even for years until it is polished enough to be sent to a publisher. And you’re going to have to get feedback from more than your family and friends. They either love everything you write because they love you, or they may feel uncomfortable telling you the truth if you need to be guided to do a heavy rewrite.
Editing is a process that takes time. There is no easy way around it.
A lot of children’s books are read aloud so, during the editing process, read your writing out aloud, or have someone read your writing back to you. This will help you hear whether your rhythm and flow are working. Make a dummy book too – see if you can work out where the page turns go.
But when does an author know their work is polished enough? Good question! Read points 5 and 6.
5) Join a critique/writing group (online or in person). If you can’t find one, start one.
When I started writing for children there wasn’t a local writing group I could attend through the Hunter Writers Centre. Karen started taking names until there were enough to get one up and running. In 2012 we met. And about three months later I began facilitating the group. We are still going today—seven years later. I cannot recommend joining a writing group enough. All my published manuscripts have been critiqued via my writing groups. If you’re unable to attend one, there are several online groups.
6) Get professional feedback before you submit anything!
I have all of my manuscripts professionally edited by a freelance editor before I submit anything. I know and trust her as she understands picture books. But this isn’t compulsory.
My first four accepted picture books weren’t professionally edited before I submitted them.
Getting work professionally edited before submitting it lets a publisher know you’ve invested in your work and you believe in yourself. It makes you look professional and could save everyone valuable time.
And remember, if you do get your story over the line, it will be edited again inhouse before it’s published.
Organising a mentor is another option. Mentors can help you with your writing as well as guiding your submissions. Some of the associations mentioned in the next article offer mentorships. Some authors offer mentorships too.
7) Network—build connections!
This sounds formal but it’s actually fun. I turn it into my social life. Networking can involve going to book launches, attending festivals and conferences, having a coffee with fellow authors, or attending meetings of industry organisations.
Writing can be isolating and lonely. Get out and meet people! They’ll become your new circle of friends.
8) Use your social media to follow children’s publishers, authors and illustrators.
There are some wonderful online groups full of authors and illustrators learning about the industry. I’ve met many of the members of these groups. Now they’re my friends. I highly recommend these Facebook groups:
9) Join associations
It can be hard at first to know which ones to be members of—especially if you have a tight budget. The first thing to do is see what their core business is and whether it suits you at this point in your career. Here are a few memberships I recommend:
If you can’t afford membership, join their online newsletters anyway. You can still do their courses—you’ll just have to pay the ‘non-member’ price.
10) Attend and volunteer at writers’ festivals
Attending and volunteering at festivals gives you a huge dose of inspiration and education. And you may also meet people who inspire you. I’ll never forget the first time I meet Andy Griffiths at the Sydney Writers Festival. I have also had the most amazing experiences being part of the Newcastle Writers Festival. Oh the people I have met! Join in!
11) Become friends with your local public children’s librarians and bookshop owners/managers
These people love literature more than you do. Make them your friends. These are the people who will support you when your book is out. They may even help you launch your book. I had two book launches this year. One was in conjunction with Newcastle Writers Festival, Newcastle Libraries and MacLean’s Booksellers. The other was a dog picnic in Lambton Park in conjunction with Newcastle Libraries and MacLeans Booksellers. There’s no way these events would have been as successful as they were without the support of all of them. They helped advertise my event, organise activities and the legal stuff, and provided book sales.
12) Listen to podcasts
Wow! What a long list of simple steps! But I promise you, if you take your time, be thorough and work hard, you can do it. I have done everything on this list. EVERYTHING! You can too. I wish someone had made this list for me eight years ago.
So, are you ready to submit? Promise me you’ll read article four before you do anything.
Katrina McKelvey is a children’s author with over ten years primary school teaching experience. She’s currently working on her first chapter book series while developing new picture book stories. She’s highly involved in the Children’s Book Council of Australia, literary conferences and festivals, and loves visiting schools. No Baths Week and Up To Something are Katrina’s recent publications, after her successful debut picture book, Dandelions. Two more picture books are coming in 2020. She loves chocolate but doesn’t like chocolate cake. She’s left-handed but plays sport right-handed. She loves tea, but dislikes coffee. Katrina lives in Newcastle, Australia with her family and a naughty puppy. Google her or visit her website: www.katrinamckelvey.com