Writers’ Tips

by Verla Kay
1) Decide what needs to be done.
2) Don't sleep. Just do it.

Verla Kay Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved
by Verla Kay

Try something different. Avoid writing stories that are very similar to others you have read.

Think about Dr. Seuss and how he shook up the picture book world with his unusual style of writing. Experiment with words and phrases until you get something that feels completely unique.

A story that stands out from the ordinary has a better chance of catching an editor's eye. Develop a style that is completely your own.

What is it that you can do better than most people? Do your descriptive phrases make the pages come alive? Do you have a natural talent for realistic dialogue? Can you write humorous stories that truly work? Do you have a special flair for poetry? Does your nonfiction seem to vibrate with excitement?

Experiment with the things that you do well. Build on your strong points until you are writing stories that no one else could write -- stories that are exclusively your own.

It is a very rare story that cannot benefit from a healthy dose of "cut and paste." Some people are extremely good at revising, others find it almost impossible. If you are one of the latter, cultivate a friendship with some who is good at it and go to work.

Pick out a couple of award-winning picture books. For this exercise, do NOT use books where the author is also the illustrator. Have someone read them to you while your eyes are closed. Listen for the visual pictures. How many do you see? How many different scenes does the story bring to mind? What do you hear? Smell? Feel? Taste? Do the words paint strong pictures in your mind?

Next, look at the book. Closely examine the text and illustrations. How sparse is the actual text? How much of the detail has the author left to the imagination and craftsmanship of the illustrator?

Now look at your own picture book manuscript -- the one you have written. How does it compare to the books you just examined? Does your manuscript need more visuals? Less description? More sensory detail? Perhaps your story is too long or complicated. Can you cut out a whole section or sections and still end up with a complete story with a satisfactory ending? As you weed out extra and unneccesary words and phrases, you will find your story becoming tighter, smoother, better. It will start to feel "squeaky clean."

Look at your manuscript again. Have you left enough of the story for the illustrator? A picture book is greatly enhanced by the imagination and creativity of a good illustrator. Make sure you have left something for that person to do, also.

There are two books that I believe are indispensable to the story-in-rhyme writer. A good thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary and I recommend the frequent use of both of them.

Rhyming stories are really fun and at one time or another, many picture book writers will have the urge to write one. But most people will tell you, "Stick to prose if you want to become a published author. It's almost impossible to sell stories-in-rhyme."

It is a known fact that rhyming is not for everyone and the sad truth is that most people who think they can rhyme, can't. If you truly want to sell your stories, you had better be prepared for the reality that rhyming might not be for you.

To find out, show your best rhyming story to an established author who writes stories in verse or to an editor who deals with rhyming stories. This can usually be accomplished through writer's groups and conferences. If this expert tells you to stick to prose, then that is what you should probably do -- at least for right now. Form rejection letters from editors can also be a good indication that you should stick to prose for a while longer. If, however, your rhyming stories are generating personal notes and letters from editors, then you may be one of the lucky ones who really can rhyme.

One day I read a line in a fellow author's rhyming picture book that was so perfect and so wonderful that it sent chills down my spine. And I thought, "What if I were to write a whole story like that?" It was such a challenging idea, but I did just that. The first draft was done in two days, but it took another year before I had perfected that 150 word story until every single word "sang" to me.

A rhyming story must be absolutely perfect if you want it to sell. Some of the worst offenders are words that do not fit the beat of the rhyme and words that are perfect rhymes but that don't really belong in the story. For instance, "London Bridge has collapsed down" would never work in its nursery rhyme because the word collapsed does not have the beat on the first syllable and the word down is a repeat of the word collapsed and therefore has become an unnecessary word. This sentence sounds contrived and is what is known as a "forced rhyme."

Never stick in an odd word that does not advance your story line just because it happens to be a perfect rhyme. If a word does not really belong in the story, throw it out. You will have to find a new word (or words) and if one is not available that rhymes, then you will also have to throw out the original words -- or sometimes entire sentences and verses!

Writing in rhyme is one of the most difficult kinds of writing, but it can also be one of the most rewarding. I once spent six months searching for two little words for one of my stories, but what a thrill I got when those verses were finally done. There are few things that can compare with the joy of finally finding that "perfect word."

Now comes the really fun part. Making your manuscript come alive and become something really special. First you need to examine your text, word by word. Have you used the phrase, "Jody ran fast" when "Jody raced" would paint a better picture? Did you say, "lightning flashed" when "lightning cracked" would give the reader a picture AND a sound? Did you tell the reader that "Cindy cried" when you could have shown, "Tears flowing from Cindy's eyes"?

Make free use of your thesaurus and play with all of your words. Change everything to something stronger, more visual, tastier or louder -- but don't throw away your original version. Some of those original words may turn out to be the best ones, after all.

When everything is as good as you can get it, it is time to get together with a writer friend and read over your new version. Have someone else read it out loud to you. Your goal is to have every single line "sing" to you. When you're done, your story should have a special, rhythmic quality about it that feels absolutely perfect. If it's "good," it's not good enough!

Now is the time to check and double-check for accuracy on all of your facts. In your story do you have wild bluebells blooming in the woods? Then make sure that at some time, in some place similar to where your story is taking place, there actually were wild bluebells blooming in a wooded area. When the facts in your story are accurate, it will carry more weight with publishers. Also, examine every word for spelling errors and grammar and every sentence for correct punctuation.

When every line is as perfect as you can get it, put your story away and don't look at it again. When it has been "on ice" for a few days or weeks, bring it back out and read it to someone -- out loud. Did your tongue stumble over any of the words? Did any of the phrases sound awkward or were they hard to say? Replace every one of those words and phrases!

Put your story back "on ice" and repeat this performance as many times as necessary until every single word is perfect. Then, pat yourself on the back, call your writer friends and celebrate! You have just completed the very best book of which you are capable at this time in your writing career. Bundle your manuscript carefully into an envelope with a cover letter and a SASE and send it to the first editor on your list. Then get started on your next book. You have done it. You are a writer!
The Institute of Children's Literature
93 Long Ridge Road
West Redding, CT 06896-0701

I highly recommend the courses of ICL to anyone that is really serious about wanting to learn how to write for children and how to market what they have written.

The first course is packed full of writing techniques that will help most people to be better writers. It also gives great instruction and information on the proper way to present your stories to editors and how to find the editors that will be most receptive to your work.

I truly believe that the reason I now have 8 picture books published and 2 more under contract with G.P. Putnam's Sons and 1 picture book published with Tricycle Press is as a direct result of what I learned from that course.

The advanced course is good for those who want to go on to "fine tune" their writing style. I took the short story/picture book version instead of the novels one, because that is where my interests and skills lie. It has been very good and I feel saddened to know that I'm nearly done. The constant feedback from my instructor on what I am doing has been such a help in how I write.

The courses are not cheap. But I once took a course that didn't cost as much through another place and although the written material that I received was very good, the personal instruction and "teacher feedback" was lousy. I definitely got what I paid for in both courses. And I would never waste my money again on a "cheap" course. Because that's just what I got. "A cheap course."

I can't recommend this course highly enough! It's fabulous!

NOTE: Verla Kay went on to become an instructor for ICL and over the next three years, she spent many hours pouring over her students’ work, teaching them the same things she had learned when she was just starting out in this business. Although she is no longer an instructor for the Institute, she still has extremely loyal memories of all she learned through this company - both as a student and later as an instructor.
Testimonials/More Information on ICL 

by Linda Smith
Dear Editor,
Please accept my article for publication in your magazine.
I know you will LOVE my article because I showed it to all my friends and family and they said they "just loved it." It's all about writing picture books using intimate objects like rocks and toy trucks successfully in an anthropomrphic way. Of course, the entire article is written in rhyme, (People say I am going to be the next Doctor Suess)
I am so sure you are going to accept this article, there is no need for a S.A.S.E.
Call me with your acceptance anytime (except Friday afternoons when I do grocery shopping and Tuesdays at 4pm when I see my psychiatrist)
Yours truly,
Linda Smith
"But My Kids Just LOVED It!"
" If one more author tells me in their cover letter that their story is a real winner because 'their kids just loved it' I think I'll scream." That's a quote I read recently in an interview with an editor at a major publishing house. Of course the poor author was rejected. Strangely enough, I felt a surge of hope as I read this. The truth is, my kids have never said anything of the sort.
"How about a story?" I ask them, a little too cheerfully. (Dead giveaway.)
They hedge. They drum their fingers hopefully on a glossy rendition of Curious George. They note my hands, held suspiciously behind my back. My manuscript crinkles pathetically. A paper clip drops to the floor.
"A real one?" they ask.
Oh, dear, they got me. Real books have glossy covers. Real books have pictures on all the pages and are written by people they don't know. Real books aren't held together with paper clips.
I'll admit it, sometimes there is no one left in the room to hear the grand finale but the dog. But he always adores my stories. Of course, I have the good sense to realize my writing is not doomed in the eyes of all children! Of course I know the dog will not always be the only one I ever put to sleep with my bed time stories.
I finally figured it all out. The trick is finding the right audience. Someone impartial. Someone who doesn't know me. Someone I've never sent to the corner, or made eat broccoli.
I used to turn to my writers' group exclusively for fortification. After all, our fellow writers are in the same boat and are always willing to give and receive critique. Unfortunately, they consist entirely of adults. And sometimes, what we find endlessly charming and incredibly cute are the very things that make our children roll their eyes in disgust.
A few years ago, I hit upon the perfect solution. I started bringing my work into area schools and volunteering to read for a few hours each month. The teachers are always thrilled to have someone take over for awhile, and the kids enjoy the break from their normal routine. Of course, anything my own kid's class says, I ignore completely. After all, I'm the same lady that brought in chocolate cupcakes at Easter last year. So I always read to a group that doesn't know me, or at a different school entirely. And I never tell the kids I am the author of my own material . In fact, I usually read several pieces, one written by myself, and one written by someone else. Then I watch my audience. Are they whispering about lunch during the cutest part of my story ? Are they picking their noses, poking someone in the ear, or suddenly mesmerized by the patterns on the bottom of their shoes? These are not good signs. But if they watch me, laughing in all the right places, and ask for more when I'm through, I know I've got a keeper. That's when I indulge myself a little. Class... I would like to tell you a little bit about the author.....
I guess what I'm saying is this: we have to remember who we're really writing for. It isn't the nice bunch at your critique group, even if they can be extremely helpful. It isn't our own children either. God help me if mine are any indication of my writing talent. The truth is, we're writing for kids that will never know us and probably don't even want to. All they want is a good story and characters they can fall in love with. That's exactly what I want when I pick up a book to read, too. A nice little paper vacation.
I no longer worry about how my own kids react. After all, they don't like the way I comb their hair, or the shoes I choose for them either.
Perhaps one day my kids will pick up one of my stories and find it has become a "real book," glossy cover and all the trimmings. Until then, of course, I'm working on a whole new approach.....
Dear Editor,
I think I have a real winner here. My kids absolutely hated it....

Linda Smith Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved
About Linda Smith...

Linda began writing as a child, secretly filling notebooks with stories and poetry when she was supposed to be doing such things as multiplication tables and science experiments in school. Her first published piece of poetry was, in fact, a result of a teacher snatching her notebook away and then encouraging her to submit some of her work to the local newspaper. Her first published piece, "Teacher, Teach Her" appeared in the Detroit Press at the age of eleven.

Today, in 1998, Linda is raising eight adopted and homemade children in Dallas, Texas. She is graduate of the University of Michigan, with a Chemistry degree, and she is a voracious reader, as well as an accomplished classical pianist. At her heart is a love of words which has prompted her to write for children the kinds of books she loved as a child. Presently, she has had twelve articles and several poems published in magazines. She also started the “Atlanta Writes!” program encouraging inner city children to express themselves through art, and she reads her children's light verse poetry in public schools and libraries.

NOTE: Linda Smith died on June 28, 2000, after a two-year valiant but unsuccessful fight with cancer. She had sold 7 books - 5 picture books and two novels - before she died, but never saw any of them in print. The world lost someone very special and very wonderful with her passing. She is greatly missed by all who knew her -- in person and online.

Be sure to check out Verla Kay’s two favorites of her picture books - “Mrs. Biddlebox” - illustrated by Marla Frazee - and “The Inside Tree” (still unpublished as of May, 2010).
by Verla Kay
It hurts to get a simple form --
You wanted so much more,
A note extolling your great work,
A check, and "We want more!"
Instead you read a form that says,
"We're sorry this is not --
Exactly what we're looking for...."
You shout, "IT WAS! (I thought.)"
Verla Kay Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved

This poem was written years ago when Verla was still struggling to make that first sale. It is just as applicable today as it was then, and she hopes that you will find hope and encouragement in knowing that she started out just like many of you -- struggling to "make it" in this crazy business of “Writing for Children.”
by Linda Joy Singleton

How many times have you heard these phrases?
"It's not right for our list."
"This isn't quite what we're looking for."
"It doesn't meet current editorial needs."
"It does not fit into our publishing program."
"We are not accepting new manuscripts at this time."
Or the familiar, "We wish you success in placing it elsewhere."
The dictionary defines rejection as "to cast from one, to throw away; a person or thing rejected as not up to standard." Which is almost as vague as the familiar phrases we hear from editors when they return our manuscripts.
But what do rejections really mean? What is the coded message behind the inexplicit explanation? Where exactly did we go wrong when submitting? Did we send it to the wrong publisher? Was our writing weak? Our plotting poor? Or was the editor just in a foul mood that day? 
There's no crystal ball with the magic answers, but the next time you receive a rejection, turn the tables around. Put on your editor's cap, and you be the Reviewer.

Your manuscript is returned unopened.
The publisher is undoubtedly swamped, and they may only be accepting agented material. Research their submission policies. Then, before resubmitting to them, query first with a short letter. Always be sure to include a SASE (Self-addressed, stamped envelope).
Your manuscript is returned with an insulting reply scrawled in red ink on your own query letter. They hated your manuscript, hated your ideas, and most probably hate you.
(At least that's what it feels like).
Any reply is better than no reply. Give yourself a few days to cool down, (okay, weeks) then calmly read through the rejection again. Note any constructive criticism and rewrite if warranted. Do not take rejections personally because there's no room for hurt feeling in this business. Remember, writing IS a business. Always be professional.  
A bland form letter. Thanks, but no thanks.

These impersonal replies come in all shapes and formats - from brief postcards to formal letters. Publishers don't have the time for chatty explanations. It's not their job to critique your work. Still, some publishers are more considerate in their form rejections and return a checklist of reasons for the rejection. When this happens, take note of the situation and learn from it. Study the market thoroughly, then submit somewhere else.
A form letter with a personal note. "We loved the premise, disliked the execution. The plot was interesting, but weak. The characters were stereotyped, the dialogue stilted, and the subplots confusing. But we liked it, and would be interested to see it again--after a rewrite."

They took the time to critique your work. This is a wonderful sign! Someone out there appreciates your writing. Whether you decide to rewrite is your choice, but just receiving a personal reply is a step up on your career ladder. You may pat yourself on the back.
No form letter, but the real thing. A personal letter written just for you. It's still a rejection, but it offers hope for a real sale.

The editor not only likes your writing, but she wants to work with you. She loves your style, your ideas, and your manuscript. She'd buy it but (a) the publisher just purchased a similar piece; (b) the list is full; (c) she's moving to another publisher, but if you'd care to submit it there, she'd love to see it again.

If you study your rejections, you can turn them into a positive, not a negative, experience. Then maybe the next letter you receive won't be a rejection, but an acceptance, complete with a contract and a check.

Linda Joy Singleton Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved
 About Linda Joy Singleton...

Linda began writing as a child, filling notebooks with stories about a cat named Taben and girl-sleuth mysteries. It wasn't until she had children of her own that she learned about marketing, critique groups and how to become a professional writer. She writes almost daily and attends writing conferences whenever possible. A frequent speaker, she LOVES to speak about writing -- to both kids and adults.

Among Linda Joy Singleton's over 30 published books are her most recent two series for young adults by Llewellyn -- THE SEER and DEAD GIRL. Both series are paranormal mystery series. Linda lives near Sacramento, CA, on twenty-five acres with her supportive husband, David. She loves sunshine, cats, old-fashioned series books, camping, swimming and walking.

Find out more about Linda Joy Singleton by visiting her website.

by Karma Wilson
It was a normal day. I walked the dirt driveway to our little country mailbox. There waiting for me was a SASE. Most likely a rejection. Nothing unusual. As an aspiring children's author the first few rejections shocked and angered me. Now they are normal. Routine. But this one was different. I opened it up, and out fell a letter from a publishing house I had been very excited about, addressed to......

someone else. (I got you all excited thinking it was an acceptance, huh?) Here I was all prepared to be depressed by this rejection and I had to laugh! It wasn't even for me. But what would I do now? Well I chose to do what every writer dreams of. I rejected them for a change. And unlike the poorly printed, generic form letters I had usually received from the publishing houses, I was going to make this rejection fun!

Here is a copy of that letter, and a copy of the company's reply (names have been changed to protect the guilty).

Dear Ms. Soupy Sails, Associate Editor,
Thank you for letting me read this rejection letter, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to reject it. It's not that it's poorly written, it just doesn't fit my current parameters, namely my manuscript title, name or address. Please feel free to send me future letters (acceptance letters are more what I'm looking for at this time) that adhere to the following guidelines:

My name: Karma Wilson
My address: Box 000, Rejection Road, ID 88055

Okay, I'm sorry. I couldn't resist this opportunity! When I opened my SASE and saw you had mistakenly sent me someone else's rejection letter I had to have a little fun. It's seldom a writer can have fun with rejection after all! Please send me the letter you meant to at your convenience. (I'm not griping. Goodness knows with the size of your slushpile it was only an oversight. Since Totally Awesome Books for Kids offered the world Dilbert Thumpermime, I'm likely to forgive anything!)

I currently have two PB manuscripts with you. Zachary Thomas and the Magnificent Monster Repellent Recipe, and Ella the Eloquent. I would like to know which one, if either, you've rejected. (Humor me. I'm hoping it's none.) I'm sorry for the mix-up.

I've enclosed two envelopes. One is a SASE for the response you meant for me, and one is a blank stamped envelope for poor Ms. Pamela Nogotsi so you can promptly and conveniently send her the enclosed rejection for Birmingham Beattle. I can spare $.32 to ease the anxiety of a fellow slushpile resident.

Thank you for your time.
Karma Wilson
ENC. SASE, Blank stamped envelope, misrouted rejection letter

And their reply:
Dear Ms. Wilson,
I am truly horrified. Please accept our profound apologies for sending you somebody else's letter and our thanks for your gracious understanding of our error. Mistakes are bound to occur, as we receive around 10,000 submissions a year, but it is nonetheless embarrassing whenever it happens.

To continue on this awkward strain, it seems it was our intent to let you know that Zachary Thomas and the Magnificent Monster Repellent Recipe and Ella the Eloquent were not for us--but that we hoped you would try us again for any future projects that you might have. We're truly sorry not to have had better news and not to have gotten things right the first time. I'm returning your stamped envelope with our thanks for your generous gesture and very good humor.

Soupy Sails, Associate Editor

I plan on submitting again to this house soon, in hopes that they will feel guilty enough to publish me. Is this wishful thinking? Of course! But as a writer I live on wishful thinking and words, so that's okay. If I get nothing else out of this experience I got the thrill of sending a rejection, rather than receiving one. Now, if you'll excuse me I must check the mail....

by Verla Kay

When it comes to agents, be VERY careful. I have had one terrible experience with a BAD one as well as my present TERRIFIC experience with a GREAT one. When it comes to picking an agent....if she (or he) is a very well-known, respected agent, then I would definitely consider using that agent. But if the agent is someone you have never heard of, then I would be very, VERY cautious.

The first agent I got was one that other writers were raving about...saying she was great. I found her to be a total disaster and a nightmare of untold proportions. Later I found out that other writers had the same kind of experience with her that I did.

Remember these things before taking on an agent:
#1) You will be having a VERY close relationship with this person. Pick your agent like you would pick a prospective mate. Is this agent a "compatible" soul with you? Does the agent have the same goals for your career in mind that you do? If you want to write ONLY series books or picture books, is this what the agent wants for you, too? If you hope to be a National Celebrity some day, is your agent able and willing to represent you then, too? What do you expect/want from your career five years from now? Ten? Does your agent feel and want the same for you? Do you want to be a speaker? Give talks at schools and conferences? How does your agent feel about that?

#2) What kind of working relationship do you expect from your agent? Does the agent expect the same? If you want your agent to critique your work and help you mold it into shape but your agent expects only finished products to come across his/her desk, you are in trouble! Some agents expect to share in the creation of manuscripts, others do not. Some want to tell the author what they should be writing next, others won't say a word. They will simply wait to see what exciting creation their authors have come up with next.

#3) Do you both have the same sense of humor? (VERY important!) Some agents expect NO humor in their relationships, others love it. Some have great sense of the ridiculous, others would be highly offended if you hinted at "jokes" in your business dealings. If you are the kind of person that often laughs and enjoys sarcasm and your agent has no sense of humor whatsoever, you are going to have problems and misunderstandings somewhere along the line.

#4) How well can you trust this person? How do you feel about giving this agent ALL of your writing income? Because that is what is going to happen! When you hire an agent, the publisher will not give you any advances or royalties. ALL the money you earn goes directly to your agent. The agent takes out his/her percentage (today that is usually 15%) and THEN forwards your portion on to you. You had better be VERY sure you can trust this person and that you can always reach this agent, too. Your "relationship" with this agent is for the LIFETIME of any books that sell with him/her. If you have a book that stays in print for 50 years...your relationship with this agent/agency will be for that long, too. EVEN IF YOU LATER DISCHARGE THE AGENT/AGENCY, any books that have sold through them will continue to be handled by them for as long as they are in print!

So you can see why it is a BIG step when you take on an agent. Think long and hard about this person and this agency before signing any agency agreements. (And I DO recommend a signed agreement, no matter HOW informal it might be. Be sure it has a specific clause in it outlining what happens if/when the agent/agency relationship is severed, either by the agency dropping you or you discharging them.) Ask for references of other writers that the agent is handling. CALL THEM and ask if they are happy with their relationship, what kind of sense of humor this agent has, how easy the agent is to reach, how prompt they are with sending author's moneys, etc. When you are completely satisfied that THIS is the agent for you...THEN say, yes, I want you for my agent! And....Congratulations on your new "marriage."

For more information about agents check out the Transcripts pages of this website.  

Verla Kay Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved

About Verla Kay...

Verla started writing for children in 1989, by taking the basic instruction course from the Institute of Children's Literature. Her first short story-in-rhyme, "There's An Onion In My Spinach," was published in the 1992 November Issue of Humpty Dumpty's Magazine. She didn't see another story in print until the 1994 October/November issue of Turtle Magazine, which listed her "Jump, Rabbit" story as one of its two featured stories for the month. "Jump, Rabbit" was used by the Better Health Institute as their example of a good story in an article in the 1995 Children's Writers & Illustrators Market guide book.
The first picture book that Verla sold was "Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails." It was pulled from the slush pile 3 1/2 years after she started submitting it, and exactly two months after it was sent out to seven publishers in October of 1994 as a multiple submission. Verla has continued to sell historical picture books in the ensuing years, including "Gold Fever," "Iron Horses," "Tattered Sails," "Broken Feather," "Homespun Sarah," "Orphan Train," "Rough Tough Charley," "Hornbooks & Inkwells," and "Drummer Boy."