My son’s been taking karate for 4 years, and every time he tests for the next rank (he’s up to his brown now), fewer kids who started with him as white belts test alongside him. It’s not that Matt’s necessarily a better athlete than they are, but karate is more important to him. He likes learning the forms, and he enjoys surviving a two hour, physically grueling test knowing that most of his friends would have been flattened in the first 20 minutes. When aspiring writers start identifying themselves as authors, just as Matt sees himself as a martial artist, they’ve taken that first big step toward success.
But there’s a difference between wanting to see your name on a book, and wanting a career as a children’s book author. Anyone with a few bucks can publish their own story, and many books are perfectly suited to be self-published titles given to family and friends. The career mentality, however, is more complex. Check out some common characteristics below and see how you measure up:
Humility: When I get emails from people saying, “I’m going to be the next Dr. Seuss,” I cringe. Confidence is fine, but don’t compare yourself to someone like Dr. Seuss right out of the gate. In fact, don’t compare yourself to anyone. Work on finding your own style and voice. And know that you don’t have to become a literary institution to be a success. Learning to write well is a lifelong process, and the writers who get published understand that each manuscript, whether it sells or not, teaches them something. They’re not afraid to be critiqued or edited. They’ve put their heart into a book or article, and then removed their ego. They understand that if their critique group or editor says a plot is too predictable, it’s far better to chuck the storyline and start over than to fight to preserve a mediocre manuscript. And they’re grateful for the input that saved them from dozens of rejection letters.
Will Work for Resumé: Successful authors know that their query letters are more impressive if they can list some publishing credits. They’re willing to write for little or no money at first, because the experience of meeting a deadline and working with an editor is invaluable. They may decide to sell one story to a magazine that buys all rights so their next story can be sold to a bigger publication that purchases first rights only. They’ll submit to local magazines, regional publishers and small presses as they perfect their manuscripts intended for larger, national publishers. Well-published authors don’t overlook any market that might be right for a particular work. And when you’re just starting out, seeing your byline in a local parenting publication is just as satisfying as appearing in Highlights for Children.
‘Tensity: Matt’s karate teacher urges him to be intense about his practice, and Matt’s dubbed this mindset “‘tensity.” The prolific writers I know think the same way. Though most have families and jobs, they live, eat and breathe writing. Any spare moment is devoted to working on a manuscript. Free weekends are spent at conferences and workshops. When they’re not writing, they’re reading children’s books. As soon as they get one manuscript in the mail, they start the next one. In fact, super successful authors work on several manuscripts at once. If they’re uninspired to revise a scene from their novel, they’ll write a query for an article idea or do research for a picture book biography.
You don’t have to maintain this level of activity to become published. Most writers don’t. But if you want to make a living as a children’s book author, if you want your web site to list 50 or more books in print, then it’s practically required.
Plays the Field: Well-published authors don’t limit themselves to one genre. They’ll write picture books, novels, short stories for magazines, poetry, nonfiction, and material for adult markets such as parenting magazines or writing newsletters. After one book comes out they don’t wait for their editor to ask for another manuscript; they create what inspires them and if it’s not right for their current editor, they market it someplace else. In fact, it’s more difficult to get widely-published if you only write one type of book. A publisher carries a limited number of titles per season, and the editor of your middle grade novel might not appreciate your having another novel for the same age group come out with a different publisher simultaneously. But a magazine article or nonfiction picture book won’t compete with a book for older kids, and still gets your name in front of reviewers and book buyers.
Successful authors don’t dabble in writing now and then, they embrace it and do whatever it takes to get published because it’s what they want more than anything else. So dive in, work with ‘tensity, and send us a quote for our web site when you hit the jackpot.
Laura Backes is the Publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Book Writers. Want to learn how to become a successful children’s book author? Come hang with the Fightin’ Bookworms at http://cbiclubhouse.com. Whether is writing picture books, chapter books, young adult novels, finding children’s book publishers — or anything else — you’ll find all the answers at the CBI Clubhouse!