denise
DOWLING
MORTENSEN
CHILDREN’S       BOOK AUTHOR

© 2013-2015 Denise Mortensen.  All rights reserved. Site design Donna Farrell. Bug Patrol Art © Cece Bell.

First, I always tell prospective writers to go to the website for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators: www.scbwi.org. Take a look around at all of the links for upcoming conferences and links to resources for writers and illustrators. Seriously consider joining, as this is the industry-wide source for events, networking and educational opportunities, critique groups, publishing trends—you name it, it’s here. If you join you can attend local, regional and national conferences where you can meet other aspiring writers and have your work critiqued by editors and agents. When you have your manuscript critiqued at one of these conferences, you can usually submit directly to the editor or agent who did your critique. This is extremely helpful because many publishing houses only accept manuscripts submitted through an agent (see more on agents below). 


Take a writing class at your local adult education school, university or community college, or online.  You’re never too old to go back to school, especially if you need some pointers on crafting your story, dialogue, plot, characters, etc. This will give you the foundation for your writing and the confidence to move ahead.


Join a critique group. There are both online and face-to-face critique groups. You can find these by joining SCBWI or by doing an online search. The feedback you get from fellow writers is invaluable. You’ll have to spend some time critiquing other writers’ manuscripts, but the effort is worth it. Here are some tips for critiquing: http://www.writingforward.com/polished-writing/critiques-2/how-to-provide-helpful-critiques-to-other-writers  Also, if you’d like to submit your novel to a peer-review website that rates the top picks, try www.inkpop.com. Editors from HarperCollins review the top five manuscripts at the end of each month.


Buy (or obtain at your library) these two essential books: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, 3rd Edition, by Harold Underdown ($12.89 on Amazon.com) which provides an overview of the industry, submission process, and just about everything else you’ll need to know to get started; The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, by Alice Pope (around $18.00 on Amazon.com) which is an absolute necessity for finding potential publishing houses where you can submit your manuscript.


Do your homework. Spend some time at your local bookstore researching what’s out there, what types of books different publishers prefer, what subjects have been/haven’t been done already, what age group you are writing for, what style/language other authors are using…basically, what works and what doesn’t. 


Learn the rules of writing for children. It might look easy because children’s books can sometimes have so few words. Don’t be fooled. Children are intuitive. They are picky readers. They can spot poor writing faster than the turn of a page. Be especially careful if you are write poetry. You may have a wonderful story but if your rhyme or meter is off, your manuscript is sure to be rejected. This is why learning your craft and having your work critiqued before you submit is essential. I’ve found this checklist to be the most helpful for new writers: http://upstartcrowliterary.com/blog/?p=811


One of the first questions I’m asked by someone who is interested in writing is “Do I need to find an illustrator?” The answer is no. The publisher will always find an illustrator who they think will fit the style of the manuscript. Sending a manuscript to a publisher with illustrations you’ve had done by a friend or a friend of a friend is taboo and is a hallmark of an inexperienced writer. Concentrate on making your writing shine. Leave the illustrations to the publisher.


Check out Harold Underdown’s website: www.underdown.org. He’s got lots of interesting articles and links on the children’s publishing industry. There’s also a whole section on self-publishing, which I highly recommend reading if you’re thinking about going this route.


Read Publisher’s Weekly, Children’s Writer magazine or research children’s online literature blogs. Give yourself plenty of time--there are just too many to list here and you could get lost for days reading them.


Spend some time around children. What age/audience appeals to you most? Get inside the head of one of your potential readers. What might he/she be thinking or saying? Can you hear that child’s voice in your writing?


Write. Write. Write. Start a blog yourself. Submit articles to your local newspaper. Volunteer to edit the school newsletter. Start your novel or picture book. Anything you do to practice your writing skills is energy well spent. You will want to include all of your writing experience in a cover letter to a prospective editor.


Revise. Revise. Revise. I will often write something and put it away for months (or even years). When I come back to it with fresh eyes, I can see where I need to make changes. Be open to changes. Sometimes they come to you in the middle of the night. Sometimes they never come at all. Polish your manuscript so it is PERFECT before you send it. It might be your only chance to get it under an editor’s nose and you want it to shine!


Submit. Submit. Submit. Keep track of all of your submissions with a log (i.e., date sent, which editors, responses, etc.). Be sure to mention that it is a multiple submission if you send it to more than one editor. Follow the strict guidelines for submitting your manuscript in the proper format.


Wait. Wait. Wait. Sorry to say, but this is the hardest part of the process. It can take up to a year sometimes before you hear back from editors.  Hopefully, if you are patient, you will get some positive feedback, if not a contract for a book!


Another question I’m frequently asked is “Do I need an agent?” My answer, unfortunately, is that I don’t have an answer. Some writers feel that they need an agent to have work submitted to the right editors. Some writers would rather submit their manuscripts on their own. This is called sending in an “unsolicited” manuscript. You are submitting your manuscript to what’s called the “slush pile” (basically, the pile of mail that editorial assistants sift through and read for potential publication). There are still books that are plucked from this pile every year and published—I know, my first book was published this way. The fact is, more and more publishers will only accept submissions through an agent and it can be just as difficult to sign with an agent as it is to get a book contract. You may expend lots of energy pursuing an agent when you could be spending that same time developing your writing and submitting your work on your own to publishing houses that are open to unsolicited manuscripts. But the advantages of having an agent are many: an agent can be instrumental in placing your work, negotiating deals and cultivating your career as an author. Seek input from published authors, writing groups, conferences, workshops, etc. before you decide what to do. You may come to your own conclusions based on your particular needs, manuscript and situation.


One of the most important pieces of advice I have is that you should never, ever trust anyone who promises to publish your manuscript for a fee unless you decide to self publish (again, proceed with caution here). There are many scam “editorial” services and agencies out there masquerading as publishers. Just do a google search of “scam publishers” or visit this website: www.writerbeware.com for more information about how to protect your work (and your wallet) from being ripped off.  There’s also a great blog on the website. My best advice is to educate yourself before you give away a dime of your hard-earned money.


I feel very blessed to have had my books published and am happy to share some insights and tips for others writers who are just starting out. So I’ve compiled this list of helpful hints to help future authors like you who share my passion for children’s books. It might seem overwhelming at first. Please, take your time. You don’t have to do all of these things right away. Take small steps. Just like your writing, your career is a process. Hopefully, before you know it you’ll be on your way to submitting your own award-winning book!

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