The biggest accomplishment of any writer’s journey to becoming a published author is not landing a publishing contract.
It’s finishing writing your book.
Because, duh, without getting that story out of your head and onto paper (or your computer), you got nothin’.
Zip. Zilch. Nada.
But once you get that first draft done, then it is time to celebrate! Because the truth is, out of the one hundred bazillion people who say they want to write a book, only about 11 actually finish the job.
(Okay, I totally made up those ridiculous numbers. But the point is, many people start their manuscripts. But few actually finish).
It doesn’t even matter how crappy your draft is. Because now you have something to build upon, something to show for that carpal tunnel syndrome you developed from so many hours of typing or writing.
So the first thing you should do after writing your book is celebrate. Pat yourself on the back. Be proud!
And then get ready for the long road ahead.
Whether it took you three weeks or ten years, now that you have a finished manuscript, the next thing you should do is ignore it.
I’m serious. Put it away and don’t look at it.
Advice about how long you should step away from your work varies, but everyone agrees you should take a break. A couple of weeks at a minimum, and maybe a couple of months or more if you can.
After the break, read through your draft again. You’ll be amazed at what jumps out at you about what works and doesn’t work with your story. Some people advise you not to try to make changes during that first read through after a break, but personally I don’t agree.
Being able to read your story as if it’s the first time gives you a closer idea of what your readers will experience. If something catches my attention, I make a note of it quickly. I try not to analyze anything at this point. There will be plenty of time for that later.
If I read through my draft too many times before making edits, I tend to go into overthinking mode. For example, if something in the dialogue feels amiss, I just make a notation to check it. If I don’t, by the third or fourth read, I am used to the way the passage sounds, and it may not catch my attention anymore.
Time for edits!
Even the most experienced and talented writers start with what Anne Lamott calls your “sh*tty first draft.” It’s just part of the process. But no worries–because no one needs to see it!
Your job now is to take your rough prose and start polishing it.
There are different ways to tackle the revision process, and there’s no one correct way to go about it. But here are some broad categories to review:
- Pacing – do you keep the reader engaged throughout? Are there places where the story lags?
- Plot – Does it have a logical beginning, middle, and end?
- Characters – Are they consistent and believable?
- Show vs Tell – Are you showing more than telling whenever possible?
There’s a lot more that I could say about the revision process, but this is not the place for it! This article provides a good general checklist.
No matter what, don’t skimp on this step. You are going to need to do several passes through your story if you want to end up with a solid manuscript. There is no magic number, but don’t stop at just one or two.
Get some good feedback.
When you feel you are ready to share your story with others, it’s time to find some readers. (If you don’t feel ready, then go back to Step 3).
Now, it’s fine to ask your friends, your partner, or your family members to read your story and give you feedback. But if you are serious about getting your children’s book into the world, you shouldn’t stop there (unless these people are all professional children’s writers themselves!).
You need people who are discerning readers and who have experience with critiquing CHILDREN’S books. This is where being part of the children’s book community is super helpful.
In my experience (and I know most share this), the kidlit community is SUPER generous. Other writers are very willing and happy to help anyone who needs it. This can mean anything from answering simple questions (how long should my book be?) to getting a critique.
But where does one find these amazingly helpful people?
Happily, it turns out they are super easy to find. Here are some suggestions:
This is the queen of all groups for those interested in kidlit. Even if you have barely dipped your toe in the waters of writing for children, you have probably heard of SCBWI. (And I’m sure I’ve said this before, but for a group made up of wordsmiths, it sure seems like they could have come up with a better name and acronym!).
Dues are very reasonable, and definitely worth it. In the beginning, it’s all a bit overwhelming, but my best advice is to dive in and start taking advantage of their events. Check out your local chapter and the national group for webinars or any gatherings (which are all online now during the pandemic).
Being an SCBWI member also gives you opportunities to receive feedback on your work. The online discussion board (The Blueboard) offers a place to ask questions and get in touch with critique groups (and join one). You can also post up to 1,000 words and get feedback on your manuscript. Any SCBWI member can respond, so there’s no way to predict what the skill level of your critiquer will be. But a moderator usually weighs in, so you will get at least one set of experienced eyes on your story.
Many local chapters offer regular opportunities to gather (again, remotely during the pandemic) and swap manuscripts for critiques.
Finally, SCBWI conferences also include a chance to sign up for a critique from agents, editors, and authors. It will require paying an additional fee on top of the conference registration. Local chapter conferences are less expensive than the two national conferences and the critiques are usually priced lower as well. It’s usually worth the cost because those providing the critiques have been vetted by the conference organizers, so you know it will be done by a skilled individual. Also, if your critique is done by an agent or editor, if they are interested in your story, they may ask you to follow up with them.
Here’s another amazing resource, and this one is free! This website, run by authors Sylvia Liu and Elaine Kiely Kearns, is chock full of information for both writers and illustrators. They also have a Facebook group (KIDLIT411 Manuscript Swap) where you can ask to swap manuscripts to get feedback.
You can also find links for how to find critique groups or form one.
In addition to Kidlit411’s Facebook group, there are different groups that have formed on Facebook for people interested in writing for childrens. Most are open to anyone who expresses an interest. Here are a few:
Sometimes people post in the groups looking for critique partners, so this can be another way to connect with fellow writers in your genre.
For some reason, writers seem to like hanging out on Twitter. Writers of children’s books are no exception.
I know Twitter (well, all social media has its ugly side) can get nasty at times. (But it can also be delightfully snarky and clever). But, at least in my experience, the kidlit space on Twitter is very supportive and full of positive vibes. It can be a great way to connect with other writers as well as agents and publishers.
If you don’t know where to start, you can try checking out hashtags related to the children’s writing space. #childrenswriting, #pb (for picture books), #MG (for middle grade) and #YA (for young adult).
Start following other writers or groups that look interesting to you. Try engaging in conversations and get to know others. Authors in particular often offer opportunities to win critiques. If you pay attention and stay engaged, chances are good you can win one.
Finding a mentor to help guide you on your journey is another great way to get feedback and guidance on your work. I have been fortunate enough to have two amazing mentors: Katey Howes through Justin Colón’s #PBChat, and Liz Garton Scanlon, through the Austin SCBWI chapter.
Author Mentor Match (AMM) is a free service that matches aspiring writers of middle grade, young adult, and adult works with experienced authors for mentorship. I am not personally familiar with the program, but it comes recommended by other authors whose opinion I respect. Matching rounds take place once or twice a year; check out the website to see if one is coming up.
You must be unagented and you must have a completed, polished manuscript. The application process is fairly rigorous, but you are allowed to apply to up to four mentors.
After getting feedback from other children’s writers, I highly recommend getting a professional critique. Yes, this means shelling out some money, but it is definitely a worthwhile investment.
How much can you expect a professional edit will cost?
A picture book critique for 500 to 700 words is generally going to be less expensive than the first 2,000 words of a longer book. And getting your entire middle grade or young adult novel edited by a professional is definitely going to cost you more.
Just for the sake of information, for a picture book, you can expect to pay in the range of $50 to $300.
The price is going to vary based on the experience of your editor. Many published children’s book authors offer inexpensive critiques, and can be a good place to start.
A freelance editor who used to work at a publishing house will generally be on the high side, in the $200 to $300 range.
Professional critiques can be through email or in-person
Oftentimes, webinar presentations (especially those put on by SCBWI and local chapters) will also offer a limited number of critiques for a reasonable price (in the $50 to $75 range).
When you feel you have your manuscript in tip-top shape, then you are ready to enter the next phase of the publication journey.
What does that mean?
The dreaded submission process.
Ready? Let’s go!