Warning #1: This is a long post. Warning #2: Unless you want to be traditionally published, this post may be immensely boring to you. You’ve been warned.
Okay, why did I write this post? Because I wanted to do something to help aspiring authors who may land on my website. I was an aspiring author not that long ago, and I sooo ached to be on the other side. I’d written a number of manuscripts, and longed to experience the next phase: getting an agent and a book deal, meeting with my editor and visiting the publishing house… I was filled with desire for something that seemed out of reach. So I wanted to write down my answers to some very frequently asked questions I receive via email, social media, at events, readings, etc. from folks who are feeling exactly what I felt.
Note: I wrote this post in spurts over the course of several months because I wanted to get as much down here as I could. I also update this post from time to time, whenever the same question repeatedly pops up in my inbox. But if I haven’t addressed a topic here or on other parts of my website, feel free to contact me via this page.
Another note: My advice pertains to getting published traditionally – that is, with an agent who pitches your work to an editor at a publishing house. I don’t have any experience in self-publishing because I haven’t tried it (yet). I’m sure there are pros and cons to both, but the biggest difference is that in traditional publishing, a publishing house pays you and handles all of the production/distribution and does a huge portion of the trade and consumer marketing/promotion (as an author, you’re expected to participate in the consumer promotional activities by having a social media presence, doing talks at bookstores, schools, libraries, etc.–but your main focus is to write good books). In self-publishing, you pay a service to get your book made and you handle (and pay for) all of the marketing/promotion/etc. I set out to be a traditionally published author because it was a rite of passage I craved as a writer – I wanted to see if my stories could be accepted by the tough gatekeepers of the publishing industry. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Plus, focusing on writing is exactly what I want to do. That said, I think successful self-publishing requires a great deal of entrepreneurial and promotional skills (because you’re functioning as a one-person publishing company), so I have great respect for the hustle.
So here goes…starting with the more general questions I get, and then proceeding to the more specific questions I’ve received.
- DO YOU HAVE ANY WRITING ADVICE?
If you’re an avid reader, you’re already off to a good start. And if you’re a reader who studies how authors craft their sentences and paragraphs (and you’re implementing those techniques into your own projects), then you’re on the right path. And if you’re someone who writes because you can’t help it, then I think you are most definitely destined to be a writer, perhaps even a traditionally published author.
HOWEVER, being a writer and being an author are not one and the same. I know many gifted writers who have yet to become published authors, not for lack of talent. Becoming a published author requires more grit and determination than pure talent, because the rejection letters can be extremely discouraging. Yes, it does take talent and skill to get the engine revving, but if you really want to go somewhere, you MUST have grit and determination. Writers get rejected every step of the way – even when you’re a published author, your next manuscript may get rejected, or your book may get flogged by the critics and your audience. So how you shape your career as an author largely depends on how determined you are to get to where you want to be, despite the many painful bumps along the road.
Also, if you want to take your writing a step further and get your work picked up by a traditional publisher (Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, etc.), you need to do marketplace research. The author Susan Dennard maintains a fabulous website full of helpful step-by-step advice, and it’s well-organized, too. She gives advice on query letters, agents, as well as the craft of writing. I love her website. Visit her Writing Resources page here.
- HOW DID YOU GET YOUR START AS A WRITER?
I’ve been writing picture books ever since I could read them at age four. I won my first story contest in the third grade, and when I went to the stage to get my ribbon, I noticed that both my mom and my teacher were wiping away tears — and then I was hooked because I realized that stories are powerful! I majored in English in college and kept writing for campus literary journals, magazines and papers. I’ve written a number of manuscripts, including picture books as well as a couple of novels – my picture books were first to get picked up for publication, but I’m hoping to have a novel or two published someday. So basically, I’ve been writing stories since the moment I could string words together on paper. But I’m an inconsistent writer — I don’t write everyday and I often run into a lot of self doubt. I thought this would change once I got a publishing deal under my belt, and that I’d whip out pages and present them with a flourish to my agent and editors, who’d then shower me with lavish praise. Nope. Not even close. The teeth grinding and hair pulling continue. Sometimes I wonder if life would be much easier if I didn’t have this grand ambition to be a lifelong writer. I could just watch TV for hours and blow bubbles in my chocolate milk and not feel any guilt for neglecting my pages!
- WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE WHO’D LIKE TO GET A PUBLISHING DEAL?
I address this also in my writing FAQs, but here are the steps. Get ready to put in some hard work:
- Read A LOT. I usually have about 5 books going at once, and I rotate among them almost every evening. When I come across a book I can’t put down, I clear out my schedule so I can spend all weekend reading. For a writer, reading is manna, and I don’t think you can be a good writer unless you’re a voracious reader. I know a lot of parents like to censor what their kids read, but honestly, I think kids become booklovers if they’re allowed to choose for themselves (and actually, dismissing a kid’s choice of reading material kind of sends the message that their taste sucks, and that they should only read “elevated” books – but you know what? That discourages the beauty of discovery and the pure fun of reading. Also, for years I thought I should read only “elevated” books, and I honestly think that elitist attitude delayed my development as a writer. Because authors of commercial books (bestsellers) have a true talent for plot, pace, etc. I missed the whole Twilight craze because I dismissed the series at first…and then I realized my error once I started devouring the books. Stephenie Meyer is a wizard at storytelling! Her writing may never win the National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize, but the commercial success of her books is absolutely mind-boggling and her fans are RABID.) So allow kids to read anything and everything (within reason!). That’s how I grew up, mostly because my parents weren’t fluent in English so they had no idea about the graphic and sexual nature of some of the books I read (hello, Clan of the Cave Bear, which I read at age thirteen!). I even read Stephen King in elementary school. Probably not the best for falling asleep at night, but that experience did make my imagination run wild. That’s a long-winded way of saying that to be a published author, you must love reading. Read widely and voraciously.
- Write A LOT. Write down your plot points, big ideas, characters, and then bang out the first draft. And then revise, revise, revise. I love the revision process because it’s like putting together a puzzle, moving things around and seeing if things fit. It’s the blank page that intimidates me, so I usually try to move quickly through my first draft, spewing forth words in a chaotic mess that will be fixed later.
- Put your work aside for several weeks and let it germinate. And then read it with a critical eye. Remove the boring parts and tighten up your writing. See the resources section below for my favorite book on revision.
- Ask a trusted reader with good taste to review your work. You’re not looking for a shiny gold star. You’re looking for ways to improve, so be hungry for constructive criticism, not just praise and compliments.
- Revise to incorporate your trusted reader’s feedback, to make your manuscript as good as it can be. Remove extraneous words, characters, plot points.
- And when you’re ready, study the marketplace for agents/editors (see the resources below) and then take the plunge…submit your work!
- This informative article by industry veteran Jane Friedman goes into great detail about how to secure a traditional publishing deal. A good test of how badly you want to get traditionally published is whether you review this information with hunger/passion, or whether you think it’s all very tedious and far more difficult than you’d hoped. I definitely fell in the former camp — I devoured this kind of info! So if that describes you, too, then you’re well on your way and I welcome you to the journey! You’ll likely have the passion and determination to survive the ups and downs of completing a solid manuscript/getting critiqued/revising & revising some more/querying agents/facing rejection/going on submission to find a publisher/facing more rejection/getting reviewed/starting all over again. It’s (usually) a long and difficult process, and I’m actually very grateful that it is, because it means that authors who manage to survive the arduous journey are truly committed and dedicated to their craft, and that their books were carefully vetted and reviewed by layers and layers of industry professionals before landing in schools, libraries and homes. After all, don’t you want the best for your child/niece/nephew/friends?
- WHY IS IT TOUGH TO GET A CHILDREN’S BOOK PUBLISHED — AREN’T THEY EASY TO WRITE?
Children’s books are mistakenly perceived as a cinch to write, and so everyone wants to write one. Which means the competition is extremely fierce. Your manuscript truly has to stand out from the vaaaaaast sea of submissions in order to get picked up by a publishing house. Also, I personally don’t find writing children’s books easy at all. In fact, one of the challenges of writing a picture book is telling a satisfying story in less than 1,000 words. You also have to be hyper aware of which details are essential for the story, given that the illustrations will be doing much of the leg work. Each word has to matter. The children’s literature market is growing, which is great for those of us who create content. But this also means that more and more folks are clamoring to get in. It’s great to have a lot of voices, but you can see that this results in a lot of noise. But I truly believe that if you have a standout story, it will eventually get noticed, despite all the surrounding chatter.
Also, for most traditionally-published authors, the journey is a long one before that first book is published. The journey usually includes many years of writing, attending writers conferences, querying agents, facing rejection and getting back up again. So even if a picture book looks simple and short, it’s just the tip of the iceberg you see — a lot of sweat, toil and love went into the creator’s journey before that book was ever picked up for publication. That’s why it irks me when I see a decent book get trashed by internet trolls and unnecessarily harsh critics. What they dismiss and disparage in a matter of seconds often took years and years of effort by the creators. It takes guts (and a bit of craziness) to create something out of nothing and put it out in the world. So if you’re setting out to be a traditionally-published author, I have immense respect and admiration for you and your creative journey.
- WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY IN YOUR WRITING CAREER IF YOU COULD GO BACK?
In my twenties, I spent a full decade writing one novel. ONE SINGLE NOVEL. It got some great attention from a couple of huge agents back then (including the current agent of Kevin Kwan, author of “Crazy Rich Asians”), but it didn’t go anywhere. I learned a lot from that experience and I hope to turn back to that novel someday to rework it, but I wish I hadn’t spent so much time on one manuscript. To be fair, I didn’t spend a straight decade on it. There were a few years when I had a job at a law firm so intense and so demanding (I often worked 12-15 hours per day, every day including the weekends) that my evenings and weekends were spent in a stunned and depressed stupor. Anyway, my point is I shouldn’t have been so obsessed about one project. Because when that didn’t work out, it was demoralizing and heartbreaking. I stopped writing for several years because I lost steam for a while. That obviously delayed getting my writing career off the ground. Now, I have multiple projects going on so that if one doesn’t sell, I can always turn to another one. And yes, you read that correctly. Even published authors get their manuscripts rejected by publishing houses. Rejection is ALWAYS part of the game (unless you’re a mega bestselling author – and even then, your next book could bomb).
- CAN YOU RECOMMEND SOME RESOURCES?
Here are some of my favorite resources about the craft of writing as well as the business of publishing:
- Renni Browne’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers -I read this book each time I’m about to start a major revision. It’s like having an editor look over your shoulder.
- Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators – If you’re serious about writing children’s literature, you should probably become a member, even before you are published. I was a member for a number of years before I got my first publishing deal. Their publishing FAQs are very informative for aspiring authors.
- Writers Market and its companion Children’s Writers & Illustrator’s Market – Updated every year, these thick volumes are great for researching agents and editors, and also getting technical info, like formatting your manuscript, querying agents, etc. I also recommend Writing Children’s Books for Dummies for all the basics. Those who are serious about writing and publishing will usually have studied the information in these books.
- Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert – Great inspiration for anyone on a creative journey.
- Publisher’s Weekly
- Dear Editor blog
- Kidlit411 website
- HOW DO YOU JUGGLE WRITING WITH A FULL-TIME JOB?
Most authors have some other source of income beyond their books and writings. Whether it’s a full-time job, a part-time teaching position, freelance gigs, wealthy parents or a wealthy spouse, etc., they’re juggling everything while prioritizing writing because they love it. If you’re truly a writer deep down in your soul, you will find a way to write no matter what. No matter how crazy your schedule, how hectic your life, you will write to breathe. Whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph or a page a day, or several pages during the weekend (like me), that’s the way you do it. Also, make decisions based on what will allow you to have the time to write. For instance, one of the reasons I don’t attend a ton of social events or watch a ton of TV is because I want to preserve my time and energy for writing. Another key to being a writer is this: you have to be okay with being alone. Writing fiction is a very solitary activity. At this moment, I am writing on one end of the sofa while my lovely dog sleeps on my foot, and my understanding husband watches a movie on his computer with his headphones on. (Btw, if solitude is not your jam and you prefer writing with other people, look into writing in a communal space like a cafe, or perhaps even TV writing.)
- CAN YOU READ MY MANUSCRIPT?
I used to tell myself that once I became published, I’d be generous to those trying to get their foot in the door, because I knew the journey was difficult. And I did this for a while. I would agree to have calls, I engaged in lengthy email exchanges about writing and publishing, I read manuscripts and gave constructive feedback for free. But then I became overwhelmed. And stressed out because my precious writing time was disappearing. So that’s why I wrote this blog post – to provide a resource for people who want to get published. One of the main reasons I maintain this website is to address the questions I receive most frequently. This is exactly the same stuff I’d tell you in person or on the phone 🙂
If you want someone to read your manuscript, my advice would be to consider forming a critique group with fellow writers. And if you have the resources, you could consider hiring a professional independent editor for a paid critique. A lot of professional writers offer that service, as do some former editors for the big publishing houses (see #13 below for a couple of freelance editors who provide manuscript consultation services). The SCBWI will lead you in the right direction for contacts, and if you attend one of their conferences, you can get a paid critique there from a professional in the publishing industry.
9. HOW DID YOU GET AN AGENT?
Years ago, I was represented by a big literary agency attached to a huge Hollywood film and TV agency. My agent at that time shopped around a middle grade novel of mine to a handful of publishing houses. But that novel didn’t sell. I was crushed and discouraged, but now, I understand why it didn’t get picked up. One reason is because the pacing was way too slow. The ending is really quite moving, but if the reader never makes it there because the middle sags, the book will get rejected.
Then for a while, I tried to go at it on my own. And I knew that some smaller publishing houses accepted picture book manuscripts directly from unagented writers.
My first picture book sold without an agent. You can read the detailed recap of how that happened here.
However, for my second picture book, I definitely wanted an agent. Why? Though it was interesting to negotiate my own publishing contract, it was a little tricky wearing both hats – the nice/creative writer hat and the aggressive negotiator hat (I discovered they shouldn’t necessarily be worn on the same head). I also wanted an agent because most of the imprints at the Big 5 publishers do not accept unsolicited submissions. That means you need an agent if you don’t want your manuscript trashed immediately. Therefore, I sent out query letters to a handful of agents, and was extremely fortunate to receive multiple offers of representation. I signed with my agent Bill because I’d heard wonderful things about him, and also, he belongs to a powerhouse boutique literary agency in NYC. Bill has been a dream agent — excellent at what he does, and also full of wisdom and fabulous advice to help shape my writing career. [UPDATE: Bill retired during the summer of 2019 (so sad for me, but very happy for him!), so I am now represented by his colleague Emma :)]
10. CAN YOU INTRODUCE ME TO YOUR AGENT?
In the past, I introduced a couple of really solid writers to my (former) agent, but it didn’t work out. I ended up feeling terrible. And honestly, I prefer to spend most of my time in a good mood rather than feeling bad 🙂
Don’t feel like you’re at a disadvantage if you can’t get a personal referral to an agent. Nearly all authors (including me!) have had to do the following in order to secure an agent – write like crazy, revise like nuts, learn to pitch your own work and research/query agents (usually without any personal referrals whatsoever).
11. I HAVE A STORY IDEA. WILL YOU WRITE THE STORY AND GET IT PUBLISHED, AND THEN WE CAN SPLIT THE PROCEEDS?
I get this question every once in a while, and unfortunately, I have my own backlog of ideas and am trying to chip away at them. So I strongly encourage people to write their own stories! Nobody will be as passionate about your story idea as you. And please don’t share your story idea with me — I may have come up with the exact same story idea at some point in the past, and I don’t ever want you to think I took your idea! Also, note that when writers are hired by celebrities or publishers to take an idea and write a story, they’re paid upfront. So unless you have $$ to spare from the get-go, I highly recommend that you get busy writing your story.
12. HOW DID YOU FIND THE ILLUSTRATORS WHO WORKED ON YOUR BOOKS? CAN YOU INTRODUCE ME TO YOUR ILLUSTRATORS SO THAT THEY CAN ILLUSTRATE MY BOOK?
In a traditional publishing deal, the publisher hires the illustrator. So for all of my books, the publisher pinpointed a list of good illustrators, selected the one whose vision best matched my story, and paid the illustrator an advance (on top of the advance, the illustrator gets royalties once the advance is “earned out” via sales of the book). I had consultation rights — meaning, I got to look over the illustrator’s sketches and sample illustrations to give my opinion — but ultimately, it’s the publisher who has the final say since they’re paying the illustrator.
As for introducing people to the illustrators who worked on my books, if you’re a writer looking to get a children’s book traditionally published, all you want to focus on is your manuscript (the story/text only/no illustrations) and let your eventual publisher hire the appropriate illustrator. If you’re a writer looking to self-publish your book and need an illustrator to work with you, I don’t really know too much about the process since I haven’t self-published a book. I have heard that most good illustrators expect $$ upfront, plus royalties once that advance is “earned out.” And if you’re self-publishing, you would need to find your own illustrator by researching their websites and reaching out to their individual agents, or by checking out the illustrator gallery at the SCBWI (but keep in mind that most good illustrators will want an upfront payment (known as an advance), so please don’t ask them to work for free, “for exposure only” — I think most artists are pretty sick of being underpaid or working for free!).
13. I HAVE A FRIEND/CO-WORKER/CHILD/GRANDPARENT/UNCLE/REAL ESTATE AGENT/WIFE OF A BOSS WHO WANTS TO PUBLISH A BOOK. CAN YOU TALK TO HIM OR HER OR THEM AND OFFER SOME TIPS?
I get this question pretty often — several times a month, and sometimes even several times a day. All my best advice is in this blog post, and for the reasons I list in here, I’m not able to conduct one-on-one calls or provide guidance/tutorials via email anymore. Please feel free to forward this blog post to any aspiring authors in your life! I may be available to talk for a consultation fee — please email me via the Contact page for rates, but note that I have to be very selective due to my limited time (I have a full-time corporate job on top of my writing career!). There are many other writers/editors who offer paid consultations as part of their business. For instance, Deborah Halverson is both an editor and author, and regularly offers paid consultations. The editor Mary Kole also provides consultation services for folks who want advice and guidance about writing and publishing.
14. HOW DO YOU MARKET YOUR BOOKS?
The good news about being a traditionally-published author is that the publishing company has in-house marketing and publicity departments that will promote your book. They will send your book to review organizations (Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, newspapers, etc.), they will market your books to the trade (bookstores, schools, libraries, etc.), and they will promote your book to consumers.
That said, nowadays authors are expected to promote, too. Gone is the era when an author could just sit in his or her study and write books and let the publisher take care of the rest (J.D. Salinger, the famous literary recluse, had it so easy!). You’re expected to speak at events, do social media, tell people about your books. I’ll be honest: self-promotion makes me a little uneasy. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a natural introvert, but I really have to push myself to get out there. It took me a long time to get used to social media, and I’m still learning best practices. And truly, the best marketing you can do is to write a good book. No amount of marketing will sell a bad book, at least not for the long haul. You want your book to have a long shelf life, and the best way to do so is to begin with a good book, one that people will want to buy/read and recommend to their friends and family.
Anyway, I’ve personally found that the best ways to promote your books are: 1) get on a radio program with a huge audience (like NPR), 2) get reviewed by well-regarded mainstream media (TV stations, The New York Times, L.A. Times, etc.), 3) write an op-ed piece or other article for a well-regarded publication (newspapers, magazines, literary journals, etc.), 4) get a bookstagrammer or celebrity to talk about your book, 5) write your next book (front list sells back list) and 6) perhaps the most important of all: WORD OF MOUTH! The first four opportunities usually happen with the help of your publisher or an independent publicist, although I’ve had a couple of articles/op-ed pieces placed on my own and even got on national TV because a reporter discovered my book (how cool is that??!). There are a number of books & articles that cover this specific topic (marketing & self-promotion for authors), so I suggest you check them out if you want to delve in deep since this isn’t my area of expertise (I’m still learning!).
15. NOW THAT YOU HAVE SEVERAL PUBLISHING DEALS, DO YOU FEEL DIFFERENT?
I’m still the same weirdo. But my worries are a little different. Rather than worrying whether I’ll ever be published, I worry about other things. For instance, before speaking on a panel of authors or doing an author visit, my worry is if I’ll sound boring or stiff or nervous. One area where I especially feel different is when I attend writing conferences. In the past, I would leave conferences feeling inspired and yet vaguely depressed because the goal seemed so out of reach. And there were just so many other talented people reaching for the same goal! But now, when I attend conferences, I’m more invigorated than anything else. And when I meet established authors, I can breathe and sound normal, rather than sounding like an unhinged fan girl. It’s not that I feel like I’ve “made it” – far from it! There’s so much I still want to accomplish. Instead, I feel like it’s all within the realm of possibility, whereas during the years of rejection letters, it felt like a true slog.
16. WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT HAVING ACHIEVED YOUR DREAM?
When I get asked this question, I smile. Because yes, I’ve accomplished something I’ve dreamed about since childhood. But at the same time, I feel like I still have a long way to go. The dream keeps evolving. I want to do so much more. I guess ambition is part of what makes us human: we want to do more and be more, and that means we keep growing. One aspect of being an author that I really love is meeting my readers. I love doing library and school visits and hearing some hilarious and insightful questions. I will never forget stepping foot at an international school in Asia, and hearing kids yell out from the basketball court, “There’s the author!” and running over to meet me in the middle of their game. I also love learning about the inner workings of the publishing industry. Going to a publishing house to meet the cool folks working on your book is an AMAZING treat. Speaking with your agent and an editor about your characters as if they’re real is so incredibly cool. Sitting among shelves of your favorite books, knowing that yours is going to be among them is a very humbling experience. And one of the delights of being a picture book author is seeing the sketches and illustrations come in from the illustrator hired by the publisher. Wow, it’s so moving to see your characters in full color. So even though the dream has become a reality, it doesn’t stop there. There’s so much learning and discovering and evolving that happens after that initial step into the journey. The journey continues, which is a beautiful thing.
Below is a goofy clip of a movie “La Boum,” which I first watched in my high school French class. Yup, that’s Sophie Marceau (of Braveheart and Bond fame). The theme song, “Dreams Are My Reality,” has replayed in my head at odd moments throughout the years.
17.THANKS FOR ALL THIS INFO, BUT I THINK IT’D REALLY HELP ME TO SPEAK WITH YOU FOR A FEW MINUTES ABOUT MY BOOK IDEA OR ABOUT PUBLISHING OR WRITING. I PROMISE IT’LL BE QUICK!
I totally get it. And if you’ve worked hard on your draft and conducted extensive market research and have a specific question or two about anything that isn’t already covered here or elsewhere on my website, feel free to email me via the Contact page. Another option is to attend one of my upcoming events and we can chat there. I don’t do one-on-one phone calls anymore because of the reasons I detailed above (some authors charge for that kind of consultation service, but I’m currently just too busy with my full-time job, family obligations, writing schedule, catching up on sleep, etc.). I wish I had some kind of magic key to pass along to aspiring authors, but I don’t. The truth of the matter is, the writing journey is an individual one, and hard work + perseverance + market research will take you far. This blog post contains my best writing and publishing advice, so I hope you’ve enjoyed it because my tired brain probably has only nonsense left in it 😉
I wish you much fun and success on your writing and publishing journey!