Q: I read your post about getting hired as a children's writer. You mentioned the importance of finding a "niche." Can you talk more about this? How do I do it?
A: I think I'll make this a two-parter so nobody gets too terribly b(l)ogged down. Ready? Okay!
Of course many aspiring children's writers know exactly what they want to write. There's no question, they just write what comes, whether it arrives in the form of a YA novel or a rhyming picture book. Others know only that they want to write for children but have no idea where they might begin. Nothing wrong with not knowing what you want till you find it. The key, though, is that you take action.
In my Children's Writing Workshop, I help students refine their writing-niche goals by first taking them through many of the same exercises I featured in my Finding Your Voice series. I suggest reading that as background. If you're strapped for time, just answer the three questions in that first entry. How do your responses play into your current writing interests? I'm willing to bet that they offer some strong insights . . . or at least a good jumping-off point for your thoughts.
Following are four more action items you can try as you hunt for a niche.
(1) Everything about the business, the craft, the endeavor should begin the same way: You have to do your research, and that means you have to read, read, read . . . and then read some more. Your aim is to know both your readership and your market.
Get to know your local children's librarian pronto. Ask him or her for a list of must-reads, then check them out and get to it. You can approach the task in a number of ways. Here are a few ideas:
- Try sample readings from all age levels/genres so you can more easily compare them as you go.
- Try reading books from one age level/genre per week.
- Pick and choose yourself, starting with the age level/genre you think you want to write for and taking it from there.
Keep in mind that getting fully entrenched in the world of children's and YA literature takes time. You can't read it all, and you most certainly cannot read it all quickly. But you must make this a priority.
(2) It's helpful to get a feel for how children's lit has changed (and stayed the same) over the years so you can better see where — and exactly how — you might fit into today's market.
Research major award winners. Lists of books that have won awards such as the Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Michael L. Printz, Edgar Allan Poe (juvenile division) are readily available online. Check out the American Library Association's site — this ALSC page lists links to several award-specific sites (be sure to check the descriptions, as some are for adult books). For awards not covered here, just use Google or any other search engine.
Also, the Children's Literature Web Guide will point you to many lists and other great information. It's no longer updated, but its archives have tons of still-relevant info for anyone interested in writing and learning about kid lit.
For additional help studying the children's market and narrowing your own focus, do make the time to visit the Children's Book Council and the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators sites.
(3) Read good writers' books that include information about the distinctions between genres. These long-time favorites will get you started.
Children's Writer's Reference by Berthe Amoss & Eric Suben
This all-around reference includes a wonderful discussion of genres called "Age Levels and Formats." Request it at your library!
Children's Writer's Word Book by Alihandra Mogilner
In this resource you'll find grade-specific word lists (along with an annotated thesaurus of the same words), writing samples from each reading level, brief discussions about what kids are interested in and required to learn at each grade level, and tips for writing to given reading levels. You will absolutely need to own this book if you plan to write for the education market. Some publishers will ask you to use it, and once you have, you'll want to keep it handy.
Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children by William Zinsser, editor
This is a collection of essays by some of the best-known children's writers. The theme that ties the essays together is honesty in children's writing, as in what experiences these writers draw upon to help them create authentic stories and connect with their readers.
(4) Research publishers' sites. See what they're producing (and not producing)!
For a list of children's publishers (along with URLs and brief descriptions about each house's specialty), check out BookWire's index of children's publishers. Note that this index, while very useful, is not comprehensive. But there's no better place to start browsing and researching publishers that seem to be producing the kinds of books you'd like to write.
That's it for this post. I'll be back later this week with Part 2 to share a few more links and exercises to help you identify YOUR niche.