Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Before You Write, Part 3: Act Like a Writer

I hope you've followed — and enjoyed — the whole Before You Write thread. This is Part 3, and here's a link to Part 2 if you'd like to catch up.

So, here's the third big thing I think you need to do before you start writing, for real. You need to . . .

Act Like a Writer

Here's how:

(1) Set up a writing space. I know that it can be difficult to designate one whole room (or even a portion of a room) as your writing space. But do the best you can with this one. A dedicated writing space can put you in the right frame of mind, help keep you organized, and reinforce your attitude (others' attitudes too, if that's an issue) that this is a professional endeavor.

(2) Set a writing schedule and a number of writing goals for each project. Each writer works differently, but everyone can benefit from setting a schedule and some specific goals. Keep them both reasonable and attainable. Try to create your writing schedule based on when you know you do your best writing.

For example, I write every weekday morning, without fail. That's when my head is clear, and it's when I'm conditioned to dig in. When I first plan a writing project, I establish some general benchmarks, such as when the writing begins (post-research), when I need a working outline, and when I should have my own first draft (this should always occur well before the date you're scheduled to turn in a draft to your publisher).

I tend to set my daily goals on a case-by-case, day-by-day basis, but many writers stick to relatively hard-and-fast daily goals such as 3 pages per day, 1 chapter per day, writing with no interruptions for 4 hours per day, and so on. With practice, you'll find your own rhythm and be able to set realistic schedules and goals.

(3) Set the mood. Each time you sit down to write, do something that signals, to you, that it's time to get writing. You could play some music while you get situated, make one "last" phone call, or do one more household chore so you feel ready to go.

Now you're ready to write! I'll talk about the writing stage, too, in upcoming posts, so be sure to check back often.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Before You Write, Part 2: Make an Outline

Did you get a chance to read Part 1 in this overall topic? I recommend that you read that first and then keep going with my outlining tips below.

Make an Outline

Outlines help you write to the recommended length for your genre and help you crystallize your vision for the beginning, middle, and end of your story. I like to outline my work, and I do it even when I'm not required to. This, I realize, comes from the more structured editorial side of my being; outlines always help me start and get through the work, but sometimes they do drastically change during the writing. Some writers don't need an outline, and some really can't work with them at all.

If you're planning to write all of your children's books before looking for a publisher, then I'd say making an outline is optional. But do understand that many publishers will require an outline as a precursor to seeing your manuscript. Sometimes they want to see it with your query, and other times they'll request it after reading your query, before committing to reading your manuscript.

At the very least, you'll need to get comfortable with creating outlines after you've done the writing. And if you end up working as a writer for hire in the education/school and library market (like me!), you'll certainly be required to submit a detailed outline as either the first or second step in any given project.

Outline structures can include any or all of the following elements:
  • Concept sentence
  • One-paragraph plot summary
  • Chapter-by-chapter summary
  • Spread-by-spread summary
  • Page-by-page summary
  • Paragraph-by-paragraph summary
  • Targeted and actual word count, sentences per paragraph or page, average sentence length, and reading level
May I just say that I still don't understand why text that follows bullet lists within Blogger displays differently than the typical style? I mean, the leading in this paragraph matches that used in the bullet text but not that which is used in the normal paragraph style. I wish I knew how to fix it!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Before You Write, Part 1: Do Your Research

Thus begins a series of blog posts in which I share my best tips for getting the job done. The writing for children job, that is. I'll look at the whole process, starting with this three-part topic called "Before You Write." Part 1 deals with researching — your field, the market, and your project — before you begin tapping those keys.

Do Your Research

What exactly do I mean by that? In short, the research is everything you need to do to feel ready to write your story and to be able to write with purpose and credibility. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction, and the research needed for each project will vary with your knowledge, experience, and comfort level. You may need to log some serious hours, or you may need to simply check on this and that (guidelines, deadlines, background info, etc.) or check in with yourself to feel mentally prepared for the work that lies ahead. But no matter what, some sort of research is *always* necessary.

In long, starting with some of the things you need to do if you are totally new to the genre (or even writing):

(1) Read children's books and adult books of all types and formats. Fiction, nonfiction, reference . . . picture books, YA novels, cookbooks, magazines . . . read everything. It's the best way to expose yourself to the endless array of writing styles, book types, and genres.

(2) Research the industry as a whole. Check out the myriad children's and YA publishers to see what they produce. Subscribing to writers' newsletters, joining the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (so you have access to all their printed resources and can network with other writers and industry professionals at conferences, local meetings, and other events), and reading Publishers Weekly are all good examples of tools that can help keep you up to date on the industry.

(3) Gather historical and other factual details, as necessary, depending on the book you want to write. Obviously, you'll have more of this to do if you're writing a biography or some other nonfiction piece, but you'll want to inform your historical fiction accordingly, too, and you'll often need to research physical setting and time period details for other fiction writing. Try to use the most current, legitimate reference materials, and always photocopy printed source material and print any online sources you use.

Keep in mind that you'll come across contract clauses stipulating that you can supply, in the event of any number of content disputes, the proper references to back up any factual information you include in your work. And in many cases, you'll need to physically send all of your source material to the publisher, especially if you're working with educational materials. For example, I've been required to send up to 3 sources (meaning copies of the pages containing the information) for every check-able fact contained in a manuscript. Every publisher has its own policy on this, but your best bet is to keep physical source files from the beginning.

(4) Interview experts, as necessary.

(5) Observe kids, and collect anecdotal information from them. How do they act at age 7? How do 15-year-olds talk to their parents? How do 9-year-olds talk to each other? What issues are important to children of the age you're writing to or about?

(6) Document relevant personal experiences. You've been a child, a teenager, a young adult, and more! Use yourself — you're a great resource!

(7) Know your story. That says it in a nutshell (and yes, I count this as research). These questions will help you get there:
  • What is the plot?
  • Who are the characters, what are their backgrounds, and how do they work together to drive the story?
  • What is the setting?
(8) Know your market, genre and format, and audience.

I should mention that there are two distinct camps on this issue. Camp A says you should never write with a conscious eye (I think I just coined a term) toward your market, genre, format — or even toward your audience, for that matter. The idea is that you should simply write, letting the story evolve, organically, into its own best self and trusting that an agent or editor will pluck the story out of the slush pile and champion it to publication for the appropriate market and in the appropriate format. I'm open to believing that such a miracle has happened and that perhaps we even know and love some stunning, successful authors/books that took that path.

But almost everyone I've ever worked and networked with in my editorial life, or Camp B, would tell you that you'd be C-R-A-Z-Y to choose this route to publication.

Agents and editors would not waste time creating the detailed manuscript submission guidelines they're known for if such guidelines didn't serve them well. Some publishers receive thousands of submissions every year, and it is anything but cost-effective for them to employ people to spend time thoughtfully considering manuscripts they know from the get-go will absolutely not help them attain their goals. After all, would a hospital looking to hire a neurosurgeon call me in for an interview? Nope! They wouldn't read past the first line on my resume!

Publishers work with annual or seasonal publication plans based on sales and marketing analyses, and in most cases, they are responsible for meeting the needs of a specific readership. No matter how wonderful your manuscript is, if your book doesn't meet a publisher's needs — and it doesn't clearly do so as described in your query (or, knock on wood, while they're reading your requested manuscript) — said publisher will not publish it.

It's nothing personal, it's almost all about the business. So why not give yourself a leg up by learning about and targeting a specific market, etc.? In my experience, doing so (or at least trying to: naturally, you can only do so much up front, and of course the work will be edited and sometimes completely reshaped by the publisher) is the single-best way to get noticed and published.

Some questions to address as you create your manuscript:
  • Do you see this as a trade book, mass-market book, or book for the educational market?
  • Is it a picture book, middle-grade novel, photoessay, or . . . WHAT?
  • What is the age level of your readership?
  • What reading level are you trying to reach? (Note that reading and age levels don't always match.)
Stay tuned for Part 2 in this topic!