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!

1 comment:

kfteach said...

Great info! I am an elementary school teacher by day. But, I have been contemplating writing a book. I have had an idea rattling around for a long while and am trying to put it to paper. I wasn't sure how to start and this has given me some tips. Thanks!