Here's a secret: whether I'm writing a query letter, putting together a manuscript package, or just drawing a tree, every time I "follow the rules" I fail. Yet every time I take matters into my own hands and do it "my way," I get a positive response. So why didn't I listen to my own advice when it came to writing my most recent children's picture book?
The answer is pretty simple: I got scared. Scared of doing it wrong (there's so many great picture books out there, how could I possibly get it right?); scared of looking like I didn't know what I was doing (even after studying a zillion books on marketing and submission); and especially scared of scaring little children with my potentially traumatizing text. I didn't trust myself one little bit.
The situation was made much worse when I attended a conference on writing for children. My reason for going was to learn how to shape up my manuscript to best fit the market. To make sure I understood what the editors were asking for, I took careful notes:
- They wanted stories with a "Mama" character. Okey-dokey, my main character did have a mama--check that as a "yes, can do."
- They wanted lots of visceral gritty-growly "noise words" (Buzz? Kerplunk? Smash? Does "meow"count?).
- They particularly enjoyed spooky-creepy stuff (no worries about traumatizing the tots).
- And they especially requested anything that reflected bad behavior. (Hmm. I don't like bad behavior . . . very much.)
In other words, they really wanted authors to get those childhood frustrations and thwarted emotions onto the page and out in the open. The only problem was, none of their requirements fit my manuscript, Where are the Cats of Barcelona?, a story that takes a little girl through the beautiful city of Barcelona in search of a kitten to call her own. Other than Mama, I didn't have any of the must-have requirements: no tantrums, no ghosts, and definitely no biting, scratching, or rude words. Suddenly my book seemed like a major loser.
To compensate for these glaring omissions I began to rewrite my story, this time with as much awfulness as I could squeeze into the limited word length. Short of Mama getting drunk, it was a pretty strong effort. The only problem was it wasn't MY story. Mama ended up being a total wet blanket nay-sayer; my main character morphed into a whiny spoiled brat, and even the cats she found weren't very attractive. Now, re-reading the manuscript two years later, I'm not surprised it was rejected more times than I care to admit.
The good news is I've now put all that good advice thoroughly behind me. In its place I'm happy to report that I've gone back to my original version: a story that is sweet, dreamy, and best of all--quiet. It's the perfect read-along bedtime story--the one kind of book all the editors who spoke at the conference agreed will never go out of fashion!
There are still some things I want to work on such as perfecting my line breaks and getting the flow just right, but these are things that center on design and craft. My current revisions are based on what will suit the story, not to pull in elements that supposedly fit the market but have nothing to do with me or my book. And who knows, my next step might even be to attempt the illustrations!
Tip of the Day: The first reader you should always write for first is yourself. Whether you're writing a 600-page historical epic or a 600-word fairy tale, write for you! The only thing that will ever truly make the market happy at the end of the day is good writing, so don't be afraid to edit, tweak, and polish, but say what you want to say before you pull out the red pen. Always stay true to your original, heartfelt vision.