Four Things Published Authors Know That You Should Too

1. Picture Books Aren’t Easy to Write.

There’s this belief out there that picture books are easier to write than other books. But the truth is that picture books are subject—must be subject—to the same process of evaluation and creation as any other longer book. The idea has to be compelling, the characters have to be engaging, the structure must be solid, and the writing has to be superb. Picture books might appear to be easier to write because they’re shorter and simpler. Because they’re shorter they might seem less intimidating to try—and they definitely take less time to type. But that’s another thing good writers know: typing isn’t writing. And as we all know, simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy.

2. It Takes Hard Work to Create a Publisher-Ready Manuscript.

Okay, it might be easy to type a picture book. But it’s really hard to write a good picture book, one that grabs the eye of potential publishers. When you increase the stakes to “publisher-ready,” the quality of the work needs to increase exponentially. Here’s a somewhat crude but helpful analogy: It’s easy to open a box of instant mac ‘n’ cheese, boil the pasta, add the milk and butter (can you tell that I’ve done this before? More often than I care to admit?). It’s harder to make macaroni and cheese from scratch. To boil the pasta, grate the cheese, and make a sauce; but the end result reflects the greater investment of time, care, and ingredients. And if you’re planning to serve macaroni and cheese at a gourmet restaurant, the delicious factor has to increase, and so does the work, both conceptually and physically. You have to make specific choices about which cheese to use and how many different kinds of cheese to add. Tomatoes? Herbs? Bread crumbs or no? The diners eating the macaroni and cheese in a restaurant expect something different from what they’d expect if they happened to be at your house while you were feeding your toddler mac ‘n’ cheese that you made from a box. Same with a picture book. The lovely story that so delights the kids in your life when you tell it to them isn’t going to look so good when it hits the desk of an editor reading hundreds of similar manuscripts. 

Just as no one can make an excellent macaroni and cheese without understanding the principles of cooking and knowing what makes a good dish, no one sits down at the kitchen table and bangs out a publisher-ready manuscript. Published authors, like professional chefs, have spent many years and much effort refining their craft. You can certainly write your manuscript at the kitchen table while the kids are napping, you just can’t bang it out. You need to invest time, care, and heart in the process. If you don’t, you might end up with a bunch of typed pages—but you can’t expect anyone to pay you for them. Sometimes a sticky kiss and a hug are enough payment. But if you’re looking for a publishing contract, you need to work a little harder.

3. It’s Not Easy to Get Published.

It was never easy to get published. But it’s even harder these days. The competition is fierce and the market uncertain. You have to be a consummate pro. Your work has to be superb. Not only does it have to be technically excellent, it has to be unique, different. Editors are always looking for good manuscripts, but because of the increased demands on their time, it’s harder than ever to get their attention. So once you have their attention—at a conference or critique session—take full advantage of it by showing them only your best work. Mediocre work loses credibility and makes it harder for publishing professionals to take you seriously. Published authors know that their work needs to be in excellent shape before they seek representation or publication. That way they increase their credibility, engage editors, and consolidate their own reputation as professionals.

4. It’s Hard to Be Objective about Your Own Work.

Sometimes authors just get too close. Things that are obvious to you aren’t as clear to someone who isn’t as familiar with the work. You know what you’re trying to do; you have a whole lot of information in your mind, so you might unconsciously close the gap between the desired effect and the reality. Every writer needs supportive, honest feedback from someone who can look at the work with a fresh eye and who can provide an objective analysis of what he or she sees. Some authors rely on their spouses or significant others. Other authors look to friends, writers groups, or freelance editors. Published authors know, though, that not all readers are created equal. Some readers have a better sense of how a picture book fits together than others, and some people are better able to connect to the writer’s vision. So be careful about whose opinion you solicit. Look for readers who are able to be objective; who are honest but kind; and who can separate their writing goals from yours, their style from yours, and their head from yours. Ideally your critique partner will have both a solid aesthetic sense and a gift for seeing what isn’t yet manifest. Whatever and whoever you talk to, though, insist that they’re tactful—if they’re not, you should either train them to be or find someone else.

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