Tips for Young Writers from Publishing Pros
Ariel Richardson is a children’s book editor at Chronicle Books. Guinevere de la Mare is head of community at Storybird, a creative writing platform for young writers. They sat down to talk about publishing and share some advice for kids who dream of becoming authors!
Guinevere de la Mare: I’m so happy we get to chat today about one of my favorite topics: children’s publishing. Let’s start by talking a little about what we do. Our jobs are quite different—you’re an associate editor at a traditional publishing house, and I work for a start-up. But we also have a lot in common—we both spend a lot of time thinking about what young people want to read, and we each read a lot of stories written for children and young adults. What do you think makes a book great for a young reader? What is it that you are looking for in the books you acquire for Chronicle?
Ariel Richardson: I work primarily on the younger side—mostly on picture books, board books, and non-book items like games and puzzles. I have a particular passion for anything that pushes the traditional boundaries of paper-based books, whether that’s through flaps, pop-ups, and die-cuts like Open This Little Book or Flora and the Flamingo, or through innovative storytelling like Press Here or an upcoming picture book out this fall, Bunny Slopes.
I’m also particularly passionate about publishing stories underrepresented in the market, so particularly books that celebrate diversity or books with a global perspective. At Chronicle Books, we are looking for fresh projects that stand out in the marketplace for being unique. We see things differently!
G: What advice do you have for young writers who hope to be published someday?
A: In high school, I had an academic adviser who told me the single biggest thing I could do to get in to college was read a lot. I remember being skeptical at the time—while also secretly loving the advice because I loved reading. My piece of advice for young writers is the same as hers: read!
In his classic book On Writing, Stephen King says, “The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.” Read the books you want to write. If you’re interested in writing and drawing graphic novels, read graphic novels; if you want to write fantasy chapter books, read fantasy chapter books; if you want to illustrate picture books, read picture books. Getting an idea of how already-published authors and illustrators work will help you improve your own work.
Reading helps us recognize great writing, understand the market, become inspired, and ultimately push our work further by doing something different than those who have come before. The Picture Book Proclamation says it best: “We should know our history. We must cease writing the same book again and again.” For all of these reasons I encourage writers to identify several mentor texts for themselves as they write. These mentor texts can help guide their work in many ways, from how to write authentic dialogue to deciding whether you need back matter. Reading will also help you think like an editor, since editors always have the competition in mind as they review submissions and develop projects.
What advice do you give your young writers, Guinevere?
G: I completely agree with you that reading a LOT is critical. And not just reading the kind of books you gravitate towards. Personally I’m not a big fantasy reader, but I learned so much about world-building by reading Tolkien. I never would have experienced that if I’d stuck with the genres I liked and hadn’t given it a chance.
One of Storybird’s primary goals as a creative writing platform is to help writers find their voice. We don’t allow fan fiction on our site because we want kids to learn to develop original ideas. As with any art form, you can learn a lot from imitating the masters. But ultimately, whether you’re Michelangelo or Jane Austen, you have to develop your own unique style. It takes guts to be original. And lots of practice.
Which brings me to the next piece of advice: Write, write, write. The only difference between wanting to be a writer and actually being a writer is writing.
Finally, get feedback. One of the things I love best about Storybird is that young writers have a safe space to hone their storytelling skills and get feedback on their writing. Because all of our comments are moderated, there’s no bullying or negative criticism allowed. We encourage critique, but it has to be productive or it doesn’t get through. As an editor, you give authors a lot of advice on how to improve their work. How do you approach criticism, or, what do you do to help writers reach their potential?
A: Great question! When I lead small critique groups at conferences, I always start by talking about the critique sandwich: start with something you love about the project, then give a piece of thoughtful criticism, and end with another compliment. Most of us learn best and feel most motivated when we feel supported and encouraged, especially when it comes to something as personal as writing. And even if a project needs some development, there’s always something positive you can say.
Sometimes you’ll come across a project that you feel still has a long way to go until it’s polished. But it’s easy for anyone to get overwhelmed by a laundry list of changes that need to be made. And some changes might be beyond a writer’s ability in that particular moment. So, before you offer criticism, think about what feedback you could give that writer that is realistic and actionable. Even if you think there are ten things that the writer might want to do to improve their project, offer the most important one or two. Think about it like triage: what should they do first?
And finally, it’s good to remember that an author’s project is their own—they have to live with their name on it at the end of the day—and so they should take away the feedback that resonates with them. That’s true regardless of who is giving the feedback, and something I reiterate in every editorial letter I send. It’s also one reason it’s so important to find an editor, or a critique group, who understands your work and shares your vision.
G: Both of us work in fields of publishing where illustrations play a huge role. Can you speak some to the interplay between words and images in children’s books?
A: Of course! People often ask me what my favorite part of my job is (a tough question, given all there is to love!), but my answer always revolves around this interplay of text and art. It is so thrilling when those first sketches come in for a project, and they’re laid out with the text for the first time. We always hope that the illustrations will be doing some of the storytelling, adding layers of meaning, and even contradicting the text or cracking jokes. We want kids to be reading the pictures the way they might read the text, promoting visual literacy as well as text literacy. When we see the text and illustrations together for the first time, we ask ourselves whether each piece is doing enough—should we cut text because it isn’t necessary anymore? Should we push the storytelling in the illustrations further? I know Storybird has a similar interplay—how does it work?
G: On Storybird, we use art to inspire creativity. It can be so hard to sit down to a blank page, but when you have an image in front of you, ideas just pop into your brain. Humans are hard-wired to be storytellers. We’re constantly inventing stories to explain the world around us. The hard part is often just getting it down onto the page.
A: I love that. I remember writing stories based on famous paintings as a kid, and I think this is a really smart approach. In publishing we often work the other way around: the text comes first, and then the illustrations. But thinking visually as a writer goes a long way.
G: What’s the next big trend in publishing? After Twilight, everyone was writing about vampires. The Hunger Games spawned an avalanche of dystopian YA. Tribes of warrior animals are running wild on Storybird. Are you seeing new themes emerge?
A: Storybird writers can be nimble, responding to trends nearly immediately, whereas we in publishing work a little more slowly. Books can take several years to be published from the time they are acquired to the time they are released to the world. This is because there are many steps to go through: developmental editing, copyediting, illustrating, designing, proofreading, and many more. And then printing and shipping the books takes time as well! For this reason we in the Children’s group can’t be too reliant on trends. We do keep an eye on what deals are made in the Pub Lunch and Publishers Weekly deals—and sometimes funny and very specific trends emerge there. Overall, though, we’re looking for projects that are bigger than trends—beautiful crafted books that feel timeless, like they will still be loved five, ten, or even twenty years from when we first acquired the project.
G: One last question before we wrap up. What final words of advice do you have for young writers who would like to publish a book someday?
A: Growing up I wanted to be a writer, and I loved reading The Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market, which I’d recommend to all of you as well. There are a lot of options to consider once you’ve decided that you’d like to publish your work. There are magazines that publish writing exclusively by kids. There are literary contests where kids can enter stories, poems, or illustrations for awards. Some writers go the route of self-publishing, but this can be expensive, as most publishers of this type require writers to pay them. Other writers look for an agent to help advise them and advocate for them within the publishing industry. Finally, there is the option to submit work directly to a publishing house if they accept unsolicited manuscripts as Chronicle Books does.
It takes a great deal of perseverance to write or illustrate a book, and even more determination to believe in yourself and submit your work to publishers. After that, waiting patiently for a response can be difficult. But if you don’t find a publisher for this work, that doesn’t mean you won’t ever be a published author or illustrator. Great ideas can pop up any time, and one of those might be the next bestseller. Keep up the hard work of honing your craft—and don’t give up!
Be sure to share this advice with any kids aspiring to be a published author—or perhaps, use it to inspire the young writer within yourself!
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