An excellent source of encouragement for other writers with her blogs and resources, Nancy I. Sanders has been writing for children herself for almost 30 years. “Frederick Douglass for Kids,” her latest nonfiction book, was recently chosen as the 2012 Silver NAPPA (National Parenting Publications) winner. Enjoy this opportunity to learn from one of few successful full-time children’s authors of today.
Q: Who was your greatest mentor as you began to write? Why?
Nancy: E. B. White unknowingly has influenced me most of all throughout my writing career, and especially as I began to write. Even though he didn’t mentor me in person, he mentored me through his book, “Charlotte’s Web.” That book is an absolutely perfect example of how to write for children. Each character has its own unique voice. The theme of friendship is universal and tugs at every heartstring. The plot facing the eminence of death is riveting and keeps every child’s attention glued to the story details. I still pick up that book to read through when I’m starting a new children’s manuscript. And I still have the book that was given to me as a present when I was a little girl. I have it on a bookshelf with other books from my childhood. That image is the one I use at the top of my blog for the header.
Q: What is your best advice to writers who are trying to enter the market of picture books?
Nancy: Use the Triple Crown of Success and you will move forward on your way to experience success as a picture book writer. I have always lumped picture books into the “Writing for Personal Fulfillment” category. That’s because picture books are probably the hardest manuscripts to get published in the entire publishing industry.
So while I’m working on a nonfiction book or a middle grade novel deadline for the goal of earning income, I’m writing picture books for the goal of personal fulfillment. And while I’m writing a consistent stream of magazine articles that are practically guaranteed to get published for the goal of getting published, I’m hosting picture book mentoring groups in my home or participating in picture book critique groups to acquire the skills it takes to write a successful picture book in today’s tough market.
Sometimes in the middle of all my other writing, I try to write a brand new picture book each month. Sometimes I try to write a new one each week. The reason I push myself to do this is because I can tell that each new picture book I write is a better quality of writing. My plan is to eventually be able to write picture books and get them published at a steady enough rate to earn income, but the market is so unreliable that it can be frustrating, and I can’t depend on the sale of a picture book to give me a reliable or steady income. Yet.
Right now I’m trying to write a brand new original picture book each week. Here are the steps I’m taking:
- I go to the local bookstore (or the “current books” shelf at my library) and sit and read through current picture books. I try to read at least 20 picture books a month. Then I read through a publisher’s catalog to find a book that interests me. Since I have an agent, I choose a publisher who requires an agent. If you don’t have an agent, choose a publisher who doesn’t require one. (For tips on how to find a publisher who doesn’t require an agent, see the post on my blog.)
- I find a hole in the publisher’s catalog for a potential idea that would fit well in with their product line. I order in a bunch of books from the library that the publisher recently published which are similar to the one I want to write. (Or I read portions of them on Amazon with the “look inside the book” feature.) I get in a practice of reading and re-reading these books as I’m working on this project.
- I brainstorm and flesh out my idea, ordering another bunch of books on my topic from the library to help me with the research, even if it’s a fiction manuscript. (If the library takes too long, I grab some research online.) For example, if the main character in my picture book will be a raccoon, I get a lot of books or articles on raccoons and read them to learn more about how raccoons act so I can incorporate those characteristics into my character development.
- I sit down and write the first draft of the picture book, taking as many days as I need to get the story out on paper. I don’t worry about my quality of writing at this point. I just try to get what I want to say out of my heart and written down.
- I edit, edit, edit. If I’m part of a picture book group at that moment, I take it to the group and get feedback. I chop, chop, chop until the word count is as low as possible. 800 words is the favorite length right now. I make it the best I can write it during this phase.
- I start on my next picture book, and don’t stress too much about trying to make that first manuscript “perfect.” Picture books are such a unique art form that sometimes something works and sometimes it’s a dud. I just move on and start writing a new manuscript and try to make the new one even better.
Over time, I have seen my skills improve vastly. In fact, I wrote a brand new picture book last week from beginning to end following these exact same steps. When my husband read it, he cried in several places, not because it was sad, but because it was so touching. He said it was one of the best picture book manuscripts I’d ever written.
This week I’m working on a totally different picture book in a totally different genre, challenging myself to write a picture book in rhyme. It may be a flop, but it may be okay. It might even be good. I won’t know until I try, right? I’ve been studying how to use poetic devices lately, so I want to experiment and practice my poetry writing skills.
Too many authors talk about writing a picture book. They take that picture book to critique groups for the next couple of years and try to make it perfect. Well, that has some merit, but it won’t help them become proficient at writing picture books. It probably won’t help them break into the picture book market, either.
You need to read, read, read lots and lots of currently published picture books. Then you needs to write, write, write lots and lots of picture book manuscripts. Along the way, read through “how-to-write” books and articles to help improve your writing skills. I always have my nose in a “how-to-write” book (usually in the bathroom, lol) that I’m reading in small digestible chunks each day.
Nancy has authored more than 80 books, including “D is for Drinking Gourd” and “Frederick Douglass for Kids.” Find these and many more at our local Gail Borden, Bartlett, Poplar Creek, Batavia, and Schaumburg public libraries. Look below for links to the beginning of this insightful interview with Nancy.