April 1, 2011
A lot of people stop by this site because they’re curious to learn what it takes to not only write a children’s book, but to write a successful one. Some authors appear at workshops where they charge hundreds of dollars to dispense such insider tips. Not me. Today, I’m giving the good stuff out for free. I only ask that you thank me in your acknowledgements and cut me in on any foreign rights. It’s a fair trade for this invaluable wisdom. Let’s get down to it.
First off, the old advice is often the best advice. Write what you know. Do you know a puppy that’s a bit poky? How about some teenagers who hunt each other for sport? Connecting with children is about connecting with the world around you. A few monkeys don’t hurt either. That’s right. Forget wizards, vampires and zombies. Monkeys are what distinguish great children’s books. Try to imagine The Secret Garden without Jose Fuzzbuttons, the wisecracking capuchin whose indelible catchphrase “Aye-yaye-yaye, Mami, hands off the yucca!” is still bandied about schoolyards today? I don’t think you can.
Of course, the magic that is artistic inspiration must find its way in there. So how do you grab hold of it? Christopher Paolini swears by peyote-fueled pilgrimages to the Atacama Desert. I’m more of a traditionalist. A pint of gin and a round of Russian Roulette with Maurice Sendak always gets my creative juices flowing. Have fun. Experiment. Handguns and hallucinogens need not be involved. Though I see no reason to rule them out. Find what works for you.
Now, you’ll inevitably face a little writer’s block. There are two words that cure this problem and cure it quick. Public Domain. Dust off some literary dud and add spice to it. Kids dig this stuff. For instance, you could take some Edith Wharton and inject it with flatulence. The Age of Innocence and Farts. Done. Easy. Bestseller.
I give this last bit of advice with a caveat. Resist the temptation to write unauthorized sequels to beloved classics. I speak from experience. My manuscripts for You Heard What I Said Dog, Get Your Arse Outta Here! and God? Margaret Again…I’m Late have seen the bottom of more editors’ trash cans than I care to mention. Newbery bait? Sure. Immune to the unwritten rules of the biz? Hardly.
Okay, let’s jump forward. So now you’ve got your masterpiece, but how the heck are you going to sell the thing? Truth be told, you’re going to need an advanced degree first. As anyone will inform you, kid lit authors without PhDs or MFAs are rarely taken seriously. If you can’t work Derrida or Foucault into a pitch letter, then you certainly can’t survive a 30-minute writing workshop with Mrs. Sumner’s 5th period reading class. So invest 60-100K and 3-6 years of your life. Then let the bidding war begin.
In the off chance that your book isn’t going to sell for six figures, try blackmail. Sounds harsh, but the children’s book industry runs almost exclusively on hush money and broken kneecaps. I mean, Beverly Cleary doesn’t even own a car. So why is she always carrying a tire iron?
Money is now under the mattress and the editorial process begins. Don’t worry at all about this. Editors won’t even read your book. They’ll simply call in Quentin Blake for some illustrations and then run the whole thing through a binding machine they keep in the back of the office. Should be in the front display case at Barnes and Noble by the end of the week.
As for marketing and PR, you can expect the standard twelve-city tour, a Today Show spot, and probably an interview in the Paris Review. After that, it’s up to you. Publishers know that the best marketers are the authors themselves, especially bookish introverts with a penchant for self-deprecation. So go after it. Blog. Tweet. And don’t underestimate the power of guerilla marketing. Shel Silverstein once clearcut a hundred acres of redwoods just to make his advance back for The Giving Tree. What’s your gimmick?
I hate to say it, but you’re bound to get a bad review or two along the way. My advice is to take the high road, ignore the naysayers, and solider on. Your best revenge will be your golden trophies and your framed New York Times Bestseller lists. Still, if you’re dead set on getting back at a grouchy librarian or two, go with kidnapping. It’s a mainstay plot device in YA potboilers and is bound to lead to either hi-jinks or some meaningful rite-of-passage. Be sure to keep notes, because your follow-up book is already in the works! Like I said, write what you know.
There you have it. A step-by-step manual to penning an award-worthy, blockbuster children’s book. As you can see, it’s not very hard. And it’s really the only way to do it. Well…there is one other way, but it feels a bit like cheating. Are you John Lithgow?