Breaking In as a Picture Book Illustrator and Writing an Illustrator Query Letter

Picture book illustrators need an illustration query to break into the field. You have several extra considerations when crafting an illustrator query letter and starting to pitch your illustration services, so here’s how you will want to approach the topic of pitching yourself and your art.

illustrator query letter, illustration query
There are a few special things to keep in mind when writing an illustrator query letter and pitching your art.

Getting Work as An Illustrator

There are several ways to break into picture book illustration. The first (and best) is to create a picture book project from scratch. A lot of picture books these days are sold as author-illustrator projects. Why? This makes things easy for a publisher. They deal with one creator, the art and text tend to have more complex interplay, and they don’t have to go through the arduous process of matching a text to an artist.

But you can also try your hand at an illustration query if you want to enter a publisher’s stable of potential illustrators (they all have one). This is the more circuitous route, with (often) less pay-off. If you don’t have a picture book project ready to go, though, this is what you’ll have to do. The bare minimum you need is a portfolio.

Picture Book Illustration Portfolio

Before you think about writing an illustrator query letter, you will need to assemble some materials. A strong illustrator portfolio needs to be available and viewable online (more on this later). As a bare minimum, it should contain:

  • 6 to 8 fully finished illustrations
  • Different styles, if you have them
  • Different compositions, if you can, with some close-ups, and some wide angle scenes
  • Different subjects, from settings to characters
  • A special focus on characters and faces–portraying emotions is key for picture book illustrations

If you don’t have this kind of work available yet, you aren’t ready to pitch your portfolio around. Concentrate there, first.

Making Your Illustration Portfolio Available

There are two main ways to showcase your illustration work. The bare minimum is an illustration portfolio that’s viewable online. Many websites, like Wix and Squarespace, can help you put together a visually appealing, easy-to-navigate website for cheap. (I personally use Squarespace for my editorial website and a WordPress blog hosted independently for this website. I highly recommend Squarespace for ease of use. I’ve been using WordPress for over a decade and am comfortable with it, but it tends to have more moving parts.)

Since most literary agents and publishers don’t accept unsolicited email attachments, having your work hosted online so you can direct them to a website is key.

Mailings and Other Opportunities for Illustrators

The other approach is to target literary agents, artist reps, and publishers with postcards. (Artist reps are specialized literary agents who work with illustrators. Some illustrators opt to get a literary agent, and those are usually illustrators who are also interested in writing their own books. Some, who are interested primarily in illustration work, target art reps instead.) Use a website like Vistaprint (though do spring for better quality paper so that your art is reproduced faithfully and in more vivid color) to print postcard mailings. (I recommend Vistaprint for the first few mailings because they’re cheap and run promotions, but for quality reasons, you’ll want to move on from them eventually.)

Use books like Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market to find and target literary agencies, artist representatives, and publishers (aim for the art director role at houses) with your postcard mailings. Showcase one to three of your top pieces and include a way to contact you on the back of the postcard.

A third way to showcase your art is to go to conferences that feature portfolio showcases or join the SCBWI, which has an area for illustrators to create galleries. There are a lot of other places to showcase art online, like creating a portfolio with Deviant Art, for example, but the SCBWI and conferences with illustrator opportunities are very targeted to the publishing business.

(For every activity you do, consider what you want to get out of it. Are you looking for representation for your art? Are you looking to connect directly with people who might be looking for illustrators to hire, like self-published authors? Are you looking to do all kinds of illustration, from editorial to picture book, or to target picture books exclusively? Some of these questions and answers are beyond the scope of this blog post, but food for thought. More thoughts on illustrating your own children’s book here.)

The Illustrator Query Letter Made Simple

If you are pitching a picture book project along with your illustration talents in the query letter, you will want to follow my advice for the picture book query, but also add a paragraph that contains any illustration credits you have (magazines, blogs, etc. count!) and links the recipient to your online portfolio.

If you have a dummy of your picture book, you will need to transmit it somehow since, again, most agents and publishers don’t accept unsolicited attachments. Have a PDF available and upload it to your website, but don’t make it widely available. Instead, put a direct download link in your illustration query (or make the file password protected and send credentials). You can also use tools like Google Docs and Dropbox to generate a link to a file, but make sure the links don’t expire.

If you are just sending an illustrator query letter to literary agents, art reps, and publishers that pitches your general talents, you will want to keep it very simple. You don’t have a story to pitch, so instead give an abridged resume of your experience and a link to your online portfolio. Easy peasy! What will really set you apart here is a strong sense of your publishing history (so work on getting illustration jobs) and your online portfolio (so spend valuable time developing it).

I work with illustrators, too, as a picture book editor, so don’t hesitate to reach out for feedback on your art!

How to Write a Novel Synopsis

The novel synopsis is a source of great consternation for many writers, and I completely understand why. To be honest, I hate writing them, I hate reading them, and I know I’m not alone. They are, usually, both crime and punishment. But they are a necessary evil for several reasons, which I’ll mention. Read on to find out how to write a novel synopsis in a way that’ll keep your sanity intact.

synopsis writing, novel synopsis, how to write a synopsis, how to write a novel synopsis
“Do I really have to read this thing? You read the synopsis! You read it and I’ll get you coffee for a week…”

What a Novel Synopsis Is and What It Does

A novel synopsis is, in very basic terms, a one-to-four-page document that explains every major plot point and character development moment. That’s it and that’s all. For such a short and simple document, it sure seems to stir up a lot of angst.

Okay, so maybe my perspective is biased. I’m sure not everyone hates the novel synopsis. I’m sure there are writers out there who write amazing synopses, and agents/editors who gobble them up. Don’t get me wrong, they serve an important purpose.

A novel synopsis demonstrates how you think about story, how you plot, and how you wrap everything up. These are very important skills. A wonderful elevator pitch can very easily fall apart in the execution.

Agents and Publishers are Curious to Know the Following

  • that you have a lively cast of characters
  • that you are working with enough plot and subplot, or whether it’s too little or too much
  • that you’re building appropriate stakes and tension as the story progresses
  • how you plan on landing this thing once it’s going, whether everything will be resolved or you’re leaving some threads open for potential future stories
  • if you have any big red flags or fatal flaws in your story, which usually happen in the second half (see “Fair Warning”, below)

Some agents and publishers pay a lot of attention to the synopsis. Some glance at it. Others don’t even request one. But no matter what, you should know how to write a novel synopsis. Better yet, it would behoove you to have this document available in at least two lengths, to deploy when necessary.

How to Write a Novel Synopsis

The best way to write a strong novel synopsis is to sit down and do it. Sorry! That’s it! There’s no secret magic dust that I can give you in this case. But once your butt is in the chair, here are some basic tips on how to write a novel synopsis.

Open a blank document and jot down all of the major plot events of your story. You can start in bullet points, if that helps, but eventually you’ll want to write them out in narrative format. Don’t worry about making it cute, pitchy, or voice-y. Your writing should be clear and tight. Just the facts, ma’am.  Be sure to fold in the three or four biggest character turning points, too. These are the changes your character goes through as they get where they’re going. My strong belief is that a synopsis will involve character somehow, to give a sense of how plot and protagonist play together.

For plot, at minimum, you want to hit your opening (the inciting incident that launches your story), a handful of strong points in the middle as things go wrong and obstacles arise, your climax, and your resolution.

Mention only those details that are necessary for clarity and understanding. If the mom’s job is important to the plot, include it. If the dog and cute neighbor factor into the story but not in a big way, you may want to leave them out. For the purposes of this document, you are running lean.

For all of my surprise and reveal fans: Sorry. I’m about to crush your dreams. But you have to reveal your twists and turns, and your ending. I know you want to tease, tease, tease an agent into reading the whole manuscript. You think that if you just withhold the major twist ending, they will fall over themselves to request and sink five hours of reading into your novel because the suspense will kill them otherwise. Well, catch-22, the odds that they’ll request the full and then get all the way to the end are slim if you don’t demonstrate that you know what you’re doing first and that your twist is worth it. (There are people who vehemently disagree and will fight me on this. You’re not changing my mind, but I fully expect to hear from you!)

Tips for Novel Synopsis Writing

The most common lengths for a novel synopsis are: one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages (roughly the same as one single-spaced page), two single-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages. The reason for this wishy-washiness is that different agents/publishers will request different things in different formats. I recommend having three synopses available to send when you start submitting: a tight one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages (this one will not be requested that often).

So you can attack this beast in one of two ways:

Option 1: You sit down and write your entire novel in one single-spaced page (you still need normal 1″ margins and paragraph spacing, so you can’t just use every available centimeter of space). This is the more difficult approach, because I’m guessing your novel probably has more than one page of material. So whittling it down so drastically is daunting. But doing it all at once is also very helpful, because once you’ve shrunk it, you can much more easily add some substance to make a longer synopsis for a two-page and four-page option.

Option 2: You sit down and you do the painful shave. Start with four double-spaced pages. Put down more detail than necessary. Introduce the bulk of your secondary and tertiary characters. Mention events that don’t have a lot of bearing on character change or plot stakes. Save this version. Open another document. Now you’re aiming for two double-spaced pages. Shave, shave, shave. Delete everything possible that doesn’t impact the reader’s understanding of your story. Save this version. Then single-space it and realize that you’re over one page. Now the real agony begins as you distill further. Save the one-page version. And voila! This is perhaps the more scenic route, but the destination is the same.

There is one great test of a novel synopsis that I recommend to everyone: Show it to someone who doesn’t know your story, and then have them explain your book to you. If they kinda sorta get it and are able to hit the major points, you’ve written a successful synopsis. If they start to squirm, you’re not being clear enough. Your synopsis is either too thin or too detailed.

The only way out is through, my friends. So sit down, embrace our love/hate relationship with this document, and let’s get started.

Fair Warning: Part of the synopsis’ job is to reveal story problems. If you write a synopsis and have trouble filling it with actual plot points, it might mean that your plot is too thin. If you can’t possibly omit any plot points and your synopsis is five pages, that might mean that the scope of your novel is too broad. Be prepared to learn that you might have bigger issues as you write this summary document. It definitely happens.

I had a client recently come to me for a 30-minute discussion of his query and opening pages. My big piece of feedback was, “I don’t know if this is a query problem or a novel problem, but I’m not seeing any plot here. Something should be kicking into gear in these opening pages, and the query should be covering more development than I’m seeing.” We moved on to a complete manuscript service and, guess what? There is very little plot, and that is a big issue. Keep your eyes and ears open as you prepare your synopsis documents, you might learn more than just how to write a novel synopsis.

I include synopsis comments with every service as a manuscript editor. If you’re really struggling with yours, let’s work on it together.

The Good Old Days of the Writing Life

I recently received a beautifully written question about the writing life and being an author, then and now. (If you have questions of your own that are of a general nature, and not necessarily specific to the manuscript you’re working on, check my sidebar for how to contact me!) My reader, Cate, had a lot to say about the golden days of children’s publishing. I know many of you are probably wondering the same things as her, so I’ll let you read it, and then I’ll answer.

the writing life, being an author
Ah, the good ol’ days of the writing life…

The Relationship Between Editor and Writer

A little over a year ago I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and was amazed that somebody had been able to look at that manuscript and draw To Kill a Mockingbird out of it – and was struck by the fact we probably wouldn’t have TKAM today if it hadn’t been for Tay Hohoff. Then I forgot about it, until recently, when I was reading a collection of Ursula Nordstrom’s letters. She told about receiving a collection of random notebook entries, called the writer in to discuss them and how they could be developed into a book, and was taken aback when the writer finally said, “I’m sorry you don’t like them,” since she’d just spent an hour and a half talking about them. The writer was Louise Fitzhugh and the pages turned into Harriet the Spy. Ursula Nordstrom also talked about going to FAO Schwartz and being so impressed with a window display that she asked the designer, a kid from Brooklyn, if he’d like to “draw some pictures” for her. That was the start of Maurice Sendak’s career. Then last night I was looking at a collection of letters by Margaret Mitchell, who said that (contrary to popular legend that says her book was rejected umpteen times) Harold Latham of MacMillan tracked her down on a trip to Atlanta, persuaded her to let him see her incomplete first draft of Gone With the Wind, and had to buy an extra suitcase to carry it back to NYC with him.

You know where I’m going with this, right? It seems like the relationship between editor and writer has changed a lot over the past few decades. I’m wondering if you can address that – why the change, and what expectations are realistic these days. I’m also wondering if you have any thoughts on the fact that some of our favorite books might never have existed if they came along today?

The Evolution of Publishing

Oh Cate, Cate, Cate, sweet Cate. I hear you, loud and clear. I also think you know what I’m going to say.

In the good old days of the writing life and being an author, a lot of crafts used to be much more obscure, or at least prohibitive to most people. If you wanted to make a video, or take pictures, you had to afford or borrow cameras and film. If you wanted anyone to see your work, you had to schlep it around on media that you carried in your hands, and you had to sit them down, and you had to show it to them. Flash forward to now. Now my dogs could have a thriving YouTube channel with millions of subscribers, and I could film, edit, and post their content all from one gadget. While wearing pajama pants.

Publishing used to be a niche industry. It wasn’t until the paperback revolution that books started selling to the masses and actually making money. It turns out there was a market for this stuff! That revolution didn’t come to children’s books specifically until the 1990’s. If you’ve read Ursula Nordstrom’s letters (and if you haven’t, you absolutely should), you will get a sense that she was seen as the red-headed step-child at Harper. Children’s books weren’t sexy, they didn’t bring in the big bucks. They were…quaint. And then Harry Potter showed everyone what a “dumb little kid’s book” could do. In terms of cold, hard sales numbers. Enter the commercial revolution, kidlit phase!

The Writing Life Hasn’t Always Been the Stuff of Dreams

Editors used to have to track writers down and squeeze books out of them. Develop their careers. Foster their talents. Deal with their eccentricities. Take the train to Vermont and trudge through the snow to their cabins in the woods, if need be, to get good books. Believe it or not, the writing life and being an author haven’t always had this glamorous, dreamy quality. Kids didn’t aspire to it. People didn’t dream of it. “That’s my weird old aunt Emily Dickinson,” folks would say in an embarrassed whisper, “she’s a writer.” So editors wouldn’t have thousands–yes, thousands–of submissions coming to them per year. They’d have to go out and make submissions happen.

Trust me, I would love to have a kindly editor come to my house and say, “Mary, I know that you’re having an existential crisis and have written five pages in the last six months, but I really think there’s something there. Why don’t I advance you a little money so you can pay for that cabin in the woods and some quiet time to create?” I would love it if someone encouraged me to live the writing life with a little financial incentive. But writers with day jobs are par for the course these days.

The Content Explosion of the New Age

But the crux of this new age is that publishers and platforms are swimming in content. They no longer need to make content happen. It comes to them. Their jobs now are to cherry pick good and marketable content. Today’s editors are overwhelmed with submissions. Sure, they do tremendously important editorial work with their stable of authors, but those authors are brought to them on platters. The tough truth is that editors also spend their days attending powwows with marketing and sales people. Doing administrative work. Meeting with agents. They often edit–which many would consider to be their actual jobs–on their own time. Any effort they spend to massage good books out of people becomes a second job.

Furthermore, your weird old aunt Emily Dickinson would have someone standing over her, in today’s market, asking her where her next poetry collection is because the last one didn’t perform as hoped, and we’d really like to get on a book-a-year-schedule, kthnx. Today’s most successful writers are expected to produce. With minimal hand-holding, if possible.

Sad? Yes. True? Yes. That’s why more and more writers are choosing to work with developmental editors before they get to the publication phase. In this new reality of the writing life and being an author, you are just not going to find the same editorial relationships as you did in the good old days.

I’d love to be your developmental editor and help shape your story into an agent-worthy manuscript.

Editors Who Write

I opened up the blog for questions last week and got an interesting one from Frank about editors who write:

Why is my social media filled with juvenile editors, agents, and art directors pimping their own books? Is this unethical as they are on salary or commission to help sell and promote the books they work on with their clients? I hardly see them promoting for anyone but themselves. What is this saying to those clients and anyone else trying to get published? This seems backwards (and gross).

editors who write, agents who write
Agents and editors who write don’t have to avoid marketing their own work.

Now, there’s a lot to this question. Remember that I was once part of the “agents who write” club. So I don’t know if I can get on board with some of the more judgmental language here (“pimping,” “backwards,” “gross,” etc.). But I’m sure a lot of aspiring writers have seen this and wondered about it, so I thought I’d take a stab at my experience with this particular perspective.

Agents and Editors Who Write: What They’re Paid to Do

First and most importantly of all, let’s break down an assumption that Frank makes: “…they are on salary or commission to help sell and promote the books they work on with their clients.” Yes and no. Yes to “sell” and no to “promote.” An agent’s primary job is to scout talent, get a manuscript ready for submission, and sell rights and subrights to the manuscripts to agents and other entities that will exploit those rights. Agents sell rights, basically. That’s it in a nutshell. This is how an agent makes their money, and how they earn money for their client. Click the link for more info on what literary agents do.

An editor is employed by a publishing house to acquire properties that stand a good chance at selling to the publisher’s customers (book resellers, mind you, not quite readers), getting that property into shape, organizing all of the moving parts involved in bringing that book to market, and doing some limited promotional support. An art director’s job is similar, but with the visual elements of a property. These are the jobs they are paid to do.

Promotion: Whose Job is It?

The great fallacy about modern publishing is that it’s anybody but the author’s job to promote a book. As some of you know, for the most part, a book will only get limited promotional assistance from the publisher. It is, largely, a writer’s job to promote their own work. In fact, a writer’s “platform” (or ability to reach potential customers, online and through other channels) is a large part of any acquisitions conversation these days. So an agent’s, editor’s, art director’s, etc. actual job is to get the book where it needs to go in the publication process, but not necessarily to sell it once it is released. That job goes to the marketing department and the reseller who has purchased the book to sell to customers. Everyone benefits if it sells well, but, really, promoting the book is primarily the creator’s place.

Remember, also, that agents have X clients, editors have X authors on their lists. While all of those lovely people are important, an agent or editor must practice fairness. I see many agents and editors broadcasting about a book when a) it is acquired, b) when it is about to publish, c) when there is other news happening with the creator of it, and d) when subrights are exploited, it goes into paperback, etc. etc. etc. This is at least two and possibly four or more mentions of a project. Anything above and beyond this may start to seem one-sided if the agent/editor isn’t also doing it for their other clients.

Social Media Considerations

There’s also audience to consider. And this is a big one. Who follows agents and editors on Twitter? Other publishing people and aspiring writers, mostly. It starts to sound like an echo chamber after a while, because these people are very interested in one thing (getting published and publishing behind-the-scenes), but the people who are buying that new work are not really in this loop. So if an agent is tweeting relentlessly about a client’s picture book, the true audience for that picture book (parents, booksellers, librarians, children) might not be plugged into their stream.

So, an agent (editor, art director, etc.) has many considerations when they tweet. Is there something timely going on with the project? If not, they may sound like they’re spamming people about it after a while. Who is listening? Are they being fair to my other clients when they tweet about this project and not others? And finally, frankly, the agent is the agent, not the marketer. I fully expect a publisher’s marketing squad to be tweeting nothing but book news from that house. Because that’s what they’re being paid to do.

Conflict of Interest?

Here’s where we get into the part of the conversation that Frank considers gross. In many cases, we’re talking about agents and editors who write their own work and want to talk about it. I can see how it looks like conflict of interest. But here are the realities of what the landscape looks like from the perspective of editors and agents who write. First, most of the people in publishing are in publishing because they love language and/or writing and/or art. I’ve met a few people who work in publishing that haven’t been interested in creating books of their own, but they are in the minority (in my experience). Second, agents and editors are a dime a dozen these days. Anyone can get into it, often very easily. So how do they differentiate themselves? How do they get out there? How do they attract submissions? Those are, after all, their bread and butter. The more visible you are, the more people submit to you. Agents and editors who write and promote their own work have a better chance at increased visibility and attracting those submissions.

Self-promotion is everywhere these days. Authors do it. Agents do it. Editors do it. Art directors do it. I did it when I was part of the “agents who write” club. So I obviously have a certain tolerance for this blurry line. I would say that, as long as an agent/editor/art director is also making an effort to promote their client projects in a fair and balanced way when it’s appropriate to do so, they are free to advance their own careers. When aspiring writers and that agent/editor/art director’s clients see this, I should hope that they learn an important lesson about how necessary self-promotion is, even for those on the “inside.”

If you don’t like it, seek out the people who don’t do this.

Writing and publishing can be confusing. Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll help you hone your craft and become savvy about the business end of things.

Writing Rhyming Children’s Books

Rhyming children’s books were the bane of my existence as an agent, honestly, because not many people are that great at writing rhyming picture books. I had one rhyming PB client out of maybe fifteen PB “generalists.” And yet 8 out of 10 picture book manuscripts that came into the slush were in rhyme. That’s a pretty big disparity, right?

rhyming children's books, writing rhyming picture books
There’s not a lot of demand for rhyming texts, so you need to be writing rhyming children’s books that stand out.

The Problem With Writing Rhyming Picture Books

Part of the issue is that a lot more picture books used to be in rhyme than are being published now. So some writers still have this idea in mind that PB = cutesy rhymes. To those writers, I would suggest a trip to the bookstore, so they can see what’s being actively published now. Last week’s post on children’s book writing trends would apply a little more heavily here…

Whether it’s a misconception that you have to write rhyming children’s books in order to find a publisher, or an affinity for rhyme, or a misconception that young kids can only communicate in rhyme, I’d like to discuss this controversial topic with a little more clarity.

Now that I’m a freelance editor, I actually love working with rhyme. Why? Because I have creative writing training, know my poetics, and can identify rhyme issues a thousand miles away. I’m not bragging, but I am here to ruin your day a little bit: Rhyme involves a whoooooooooooooole lot more than putting cute words at the ends of sentences. Yet a lot of people who choose to write in rhyme don’t seem to make that connection.

How to Find Unique Rhymes

First of all, most of the end rhymes I see in manuscripts are about as inspiring as “cat” and “hat,” and I’m pretty sure someone else has already cornered that market. The point of rhyming children’s books isn’t to find a word that works and wedge it in somehow, the point of rhyme is to delight, impress, and surprise. If I see an unexpected rhyme in a manuscript, that immediately tells me that the writer knows what they’re doing.

A big mistake I also see is letting rhyme dictate story, not the other way around. Writers become so fixated on getting those rhymes in that things become arbitrary. Why is her name “Dorange”? Because you had to rhyme with “orange”? Okie dokie… Why is he sitting on a wall? Who does that? Oh, so he can have a great fall? Gotcha. But are you writing rhyming picture books in service of your story or reaching for a rhyme? If the story falls by the wayside, you are choosing style over substance, and that’s problematic. The integrity of story must come first.

Rhythm and Rhyme in Picture Books

Yet another consideration is rhythm. This is where the poetics training really kicks into gear. Shakespeare didn’t just write in iambic pentameter to torture college students. There is actually a lot of (please forgive me, for I am about to sin) rhyme and reason to rhythm in poetry.

If you haven’t read your rhyming children’s books aloud and counted your syllables at least once, what are you doing reading this blog post? Make haste! Because if I try reading your rhyming manuscript aloud, and the rhymes are fine, but your syllabic counts are all over the place and I’m tripping over my tongue with each line, this is what it looks like to me:

7 syllables
6 syllables

7 syllables
8 syllables

9 syllables
7 syllables

Books Teach Us How to Read Them

Whyyyyyyy? Why are you making my head hurt? What’s the pattern? Books, especially poetry books, teach us how to read them. Rhyme is a pattern. It says, “You are about to learn that if one line ends with rhyme A, the next line will also end with rhyme A. Then the next couplet will introduce rhyme B…” The rules are right there. So if you’re going to go through all that trouble with end rhyme, why would you not consider your rhythm, too?

I think that reading your rhyming children’s books aloud will be extremely illuminating to you if you’ve never even considered counting syllables. The trick here, of course, is actually reading your work as it’s written, not reading your work with the rhythm that you want to impose on it.

It’s amazing how writers tend to snap into their ideal rhythm when reading, even if that’s not exactly the rhythm they’ve written. Better yet, have someone else read your work to you. Where do they falter? Which sentences trip them up? It’s an incredibly illuminating exercise.

The Odds Against Rhyming Children’s Books

Now, you might think that I’m just being a stickler. Or that having the letters “MFA” somewhere in my personal history have put me on a high horse. Here’s the real poop on rhyming children’s books, and I know you’ve heard this before: Most agents and editors don’t love them. When I was an agent, I didn’t love them because I didn’t know a lot of editors who loved them. When you’re an agent, it makes a lot of sense to really love stuff that sells well, because then you’re providing great service to your clients and making money.

And I’m betting that editors see a whole lot of rhyming manuscripts, too. Maybe not 8 out of 10 submissions, but maybe 5 out of 10. And let’s say that their houses are pressuring them to acquire more quirky/funny picture books along the lines of Peter Brown and Mac Barnett. So they only have room for 2-3 rhyming PBs on their lists each year.

Examples of Great Rhyming Picture Books

Then there’s the idea that there are people out there who really, really, really, really know how to write rhyme. My example in this category is always BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Polly Dunbar. I took one look at that text and never wanted to try writing rhyming picture books, because I think it’s just such an accomplished, virtuoso rhyming text.

If there are writers out there who are carrying Margaret Mahy’s torch and talents for rhyming children’s books, they are going to get those coveted and limited PB acquisition slots. Because they know what they’re doing. And the editors who want to work with them are going to hold them up to Mahy-like standards, since that’s an example of rhyming done extremely right that’s already out in the market.

Make Sure You’re Doing a Good Job

As you can see, there are a lot of considerations to writing rhyming children’s books. And finding a good end rhyme to shoehorn in there is just the first level. If you are at all curious, college poetics textbooks are always enlightening, even if you have to also invest in some toothpicks to prop your eyelids open. Long story short, poetry is an ancient art form that has tons of rules and ideas all its own. It’s a system. And if you’re going to bind yourself to a system, you better know the system.

Within the system, you might just find a lot of freedom and creativity. Otherwise, if you don’t know it well or you’re just playing around with it because you think it’s what you have to do, it’s a set of handcuffs that will start to chafe pretty quickly. And it’s likely that you will not be truly competitive.

If you’re writing rhyming picture books, don’t freak out. Just make sure you’re doing an excellent job. I mean, that’s good advice for any type of writing, or any pursuit, really, but I’ve found that it especially applies to getting rhyme past gatekeepers. Because rhyming PB texts often come from good, but misguided, intentions.

Hire me as your picture book editor and we can dig into your rhyming text together. All picture book edits include feedback on other picture book ideas you might have!

How to Write a Logline

When I talk about how to write a logline, I mean crafting a quick and effective sales pitch for your story. It is the same as the “elevator pitch” or your snappy “meets” comparison (Harry Potter meets Where the Wild Things Are!). However, not everyone’s book fits the “meets” way of doing this, so they’re left with constructing their own short sentence to encapsulate their work. That’s where things often get hairy.

how to write a logline, fiction logline, fiction pitch, how to attract a literary agent, novel logline, novel pitch
An epic novel pitch session is about to go down.

Most Writers Struggle With How to Write a Logline

If you think queries and synopses are hard, fiction loglines are often a whole new world of pain for writers. Boiling down an entire book into four pages? Doable. Into a few paragraphs? Questionable. Into a sentence or two?! Impossible.

Or not. The first secret to crafting a good logline is that you should probably stop freaking out about it. If you can get it, good. If not, you can still pitch an agent or editor with a query or a one-minute summation of your story at a conference or if you do happen to be stuck with them in an elevator. Nailing it in one sentence is more of an exercise for you than a requirement of getting published.

How to Write a Great Fiction Logline

That said, my surefire way to think about loglines is as follows:

1) Connect your character to your audience

2) Connect your plot to the market

Let’s examine this. First, begin your logline with your character and their main struggle. This is a way of getting your audience on board. For example, with Hunger Games, Katniss would be “A girl hell-bent on survival…” or “A girl who volunteers herself to save those she loves…”

Now let’s bring plot into it. When you pitch your plot, you always want to be thinking about where it fits in the marketplace. At the time that the first Hunger Games was published, dystopian fiction was white hot as a genre. That’s not so much the case anymore, but if I had been pitching this story at that time, I would’ve definitely capitalized on the sinister dystopian world building.

To connect the plot to the market, I would’ve said something like, “…in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” This says to the book or film agent, “Dystopian! Right here! Get your dystopian!”

Putting Your Novel Pitch Together

So to put it together, “A girl volunteers herself to save those she loves in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” That’s a bit long, and not necessarily elegant, but it definitely hits all of the high notes of the market at that time, while also appealing emotionally to the audience. (Volunteering for a “fight to the death” contest is a really ballsy thing to do, so we automatically want to learn more.)

Notice that here, even the character part involves plot (it focuses on Katniss volunteering).

Fiction Loglines in Character-Driven Novels

If I’m working on a contemporary realistic novel, the “plot to market” part is less salient because we’re not exactly within the confines of any buzzy genre. That’s fine, too. You should probably be aware early on whether you’re writing a more character-driven or plot-driven story. The Hunger Games nails some strong character work, but I would argue that it’s primarily plot-driven, or “high concept.”

With character-driven books, the former part of the logline construction becomes more important. Let’s look at Sara Zarr’s excellent Story of a Girl. The title is pretty indicative of the contents. It’s literally the story of a girl, and the girl is more important than necessarily each plot point that happens to her.

With character-driven, I’d spend most of my time connecting character to audience. I’d say, for example, “A girl from a small town struggles with the gossips around her who refuse to forgive her past mistakes…” This is the girl’s situation for most of the book, and part of her biggest “pain point” as a person. Then I’ll need to indicate the rest of the plot with something like “…must step out from the shadows of her reputation and find out who she really is.”

Notice that here, even the plot part involves character (it focuses on the more subtle work of figuring herself out rather than, say, battling to the death).

Both are solid loglines because both communicate the core of the story and the emphasis of the book (plot-driven vs. character-driven, genre-focused vs. realistic). Try this two-step exercise with your own WIP.

Want help with how to write a logline? Hire me as your query letter editor and we’ll work on it together.

Submitting to Publishers

I’ve had a few writers recently come to me with questions similar to this one (summarized) regarding submitting to publishers:

Help! I am simultaneously submitting to publishers and agents and I’ve noticed something strange. All of the agents seem to say complimentary things about the writing but reject my idea. Some have even said that they wouldn’t know how to sell it and that there’s no market for it. One went as far as to say, “Give up already, nobody is going to buy this.” Meanwhile, the editors I’ve reached out to rave about the writing and say that it’s a really good idea. Does this happen often? Who’s right?

submitting to publishers, do i need an agent to publish my book
Agents vs. Editors: Who’s right?

Agents Vs. Editors

I’m going to try and address this intelligently without insulting too many people. When you’re submitting to publishers, keep in mind that agents and editors are different and represent different steps in the publishing process. Agents can often be accused of taking more mainstream projects with an eye toward the market and current trends. That comes from the way that agents make money: They want to attract as many buyers to your project as possible so that you, your project, the agent, and the agency get the most favorable outcome, which usually tends to happen to “bigger” or “commercial” projects that inspire a bidding war. Then they want to use this momentum to sell even more rights, like foreign and film. They take a percentage of the sale (sometimes with a salary, sometimes working only on commission) so they have to do a lot of big sales in order to profit.

Editors, on the other hand, often seem more sympathetic to more marginal projects without paying as much attention to market trends. They know that their publishers service many audiences, including schools and libraries, and that there are many different slots that a potential book can fill. They are willing to look at things that aren’t as immediately marketable and see their potential. They also don’t have to hustle for their money. Sure, they are under pressure from their bosses to acquire profitable projects. But since they have more job security, they can take more time and be more charitable with feedback for things that come across their desks. (This is not to say that editors don’t work hard. They work incredibly hard! But they, in general, are also more secure financially because they work for large companies that pay a salary.)

The Reality of Submitting to Publishers

Before you think that I’m calling agents mercenary art-killers and editors starry-eyed idealists, though, here’s another layer of complexity: In the real world, it is very difficult for either party to get what it wants. Blockbuster commercial projects that will go on to sell in the six- or seven-figures come around once in a blue moon. Everybody wants one, everybody fights for it when it appears, but only one agent gets it. The rest of the time, agents have to see the potential in more challenging concepts. And as fun as it is to hold a huge auction, it’s just as fun fun to sell a “quiet” book to the perfect editor who immediately “gets it.” Finding this fit is a lot more work for often less (monetary) reward, but it feels amazing, too.

The Reality for Editors

And while an editor may love the idea of doing a book for a very limited audience or with a totally out-there subject matter, they have to answer to their bosses, their pub boards, their finance guys, their marketing departments, etc. etc. etc., and they sometimes get brought back down to earth by a “no” that comes from above. So while the editors in the sample question about submitting to publishers all seem to be much more amenable toward marginalized concepts, I didn’t hear that any of them were offering to buy the manuscripts in question, either. Liking something and saying nice things about it is very different from putting cold, hard money on the line. We all go into children’s publishing to help get amazing books into the hands of worthy young readers, but these aspirations often butt right up against the fact that publishing is a Business-with-a-capital-B. And sometimes a book with a challenging subject matter, or one without “high-concept” commercial potential will take more work to see in print.

The Reality for Agents

Agents do have to focus on more commercial concepts sometimes to stay afloat. And editors have to jump through a whole lot of hoops and “sell” a book to their team before they can make an offer. For books where the potential to profit isn’t obvious, that means it will take time to place them with either and agent or an editor. I don’t think it’s right for anyone to say “Just give up, this is a fool’s errand!” But I also don’t want to say that every book will get published, because some ideas are jut too far out there to invest in in a competitive market.

Understanding the Process

Part of trying to get published, however, is understanding the process. Here I hope I can offer some insight into why agents and editors sometimes seem at odds when it comes to their decisions. It’s never quite as black-and-white as it appears. A caveat: This post is NOT about drawing a line in the sand and saying “this type of book is commercial and this isn’t.” Part of the gamble of publishing is to look and imagine and take chances. I will never tell a writer that they should stop submitting to publishers because their idea categorically won’t work and that idea is a guaranteed bestseller. It doesn’t work like that. There are no certainties.

My core message has always been that writers who focus on the craft and learn about the publishing industry are setting themselves up for greater success. This post is instead about addressing a disparity between agent and editor responses that several writers have noticed, and trying to explain the possible reasons.

My editorial services come with a decade of experience in the publishing industry. When you’re ready to submit your work, I can help you navigate the process.

Nonfiction Children’s Book vs. Article

A reader wrote in over the weekend to ask about a nonfiction children’s book vs. an article:

I wrote a nonfiction article for a kids’ magazine. I sent it recently, haven’t heard back yet. Because I’m completely fascinated with the subject I wrote about, I sat down and wrote a different story on the same subject that ideally would be a nonfiction children’s picture book. I’ve sent it to just one agent a few days ago. No here’s my dilemma: I know all the “first-time rights” and “all-rights” lingo, but I’m wondering that, 1. does it apply because the mag article is different than the picture book story, and 2) in the 1-in-billion chance that the agent wants to pursue my book, do I need to jump up and shout- wait!- a magazine might publish a different-but-same-topic article I wrote. I feel like this could be potentially sticky…and I’m just wondering if there’s any justifications for my worries.

nonfiction children's book, nonfiction article
If you’ve written a nonfiction children’s book and article on the same topic, pay close attention to the text and make sure that you’re not publishing a close replica.

Nonfiction Article and Nonfiction Children’s Book: Are the Texts Close Replicas?

Rights to a book are pretty heavily connected to the text of a book. A lot of authors publish a nonfiction article in their subject area before writing a full-length book about it (and lots of people pitching nonfiction book proposals are told “This is more of an article” because there’s not enough meat in their topic/angle to support a full book).

In a nonfiction article and nonfiction children’s book scenario, you could wander into a bit of a gray area because I’m imagining that both texts will be shorter and will cover a lot of the same information–i.e.: both overview biographies or both simple explanations of a scientific principle, etc. This is where you will want to pay close attention to the text and make sure that you’re not publishing a close replica.

Strategize Your Approach

If your nonfiction article and nonfiction children’s book angles are very different, like one is an overview and one covers a much more specific area of the subject, you have nothing to worry about. But if the topics are close and lightning happens to strike twice in the form of a magazine acceptance AND a book publishing opportunity, there is nothing wrong with strategically delaying the article until you can share your concerns with an agent or editor (I cover some of this etiquette in my post about having more than one literary agent). As opposed to the book manuscript and publishing plan with your acquiring editor, the article will be a lot easier to edit in a way that still meets the magazine’s purposes.

Communicate Openly

A larger point deserves to be made here: If you have a magazine editor, agent, or book editor on the hook and they like your work or area or expertise (in the NF world especially), there is nothing wrong with communicating openly, asking thoughtful questions, or attempting to get that person to work with you if something like this should come up. Your nonfiction article editor might be perfectly willing to publish a slightly different piece or time the piece differently (delay it while negotiation is in process, run it closer to your nonfiction children’s book publication date to build momentum, etc.) in case you happen to get a book contract.

Potential Positive Career Step

The good thing about this potential scenario, of course, is that being published in various venues on a subject will help you leverage yourself as an expert on a certain topic. As you build your career, you’ll actually want to seek out these types of situations and get your name out there. I know some of these questions are stressful, but try and think of this as a potential positive, because it very easily could be!

Working on a nonfiction children’s book? Hire me as your creative nonfiction editor and I’ll help guide you through gray areas like this.

Dealing With Writing Feedback and Making Sense of Writing Critique

One of the most difficult things to do if you get a lot of writing critique or pay for reads at conferences is to synthesize all the writing feedback you’re receiving into something that makes sense. Last week, a blog reader wrote in to ask the following…

writing critique, writing feedback, beta reader, critique group, manuscript critique
Getting varying writing feedback? How do you deal with writing critique that varies, or that you disagree with?

I have a question about writing feedback about a WIP. I recently had 3 manuscript assessments completed, two full reads by highly recommended freelance editors (paid for), and one 10-page review by a professional agent (also paid for). The first two were really positive with minor ‘fixes’ to consider and when asked if I should persevere, the response was ‘absolutely’. However, the third writing critique, from the literary agent, basically told me to start something new and give up on that MSS. So how does one take such varying feedback? Which feedback do you take on board and which do you reject without being biased?

Dealing With Diverse Writing Feedback

This is a tough one. If it were me and my manuscript, I’d try and find a middle ground between “minor fixes” and “trash the thing.” Also, keep in mind that the editors read the full manuscript, which is helpful, while the agent only read the first 10 pages. In this writer’s case, I would be very tempted (as a human) to choose the editors’ opinions and discard the agent’s.

However, as an agent (definitely not human, LOL), I say that the source does matter. Don’t reject the agent’s harsher writing critique because you don’t like it. Here’s why: Besides writing quality, agents also have to react and think about premise and marketability, and they know more on that front than laypeople or even trained freelancers. They’re the ones staying on top of trends and the ones closely familiar with what is and isn’t selling.

(Sidebar: I’m not particularly thrilled with the agent’s response myself, though I would say there’s probably some truth to it. The reason for this is that saying “burn it” isn’t constructive to a writer. Even if I see little hope for a manuscript, I always try to at least provide some actionable writing feedback. I’m sorry to hear this wasn’t the case in this situation.)

Considering the Source of the Writing Critique

Freelance editors focus primarily on the strengths and opportunities for grown in the manuscript as it exists before them. If the manuscript is technically good and the story moves along well, they may be tempted to rate it highly. Agents, however, are looking at the quality of the thing, sure, but they are also always trying to place it in the context of saleability. (Opening up the great art vs business debate!) Because the most amazing piece of writing isn’t going to do anyone much good if it can’t be published for whatever reason (usually a too-slow or too-quiet or too-clichéd premise). So while the agent’s writing feedback is harsh, there may be truth to either the writing or the concept not working.

If the writer in question wants another agent’s opinion and money is not an issue, I would encourage them to seek yet another agent or editor’s opinion (ideally an editor who has had publishing industry experience). That should clarify the picture a bit. If they can’t get another professional critique at the moment, I would focus on tweaking the story and concept to something that’s more exciting by today’s standards. Concept might, after all, be what the agent reacted poorly to. There’s also nothing like actually putting a project aside and getting a fresh new idea. The project doesn’t have to die, it can just step aside for a minute while you chase something else.

Odds are good you’ll come back to it, ready to see it with new eyes. That’s a way to take the agent’s negative-sounding writing feedback and make it empowering instead.

I’m a book editor with thousands of freelance clients and ten years of experience in the publishing industry, including five years as a literary agent. I bring the best of both worlds–business and art–to your book project.

What Do Literary Agents Look For?

At every conference we attend, with every interview we do, and for every bio we fill out, there’s one question that always makes its way into the mix: “What do literary agents look for?”

what do literary agents look for, how to tell if you're a good writer
What do literary agents look for? If you know the magic answer, you can supply it…right?

It came up on a panel this weekend at the excellent San Francisco Writers Conference, as usual. It’s what writers are very curious about, naturally, right up there with the perennial “How to tell if you’re a good writer.” Because, if they know what agents and editors want, they can supply…right?

What do Literary Agents Look For?

Well, I hate the “What do literary agents look for?” question. And I said so. And the smartass answer–“I know it when I see it”–isn’t helpful. My actual answers on the panel were “Good stuff done well” and “Literary spark and commercial appeal.”

I’m not trying to be coy here. But I think that fellow agent Taylor Martindale‘s answer to a different question illustrates my point perfectly. When talking about books we were excited about, she said she recently sold a YA novel about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she has become Amelia Earhart. Taylor had just sold the book and, to be honest, it sounds really interesting.

Specific Answers Are Hard to Come By

It’s a rare agent or editor who knows exactly, in very specific detail, what they’re looking for. Sure, some editors will say, for example, “I am looking for Dexter for teens.” They tell everyone they know. This actually happened in 2010 with one editor, and they got their wish. Their very specific request inspired author Barry Lyga to write the forthcoming I HUNT KILLERS, which comes out in April and, if you don’t mind me saying, is mind-blowingly great.

It’s much more common to get a vague answer to “What do literary agents look for?” I bet Taylor Martindale never went on a panel at a conference and said “I’m looking for a YA about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she’s Amelia Earhart.” I never went on a panel and said “I’m looking for a picture book about a bird who befriends a snowball” (WHEN BLUE MET EGG by Lindsay Ward, which was written up in last week’s New York Times), or “I really want to read about a boy who stumbles into a parallel universe to try and reclaim the love of his life” (THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth) or “I really want a story about a Polynesian volcano goddess with a bad tempter” (WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight).

Aim for a General Picture of Their Sensibilities

In fact, when we meet with editors, they very rarely get super specific about what they’re looking for. We’ve all been shocked and delighted about what has grabbed us in the past. So I, personally, never say never and leave the possibilities wide open. Most of my colleagues in agenting and publishing do the same. When I meet with editors, it’s less about what they say they want and more about learning the flavor of their imprint and hearing them talk about books that have excited them. Are they focusing on the characters? The plot? The writing? Do they like to laugh? Cry? Fall in love? Basically, I’m trying to get a more general picture of their sensibilities, then match projects to them on that level. Of course, if they have specific requests, I keep those in mind, too, just in case I ever have a perfect match.

It’s the Writer’s Job to Come Up With Amazing Ideas

In all honesty, you shouldn’t be fishing for the answer to “What do literary agents look for?” You are the writer. It is your job to come up not only with a really well-written story, but with an idea that’s going to resonate in the marketplace and grab attention. That’s becoming more and more important, and I’m sure I’ll blog about this a lot later. (Not being vague…it just has a lot to do with the Big News I keep talking about.)

A lot of writers say in their queries: “I am happy to write whatever you need.” No. Want to know how to tell if you’re a good writer? You put the work into developing a bang-up idea and then building your writer’s toolbox so you can execute it with aplomb. That’s what will sell. And if you’ve put the work into writing a great novel, many different agents and editors will be a fit for it, because we’re all looking for, basically “Good stuff done well.”

So I hope you can understand why “I’ll know it when I see it” isn’t a copout answer.

Want to know how to tell if you’re a good writer? When you invest in my book editing services, I’ll evaluate your current skill level and then help you build your writing and revision toolbox so you can do you story idea justice.