How to publish a children’s book, how to catch the attention of a publishing gatekeeper, and what children’s book editors are looking for. These articles focus on marketing and selling your children’s book, fiction, novel, early reader, chapter book, middle grade, and young adult novel. What literary agents, editors, and publishers want.
Picture book illustrators need an illustration query letter 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.
Getting Work as An Illustrator
There are several ways to break into picture book illustration. The first (and best) is creating 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 letter 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? (Check out more tips on self-publishing.) 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!
Questions about comp titles in a query are common, because book comps can either be a powerful part of your pitch, or a bit potential pitfall. Here are some more thoughts on whether to use them, or not, and how. (My original article on comparative titles is here.)
Comp Titles in a Query and How to Use Them
The conventional wisdom about book comps is that, if you have good ones, use them. If you have outlandish ones that communicate your delusions of grandeur (I’m Rick Riordan meets Suzanne Collins!), skip them.
The purpose of strong book comps is to make a realistic comparison between your work and someone else’s. Ideally, the author or book you’re choosing is thoughtful, rather than just a runaway bestseller. It’s always best to give reasoning for your choices, if you can. For example:
Both of these comps are older than I’d use (see below), but they came easily to the top of my head because they’re both so very specific. Here are some more considerations, gleaned from questions asked over the years:
Age of Book Comps
It’s best if your comp titles are recent, published within the last three years or so. This does double-duty and communicates to the literary agent or publisher not only your comparison, but that you’re keeping up with the marketplace.
But don’t despair if your perfect comparable title (an alternate term for “comparative title” that you’ll sometimes see used) is older. If you simply must weave The Giver by Lois Lowry into your pitch, pair it with a more recent comp and ta-da! The best of both worlds.
Relevance of Comp Titles in a Query
Per the “reasoning” point, above, your comp titles should be relevant to your current pitch. It’s okay to compare your middle grade historical to a young adult dystopian comp only The Hate U Give if you give a specific rationale. For example, The Sun is Also a Star by Angie Thomas and by Celina Yoon don’t have a lot in common in terms of premise. But they both explore societal pressures and race in different ways, and those are connections you can draw for an unlikely “meets” comparison.
As long as you’re thoughtful about it and guide the literary agent or publisher on why you made the choices you did, and the choices make sense, you can do whatever you want here.
Similarity to Your Book
You can get away with book comps that aren’t really similar to your book, except for an element or two. But what if your comp titles are too The War That Saved My Life similar? This is a fine line. If you’re pitching a story about a disfigured girl whose mother hides her away during World War II and using by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley as a comparative title … uhhhhhh … you’re maybe calling too much attention to the fact that your idea already exists. And then you may have to justify how yours is different or better. It’s a better idea to pick books that are similar but not eerily so.
Picking Comp Titles from the Agent or Publisher’s List
Some smart writers customize their comp titles in a query to reflect books represented by the literary agent they’re querying, or the publisher they’re submitting to. This can be an effective strategy. Keep in mind, however, that agents and publishers won’t want to cannibalize their own lists. So if the book you’re pitching is too close to one the agent represents or the publisher has published, this might actually be a liability for you. Their loyalty will always be to the author and project that already exists in their portfolio.
Number of Comp Titles
The ideal number of comp titles in a query is two or three. I recently read a query with six book comps mentioned. That writer had clearly done their research, but they need to tone it down. Two strong comps are better than four lukewarm comps and way better than six comps that just all happen to be in the same category. The more specific the better, so you don’t want to dilute your pitch by citing too many other books.
How to Find Book Comps
This is a quick answer: Read! (Here’s my argument that reading not only exposes you to your market, but helps develop great writing voice, which every writer should care about.) Read in your category. Read outside your category. I will never, ever, ever understand writers who refuse read because it pollutes their process. Spinning in your own echo chamber is fine, but it also tends to produce (ironically) derivative fiction because the writer doesn’t know enough about what’s out there to realize that they’re repeating common tropes, using cliché language, or not exposing themselves adequately to what’s possible.
Reading is a delightful way to get to know the publishing landscape, discover new voices, add fresh ideas to your own writing toolbox and, yes, discover book comps that you can use in your pitch.
As a freelance manuscript editor, I not only work on your book, but I help every client with their pitch, query letter, and book comps, too. Let me set you up for success in submission!
It’s my pleasure today to feature a self publishing children’s picture books case study for a change of pace. Full disclosure: Shelby Wilde is an editorial client of mine from earlier this year. We worked on this picture book manuscript together and discussed her career next steps. She decided to self-publish her project, and did, in my opinion, a wonderful job with it.
I don’t often feature client work on the blog or do interviews, but I chose this project because I think it’s extremely well done and I think Shelby has some great insights that will be useful to other writers considering self publishing, especially self publishing children’s picture books. (For any writers in this boat, I highly recommend the Self-Publishing Blueprint from Writing Bluerpints. It’s a comprehensive online class on the ins and outs of becoming an indie publisher. I watched the whole thing with great interest.)
Here, she shares her experience with deciding to “go indie,” the unexpected things she learned, and her lovely book. A long article, but a must-read. Hear about it directly from Shelby, below. I will pop in occasionally to comment with takeaways over the course of the interview!
Self-Publishing Children’s Picture Books
When I decided to self-publish SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND, I spent months researching the process. I knew I would have to pull out all the stops in order for the book to compete with the quality of traditionally published books on the market. I chose to have hard cover books printed in China, which I would then sell through Amazon. Hard cover format is the preferred format for self- publishing children’s picture books.
There is another self-publishing path called Print on Demand (POD). I did not choose that option because there are very few POD options for hard cover books and the quality is not where it needs to be, in my opinion. Traditional publishers have set the bar high when it comes to the quality of children’s books and self-publishers need to meet and exceed consumers’ expectations.
Kidlit Takeaways: Picture book writers have the self-publishing options of choosing to print physical books in softcover, hardcover, or both (a big investment upfront as you have to buy a print run of expensive books), POD (no upfront investment but quality control can be an issue), or ebook (despite being easily suited to illustrated content, ebooks do not offer the same reading experience for parents/children as physical copies).
Shelby’s point about competing with traditionally published books is spot on. I tell this to my clients all the time: You can do whatever you want when you self-publish. But you are selling to customers who are used to spending money on traditionally published books, and standards are high as a result. You need to offer them something equal or better in order to convince their dollars to come over to the side of indie writers!
Self-Publishing Children’s Picture Books: The Decision to Go Indie
What is this book’s “origin story”?
SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND was inspired by my daughter, who is a rock hound—she loves hunting for rocks. One day she sat me down and started telling me stories about how she acquired each of the rocks in her collection. In her stories, she debated with dragons, haggled with mermaids and convinced aliens so she could take home her treasured rocks. The combination of fantasy and reality inspired me, and I know it is something that captivates kids.
How did you make the decision to self-publish and why?
Early on, I considered the traditional publishing path for SCAVENGER SCOUT, but soon after the manuscript was completed, I realized I felt a strong connection to the main character. I wanted to guide her story through the publishing process myself, overseeing every aspect. Another reason I decided to self-publish is that I wanted to select the illustrator. If you choose the traditional publishing path and sell your book to a publisher, they will select the illustrator. Because I was so connected to the character of Scout, I wanted to be able to choose the style of illustration that would bring her to life.
Kidlit Takeaway: Choosing to self-publish gives you ultimate control over your project. Control you would lose with traditional publishing because the publisher does have final say on issues like title, format, illustrator, etc. But with great power comes great responsibility, and it behoves you to do your due diligence and make strong, marketable decisions.
Describe the process of preparing the book for publication. What was unexpected? What did you learn?
When it comes to preparing the book for publication, selecting the illustrator is only the tippy top of a very large iceberg. The most important thing I learned is something that should have been obvious to me: When you decide to self-publish, you will need to wear all of the hats that a traditional publishing house does. Hiring an editor (or editors—did you know there are different kinds?), an illustrator, a book designer (or your illustrator may be able to provide this service), a printer, a shipping company, storage space (if you are having your books printed and shipped to you, instead of ebook or POD). The difference is that the publisher has a team of people who are specialists in their areas and you have just … you. A writer. The learning curve is steep, but it is doable as long as you’re willing to put the time in.
One unexpected challenge was dealing with long timelines. Traditional publishing cycles are long: it typically takes two years to bring a book to market. Self-publishing is a little bit faster—mine took 11 months from start to finish, but still not quick. You have to have a lot of patience. If you have ever created something to sell, the last thing you have is patience. You can’t wait to get it out there. And even though you are a small, nimble company (yep, you need to get a business license if you want to self-publish), you are stuck with a lot of timelines that you don’t own. It takes weeks to months for the illustrator to complete their illustrations, months to print and ship the books, months to promote the book before launch.
Another unexpected challenge: Advertising budget: I didn’t think much about funds for advertising when I was in the planning stages. It’s just a fact that if you want a product to sell, you have to advertise it. Advertising is a skill and it costs money. It’s also relentless. If you stop advertising, you will see an immediate drop in sales. While it’s true that even if you sell your book to a traditional publisher you will still have to market it, at least you’ll have some support from the publisher. (Here are some book marketing strategies.)
Kidlit Takeaway: The leap from writer to publisher can be a rude awakening. Self-publishing isn’t just a shortcut to making your work available. You are responsible for many things you’ve thought of–and haven’t yet! Shelby also brings up a great point: budget. Do you have one? Picture books are especially expensive to self-publish (as opposed to a novel made available on Kindle, for example) because the biggest expense is the illustrator. To hire a good one, you have to pay thousands of dollars (five figures isn’t unusual). Otherwise, it will show. Unfortunately, readers do judge a book by its cover. Layout costs more money. Then, if you’re creating a physical book, you have to pay for expensive full color printing on a bigger trim size product. Shipping. Storage. Shipping to the consumer. And that’s before you even think about marketing. Picture book self publishing comes with sticker shock!
Describe the process of launching the book. Any lessons there?
This is another area where you have to understand that publishing is a business and you have to do all of the same things that traditional publishing houses are doing in order to compete. Among the activities you will want to put on your launch list: blog tour, social media ads, frequent social media posts, giveaways, partnerships, cross promotion with coordinating products, press release, media interviews, email blasts. Just like the production of the book, launching the book involves skill sets that writers don’t often have: public relations, media relations and marketing. The most important thing I learned when I launched my book is that you have to start months in advance.
Kidlit Takeaway: Marketing is a skill in and of itself. But all writers, whether indie or traditional, have to learn it at some point. The good news is, you are allowed to take small bites. That’s why I like the tip about starting months in advance–you’ll want to give yourself plenty of runway to learn.
Self Publishing Marketing and Career Path
What’s life after independent publication like? How are you currently involved in marketing the project?
I have completed my launch communication plan and have now moved into the “Keep the momentum going” phase. Frequent social media posts, cross promotion, blog tours, book reviews, giveaways, email blasts, etc. Once you self-publish a book, you are now on the hook for marketing the book forever. (More tips on social media for authors here.) That sounds daunting, but you have to think of it like any other product. Products don’t sell themselves. You have to put yourself out there as the author, put the book out there through ads, all to keep the stream of people flowing to your book. I enjoy the marketing aspect so it’s fun for me, but it is also time consuming.
Kidlit Takeaway: Ah, the old “art vs. business” debate! A great reminder that any book, even a traditionally published one, becomes a product. And then you sell it forever. The good news is that every positive review, blog post, interview, etc. gives you additional traction, but you always have to be proactive about creating opportunities. Unfortunately, “if you build it, they will come” is not a realistic adage in the age when hundreds of thousands of books are being traditionally and independently published per year.
What’s on the horizon for you? Would you self-publish again? Why or why not?
When I wrote SCAVENGER SCOUT, I also wrote a sequel so I have committed myself to self-publishing that book as well. I anticipate launching in Q2 of 2019. Once SCAVENGER SCOUT Part 2 is out, I will definitely have my hands full managing the printing, shipping and inventory that will come with both books. I am just one person and I’m not interested in becoming a small publisher. I have three other completed manuscripts that I’ve decided to pitch to agents in hopes of getting a contract from a traditional publisher. Choosing the self-publishing path means you are choosing to focus on the business side more than you will focus on the creative side. I want to have more time to spend on writing so I’m happy to let a publisher handle the logistics, even if it means lower profits for me.
Kidlit Takeaway: The takeaway I hear from clients all day every day is that writers are very surprised that they have to become publishers/marketers/businesspeople when they self-publish. They are not just writers. In fact, writing often falls to the bottom of their To Do list. Shelby’s point here is a great one to remember. It’s echoed in Teresa Funke’s excellent and very in-depth online class on self-publishing via Writing Blueprints: each project has its own life and potential. For some projects, self-publishing is the way to go. For other projects, you can always try traditional. Having these options means you can learn about them and choose the ones that are right for you on a project basis, and on a career basis! The bigger message is this: Successful, tenacious writers have more than one project in the pipeline!
Looking to make the jump into self-publishing? My editing services are perfectly suited to writers preparing to go indie. Get professional eyes on your work so you create the strongest product possible.
This post is all about query letter format, a perennially popular topic that won’t quit! While there isn’t just one query letter format or query letter template out there, I’ve developed a handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.
Query Letter Format
From my recent webinar on query letters, I’ve learned that writers continue to be fascinated with this little one-page document. It’s my most popular webinar by far, and a constant fixture of Google searches about writing.
But what makes successful queries? And can I get a query letter template? Writers are desperate for query letter examples.
When I was speaking at writer’s conferences, I always gave out a handout with a query letter example that I’d written for Twilight. Cue your eye rolls, but it’s a well-known story that everyone has at least glancing familiarity with. (My query letter example is written with Edward as the protagonist because I think Bella is such a wet blanket, ha!)
Writers are also curious to see if there is a query letter template that they should be following for formatting their query letter. Is there a set formula for writing a query and organizing the information? Not really, unfortunately. Even if I was going to call my query letter template the perfect way to write a query, many writers wouldn’t get the memo and the slush would still be filled with queries that don’t follow this flow.
But I believe very much in my query letter template, which you’ll find in the second page of the PDF. It has a nice flow to it, and is a good way to organize all of the elements of the query letter.
Here’s something to keep in mind about writing a query letter: IT’S A ONE-PAGE COVER LETTER. Your query letter length? 250 to 450 words. That’s it! Sure, it feels so much more monumental than that, but the query letter only has one job: To get the agent or publisher interested enough to move on to your writing sample or proposal. That’s it. That’s all. (More query tips here!)
Writers obsess over the query letter. It feels like their “one shot” to achieve publication. Their foot in the door. But believe me when I say that I never offered representation based solely on the query letter, and I have overlooked many crappy queries to then offer on a great manuscript. The query is a means to an end.
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 synopsis in a way that’ll keep your sanity intact.
How to Write a Synopsis: 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 Synopsis
The best way to write a strong 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. (Check out this post on what makes a good novel.) But once your butt is in the chair, here are some basic tips on how to write a 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 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.
Oceans of ink and blog posts have been spilled talking about novel openings and hooking your reader in the opening chapter. And with good reason. Your novel’s first pages are the only thing an agent gets to see before they make their decision about you. Well, that and your query letter and synopsis, which is why those are such hot topics. But how do you nail your novel’s opening? The advice may be simpler than you think.
Great Novel Openings Start With Conflict and Action
Basically, you want to give them just enough of your character so that they care, without over-indulging in information (see next section). And you want to put the character in motion. They want something, they’re experiencing an obstacle, they are frustrated or full of longing. This is a good state for your character to be in.
And, very importantly, they are starting in action, where they’re either being frustrated by an obstacle or striving toward something. You need that balance of internal conflict and external conflict.
If you start with too much external action right away, readers may not care because they don’t know the character, their objectives, or motivations.
If you start with no external action, then it’s easy to get bored. For example, a character sitting in their room, philosophizing about life and all the ways in which it has gone wrong. Maybe you start with generalities, for example:
Life can be funny sometimes. I spent 13 years thinking I was normal. Totally lame. And then one day, everything changed.
But the character is just sitting and thinking. There’s no action. This is 100% internal conflict, and you want to avoid it because nothing is actually happening.
Avoid Too Much Information in Novel Openings
In the same vein, information overload can sabotage your opening chapter in other ways. You might start with action, like the character getting bullied, but then you stop and go into great detail about the school, everyone in it, and the character’s history with the bully since kindergarten.
“Context is important!” you say. But you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. If you start a story with a ton of information about everyone we’re meeting and all of the details of a character’s life, the plan will not get off the ground, so to speak.
There has to be a balance of action and information, and if in doubt, action should win out. For every piece of information that you introduce in the first few pages of your opening chapter, ask yourself: Does this really, really, really have to be here? Otherwise, you may insert it later, or not at all.
Pick a Moment You Can Sustain
Finally, to tie your novel opening together, you need to pick a moment you can sustain for two or three pages without either stopping the action to give tons of information, and without leaving the moment to go into backstory (more information on writing backstory).
If you currently start with general philosophizing (per the example above), a ton of information, a lot of jumping around in time to gather various details, or without a sense of balanced internal and external conflict, it’s time to take another look. Your beginning really is your make-or-break. So it’s your job to make it good.
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One of the cornerstones of my writing craft philosophy is the concept of interiority. I always define it as a character’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and inner struggles, even in picture books, and even (perhaps especially) in a third person narrative. This tool, to me, is the most crucial one in a writer’s arsenal. Unfortunately, its interpretation and application are quite open-ended, which makes it easy to understand but more difficult to define interiority and teach it.
This article will be intended as a comprehensive interiority definition. An introduction to the topic, as well as my reasoning for why I consider this idea so terribly important to both writers and readers. If you sit down and read one Kidlit.com post in your life, I hope it’s this one.
What Is Interiority?
I define “interiority” as a character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, and inner struggles, and how we access them, whether it’s in first person or third, a picture book or a YA novel. It is any moment when you dive into your character’s head to add context, meaning, humor, or emotion to a situation. That is the interiority definition. The moment in question can be big or small, the reaction can be casual or life-changing.
The important thing is to keep coming back to your character. Remind yourself that they are experiencing the moments you’re choosing for them (via your plot), and that, in real life, we react to stuff all the time. Whether it’s a private joke or a shift in mood, we go through our days very aware of what’s going on. You certainly don’t want to have every little thing elicit a reaction, but more often than not, characters don’t react enough (more on writing a reaction). Keep reminding yourself that your character is in the moment, experiencing it. Is there any reaction warranted that could add some depth to the situation or bring the reader closer to your character’s rich inner life?
Specificity is the Key
Everyone experiences emotions in a different way. My “sad” might look very different from your “sad”, and it might be caused by very different things. Too often, writers name an emotion, eg, “She felt angry” and move on. But simply naming emotions doesn’t give me much to dig into, as a reader. I know what my angry is like, but I don’t care much about me right now. I’m reading to learn about a fleshed-out and compelling character. So I want to know what her “angry” looks like, what thoughts cross her mind, what places she goes when she’s feeling worked up. (Tips on how to write emotions in a story.)
Besides, there are a million shades of anger and a million reasons to be angry (or whatever emotion). Imagine this: A father brings home a pony to surprise his daughter, and she’s angry. What? That makes no sense. Why? If the writer simply showed her storming off, we’d get no specificity, and the reader would be left in the dark. But if we were to go into interiority, we’d have access to something like, “He thinks he can just buy my love after what he did?” Ohhh, now it makes a lot more sense. I would much rather have that specific thought on the page instead of the zoomed-out view of her storming off to sulk. Or her heart rate rising. Or her stomping her foot. (All external.) Specificity is a big part of my interiority definition.
Which brings me to my next key point about interiority. There are two ways of discussing emotion, internal and external. Too many writers rely on external only, and this is a huge missed opportunity.
The Limits of Using Physicality to Discuss Emotion
Writers who struggle with interiority tend to render emotions instead via physical sensations, a lot of which tend to be cliché. We have tears falling and hearts thumping and stomachs clenching, but these images are so familiar that they don’t invite the reader to dig deeper.
I often tell my clients, “I don’t care that there are tears. I care about the thought that finally makes them fall.” We are all familiar with this phenomenon. We are on the verge of crying all day long, but it’s not until one thought or idea crosses our minds that we actually go over the edge. I am much more interested in that thought, because it is going to be very specific.
If your manuscript is littered with references to the physical body reacting instead of the mind, there are ways to change your approach. Imagine yourself accessing deeper layers to your character’s experiences. This can be done by asking some very basic questions.
Interiority is Digging Deeper, Asking Questions
Often, I jokingly refer to myself as a character therapist. Because I’m always sitting on my imaginary couch and asking, “And? So? How did that feel?” My notes to clients are littered with these questions.
Remember that your character is not an impartial security camera, recording events. Even in third person. We are going through their story because we want to know what the story is, sure, but because we also want to know how said story affects them. There’s a reason (or at least, there really should be) you chose that particular character to experience that particular story. How does one influence the other? That is what readers will attach to.
You are telling a story because you want readers to experience it. There is no better way to define interiority. It’s to have readers live vicariously than to have them read the experiences of their guide, the point-of-view protagonist. The deeper, more honest, and more intimate you can make your account of that experience, the closer your reader will feel to the character and the story. This is the core tenet behind pretty much my entire fiction craft teaching philosophy.
Interiority Resources From the Kidlit Blog
I’ve written a lot about interiority over the years, and I honestly hope to write a whole lot more. If you want to dig further, here are some of my favorite articles about it from the archives:
Curious about how many words in a chapter? When you’re writing fiction, it’s natural to wonder about children’s book manuscript chapter length. I’m afraid this answer won’t be entirely satisfying, but I decided to make a video about it. The transcript appears below.
Writers Are Asking: How Many Words in a Chapter?
Hi, this is Mary Kole and kidlit.com, and you are watching a video response to a question that I received on the blog from Tom. Tom recently asked a wonderful question about read aloud potential in picture books, which I was happy to answer. He had another great question in the same comment. So he was just coming up with good stuff. I am more than happy to answer in this video format. I think it’s so much fun. Tom’s question, actually the answer to Tom’s question is hidden inside of Tom’s question, but the gist of it is, Tom says, “When I’m reading with my kids, I notice that the manuscripts,” or the books in his case, “that have consistent chapter length flow more smoothly. They are more of a joy to read. Can you comment on that?” You know, and as I am reading this, I’m thinking, “You just answered your own question, buddy.” But whatever, I’ll speak to it because I think it’s a very important point.
So children’s book manuscript chapter length is a big question that I’ve received many times about all sorts of children’s books that have chapters. So that usually includes everything from chapter books, to middle grade, to young adult novels. And in that case, people always ask, you know, “How long should my chapters be? How many words in a chapter?” That’s the most common question. Nobody really talks about consistency. So I think this is a really great point to drill into. Now, I am less concerned with how long your chapter needs to be. I’m not a big fan of handing out absolute dictums and saying, you know, “For middle grade, your chapters need to be 2,000 words max and always longer than 1,200 words, and…” you know.
Yeah sure, if pressed, I could come up with some harder numbers, but I don’t like to do that because I believe that every book sort of has its own style. Now, I will say that yeah, a chapter that’s 10,000 words for any category of children’s book is probably crazy. It’s gonna be tedious to read. It’s a lot. So there definitely are ways to answer that question in a more specific way, but I’ll keep being cagey, and I will say consistency, as Tom identified in his comment, is key in any category that you’re writing, middle grade, chapter book, YA.
Children’s book manuscript chapter length consistency is what sort of keeps the engine of your pacing going. And when I’m reading, I definitely notice, you know, with my editorial clients, I have manuscripts in front of me all the time. I definitely notice when a chapter is a lot shorter or a lot longer than sort of what has been established. And one of my favorite things to say to people is a book teaches us how to read it, which is true. So if you start out writing really short chapters which is a great way to sort of keep pacing lively, you’ve sort of set a standard for yourself.
And so if you really start in the middle maybe, writing really long chapters, whoa, your pacing is gonna tank and readers are gonna wonder…they may not be able to put their finger on what’s going on, but they may start to wonder why your chapters suddenly feel longer, or slower, or bulkier. So chapter length can definitely be used to affect pacing and the reader’s perception of how quickly the story is moving which is the definition of pacing.
If you have a lot of long chapters, you really wanna make sure that action flows freely inside those chapters because otherwise they’re just gonna big blocks of information one after the other, and that’s gonna have an exhausting effect on the reader. But the key is that whatever you start doing, keep doing it. (And take some advice on how to write action scenes.) You’ve sort of gotten yourself into that place, and if you notice that all of your chapters are really long, you’re gonna have more of a job ahead of you, maybe chopping some of those chapters in half or reorganizing information.
Another thing that I see a lot is that a person will basically have chapter consistency down for the most part, but then they will have a few outliers. And the more consistent your chapters are, of course, the more those outliers are going to call attention to themselves. So when you’re revising, one very easy thing to look for, especially if you use a software like Scrivener where each chapter is an individual file, which I highly recommend, is seeing, “Okay, which chapters are abnormally short or abnormally long compared to kinda where I come in.” You know, if I’m coming at 1,500 words for a YA novel chapter and I have a chapter that’s 2,500 words, and then another one that follows it that’s 500, I might wanna think about combining them and then chopping that resulting chapter kind of in half, for example. So what’s…what are your outliers? That would be a great place to start in terms of kinda restructuring your chapters.
How Many Words in a Chapter … And How Many Are Working for You?
Another thing to do is to make sure that each chapter earns its keep. This is a huge note that I give to a lotta my editorial clients. This chapter doesn’t earn its keep. And for me, for a chapter to earn its place in a novel, you have to do one of several things. Ideally you’re doing many of these things all at once. The chapter has to pull its weight. Now, it should introduce character, or introduce something about character, or change something about character relationship, so you’re moving something forward in the character department or…ideally. And a chapter has to move plot forward. So something has to happen.
Now this brings us back to the definition of action in a plot sense. If two characters just bicker for a whole chapter, yeah there’s conflict technically, but nothing has actually happened if two characters just sit there going like this. So something needs to happen to move the plot forward. There needs to be action, there needs to be forward momentum in terms of things happening in the physical world that ideally drag your story forward. So we should learn something about character, something should happen in terms of plot, character relationship can change. There’s gotta be meat in each chapter. And a lot of the time, I see short chapters that are just transitions, for example, you have two big scenes and then a little valley in between that’s like 500 words. That’s something I see a lot. Or a chapter where it’s just characters talking, talking heads. Sometimes those really seem to tank pacing.
So yeah, I would say that chapter consistency above all is key. Make sure your children’s book manuscript chapter length is consistent, look for outliers, so chapters that are too long or too short based on the length that you set for yourself where you fall most of the time when you’re writing. And then you need to do a test of each chapter to see, does this really have a reason to be in this manuscript? And that’s kind of the trickier revision tactic to do because you’ve written it, of course you don’t wanna kill your darlings.
Each chapter absolutely belongs in there. But when you really get down to it, is there enough forward momentum in that chapter on the character front, on the plot front to really keep it in there? And if not, you may wanna do away with the chapter or you may want to shorten the chapter and tack it on to one of the two chapters either before it or after it. That’s one way to handle kind of a shorter chapter where you wanna keep some of the information but maybe not make it its standalone chapter. Or is it something that can be expanded into a full-fledged chapter in its own right, maybe with some character development or some plot development?
So, hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for why consistency is important when it comes to chapter length, and then if you do have chapters that are inconsistent with your novel and kind of your goals for each chapter in your novel, what to do with those. So I love this question. Thank you so much, Tom, for asking, and thank you for watching.
Tom wrote into the blog with a question about read aloud picture books. Check out my answer in video form, or read the transcript below. If you want to dig deeper into picture book voice, here’s my post on reading your way to great writing voice.
How Do You Write Read Aloud Picture Books?
Hi, this is Mary Kole and welcome to kidlit.com. Today I have a question from Tom, and it is all about read aloud potential and work for younger readers. So here we’re talking about picture books, we’re talking about chapter books, early readers, those sorts of categories. Some parents do read middle grade with their kids, but since you’re getting kind of into independent reader territory there, I’m just gonna talk about these younger categories. So Tom wrote into the blog and he said, “You know, I noticed that some works really, really have great read aloud functionality. If you wanna call it that. Some works are just great to read aloud, I read ’em to my kids, everybody enjoys it, it’s this great kind of family moment,” which is what we’re hoping to create when we write for kids, right, “and some works just don’t. They fall flat, the language doesn’t flow.” So he is asking, you know, how do you create more of the good stuff and less of the clunky dry voice that doesn’t lend itself well to read aloud potential.
“Read Aloud Potential” Is A Great Query Hook
Now, read aloud the potential is a phrase that I’m using very deliberately because when I used to look at query letters as a literary agent, one of the sales hooks for a picture book that would get my attention is if the writer had written “This book has great read aloud potential”. And then when I would turn around and pitch that book to an editor, that would also be a sales hook that I used all the time. Because when you’re pitching, you really want things to have hooks, you want to be able to say something, encapsulate a benefit of that particular project. Now if you’re thinking of writing a query letter, you should also be thinking along these lines of what are my benefits here for this project, other than it’s a great manuscript, right? We also want to try and find these little benefits, and read aloud potential is actually a great benefit. If you’re writing picture books, definitely put it in your cap and remember that saying something has great read aloud potential is something that sends a positive flag up in a query letter.
How To Identify Great Picture Book Voice
Now, the question becomes, how do you build that read aloud potential into a story? And that is where I think Tom’s question lies. So what makes for great read aloud potential? I have one tip that seems so incredibly obvious that I almost feel dumb saying it here, but I know that a lot of readers don’t think of it. I work as a freelance editor now with clients and writers all over the globe, and it is so much fun. But when I give this note, I’ve noticed that a lotta my clients sort of have a light bulb moment, and it’s like they hadn’t really thought of it before. So when I say this, you might be like, “Duh,” which is why I’m here, I hand out duh moments, read your work loud as you write it, as you revise it, read that work aloud. Only then will you know exactly what its read aloud potential is.
Here’s the thing that happens. We are…we train ourselves when we write in the flow and cadence of our own voice, if that makes sense. We know what our voice is about, we’re used to it, and that’s natural, right? It’s our voice, it’s coming from how we talk, how we write, we’ve had our entire lives to get used to this voice, and then that’s what’s most natural for us to use when we’re writing fiction. The thing is, you’re used to your voice, but what about anybody else? And this is where people tend to get tripped up because if you’re only writing in your head, your head is used to your own voice. And when you write something on the page and then read it back to yourself, again in your head, not by speaking, you gloss over things that tend to be clunky in the writing because you’re used to your own writing style.
Catching the Speed Bumps
It’s… One of my favorite parts of my MFA experience was the workshop part, where we would take our manuscript, pass it to the person next to us, or across the room, or whatever, and have them read it to us. It was most, most often an enlightening experience and embarrassing experience because they’re not used to our writing style, they’re not used to our voice. So when they read a piece of writing that they did not write, they’re coming to it for the first time and they start to struggle. You know, this sentence is really clunky, they trip over it because they’re not expecting the words to be in a certain order. When we’re reading that sentence in our heads during the revision process, we probably gloss right over it because we’ve read that sentence before, we know our own writing style, it just sort of we don’t notice where the bumps are. But if you have a writer reading it back to you, you’ll start to see that’s a speed bump, that’s a little hiccup, they tripped over that sentence, you’ll really start to sort of hear it in a way that you haven’t heard it before. And having somebody read your work is the ideal application of this advice, but not everybody has a person sitting there ready and waiting to read your manuscript to you. And if it’s a novel, nobody’s gonna read 80,000 words of your stuff without a whole heck of a lot of a bribery.
Read Your Work to Yourself
So the most common and useful application of this advice is to actually read your own work to yourself. This is more approachable, this is what most writers can actually do. And it’s different from reading something to yourself silently because it forces you to pay more careful attention to the page. It is my number one piece of voice advice, it’s my number one piece of read aloud potential advice, and if you’re writing picture books, early readers, and chapter books especially, you have no excuse, those manuscripts are short at the end of the day. So if you’re just sitting there and revising, open your mouth. Open your mouth and say the words, it’ll help you focus on the page in a different way, it’ll help you see what’s on the page in a different way, and you’ll be able to actually experience what it’s like to read that work aloud because a lot of these younger manuscripts are meant to be read aloud by parent to child. And it’ll really help you kind of see what you’re doing in a different way. And as you’re doing it, I wouldn’t even try to edit, like, right there on the page. I would actually have a pen in my hand, have the physical manuscript, have your voice ready to go, start reading, and then every time you stumble, every time you have to start over, every time something comes out in a way that maybe you didn’t intend, and without realizing, you’ve sort of put something clunky on the page, just mark it. Just mark it, circle it, put a check mark next to it, do whatever you have to do, come back to it later. And then as you’re trying to fix it, speak. You know, storytelling is a verbal art form. We started out storytelling around the campfire with our voices and our bodies, it’s a physical thing. And when we tend to, you know, just sit on the screen typing, we get disconnected from that very physical, very vocal art of storytelling.
So I’m sort of inviting you to bring that practice back into your writing life. Ideally, you would be doing this from the very beginning of writing your manuscript, but a lot of us have manuscripts already where we didn’t do it, so the next best thing is to revise aloud. And then when you’re coming across a section that you marked as clunky, when you edit that, speak several options aloud, see which one flows the best. Especially for these… My dogs are killing me, they are just snoring right there. Sorry about that. So especially for these younger readers, the shorter the manuscript, the more you want to speak what you’ve written, the more you want to revise with that in mind because those words really will be spoken. They’re not just gonna lie on the page like they do in a novel. So the best way to know if you have a voice with read aloud potential, is to read aloud the voice. Tom, I hope this helps. Thank you for your excellent question and I look forward to answering more. Thanks for watching.
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Today I’d like to talk about submitting to literary agents who have already rejected your work. There are only so many literary agents to go around, so I understand resubmitting a query letter to the same agents with multiple projects, or multiple revisions of the same project. Longtime blog friend Mary puts it like this:
I’m starting my second round of submitting my novel to agents. There are some agents I submitted it to between three and four years ago. I’ve substantially revised the novel in that time. Should I submit again to agents who had no interest back then? Two years ago I submitted a second novel to them with no luck either. Will they think “GAA! Her again!”?
Unfortunately, even though you’ve corresponded with these agents before and they’ve looked at things of yours, it doesn’t seem like they’re hot leads for you. If you haven’t gotten a project through to a particular agent with either a personalized and encouraging rejection, or a revision request… And if this particular pattern has played out with two different manuscripts…
I’m afraid resubmitting a query will not help you connect with that particular agent because it may not be a fit. I can’t say this with 100% certainty for each agent on your submission list, of course. I’m not them. But I’d say that your chances are on the slimmer side.
Remind Them of Your History When Submitting To Literary Agents Who Have Already Rejected Your Work
Especially if you’re considering resubmitting a query with a new version of a manuscript they’ve already seen. You can absolutely try to submit to them. There’s nothing preventing you, unless you got a sense about any of the agents that they simply didn’t get, or didn’t want to get, your work. (It’s definitely not worth barking up their tree if that’s the case.) But do you want to submit to them again? I would be wary of this approach, honestly. You’ve identified the potential issue with it in your question.
Agents do remember people who’ve submitted to them, even a few years on. Most use email inboxes that make your previous submissions easy to find. And if you’re submitting to them and you have a history of previous submissions, you do want to mention that they’ve previously seen your work in your query. So they’ll have everything at their fingertips to remind themselves of your previous correspondence.
Now the agent receives another submission from you. And, in this case, it’s a resubmission of a project they’ve passed on. They will likely consider it. Will it be real interest, though, or politeness? That’s tough to say. Your fear isn’t completely unfounded. The agent might, realistically, wonder why you keep submitting to them if they haven’t given you any positive signals in the past. Sometimes an agent will have dozens of submissions from the same writer, even though none have hit their mark. Agents definitely remember these names.
Are you at that level of notoriety with one project, a second project, and a revision? No, but you’re getting up there. You know the old adage. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. In your case, this might not be insanity, of course. You may have turned around a phenomenal revision. And I hope you have! Focus your efforts on people who have either shown you encouragement, though, or new faces.
Know When to Keep Submitting a Project, and When to Move On
Long story short, in publishing, as in dating, it might be tempting to chase someone who doesn’t encourage your advances, but that may not be your strongest shot at success. I would advise you to freshen up your list of potential agents and submit to some new names. Let other agents see your revision for the first time! If nothing comes of that process, then you’re facing the difficult decision of whether you want to revise again, or chalk this manuscript up as a learning experience. Submitting to literary agents who have already rejected your work can be tricky and risky. It may be worth a shot, though.
Do I love giving this advice? Absolutely not. But I respect you too much to sugarcoat a reply. I wish you the best of luck!
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