Literary Themes in Your Writing

Literary themes flummox a lot of writers, but theme in fiction doesn’t have to be the enemy. In fact, if you haven’t yet chosen the central theme of your book, you need to stop and do some serious thinking. When you select a literary theme correctly, it can actually become a strong writing tool.

literary themes, theme in fiction
Imagine your literary themes as a strong story core, the rope that pulls everything together.

What Is Theme in Fiction?

When I’ve written about novel theme before, I’ve defined the topic as the central idea of your book. (I’ve also written about what not to do with your writing theme…) Good themes for middle grade, for example, can be grappling with independence or identity, or wanting to grow up while also feeling the pull of staying a kid. Great picture book literary themes include friendship, embracing differences, or overcoming fears and finding one’s courage.

The problem with heavy-handed theme is that some writers are too overt. “I love trying new things!” their picture book characters shout.

Their middle grade protagonists muse, “I just want to stay a kid sometimes, and not have to deal with all of these big decisions.”

This hits the theme too squarely on the head, and readers don’t usually appreciate being handed information on a platter. They want to dig a little bit.

So your job is to decide what your core theme is. For example, I was chatting with a client the other day who didn’t think he had a theme. After I picked my jaw off the floor, I exclaimed, “Of course you do! It’s how secrets affect the people trying to live with them!” It was so obvious throughout the work.

Luckily, this client had imbued his work with a theme without even trying. If, on the other hand, you’re struggling, think about something that all of your characters (or most of them) are dealing with. In this case, it was “secrets.” In your case, it might be “forgiveness” or “identity” (though I’d argue that’s a theme in most kidlit) or “accepting what you can’t change.”

Good. Now put it on a Post It or keep it front of mind.

Making Literary Themes Work For You

The key to theme in fiction is that it define your work without popping up all over the place. The best themes are buried. So what do you do once you’ve decided on your theme?

Make sure it affects character and plot. For character, work in some kind of conflict for your protagonist where they struggle with your theme. If possible, let other characters struggle with the theme, too, but in different ways. If you were using literary themes of “identity” and “acceptance,” have one character be able to easily accept who they are, and another character struggle with it, for example. This won’t be the main plot for each character–struggling with identity is an internal conflict, not usually an external one–but it should factor into the story in some way that demonstrates multiple shades of the topic.

Next, write a few scenes throughout that force the character to confront the theme. In my client’s theme of “secrets,” there are several scenes where the past either comes back to haunt the characters or they’re forced to confirm or deny devastating information. So let theme surface in an actionable way–this is the external conflict piece.

Now, you can also use theme to help you revise. This is my favorite part. Consider your story core. Think of it as a rope. The rope runs through the entire story, and all of the elements of story hang on the rope.

Literary Themes in Character and Plot

Go through your story character by character. Does each character connect to the rope in some way? If not, can they? Obviously, the main characters should touch the theme in bigger ways than the barista who appears in one scene. But still. Can each major character hang from the rope of your theme?

Now, plot. This is where revision miracles happen. Go through your manuscript scene by scene. Does each scene have a connection to the rope, even if it’s a very, very slight connection? For the scenes that do, perfect! For those that don’t, are you sure you need them? Are you sure they fit into your story?

The writers who are bold enough to cut material that doesn’t fit their story core or connect to the rope of their theme are the ones who pull off strong revisions. A lot of the time, writers are afraid to cut material, and end up with a lot of “darlings” that they can’t kill. Considering each scene’s thematic impact is a powerful way to make sure your manuscript is as cohesive as possible.

All of this work is subtle, with most of your thematic work happening behind the scenes. But when done well, it can be extremely effective.

Struggling with the bigger picture of your story? Hire me for editing services and we can dig into your creation together.

Surprise! Welcome Finn!

Here’s a post that I’m thrilled to write. On February 7th, we welcomed Finn Mikhail Macdonald to the world. He joins big brother, Theo, who is three years old today.

Those who’ve been following know that our daughter, Nora Pepper, died in December 2017 after being born with a very rare and completely surprising birth defect. But my husband, Todd, and I knew we weren’t done building our family. Or so we hoped. We never learned our recurrence risk for Nora’s condition, despite doing whole genomic sequencing, the most comprehensive option available. Our odds were either 1 in 4 of a repeat (if the condition was inherited), or 1 in a billion (if it was a random mutation) of being struck by the same lightning twice. But there was no way to close that gap.

When you’re hit with such a devastating loss, and medical uncertainty, you can’t help but think, “Was our healthy child the fluke? Or was our unhealthy child the fluke?” And then, “Could we go through this again, if it happened? Are we brave enough to try?”

Well, we tried. And the pregnancy was its own special kind of hell, because Nora’s condition doesn’t show up on imaging or any kind of prenatal testing (since we never found the gene responsible, we had nothing to test for).

So I had to basically have a baby and see if it … worked. Brutal.

Happily, Finn seems healthy, as far as we can tell. He’s very different from our sweet Nora. He cries, he eats (and eats!), he opens his eyes, and he seems very engaged with the world around him. In other words, a typical newborn, just like Theo was.

The second Finn was born and screamed and latched immediately, a huge weight was lifted. Worry and heartbreak that I didn’t even realize I’d been carrying around for so long dissipated. I can’t describe how happy we were, and still are, to have this beautiful new creature join our family.

To be totally honest with you, the end of 2017 and into 2018 was devastating. Not only did we have the worst surprise of our lives when Nora was born and passed away in December 2017, but I lost my dad to cancer in March 2018. This was also a surprise. He sincerely thought he had more time. They both departed way too soon. It was too much. I was numb for about six months. That’s why Finn has the middle name Mikhail. That was my father’s name, the Russian version of Michael.

At least our Finny has two amazing guardian angels watching over him.

And, of course, two furry ones. (Token pug picture of Olive and Gertie…)

Thank you to everyone for following this saga. I kept the pregnancy a secret for the most part. I learned the hard way not to count my chickens. Hearing congratulations for Nora and then condolences two weeks later was very hard. So I didn’t want to say boo about a baby until there was one. Well, boo!

It was such a thrill to have the same photographer who took our Nora pictures, Sarah Ann Photography, back to chronicle this new arrival. We also got to share Finn with the incredible NICU doctor who cared for Nora, which felt so gratifying. It was such a wonderful way for things to come full circle. I hope that now we can close out one tumultuous chapter of our lives, and begin an exciting new one.

Character Objective and Writing a Strong Protagonist

Writing objectives for your characters creates strong protagonists with nuance and drive. Remember, you want to focus on writing a proactive protagonist into your novel. Character objective is a top notch way of doing that. Here’s what I mean by that, and how you can use this powerful idea to move your story forward.

character objective, writing objectives
Strong goals and reasons for them form the foundation of compelling character objective.

What is Character Objective?

Character objective is easy to understand: It’s what a character wants.  Objective also goes hand-in-hand with character motivation. The reason why a character wants something. If you don’t know this about your protagonist, you are in deep, deep trouble. Writing objectives should be top of mind. Why?

All characters should want something. Wanting is universally compelling, we can all relate to it. When I know what a character wants, I am that much more excited to root for them. When I understand why they want it, that feeling only grows. (Making a reader care is one of the cornerstones of how to hook a reader, after all.)

Writing Objectives That Compel Readers

The act of writing a character objective is a bit more tricky. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Establish the objective ASAP. Don’t leave readers hanging. Within the first chapter, make sure the character has at least an initial objective that they’re pursuing. This can tie into their bigger picture want and need as a person, or it can be something short-term. But let’s show them wanting something.

Make the objective specific. “To feel happy” is a very vague objective. It is too broad, and doesn’t have a clear way to know whether it has been achieved or not (since “happiness” is so nebulous). “To help Mom get her job back by impressing her boss” is much more specific.

Let your character imagine the possibilities. Add nuance to the objective by letting your character think about the ramifications. What happens if she does get Mom’s job back? How does she plan to impress the boss? What happens if the gambit fails?

Add stakes. Create a sense of ramifications for success and failure, and don’t forget to add nuance here, too. Maybe if Mom gets her job back, that will solve a lot of problems, but then she’ll be away from home. If Mom doesn’t get the job, maybe the family will fall into dire straits, financially. What might all that mean for your character and plot?

Weaving Character Objective Into Story

Finally, let objective translate into a larger sense of story. This is where the rubber of writing objectives meets the road. Let the character come back to the objective often, mentally. Dream about it. Worry about it. Take action toward it. The latter should then translate into plot.

Start with a strong sense of objective and let the character work toward it. Make it important. Give it layers. Not only will this help your character be more compelling, but your entire narrative as well.

Still struggling with character, objective, motivation, or creating a truly three-dimensional protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor and get in-depth, personal advice from an experienced publishing professional.

Authorial Voice and Third Person Voice

I got a great question the other day about authorial voice and third person voice from an editorial client. He was writing in alternating close third POV chapters with a cast of several characters. Basically, he was telling his story in third person from several character perspectives. Even though everything was in close third person, he was still dipping into different character heads per chapter. Would that influence the voice? Basically, he was wondering what the difference was between authorial voice (his natural voice as a writer), the third person voice of his overall narrative, and how (and if?) close third is influenced by character voice. A lot to unpack here!

authorial voice, third person voice, third person narration
What’s the difference between authorial voice, third person voice, and character voice?

Basically, it’s a balance. There is the author’s own voice, and then the narrative voice, which is informed by POV character, at least slightly. Or at least it should be. Because if your third person narrative voice is the same from Character A Chapter to Character B Chapter, then why bother segmenting the narrative into separate characters?

This writer made the choice to use different close third POV characters. The modern trend is to “flavor” your POV chapters with narration that reflects the POV character at least somewhat, even in third person. This obviously happens more conspicuously in first person because then the entire voice is assumed to be the characters’.

But in third person, you wouldn’t write a third person grandfather POV with the exact same language as you would their grandchild’s POV chapter. Overwhelmingly, I’ve heard agents and publishers comment about adding voice and style to close third person POV that at least takes the character whose chapter it is into account. The consensus seems to be that they should be able to open your book to a random page and know which character’s POV we’re in based on voice, even if they can’t see the chapter heading, and even in third person.

So let’s break it down further.

Character Voice

This is the voice of your character. In first person POV (“I said”), that is also the voice you’re writing in. In third person, it is widely preferred in contemporary fiction to let your character’s voice inflect the narrative, especially if you are writing in close third person on that one character. This basically means that you are writing in third person (“He said”) but only go into the experience of one character, usually your protagonist.

Other opportunities to express your character’s voice come in dialogue, where they are literally speaking, and interiority and direct thought, when you render their exact thoughts on the page. This is when you will want to think about voice, which words they’d choose, how they’d say them (syntax), and the content of their self-expression. It’s good to consider these elements for each character you put on the page.

Sometimes, the narrator him or herself is very intrusive and becomes a character in the story. The classic example is the narrator of the Series of Unfortunate Events, written under the pen name of Lemony Snicket, but really by Daniel Handler. There are people acting out the plot but the story is told by a first person raconteur character as well. This is yet another type of voice to consider.

Third Person Voice

If you are writing third person, you are either in close third (your POV is limited to one character), alternating (you hop from character’s head to character’s head but in a more structured way, like my client who asked this question) or omniscient (where you float around and “head hop” at will into the experiences of a wide cast of characters, like The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, but note that omniscient third is widely considered the most difficult to pull off and not a good fit for every market).

This means you are also now thinking about narrative voice, your baseline voice for telling the story. Unless you have a Lemony Snicket-type narrator, but in third person, to account for, your third person narrative voice is going to be more neutral. I would still recommend tinting this voice to share elements with your character(s) if you are writing in close third, alternating, or omniscient. Per my example above, a chapter in third person voice that focuses on a young child should not read like a chapter in third person that explores an older man’s more wistful or reflective (or bitter!) experience.

If the voice sounds the same on every page, even in third person, despite going into the experiences of different characters, this is an issue. You may not be exploring or inhabiting your characters deeply enough. They should affect your voice. Not as much as they would in first person, but enough to have some bearing on the writing.

Another thing to note is that narrative voice can change from book to book. Your snappy YA romance is not going to be written in the same voice as your coming of age MG. It just shouldn’t be. Those are completely different categories, character ages, plots, and reader expectations. So it’s important to realize that narrative voice, whether first or third person, changes according to the characters used and the story being told.

Authorial Voice

Finally, there’s authorial voice. This is the element that doesn’t change, your signature. Are you known for clever dialogue, like John Green? Froth and fun, like Meg Cabot? Heartfelt honesty, like Judy Blume? These are classic examples but when we read these authors, we know what we’re in for, no matter what the book. That’s because of authorial voice.

If you’re just developing yourself, don’t worry. Authorial voice is something you discover, not force into existence. It falls into place much later in the writing journey, and sometimes people can’t predict what their signature is until it emerges.

My client, though, was wondering if authorial voice should dominate the third person writing, or if he had to make allowances for character to creep into the narrative. Especially since he was writing in alternating chapter close third person, I told him that character had to lead the day. Authorial voice will emerge, but it should not be your primary storytelling concern. Especially if you are choosing to render multiple POVs.

The overall voice with be yours (authorial voice), and that sense of voice will get stronger, the longer you write. But I would encourage my client, and anyone reading, to add lenses of more stylized voice/narration that are going to be unique to each POV character.

If you are curious about POV and want more exploration and examples, I highly, highly recommend Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld.

Struggling to develop voice? It’s usually the last writing and storytelling element to fall into place. With me as your novel editor, we can work toward your own narrative style together, in a focused, supportive, and actionable way.

Launching the Manuscript Submission Blueprint!

For over a year, I have been working with Laura and Jon over at Writing Blueprints to create the Manuscript Submission Blueprint, a system of information that gives you everything you need to know to assemble a manuscript submission to literary agents and/or publishers.

Now, you may or may not know the following about me: I do not commercialize this blog lightly. I get requests oh, probably every day for guest posts, contributor posts, advertising links, blah blah blah. The blog gets a lot of traffic and is prominent in the children’s book space, so plenty of people find it … and they all want me to help them sell stuff to you.

In 99.99% of cases, I say no. In fact, I only directly sell three things on this blog (and I try to keep it as unobtrusive as possible): My book, my editorial services, and any webinars, events, or conferences I’m personally involved in. You will notice that all of these are my things. I also use affiliate links to Amazon and Writing Blueprints. But that’s it. Otherwise, I only recommend a book or a resource if I find it myself and love it. Never because someone else asks me to boost it.

Why? Integrity. Because I genuinely love writers. I genuinely love to teach and be a helpful resource. And I genuinely love to help children’s book writers make their dreams come true. I also really care about having your trust. I can’t do that if I’m shilling for anyone who emails me. Instead, I write long and (I hope) enriching craft articles for “nothing” in return and that’s exactly how I like it. I could’ve monetized this blog halfway to Mars by now with ads and guest posts. But that money wouldn’t be worth it because the blog wouldn’t be true to itself, true to you, or true to who I am.

So when Laura and Jon approached me to create the Manuscript Submission Blueprint, I was naturally skeptical. Were these Blueprints good stuff? Truly helpful and informative to writers? Were they fairly priced? Did writers get good value for their investment? Was there a ton of useful information, and was it quality? Was the system easy to use? I took a few of the classes and … loved them! Like, I was blown away by what was being offered for the price. In short, Writing Blueprints met all of my fussy criteria, so I agreed to develop the Manuscript Submission Blueprint.

What’s Writing Blueprints?

You may know Writing Blueprints from using one of their other products. They are the same brand as the Children’s Book Insider newsletter, and offer interactive online processes for writing middle grade and young adult (taught by the amazing Alice Kuipers), writing picture books (from Laura Backes), self-publishing (from Theresa Funke) and more.

What is the Manuscript Submission Blueprint?

The Manuscript Submission Blueprint is ALL ABOUT MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSION TO AGENTS AND PUBLISHERS. From the process of researching your market, to composing a query letter, to putting together various submission requirements, to actually getting out into the world. It is everything writers in any category and with any kind of project (not just children’s!) need to know to get their work out into the world, told from the perspective of yours truly, a former literary agent with ten plus years in the publishing business.

Practically, it is a longform class that you can take at your leisure in your own home. It consists of videos, written materials, handouts, even a spreadsheet. It’s set up like an online course that you can start and stop whenever you want. (In fact, the interface they use is one of the things that really drew me to creating a Writing Blueprints system. It was really easy for me to use as I test drove some of their other Blueprints.) You pay one price to buy it, and then you own access to it forever. You can use it and watch it and rewatch it.

This has been a labor of love I started in November 2017 (watch out for several different haircuts, ha!). I recorded about ten hours of video instruction, wrote 35+ handouts, interviewed the amazing John Cusick for bonus material, gave feedback on sample query letters, developed two webinars, and much more.

Now it is FINALLY available. I really put a ton of work into it, and I am very proud of how it turned out. I hope you enjoy the Manuscript Submission Blueprint!

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!

Comp Titles in a Query and Other Questions About Book Comps

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, book comps, comparative titles, comp titles
Your book comp are calling. But are you using them well?

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:

My manuscript has the quirky sensibility of How to Say Goodbye in Robot and the freewheeling voice of Sorta Like a Rock Star.

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 onlyThe 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 Lifesimilar? 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!

Sign Up for December Webinars!

This is a quick reminder that I have two upcoming webinars in the month of December, Writing Irresistible First Pages and Rock Your Writing Goals. In January, I’m launching a Submission Blueprint with Writing Blueprints, so I’ll be doing a webinar to support that. In February, I’m participating in WriteOnCon. So I’m skipping my own webinars those months, until a planned webinar on interiority in March. That means these December webinars are it for the near future. Join me!

Very informative, I learned a LOT about what the first pages should accomplish. – Dena Pawling

Mary is an approachable expert. She turns a daunting task into something I can do with confidence. – Shelley G.

Saturday, December 8th, 11 a.m. CST: Writing Irresistible First Pages WITH CRITIQUE

first pages webinar, writing webinar, novel webinar, novel beginning webinar

A paid webinar that includes comprehensive notes on the first two pages of your novel. This webinar is geared to novel writers of all categories, from middle grade to fantasy. Not only will you hear a wealth of information about how to write successful, eye-catching first pages, but your novel opening will be privately critiqued with helpful feedback. The cost of this webinar with the included critique is $99. The webinar will last one hour and thirty minutes.

Follow this link to register for the first pages webinar with critique.

Mary’s webinar on Writing Irresistible First Pages was incredibly helpful. Mary is very versed in the subject matter and presents lot of terrific useful information at a good pace. Thank you, Mary! – Charlotte Hebert

You have one month to submit your pages after the webinar date. The submission will be up to two double-spaced pages with 12 pt font and standard 1″ margins. Notes will be returned within three weeks of receipt.

I found this webinar extremely helpful and packed with valuable info. Thank you so much! I feel much more confident to proceed with revising my first chapter. – Amy G.

Saturday, December 29th, 11 a.m. CST: Rock Your Writing Goals Webinar

A fun and motivational free webinar just in time for those New Year’s Resolutions. Let’s spend an hour together this last weekend of December and do some creative brainstorming for the year to come. The webinar will last one hour.

This webinar is for all writers, at all skill levels. I’ll discuss creativity, actionable steps for achieving your writing or publishing goals this year, and send you off into 2019 with a bang!

Register for December 29th Rock Your Writing Goals Webinar!

Spend the weekend before the New Year getting your writing resolutions in order.

Seats at the live event are limited. You will receive email instructions for accessing the webinar once you sign up. See you there!

Remembering Nora Pepper

Today, on what would’ve been her first birthday, I’m remembering my daughter Nora Pepper. For those of you who don’t know, Nora was born with a very rare birth defect on this date, November 30th, in 2017. It was a complete surprise to us because her condition didn’t show up on prenatal imaging or testing. Unfortunately, hers was a terminal diagnosis. She died on December 16th, 2017.

It’s so amazing to us that we were able to capture a few precious and irreverent moments of us as a family of four. I’m holding Nora, who is six days old, and my husband, Todd, is reading to Theo, then 21 months.

The Taboo of Baby Loss

We had a little more than two weeks to create memories as a family, and include our son, Theo, then 21 months, in Nora’s short life. During that time, we hired a professional photographer, the wonderful Sarah Wroblewski of Sarah Ann Photography, to come take pictures in our home. Now that Nora is gone, these pictures have become touchstones for our family that we will treasure forever. That sounds like such a cliché, but in this case, they really are all we will ever have. They mean everything to us.

We had our favorites made into a photo album. (In the blur of grief, I just sent a big batch to Shutterfly and used their “I don’t care, just make me an album” service. It actually worked out better than expected!) Our photographer gifted us with an absolutely stunning album as well. This morning, we sat together as a family and showed both off to Theo, then talked about his sister and how much we love and miss her. The photos will be part of our tradition on her birthday for the rest of our lives.

The last year has been difficult but, ultimately triumphant. Theo is an utter joy to us, now a wild and rambunctious 2.5-year-old. We savor even the most mundane moments with him in ways that we didn’t before. My relationship with Todd, my husband, is stronger than ever. I’ve done a huge amount of inner digging, and grown into a person I never would’ve been without this experience. The editorial business is thriving and I get to do what I love every single day.

Another facet of the last year has been connecting with other loss parents. The “Dead Baby Club,” as I jokingly call it, is a club nobody ever wanted to be in, but we are. After I posted about Nora’s death, I heard from so many of you who’ve lost pregnancies, babies, or children. Nobody talks about this kind of shattering loss. Children aren’t supposed to die. It breaks the natural order.

But they do. Sadly, so sadly, they do.

When this tragedy happens, parents sometimes feel alone because it’s too terrible, too impossible to talk about. The world wants to shield its eyes and pretend. There’s a cultural taboo surrounding the topic. So, all too often, we suffer in silence, except when we meet another family in our shoes.

I love this picture of Nora. It’s a reminder that her short life was filled with all the love we could possibly give. Whether she knew it or not, she was never alone.

Coming Together

This has gotten me thinking about community, and reaching out to other loss families who have experienced the unimaginable. I remember what it was like to be broken open in the most vulnerable moment of my life, sitting there in the hospital that Monday evening, and learning that Nora would absolutely die. There’s just not a lot of support for a family on that horrible day.

As the anniversary of Nora’s birth and death rolls around, and I’m thrust back into these memories, I want to tell you about a cause that means a lot to me, if you’ll listen. This year, my family has made a donation in Nora’s honor. I’d love for you to join us, if you feel at all compelled. While I can’t personally be there to support families facing baby loss as it’s happening to them, there’s an organization that does just that.

And it does something else incredible. It provides them with tangible memories of a life gone too soon: those same kinds of photographs that mean the world to us now.

A Request in Nora’s Honor

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a nonprofit organization that you may never have heard of. I hope that’s because you’ve never needed them. They service any parents in a hospital setting who are facing stillbirth or neonatal death. They provide a network of photographers who will come at no charge to the family, at all hours of the day and night, and take pictures of the baby and family. These pictures are usually heart-wrenching. But beautiful. And oh-so-significant to families who may only get to spend a few precious moments with their babies.

My family didn’t personally use their services. We brought Nora home initially, because we didn’t know exactly what was wrong. We had photographs taken there. But if we’d spotted her condition earlier, we probably never would’ve left the hospital. From experience, I know how amazing it is to have pictures of my baby. I never thought I’d lose a child. But families experience it every day. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep serves them in their time of most desperate need. It supports photographers who volunteer their time and talent to step into the worst moment of a person’s life. Think about walking into that room for a moment.

Please excuse me for using my platform for a cause. But I want to help Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and enable them to do their very important work, if I can. If you feel so compelled, please make a donation to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in Nora Pepper Macdonald’s name, or the name of any other child who survives only in your heart.

We’re thinking about you today and every day, baby girl!

Picture Book Format and How to Format Your Manuscript

Picture book manuscript format flummoxes a lot of aspiring children’s book writers because there is so much potential variety. In my career, I have seen hundreds of examples of picture book format. To help you stand out in the slush as polished and professional, I’ve developed a picture book manuscript template handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.

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Click here to download my picture book format handout as a PDF. Feel free to share!

Picture Book Format

Picture book manuscript format tends to vary WIDELY. Some writers have it down. Others think they’re paginating correctly if they allocate a separate manuscript page to each line, resulting in a 32-page Word document that contains 300 words. What if a picture book manuscript template existed? It would certainly streamline things. As is, some writers include illustration notes, others stay far away. How do you paginate a children’s book? How do you format illustration notes correctly? This resources answers those questions (and here are more thoughts on illustration notes in your children’s book manuscript).

I’ve put together a handout that answers all these questions and more. No conference or webinar attendance required! Click this link to download the PDF.

How to Publish a Picture Book

Remember that picture book format is just one small component of a successful children’s book submission. You also have your picture book query letter, and, well, the most important thing: an awesome manuscript! Don’t focus so much on picture book manuscript format that you lose sight of character, plot, and writing style. Those are going to take you a lot further than a nice-looking, polished file … but the latter certainly doesn’t hurt.

That’s why I’m offering this picture book manuscript template tool to help you cross this concern off your list.

As a picture book editor, I work with writers on all aspects of the picture book craft, from creating a compelling children’s book manuscript (in proper picture book format, of course!) to nailing the query letter. Contact me for personal, actionable advice on your project.