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Anthropomorphism: Writing Animal Characters

I got some questions from Darshana and NAP about anthropomorphism and writing animal characters. NAP asked why they seemed to be unpopular in today’s market given the many perennial animal favorites, and Darshana wrote the following:

I am under the impression that when you have a topic that could be traumatic to a child using animals lessens the effect. Example: Corduroy or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Also there are wonderful stories such as CLICK CLACK MOO, BEAR SNORES ON, LITTLE BLUE TRUCK that simply can’t be told any other way. Or is that if you use animals in your story, it has to be a story that couldn’t be possibly told with any other setting/character?

writing animal characters, talking animals, anthropomorphism
If you’re writing animal characters, it should be because your particular story wouldn’t work any other way.

Animal Stories: Not Quite as Popular Anymore

When I talk about animal stories, by the way, I mean mostly picture books, chapter books, and some MG. It’s highly unusual to see anthropomorphic animal characters in YA. And it’s true that there seems to be less excitement in general about talking animals than there was a few years ago. Sure, in ye olde days, animal protagonists were de rigeur. Now, I can acknowledge that they’ve somewhat fallen out of style, though publisher’s catalogs are still crammed with all sorts of critters, especially on the PB side. (Looking for more picture book ideas? Read more here.)

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with writing animal characters. Ask Erin Hunter, the creator of the WARRIORS middle grade series. I’m pretty sure you can find her on the road to the bank…she’ll be the one laughing. And, as I said, there are tons of creatures on shelves today. But why is there this aura that animal stories aren’t quite as popular as they used to be?

Are Animals Better Suited For Difficult Stories?

Darshana brings up an interesting point. Are talking animals better suited for difficult stories that need one step of remove from reality? This could be a reason for themes of anthropomorphism, though lots of the animal stories I’ve read are simply stories with critters who act very much like human children. In fact, as an interesting counterpoint, I know that one publisher, Lee & Low, will not publish stories with anything but real children, because their mission is diversity and they want the opposite of that remove, they want the human experience only so that their readers can instantly relate. In this vein, I think that we, as people, are so used to relating to protagonists in stories, whether animal or inanimate object or kid, that I don’t know how real this psychological distance is. I’m guessing it’s negligible, though it is good food for thought.

Is Anthropomorphism Integral to Your Story?

As for the other examples that Darshana mentions, she’s right, they can’t be told any other way, but I think the reason there is just because…they are stories that happen to include talking animals (or Little Blue Trucks and their animal friends). Her last point is true of all stories, I think, or at least it should be: You make the choices you do in your fiction because you simply cannot make any other choices. Your particular choices are so right that they seem like the only ones. This should apply to characters, of course, but also to setting, plot, word choice, etc. THE VELVETEEN RABBIT is a story about a discarded toy looking for a home. It literally cannot star anyone else but a toy character.

It’s a Matter of Personal Taste

I think anthropomorphic animals are very much a case-by-case question, as well as one of very personal taste. Personally (and here I speak for me and me alone), I do not like chapter books or MG with talking animals. And most unpublished picture books with animals fall short for me. From what I see in the slush, I get the distinct feeling that some people are writing animal characters simply because they remember reading a lot of animal stories when they grew up (read more about how to write children’s books here). This is a red flag because it shows that they may not be as familiar with today’s market and that they may not be making the strongest and most inevitable choices.

Writing Animal Characters: The Overall Market Trend

Overall, across the tens of thousands of submissions I’ve read, animal stories tend to cluster near the bottom of the barrel. This is by no means true across the board, it’s a huge generalization, and it has nothing to do with the canon of successful anthropomorphic stories out there, but this is a clear effect I’ve noticed. (Again, just speaking for myself here.) So I’m wary of them most of the time. And it could very well end up being my loss.

However, I’ve personally broken that mold on my list with BUGLETTE THE MESSY SLEEPER (Tricycle Press) by Bethanie Murguia (and its sequel, coming from Knopf in 2013, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER), WHEN BLUE MET EGG (coming from Dial/Penguin in 2012) by Lindsay Ward, and POCO LOCO (coming from Marshall Cavendish in 2013) by John Krause. It’s important to note that none of these books deal with issues so difficult that we needed to project them onto talking animals. It’s more important to note that all of them are tales that could only happen with these particular characters, because their creators made very active story choices. This is a critical point to keep in mind when you’re approaching how to write a character. I think that’s the bottom line, right there. (Check out our full video on this topic!)

My developmental editing services will help you determine which kinds of characters (whether animal or human) will best suit the needs of your story.

Picture Book Lessons

Are you excited to impart some picture book lessons? Read on! I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books because I recently taught a Writer’s Digest webinar craft intensive all about them. Now that I’m digging into the critiques for the webinar, I wanted to reinforce a point that I made about books that teach life lessons.

picture book moral, didactic picture book, preaching in picture book, picture book lessons, books that teach life lessons
I don’t want picture book lessons! Entertain me!

The Problem With Picture Book Lessons

Overt picture book lessons make agents and editors squirm. Books that teach life lessons come to the page with an agenda, and that kind of moralizing in picture books rarely turns out well. Now, don’t get me wrong…the best picture books all contain big, universal ideas. They all aim to leave the reader with an emotional experience or a realization.

The difference between masterful picture books and those written by writers who maybe haven’t honed their craft quite yet, though, is that the masterful picture books get their point across without preaching overtly.

An Example of Preaching and Moralizing

For example, if you want to write a picture book about a stubborn girl named Tally who learns that sometimes compromise is good, too (because what parent wouldn’t like to teach their kids this lesson?), you would never write:

And then Tally learned that she could let her sisters choose the movie once in a while, and it would still be a lot more fun!

You may have a lesson in mind, but it has to be uncovered by the reader in the context of a) a character’s experience, and b) a larger story. If you find yourself coming out and saying the lesson, you are hitting it too much on the nose and it’s very likely that your story is skewing didactic.

Basically, you’re working too hard and being too obvious. The best picture book lessons are subtle, and they inspire the reader to come to their own conclusions without hitting them over the head.

How to Tell If Your Picture Book Is Didactic

Here’s a simple litmus test that I’ve been asking writers to apply to their picture book lessons:

If you remove the lesson at the end, does the story stand alone?

For example, if Tally’s entire picture book is about how she won’t compromise and she won’t compromise and finally, is surprised when her first compromise works out well, then the plot serves the lesson. It doesn’t stand alone. If we took out the moral of the story, we would take away the plot because each event has been in direct service to the obvious ending.

How to Impart a Picture Book Moral Without Preaching

The best picture books are good stories (a very basic definition of “story”: a memorable character faces and overcomes conflict, is changed by the experience), first and foremost. The big picture idea and any picture book lessons are then delicately layered over and under the plot.

But if we take the lesson away and your plot crumbles, you’ve been leaning too heavily on only using your book to prove a point. Find your character. Find your conflict. Go back to the drawing board and stop attacking your moral so directly.

(There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Books that teach life lessons are a hit with some institutional publishers, and people need them for teaching aides, etc. Also, you are free to teach if you are writing non-fiction, obviously. Here I’m just talking about story-driven picture books for the trade market.)

Are you worried that your picture book isn’t hitting the right note? Hire me as your picture book editor and I will help you stay on message while telling a great story.

How to Create a Story Opening Line

Your story opening line is what pulls the reader in. Here are some of my favorite first lines from PB, MG and YA books. Some of these you’ve heard me read live. Others are recent releases or old favorites. Without any further ado, here’s an analysis of novel opening lines from published works and why they work so well.

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Your story opening line has the power to draw your reader in. Are you making the most of it?

Story Opening Line: Picture Book

On the outside Bernadette was mostly monsterly.

This super cute beginning to MOSTLY MONSTERLY by Tammi Sauer, illo. Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman Books, 2010) sets up the expectation that Bernadette (a monster) doesn’t quite fit in. There’s the old internal conflict established: I don’t match people’s expectations for me.

Little Mabel blew a bubble, and it caused a lot of trouble.

So begins BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illo. Polly Dunbar (Clarion Books, 2008). And, no, you don’t have to work the book’s title into your first line, though both of these examples have. This is a very simple statement of conflict that, in picture books, at least, works very, very well to launch us into the story.

On her birthday, Eva was given a very special present.

This is from MAGIC BOX by Katie Cleminson (Hyperion, 2009). It’s a whimsical PB tale and the first line isn’t a statement of conflict as much as it is a call to adventure (see my choice from FROM THE MIXED UP FILES… below for a MG example). The question raised here, of course, is: What was in the box?

Story Opening Line: Middle Grade

Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.

From A TALE DARK AND GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton, 2010). This is a book of twisted fairy tales where the author basically runs amok with the story of Hansel and Gretel. The whole thesis of the book is expressed in the opening line: “They were awesome, sure, but then they got lame, so here’s a truly awesome retelling.” It also plays with the familiar “once upon a time” and introduces the voice (“awesome” is a certain term spoken by a certain type of person…me, for example).

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.

Since you were probably expecting me to quote from the M.T. Anderson canon with FEED (the first line of which most of us children’s publishing professionals have memorized), I decided to change it up a bit with THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1 (Candlewick, 2006). There’s some lovely writing here, and a ghostly image of lights in the trees that recurs. We can also sense, right away, Octavian’s loneliness. The house is “gaunt,” which doesn’t seem very nourishing to a child, and his first memories aren’t people, they’re faraway twinkles in the treetops. A haunting first line.

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.

This is from the old favorite, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg (Aladdin, 1967). It plunges us into a) action and b) the narrator’s matter-of fact voice right away. We know that Claudia is running away, but also that she’s craving an adventure that’s much more epic than just, say, what I used to do when I mock ran away as a kid (went down the street to Kepler’s bookstore). Lots of action and momentum here. (And boy does Claudia ever pull off her goal of adventure!)

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.

Louis Sachar and his Newbery-winning HOLES (Random House, 1998) hit us with trademark humor right away. No matter what happens from here, we know that we’re in for a zany ride. But rather than just being funny, this first line introduces us to the kind of contrarian narrator who would point out such a delicious detail, too.

Ms. McMartin was definitely dead.

This is from THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE by Jacqueline West (Dial, 2010) and it plunges us into action right away, too. Who is this woman? How did she die? Did the characters have anything to do with it? It doesn’t really hint at the fantasy nature of the novel and doesn’t really pass the vague test (follow the link for more tips on what makes a good novel first line), but I like this book and it starts with a bang!

Story Opening Line: Young Adult

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.

This is, of course, from GRACELING by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, 2008). What is Katsa doing in prison? What did she do to get there? Better yet, it seems like she has a plan to get out. And how come she knows the dungeon layout so well? This plunges us into action and raises stakes immediately. Pay attention to all the questions each of these novel opening lines have been raising. They’re intense and urgent.

They took me in my nightgown.

This is from the beautiful BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel, 2011), about a girl deported with her family to Siberia during WWII. Not only does it give us action, but it also conveys a crucial mood for the events: helplessness. By emphasizing that it was night, that she was in her nightgown and vulnerable, we really lock in on an emotional connection right away.

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.

Ha! I love this first line from THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2008). And Manchee (the dog) is one of my favorite characters in anything I’ve read in the past ten years. This line introduces the core relationship of the story, the dialect, and the odd fact that, in this world, at least, dogs talk (in terms of world-building, this lets us know there’s a fantasy element). The humor can’t be beat, either.

There you have it: an analysis of novel opening lines, grabbed at random from my shelves. Enjoy and discuss! Tell me some of your published favorites in the comments.

When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I’ll give you feedback on all aspects of your story: from the overall plot to the nitty-gritty of your story opening line.

How to Write a Nonfiction Query Letter for a Children’s Book

Many writers want to know how to write a nonfiction query letter for children’s books. Now, a nonfiction query isn’t entirely different from a fiction one, but there are some nuances. First of all, I have to make the distinction between a nonfiction picture book and nonfiction for older readers. With a nonfiction picture book, you want to have the full text complete. With nonfiction for older readers, you are most likely pitching with a proposal (there are many excellent books on writing nonfiction book proposals, like How to Write a Book Proposal by Jody Rein and Michael Larsen from Writer’s Digest Books, or The Weekend Book Proposal by Ryan Van Cleave, so, trust me, you really don’t need to hear my thoughts on it).

How to Write a Nonfiction Query Letter

In your query, you also have a different objective. With a fiction query, I want you to make me care about your characters and your story. With a nonfiction query, I want to know three things:

  1. What’s cool, different, interesting, or unexpected about your idea?
  2. Why are you the one to write this book?
  3. Why does this book on this topic need to be published now?

So, basically: What is it? Why you? Why now?

First, in a nonfiction book market that is suffering because of library and educational budget cuts, I can sell only the most unique ideas. Do we need yet another Ben Franklin picture book biography? Yet another guide to puberty or friendships or doing well in school for middle grade readers? Probably not. But if you can find a unique twist or a subject that is surprising, interesting, or just dang cool, then you probably have a nonfiction book idea. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you have a nonfiction picture book idea or a cool article, so read more about that issue.)

An example of a cool nonfiction picture book: Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender: The True Story of a Civil War Spy  by Carrie Jones and Mark Oldroyd. It’s about a girl who pretends to be a boy and joins the Union Army during the Civil War. It’s not a known person from history but it’s someone with a great and unexpected story, and it teaches readers about the Civil War and about the state of women at that time in America.

how to write a nonfiction query letter, children's book query letter, nonfiction children's book, nonfiction picture book
A nonfiction query letter case study.

How to Start a Nonfiction Query Letter

For your nonfiction query, start by hooking your reader with what’s unexpected about your story…what unturned stone you’ll be turning over…and then also discuss what the other educational hooks are, like I did when discussing Sarah Emma Edmonds. Not only do you need to sell the reader on why your idea is awesome, you need to give it a larger educational context as well, so that you show the agent or editor that you’ve thought of where in the curriculum your idea might fit.

Building Your Query Letter Case

Next, you will need to keep building your case. Now you need to prove that you are the right person for the job of discussing this subject matter. In fiction queries, your bio isn’t all that important unless your life relates directly to what you’re writing. In a nonfiction query, you need to spend more time establishing your authority on the subject you’re discussing, as well as building your platform. Are you a Civil War reenactor who wants to write about a specific battle or person from the history of the war? Great. Do you keep a popular Civil War reenactor blog? How many visits does it get? Do you travel to over a dozen reenactments a year? Speak to groups of students about the war? Teach a university class on a famous battle? Fabulous! Sounds like you should write a book!

How to Write Bio Information in a Query Letter

For fiction, you don’t really need any qualifications to sit down and start writing. Being alive and wanting to write is enough. In nonfiction, you really do need to convince the agent or editor that you have enough expertise and authority to write about your subject matter, and if you have a media, online, or in-person platform that will help you sell your books, that’s a big consideration. After all, you need a reason to be writing on your particular topic and, once you write nonfiction, you will be seen as an “expert” on it. Make sure you can back that up with proof from your life.

Finally, nonfiction needs a timeliness peg. Is a timely anniversary coming up? Did a new study just come out? Did something just get discovered? An editor will want your idea not only to be cool and written by an expert, they will want something that will be easier to sell to bookstores and libraries, and a hot topic is one of the best markers for nonfiction success in this challenging market.

Sample Nonfiction Query Letter

If I were writing an imaginary nonfiction query example, it would go like the following. And please keep in mind that this is a quick brainstorm, but it demonstrates the basic points I made above:

Dearest Mary,

I’ve enjoyed reading your kidlit blog and just found an article on how to write a nonfiction query letter. Funny, that, because here’s mine! Did you know that there are only four cemeteries in the city of San Francisco? It’s true. All of the other ones were dug up during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and moved outside of city limits because of mass hysteria over contamination [true story]. Now, Colma, CA, directly south of the city, boasts a bigger population of vintage San Francisco corpses than it does living residents. This is just one fun fact from my nonfiction book manuscript Spooky San Francisco. This book will take you on a tour of one of America’s most haunted and interesting cities, from the tunnels under Chinatown to the eerie shuttered hospital on Alcatraz Island (tourists are not allowed, but I’ve been there) [true story…I went yesterday, in fact]. San Francisco will host the America’s Cup sailing race in 2013, so there will be renewed interest in the city just in time for my book.

I grew up in and around San Francisco, have taken ghost tours in seven American cities [true!], and even worked at the Winchester Mystery House [okay, so it was for a day, but my roommate in college worked there for two years and I once got to spend the night with her there, just the two of us, it was awesome], the most haunted site in the Bay Area, so my interest in all things spooky runs deep. Through my network, I have access to all of the haunted sites that I will be showcasing, and have a team of ghost hunters standing by [believe it or not, true!] to help me with my research. The 1,200 word manuscript for Spooky San Francisco details the top ten haunted sites in SF, including the old Presidio Hospital, Alcatraz, Chinatown, the University of San Francisco Lone Mountain campus, and more. If you like this idea, I could take my show on the road and highlight the most haunted sites in other cities like New Orleans, Salem, Savannah, and New York City.

The manuscript is pasted below. This is a simultaneous submission. I hope to hear from you soon!

Sincerely,
Mary

Query Letter Analysis

Okay, so this is not a very good query, but it illustrates the point of how to write a nonfiction query letter. I’ve tried to hook the reader with some interesting facts, I made a lame attempt at explaining why a book about San Francisco would be timely (to answer the Why now? question…which I don’t do very well because a boat race has nothing at all to do with ghosts…yours should be better). Then I cherry-picked some interesting details about myself that make me sound like somewhat of an expert in the paranormal (again, yours should be better…if yours is as lame as mine, maybe you haven’t found the right nonfiction topic to cover yet).

I’d probably reject this query because it’s not very good and the author, despite having really cute hair, didn’t build a very good case for herself, but, since I’m the same person and since I wrote it in like five minutes as an example, I don’t feel too badly.

Hire me as your query letter editor to come out on top of the slush pile.

Happy Release Day: BUGLETTE, THE MESSY SLEEPER

Today is the release day for BUGLETTE, THE MESSY SLEEPER by author/illustrator Bethanie Murguia. It’s out for Tricycle Press/Random House, and Bethanie has a contest going on over on her blog to celebrate, here!

Everyone go pick up a copy of BUGLETTE, and watch for the companion picture book, SNIPPET, THE EARLY RISER, coming from Knopf/Random House in 2013!

Congratulations Bethanie!

Manuscript Query Letter: You Need a Finished Book

I often get questions about sending a manuscript query letter…without having a finished book to go with it. This may seem like a “duh” question to writers who are familiar with the publishing industry, but everyone learns new things at different times and new readers are always showing up, so I am happy to repeat more basic information.

manuscript query letter, finished book
You need a finished book to present to agents. They won’t offer you a contract based on a slice of your writing.

Sending a Manuscript Query Letter? You Need a Finished Book

When you’re a debut writer looking to publish in children’s books, you will need a complete manuscript 99% of the time (especially in the case of my readers, who are primarily fiction writers). That means that you’ll need a finished book when you’re sending a manuscript query letter for:

  • Board book
  • Fiction picture books
  • Nonfiction picture books
  • Fiction early readers and chapter books
  • Same for nonfiction (though there are fewer of these on nonfiction shelves)
  • Middle grade fiction and most MG nonfiction
  • YA fiction and most YA nonfiction

The only exception to this rule is if you’re writing older nonfiction, like something for the middle grade or teen age range or a reference book/textbook. And picture books from author/illustrators will, of course, need to have a dummy attached with some art sketches.

(Picture book dummy: A sketch version of what the book might look like in real life, with the art and text blocked out on 17 spreads/32 pages. Two or three of the spreads should be rendered like they’d be in a finished book…this is called a “mock finish.” The dummy should convey quickly, with the sketches, and in more detail, with the mock finishes, what the book will ideally look like. If you’re curious about dummies, this explanation is a great resource.)

Selling On Proposal

I bet you’ve heard about a lot of authors selling something “on proposal.” That’s a lot more common with adult nonfiction, a business or diet book, for example, or a cookbook, than it is with children’s books. And in fiction, writers only sell on proposal if:

  • They’re an established author
  • They’ve sold multiple books to this editor before
  • The agent decides the project is really, really strong and wants to entice an editor with a partial
  • You’re working with a book packager and have only developed a sample before going on submission

If none of this applies to you or you’re just starting out with some fiction ideas, I’d urge you to forget the word “proposal” and work on your full manuscript. A large part of the writing craft is reaching the end and starting the revision process. There’s nothing like it. You learn more from finishing and revising than you did from just writing the thing out.

Plug Away and Finish

If you haven’t had this experience once or several times before trying to approach agents or editors, you most likely will not have all the skills necessary to get edited and published. So plug away and finish. (Check out my post on how to finish a novel if you need some inspiration.) Besides, a strong, finished book is a much more convincing sales piece than just a partial that could potentially fall apart in the execution. When you’re sending a manuscript query letter, having a complete project works to your best advantage and is a huge learning experience.

I provide editorial services to writers at all stages and skill levels. I’d love to help you develop an idea, finish a draft, or polish a completed manuscript.

How to Query When You Have Multiple Projects

Here’s a good question about how to query when you have multiple projects to submit. This one primarily applies to picture book writers, but is useful to novel writers who are wondering about requerying (if only a bit less relevant). Read on, everyone! Megan asks:

I’m wondering how to query an agent with different projects? For example, I’m in the process of sending queries for project A and writing project B. By the time I wait for agent responses to trickle in, I may be ready to query project B. Is it crazy to send another project to an agent who rejected me within 3 or 4 months? Am I just being annoying? Or, since picture book manuscripts can be written, revised, revised, revised, and polished faster than other genres, maybe this frequency for queries is expected?

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When you’re requerying agents, how much time should you allow between submissions?

How to Query: Not Every Idea is Publishable

I tell my picture book writer clients — AND THESE ARE CLIENTS…people who’ve already cleared the “hurdle” — that one out of every ten of their picture book ideas/manuscripts is going to be saleable. Picture books are “easy” to write and generate and revise and get 700 or whatever words into shape, sure, but it’s infinitely harder to hit upon a winner idea. GOODNIGHT MOON was first published in 1947 and parents still read it to their kids every night, all over the world. Publishers are tightening their lists and, ideally, would love a book with that much power and longevity. In other words, everyone wants something that will backlist for eternity. It’s not easy. I would even argue that’s it just as hard to hit upon such a picture book idea as it is to write a publishable novel, especially in this current marketplace.

Personally, I balk a little when writers approach the “how to query” question with a little too much enthusiasm. It’s overwhelming when writers hit me up with picture book after picture book, even if some time lapses between attempts. The point is to evolve and go to the next level between picture book manuscripts. Every submission round to agents will bring you valuable feedback and insight. (If you get absolutely no personalized feedback, that’s feedback in and of itself. See my post on types of query rejection for more info.) Keep writing while you’re on submission, of course, but you should also, in my opinion, wait to see how a submission round goes before you jump back into requerying. You don’t want to give off the idea that you’re just churning projects out without stopping to learn and grow in between attempts.

Keep Your Currency With Agents High

Look at “how to query” from my angle. I have, oh, six picture book clients. They can all, in a good year, give me 10 manuscripts. That’s 60 manuscripts. Say I decide to just go out with them all (which I would never do). For each submission, I go out to about 8-10 editors at various houses. That would be between 480 and 600 picture book projects that I would send out. About 10 submissions a week. There are about 300 editors actively acquiring in children’s books these days (at the major, mid-size houses, and smaller houses), so even if I cast my net as wide as possible, I would still hit up every editor at least once, sometimes twice, regardless of whether they’re a good fit or even looking for picture books (if you want to know, that particular number of PB-hungry editors is at about 70-100). You also have to consider that, if an editor and I have a good relationship, existing projects together, or similar tastes, I will send to that  group of particular editors more frequently over the course of the year. Those editors — the ones I really love and want to work with — would probably get more like five or ten projects each.

Do you think all those editors are going to see my email or get my phone call and think, “Wow, I haven’t heard from Mary in a while, and I know she only goes out with projects she thinks are really top notch, so I am really excited to hear all about this one!” Absolutely not. They will most likely think, “Yikes, another call/email from Mary. What does she have for me this month and how quickly can I get it off my desk?”

Develop High Standards and Only Submit Your Best Work

I don’t go out with everything my clients give me. I have to be selective and keep my currency with editors high, so that if they see something from me, they don’t roll their eyes. The worst position you can be in, I think, is if someone gets an email from you and groans. So I’m selective. And I have extremely high standards for the work that I pitch to publishers. (just ask some of my impatient clients…and we all know how I feel about patience. Check out my post on how long does it take to publish a book for the full scoop.) You should strive to be this way, too, when you’re approaching how to query. That way I don’t groan when you’re requerying me for the second or third or fourth time that year.

If you want to take your destiny into your own hands while you wait, hire me as your manuscript editor and revise your way to the strongest project possible.

How Literary Agents Work With A Picture Book Author Illustrator

This post is for my picture book author illustrator friends out there, and the question comes from Siski:

I’d like to know more about agents and how they go about representing picture book illustration clients who also write. I read an awful lot about query letters for authors but how does an author illustrator query?

As we do with our authors, agents help picture book illustration develop their projects, work up a submission plan, and connect our clients with potential editors.

picture book author-illustrator, picture book author illustrator, picture book illustration, literary agent, art rep, illustrator rep, how to write and sell picture books, picture book illustration, picture book craft, how to sell children's books, how to publish picture books
How literary agents represent picture book author illustrators, and what they bring to the table.

The Picture Book Author Illustrator and Literary Agent Relationship

The nature of the editorial work is a bit different. I’ll be the first to tell you that I am not an artist. (Despite a very promising banana still life at age three that remains framed in my mother’s…closet. Ouch.) But my mom is actually a rather well-known fine art painter. I’ve spent my entire life around art and almost every fall, I would go on tour with her and hang out in even more galleries. I may not know how to pull what’s in my mind and get it down on paper visually, but I do know what I like (and what’s good) when I see it.

With author illustrators, I comment on issues of composition, image choice, character, expression, color, etc., but the art mastery has to be there before I sign a picture book illustration client. All of my illustrators came to books from being artists first, writers second. It is much easier to hone the picture book writing side of a creator’s craft (though it’s still very difficult to write a timeless, smash hit picture book) than it is to teach them art.

Not Everyone Can Be An Illustrator

That’s why I don’t recommend writers take up art and try to become illustrators. Unless you are gifted visually, it will be very difficult to compete with all the illustrators on shelves today or in BFA or MFA programs. People aspiring to picture book illustration should spend a few hours in the picture book section of a bookstore and see what the professionals are doing.

Even the most deceptively simple styles have a lot of artistry going on behind the scenes. Adding writing to an illustrator’s toolbox is a lot easier (and more feasible) than adding illustration to a writer’s.

So for me to take on an illustrator, I need to be wild about their illustration style and talent. They also need to have at least one really fun or commercial story idea that we can work with. If the writing isn’t stellar (yet), I know I can work with them just like I would my author clients in order to get things into shape.

If you’re more of a writer, don’t worry. You can still sharpen your picture book skills and submit a text only project.

How Picture Book Author Illustrator Projects Are Submitted to Publishers

Submissions work similarly with author illustrators, except I’m often sending out a full sketch dummy, anywhere from two to five mock finishes (full color renderings of sketches), and the manuscript text. I will either send this in the form of a physical, mail submission, if the art works better when you can spread it out in front of you and really dive in, or as a digital PDF file.

The other part of how I work with an author illustrator is trying to rustle up illustration work. This is very tough going for most agents, and most illustrators, because a lot of illustrator-project pairing is a matter of luck and timing. Not all editors are equally patient or talented when it comes to stretching their imaginations for either a text or an art sample.

This isn’t a slam on editors … far from it. Matching text to art is quite a skill, and that’s why some children’s editors don’t even have a lot of picture books on their list, because working with art isn’t something they love to do.

Some will see an artist’s sample postcard and, if it features a dog, think of their text that also needs a great dog character. A match is made! Some editors will leave a text sitting unmatched until the last possible moment, then see a great postcard that crosses their desk and…again, art alchemy! Others will fall in love with an artist, keep their postcards on hand or a link to their online portfolio in their favorites, and hunt tirelessly for the right text.

Selling a Book Is All About Timing

Most illustrators and editors swear that it’s all about when an art sample crosses their eyes. The right sample at the right time will get hired. Others think it’s about consistency…if they see an artist a certain number of times, they will start to think about them for jobs.

My job is to work with my artists to create the perfect sample image, portfolio, and postcards and then get them out there. For some clients, my colleagues and I do postcard mailings. I also do digital art mailings, the ABLA Artists of the Month email blasts that go out every month and feature two artists the agency’s client lists.

Editors love having both hard copy postcards and links to online portfolios, so we try to do everything we can to get picture book illustration jobs as well as sell the client as an author illustrator (get them a book deal where they do both and there’s no other name on the cover).

Build Your Picture Book Author Illustrator Online Portfolio

As for getting people exposed to your work: Yes, you do need an online portfolio, absolutely. It can be simple and you can pay someone to do it, but make sure you can update it easily with new images. I’d say you need about ten to twenty really strong examples of your characters, some micro scenes that focus really closely on one or two things, some macro that get a wide scope of action in one picture, some setting, some animals…really show off your range.

It can be difficult to break into the picture book author illustrator market, or it can be very easy. The takeaway is that agents and editors do prefer author illustrator projects by a wide margin. If you don’t have a dummy already, get to work!

I absolutely love working with author illustrators, and am happy to provide art notes. Hire me as your picture book editor.

 

Including Illustration Notes in Your Children’s Book Manuscript

This easily answered question about writing a children’s book manuscript and illustration notes in picture book manuscript format comes from longtime reader Siski:

I’ve got a story that absolutely requires illustration notes but I feel amateurish including them because I’ve read you shouldn’t do it when writing a children’s book manuscript. Should I try to rewrite the story without them?

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Less is more when it comes to illustration notes in picture book manuscript format.

Picture Book Manuscript Format

Just so we’re immediately clear, I’ll talk a little bit about picture book manuscript format. When you’re writing a children’s book, you’ll typically have your text on the page, with line breaks or white space to indicate page breaks as you envision them. Like this:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

I’ll include a page break in it,
So the lines don’t start to run.

You can even dictate page breaks in parentheses, like this:

(Page 1)

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Page 2)

I’ll include a page break in it,
So the lines don’t start to run.

Well, when you’re writing and you want to convey something about how you see the page illustrated, you include illustration notes, usually in parentheses and italics. This is what we’re talking about:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Illo: Mary cradling her MacBook Air, beating out the meter of her story with her fingers.)

Writing a Children’s Book Manuscript: Illustration Notes

If you write picture books, you’ll hear a lot of opinions about illustration notes. Some people say they’re a no-no, others say to add them in. I’m in the middle of the debate on this one. The reason so many people advise against illustration notes is this: too many writers use illustration notes to micromanage.

For example, you’ll see illustration notes like:

(Illo: Sally has brown hair, glasses, and a blue skirt. She is skipping down the street with a red backpack in one hand, a lunch sack in the other, by a house with a green mailbox, while her braid swings to the left.)

Or the note will be too detailed in other ways. Or the writer will include an illustration note for every page. The list of illustration note misuses goes on and on.

Illustration Notes Note Do’s and Dont’s

The point of an illustration note isn’t to jot down every single thing that’s in your imagination. It’s also not to micromanage the potential illustrator. The point of an illustration note is to convey something to the children’s book manuscript reader that is not obvious from the text.

Only use illustration notes in your picture book manuscript if there is something integral to the plot that you want the illustrations to convey, but it’s not described or alluded to anywhere in the text. In other words, if I will be blind to something from just reading the text, use an illustration note to describe it, but really do keep them simple, spare, and few in number. The average picture book text will only need one or two, tops. An example of an effective picture book note:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Illo: Mary typing, blithely unaware that a monster is sneaking up behind her, claws bared.)

If you’re interested in a picture book editor with over ten years of experience, hire me to dig into your children’s book manuscript.

Breaking In as a Children’s Book Author Illustrator

Breaking in as a children’s book author illustrator is very desirable in today’s picture book market. If you have artistic talent and want to try your hand at children’s book illustration, read on.

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If you’re trained in art, make your debut as a children’s book author illustrator.

This question comes from Priscilla:

I have heard that an author illustrator needs to first “prove herself” as an author or an illustrator before being published as a children’s book author illustrator. Is this the case? What is your advice for an author illustrator on submitting a picture book when the text and images are dependent upon one another for meaning? As the Andrea Brown Literary Agency does not accept attachments with queries, a mock-up or dummy would be out of the question. But would an agent be interested in receiving written illustration ideas alongside a text query, or should the illustrations come later, only after an agent expresses interest in the project?

This is a great question, and one that might have a controversial answer. I am in the school of thought that picture books sell a bit more successfully these days, at least in my experience, if they come from an author illustrator: one person trained to do both text and illustration.

A Children’s Book Author Illustrator Is an Illustrator First

Furthermore, most of my author illustrator clients are trained illustrators first, then writers. I’ve done a lot more work with them on improving storytelling, structure, and writing. Because if the illustration quality isn’t there to begin with, there’s not a lot that I’ll be able to do, since my expertise is primarily in text.

A lot of the editors I talk to express interest in children’s book author illustrator projects simply because the whole package is there: the text, the art, the interplay of word and image, the design of it. Some agents and editors are more talented than others at imagining what kind of illustrations to marry to text and vice versa. Picture book texts that sell (and many text-only sales are still made, every day) and illustration portfolios that land on an editor’s desk are incomplete. They need their mate in order to become a book.

It’s up to the right editor and to chance to make the match between an author and an illustrator. Sometimes this alchemy doesn’t work. Sometimes texts or art bought separately take longer to get into production. It can get complicated. So if an editor buys a project from an author/illustrator, they have a tantalizing snapshot of what the finished book will be — right there in the dummy — and they know they’ll only have to work with and juggle one creator for the project instead of two.

How to Combine Illustration and Text in a Picture Book

This simplicity is, frankly, why I love working with a talented author illustrator. They also tend to have the best understanding of how text and image can combine to become greater than the sum of their parts, how word and illustration enhance each other.

For me, opening a dummy from a fantastic author/illustrator is like diving into a miraculous treasure trove. And that’s how it should feel. I’m extremely picky about author/illustrators, and do prefer to work with them over just illustrators or just authors, though I have those clients on my roster as well. This, of course, is just my personal preference.

Does, however, an author illustrator need to get their start as an author illustrator? That depends. If they have a fantastic picture book author illustrator project that is very commercial, it will probably sell, even though they are a debut talent. If they extend themselves to land a text or an illustration deal (the latter being more common) first, then they can enter the marketplace with some illustration credits, then move on to an author illustration combo. But I don’t think prior illustration credits are necessary to land an author illustrator book.

If you are most certainly not an illustrator, you are probably wondering how to find an illustrator for your children’s book, if you need one at all. I have a post that discusses this issue at length.

Client Case Studies

One of my clients, Bethanie Murguia, was an experienced illustrator but had no book credits to her name until she landed Buglette the Messy Sleeper from Tricycle Press. That was her first book deal and her author/illustrator debut. As it happens, I have sold two more books for Bethanie, and both of them will be author/illustrator projects. One other client of mine is on the cusp of becoming an author/illustrator debut with a medium-sized publisher (more details after we finalize the deal!). He is an experienced illustrator, and we finessed the text and story.

Another client, Lindsay Ward, was a trained illustrator who got her start on her own by sending out postcards to editors and art directors. From there, she landed a cover and interior spot illustration project for Doubleday Canada, and two illustration projects: The Yellow Butterfly from Bright Sky Press and A Garden for Pig from Kane/Miller. I was on board at this point and we were able to work up to an author/illustrator project with a smaller house (Pelly and Mr. Harrison Visit the Moon, from Kane/Miller), and then land her an author/illustrator deal with a larger house, the newly retitled When Blue Met Egg, out from Dutton/Penguin in Spring 2012.

So, you can break in to author illustrator-hood either way. And I don’t think it’s out of the question to land a children’s book author illustrator debut deal … at all.

How Do You Submit a Book Dummy to a Literary Agent?

Now, a lot of folks do have questions about our submission guidelines. We don’t accept attachments, so how do you send a dummy of your author/illustrator work? Simple. You copy and paste your query and the text of your picture book project (even if the text is dependent on illustration, we understand how that goes) and mention that you’re an author/illustrator. Then include a link to your online portfolio (every illustrator should have one, even those who are technically illiterate but could easily hire or ask someone, there’s really no excuse and you will get steamrolled by your competition if you don’t) where, ideally, we can see a few sample illustrations. If I like your art style, I will ask for the dummy, and then you can send the attachment!

My passion for picture book editing is alive and well. Hire me to edit your picture book manuscript and provide art notes on your dummy.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com