Congrats to our own JoAnn Early Macken on the fabulous review of Waiting Out The Storm in The Washington Post this weekend. (She might be too modest to mention it, but I am not! She also happens to be in excellent company.) If you'd like to win a copy of this terrific read-aloud for young kids, post a comment here by 11 pm Thursday, CST.
Thanks to Mary Roy for the following question:
"I am writing a children's story for the first time. I've published articles in local magazines and special sections, but not yet a book. I am starting at ground zero with this story. I feel that I probably need a class. For certain I need direction, and that's really what I'm asking for. Where should I start? How do I develop the basic story into a charming book for children?"
Mary, this is a question that bears repeating and is something I still ask myself all the time.
One good place to start is this post by Esther Hershenhorn.
I will echo her sentiment that one of the most important things to do is read, read, read. Study what's out there. Has a topic similar to yours already been covered in a published work? How did other skilled writers solve the same problems you face in your own writing?
I like to visit the bookstore (support indie bookstores!) and see what's new -- what books are being marketed heavily, which ones are facing outward, etc. It is always fun to find a friend's book on the shelf and give it a little marketing boost by making its place more prominent. :)
Bear in mind that what is trendy today (hello, vampires) will almost certainly be well on its way out by the time anything you write now could be published in, say, two to three to four years.
I also go to the library. They might not have the best selection of what's new, but they almost always have the classics. Check out the works of Esme Raji Codell and Anita Silvey for books every children's author should know.
Google is also my friend, and I often search on http://www.amazon.com/ or http://www.indiebound.com/ for card catalog-type information so that I can get a general sense as to what books are "out there."
Do you know whether you are writing a picture book, a middle grade novel, or a YA? Do you have characters in mind? Plot? Beginning, middle, end? I find it hard to begin writing until I have a somewhat solid sense as to all of the above, even though these elements may change significantly in the writing process. There are so many ways to go about fleshing out a story -- of course you have to find what works for you. You already have good writing habits, or you would not be a published author. You will likely find that many of these habits apply to writing fiction as well.
When I write mystery novels and soap operas, I outline. In fact, all TV writers and screenwriters outline (or write treatments, as they're called). Many novelists, on the other hand, like to be surprised by the twists and turns that ensue along the way. There is, of course, no right or wrong way to do it -- just do what works for you!
GET A DRAFT. That is the most important thing you can do. Then, finally, the real work begins -- revising.
You mentioned that you think you might need to take a class. Many of us have our MFA degrees in writing for children. Assuming you don't want to do something quite so hardcore, you can try to find a class at a local college, where non-credit courses in writing for children are often offered. Online courses are another great idea. There are a number of excellent courses taught through UCLA Extension and http://www.mediabistro.com/, for example.
Workshopping your manuscript is important. That said, "clicking" with your teacher/mentor is crucial to a productive experience. Writing is, obviously, highly subjective. If you get feedback that doesn't speak to your heart, you don't have to take it; but if you find yourself getting the same feedback from multiple sources, then of course it's time for another look.
You may be able to find a local critique group through SCBWI. If you find one that you like, you're golden. :) If you find one that you hate, a break-up may ultimately be in order.
Revise, revise, revise. How will you know when your pride and joy is ready to submit? You might not. You are too close to your own work. Seek input from other seasoned writers. Attend conferences. Hook up with editors. Network.
Good luck, and please keep us posted.
And if anyone wants to start an online group, let me know -- I am desperate to find one! -- Jeanne Marie