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The Secret to Becoming a Published Writer
"Musings" for May 2005

by Margot Finke

Everyone loves a secret – right? To be absolutely accurate, this title should read "Secrets." Did you really think there was only one secret involved here? Get real! The fact is that many are called to write; yet few make it to published author. Why? Because there is more involved than simply scribbling a cute story on some paper, and reading it, complete with voice and actions, to your kids and their friends. After all, your kids will love anything you write!

The First Secret:

In 2005, many editors want manuscripts that don't need a lot of work. Gone are the days when most editors had the time to mentor a promising writer until he/she is ready for publication. If your manuscript needs feedback, suggestions and guidance, a critique group is the best place you can go to fine tune it. Today, a passion to write is not enough. A children's writer needs to take the time to learn the craft from punctuation to publishing – and every detail in-between.

Know What You Are up Against:

At the larger publishing houses, editors have senior editors to please, a desire to keep their jobs, and a whole list of criteria that must be met before they hand your masterpiece up the publishing food chain for further evaluation. This food chain begins with lowly assistant editors, often fresh from college, dumpster diving into that notorious Slush Pile in search of best sellers. Once an assistant editor discovers your manuscript, she reads it, reread it, and then takes it to the editor. If this senior editor feels your book has the right stuff, she will take it to the publisher. If the publisher agrees that your book has polish, and the potential to hook kid readers, you are notified. This by no means guarantees a contract. They love your story, but. . . There are changes suggested. Now you begin the back and forth of slogging through several rewrites.

Finally satisfied with your rewrites, your editor presents the manuscript to the publishing committee. This is where the editor tries to sell these hardheaded publishers, marketing and sales directors, and division presidents on what a terrific addition your book would make to their current list. This is the final yea or nay. And often, even though an editor loves a particular book, it is given the thumbs down if the marketing director feels she can't sell it effectively. Smaller publishers have a similar process, but their decisions are easier, because fewer are involved.

The Secrets – and How to Put Them into Practice:

  • Make sure you have a basic knowledge of good grammar and punctuation
  • Take a writing class that will help you master areas where you are weak.
  • If you are passionate about part-time writing, do a Blog – getting your writing published takes far more time and effort.
  • Read! Read! Read!
  • Know the value of writing and rewriting – over and over until it is perfect.
  • Learn how to craft a plot that jumps off the page and drags your reader into the excitement. Knowing how to write a strong plot it imperative.
  • Be acquainted with the heart and soul of your main characters, as you would those of your dearest loved ones. Devising a family tree for them will help with this, even if you don't use all the information.
  • Give your main characters a vibrant and unique voice.
  • Find the perfect critique group for you. Writers today rely on these groups for mentoring, encouragement, and insightful feedback.
  • Join The SCBWI (The Society of Children's Writers & Illustrators), and go to as many conferences as you can manage.
  • If you know the rules, it is fine to occasionally break them.
  • Talent, imagination and writing style are important, but patience, and the ability to stick with it for years, despite a mountain of rejections, is what separates the published from the unpublished.
  • Memorize the writer's mantra: inspiration, perspiration, persistence & patience.
  • Finally - never discount a big fat dab of luck!

Words of Wisdom from Published Writers:

The following writers learned the secrets early on, discovering how to land a sweet book contract. Below is a short excerpt from each of the messages these writers sent me. The complete text of each writer's comments is available on Margot Finke's website.

Jane Yolensuccinct and to the point.

Some talent, a lot of perseverance, and a healthy dollop of luck.

Cynthia Leitich Smith

My background in journalism and law, the support of my author/husband and writing community, my "national" mentor Jane Kurtz, and a week-long class taught by author Kathi Appelt were the ingredients that led to my success..

Jackie Hosking

The elements that I would consider to be most vital in my publishing success are networking; I write a monthly column on the subject for Marg McAlisters's www.writing4successclub.com. I have also found that as a new writer I can trade my time for advice. A couple of years ago I offered my time to a very busy author. I helped her to research a project she was working on and in return she helped me to cut through all the 'crap' (excuse the language) I cannot stress enough the importance of giving in order to receive. The more I gave, the more I received in return.

Ann Herrick

In writing, the number one rule for me has been perseverance.  It takes perseverance to sit at a desk and write on a regular schedule until one day, lo and behold, there's a complete manuscript.  It takes perseverance to rewrite and rewrite until that manuscript is polished to as close to perfection as possible.

Nancy Coffelt

I have taken classes, read books, visited websites and attended (and taught) my fair share of workshops. All of these things helped me be better informed but they weren't what made me a published author. Writing, writing often and writing about things that made me laugh, cry, and horribly irritable made me a published author.

Linda Joy Singleton

The key to staying published when editors change, publishers fold and books go out of print is perseverance.  Also, networking with other authors, joining writing groups and reading many books. 

Elizabeth Dulemba

It takes an unbudgeable determination to become a successful published writer. Motivational speakers say, "You have to believe in your dreams." It never occurred to me that some people don't, or that if I worked hard enough, I still might not succeed. I don't know how you achieve this mind-set, the mentality of a dog with a sock, but it is essential.

Susanna Reich – website coming soon.

When I started working on my second book, a biography of the dancer and choreographer Jose Limon, I joined Margaret (Bunny) Gable's workshop at the New School in New York.  For six years I went to that class every week and heard people's work read aloud. I found out what worked and what didn't work.  I learned to listen for clarity of meaning, the right choice of words, strong characters, and narrative tension. That's where I honed my craft.

Lea Wait

By far the most important preparation I did for writing for children was focusing myself on what I wanted to do. First, I read books aimed at the level (middle readers) I wanted to write for. I read every Newbery winner, and a large assortment of other praised and valued books. Hundreds of books. I read books now considered classics; I read books that the Horn Book or Bank Street College's Children's Book Committee gave starred reviews.

Max Elliot Anderson

But no matter how the process happens for each of us, there is no denying the importance of hard work, persistence, and turning out the best finished product you possibly can. Even with all the rejections, I continued turning out manuscripts.

Sharon Soffe

My credits are all for magazine writing.  I believe perseverance, being eager to learn, developing a thick skin, networking with other writers, and having patience are key to getting published.

Complete text of the comments above.

To Sum Up:

The writers above have offered what they felt were the crucial elements that helped them become published. Their stories are personal and insightful, yet the same key elements drove most of them: sheer determination, patience and stick-with-it ness. All these writers believed in their ability to write a book worthy of publication, and they stuck with it until they reached their goal

Happy writing, mates!

Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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