Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Getting Published

Last night I finished teaching a four-week-long Lifelong Learning Class on Children's Book Writing through Boulder Valley Public Schools.

For the first session, I went over the format and expectations for all the different categories of children's books - picture books, easy readers, chapter books, middle-grade novels, YA - and we did an in-class writing exercise using a prompt that involved excavating childhood memories.

For the second session, I presented material on plot and characterization, and we did a character development exercise that I borrowed from writer Denise Vega: each student is given two cards, one containing a situation (e.g., you didn't get the part you wanted in the class play, your little brother breaks your favorite toy, a boy you don't like asks you to the class dance) and the other containing two different character traits (e.g., determined, selfish, creative, shy, compassionate, clumsy). The challenge is to write a short scene in which the character would deal with the given situation while exhibiting the two character traits. Students then share their work (if willing) and the rest of us have the fun of trying to guess which character traits are being portrayed.

For the third session, I talked about writing picture books, since everybody always wants to write picture books even though this is by FAR the hardest form of children's book writing. I also gave them handouts on point of view and do's and don'ts of dialogue, as well as a grab-bag of other craft-related goodies.

For the final session, I explained the process of children's book publication - self-publishing versus commercial publishing, agent versus no-agent. I shared information about the wonderful organization SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). I gave out samples of my own synopses to show how a selling synopsis is crafted. For the second half of the class, we critiqued the manuscripts of the three students who were brave enough to bring their work-in-progress to share.

I thought it was a pretty good class. In the course evaluations, which I collected that night, the students also thought it was a pretty good class. But they wanted it to go on longer (which is gratifying). And they wanted more on how to get published. Indeed, throughout the course I kept getting questions on how to get published, questions that I kept deferring to our final session: let's first learn how to WRITE the books, then we can learn how to get them published. But everybody always wants to learn how to get published.

The writer Anne Lamott is the one who is best on this phenomenon that all teachers of creative writing face. In Bird by Bird, she talks about sharing with her students what the miracle of writing is like, and then her students stare at her for a moment and ask, "How do we find an agent?" She says that "the problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published." Anne tells them, "You'll never get to where you want to be that way. There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it."

Now, don't get me wrong. I want to be published, too. I love being published. But Anne Lamott is right. The writing itself comes first. And last. As Anne writes, "[Writing is] like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship."


  1. Fantastic post, Claudia. I wish I could have taken that class! I'm now a subscriber.

  2. What a great workshop, Claudia! You've inspired me.

  3. Great post. I am a published PB author and I am amazed at how many people think they can just sit down and write a PB and get it into stores (without courses or research or anything!)

  4. Thanks, everybody. I thought maybe the tone of my post was a bit too crabby. So now I feel reassured.