Posted in Business Side of Writing, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, The Publication Process

Follow the Yellow Brick Road, er, Writers’ Guidelines

wizard-oz-2.jpgMany writers DO NOT follow directions. As a conference director and an instructor for a children’s literature course, I see it time and time again. I also saw it when judging a contest for Children’s Writer. It frustrates me. And I know from editors’ and agents’ talks, blogs and twitter comments, that it frustrates them. So like Dorothy, who had to stay on the Yellow Brick Road to get to OZ, you have to stay within the guidelines to get your submission read.
Here are possibilities of what might be asked for in writers’ guidelines or in submission policies:
Full Manuscript – very common for a picture book or for a magazine piece. Not so common for a novel.
Cover Letter – whether it is stated or not, for a book length work, it is polite to send a one page cover letter. Some book editors or agents say they read it first; some last. Magazine editors may or may not care whether there is one. However, if the guidelines ask for one, do it! For a magazine submission you may need to tell what theme you’re aiming your article or story–a cover letter is an easy place to do so.
Query Letter – unlikely for a picture book, and not so common for magazine short stories or articles, but it depends on the magazine. Definitely common for novels, whether submitting to an editor or an agent. But unless you read the specific guidelines for where you’re submitting, you won’t know. What accompanies the query letter is as varied as the days of the month, but here are six common requests:
1. A Partial – part of the manuscript – yes, they know there is more. The editor or agent will ask for more if she likes what she read.
a. First or First Three Chapters – yes, it’s always the beginning of the novel. If those aren’t your best chapters, rewrite until they are.
b. Number of Pages – 5, 10, 100 – again follow the directions. If on the last page of what you are requested to submit, you have an incomplete sentence, delete it so you end on a full sentence.
2. Plus Synopsis or Outline – in addition to a paragraph in your cover letter, an editor or agent may ask for a breakdown of your story. Some may want a chapter by chapter outline. Others a one page synopsis. Yet others a longer synopsis. The guidelines may be very specific about this so you’ll probably have a number of versions of your synopsizes.
3. Bibliography – of course you’ll have this information anyway when doing your research for an article for a magazine, but whether or not an editor will require it depends on their guidelines. You may also have this info for a picture book, especially a nonfiction one.
4. Résumé – some houses and magazines only want a query with no manuscript submission of any kind. They often want a résumé. You’ll also see guidelines for queries that request partials asking for a résumé. Before the Internet I never saw instructions on how to do this, so listed a summary of published books, articles and short stories with a selection of titles and magazines for the latter two. I also included membership in writing organizations. Since then, I’ve found two online resources specifically aimed at children’s writers, but now they are gone. 🙁  So here’s one for authors in general.
5. Clips – article or short story “clipped” out of a magazine – obviously photocopies are acceptable. What they want here is to see some samples of your published works. Some magazines only work with writers after they’ve seen a résumé and clips, and then they assign articles. Some work for hire or educational publishers want to know how you write before they consider you for a project and will also ask for clips. In some cases you can reference online articles as well, though this is not as common.
6. Samples – a sample of your writing. In this case it does not need to be published. Again, this is so they can determine whether they want to try you out with an assignment.
Special requests. These could be quite varied. I recently read in one magazine’s guidelines that they want “the date of submission on the first page of the manuscript.” Of course, many magazines will want to know what rights you are selling. However, if they only buy all rights, that is what they will assume you’re selling. Some publishers may request you to give them a marketing plan.
Writers’ Guidelines will also let you know the acceptable method of sending your manuscript or query. The standard postal mail aka snail mail is still the norm for many publishing houses and magazines. Agents are more likely to go with email. But email has its caveats: what the subject line MUST say or include, query and/or manuscript portion pasted into the email itself or as an attachment. If an attachment, it must be in a certain format, i.e. Microsoft Word. Mess up on following the “how to” on an email submission and it will probably not be read.
Okay, I know it’s not a deep concept, but really READ THE DIRECTIONS and FOLLOW THEM! You’ll avoid an automatic rejection by doing so, and perhaps you’ll get in to meet the Wizard of Oz, er, Editor or Agent.

Posted in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, The Publication Process

Mind Your Cs and Qs – part two

What do you say in a cover or query letter?

“The most IMPORTANT THING a cover letter does is ALLOW YOU TO SHOW YOURSELF IN THE BEST POSSIBLE LIGHT TO A PROSPECTIVE PUBLISHER. There are many variables possible in cover letters and most of them will work for someone, somewhere. But in order to get your letters working for you, you need to find the best possible combination of things to say (and NOT say) in YOUR cover letter for YOUR stories that show off YOUR specific talents, credits and expertise in the best possible light.” – Verla Kay, children’s author
There are a few rules.
Rule number 1 – one page only.
Rule number 2 – know the purpose, which is to catch the editor’s (or agent’s) attention.
Now let’s discuss the Pieces and Parts of a Query or Cover Letter.

Simple letterhead
with your info.
Editor or agent name and address
– professional (Ms. Martin, Mr. Yee, or Evan Z…).
Your contact with editor/agent, if any. This can be your opening, or can follow the paragraph about your submission.

  • Where you heard editor speak, if appropriate
  • Where you read article
  • What you thought
  • May mention a RECENT book of theirs that you loved
  • May be a thank you, i.e. “Thank you for your encouraging remarks on my last submission, Title.”

Something exciting about your book, short story or article.

  • Grab the reader right away. This may be a direct quote from the manuscript or a catchy line or question about the theme of your piece. A sound bite. A teaser. The following are starter ideas:

• Does the first line hook the reader?
• Is it an unusual idea or deal with an unusual situation with universal themes?
• Is it set in an unusual place?
• For a magazine piece, is it timely? (i.e. 100th anniversary of … and, of course, you’re submitting with plenty of lead time.)

  • In a query, this paragraph or section may be all you have to showcase your piece. Make it as good as you can. For a book, think of doing an elevator pitch or mini-synopsis of your story. Think of the blurb on the back of the book as you work. Agent Nathan Bransford has an excellent blog entry on this topic. Read “The One Sentence, One Paragraph, and Two Paragraph Pitch.”

Details about your piece.

  • What it is: middle grade novel, picture book, magazine article.
  • Nonfiction books often require a book proposal–this series does not address those since I’ve not had that experience.

Some people call articles stories, while others only refer to fiction as stories. What’s what?
I personally differentiate these two by nonfiction (article or essay) or fiction (story), and of course, each of those categories can be broken down more. That said, I will at times call a piece a “true story” versus an article. That usually happens in response to a magazine looking for “true stories about…” Sometimes these are also called true experiences.
When submitting a manuscript, I usually indicate “article” or “nonfiction” for those true stories and “fiction based on a true story” or “fiction” on those I’ve made up.
It might be a middle grade novel, an early YA novel, or a tween novel, etc., but never a fictional novel. Editors and agents hate that misnomer.

More details about your piece.

  • Why it shouldn’t be passed up or a need for book in today’s market. If you can demonstrate this, you’ll have an edge.

Verla: “It was an exciting and dramatic period of our American history, but until now there have been almost no picture books on this subject for the 5-8 year old child. The only picture books listed in “books in print” are very long — up to two thousand words. None of them are suitable for younger children.”
And more details about your piece.

    • a brief summary

• one sentence for a cover
• no more than a paragraph for a magazine query
• high concept – 25 words or less
• hit the high points
• tell the end

    • title
    • word length and number of chapters, if appropriate
    • rights for magazine pieces: if reprint rights, tell where and when it has appeared
    • exclusive or multiple submission, if appropriate
    • whether it is complete
    • whether you are including a synopsis (if requested in their guidelines)
    • whether it has additional material

• for books, glossary or maps or photographs (color slides, digital images, black & white photos)
• for magazine pieces, sidebar, activity, photos, related websites
• anything the editor should know about it

  • setting is unusual and you’ve lived there
  • theme
  • a holiday story
  • what inspired you to write it

Appropriate info about you.

    • publication credits – if you don’t have any, leave this out

• “I’m enclosing my résumé” or books you’ve published and/or a list of some magazines you’ve been published in.
• don’t apologize for not having credits
• don’t say you’re a first time writer

  • awards, contest winner
  • training – degree in something relating to Literature or English, graduated from Institute of Children’s Literature
  • related personal history, education, jobs, or hobbies that apply to this piece


  • include info about SASE and if it’s for “reply only” indicate they may discard the copy of the manuscript
  • for queries, call for an answer on whether they want to see your manuscript (or the rest of your manuscript)

Sincerely (or whatever you feel is appropriate) and your typed name with space to put a signature.

Enclosures – this is standard business letter practice.

If you learn better by example, check out these sample query letters by Tracy C. Gold and Rajani LaRocca.

Get Ready. Get Set. Submit!

1. Do you know where you want to send it?
• If so, move on to the next step.
• If not, and you’re already done the homework mentioned in part one, discuss with your critique group. They may have good suggestions.

2. Check your market book, guidelines, and any other resources you have for this specific publishing house or magazine. Ask yourself . . .
• Is my manuscript the type they publish?
• Is my word count appropriate for what they want?
• Have I heard an editor from here speak? Or read an interview with them?

3. Read first lines from your manuscript or write out what is exciting about your piece to use as a teaser.

4. Write your letter.

5. Check for the elements above.

6. Proof carefully!

7. If possible, share with your critique group or another writer; they might offer suggestions and comments for improvement.

Final Suggestions

  • Overall, remember to be brief, professional and to the point, but let your voice come through
  • Spell check!!
  • Send a clean copy
  • Keep copy of your letter