Virginia Law Manning

"The Unwritten Rules: Rookie Mistakes and What We Learned" co-written by Heather Pierce Stigall

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One of the great things about children’s publishing is that it’s a small world. If you attend conferences, book fairs and other children’s book events, you’ll see lots of familiar faces and have the opportunity to meet the authors, illustrators, agents and editors you admire. But such a tight knit community also means it’s even more important to act professionally and understand the unwritten rules.

So, what are these rules? Here are a few Heather and I picked up along the way.

 Rule #1  Say thank you!

In person. By email. On Facebook. By mail. Just do it!

 Rule #2  If you ask for a critique, listen to the critique.

Don’t defend your work. Listen. If you don’t understand something, it’s OK to ask questions to clarify but don’t even think about contradicting what they’ve said to you. For instance, “No, what I meant was…” And, be sincerely grateful. Say thank you! Even if the author/illustrator/agent/editor doesn’t like your work, it was kind of them to try to help.

 Rule #3  Stay calm and carry on.

This is a fuzzier. But try to use sound, sober judgement. Here’s a rule I broke. 

Minutes after I had the first really harsh critique of my work by a published author/illustrator, I met up with a friend at an SCBWI meeting. Before the presentation began, sitting in the front row, I very dramatically told her the story. “No, you don’t understand. He HATED it. He said, ‘there is absolutely, positively no market for the book.’” Finally, after I’d gone on, my friend said to me, “who is this guy?” So I pulled out two of his books from my bag. The woman behind me then tapped me on the shoulder to let me know she knew the artist. Ugh…

And from NJ author-illustrator Patricia Keeler, “Years ago, after showing my portfolio to an Atheneum Art Director, I was too nervous to wait for the elevator, so I took the stairs and set off the fire alarm for the whole Macmillan building!”

Rule #4  If they don’t ask for it, they don’t want it.

This is a tough pill to swallow and another rule I didn’t know starting out. If an editor or agent reads your work and they like it so much that they want to offer you a contract, they will tell you. If they like it but think it needs revision, they will ask you to resubmit. If they like your writing, but the story isn’t right for them, they’ll ask if you have another manuscript. Not in code. They will ask you outright. But, whether it’s a yes or a no, remember to say thank you! 

Rule #5   Don’t try to write or illustrate children’s books because you think it will be easy, fun, make you a lot of money or make you famous.

The truth is it’s hard work. It’s a tough market and there is LOTS of competition. Do it because you have to. Because you won’t be happy unless you’re doing it, even if you are never published. 

Rule #6 Don’t give up!

From EPA author-illustrator Mônica Carnesi, “When I first started getting back into drawing and writing stories, I made one of the most common rookie mistakes: writing a very personal story (about my dog!) without doing my research (really studying picture books to learn about pacing, page turns, character development, commercial appeal) AND before joining SCBWI. Long story short, I wrote “A Day with Constance” and Mark, my husband, loved it (of course he did!).  A friend of his family was an author of children’s books and he convinced me to send the dummy to her agent, Tracy Adams.  Needless to say, it was VERY EMBARRASSING! She was very kind, but basically told me what I know now: that it was not even close to being ready for submission.  Argh!  She did suggest that I join SCBWI, which I did, and that made all the difference.” 

From EPA author Steve Silbiger, “With a bit of bravado coming off the success of my non-fiction adult books, I thought that children's writing would be a snap two years ago. With a high concept topic and much fewer words than adult non-fiction to produce, nothing was in my way.  “Willy the Woolly Bear Caterpillar” was ready for quick Barnes & Noble shelving. Well, straight out of the box, I broke many of the unwritten rules of picture books: don't tell the moral, keep it under 500 words, the main character solves his own problem (agency) and makes only 3 stops along his journey (rule of 3's), One thing I did get right, I did not have my ‘Aunt Mary’ illustrate it for me and did not force a cute series of rhyming couplets to tell the story. With hard work, I have rounded my square peg and hope that “Willy…” finds its publishing home in 2016!” 

We hope you’ll share your funny/rookie mistakes and the lessons they taught you in the comments section below. Did you pay an artist to illustrate your manuscript not realizing that the publisher would do this? Or send an author-illustrator you just met a 1,200 word email and ask if he’d critique your dummy? (Why are you looking at me? OK, fine, but I only did it once!)

Here are a few more for the road!

From NJ author-illustrator Barbara DiLorenzo, “I was eager to see an art director speak at a Metro NY SCBWI meeting some years ago, and spent the day preparing my portfolio should it be chosen by lottery for her review. Although my work looked professional, I neglected to take the same care in making myself look good before I left the house. I prepared a small bag to give to the AD with promotional postcards–even a mug with one of my drawings on it. The bag was a frilly paper bag meant more for a birthday, but it looked nice. When I got to the event, I sat in the front row–eager to soak in the information, smiling like an idiot. My socks didn't match. My hair may have been brushed, I'm not sure. But my clothes were definitely something of an eyesore. If the AD noticed me in the front, it wasn't for the right reasons. My portfolio wasn't picked for review, but I wasn't deterred. At the end of the event, I walked over to the AD by the snack table, and held out the frilly bag with my promotional materials, all the while saying (cringe), ‘I love your sense of humor so much. You are the best!’ Now, I think this is what I said. Maybe I just said the ‘I love you...’ part louder than the rest. Whatever the case, she smiled nervously, and responded, ‘Thank you. My husband likes my sense of humor as well.’ I thought that was odd. I sort of smiled, then stepped back as other people filled in around her. I didn't know anyone else at the event, so I called my husband to see what he thought of the exchange. He simply said, ‘Barbara, I think it's time you left and came home.’ 

So, I guess if I could rewind time, I'd dress better so that if the AD thought I was hitting on her, she wouldn't have been quite so horrified.” 

From NJ author Brittany Orrico, “I submitted my first manuscript on heavy weight resume paper. It certainly wasn't catastrophic, but I thought the resume and manuscript should match, so I sent it all in on resume paper. I suspect it screamed, ‘rookie!’ when they opened it.”

From EPA author Wendy Greenley, “I signed up for an editor/agent critique at my first conference (the Fall Philly) thinking that I should take a manuscript I was having trouble with. Something an editor could help me with. WRONG!! I learned that agent/editor critiques aren't like critique partners or peer critiques. I was supposed to have brought polished work. Lesson learned.”

From DC author Katharine Manning, “When I attended the national SCBWI conference in LA a few years ago. I was completely jet-lagged and overwhelmed by excitement and nerves. The first morning I ended up sitting next to a published author who happened to know a friend of mine. This is a friend I've had for TWENTY YEARS. We’re friends from college. We went to each other's wedding. We know each other's kids. We visit each other, talk on the phone and email. But sitting there that morning, I could not remember her name. I ended up just describing her. Finally the author came up with her name and said, ‘so you don't know her well?’ Actually, I know her quite well, it's just that my brain is completely paralyzed with anxiety at this moment. Sigh.” 

MD romance writer (yes, romance novelists make rookie mistakes too) Robin Covington has these words of wisdom to share, “Don’t ever let a critique partner steal your ‘voice’ – only you can tell a story like you can and if you take everyone’s advice and write like they would, then it’s not yours. And keep reading. Broadly and widely. It will fill your will and keep you fresh. And don’t worry about writing crap. You can’t edit a blank page.” 

And finally, EPA Illustrator Coordinator Adrienne Wright shares a really important lesson, (one that Heather can relate to). “I regret sending something before it was ready. I was so anxious to send something to an editor after attending an event where attendees could submit up until a deadline, but, in hindsight, it was just too early. The manuscript wasn’t ready. Now, even though I’ve revised it, I feel I can't send the same manuscript to the same editor so I feel I blew it. Needless to say, I never heard back from the editor.”

Good luck making 2016 a mistake-free year! Or go ahead and make some mistakes. Sometimes it’s the best way to learn. But, remember... 

Say thank you! 

Thank you! 

The authors would especially like to thank our story contributors: Mônica Carnesi, Robin Covington, Wendy Greenley, Barbara DiLorenzo, Lee Harper, Patricia Keeler, Katharine Manning, Brittany Orrico, Steve Silbiger and Adrienne Wright.