Regarding Class & Crit Groups

Last night was the final class of my picture book writing course, which is always a little bittersweet. You get attached to people’s stories and the personalities who created them. The final night always feels like my last opportunity to equip them with all they’ll need as they step from the safety of the class environment into the wider world of publishing. We talked about interpreting rejection letters and how to deal with their sting, and we watched the interview with Kate diCamillo embedded in my Rejection blog post.

This year, the course went from 8 weeks to 12, which pleased me to no end. I was thrilled to spend not just one but three weeks delving deeper into narrative structure—very well-spent time laying a solid foundation for a strong manuscript. Extra weeks also allowed me to try a number of new activities and exercises, which was great fun for me and, I hope, beneficial for them.

It was also quite wonderful to spend extra time with such an engaged, supportive, talented, and lovely group with a wide variety of stories. I will miss it. We also discussed things they felt they’d miss about the class environment, which we developed into a list of qualities we think are important in a critique group:

Most of those are likely self-explanatory, but “awareness of wider stuff” means learning more about the world and ourselves by exploring each other’s work, which is just what we set out to help children do, isn’t it? It was a really thoughtful addition to our list.

And “sharing the crazy”? Well, maybe that’s the most important part. It is for me, anyway. Having real friends and a support team who truly understand why we started—and then continue—this inspiring, maddening, manic, rejection-filled, brilliant journey without us ever having to explain it or plead its case. Kindred folk who “get” it. Our people.

Did we miss anything from our list? What would you add or highlight?

I want to end by saying to my latest batch of Rizzies, thank you, it’s been such a pleasure. 

Rhythm & Soul

During my run this evening, listening to the rhythm of my sneakers pounding the pavement, and passing a pair of swans sitting still on a perfectly still lake surrounded by autumn foliage, I started to think about rhythm in writing.

Years of editing and writing and reading picture books have instilled in me a keen sensitivity to the rhythm and cadence in the language I read, write, and edit. I think rhythm is important not only in texts for the very young, but in any matter which uses the written word to convey ideas, thoughts, feelings, tone, drama etc. The rhythms and cadence of individual words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs can have a profound psychological effect on the reader—and yet they do it almost by stealth, with subtlety.

I frequently relate to my writing students the story of a client I once worked with. She had written a picture book text about the plight of an endangered species of eagle. Her language style of choice was (as happens so often in first drafts of picture books from new writers) rhyming verse with a jaunty and galloping meter. This stylistic choice had, as you can probably imagine, the unfortunate effect of taking what was a serious and soulful subject and making it almost comical—which was absolutely opposite to the writer’s intention. And as so often seems to happen when rhyming verse gets out of hand, the narrative went completely off-track…the story quickly became something that didn’t work at all or even quite make sense.

When I pointed out to her that perhaps a galloping meter did not fit the flapping of eagles’ wings, the swooping and soaring, or the serious tone of the subject matter, she rewrote the text in a more lyrical prose style. It was quite extraordinary: it was as if she had been set free and so, too, the eagles in her story. She quickly came back to me with a piece that exactly evoked the soaring of eagles, their swooping, the beat of their wings and so forth in its rhythm and cadence. The entire tone of the piece had changed—and it not only worked now, but had become something of incredible beauty that absolutely achieved what it set out to do. Through attention to rhythm, it had acquired the soul it was seeking.

This is a fairly overt example of the effects of rhythm. Those who study picture books and spend any significant time trying to write one will soon understand the importance of rhythm, become hyper aware of it, start to intuitively incorporate it, play with it, and use it to great effect. Rhythm and cadence are so important in texts for the very young, which are primarily designed to be read aloud.

But, more subtle are the effects of rhythm and cadence in the written word for older readers (including adults). It’s easy to get caught up in plot, character development, and narrative arc in longer works—and these are, of course, essential. But I encourage the writers with whom I work to really think about the sound of language in each sentence they write, and it’s something I pay great attention to in my own work. Each sentence, I believe, should have an appropriate rhythm and a cadence and tone that suit the context and soul of what is being conveyed.  

Short, sharp sentences, for example, tend to increase tension, speed up the pace, and add drama. In many cases longer, more fluid sentences, create a calmer and more reflective tone. Of course, there are exceptions to these examples (just as there are almost unlimited ways to use rhythm and cadence). But my point is that rhythm and cadence can have very powerful effects, and writers would do well to pay more attention to them and then milk them for all they’re worth.

The key? Read your work aloud. Your manuscript may not be designed to be read that way, but try it anyway. Listen to how the language sounds. Tweak it until the rhythm and cadence complement and complete what you’re trying to convey. Then have someone read it back to you.

One day, when you’re doing your first live reading of your newly published book, you’ll thank me. 


Punctuation: How to write a character's thoughts

Once, I was involved in an interesting discussion on our regional SCBWI listserv. One member asked a whether a character’s thoughts should be denoted by quotation marks, no quotation marks, or italics.

This is a commonly asked question, and this was part of my short answer:

When I edit, I let the context and target audience dictate quotation marks or no quotation marks. If it's a dialogue heavy text, I use no quotation marks for thoughts. If it's a work for younger kids, then I suggest quotation marks for thoughts. If it's MG or YA, I'd generally go with no quote marks. 

The Chicago Manual of Style*, the industry standard for fiction editing, states:

Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference.

For example:

“My dear friend must fly south for winter,” thought Wordy Bird, “or else he will surely die.”


We must say goodbye, thought Wordy Bird, but perhaps we will meet again.

Both usages are clear and easily comprehended, are they not?

You’ll note that the Chicago Manual of Style is silent on the use of italics to denote thoughts. But, many people do use italics when they are writing to denote thoughts, and I’m sure we all know published books in which italics are used in this manner. 

From Michael Sussman’s fabulous picture book Otto Grows Down (Illus. Scott Magoon, Sterling 2009):

             I love this rattle, Otto thought. Why does Anna get to have it?

But then in this book, as in so many picture books, typography is used in exciting ways throughout (which my daughter loves as she gets to read the ‘big words’).  

But—and this is the main reason for this post—I think there’s really more to discuss here.

Often, there may be a more seamless way to convey what a character is thinking, without resorting to what may at times be a rather clunky use of internal dialogue and dialogue tags which may tend to toward verbosity such as ponderedconsideredspeculatedconjectured, and so forth. (Dialogue tags are, of course, a subject for another blog post!)

Let's look at some randomly chosen examples from my bookshelf. From Judy Moody #1 by Megan McDonald, Candlewick Press 2000:

“ROAR!” said Judy. She would have to get used to a new desk and a new classroom. Her new desk would not have an armadillo sticker with her name on it, like her old one last year. Her new classroom would not have a porcupine named Roger.

From Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Simon & Schuster 1999:

Jessie didn’t think it was fair that she still had to wear Hannah’s old clothes. Jesse was an inch taller. It wasn’t her fault Hannah was fatter. But people in Clifton didn’t care about a girl’s ankle showing a little. She’d heard Ma and the other women say it was a scandalous thing back east, but on the frontier people had other things to worry about.

In each of these examples, it is clear these are the protagonist’s thoughts. When writing in first person and limited third person there’s really no necessity to present thoughts as dialogue.

But, there are times that using unspoken discourse will certainly add weight to the thought and to the moment. Here’s an (italicized!) example from The Maze Runner by James Dashner (Delacorte Press, 2009) which comes at a pivotal moment.

Thomas looked back at his captors, feeling awkward but desperate to ask questions. Captors, he thought. Then, Why did that word pop into my head?

When conveying a character’s thoughts, do consider saving actual interior discourse for those pivotal moments. And whatever you choose—quotation marks, no quotation marks, italics—be consistent throughout the text. If your manuscript is acquired, the publisher will adjust according to what best suits the book and their house style.

Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, Point 13.41, The University of Chicago Press 2010


Bad Seeds: Began to [verb]

Consider the following:

It was dawn. Wordy-Bird began to fly to the window. She looked out at the rising sun and started to sing.

At first glance, it doesn’t really seem like anything is wrong, right? But there is an issue here, which I see in just about every manuscript I edit and sometimes in published books. It’s an issue of clunky writing, which can also become a big deal in manuscripts with blown-out word counts.

The offending phrase? Began to fly. Or its variations: began flying, started flying, started to fly.

Wordy Bird doesn’t just begin to fly to the window, she continues and finishes flying to the window, too, because in the next sentence she is there, looking out at the rising sun. So began to fly is not only unnecessarily wordy and unwieldy, it’s also lacks complete logic. Why not just write:

Wordy-Bird flew to the window.

Not only does that strengthen the sentence and complete the logic, but right there you’ve cut 28% of the words in that sentence. If this is a phrase that's consistently used in a manuscript—and when writers use began to (verb) it’s often very liberally—that can add up to a surprising number of excess and clunky words.

But consider the second sentence:

She looked out at the rising sun and started to sing.

In this context, started to sing works well. We don’t know what happens after she begins to sing, so it is suitable and actually adds weight to her act of singing to greet the dawn.  

As you become more aware of it, you’ll find that begin to (verb) and its variations rarely add more than excess words and an undesirable smattering of clunk. 

Bad Seeds: Lay and Lie

One of the Wordy Bird’s biggest pet peeves is misuse of the words lay and lie, and it's also probably the most common grammar mistake I see. 

Nestmate pointed at Baxter. “Lay down,” he said. Baxter laid down. Nestmate laid down beside the dog. Chickling laid on top of them.

What’s wrong with this?

“It’s lie down!” puffed Wordy Bird. “Not lay down. Unless you are actually laying the dog down, which you’re not.”

Lay is a transitive verb, so Baxter cannot lay down—

Ok, let’s back up a bit. What’s a transitive verb? A transitive verb takes an object. For example: put. You wouldn’t say:

The dog put.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? A transitive verb must take an object for the sentence to make sense.

The dog put the bone down.

The opposite of a transitive verb is an intransitive verb, for example: run.

The dog runs.

An intransitive verb doesn’t take an object.

Lie is an intransitive verb, so it doesn’t take an object. Some of the confusion between the two verbs comes from similarities when they are inflected:

Lie, lay, lain

Baxter lies down. Baxter lay down. Baxter has lain down.

But the transitive verb lay is inflected like this: lay, laid, laid

Baxter lays the bone down. Baxter laid the bone down. Baxter has laid the bone down.

So when Nestmate wants the dog to be on the floor, he should say:

“Lie down, Baxter. Good boy.”

Then he can lie beside the dog and Chickling will lay herself over both of them and everyone will be happy. Especially Wordy Bird. 

Bad Seeds: Dangling Modifers

I’d like you to take a look at the following paragraph:

As Wordy Bird perched there, watching the sun rise beyond the nest, her belly rumbled, thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast. Her wings flapped faster, just knowing how good it would taste. When she landed, her head tilted, listening for that telltale rustle of worm flesh beneath the earth.

What is wrong with these sentences—grammatically? (Don’t worry, I’m not going to weigh you down with too much grammar-junkie jargon today.)

Let’s look at the first:

As Wordy sat watching the sun rise beyond the nest, her belly rumbled, thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast.

This is a sentence of a kind that I see in writers’ manuscripts on an almost daily basis, so that means a lot of writers are making this error. Let’s break it into parts:

As Wordy sat watching the sun rise beyond the nest,

her belly rumbled,

thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast.

The first two work together, right?

As Wordy sat watching the sun rise beyond the nest, her belly rumbled…

What about this part:

…her belly rumbled, thinking of the worm she’d catch for breakfast.

Do you see the problem yet?

If you don’t see it yet, ask yourself this: who or what is thinking of the worm? In this sentence construction, it’s her belly. And apart from giving us a gnarly case of butterflies when we’re about to do something scary, bellies are not known for their capacity for intelligent thought.  

Now, if you go back to the second and third sentences, perhaps you'll see why I have a problem with those, too. 

Some of you, including those of you who have worked with me before or taken one of my classes, may pick up on at least one other (potential) problem when the three sentences are put together. Can work out what it* is?

* Hint: try reading them aloud. 

The moral of story is: Don't dangle your modifiers. (*And watch out for repetitive sentence structure!)

Bad Seeds: Looking and Turning

I never cease to be truly grateful for what I’ve learned about writing from editing other people’s work. But when one reads other people’s manuscripts all day, every day, one starts to notice the same sorts of things over and over and over… and after a time (usually a fairly short time), these things go from being notable and interesting to being downright annoying. Now don’t think I’m becoming complaining and snarky—it is my my job and I love every day of it. If I didn’t love it, I’d hardly be taking the time to share this with you, would I?

But I do believe these are just the kinds of things that don’t belong in a MS. Wordy Bird calls them Bad Seeds. I thought you might find it helpful if I share some Bad Seeds with you every now and then. Because once you’ve really tasted a Bad Seed, rolled it around in your beak and spat out the husk, you may not want to try one again.

Bad Seed #1: Turning and Looking

Imagine Nestmate and I are having a conversation. I might write about it like this:

Wordy Bird kissed Chickling goodnight and flew down the stairs to tidy up the living room. She turned to Nestmate. “Matey,” she said, looking at him, “I note you haven’t done the dishes.” 

Nestmate turned and looked at her. “I rinsed them for you,” he said. “Geez, I thought you’d think that was helpful.”

Wordy Bird looked at him. “Nestmate, rinsing the dishes and lining them up so I can wash them, is the kind of help one gives when one wants to appear as if one’s being helpful, but when one’s real intention is to watch the Patriots.”

Don’t you think all this turning and looking is implied? When we have a conversation, we usually face the person and look at them when we speak to them. In regular dialogue, turning and looking is implied. It’s when a character DOESNT turn and look at someone during conversation that it becomes interesting and therefore noteworthy.

For example:

Nestmate watched Tom Birdy score another touchdown. “You’re always nagging me,” he muttered.

Wordy Bird studied her toes. “Not always,” she said quietly. She turned and looked at the teetering pile of dishes. “Now are you going to help me, or what?”

The bottom line is this, and it’s about much more than looking and turning: readers, even readers who happen to be small people, do not need to have everything spelled out for them. Not only can it be boring and tedious, it doesn’t leave room for the reader to read between the lines, to fill in the gaps, to imagine.

So You Want to Write for Kids: The Least You Need to Know

After years of editing, teaching writing, working with writers, and learning about the industry as a writer/illustrator, I have a created a list of things I believe new children’s book writers need to know. I also asked some published author and illustrator friends to tell me what they wish they’d known when they began. Following is a compilation of the very least you need to know when you’re starting out. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but it will give you a solid foundation as you begin your journey toward publication.

Be prepared

Always carry a notebook or another way to record your ideas. Always. That incredible idea you have at 3 am that you’re certain you’ll remember in the morning? You won’t. Great ideas and inspiration can strike at any time: in the car, in line at the supermarket, while cleaning your bathroom. Be prepared.

Know your audience—know the genre

The genre “children’s books” is divided into the following basic sub-categories based on the age range of the readership:

  • YA—young adult
  • Middle grade—for eight to twelve-year-olds or so
  • Chapter books—divided into chapters, some black and white illustrations, for elementary-age ranges six to nine, seven to ten, and eight to twelve-year-olds.
  • Early readers—for young children learning to read
  • Picture books—fully illustrated, for four to eight-year-olds (sometimes three to seven)
  • Board books—for babies and toddlers, made to be tough so they can withstand everything babies throw at them, including chewing
  • Graphic novels are also increasingly popular and can be for various age groups
  • Non-fiction picture books and other, various ages

If you write a 3000-word picture book or a 120,000-word middle grade novel, expect it to be rejected. Your picture book should be under 1000 words when you submit it; in fact, the industry is tending toward books about half that length or less, currently. A middle grade novel over 60,000 words (75,000 words for fantasy) is going to be treated with serious caution. These word counts aren’t arbitrary, but have been defined by what sells and what works for young readers based on their age, comprehension skills, interests, and attention span. If you’ve written something 3000 words long, consider it may not be a picture book but perhaps a chapter book for slightly older readers—or it may just need editing, development, and revision. Agent Jennifer Laughran has an excellent post about word counts. 

Time spent in libraries and bookstores educating yourself about the different sub-genres of children’s books and reading both classic and recently published children’s books is not time wasted. Also, the industry has changed since you were a kid, so don’t rely on the stories you loved as a child for role models. Look at what is being published now.

Think story, not message

Remember when you were a kid and you got a lecture from your parents or a teacher? How did it make you feel? Did it feel great and make you beg for more? Or did you just wish you could get it over with? Compare how you felt when watching your favorite movie or reading your favorite book. Were you immersed and entertained and a little sorry when it was over? That is your job as the writer: to draw the reader in and immerse them in the narrative, not to deliver a lecture. The story should come first, and any message you are trying to convey or teach is best subtly delivered through the narrative, not by heavy-handed didactic lessons, which give a publisher or agent an easy reason to reject your manuscript. Kids should absorb any message or lesson by default, not because they’re having it flapped in their face.   

And while I’m on the subject of narrative, a weak narrative arc is one of the biggest reasons manuscripts get rejected. See myblog post on narrative issues.


One of the things that always surprises me is that newer writers think they should automatically know how to write a publishable story. You wouldn’t expect to win a tennis match the first time you played or give a great haircut or perform brain surgery without acquiring the necessary skills. So why do so many newer writers assume they should already know how to write for kids and feel terrible about negative feedback? We ALL have to travel the learning curve. If we don’t, forget getting (traditionally) published.
Take a course, read books about writing, read blogs about writing, join SCBWI, work with an editor or writing mentor, and above all, read, read, read.


Unless you are an illustrator and hope to have your own illustrations published with your story, you do not need to (and should not) have your manuscript illustrated before you submit it to traditional publishers or literary agents. If your story is acquired by a publisher, the publisher will choose an illustrator whose work complements your own. You have, in the vast majority of cases, no power over this decision, but keep in mind that publishers are very good at knowing what you intend, as well as seeing possibilities for your work that you might not have considered. Publishers tend to pair new writers with established illustrators so books can be marketed on the established party’s previous success in creating books that sell. Publishing is, after all, a business. 

Also, you do not need to make suggestions for what should be in the illustrations or about any matters of style, layout, typography, etc.

Of course, if you self-publish, you are in charge of it all. Keep in mind that illustrators will not work only for the promise of royalties somewhere down the track. Most will require a deposit and progress payments along the way. Illustration is a skilled and time-consuming process, and you wouldn’t expect your hairdresser or brain surgeon to provide services for free. Also, there is a difference between a graphic artist and a children’s book illustrator, and children’s book illustration has particular requirements that are best understood by someone who has studied children’s book illustration and knows how picture books work.


No work by any writer comes out perfect or publishable the first time. A lack of adequate revision is one of the biggest mistakes aspiring authors make, in my opinion. Revise, revise, revise. And then, revise some more.

Join or start a critique group

You need multiple sets of eyes on your work as you develop your work, revise, and then prepare for submission. Family and friends can be a great source of support, but they’re less likely to give accurate, impartial, or even knowledgeable critical feedback. A good critique group is also a source of support and friendships on the up-and-down journey to publication. SCBWI (see next point) can advise you about critique groups in your area.

Become a SCBWI member

TheSociety of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an invaluable resource for writers and illustrators alike (whether you seek traditional publication or plan to self-publish). You do not need to be published to join. It’s also a warm, friendly, generous, international community of like-minded people. It’s your tribe.

SCBWI conferences and events are a great source of information, inspiration, industry contacts, invitations to submit manuscripts, and enduring friendships. You can also sign up to have your manuscript or portfolio critiqued by an editor or agent.

Get to know people

“I wish I’d known that sometimes it isn’t enough to be a great writer,” one author friend told me. Imagine the following scenario: there are two equally excellent, highly marketable manuscripts, and an editor is forced to choose between them. Writer A is a complete unknown. The editor has not heard of him, and he has no social media presence. Writer B has become well-known by kid-lit industry folks over the years for her personable, easy-to-get-along with manner, and the editor has had very pleasant interactions with her several times at conferences and kid-lit events. When she critiqued Writer B’s work at a recent conference, Writer B was open to suggestion, easy to work with, and very appreciative of her advice. Turns out they’re even friends on Facebook and from time to time, the editor has chuckled at Writer B’s upbeat, amusing, positive, supportive (of fellow kid-lit folk), book-and-creativity related posts on social media, which bodes well for how she will interact with the buying public and how she will work to market her books. Which writer do you think is more likely to get the deal?   

Contests and Awards

One illustrator friend said she wished she’d known about writer and illustrator contests and awards before she’d progressed too far to enter them. SCBWI and its regional chapters offer various contests, awards, and scholarships, and there are other similar opportunities out there for writers. Just make sure that you do a thorough online search for any negative info about scam contests designed only to separate unwary, hopeful writers from their money. 


This a topic for a blog post of its own, but some basics:

  • format your text properly for submission and make sure it is properly copyedited without word misuse, spelling mistakes, punctuation and other grammatical errors, or typos.
  • Write and revise an excellent query/cover letter. (See myblog post on writing queries for the kid-lit market.)
  • Start with The Children’s Writers & illustrators Market (Writer’s Digest Books). Always use the latest edition. An excellent print resource for finding publishers and agents.
  • Then make a list of suitable publishers who are accepting unsolicited manuscripts in the genre in which you are writing and confirm their submission guidelines on their website—then follow them!
  • Avoid the scatter-gun approach to submissions by targeting your submissions to publishers and agents whose work is a good fit for your own. (I once had a client give me a list of publishers she’d submitted her sweet, lyrical picture book to, and one was a publisher who only published material about southwestern architecture and history…for adults.)
  • If you submit to agents, don’t also submit to publishers. If an agent takes you on and then finds your manuscript has already been submitted to and rejected by a bunch of publishers she was going to contact, that’s annoying and self-defeating.
  • Online resources such as and can help you navigate the process of finding an agent.
  • Don’t be arrogant, gimmicky, or demanding. Be professional, polite, and personable. Don’t be a jerk. Nobody wants to work with a jerk. 
  • Don’t take rejections personally. Look at them as a chance to improve your craft. EVERYONE, no matter how talented, gets them, and manuscripts are rejected for all sorts of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the quality of the work. If you keep writing and submitting, you can expect to get a huge pile just like every other writer who eventually achieves publication. Learn to love rejection


If you’re aiming for traditional publication, be aware that it will take time. Don’t expect that your first manuscript will be on the bookstore shelves in time for Christmas. It just doesn’t work that way. You first have to learn to write for kids—think of it as doing your apprenticeship. Learning takes time. Revising takes time. The submissions process takes time. (I don’t know anyone who’s achieved traditional publication in less than five years, and I know many who have taken longer.) And even if your book is acquired by a publisher, expect two years to pass before you hold your published book in your hands.  


Don’t be quick to quit your day job, and don’t expect to make buckets of money when you are finally published. Kid-lit authors almost always supplement their book income by doing school visits, speaking engagements, teaching writing, and editing/mentoring.

The best reason to write for kids and create books is because you love writing for kids and creating books. This path is definitely a journey, not a destination—and a most wonderful journey it is. Remember the 3 P’s: passion, patience, and perseverance. Good luck!


Originally posted on on 5.14.15