You are here:Liza N. Burby ~ Author, Journalist, Editor, Consultant/Archive for October 2007
        This weekend I attended a local writers' conference sponsored by the Long Island Children's Writers and Illustrators group at which we had the chance to have our work critiqued by four editors from top publishing houses. I won't say which houses because I learned that some of the people making decisions about whether or not our children's books get published aren't that much older than my high school senior. 
       But aside from that, what they had to say about why manuscripts get rejected echoes all that I wrote about in How to Publish Your Children's Book, and what I say whenever I speak to writers' groups. They also offered other random, but helpful tips. So, it was clear that they know their industry. 
    Here are 15 of the tips they shared, in no particular order of importance. May they be of use to you and lead to a major book contract.

    1. Don't sacrifice the story for a rhyme. Using a word just because it sounds like it fits is not good writing. And by the way, a lot of editors won't even look at books that rhyme anymore because they say it's too difficult for writers to do well.

    2. Grammatical and spelling errors are an immediate turn-off and reason for rejection. Editors don't have time to correct mistakes you should have looked at before sending the manuscript to them.

    3. If your book sounds too much like something that is already published and well known, publishers won't want to repeat it. And don't try to compete with a children's classic. Your work will immediately be compared to it.

    4. Make sure your picture books have characters who are children. (Despite a few critical responses I received for saying this myself in my last newsletter entry, there are writers who forget this.)
    5. Mysteries for children are slightly different than that for adults, and the only way to learn the distinction is to read the genre. A good series to look at right now are the Kiki Strike books by Kirsten Miller.

    6. Trends are fine to pay attention to. The hottest now are vampires, pirates and environmental or "green" books. But just as soon as the trend is met in the industry, it can quickly turn into enough already. So beware the rush to write to a trend.

    7. In a picture book manuscript, sometimes it's not the number of words you write, but the message they convey. Every word has to matter. They have to give insight into the main character and move the story along.

    8. The book's conflict should be clear within the first two pages.
    9. Familiarize yourself with the correct genre terms or you give yourself away as someone who doesn't quite know what you're sending an editor.

    10. Author Judy Blume once said you should start your manuscript on the day that everything changes for your character.

    11. Books need problems and resolutions.

    12. Kids love their grandparents, so as a topic, it's a great relationship to explore.

    13. Read the dialogue aloud once you've written it so you can hear if it has a natural rhythm and sounds realistic. To that end, listen to how kids speak so you get it right.

    14. Don't bother writing an alphabet book for the time being. They only sell if they have a big name attached, like Steve Martin's.

    15. Pay attention to all the details you write to be sure they make sense. If the family is moving furniture, can a four-year-old main character move a sofa by herself? If she can, the author has to explain why she has strength beyond her years. 



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    Last week I had the opportunity to be a panelist at two very different events. One was the Fair Media Council Connection Day on Long Island and the other was the Women in Communications Annual Student Career Conference in New York City. At the first, my panel critiqued story pitches from public relations people and other representatives of companies and organizations. At the second, I was one of four journalists who talked with journalism students about our career paths. While the audiences were different, in both cases some very fundamental questions were asked and situations were raised that I commented about. So I wanted to share them with you, because no matter what writing path we choose, there are some basic rules that apply to book, magazine or newspaper writing. So here's what I had to say that is solid advice for all of us to follow.
    1. When pitching (querying) to an editor, present only one idea. Frontloading your pitch only makes both ideas get lost.
    2. Don't try to trick the editor into liking your idea. A catchy headline or phrase is great, but not if it ultimately turns out to be different than your actual story idea. It works for the National Enquirer, but not most publications and book publishers.  
    3. Have a clear and brief statement that outlines your story. If you have to preface your idea with an explanation, you've lost your chance at selling it.
    4. Go for the human interest angle. In other words, what would make an editor take your idea now? Is there an upcoming event to promote? Someone who has overcome a problem that illustrates what you want covered?
    5. This is particularly important for those who don't yet have clips: Do not mistake a published blog entry as a writing sample. Unless it was an assignment from an editor, it doesn't count as a writing sample. But if you are going to use blogs as your opportunity to practice being published, make sure the writing is dynamite. Once it's on the Web, it can't be retracted. Oh, and as I told the students, employers do check Facebook and My Space pages to see what kind of person you really are. Make sure you represent yourself well.
    There's much more to say on all of these topics, but I have a magazine deadline to meet. So stay tuned.
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    Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to pull together 13 friends to meet with journalist Debra Lynn Hook of She asked us about how we classify ourselves (I called myself "Octopus Mom" because I feel like I constantly have at least eight different tasks to handle, from parenting to all my writing responsibilities). And she asked if there were ever a time we felt we had lost our identities. The answers were quite moving. You can read all about it at the Web site. We're the group listed as "LI--New York" and supposedly I'm to be Mom of the Day soon. It was fun to be interviewed by a reporter when I'm usually the one on the other side of the pen and notebook. Hopefully Debra Lynn felt the same way. I don't know; maybe it's a little like doctors visiting doctors? 
    But the main thought I walked away with, and emphasized to her, is what has made parenting easier for me is that I've always reached out to other moms for support: to complain to, check in with, reveal my worst moments to, and to get advice from. And I've done the same as a writer. I have several different outlets through which I can reach out to other writers to complain to, check in with, reveal my worst moments, and to get advice from.  
    If you don't already have a group of like-minded writers to talk to, join a group at your local library; join a local writer's organization; or join any one of the national organizations. You can check on my site at for some of the organizations I belong to so you can get an idea of the variety out there. But I have also made friends with numerous local writers, many of whom freelance for me. It helps because they know the local market as I do, so we can help each other. Sometimes that help means referring work. So, what are you waiting for? Parent or writer or both? Reach out to others. We all need the extra arms--even if you don't call yourself "Octopus Mom."
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   The National Book Foundation announced today that the following are finalists in their Young People's Literature category. It's always a good idea to read what the industry considers to be the best current available books for children. It helps you to clarify what publishers are looking for. And it's just good reading.

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown & Company)

Kathleen Duey, Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic, Book One (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)

M. Sindy Felin, Touching Snow (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)

Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic Press)

Sara Zarr, Story of a Girl (Little, Brown & Company).

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The independent publisher, Alma Little, is looking for children's manuscripts, specifically picture books, early readers and middle grade fiction. They're also looking for new illustrators. Take a look at their site, for submissions guidelines. It's always nice when they want us to come to them. Good luck!

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October 2007