May 2010 Archives

Sometimes writers have an answer

Sometimes writers have an answer to readers’ "Why should I care?" question, but they hide it. If you don’t plant your hook high enough in the story—at the first point readers might waver in their attention—you risk losing them.
David Fryxell

Book just came out - God's promises...for boys...

God's promises for boys.jpg
God's promises...for boys... (Tommy Nelson, 2010) by Jack Countryman and Amy Parker is very kid-friendly. Each entry begins with a short poem and then is followed by Bible verses (International Children's Bible). The opening title under the section God's Promises When... is "You Want to Be Cool." Don't all boys want to be cool?

Additional sections are:

  • God's Promises About...

  • God Wants You To...

  • God's Promises of Help When...

  • God's Promises about Making a Difference...

  • God's Promises about Jesus

  • God's Promises for You...

This book could be used as a devotional or a resource when a boy has a question. Reading age 8-12, but I'd definitely read it to my younger grandsons.

It has great illustrations, too, by Richard Watson. See more details at thepublisher's site.

Author Jack Countryman created the God's Promises line. Read more here. Together he and Amy Parker wrote this book and God's Promises...for girls. Amy is also the author of A Night Night Prayer.

Aren't they cute? - Poodle and Hound

poodle and hound.jpg
Can you resist these best friends in Poodle and Hound (Charlesbridge, 2009) by Kathryn Lasky? I can't. And I don't normally like poodles. And it isn't just how these characters look. The illustrations are by Mitch Vane.

The three stories in this book for beginning readers are fun. Hound surprises Poodle in the first one. In the second they are both annoyed with each other, but of course it works out in the end. The third Poodle comes up with a unique way to get something she wants, but the wonderful part is that what she does helps Hound.

Kathryn Lasky is one prolific author. Her numerous books range from picture books through novels for children and young adults and to nonfiction. She also writes fiction for adults. I love what she says, "All my best ideas for books, one way or another, come from experiences with my family." Find out more here.

Prolific is the word for illustrator Mitch Vane, too. She's done three books for Charlesbridge, plus many for other publishers. Check out her books, illustrations and cartoons at

P.S. This book was edited by the wonderful Yolanda Scott.

I use setting sort of like a chef

I use setting sort of like a chef uses spices. I just want to jazz up the story a little, give it a little more twist to make it more interesting than if it just took place in boring old Anytown, USA.
Dan Gutman

Book Felt SO Real - memoirs of a teenage amnesiac

memoirs of a teenage amnesiac (Farrar, Stauss and Girioux, 2007) by Gabrielle Zevin is very, very good. It's an interesting concept, and very believable.

16-year-old Naomi fell and hit her head. She can't remember anything from the last 4 years: her boyfriend; her parent's divorce; her half sister; her best friend, Will Landsman, who calls her Chief; why she loves working on the Yearbook; French; how to drive a car. She doesn't know why she was with Ace; she's interested in James, the new guy, who rescued her when she fell. She decides she doesn't like who she was. THEN, she remembers . . . everything!

Go to author Gabrielle Zevin's website to read about all the awards this book has garnered. There's also a book trailer, and news that it's being made into a movie!

Gabrielle also wrote Elsewhere (review here) and a number of books for adults.

Great First Line - How to Steal a Dog

How to Steal a Dog.JPG
How to Steal a Dog (Frances Foster Books an imprint of FSG, 2007) by Barbara O'Connor is winning awards: Kansas' William Allen White Award (3rd-5th grade book) and the South Dakota Children's Prairie Pasque Award.

"The day I decided to steal a dog was the same day my best friend, Luanne Godfrey, found out I lived in a car." How can you not read on after reading that line? The rest of the book holds up to that beginning, too.

Good story about what happens after a father abandons his family and truthful look at the struggles (laundry, hygiene, food, frustration). Georgina tries to fix their homelessness herself. We see her bad attitude towards her mother, how her little brother figures out things she should have, and her notebook about how to steal a dog. Through the help of a bum, Georgia learns about forgiveness.

Barbara O'Connor has published 8 novels and 6 biographies. Read more about her here.

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 Laura Manivong and Jodi Meadows.

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

I tend to think of a premise

I tend to think of a premise—a "what if?" Then, I imagine the kind of character who will suffer the most in this situation.
D.L. Jacobs

Better to write for yourself

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.
Cyril Connolly

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part one

Today I'm talking about Query and Cover letters--including requests for guidelines and catalogs.


(This information is aimed at those submitting directly to a book publisher or magazine themselves. If you're using an agent, what's in the query or cover letter is the same, but you will be researching the agent, not the houses or magazines. Note: agents generally do not handle magazine submissions.)

Have the most recent market lists (SCBWI puts one out annually for members) and market books (Writer's Digest Book's Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market -, Institute of Children's Literature's Book Markets for Children's Writers and Magazine Markets for Children's Writers - and make notes when you hear of editorial or submission policy changes.

See if submission or writer's guidelines are available on the internet. You may want to save them on your computer, print them out and/or bookmark the site. If not available on line, write a letter to the publisher requesting guidelines. Keep it simple: Please send me your writer's guidelines for AAA BOOKS. I have enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope for your convenience. You can often pick up guidelines at conferences, too.

  • Write the date you received/downloaded on the guidelines themselves so you'll
  • know how current they are.
  • File guidelines so you can locate them when needed.
  • Perhaps, mark in your market book that you have this publisher's guidelines.

Know what kinds of books or magazine pieces are appropriate for this publisher.

  • Editors really hate getting picture book submissions when they only publish novels, etc. More than that, you need to know the flavor of a publishing house. i.e. If they only do edgy material and yours is not, you're wasting your time and theirs.
  • Go to the library and/or bookstore and look at what a specific publisher has published recently, which leads to the next point . . .
  • Catalogs! Check websites to see if a publisher has an online catalog. Pick paper catalogs up at conferences. Ask bookstores for any extra copies they have--last spring's is better than nothing! Write a letter requesting a catalog, again keep it simple, but abide by what the market book says on what you send with it. i.e. Please send me your most recent catalog for BB BOOKS. I have enclosed $3.00 and a self-addressed stamped envelope for your convenience.
  • You may want to indicate in your market book that you have a publisher's catalog.

Know something about the editor of the publishing house. Have you heard him or her speak? Read interviews written by them or their blog or followed them on twitter? Each of these will give you some insight. Is she into paranormal or sick of it? Does he like humor or serious fiction? At the very least researching an editor will help you get title and name correct.

Have your story written, critiqued, rewritten until ready to go. Never send something the moment you hit the end. If you belong to a critique group, great. If not, consider doing so. At the very least, let your material sit a while (weeks, months) so you can come back to it fresh. Read it aloud. Consider reading self-editing tips (in books or online). Rewrite. Let it sit again. Repeat as necessary.


Q: What's the difference between a query letter and a cover letter?

A query is sent without the full manuscript. It's a letter sent to the editor asking her if she would like to request a partial or full manuscript (or rest of manuscript) to read. What you send depends on the house's or magazine's writer's guidelines.

A cover letter is an introduction letter sent on top of a manuscript, similar to a letter that goes with a résumé. The full manuscript is right there for the editor to read.

Why you'd choose one over the other . . .

The former is an easier way to reach more markets at once. Many novel publishers want a query with 1 or 3 chapters, or 5 -10 page - always send first chapter(s) or page(s). Nonfiction often requires a book proposal.

Picture books are usually sent with a cover letter. Many magazines do not want to be queried either. Some editors want to see the complete manuscript for a novel. In any of these cases, you'll use a cover letter.

The wrinkle of electronic submissions . . . Queries and cover letters can be sent electronically, at least if that is something the magazine or house wants. Some guidelines will say "no attachments" and want all text pasted into the email. Others will accept attachments, but will tell you they must be in Word.

You must read the guidelines to see what an editor, house or magazine wants in their submissions.

Q: Okay, I've decided not to query. Should I always send a cover letter with my submission?


I don't. The reasons I do are: 1. The magazine requests manuscripts with a cover letter. 2. I have more information I want them to know (i.e. why I wrote the piece, or my submission fits a theme). 3. It might be pertinent for them to know my other writing experience and I don't think a full résumé is needed.

What one editor says: "As an editor, I did find submissions that lacked a cover letter a bit rude, like a phone caller who doesn't bother saying hello or identifying themselves before launching into the conversation." - Jacqueline K. Ogburn former children's book editor

Next entry, I'll go into more details on the specifics of a query letter.

There are moments when I

There are moments when I miss being just a writer and not an author, too. Enjoy that part of your development. Take the time to study the books you read and work on your craft. Once you're published, competing responsibilities will come into play, and you'll be glad you made the most of your apprenticeship. Again, remember, craft—first, last, always.
Cynthia Leitich Smith