Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Writing Wisdom: Rick Walton

If you are a writer from Utah, then it is likely you already know the extraordinary talents of children's author, Rick Walton. I first met Rick at a local chapter meeting of the League of Utah Writer's, and I've always found him to be one of the most supportive and nurturing authors I've ever met. Filled with great ideas and always willing to help others as they perfect their craft, Rick is a popular speaker at conference and workshop events. And overall, he's just a nice guy! He has an incredible website, filled with lots of resources for teachers and writers, as well as fun stuff just for kids. I attended one of Rick's day-long workshops for picture book authors (okay, so we all know I can't write anything as short as a picture book), and I learned a lot that has helped me in all of my writing.

Rick first asked us to consider: "What makes a bad manuscript?" Preachy, telling, point of view shifts, the all-wise adult, boring words, irrelevant info, condescending tone, and digressions all made the list.

Then we considered, "What makes a good manuscript?" Limited focus and time, the kids solve the problem, the main character is someone the kids can relate to, humor, and the problem draws us to the character.

The problem with too many adults who want to write a book for children--especially a picture book--is they are so interested in delivering a message that they forget to focus on the story. With a picture book, you have limited time, so you must use the best words. Stay in the narrative stream and teach in terms of positives, not lecturing about what children should not do.

"Establish the rules, tone, and format of the book, then don't throw your readers for a loop," Rick says. Talking animals and story in verse are much harder to sell, so you probably want to avoid those when you just start out. "Prose gives a lot more flexibility."

He encourages authors to write text that suggests illustrations, but don't tell your illustrator what to do. Give them the freedom to use their own craft.

"Avoid those topics that have been overdone," he says. "Ask yourself, 'Can a child relate to my main character?'"

When it comes to working with your editor, if you have no real reason to say no, then learn to say yes. They have been there many times before and know the market and audience as well as anyone. Only 30% of authors even make back their advances on these books.

"The picture book market is very competitive," he adds. "Great quality and a nice story isn't enough. Your manuscript must rise above the others." It takes around two years to publish a picture book. You want the best illustrators the editor can find, you writers need to be patient, and keep on writing in the meantime.

A key element for a successful picture book is, "Does this book make a good read aloud?" Parents and teachers rely on picture books to use with their children. If it's not a fun an interesting book to read, wy would they want to buy a copy?

As much as we as authors might not want to hear it, a positive rejection letter is a good thing. It means we are on the right track. If it's personalized, that is even better. Find something new to send to that same editor as soon as your next manuscript is ready.

Rick does say we should write for reasons other than making lots of money. "Do it because you love writing."

And that's good advice for us all in this crazy business called publishing.


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