editing books for children

3 Query Tips Every Editor Hopes you Forget

Anyone who has submitted a manuscript–from published pro to the first timer–knows the feeling that sets in the second you click “send” on the query letter email. Anxiety takes hold almost immediately. Did I miss a typo? Will she like it? Will she think my letter is too short, or too long? Maybe I should have read it one more time…

Who knows? Every editor’s taste is different. One may prefer YA realism to fantasy. Another may appreciate high-concept middle grade over school tales and picture books. Some editors only publish fiction or non-fiction. But we all agree that a thoughtful pitch is the best way to garner attention no matter the genre.

So as your finger trembles over the SEND button, try to keep these things in mind:

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UN-Monday: Ursula Nordstrom’s 5 tips for writing for children

The road to publication is long and filled with missteps and restarts. No one understood that better than Harper’s venerable children’s book editor, Ursula Nordstrom. Her correspondence, so thoughtfully curated in DEAR GENIUS (Marcus, 1998), is filled with revision advice for writers at every level of their careers.

In her September 27, 1961 letter to Fred Gipson, author of the Newbery Honor-winning young novel Old Yeller, she outlines five tips for writing books for children. In her note to Gipson, they are meant to help him expand and adapt an adult short story into a possible work for child readers. However, they are a nearly accidental road map for writers of young fiction, genius in their simplicity. I’ve even created a PDF below! Click UN’s list and download it to hang on the wall of your Writing Batcave.

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UN-Monday: Why does it take so long to publish a book?

Editors rarely feel like they have enough time with a manuscript.


Image courtesy Dasha Tolstikova

There is so much to do. Developmental editing comes first–working with the author to make sure the story is the best it can be. Does it build tension from the beginning? Is it engaging throughout? Does the ending leave the reader feeling differently than when she began? Is she satisfied? Curious? Left to wonder about herself or the world in a new way? What about illustrations? Who should illustrate? Which artist is best for this particular story? In her May 4, 1955 note to Janice May Udry, UN offers us a glimpse into why the editorialĀ  process is arduous and lengthy.

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Un-Monday: Ursula Nordstrom on chasing ideas down the rabbit hole

“Where do you get your ideas?” It’s the number one question I hear asked of authors at writers conferences. With good reason, unproven writers love to mine these answers for clues that might inspire their many hopes for publication, too.

In her classic book on writing, BIRD BY BIRD, Anne Lamott (and seriously, why have you not read this book?!) says she pictures a muppet-like character in the basement of her mind, diligently feeding her ideas. I like that image a lot. But for an editor, getting into the idea business can be tricky. There’s a fine line between telling an author what you wish you had found in your submission pile and hijacking the writing process. Who wants to work with a dictatorial editor?

Great editors opt for a more Socratic approach to manuscript development; that is to say, asking lots and lots of questions. It’s not the editor’s job to tell the author how to write her book, or what to write about, but to ask questions to drive the work’s improvement after the first draft is finished.

Leaving the author alone to find her way can be a difficult part of the job for all parties involved. Because ultimately, the best books are the ones that the author most wants to write –and that arduous journey to discovery must be taken alone. Ursula Nordstrom knew that well, as you can see in her note to Natalie Savage Carlson.

Please know that I am not trying to avoid my editorial responsibility but I think it is always unfortunate that an editor decides what an author should do next . . . I never want to forget that if Lewis Carroll had asked me whether or not he should bother writing about a little girl named Alice who fell asleep and dreamed that she had a lot of adventures down a rabbit hole, it would not have sounded awfully tempting to any editor. ~Dear Genius, edited by Leonard Marcus

If you’re looking for something interesting to write about, start with what interests you. Create a Pinterest board of topics you think are fascinating, re-read the books that made you want to be writer (or a better person). What are you curious about? What do you want to know how to do or better understand? See? Questions are the keys to unlocking all sorts of writing secrets. AndĀ  the answers will drive your search to find something worth writing about.

And the best piece of advice when you’re idea hunting, “NEVER STARE AT A BLANK PAGE” (thank you again, Laini Taylor for that pearl of wisdom!), get the pen moving and see what you find down the rabbit hole.