Archive for May, 2012

Nothing New Under the Sun

copyright 2012 by Sherry Garland

I am currently knee-deep in preparing to teach a week long writer’s workshop.  Part of my preparation includes rereading some of the older how-to books I bought back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was new to children’s writing.  I also reviewed my notes from several writers’ conferences and from some workshops I taught many years ago.

Many things have changed since those old glory days of picture books, especially the advent of computers and the Internet.  Things move at a much faster pace and frankly, people seem to be a bit more desperate and frazzled today.

But some things never change.

One of my favorite books in the Bible is Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, written by King Solomon. It’s full of deep meaning, hopelessness and doom — my kind of book. And one of my favorite quotes (besides the one “the Sun Also Rises” which has already been taken ) is this one:

The thing that hath been, is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing new under the sun.”

Truer words were never said. Almost every subject has already been written about. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled my hair out when I saw a book on exactly the same topic as the one I was working on. I even had a publisher cancel a book because someone else came out with one almost exactly like it.

To avoid this, before I put too much energy into a project, I like to do a quick subject search to see what’s already out there. This is especially true if you are writing non-fiction.  In the old days I consulted Books in Print (every public library had a copy). Today, it’s more likely to be amazon.com or a Google search.

So what do you do if your topic has already been done many times? Basically, there are only three types of children’s picture books: storybooks, concept books and informational books. Most authors are better at writing one kind over the other.  I personally prefer concept books and informational books.  That’s why most of my books, even the longer novels, are about real events and history, rather than fantasy.

If you’re having trouble selling your picture book manuscript, perhaps your approach is all wrong.  Say you’re writing a story about butterflies — you’ve made it into a whimsical, fairy tale with princesses and dragons. You can’t get an editor interested no matter how much you revise and no matter how great your friends tell you the manuscript is. If there are fifty picture books out there about butterflies and princesses, then maybe yours should be a concept book using butterflies to count or a non-fiction story about the life of a butterfly.

Don’t be afraid to try a new approach.  You may discover that a concept book or informational book is your forte. No matter which category you prefer, you need to make your manuscript stand out apart from all those other stories about butterflies.  Make your manuscripts sing.

One famous editor is quoted as saying.  “Before I buy a manuscript, I ask myself, is this story worth cutting down trees to make the paper?”  I like to add:  “Before I send a manuscript, I ask myself,  would I spend $18 to buy this book?”

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