Finding Your Place as a Writer
Writing isn’t a one-size-fits-all field. For each of us, there is a type of writing where we will find the best success because of our interests, abilities, and level of skill. So, it’s important to find your place as writer.
For some writers, nonfiction for the eager middle grade reader is the sweet spot that offers the writer a huge variety of options in a hungry market. For other writers, the sweet spot involves writing for the very youngest audience who delight most in lively words that sound good read aloud and reflect simple concepts. And for still others, nothing less than novels allows the kind of storytelling and vocabulary freedom that makes the writing process satisfying.
Some writers work in several different areas, but it’s rare for any writer to be successful in many different areas and find them equally satisfying. This makes it important to find your place as a writer so you can thrive.
Finding Your Place as a Writer Self Check
Writers sometimes struggle to find success in a niche, because it’s not a good match for the writer’s own interests. For example, if the bulk of your reading is spent reading nonfiction and thriller novels, and you haven’t read a picture book since your kids were little, then picture books are going to be a tough slog. Your brain will already be wired for nonfiction and thriller novels because you’ve been feeding your brain a steady diet of that kind of writing. Of course, there are nonfiction picture books, especially in the educational book market, but if you’re really interested in finding your writing sweet spot, the things you love to read will generally give you some clues.
Does that mean you can only write what you want to read? Or that if you love to read a specific type of book, you’ll automatically love to write it? Not necessarily. The books I write are the types of books I enjoy reading, and when I’m writing books for children, I’ll usually write the sort of books I loved as a child. So I write books with mystery plots, lots of action, and humor. But, I also love reading horror. I loved spooky books as a kid, but I rarely write anything particularly spooky. My mysteries may have spooky or creepy elements, but I’ve never written anything for publication that falls into the horror category. So not everything you love to read needs to turn into what you write.
Reading, however, is a kind of tutorial for your brain. If you really, truly want to write picture books that sell to publishers, you need to read picture books — preferably recently published picture books. One way to manage this is to go to the closest big box bookstore or independent bookshop and simply read the books being sold. Read a dozen or two. Find which ones you really connect with and buy at least one of them (you’ll be using it as a self-guided tutorial, so it’ll be worth the money even if you don’t have a child at home).
By reading the books on offer at bookstores, you’ll be seeing recent books and have a better sense of what’s selling now, especially with big box bookstores. They’re going to have a selection of books they believe readers want to read enough to buy a copy. Bookstores will sell perennial classics too, so be sure you are concentrating on books published in the last three years for this exercise.
Libraries can also be a great source of lots of picture books to read, but many libraries have tiny budgets for their children’s section, so you won’t necessarily be reading recent books. Talk to your librarian to see their most recent acquisitions. You might even ask why they acquired those titles. Librarians are one of the gatekeepers when it comes to picture book sales, so knowing what they look for with their limited funds can be insightful as you write, revise, and decide which ideas are worth pursuing.
Just be sure you don’t train your brain on books that wouldn’t sell very well today. Reading tastes and buying trends change, so recent is always for the best.
Now, going to the big box bookstore is a great way to read recent picture books, but I also use the Amazon “look inside” feature to look at dozens and dozens of recent books. I can’t read the whole book, but I can get an excellent tutorial on the opening pages. This is vitally important because these first words the reader encounters in a book are the author’s best chance to capture the reader’s attention.
Remember that tutorial book I recommended you buy? Buying the book will allow you to read it over and over. And since you bought it, you can even write in it if you want. As you read it, divide the book into thirds (not necessarily even thirds) and look at how the writer got you into the story at the beginning.
Then consider how the writer kept your attention through the middle. Does the plot grow more interesting? Do things change? Is the writer upping the ante to keep you engaged?
Then notice how the writer ended the book. How a book ends, especially in a picture book, is as essential as how it starts and how it keeps your interest. A good ending satisfies. It might also surprise, but it will be a delightful surprise, not a jarring one.
Notice also what the pictures bring to the story. In fact, if you’re studying picture books, type out the text of this picture book that you bought, and print it as a manuscript. Notice how much sparer it is without the pictures. And how few words really were used. The first time I ever did this, I was astonished by how few words were necessary for an exciting, compelling story.
Matching your personal enjoyment and actual study will bring you the best result. The book you’re using for a tutorial should be based on your enjoyment of the book. Don’t simply choose a popular book that only barely interests you. You don’t need help in writing a book that won’t delight you. Instead, work with the book you liked the best out of all the ones you read.
Can You Connect?
Many beginning picture book writers are pulled to the genre because their kids love picture books, and they love their kids. They want to write a book for kids know and love. And there are a lot of positives with this choice. For one, they know and recognize the age of their reader. It’s important to know what age reader you want to connect with in your writing. Picture books, for instance, are generally written for children who don’t read fluently. The books are read to them. As a result, the target age for the majority of picture books is preschool – 1st grade. Board books are even younger, mostly targeting babies and young toddlers who are inclined to put books in their mouths.
Now, since picture books are read aloud, there’s a second, much older audience to consider – the one that is consuming picture books by hearing them through read-aloud story times. Because of this second audience, the language in picture books is often carefully chosen, melodic, and challenging.
The humor in picture books is often directed at the older reader as much as the small child. This can lead to some writers erroneously assuming it’s okay to write picture books that clearly target older children (8+). There are very few publishers who will look at picture books for kids in upper grades at elementary school. If a writer pens a 1200-word book that is clearly for 8-10-year-old readers, they are going to have a rough time finding a publisher. So understanding who you want to write for and what books are normally published for them is helpful.
Personally, I think less about the age of the reader than fluency. I normally write for fluent readers in elementary school. I don’t write books with extremely limited vocabulary, but I do write for kids who can wear out if I pen lengthy sentences and lengthy paragraphs. So, my style when writing for children involves a mix of sentence lengths with a tendency to trend toward shorter, and definitely short paragraphs with lots of white space on the page. My style is full of action and humor, so the books appeal to kids who need to be tempted into reading. To help that, I ensure the amount of white space on the page makes the book look fast-paced and readable. Big blocks of text for young readers are daunting.
In fact, big blocks of text for any of us are daunting. If you’ve read Moby Dick lately, the text on the page is weighty. It’s worth the slog (at least in places) but it is a commitment to read. And today, it’s harder and harder for readers of any age to make that commitment. So even if your reader’s age is older, including teens, keeping your paragraphs shorter and ensuring plenty of white space will help engage the reader almost as much as the content you put on those pages.
If you’re writing for teens, you won’t need to have many restrictions on vocabulary or plot complexity. Teens can handle whatever you can write. But they’re bored easily, and they won’t tolerate being talked down to. If you absolutely must talk down to your reader, elementary and middle grade readers are more forgiving—if you also have a really compelling story. Teens, on the other hand, really won’t accept being lectured or talked down to, so if your goal is to write for teens, be sure you can do it with respect for their intelligence and their almost scary ability to spot condescension.
Write for Today
I’m not a huge believer in writing for trends, but I do try hard to be aware of them. Sometimes being aware of what is trending can help you decide between two writing ideas. I would never chase a trend, meaning I would never decide that horror is hot so I’m going to write horror, period. Because I do pay attention to trends.
For instance, I’ve seen the absolute hunger for young adult novels over all other formats has begun to balance. Agents are again looking for middle grade writers, especially those who write contemporary or speculative fiction with humor. Agents don’t tend to be crazy about picture book writers because of the money, but picture books are a kind of evergreen format. There will always be small children, and they’ll always love being read to by parents.
Right now, there is a huge focus on stories from marginalized groups that center their lives and experiences, but that doesn’t mean that anyone not from a marginalized community stands no chance. It may mean being more creative and more willing to stretch and tell the story that no one else is telling.
I try to read the books that are making the bestseller lists because these are the books readers want enough to buy. In YA, romance still rules and tends to spill over in most books (even those in different genres). There’s a lot of fantasy, horror, dystopian, and realistic contemporary. In middle grade, series books continue to be hugely popular with lots of realistic contemporary (especially family stories and friend/school stories), humor, paranormal/contemporary fantasy, and lots of educational/STEM tie-ins in plots.
Just as romance tends to show up in many (if not most) YA books, adventure and/or humor tends to show up in many middle grade stories. Chapter books are ruled by series with lots and lots of humor. Picture books have lightened up a little on the “love” books (though if you’re writing one, you’re still fine), and there are lots of family books and lots of books about navigating early challenges, especially dealing with big emotions. SEL or social emotional learning manuscripts are getting a lot of buzz right now.
After having said you don’t need to chase trends, there is one huge reason to be aware of them: they will help you better interpret what specific publishers are buying and publishing. Publisher lists (the books they’ve published) tend to be unique to that publisher based on the publisher’s vision or the specific niche that publisher has chosen.
For instance, many publishers are interested in stories with STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) elements, but one publisher, Tumblehome Books, makes it their specific niche. All of their fiction and nonfiction have a STEM focus, so sending them a book without that, even a really well-written book, would be a waste of your time and the publisher’s time. I often visit my local public library where the children’s librarian saves publishing catalogs for me to read, as well as letting me read the latest Publisher’s Weekly. This gives me a chance to study publisher lists, but also to see how publishers advertise their own books. This can go a long way to helping you see what the publisher thinks is the hot thing right now. And the more you understand about that, the better you will be able to connect with the right publisher in a way they find appealing when you have written the book you want to write.
So What Works for You?
Ultimately, the choice of what to write depends on the writer’s personal preferences, writing style, and audience. When finding your place as writer, it’s important to choose a type of writing you are passionate about and comfortable writing in, as this will lead to a more authentic and engaging product and surer success in the field.
Understanding the publishing world as it exists will help you wriggle into your place in it. No one can write for every age level in one book. No one can craft a book that would work for every publisher. There is simply too much diversity in the field for one book to meet every need, but as you understand yourself and you understand the world of publishing, you can best craft the book that works for a specific age group in a specific genre and format.
And that will help you find the success you want in this business.
Related Links for Finding Your Why as a Writer
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.
Nonfiction picture books are loved by kids. Writing one takes care, thought, and, especially, research. Dig into writing nonfiction for kids with this post.