Every week, writers (or friends of those who are writing books) contact me for advice. Most often it’s to pick my brain about big questions: “How did you break in to the industry? Who are the people you have to know in order to get published? What is one piece of advice I should know (or tell my friend)? Will you go to dinner with me or take a phone call and explain all of this?”
Although I don’t have the time to meet with or speak to most people individually, I’m honored that you feel comfortable reaching out to me, and flattered by your invitations to drink coffee or share a meal. Please don’t be disheartened by the fact that I may not be able to respond to your email, because I bear good news:
Most of what you need to know about writing and publishing is already available in a location near you.
The other stuff is already inside you.
Books, Internet, and in-person workshops and classes (or MFA programs) offer sound advice and clear paths to developing your craft and working in the industry. Social media brings writers into your own home; living far from established literary hubs or other authors is no longer as big of an obstacle. And trusting your gut is going to have to get you through a lot of the rest.
Within all of the resources listed at the bottom of this page, you’ll find things that aren’t easy to hear. Most writers who reach out to me want to hear secrets and shortcuts, or assume I have insider information. But the truth is cliché—it takes patience and determination to finish a manuscript and publish it. The work is always harder than it looks (especially if you choose to write picture books), and the outwardly-glamorous job of being an author feels more like a never-ending hustle.
Every professional writer I’ve met—myself included—has endured rejections, slumps, self-doubt, setbacks and stasis at points in their career (and possibly at some level during every single project that’s been a part of their career).
After reading all of my thoughts, if you still want to write or illustrate books for children, great! You’ve passed your first test of endurance. Below, I’m going to answer some FAQ and share some stories of how I got my career to where I am today, which is probably what you really clicked on this page hoping to find in the first place. Please remember that everything written or shared here is subjective. In the words of Carl Sandburg, “Beware of advice, even this.”
What are the first steps you took to becoming a published author?
The first step I took was that I read a lot, and that led me to write. Simple as that! In my youth and through my teens and early twenties, I filled notebooks and sketchbooks and computer documents with poems and manuscripts, often inspired by the volumes of books and magazines I was reading. Very little of what I wrote was ever penned with a longing dream of being a published author, which ended up to my benefit. My brain cells weren’t clogged with agent and query letter info, so I was free me to be experimental, creative, and raw. I learned to love writing and drawing itself. I let my scribbles fill me with joy or used them as a medium to express emotions. As I built a body of work, I honed my craft. As I honed my craft, I built a body of work. By the time I took the first steps toward writing for publication—and specifically writing books for children—I didn’t feel like someone brand-new to writing. I had a toolbox and a voice. I guess this paragraph is a long way of saying that the first step to writing is writing (and reading). Finish what you start, find joy and purpose in what you do, and get yourself to an emotionally healthy state so that when you enter the roller-coaster publishing industry, you’re strapped in and ready for the ride.
Once I knew that I specifically wanted to write books for children, I did two other things that helped me tremendously, and recommend these steps (especially #2) to children’s book creators at all stages.
- I bought The Idiot’s Guide to Writing and Publishing Books for Children and read it cover to cover in a single weekend.
- I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attended a regional meeting. It was at that meeting that I met other aspiring children’s authors. We formed a critique group and many years later, those who stuck with the group are all agented and/or published.
(Down below, you’ll also see a list of 100 things I did. There’s no shortage of things you can be doing to further your ambitions along!)
Do I need a degree in English or a Master of Fine Arts to become a published author?
No, you don’t. However, I did take that path. I earned a B.A. in English from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and feel as though I benefitted greatly from my degree in language and literature. At SMCM, I studied under children’s author and poet Lucille Clifton and attended my first-ever writing conference. I received the Creative Writing Award my senior year and was chosen to present for the Women in Poetry Symposium. I also earned my teaching certificate in Secondary Education from St. Mary’s and had the opportunity to work as an Editor-in-Chief of the college’s weekly newspaper. College immersed me in the craft and connected me to other professional writers for the first time in my life.
If you’re looking towards mastery of craft or to study children’s books in more depth, there are many fine schools that have Children’s Literature programs including Vermont College of Fine Arts, Hamline University, Simmons College, Hollins University, Spalding University, and Lesley University.
If you don’t have the resources to attend a university program, I highly recommend taking workshops or classes in writing or illustrating. SCBWI offers many writing conferences as do the Highlights Foundation, The Writing Barn. Children’s authors often host private or smaller retreats as well—one that I attended is called Whispering Woods, and it’s held each summer in Iowa by Linda Skeers and Jill Esbaum. Additionally, many authors and others teach online courses or webinars, which can be accessed from around the world. Long ago, I even took a correspondence class (yes, I MAILED my homework into the instructor) at the Institute for Children’s Literature, which is now revamped as The Institute for Writers. I also run the We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program, which pairs upcoming voices with established authors for a year.
Do you have any specific advice on popular topics? (e.g. critique groups, revision, querying)
Sure. I teach at The Highlights Foundation annually and I’ve taught other online and in-person workshops through various organizations over the years. But if you’re not able to sign up for a class or event, you can still contact me to do critiques or consultations and mentorships via email and Skype/Google Hangouts. I’m also available to visit you in person to speak at your conference or workshop, or present to your school through an in-person author visit anywhere in the world.
Furthermore, I’m doing a roundup of some my past articles on the craft and business of writing books for children and soon will link several of them below for your convenience.
ARTICLES ON WRITING BY MIRANDA PAUL (links coming soon)
The Bigger Picture: Beyond Writing – thoughts on diversity in children’s literature, the all-consuming quest to be published, and how to step back and celebrate the many hats we wear
The Critique Conundrum – Learning how to accept feedback and revise your manuscript even when multiple critiques offer conflicting advice about your work.
Advice for Newer Writers – Learn from general observations while reading and critiquing manuscripts from a large group of picture book writers
Storyboarding – A look at the picture book format and how visual techniques can enhance the text and turn an ordinary story into a page-turner.
Idea to Manuscript: 3 Tips for Picture Book Authors – a quick article outlining some writing exercises for those working on a picture book.
A Path-to-Publication Checklist – This New Year’s Resolution-style post offers 100 small actions that an aspiring writer can take to increase their chances of becoming a published author.
Breaking Up with Jealousy – A writer’s look at how to cope with feeling less than or feeling that you’ve fallen behind your colleagues and peers along the writing journey.
Turning Real-World Inspiration into a Fiction Picture Book – If you’re inspired to write a book in part by something that really happened, here’s an article that offers insight to the process.
The “P” word – A writer’s look at patience and how distance and time from a manuscript is essential.
Read-Aloud Power: How to Write a Storytime ‘Hit’ – An essential read for writers who want to create books for very young listeners.
The Other “P” word – Pacing! – Take a look at how conflict, anticipation, and structure are elements that can make or break a picture book.
Making Lists: A Writing Strategy to Improve Your Focus – Learn from author Miranda Paul one of her strategies that can help writers who struggle to stay committed to finishing and polishing their manuscript, or who aren’t sure where their book could fit in the marketplace.
Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end! Although all of this advice is a minuscule fraction of what I’ve learned, it has taken quite a bit of time to compile. If you’ve found this page useful, please consider supporting me by buying and recommending my books or checking them out from your local library. You can even get signed copies by calling my hometown bookstore, The Reader’s Loft (they will ship!).
There are literally hundreds of ways you can teach yourself to write, revise, edit, and submit your work. You will be overwhelmed often. You will get bad advice from time to time. But if you persist, keep an open mind, and remain dedicated to a worthwhile and honest purpose, I’m willing to bet that success (however you choose to define it) will find you eventually. Work hard and don’t give up. I’m rooting for you, and so are the children who need your books.