When I first started writing for children, I went through several years of self-education. This is appropriate, by the way: what makes anyone think they can enter any profession, including writing for children, without doing any professional training? Just because someone read books as a child, or reads to their children now, does not mean they can create good children’s books.
My self-education consisted mainly of four parts, and while the industry has changed, these basic steps have not:
1) Practice, practice, practice. This should be obvious. You get better at writing the same way you get better at playing the piano or throwing a baseball. The main difference is, if you make mistakes playing the piano or throwing the baseball, you know it right away. If your writing is subpar, you may not know it, and you may continue to make the same mistakes. So:
2) a critique group is essential. If the first one you try isn't a good match for you, keep trying until you find one.
3) Conference, conference, conference. Especially in the first years of your career, you can learn so much by attending workshops and conferences. Take advantage of anything in your area – even if they’re not specifically for children’s writers – because good writing techniques translate from genre to genre. And join SCBWI and your local chapter, so you’ll know when there are children’s writers conferences near you, and also learn from their terrific newsletters. (And they can help you find a critique group.) You want to be a professional? SCWBI is your professional organization.
4) Read, read, read. This is critical and has two distinct pieces.
A )You must read lots and lots of children’s books, particularly the kinds of books you want to write (picture book non-fiction? Middle-grade mysteries? YA romance?) and particularly the most current examples you can find. The classics are wonderful but many, many of the books you loved as a child (assuming you are not still a child) would simply NOT BE PUBLISHED if they were submitted today. The industry has changed.
B) Read how-to books. Lots of excellent children’s writers have shared their expertise in books, and you will learn something from every single one. But – the industry has changed. Recently as I have been working on re-starting my writing career after a long hiatus, I realized that all the “how-to” books on my shelf were 25-30 years old. (even Olga Litowinsky’s It’s a Bunny Eat Bunny World, which was all about how the industry has changed, is 12 years old – and they’ve been 12 dramatic years in the publishing business!) So while Jane Yolen’s Writing Books for Children and Barbara Seuling’s How to Write a Children's Book and Get it Published will always have a treasured place in my collection, I went looking for some newer instruction. Here are my recommendations for updating your writer’s library (obviously not an exclusive list!):
Harold Underdown’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books: a tremendously useful guide (but the 3rd edition is 5 years old now, I wonder if he’s doing an update?) Harold also maintains a very useful website with lot of good articles about the process and the industry.
Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books: This is a really instructive little book, with lots of theory and reasons-why: really a course in writing: and most of the points are applicable to any level of children’s book writing.
Kate Messner’s Real Revision: Kate designed this book to be used by classroom teachers but the “how to” of revision are so clearly presented that it is a book which can be tremendously useful for beginning professional writers as well (in fact, I think the way she de-mystifies the revision process makes this book useful even for someone who has been writing and revising for decades).
Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight: this is a treat, a look at revision through the eyes of an editor. The editor’s job, of course, is to take the manuscript that you thought was absolutely PERFECT at the time you put it into the mail, and find ways to help you make it even better. Cheryl’s observations and examples are challenging but super-helpful as you try to get the manuscript to that “I think it’s ready” state.