Week of September 11—Learning from NY Times Best Sellers
Friday, September 16—So Now What?
Now that we’ve spotted trends among the September 18 list of New York Times best-selling picture books, what do we do next? Well, the first thing we do is to not try to make our writing be like any of the books on the list. That would defeat our purpose. After all, these books have been written, sold, read, and enjoyed. We need to write something fresh and new. But we can apply what we learn from these trends to our writing to propel us to the next level.
I’m going to take our list of trends from yesterday and reorganize them. I’m going to put them into an order of what we, as writers, have control over and/or choices about and those things we have less control over, but can still influence. Let’s see what we can to do with those trends to improve our writing and improve our chances of getting published.
WHAT WE HAVE COMPLETE CONTROL OVER
“I don’t like TO WRITE. I like to HAVE WRITTEN.” Have you heard that phrase? If that’s how you’re approaching you’re writing, then you won’t be successful. Successful picture book writers are masters of their craft. It doesn’t just happen, they work at it. Their manuscripts aren’t critiqued and revised once, but a multitude of times. Good writers are good learners who seek out opportunities to learn about their craft by attending conferences and boot camps; reading books, blogs, and journals; and by practicing, practicing, practicing their craft. Most successful writers throw away or abandon more stories than they ever have published—this is part of becoming a stellar writer—you learn what works and what doesn’t, and when something doesn’t work, you leave it if you can’t fix it.
THINGS WE HAVE CHOICES ABOUT
Do you have to write about animal characters to be successful? No. But we can tell that animal characters are (and have been) popular. What you do have to do is create a memorable character. Pete the Cat, Llama Llama, Skippyjon Jones, the bear with a loose tooth, Gerald and Piggie, and even the construction equipment at the construction site are all character-driven books. The story is all about the character, the character is not all about the story. Character is key.
I don’t think much about genre because I consider myself to be a fiction writer. But after reading Moo and Press Here I realize I could write in another genre, if I’m passionate about that genre or have a story idea that would best be served by that genre. I think the genre trend reminds us to keep my mind open to all the possibilities. There are many stories to be told and they can be told in many ways. Be open.
Rhyme is not dead. But bad rhyme is DOA. I’ve met some people who are natural rhymers, and to them I say, “Rhyme on!” Others (like me) aren’t natural rhymers. So either we have to learn how to rhyme, or we have to leave rhyme alone. I’ve found the rhyme learning curve to be a steep one, but when rhyme works, it makes for great writing. Doable, but difficult.
Frankly, I’m still wrapping my head around interactivity. I don’t see myself writing a Moo or a Press Here. But I learned from the books on this best-sellers list how interactivity can mean so much more—singing, repeating words together, anticipating answers, and so on. I also learned from Eric Litwin’s YouTube video reading of one of his Pete the Cat books exactly what picture books as performance pieces means. I think that’s how I’m going to embrace interactivity—by making my writing more participatory and performance oriented.
THINGS WE HAVE LESS CONTROL OVER, BUT CAN INFLUENCE
Forever, I’ve heard, “Don’t ever mention series in a query letter.” And it’s true that most publishers want to see how well a first book sells before they publish a second book. But I’ve learned recently that you have to consider series potential from the get-go if it’s going to happen. If I write a book that is not character-driven, then there’s no hope for a series because a series is about a character (with Moo being an exception). If I don’t think about what other adventures (if any) I can take a character on, then there probably won’t be any other adventures for that character. I’ve had an agent for a little over a month and already he’s sent manuscripts to editors with a note that says, “This may have potential series.” Publishers are smart business people so they are not going to just let a series happen by chance, they’re going to plan for it. Writers need to be just as smart.
Writers can think about added features before we sell a book, but it’s probably more useful after the sell. That’s the time to say to an editor, “Hey, I have a song that goes with this book” or “What if this character has her own blog?” When I sold Cowboy Christmas I knew that I could turn the story into a wonderful holiday program for schools to perform for parents. Whether that ends up being something my publisher actually features on their site, or with the book, or something I put on my own web site doesn’t matter. Either way, it can still be an added feature.
What inspires you from this list of best-sellers? What goals are you setting for your writing? Where do you go from here? Grab hold of one or two concrete things you plan to do and set goals for yourself and your writing. Who knows, we may be seeing one of your books on the New York Times best-sellers list soon!