I got loads of emails every week asking how to write/illustrate/publish books. Sometimes it’s because people have already seen the videos I did for eHow on these topics (if you haven’t seen them, start here). I thought it would be helpful to post the most frequently asked questions, along with my most frequent responses, here. I hope this helps!

Q: I want to write and illustrate a children’s book. How do I do that?

A: This is a super broad question, so it’s a good idea to break it down into bite-sized chunks by asking YOU some questions. When you can answer these questions, you’re off to a good start:

  • Who is your audience? If you’re writing for children, what age group? Are there specific characteristics about your “ideal reader” that you would be appealing to (for example, children of divorced parents, children who love sports, animals, etc)? Is your audience children in your family exclusively? Or do you want every child between the ages of 3 and 8 to read your book?
  • What is the point of your book? What is it that you have to say?
  • How hard are you willing to work? Be honest: is this a hobby, a class project, or would you like to be the next JK Rowling? (Hint: no one can do it for you, there’s no getting around actually sitting down and writing).
  • Do you like to paint or draw, or do you need to find an illustrator for your book?
  • Are you a member of a writers’ group, and/or are you willing to make connections with people who can help you with brainstorming, editing, critiquing?

Q: What is the process for writing a book? How do I start?

A: It’s helpful to start with an idea, but sometimes you don’t even have to have that. Maybe you just have a burning desire to be an author. So the first step is to find what inspires you; do this by READING. [shameless plug: buy my books here and get inspired!] If you are wanting to write a children’s book, hang out with kids and do a lot of listening. They are just bundles of fantastic ideas.

After you have an idea, you have two choices. Fly by the seat of your pants/be a “pantser,” which means just start writing! Or…make yourself an outline: Beginning. Middle. End. Sounds simple, but you’d be amazed how tempting it is to skip that step and end up wandering all over a storyline, even a short story. Answer questions about your main character/s: what would happen if… and how does it get resolved?

Now here is the key that both options above have in common: WRITE. I’ve talked to more people than I can count that want to be an author, but have never written anything. Well, I want to be a rock star, but I don’t sing or play an instrument. What do you think my chances are? Slim to none (which would actually be a cool name for my band, so that’s a start…)

Q: How do I illustrate my book?

A: The really fabulous children’s books out there (hey, have I mentioned my books lately? You can find them here) have clever illustrations that don’t repeat what the text is telling you. In other words, you need to be able to see or find details that the story isn’t spelling out for you. One of my favorite examples is in my book Petalwink Takes a Bow. Petalwink gets the lead in the Newman Forest Fairy musical (total foreshadowing), but gets distracted from learning her lines; the text reads: “The fairy twins offered to run lines with their friend, but Petalwink was busy trying a new celebrity trend.” The illustration shows a Petalwink in oversized sunglasses coddling a ladybug who is dressed up in a tutu and has a sparkly collar (a tiny clothed pet= “celebrity trend”). The illustrations of your story fill in the blanks and offer richness to the narrative. Visual details will encourage the reader to linger on the page, hence linger with your story book.

Do a storyboard. It is my least favorite part. I just want to get drawing or painting, but without an overall arc and establishing the general feel of the book, it makes each illustration harder. You want the placement of the text to flow, as well as the images themselves. The completed storyboard should be able to get the idea of the story across without any text (just like watching your fave TV show on mute, you get a lot of what’s happening). The storyboard also helps you determine size and scale of your finished book. Depending on the publishing route you plan to take, these sizes may already be pre-determined, so you definitely want to check into that before going whole-hog on your glorious illustrations.

Q: I’ve written a book, but I can’t draw and so I don’t have any illustrations. What now?

A:  There are several options here:

  • you could take up drawing and/or painting and do some fun abstract stuff.
  • ask a child or a bunch of kids to illustrate your pages.
  • get the word out that you’re looking for an illustrator: start telling people about your project and see who they know (people love to tell you their niece/dogsitter/neighbor’s cousin/plumber’s fiancé/etc is an artist). Be willing to share profits, trade (do you make a fabulous peach cobbler?), or pay them directly.
  • be creative. Maybe you can’t paint or draw, but can you take pictures (if including people in your images, ask and get permission to use them!)? What about making collages out of paper shapes (like Eric Carle), images, or even photographing three dimension collages? How about computer images or clipart? I have yet to see clipart illustrations done well, but I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. Maybe you’re the one to bust through and make it work!

Q: I have a story already written. Everyone who’s ever read it thinks it the most fabulous piece of literature they’ve ever laid eyes on. But I can’t get it published. How do I get it published?

A: One way to “get” established is to self-publish and get a track record for yourself (as I did), sell as many books as you can and then try the “traditional” publishing route with the “big-name publishers,” if you simply must. But times, they are a’ changin’, so be open to wonderful new opportunities.

Q: I have a publisher interested in publishing my book. How do I know if they are legit?

A: It’s very flattering to have someone interested in your work; unfortunately (cue Debbie Downer sound effects), if your work is quickly noticed and a publisher is begging to take it on, it could be a scam. Click here for red flags and a great list of so-called publishers to be aware of. You always want to maintain control of your “property” and have the final say as to where it goes and how it’s published and distributed.

Q: Should I get an agent?

A: If you can, yes. An agent will be as excited about your work as you are; he/she should get paid when YOU get paid (hence their burning interest in getting you a rockin’ deal). You want an agent who will advocate for you, but be fair to whomever you’re trying to partner with (they represent you/your image). If an agent asks you to change something about your writing style, your vision, or your work, you still get the final say; you are the “talent” and you must follow your heart. Unfortunately, as with publishers, not all agents are legit. Click here and here to see red flags and agencies to steer clear of. As far as finding an agent, writers’ groups and the most recent editions of the Writer’s Handbook and the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market are great places to start. And no, you can’t have my agent (he’s booked solid). Nor can you have my husband or dog. But I’m happy to share advice and, of course, my books.

Q: Is it hard to write/illustrate/publish a book?

A: Ahem. Did you read the above?

Yes, it’s hard. But anything worthwhile takes a little effort. You won’t get far without passion; as I noted in a blog post entitled Julia Child Wasn’t Always Julia Child, “Anything worth doing requires persistence, patience, and passion. For the moments you don’t feel like being persistent, the passion will get you through it. For the moments you aren’t feeling the passion, the persistence will get you through that; and for the times when you feel neither, you’ll need patience.” (I really love quoting myself.)

Q: I have read through all of your fabulous advice. I’m floored at how generous you are, and how kind it was of you to take so much of your precious time to answer these questions. (By the way, as a thank you, I think I’ll purchase a book or two of yours). But I still have some specific questions. Do you mind if I contact you?

A: Why, kind reader. Thanks for the praise. It goes a long way to me desiring to respond to your email. Of course you may contact me…especially if you use common courtesies in your email correspondence such as the traditional “please” and “thank you.” It also helps if you use your name. I’m not totally stupid, but I’m not a mind-reader either. Give me as much info as you can and try to be as specific with your questions as you can and I’m more likely to be helpful. Then when you’re a best-selling author I can say I knew you when…