Barbara Seuling today

EVERYONE STARTS OUT AS A BEGINNER

by Barbara Seuling

The first children’s book I ever worked on was a friend’s story. I did the illustrations. It was before I read any books on the subject, or took any courses, or knew this was what I wanted to do with my life.

We were both recently out of college, trying to figure out what to do with our lives. She was a writer and I was an artist. We got to be great friends. When she came up with a children’s story, it seemed a natural for me to draw pictures for it, which I did. We were excited over our work and were ripe for every possibility.

The manuscript was 64 pages long, about a bookworm who wants to tell all the stories he’s read during his life among the great books, and leaves his comfortable life in a volume of Shakespeare to find a way to do it. His adventures along the way, I recall, involve several colorful characters, including a termite who works at the post office. My friend, an unpublished author at the time, had written adult stories, but this was her first attempt at a children’s book.

I had done some greeting cards for friends and relatives, but had nothing published professionally. My drawing style at the time bordered on cartoony. I had grown up on Disney animation and comic books, and although my tastes had expanded, that had not yet come through in my drawings.

When a relative heard about our book, she told us she knew someone who was an agent., and would ask her if she’d help us. This person said she’d show our book to some people. We were impressed, gladly thanked her, and went home to put the package together.

I hurriedly did more pictures for the presentation. Little characters with big bug-eyes were on every page. I did them in color. We got a book with plastic see-through pages and cut the manuscript up to display it with the illustrations in place. It looked great.

Now, as you’ve read through this, you probably picked up a few glaring no-no’s. Let’s see how close you came to finding them all.

1. No picture book should be 64 manuscript pages long. If we had read even one book on writing and publishing books for children, we would have known that the subject matter and plot made it a picture book idea in the format of a novel. And we would have known that the standard picture book text was approximately four to six manuscript pages long, except on rare occasions.

2. Illustrations are not submitted with a picture book text. We had no idea that we were impinging on the editor’s territory in providing illustrations for the text. It seemed the natural thing to do. To us, having illustrations with the text just made it more appealing. In reality, the editor judges text alone – the prime factor in choosing a manuscript. If she buys the story, then she chooses the illustrator. Sending someone’s illustrations with the text presumes to know better than the editor how to handle the illustrations for the book.

3. Illustrations should be in a style that is acceptable to publishers. At that time cartoons were sort of frowned on, except for Dr. Seuss. If I were an established or more confident artist, perhaps I could have made a case for using cartoons, if that’s what the text called for. However, this would only happen if the editor had called on me to do the illustrations, and then I showed her what I proposed. And my use of color was way out of whack with the standards of the time, when color had to be separated – a costly procedure, and something I knew nothing about.

4. A manuscript must be submitted in standard format. In our innocent attempt to make our presentation more attractive, we overlooked the fact that manuscripts should be submitted in standard formatting, typed on 8-1/2 x 11 inch bond paper with ample margins all around. No illustrations. No protective plastic sheets. And definitely no binding. If art is involved, as in the case of a professional illustrator submitting a story, a dummy book may be submitted along with the manuscript, but never in place of it.

5. An agent should not be hired without some proof of professional credentials. We accepted representation on the basis of a minor acquaintance. We heard nothing for a while., and after repeated inquiries, the agent returned the manuscript to us saying she had no luck with it. She disappeared from our lives, and we had no idea to whom she had sent it, or what they had to say, or even if she had shown it to anyone at all. An agent should be able to give you information about herself, her agency, and a list of other clients. She would most likely be listed in the Society of Authors’ Representatives, or have her name listed in various trade directories like Literary Market Place.

We did everything wrong that we possibly could. You name it, we found exactly the right thing to do that was wrong. My author friend is now a many-published writer, as I am, and every now and then we take out that first hopeful effort and look at it the way you look at baby pictures after a child has grown up. How far we’ve come ! We laugh, of course, at the innocence and futility of those early efforts.

I don’t think either of us would change that experience now. We had our initiation, and it was difficult, but we learned. Every step we took after that had more study and purpose to it, and we learned professional tips along the way. We studied, we read, we wrote and illustrated more, and eventually, we both got through that very scary door to the publishing world, each on her own two feet and prepared for whatever we met along the way.

Everyone starts out as a beginner. We do our best to be prepared, but sometimes in our enthusiasm we may step naively into a world that has teeth and claws. That’s okay. We’re fast learners. If we missed something the first time around, we’ll learn, and never do it that way again. The good news is that now there are books and even courses and workshops to help us on the road to becoming a writer for children. Our store of knowledge grows as we mature as writers, and we will perfect our routine, submitting only our finest work, and in a professional manner, and each day another of us will go through that door to the publishing world.

Adapted from a 1998 column for Once Upon a Time…

Barbara, thanks. Readers, please leave your comments below.

David

12 comments on “Barbara Seuling today

  1. Dear Barbara,

    Inspirational!

    I am in the infancy of my writing, I have done a few no-no things too, have experienced a few rejections and was beginning to wallow in-I-am-not-good-enough-feelings.

    Your story, David’s and the journey of the writers I have read about on this blog, are ALL inspiring me to keep writing, for the love and joy of it, to persevere and believe in myself. We all have things to express in our own unique ways. As you say we are all beginners, learning, growing evolving as persons and as writers.

    Thank you, Barbara for sharing your experience.

    Cory

    • Hi Cory,

      Barbara’s remarks are right on, I agree. She reminds us that we all learn throughout our careers and there’s no time like now to get started. I’m glad you found this post helpful.

      David

  2. I have had Barbara’s book:
    How To Write A Children’s Book & Get It Published, on my shelf for years. One of my
    first favorites that I dipped into time and time
    again when I was a beginner, too.

    Rebecca

    • Hi Rebecca,

      Thanks for dropping by to leave your comment about Barbara’s book and its influence on your early career. It helps for others to know this too.

      David

  3. The journeys I read about here are amazing, the way you carry on and follow your dream no matter what is bigger than any word I can think of right now….. David I think I should get the BIGGEST FAN pin, I come here and find myself reading very old posts, my aimis to read everything, now where’s my pin?

    • Dear Silindile,

      I must go in search of a huge pin for you. I need to tell you that your lovely words have made my day, and I thank you most sincerely. Now when you have managed to read every post I’ve made, I’ll need to search for another pin!

      Warmly,
      David

  4. This is a great post. Thank you for sharing your overly anxious, adorable story.

    I love what you said about all of us being beginners. It makes me feel better about some of the dumb questions/statements I’ve asked over the past couple of years like “What’s point of view?” or “But I like using adverbs!”

    We all make mistakes, big ones, in the beginning. I’m still learning. It’s nice to know we’re in such great company, and I plan to buy your book.

  5. I am interested in illustrating books. I have designed several book covers and I love doing that. I have worked on in the design field as a graphic artist for many years. I am a writer, but still like to dabble in the art field. Any suggestions on how to connect?

    I have designed gift shop items that range from snow globes with castles to perfume bottles with fairies on them for Seaworld, Universal Studios, Las Vegas Casinos, Silver Dollar City, Dollywood. and many many more.

  6. Illustrators generally submit work to the
    art director of the children’s book department, leaving cards or good color copies as samples for their files.
    When you have experience that will help
    you to show your proficiency, be sure to let
    the art director know in a cover letter or
    something you can leave with him (or her).
    This is actually a better way for you to
    connect than by illustrating a manuscript of your own, which will probably go to the
    editorial department and tag along with
    the manuscript. Good luck, Ruth!

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