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The Twelve Rungs of a Picture Book Writer’s Ladder

by Sue Lancaster

Are you a picture book writer striving for that elusive agent offer/publishing deal? 

Some people may get lucky and have literary success early on in their journey, but for the majority of writers there are some inevitable steps to climb—or mistakes to learn from—before hitting the jackpot. 

One aspiring author, Sue Lancaster, has written her interpretation of what a picture book writer’s climb to success might look like. Some writers may linger near the bottom for a while, where others take the ladder two-by-two. But remember, if you recognise yourself on any of the rungs, know that you are not there alone!

Rung 1 – INNOCENT OPTIMISM

You have just finished writing your first ever picture book and it’s absolutely brilliant! You haven’t shown it to anyone or had any feedback, but you have read through it at least five times and can tell that it is really, really good. 

Not wanting to waste any time, you hastily send it to every children’s publisher and literary agent you can find in the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book. Then you relax, safe in the knowledge that by this time next year, you’ll be a best-selling author.

Rung 2 – REJECTION

A few weeks have gone by since you sent out your precious work, but hardly anyone has bothered replying. The smattering of responses you have received were rejections, and you can’t understand why your amazing picture book hasn’t been snapped up yet. 

You decide to write something new while you wait for the offers to come flooding in. ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to write in rhyme?’ you think to yourself. ‘Kids love a rhythmic story and If Julia Donaldson can do it, then so can I!’  

You know writers are advised to avoid rhyme because of translation issues, but you’ve also heard that rhyming stories WILL sell if the story is strong enough, so you confidently set to work. You’re absolutely certain that publishers won’t mind if the rhythm is a teensy bit off, or that ‘tree’ doesn’t quite rhyme with ‘seen’. 

Rung 3 – FALSE HOPE

POP! 

That’s the sound of you cracking open a bottle of champagne in celebration. A publisher has just accepted your rhyming picture book! You knew it was a masterpiece. 

But something about the offer feels off and it’s niggling you… For peace of mind, you do a quick internet search to abate your worries. 

You discover that the publisher in question is what’s sometimes known as a ‘vanity press’. It’s where you have to pay them to publish your work. It’s a good option for some people, but it’s not your dream.

‘Perhaps I’d better join a critique group,’ you think. ‘And maybe do a writing course…’

Rung 4 – PERSEVERANCE

You’ve completed a writing course, joined a critique group, had LOADS of feedback on your stories and edited, edited, edited. You’ve read loads of picture books and have really expanded your knowledge. You’re confident that your new manuscript is going to be THE ONE that lands you an agent or publishing deal. You can feel it in your bones. 

Taking your time, you meticulously write a query email and a punchy pitch, you double check the right version of the manuscript is attached and, with beads of sweat forming on your forehead, you press SEND.

“Noooooo…!”

You instantly spot a spelling mistake in the very first line of your email. Head in hands, you wonder how on earth you could have missed it after so many read-throughs.

Rung 5 – IMPATIENCE

It has been almost five weeks since you sent out your latest query. The agent’s website says you should definitely hear back in four. You decide the time has come to chase them up – just in case they have accidently deleted your email. But, on second thoughts you don’t want to come across as a hassle… 

After much overthinking, deliberating and perspiring, you send a very politely worded email to chase the agent up. 

However, now they haven’t responded to that email either. You wonder how long you should wait to send a chase up on a chase up?

Rung 6 – PART OF THE COMMUNITY

Your very good writing friend has a new book out! It’s in real-life shops and everything. You feel a huge sense of pride as you hold the book in your hands and inhale the scent of its pages.

OK, so the author is not your actual friend as you’ve never even met them. But you interact with them ALL the time on Twitter and they’re part of the same amazing #writingcommunity as you.

Rung 7 – CHAMPAGNE REJECTION

It’s a ‘pinch me’ moment… an agent has sent you a personalised rejection saying your manuscript is “good but not quite the right fit”.

You are feeling on top of the world until—like a cloud in a sky of blue—a thought pops into your head… ‘What if I chose the wrong manuscript to send?’

In a panic, you email the agent an alternative story. You figure it doesn’t matter if the rejection only came in 13 minutes ago. The agent will see your reply, instantly realise they’ve made a mistake and make you an offer by tea time. 

You never hear from that agent again.

Rung 8 – COMPETITION SUCCESS

You have just been longlisted in a competition! This is fantastic news, as it means that someone, somewhere thinks your writing is good enough.

But you immediately start to worry: ‘What if there’s another entrant with exactly the same title as mine and they’re the ones who have been put on the longlist?’ 

Yes, that must be it, you decide. It’s the only possible explanation.

Rung 9 – IMPOSTER SYNDROME

There’s a writer on Twitter who you know has not been writing for as long as you have and they’ve just signed with a top literary agent. You think this is completely unfair and certainly not in the order of how things should go. You try to convince yourself that social media only gives you the highs and not the lows, and you console yourself that some writers might have better connections within the publishing industry than you, but that doesn’t stop imposter syndrome kicking in.

You come to the conclusion you’re utterly rubbish at writing, have been kidding yourself all along, and that you’d better just give up on the whole thing right away…

Rung 10 – CAN’T GIVE UP, WON’T GIVE UP

…Except you can’t give up. Not after all the time, money and energy you’ve dedicated to perfecting your craft. What a complete waste that would be… and besides, you’ve just had another idea for a picture book and this is definitely going to be THE ONE that gets you a six-figure publishing deal. 

Rung 11 – REVISE AND RESUBMIT REQUEST

You have just received an R&R on one of your stories! 

‘This is it’, you think. ‘I am moments away from being signed’

You hurriedly make a few tweaks to your manuscript. You opt not to get any feedback from your critique group because you simply HAVE to send the edits back right away or the agent will forget all about you. 

You resubmit your manuscript within hours of receiving the revision request. 

You never hear from that agent again.

Rung 12 – ACCEPTANCE

Hooray! You have finally had something accepted for publication! 

One of your stories is going to appear in an online magazine. At long last, after all these years of pouring your heart and soul into your writing, your words are going to be available for the whole world to see.

‘Wait… what?!

This means people are actually going to read my work? 

What if they don’t like it? 

What if it’s not good enough? 

What if I’m a laughing stock?’

You feel a little sick inside and decide to cower in a corner until the whole thing blows over…

About the author:

Sue Lancaster is a children’s writer living in London with her husband, two children and pet budgie, Buddy. She is represented by Caroline Wakeman of CWLA. Sue is a graduate of the Golden Egg Academy’s Picture Book Programme and has also completed courses with Writing Magazine and Curtis Brown Creative. In the summer of 2020, Sue won first place in the Winchester Writers’ Weekend picture book competition. She has also been longlisted twice in Write Mentor’s Picture Book Awards, and has been a finalist in Susanna Hill’s Halloweensie and Holiday contests and Vivian Kirkfield’s 50 Precious Words. Before turning her hand to writing, Sue worked in TV as a Production Manager and got her degree in Media Studies at the University of East London. She grew up in Clacton, Essex and spent much of her childhood in or beside the sea, playing with her three cats and being tormented by her two older brothers. 

Find Sue on Twitter: @WritesSue

The opinions expressed within this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions or beliefs of The Salariya Book Company or its employees

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