Institute for Writers and Institute of Children’s Literature director Katie Davis shares her tips to working your writing.
This writer is a pro at turning the page.
Katie Davis’ storied career has included working in advertising, selling hand-painted ceramics and becoming the best-selling children’s book author/illustrator of titles like “Who Hops?” and “Kindergarten Rocks!” that have sold more than 820,405 copies worldwide. But her most recent passion project is drawing from her diverse skills to teach other aspiring authors her craft.
“I thought writers were old, dead guys … so becoming a published writer never occurred to me, it wasn’t even a dream, because I didn’t think it was possible. When I got published, it was just stunning,” Davis told Moneyish. “And to see a kid reading your book is one of the most gratifying things in the world. It’s just beyond. I have gotten so much joy out of that, and from sharing that.”
Two years ago, Davis and her husband Jerry took over the Institute of Children’s Literature and its sister school, the Institute for Writers, which was on the brink of closing as its founders neared retirement. The college-level programs based in Madison, Conn. have schooled more than 470,000 students for almost 50 and 30 years, respectively, who’ve published more than 23,000 books and articles.
“There’s this amazing legacy of the curriculum, but we felt we could add a lot of value by understanding how to streamline it, how to make the process faster for the students,” explained Jerry, who noted that even two years ago, many students were still submitting their writing samples through snail mail. “Now everything is submitted via email and online portals.”
The Davises have also upgraded the institutes with modern logos and new building headquarters, adding more online workshops and story writing contests, as well as streaming live seminars such as their third annual Picture Book Summit on Oct. 7. This Friday is the deadline to buy tickets, and a portion of this year’s proceeds will benefit the libraries of two disadvantaged schools in Oregon and Connecticut.
And after having traditionally published more than a dozen books for children, plus self-publishing guides such as “How to Write a Children’s Book” and hosting podcasts on writing and marketing books – Davis has got plenty of solid advice.
“It’s so important to write, and rewrite, work on your craft,” she said. “Show it to an editor – especially if you’re self-publishing. Put it away, and take it out two weeks, or a month or six months later, look at it again with fresh eyes and revise.”
Real life is also full of revisions. Davis was fired several times from her advertising and marketing 9-to-5s in her 20s, but rewrote each of those pink slips into learning experiences.
“The first time I got fired from my first job out of college, I ran over to my dad, crying, and he was like, ‘So what? You got fired. Go do something else,’” she said. “People are so ashamed of making mistakes, but as long as you learn from it, use it. Plus, writers need to build a thick skin against rejection!”
So while she didn’t feel satisfied in a traditional PR job, she was able to apply the marketing skills she picked up there to sell her books, promote her podcasts and bring the writing institutes into the digital age. And she takes what she’s learned from rejected book proposals to teach new writers not to make the same mistakes – such as with the upcoming Picture Book Summit, an online conference she co-founded.
“So many people want to write children’s books, because they think it’s easy to write fewer words, which is a fallacy,” said Davis, “because with fewer words, you have to make sure they’re the right words.”
And make sure they’re words that kids will want to read (or have read to them) again and again. “Don’t give a lesson; no one likes to be lectured to,” said Davis, who suggests sneaking a lesson into the plot without making it the main point. In her book “Mabel the Tooth Fairy and How She Got Her Job,” for example, Mabel loses her own pearly whites because she didn’t take care of them – so she sets out to pick up children’s lost baby teeth to make herself a new smile.
Go to the children’s section of your local library or indie bookstore, and read the newest picture books to see what’s being published. “Study them, learn the craft,” suggested Davis.
Try literally sketching out your idea with a storyboard, as well. “Even if you’re not a professional illustrator, just lay out a dummy of your book – picture books run 32 pages – which helps with seeing where your lines should go, and how your story is flowing and whether you have the pacing right,” she said. Here is a link to a storyboard to download, free.
And while the $28 billion U.S. book publishing industry is certainly competitive, e-books and Amazon have helped level the playing field for aspiring authors.
“Amazon is a double-edged sword; it’s hurt independent bookstores, but it’s really helped new writers. I think it’s a better world for writers now, actually,” said Davis. “There are more and more online outlets for publishing. So the opportunities have morphed a little bit, but they’re still there.
“And writing is writing,” she added. “If you have a good story, and you know how to write, then the most important thing that you need is an editor, especially if you’re self-publishing. But you can be a published writer.”
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