Friday, September 07, 2007

2008 CWIM Excerpt: Jan Fields...

Jan Fields loves to write. "For me, writing is much more like trying to control flood waters." Fields took a circuitous approach to children's literature. She started with newspaper writing, then moved on to freelance writing and manuscript editing. Next came being a writing instructor at the local community college. Finally Fields realized what she really loved was writing for and about children. "I am fascinated by the whole beast-the whole world that is children's publishing."

Fields has kept herself diversified even after she figured out what she loves to do. A wife and mother, Fields balances many roles. Not only has she written several books and hundreds of articles, she teaches for the Institute of Children's Literature and runs Kid Magazine Writers.

Kid Magazine Writers (KMW) is an e-zine Fields started several years ago when she realized there was a need for a resource for people who write for children's magazines. "I waited for someone else to discover that and launch a magazine," she says. "I eventually figured out that wasn't happening. So, I started KMW because I felt that if I'm going to complain about something, I should be part of fixing it." Fields got her husband to help her with the technical stuff and launched the e-zine into her already busy life.

Working online has been a new experience for Fields. "It's much easier and faster for me to create a Web page than it was (back in the early 80s when I was learning print publication) to lay out a newspaper page. And one person can do a lot more." Yes the digital age has raised some difficulties. "Expectations have risen. People e-mail me and if I don't answer in an hour, they'll e-mail again. Folks just expect a quick answer to anything they need to know." Something that most people don't realize is that "the cost in time is incredible."

The online format gives Fields enough of an advantage over print publications to keep her going. For example, "I can 'scoop' print magazines on market news because I don't have long lead times from printing." But probably the best part of having the magazine online is that it gets to exist at all. Fields didn't have the money to invest in a print publication, but she could afford the time. "Kid Magazine Writers couldn't survive as a print publication, but it thrives online."

KMW thrives because it can change constantly. The content and features change monthly, and what gets published is determined by a couple factors. "Partly it's determined by what comes in," Fields explains, "but I also write part of the content for virtually every month and my contribution totally depends upon what high horse I'm up on." There are some things that do stay constant. "Every month I have industry information. Every month I have something on the writing life-either practical or philosophical/inspirational. And every month I have something on technique. I think these are the three sides of a successful writing career. I will always feed those three sides, but the subcategories can vary."

While some of the specifics in KMW may change, some things remain in constant demand. "We get the most hits to the editor area. Everyone wants to hear from editors. The whole market section is probably the first stop of most of our more successful writers because once you're selling regularly-you're always looking for new markets, better market info, and insider tips." Visitors can find tips on how to write better query letters to some new publishing opportunities.

One of Field's favorite sections is the technique area. "Within whatever your target specialty is-it's so important to always be honing your technique." Fields has reason to be proud of this area. "When I get positive e-mails from editors of magazines, it's nearly always about articles in this area."

What many new writers really love is the "Working Day" area. "I think that much of the 'Working Day' area is just very cozy, writer-to-writer chatty stuff. The things in there help people feel less alone. We get a lot of e-mail about that section too and how inspirational it is for writers who are struggling with fitting writing and life into a smooth whole."

One of the difficulties both new and seasoned writers have with the rise of Internet publishing is figuring out which sites and e-zines are reputable. Fields suggests these guidelines:

  • How long has it been online? Anything new stands the chance of folding quickly. Also, the quality of submissions grows over time so an older magazine tends to have a better reputation for quality.
  • Who is running it? If the site is run by someone with real experience in the business, I'm much more confident about how good the material will be and how good the editing will be.
  • Does it pay? That seems snobbish coming from an editor who doesn't pay, but for children's e-magazines, pay is a big part of reputation. Paying writers is a big commitment so magazines that pay are either picky about quality or sadly transient.

Writing for children's magazines is different from writing for adults. Fields maintains that one thing is vital if you want to write for children's magazines: "Read children's magazines. There is nothing, nothing, nothing you can do that is more important in this field. If you're not reading children's magazines, you're likely to get more rejections than acceptances. Reading fuels your creativity in the directions that will work for the magazines. And you'll internalize the unique pacing, plot and scene structure of the short story."

While reading to see what is there is important, Fields warns writers to be aware of what is not there as well. "I'm sometimes startled by folks who target Highlights, for example, by saying they've read the magazine since they were kids-but they're sending a story where a bully smacks a kid around in the school yard. Highlights has a very strict 'no violence' policy." If you don't want more rejections slips, be aware of each magazine's standards and guidelines.

That advice extends to writing activities for children's magazines. "You need to be familiar with your target magazine (that's code for read it) to send the right activity." Along with knowing the magazine, "lively and fun should be your watch words." These watch words apply to nonfiction writing as well, with one twist. "You have to be tightly focused. Don't write about camels-write about the feral camels of Australia. Drill down to the most fascinating aspect of the subject, the part that captures you, and expand that into your article."

For Fields, the key to writing for children is to have fun with it. "If you're reading what's being published and not enjoying it, you're probably not destined to write for children. Find the magazines that still catch your imagination and excite you and learn from them. You're probably the right person to write for them. There is an incredible amount of joy in writing for children and reading is the key to finding it."

[Article by Rachel McDonald from the 2008 CWIM.]

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