Thursday, May 15, 2014

Having trouble choosing a children’s-book writing course? I don’t blame you!


When I decided to take an online children’s picture book writing course, I had no idea where to start (I’ll tell you where I ended up later on, and offer a few more good suggestions as well.).

Googling “children’s picture-book writing course” turns up a dizzying range of courses, from universities (expensive!) to individual authors’ homemade courses (sketchy?).  Some claim to have been around for 30-some-odd years, while many others have popped up overnight.

All these courses claim to be the BEST.  How can you tell them apart? 

The good news is that you can find decent courses at a few different price levels.  As for which ones will actually help you get ahead… I’m convinced that has more to do with your attitude than with the teacher (as long as he/she is reasonably competent).

I’ve taken a bunch of creative writing classes, both online and in person.  Some were good, a couple were great… one (in-person at a major university) was pretty bad:  we spent much of the time looking at the professor’s own (mediocre) writing.

Here are three questions to help you narrow down what you’re looking for:

1.  What is my goal for the course?

Do you want to get your story down on paper?  Are you struggling with stilted language?  Or are you at the stage of figuring out how to get it in front of as many publishers as possible? 

Some courses start at the very beginning, others somewhere near the middle – taking a story that’s nearly ready and polishing it to make it great.  Others come in at the end and walk you through marketing your book.

The very first creative writing course I ever took was a cheapie evening course through our local board of education, taught at a local school.  At the time, I was a working mom with small children at home. My goals were a) to get out of the house, and b) get myself sitting down to write.  It worked!  After taking that course, maybe 15 years ago, I started having articles published more or less regularly, and haven’t stopped.

Knowing your goals going in, and making sure the course will get you there, is probably the biggest step you can take towards getting your money’s worth out of the class.

These days, my goals are a little more specific.  Excited about delving into children’s writing, I needed a course that would help me hone stories that are already pretty good  and make them superb.  So I chose a course that would help  me refine an existing story, rather than start a new one from scratch.  (Which course?  Read on!)

2.  How much do you want to spend?

Speaking of money… you’ll find courses that start under $50 and probably go all the way up to $1000.  Which should you take?

Well, the one you can afford, of course. 

Think realistically about how much you have to spend, and what you hope to make back from this type of writing.

Because I believe it comes down mostly to your attitude and how hard you’re going to work, you shouldn’t worry much that you’re going to get a “lower-quality” course by spending less money. 

Find out ahead of time how much feedback you’re going to get.  Some of the cheaper courses are less expensive because they run on a model of “community” feedback, where the teacher doesn’t directly critique your work, but guides forum-type discussion among your fellow students.  I’ve done courses like that, but the feedback coming at you from all sides can be confusing.

I’d rather get a medium amount of feedback from a single expert teacher than a HUGE amount of feedback from several dozen fellow students.  Remember, too much feedback can be devastating, sending you off in a million directions and wondering how to actually write your book. 

Plus, in a forum-type course, you’ll have to put in the work of critiquing others’ writing (okay, you don’t have to, but I like to play nice, so I always do in that kind of setting).  That’s not in itself a bad thing, but with my time rather limited these days, I wanted to pay a bit more to focus just on ME.

So when I went looking for a children’s writing course, I picked one that was in my price range (okay, a little above it!) but that offered a one-on-one experience:  a neat little triangle of me, my homework and my instructor.  (Keep reading to find out what I picked!)

3.  Who’s teaching the course?

Every course claims to be taught by a “published” or even a “bestselling” author.  And to be honest, my eyes literally roll when I see the words “award-winning” when it’s attached to someone teaching a course. 

Unless it’s a Caldecott or Newbery (or Nobel), I don’t need to know about it.  Sometimes, those words literally make me click the window shut.  No, I am not impressed by awards.

Here are some more important questions than how many awards the teacher has won:

Have you personally heard of her?  When you look for her books on Amazon, are most of them “how-to-write” books, or do they look like mainstream, major-publisher kids’ books?  Neither is a guarantee of quality, but it’s good to know where she’s coming from. 

Other courses are taught by editors or former editors.  In this case, it’s a lot harder to verify their credentials… but a claim of however-many years’ experience with a major publisher is a pretty solid footing.

Whichever type of teacher you pick, try to find out how much of her time is dedicated to teaching writing versus actually writing / editing.  For whatever reason, I don’t like the idea of learning from somebody who primarily teaches… but that might be just my preference. 

Sure, I have heard the expression “those who can’t do, teach,” and I have taken courses from people who were better known as writing teachers than as writers.  I don’t think they were bad courses.  But I have more respect for the teacher if I feel they have a life outside of teaching and (somewhat) know whereof they speak.

So what did I pick?

image I’ll admit, I hadn’t heard of the writer whose course I ultimately chose – Anastasia Suen.  But when I looked her up, I realized I’d seen many of her books, though her name hadn’t stood out.  Certainly, she had the “street cred,” and I liked the friendly, honest writing style of her website.

And look what she says, right up front on her workshop pages:  “I write in the morning and edit in the late afternoon and early evening Monday through Friday.”  This sentence may have been the one that sold me.  Now there is a professional writer – a clear thinker who knows how to structure her time and who will hopefully help me structure my writing life, too.

I also liked the low-tech feel of her site.  I didn’t want to shovel money into some slick, impersonal “institute” set up just to rake in eager prospective writers (aka suckers) and sign them up for courses.  The core of Anastasia’s site is about her and her writing, with her workshops being only one component of how she makes a living around children’s books.

I chose her Intensive Picture Book Workshop course, and I was very satisfied.  I felt I got exactly what was promised.  Six weeks of the 12-week course are spent learning about the “bones” of children’s picture books – the basics that every book/story must have.  Then, six weeks go into honing and refining your own story, one you’ve already written but want to take from good to great.  Her feedback was on the sparse side but very insightful – you can tell she’s really been around the block, and that she wants to help. 

In my opinion, it worked.  That story, One Chanukah Night, contains a couple of complicated core ideas, so I wanted to make sure that it also told a story, well, in verse.  Because of the many challenges, I’m happy I chose this book to workshop with Anastasia and I feel her suggestions and guidance made the book way better.


In fact, I was so pleased after the 12 weeks that I signed up for a work-in-progress critique session to help polish another nearly-finished book.  Someday, I hope I won’t need this hand-holding… and I think with her help, I’m now well on the way to having the skills to succeed on my own.

I want to add here – I didn’t sign up with the intention of reviewing the course, so this is not a REVIEW, and I haven’t gone into any specifics beyond what she says about the course on her site… but I figured if you’d read this far, you deserved to know what I picked.  I’m not getting a kickback in any way.

Some other recommendations

While I was very satisfied with the Intensive Picture Book Workshop I took through Anastasia Suen, I wanted to share some other recommendations that came up recently on a forum discussion, because it can be so baffling going into this decision blind.

Remember, however, these are courses I haven’t taken, though others have recommended them.

Whatever you choose… words of wisdom from the pros

There’s no shame in investing a little (as long as you can afford it) in learning the skills to start or refine your writing.  Many published writers have gotten that way thanks to writing courses.  This great article in The Guardian shares insights from 3 published novelists talking about what writing courses taught them:

image Mostly… the course gave me focus. Through it I learned that writing is hard work. Writers write. They don't sit around thinking all day, or lounge about in their pyjamas with a bowl of Coco Pops, watching daytime television while they wait for the muse to descend… Lessons about plot and setting and structure and voice can help, but the only way to become a better writer is by writing.

- SJ Watson, author of Before I Go To Sleep

image It is amazing how much you learn when other people read your work… A creative writing course gets the stuff out of your head and into the room. It turns your story into a "thing", that can be dismantled and remade. It can not, however, tell you how to remake it

- Anne Enright, author of the Booker prize-winning The Gathering and The Forgotten Waltz

image I was faced with 12 of my peers who each had a different opinion on how my novel should progress. They all gave convincing, contradictory suggestions. This provoked the last of my great creative writing epiphanies: that there is no majority, no safe path, and in the end we all travel alone.

- Joe Dunthorne, whose teen novel Submarine was made into a movie in Britain.

What great ways to learn writing have I left out? 

[photo credit:  Filip Pticek via flickr]


  1. Some things we only learn by experience. For example, I know we are speeding when Mother passes the fire truck. Something just clicks inside my brain and I know it just as sure as the world.
    I've had the rare privilege of knowing dozens of writers personally. Most of them, even the great ones, are like insecure truck drivers -- they need a sign on their tail end that says, "Please tell me how I'm driving!" They need certification from an editor, a publisher, or the buying public before their confidence waxes strong enough for them to charge on down the road.
    Courses abound, instructors proliferate, Honest criticism is required. Wisdom, born of experience, is worth its weight in gold.
    Booker T. Washington once said, The world cares very little about what a man or woman knows; it is what a man or woman is able to do that counts. Helping writers learn what they should be working on is an art I have watched Jennifer display mastery in repeatedly; she helps writers see their individual shortcomings and then Jennifer goes that extra smile by suggesting opportunities for acquiring the specific knowledge and skills they are ready to work on.
    May I suggest that you listen carefully to all the advice, insights and help Jennifer offers you. If it is right for you, let the hammer down and go to work.

    1. Thanks for this support. Earl. Indeed, instructors do proliferate. Hope I've helped at least a few people find the decent "trees" within the forest!

  2. What is I'd really like to write books; true stories, maybe? What is I want to write for anyone, not just children, but for adults, with some humor, and yet love for others? What kind of books are these?

    1. Wow - I have no idea, but in this case, I think a general course might be very helpful. The one I took (locally, cheapie, through Board of Education) covered fiction, non-fiction, articles, just a little bit of everything. Really helped me focus on what I enjoyed doing and also on building general writing skills. Good luck!


As always, I love to hear from you.