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Frequently Asked Questions

Emma Walton Hamilton / Frequently Asked Questions

Where do you get your ideas?

My kids are a prime source. Their personalities, the events in their lives, the things they or their friends say or do have all been wonderful fodder for our books. But we also get ideas from other sources: a quote we come across, an old legend ripe for developing, events from our own childhoods.

Do you write at a particular time of day or in a particular place?

Because we are often on opposite coasts, Mom and I do a lot of our work via Skype or iChat. I have a lovely home office, overlooking the garden, with a big desk, an ergonomic chair and a trusty iMac. I also have a treadmill desk, which I don’t use often enough. Where do I work the most? On my laptop, at the kitchen table, in the middle of family chaos!

What’s the secret to writing a good picture book?

If you’re REALLY interested in the answer to this question, you should consider taking my home study course in writing picture books,Just Write for Kids. But here are a few nuggets:

Good picture books usually feature a compelling protagonist – either a child, or a child-like hero – who is engaged in solving some problem, and who learns something in the process, so that by the end they have somehow changed or grown.

The art advances the story as much as words do in picture books, so you have to be careful not to write what the art will show, yet also to craft a compelling and active story that will lend itself to visual interest and story progression. You want to avoid scene after scene of “talking heads,” for instance.

The best picture books are very economical when it comes to words. The goal used to be 1000 words… these days, it’s a lot less. So one needs to edit and streamline the narrative down to the fewest possible words, artfully chosen. Certain things are helpful in this regard, such as avoiding a lot of exposition and focusing more on good verbs than adjectives or adverbs.

And in the end, great kids books offer hope.  Even if the subject matter is sad or poignant, there is usually a spirit of optimism to take away from the story.  That’s one of the reasons they’re such a pleasure to read – and to write.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I was fortunate to take a workshop with the great poet Billy Collins.  He spoke about poetry as being an ongoing “conversation” between poets across the centuries. He said every aspiring poet or writer should first listen to the conversation (i.e. read as much as possible), and then figure out what they might contribute to it.  The idea of written work as a thoughtful contribution to an ongoing dialogue across history (as opposed to idle chatter or shouting one’s immediate ideas from a mountaintop) really stuck with me, and I think it applies to any kind of creative endeavor.

What advice do you have for new writers?

1) Read. Read the best of everything in your genre, and stay current.  People often make the mistake of thinking “I was a kid once, and I know what I liked” or referencing books from their childhood, but children’s publishing has changed dramatically in the last 20 to 30 years.  You have to know what the market is like today, and stay plugged in as it evolves – no matter what genre you write for.

2) Hone your craft.  Take classes and workshops, attend conferences. Keep stretching, learning, sharpening your skills – even (or maybe especially) after you’ve sold your first manuscript.

3) Find community. Writing can be a solitary business. I’m lucky – I write with a partner and work for a graduate writing program, but it’s really important to find your tribe and connect with them regularly. Find a supportive critique group, join forums, take classes, attend conferences, whatever it takes to connect with other writers. It will keep you sane, and honest. (Start by joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.)

4) Diversify your strengths. It’s the rare writer that makes a living solely from writing. Even the most successful writers in the world have to augment their income with things like teaching, editing, or speaking engagements. Find ways to support your writing habit.  Be willing to have a day job, to do whatever it takes… but whenever possible, try to make those other sources of income writing-related, such as freelance writing, editing, teaching, etc. It really helps.

What made you decide to get into freelance editing? How did you learn the necessary skills?

I think my editing skills were initially honed through my experiences in the theatre, which shaped my understanding of character, dramatic structure, conflict, theme and action.  These are universal principles of dramatic storytelling, no matter the genre.  Over the years, I’ve been further informed by my own experiences as a writer, and most of all by the excellent editors I’ve been fortunate to work with.

I lean heavily on the basic rules of dramatic structure. I start asking essential questions about character journey, and that usually reveals the way. But I am careful about screening a manuscript before I agree to take it on, to determine whether it’s something I can truly be helpful with. Different editors are better suited to different projects, and I do know my strengths – and my limitations.

You’re a mother, wife, author, editor and teacher. How do you juggle it all?

It helps that my husband and kids are incredibly loving and supportive. (Steve is also a great cook!) And the nice part about being a writer is that I mostly work from home, so even though I may be busy, I’m a presence. I tend to structure my day around key family events, like taking the kids to school, picking them up, and dinner time. I also devote certain days of the week to certain aspects of my work, so some days I’m at the college, other days I’m working from home. It’s not easy, but I enjoy the patchwork quilt nature of it – it keeps things interesting, if a bit stressful at times!

What’s on your bucket list?

I’m doing it! Besides writing, the main item on my bucket list for years was to learn to play piano.  I’ve always regretted quitting lessons when I was a kid, and long said that one day I would finally come back to it.  I realized that if I waited for some “right” moment in my life when I could better afford the time and money, I would never do it.  It’s now a total pleasure – and the lessons and practice time have become an oasis, during which I recharge my creative batteries. That’s been an unexpected bonus.

What’s your favorite children’s book?

There are so many!  My go-to book on childhood rainy days was The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. I think it was responsible for teaching me to love words.

A book I wish I’d written? The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds. It has everything a picture book needs – character, plot, obstacles, humor, and an inspiring take-away.

One all-time favorite? Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.  For originality, richness of imagery and language, and general can’t-stop-turning-the-pages-to-find-out-what-happens-next-iveness.

Which courses/products are self-paced?

School Visit Wizard, Editor in a Box for Picture Books and Editor in a Box for Chapter Books & Novels are entirely self-paced. My Just Write Courses have suggested paces (Just Write for Kids is 8 weeks and Just Write for Middle Grade or Just Write for Young Adults are 14 weeks) but there is no requirement to stick to that pace. Feel free to  take as much or as little time as you will need.

How long will I have access to my course/product?

You will have continued access to any product or course you purchase.

When does the course/product I purchased start?

Whenever you’re ready! Because it’s designed as an independent study, and delivered to you digitally via email, the course you’ve purchased may be started – and completed – at any time you choose.

Do you offer any payment plans for your courses/products?

Yes, but only for my Just Write courses (Just Write for Kids, Just Write for Middle Grade, Just Write for Young Adults).  Further information about the payment plans can be found on the sales pages for each course. Editor in a Box and School Visit Wizard do not have any payment plans.

I live outside of the US. Can I take a course/purchase a product?

Yes! My courses and products are delivered to you at home, wherever you are in the world, via email and the internet. Once you make your payment, you will gain immediate access to the website which contains all of the materials associated with the course/product you’ve purchased. Please note that the course is delivered in English. Unfortunately I am not yet able to translate it to other languages.

Are there opportunities to ask questions of or interact with Emma personally?

Yes. Once you have purchased a course or product, you can post your questions and comments via the comment sections on each unit. I answer as many questions as I can on a regular basis.  This also provides a unique opportunity for students to network with each other, and learn from each other’s experiences.

Can I send my manuscript to you to see if it's ready for publication?

I do offer editorial evaluations and line editing as a business, as well as one-to-one mentoring, which can be purchased in one-hour increments. You can find out more information about my editorial services on my website:

What is the cancellation or refund policy?

Should you wish to cancel your purchase, you may do so at any time for up to 30 days and receive a full refund. After 30 days, all sales are final.

Do you have any courses or products that will help me with the submission process?

Yes! My friend Julie Hedlund and I recently launched The Complete Picture Book Submissions System. Our Complete Picture Book Submissions System walks you through every step of the submission process. From researching agents and editors to creating a captivating query; from formatting your manuscript correctly to evaluating an offer – and MORE – our System has you covered. If you’re interested in learning more, click here.

How can I contact you if I need help logging-in or if can't access materials or downloads?

If you’re having trouble downloading materials, visit our Download Instructions page first to see if your question is answered there. If you are still having technical difficulties, please email [email protected] 

I have a question specific to one of your courses, do you have an FAQ for each course?

Yes, I do. FAQs specific to each course can be found on the course homepage or each course’s sales page.

I'd like to give one of your courses or resources as a gift. Can I purchase a gift certificate?

Absolutely! Simply email [email protected] for instructions.

Still have questions that haven't been answered here?

Please click on the appropriate link to see the FAQ’s for the specific product or course you are interested in:

School Visit Wizard

Just Write for Kids Picture Books

Just Write for Middle Grade

Just Write for Young Adults

Editor-In-A-Box for Picture Books

Editor-In-A-Box for Chapter Books and Novels