Writing, illustrating, and publishing your own Oz book

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I have an idea for an Oz book. How do I write it?

There is a saying in Oz circles: Scratch an Oz fan and you'll find an Oz book. Despite the large numbers of new books coming out now, many more books are written than are ever published, so don't get your hopes up — especially if you expect to make a lot of money writing Oz books, because it just isn't going to happen. But if you have an Oz story to tell, go ahead and write it down. There are no real hard and fast rules for how to write an Oz book, just do it. And remember the cardinal rule on becoming a writer (of anything): Write. The more you write, the better writer you will become.

What should I write about? Is there anything I shouldn't write?

That depends, mostly on who you want to read and enjoy your book. Some Oz fans want their Oz stories to conform to strict limits of acceptability. Of course they can't always agree on what those limits are. Other fans are more forgiving of stories that may be a little offbeat or different. Some write just for themselves, while others want as many people to read their stories as possible. In the famous words of singer Ricky Nelson, "They say you can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself." In other words, write the kind of Oz story you want to read.

Do not forget the fundamentals of good storytelling. When writing a scene, remember to ask yourself, does this advance the plot or give the reader insight to the character? And don't forget the goal. Even a quest adventure, meandering from place to place, has a goal behind the quest. So don't forget to explore that goal as you go along.

Finding a hook or theme to hang your story around will help. Make it stand-alone. If you're relying on something from other stories, make sure that the reader does NOT have to read the original stories, but can pick up the essentials from your story alone.

Some areas to avoid: Too many books have been published, and undoubtedly countless more written, that presume the reader will only be familiar with The Wizard of Oz and go from there, totally ignoring the rest of the books. In some cases, one must wonder if the writers even knew there were other Oz stories. There are already dozens of sequels to The Wizard of Oz, both the book and The Movie, out there, so unless you have a really good, original idea, anything involving Dorothy all grown up, or her children or grandchildren, has probably already been done. This is also a good way to alienate a built-in audience.

Don't try to be consistent with every Oz book ever published or that may be published in the future. It can't be done. Even the FF contain some inconsistencies (see the question Why are there so many inconsistencies in the Oz books?), and most other books have been written without trying to do this, so they often contradict other books without ever intending to. It is a difficult enough task to just gather them all together and read them, and most Oz fans don't have them all anyway. Don't worry about it, and don't let continuity or canonicity straitjacket you. If you are consistent with the FF, or even just the Baum books, your story will probably turn out all right. If you can also be consistent with other books that you have read and enjoyed, so much the better.

Don't let previous books constrain you so much that you can't tell the story you want. Because Oz is a magical land, any number of things can happen. Just because it hasn't been shown before doesn't necessarily mean it can't ever happen in Oz. But don't go too far. If you want to write a story, but it doesn't seem like it could fit in Oz, maybe it shouldn't be an Oz story. Perhaps the worst review an Oz fan can give of an Oz book is that it's not Ozzy. (If you're not sure what that means, you may not be quite ready to write an Oz book yet.) Whether you're messing with canon or not, the story should have its own internal consistency. You don't have to strictly follow canon, but you need to set your own story "rules" and not break them. Define your characters from the onset clearly, and keep them consistent within that story so that it feels right when the character is doing something and you don't have to stop and say "Wait, would he/she do that?"

You're not J. R. R. Tolkien, and this is an Oz book, not Lord of the Rings, so don't plan on writing a trilogy. The Oz series is not a connected epic, as each book is a single, stand-alone story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you're just starting off, this is a good fact to keep in mind. Also, there are several trilogies out there already that consist of only two books, with little likelihood of completion. Don't be one of those authors! Write single Oz (or other) books to establish yourself. Then, if things go well and you plan your epic out ahead of time, you could pound out that three-part opus that's been rolling around in your head.

Bearing all this in mind — and yes, it's a lot — go ahead and write your Oz story. Just remember that it should be as much fun, or more, for you to write it as it is for other people to read.

A handy book that potential Oz writers might want to get is Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly by Gail Carson Levine. Although aimed at school-age writers, this book holds a lot of good advice for beginning and novice writers. And as Levine is the author of Ella Enchanted, she knows a thing or two about writing about magic, which she touches on in later chapters, after getting through the basics. The book even has specific chapters related to humor and puns (a major plus for Oz writers) and fairy tales.

What characters can I use? Are they all in public domain?

The basic rule of thumb is, if a book is in public domain, then everything that book says about its characters is public domain as well. For instance, you could have the character of Ojo appear in your book, since he first appears in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, which is now public domain. But you shouldn't use information about Ojo revealed in Ojo in Oz, since that book is still under copyright. (To see which books are in public domain, see the question Are the Oz books still under copyright?.) The good news is, the vast majority of Oz characters are in public domain, including all of those created by L. Frank Baum. You may use the Baum characters however you wish. If you have your heart set on using a character who's still under copyright, however, you're out of luck, and you may want to think about using another character, or perhaps even creating a new one. The characters still under copyright belong to the writers who created them, and their estates are not known to let just anyone who asks to use them. Some characters from books that are now public domain were introduced in books that are still under copyright, and it's not terribly clear if they can be used safely or not. Use caution if you want to use one of these characters, and make sure not to use any information about them from a book that is still under copyright. Or better yet, to avoid any problems, you may just want to not use them at all.

I've written my book. Now what?

It's no fun writing a new Oz story if nobody else can read it! So, you have two real options here: Either make a few copies and share it with friends, or get it ready for publication. In the current electronic age, that means to put your story on a computer disk, memory card, or other electronic medium. It depends on your publisher or printer, but for the most part you will want to have it available as either a text file or Microsoft Word document. Don't worry about pagination or any other technical matters; these will be taken care of later. All you need in your file are your words. Make sure that all spelling, grammar, and punctuation are correct, because neither your publisher nor your readers want to correct them for you.

Should I have someone else read my book before submitting it for publication?

Most certainly. A writer can sometimes get so wrapped up in a story while writing it that he or she may not notice small errors, gaps in plot or logic, or anything else that might detract from the story. So if you can find a willing test audience, by all means make use of it. Remember, however, that they may be brutally honest. If they criticize your work, don't take it personally. It's not a reflection on you as a person, or as a writer, merely problems with that particular story. Take it to heart, and learn from any remarks your story may get. Criticism, if it is constructive and focuses on the story's weaknesses, should be welcome. There is nothing personal in it other than "I want to read a good story. I don't want to be yanked out of the story because something makes no sense."

Be careful with whom you choose to read your story, however. It's very easy to find fellow Oz fans online, for instance, and many of them will be willing to read and criticize your story — but many others are not. Again, this is not a reflection on you. Rather, it demonstrates not only how busy other people are with their own lives, but that they may also be safeguarding themselves. A lot of Oz fans are also writers (and not just of Oz books), and will routinely turn down any requests to review other people's work. This is because, should they write something similar, now or in the future, they don't want to be accused of plagiarism, even if it's unintended or coincidental. If you are looking for someone to read and critique your story before it's published, make sure it's someone you know well and trust. Do not, under any circumstances, send a story, on paper or electronically, to someone whose permission you don't already have to send it to. This is to protect yourself from plagiarism, and the recipient from accusations of plagiarism — as well as letting them live their own lives.

Who can I submit my story to for publication?

First word of caution here: Don't get your hopes up! There are an awful lot of Oz writers out there now, and you are competing with all of them. Publishers need to be choosy. Also, if you intend on making money writing Oz books, don't quit your day job. While Oz fans are dedicated, they are also a small audience, and you just can't make a lot of money, if any, from Oz book royalties. For that matter, most Oz fans stick pretty much to the FF and closely related books; they don't all collect every book whose title ends in Oz. But if you still want to go through with it, here are your chances with the major publishers of new Oz books:

  • The International Wizard of Oz Club: Don't even try. Over the last three decades they've published only six original books, five of them written by established Oz authors, and all at IWOC's instigation. However, if you're interested in submitting a short story or poem to the Club's literary magazine, Oziana, contact the editor, Marcus Mebes, via e-mail at OzianaEIC@gmail.com. But Oziana does get several submissions, and there are quality standards, so there is no guarantee that they will publish your work.
  • Emerald City Press, the division of Books of Wonder that publishes new Oz stories, is a professional publishing house, with editors and readers and all that, and so the process is similar to pitching a manuscript to just about any other publisher. They have published several books, but they also haven't put out a new book for several years. Before sending them a manuscript, write to them in care of Books of Wonder — see the question What Oz books are available? And where can I get them? for contact information — and ask for submission guidelines, what they're looking for, etc. Then carefully read whatever they send you and follow all of their instructions to be sure that your manuscript will be considered.
  • Tails of the Cowardly Lion of Oz will publish just about any book that's sufficiently Ozzy, and they put out three or four titles a year. But they also have a huge backlog, and no money to speed up production, so if you want your book published through them, you will have to be patient. Again, before sending a manuscript, write to them. Since this is a non-profit, we-do-it-for-the-love-of-Oz set-up, it would be really nice to send them a SASE with any correspondence you send so they won't have to spring for postage for your reply. Their address is 1606 Arnold Palmer Loop, Belen, NM 87002, or you can e-mail them at LionCoward@aol.com.
  • Hungry Tiger Press has published only three original Oz novels, and in those cases they commissioned the works and got the ball rolling. You're unlikely to get your book published through them, but it wouldn't hurt to ask.

There is another option — self-publishing. But this takes money and knowledge of the printing business, and if you want pictures for your book, you're going to have to draw them yourself or find your own illustrator. Even then, you have to find some way to get the word to Oz fans that your book is out there. But it is happening more and more now, so if you're feeling really ambitious and can afford to spend some money, you may want to seriously consider this. You could also look into a print-on-demand self-publisher, which will print it for you, but little else, for the right price. Many Oz writers are also now using Lulu to publish their works. See what they're about at http://www.lulu.com/. For more about print-on-demand publishing, take a look at http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,4149,1043161,00.asp. Or, you may even want to consider "publishing" your work on the WWW.

You could always approach another publisher, but it's extremely unlikely that they'd want to publish an Oz book. As mentioned before, the audience for Oz is extremely small, and most of the bigger publishers don't want to cater to such a niche market, or compete with other Oz publishers (nor, for that matter, with the Oz books that are already out on the market, including the FF). And remember, they already have dozens, if not hundreds, of other manuscripts under consideration.

For more details on the children's book market in general, you may wish to track down a copy of the annual Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market book. Many booksellers and libraries carry it.

Who's going to illustrate my book?

That depends, but if you buck the odds and your book is picked up by a publishing firm, you have less say in the matter than you might think. If you are publishing your own book, no problem, you can provide whatever illustrations you want. But if you've submitted your book to someone else to publish, it's out of your hands. You're welcome to make suggestions, of course, or submit your own illustrations, but the publishers are under no obligation to listen to you unless it's in your contract — and first-time authors don't have that kind of clout.

I'm an artist, and I like drawing Oz scenes and characters. Where can I go to get my work published?

Your options are basically the same as for writers (see the question Who can I submit my story to for publication? above for more details). IWOC makes its own contacts for book illustrations, but Oziana can always use artwork. The Oz Club also sometimes publishes an annual calendar with fan art. Tales of the Cowardly Lion and Friends always needs illustrators for their books.

Why does my publisher want me to make so many changes?

Because they are taking the bigger risk. When you think about it, the actual story is a very small component of putting a book together. All you are providing are the words. The publisher is taking care of printing, binding, publicity, marketing, and all other aspects of turning your words into a book and getting it into the hands of readers. This costs them a lot of money, which they have to pay up front. The author, on the other hand, has only lost the time it took to write it. That's also why your royalties, if any, are such a relatively small amount of the price of the book, and the publisher gets to choose the illustrator. So naturally the publishers are going to want to make changes if they think it will improve the book, or it needs to be shortened, or for any other reason.

Is there anywhere else I can show off my Oz writing or artwork?

IWOC, at its conventions, often has an Oz Research Table, where stories, articles, and art in all media can be displayed. During each convention, two winners in each category are chosen, and yes, there is sometimes a small amount of prize money. For more information, contact IWOC.